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19 posts from August 2012


This isn't goodbye, just a "see you later"

As this program comes to an end, I am forced to reflect on all the emotional blabber that has effected me and changed my mