Hokkaido 2015 Pt III: Mt Tarumae

Prior to this trip to Hokkaido I was told time and time again that the end of June was the best time to visit and that there is no rainy season there. That may be true but it certainly doesn’t mean that there is no rain! Far from it, as it rained on pretty much every day of our trip to Japan’s most northerly main island!

The rain was fairly relentless as we spent a few hours at Shikotsu-Toya National Park climbing Mount Tarumae and it didn’t take us too long at all to have some wonderful views looking back over the Lake Shikotsu with the mountains in the background.

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A steep hike took us up amidst some beautiful scenery reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands and the reward at the top of the crater rim was the lava dome of the Tarumae volcano standing out like a black version of Ayers Rock in Australia.

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In the wake of our 5.5 hour climb at Me-Akan-Dake two days earlier, this was quite a strain on my legs and it was a struggle at times battling against the aches and pains as well as the wind and rain.

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The majority of other climbers only went as far as the peak seen above but we continued onwards to ascend another peak and take a different route back to the car. At one point we were on fairly flat territory and with a burst in energy we had a spring in our step and  even broke into a run for some of the course due in part to always being in a race against time to finish and move on to our next destination.

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Another steep climb took us to another summit which offered some great views looking back on the Tarumae volcano. We then descended via a route which was a little unorthodox at times but fairly undemanding and unlike the previous mountain in Akan this was good as we could actually see the end in sight for the majority of the decline.

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We were pretty soaked (though not to the bone!) by the time we arrived back where we had started and took quick photo’s of a bear sign and had a look at the map to see where we had actually been! Ethan’s phone app was more detailed for showing the route and recorded the hike as being 6.9 kilometres long at an elevation of 437 metres.

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A change of clothes was most welcome back at the car and then we drove on west to Lake Toya where we stopped at a service station (with a giant dinosaur outside it for some reason) in an area famed for its mushrooms. We knew that we had a big lamb dinner ahead of us at the ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) but needed something to tie us over till then so ¥100 mushroom miso soup and some tempura mushrooms did that job.

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You can read ‘Hokkaido 2015 Pt IV: Lake Toya‘ here (coming soon…)

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Hokkaido 2015 Pt II: Lavender Farm

A short while after booking this trip to Hokkaido, Ethan and I realised that collectively we knew very little about the island but one thing that I did know about however was the seasonal Lavender Farm. I was quite surprised to discover that the usual blooming season would coincide with our trip and so our plan was to head off there straight away once we’d picked up the rental car in Chitose near the airport. However, the recent weather meant that this season was to be a late one!

We left Obihiro at about 9am and were pretty tired for some reason by the time we arrived in Furano; the nearest city to our destination. We had a nap in the car in the McDonald’s car park and ended up a short while after that at Lavender Park which was a fairly steep field with steps or a chair-lift taking you to the top.

In advance of this trip I had images in my mind that the lavender flowers would be as beautiful as previous flower-based trips to Fujishibzakura and Hitachi Seaside Park which were pretty special. Whilst parts of the area didn’t look too bad it was a bit disappointing and didn’t really live up to those trips as not all the flowers were quite in bloom.

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We walked to the top of the hill which wasn’t so easy on the muscles on the back of the previous days Mount Meakan climb and the views of the whole area were more impressive than the flowers to be fair.

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As we were leaving Lavender Park we realised that this was not even the main place we had intended to see! Instead, that was a bit further down the road at Farm Tomita and was way busier place with a big car park full of cars and tourist buses. The flowers in these fields were a bit more pleasing on the eye than the one that preceded it.

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Farm Tomita was full of people and a real tourist trap with restaurants and souvenir shops galore including special lavender flavoured products such as milk, cheesecake, lemonade and ice-cream. The latter was really nice and we ate that as we walked on to our next destination which was very close by. 600 metres away to be precise!

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Way back in April 2010 I embarked on a bicycle ride around Tokyo stopping at one station for each letter of the alphabet and during the research for this trip I found out that there was only one station in the whole of the Japan starting with the letter ‘L’. If you’re following me then you’ve probably worked out that that station is Lavender Farm (Batake) which is a seasonal station and one that I’ve wanted to visit since that discovery.

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Of course the English translation is written with an ‘L’ but the Japanese way of writing it is actually with an ‘R’ (for there is no L in Japanese) as in Rabenda.

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Sadly, we were unable to do any trainspotting as trains only pass through this temporary Furano line station four times a day with two going in each direction.

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Very sad but I was very happy to have seen Japan’s only ‘L’ station though it was a shame we were restricted from going on to the makeshift platform where I’d like to have seen the station sign more clearly. As it was, it wasn’t the regular style of sign that all other JR stations have.

One sign that I did manage to stop and photo as we exited the Furano area was one of the many deer signs that line the roads around Hokkaido. There are also some fox ones and they will inevitably appear in a future Tokyo Fox blog entry.

You can read ‘Hokkaido 2015 Pt III: Mt Tarumaehere 

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Hokkaido 2015 Pt I: Mt Meakan

Less than a month since I last saw him and I was again with Ethan for a road-trip around Hokkaido; Japan’s most northerly main island. It was my first time to visit Hokkaido and after meeting up at New Chitose Airport early afternoon we were soon in our rental car driving east with a boot full of bottled water supplies towards our destination of Obihiro. With no accommodation booked for the whole trip we were just thinking that we could roll up wherever we like and get some kind of room! Wrong! We tried about seven or eight hotels and all of them said there was no room at the inn!

Subsequently we gave up on the place and decided to drive on towards our ultimate destination but not before we had sampled some of the local style miso ramen. There were a few other cars and motorhomes in the car park when we arrived there late evening following a rather nervy drive in the dark (whereby five or six foxes crossed our path) through the gravelly road leading to the car park. As we did the last time we slept in the car in Death Valley in California we had a few beers to help us get off to sleep not that we probably needed it too much as it had been a very long day for us.

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It took us a while to get going the next morning but at around 8:30 am we set off with our backpacks on feeling a little over-prepared for such a climb as we didn’t really know what to expect regarding the mountains physicality and the weather.

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It was pretty steep at the start as we progressed through the forested area wondering what we’d let ourselves in for. The trees eventually made way for rocks and short, low bushes as we made good progress only really stopping briefly for photos at each of the ten stations which you pass through on the way to the peak.

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This was to be a climb of very contrasting terrain with just a handful of other climbers seen sporadically throughout the journey and every one of them had bells fixed onto their backpacks to keep away bears. We were (kind of) hoping to see one at some point!

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The upper reaches of the mountain were very rocky and as its an active volcano, there were some emissions of sulphur fumes in the vicinity of the rim which are supposed to be fairly toxic.

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Just a short distance from the peak were the best views of our journey as we were rewarded with some great scenery. A beautiful crater lake amidst desert coloured walls with smoke steaming out of the rumbling volcano was a great sight.

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We didn’t really hang about too much on the 1,499 metre summit of Mount Meakan as we weren’t sure how long much longer it would take to descend via a different route as neither of us really wanted to go back down the same route. There was even the sight of some snow in the distance where the Akan Fuji volcano was located.

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The trail descended the volcano’s slope through dwarf pine and we made good progress as were keen to finish as quickly as we could.

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The trail end was a forest of Hokkaido red spruce and, though easy to traverse, this seemed to be taking us on a long winded hike when we just wanted to travel how the crow flies.

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There was to a be a real heart-in-the-mouth moment towards the end of our descent as the split-second that we saw our first bear sign we heard an animal coming our way on the boardwalk and froze thinking that it might actually be one of the bears we wanted to see. It turned out to just be a fairly big dog but it didn’t half give us a brief shock.

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We finally made it back to the car just past the 5.5 hour point and proceeded to drive on back to Obihiro for a night in a hotel (including a much needed hot spring bath) before our adventure moved on the following morning…

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You can read ‘Hokkaido 2015 Pt II: Lavender Farmhere

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TF Flashback – Izu Hantō Peninsula (2004)

The Izu Hantō Peninsula is an area possessing some splendid coastlines, beaches, mountains which is home to larger cities such as Atami; famed for it’s many hot spring baths and less so for the “Adult” museum which I visited back in March 2010.

Back on the 12th of August in 2004 I went on a day trip of sorts to the Izu Hantō Peninsula which was a very exhaustive 100km+ drive southwest of Tokyo in Shizuoka Prefecture. Setting off from Minami-Urawa station in Saitama just after 1am, my girlfriend of the time and I arrived shortly after 7am at the port harbour.

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Our main goal was to go swimming and snorkelling at Hirizo Beach in Minamiizu-cho which is west of Shimoda, on the southern tip of the Izu Hantō peninsula. The secluded beach was accessed via a two minute boat ride and we had to take everything we needed for the day as there were no facilities at the beach and even the toilet was a return boat trip away though I suspect most people just went in the sea! The boat ticket is valid for the whole day so the idea of popping back and forth maybe isn’t as ridiculous as it initially seemed!

Back then I was still fairly new to Japan and so the sight of Hirizo beach being completely covered with hundreds of Japanese beach-goers was one I’ve never forgotten. It wasn’t just this beach that was overly crowded as so was Onjuku Beach in Chiba which I went to a couple of years later. What was most surprising for me at both that beach and the rocky one in Hirizo was the huge number of tents erected all over the place. This phenomenon is apparently very much a Japanese one and I’ve since seen it in parks and gardens around Japan too.

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Hirizo was the first place I went snorkelling in Japan and, although the water was a bit cool and murky, it was quite impressive which is no mean feat given that my first ever experience of this aqua activity was on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia in 2001!

There was plenty of marine life congregating around the reefs and rocks, including a number of tropical bright fish as well as dragon moray eels, lion fish, sea urchins, scorpionfish and a minor shark or two. A nice reward for the distance travelled! My sunburned knees, feet and back was less well received!

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We left just after 3pm and took the highway back to Tokyo and with heavy traffic delays we didn’t get back home till just gone midnight. A long day trip if ever there was one!

For shorter day trips click on the following: 

Top 10 Day Trips Beyond Kanagawa, Saitama & Chiba

Top 10 Kanagawa Sights     Top 10 Saitama Sights     Top 10 Chiba Sights

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Japan: Earth’s Enchanted Islands

There have been plenty of TV programmes about Japan over the years but they only really ever focus on Tokyo and Kyoto so it was refreshing that this three-part BBC documentary series exemplified that there is plenty of life beyond those two particular cities.

In the land of noisy, dumbed down terebi it was so nice to see this trio of one hour BBC2 episodes dedicated to showing Japan’s true wild side in it’s most simplistic form. The beautifully shot footage of Japan’s natural environment was left to speak for itself with limited voiceover from Michelle Dockery adding to the pictures. It’s all a far cry from the TV programmes that air in this country!

Originally shown in June 2015 these programmes each week featured on different regions of Japan with the last ten minutes of each episode being a very enjoyable diary feature giving behind the scenes information about how the filming was done which I found to be very interesting.

Here is a rundown and review of what was in each episode:

Episode 1: Honshu – Tokyo may be a concrete jungle stretching as far as the eye can see but the main island of Honshu where it’s located is around 75% mountainous. As explained in the ‘Journeys Into The Ring Of Fire‘ documentary this is why the cities are so crowded as people can’t live so easily in such environments.

Despite living in the most urban of places many of the residents of Honshu yearn for nature and throughout the year they sample it here and there. The seasons are very much celebrated in Japan and this episode starts and finishes with the magic of the brief cherry blossom season which shows the Japanese bond with the natural world runs deep.

About half of Honshu is forested and accordingly it’s a feast of nature here and the viewer gets a good insight into the lives of monkeys, tree frogs, giant carp, fireflies, bees, black bears, squid, tanuki and deer. There is nowhere where the paths of these animals and humans don’t cross and nowhere is that more evident than with the latter two.

However, their interaction with humans is very different. The deer of Nara spend their days hanging out with the many tourists around the temples and shrines of this famous area and are allowed to wander freely as they are believed to be messengers of the gods. Tanuki a.k.a. Japanese racoon dogs are rarely seen (apart from in this series of course!) for they roam the streets at night having been forced to adapt to urban landscapes after forests made way for concrete. They can be a nuisance but are also believed to bring good luck.

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Episode 2: The South-West Islands – As you might expect this episode was more focused on aquatic life but first up was the truly unique sight of the Japanese macaque and deer species both living side by side on Yakushima island with the former riding on the latter’s backs.

Sakurajima is next to feature and this island has the most volatile volcano which has been erupting for 60 years. It could get quite violent at anytime and covers the city in ash every few weeks. I guess the residents are more than used to taking such precautions but seeing the school kids wear protective helmets is not something you see everyday! Believe it or not there are actually some benefits of the eruptions as it means the soil is very fertile and people go here to bury themselves up to their neck in sand to help improve circulation and vitality.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this programme was the section on sea-snakes whose greatest nemesis is actually two 70 year old women divers. They have been hunting snakes on the small island of Kudaka (just east of Okinawa’s main island) for 40 years and it’s been in the family of one of them for over 500 years. They brave the cave waters at night without any protection whatsoever to just grab the venomous sea snakes by hand. Inspiring stuff!

The lost world of Yonaguni is Japan’s westernmost island lying fairly close to Taiwan and therefore the first island to feel the force of the frequent typhoons which hit the country. Only as recently as 1986 were colossal terraced sandstone pyramids discovered off the island’s southern coast. There is still debate as to how the submerged monuments originated.

Other Hokkaido highlights included seeing the worlds tiniest wild boar on Iriomote-jima island, how mozuku seaweed is grown, a caterpillar transforming into the largest moth in the world and heavy crabs that can’t swim and have to wade to a safe distance to release their precious eggs without getting swept out to sea.

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Episode 3: Hokkaido – Only 4% of Japan’s population live on Japan’s wildest island which is home to the brown bear. Way back in the past when Russia and Hokkaido were attached, their ancestors could actually walk to Japan’s most northerly island from Siberia. This episode showed a brown bear and it’s two cubs hunting for salmon which was quite possibly the highlight of the whole series for me. In the area they filmed in on the north-east coast, there are around 200 brown bears and the post-show diary part showed how the bears and fishermen integrate into society without too much fear from either species.

Other highlights included seeing two stag’s fighting, cranes doing some kind of ballet having been close to extinction last century and sika deer, the toughest in the world who are prepared for everything that’s thrown at them and have to search  for food buried deep beneath the snow.

It wasn’t just about animals though as once the harsh winter season is over, there’s a dramatic colour change and transformation which sees Hokkaido resemble rural England. The narration tells us that Hokkaido never stands still and it’s seasons rush by which is proved by it’s short Spring and Summer seasons. During July it becomes positively Mediterranean-like whilst the rest of Japan sweats it’s way through extreme hot and humid conditions.

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The landscapes of Japan’s 6000 islands are highly varied and range from volcanic mountainous terrain to subtropical warmth and throughout this wild and mysterious land. This series provided a great insight into the extraordinary relationship that’s developed between the wildlife and the people whose lives are entwined.

Click here for a list of TV shows and documentaries about Japan

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South Korea 2015 Pt IV: Exercise, Games & Activities In Seoul

This mini-break (three days, two nights) was not really about experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of Seoul this time. Sure, we did that a bit by sampling local food a few times and visiting the Memorial of Korea museum but generally this trip was just about hanging out with Ethan, Kaori and particularly their daughter Kaylee who I really enjoyed messing about with.

On the two mornings we were there, Ethan and I left our wives behind to go cycling along the Han River for about an hour each time. We cycled in search of some of the locations featured in the sequel movie ‘Avengers: Age Of Ultron‘ (2015) which, as usual, is released in Japan later than everywhere else on the whole planet! As mentioned in the previous post, I hadn’t seen either of the Avengers films at that time not that such minor issues get in the way of a Tokyo Fox filming locations special!!

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The pictures here are from the first day in the saddle and include Banpo bridge and Seoul floating island in Banpo Hangang Park. Unlike Tokyo, it was nice to be able to cycle so easily along the river on proper designated cycling paths.

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In the weeks preceding this trip Ethan and I discussed some potential things to do on this trip with the results very sparse! However, one thing that we did both want to do was to hike along part of the Seoul City Wall trail which is nearly 20km long and circles the whole city.

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Our plan was to just hike a small section of it starting just west of Gyeongbokgung Palace which would take us on up to the 338 metre high Inwangsan (Mt.). However, when we got to the start of the proper trail it was closed which was kind of annoying though in a sense a relief as it was very hot that day! Many things are closed in Korea on Mondays but we never thought this would include a mountain hiking trail!

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We could still take some alternative trails and ended up in Inwangsan Park which hosts (as do many area’s throughout Seoul) many great exercise machines that we tried out.

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That wasn’t the end of the fun and games for the trip as back at Ethan and Kaori’s we played a bit of golf and a board game called ‘Ticket to Ride – USA’ which was a good laugh and certainly improved my knowledge of the actual whereabouts of certain states and cities.

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We all went to the U.S. military base, where Ethan works, a couple of times which was an interesting experience for me and nothing like what I imagined it to be like. I think I expected it to be like some Camp Bastion-type place as seen on many of the TV series and films set in Afghanistan! This trip felt like we were in America at times and nowhere was that more realised than when we had a Tex-Mex buffet dinner before returning the following day for a Taco Bell lunch and to get some American products from some of the shops on the huge base.

Back in El Paso (Texas) in 2011 I had a great time playing with Kaylee and thankfully we got on just as well this time too and played plenty of games of hide and seek. Thankfully my hiding skills weren’t too rusty as I’d participated in a big family game of it when I was back in the UK last Christmas time with my nephews and nieces!!

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South Korea 2015 Pt I, Pt II and Pt III can be read herehere and here

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South Korea 2015 Pt III: Avengers Age Of Ultron Filming Locations

Over the years Seoul has lived very much in the shadows of neighbouring places like Tokyo and Hong Kong when it comes to Asian locations being featured in western movie productions. This time though, Marvel Studios agreed to portray South Korea as a high-tech, modern country during its 15 minutes of air-time. Mind you, it did cost the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism nearly £2.5m for it to be shot there on the condition that it showed the city in a positive light.

Whilst much of ‘The Avengers‘ (2012) was filmed in Cleveland in Ohio, ‘Avengers: Age Of Ultron‘ (2015) was shot all over the place with locations including England, South Africa, Italy, Bangladesh, the USA and of course South Korea.

Filming in the capital city took place between March 30 and April 14 last year at various locations in Seoul. Now, I hadn’t even seen the first Avengers movie, let alone the latest instalment when I was in town a few weeks ago (I have seen both movies since returning to Tokyo) but thankfully Ethan had, and was able to guide us around a couple of the filming locations.

Leaving our wives back at base, we went cycling along the Han River for about an hour each morning. First up we cycled across Banpo Bridge to the futuristic looking man-made islands around Banpo Hangang Park that supposedly brighten the vista of the river at night. The facility on the largest of the three artificial islands is known as Saebit Dungdungseom (below) which was built in 2011. It first appears around 79 minutes and serves as the I.T. institute of Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim); a friend of the team who is forced by super villain Ultron to use her synthetic-tissue technology as well as vibranium and the scepter’s gem, to perfect a new body for him.

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The following morning, Ethan and I cycled west to Mapo Bridge (below) which crosses the Han River and connects the Mapo and Yeongdeunpo districts. During filming it was closed (at great cost) for approximately 12 hours so that they could film an action scene involving Captain America in pursuit of the cradle being whisked away by truck.

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The Seoul set-pieces have been cleverly edited together and tend to blend into one  but other areas include the Gangnam Subway Station intersectionCheongdam Grand Bridge, and Star Park in Digital Media City in Sangam-dong.

Avengers stuff is everywhere in Seoul and the city seems very proud to have (finally) had a movie feature it. The War Memorial Of Korea museum, which we visited on our first day, had a special Avengers interactive exhibition allowing visitors to explore inside a full-size replica of Marvel’s Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. (Scientific Training and Tactical Intelligence Operative Network) including film props, interactive components, Hulk’s laboratory, Iron Man’s research institute, Thor’s Space Tower, Marvel Merchandise and so on. Entrance is 25,000 won (approx. $25) so we gave it a miss but not before taking the cheesy photos below!

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Avengers: Age Of Ultron‘ is released in Japan on July 4th (…if you’re ever looking for the release dates in Japan then my tip is to just scroll right to the bottom of the list on IMDb or whatever!)

‘South Korea 2015 Pt IV’ can be read here 

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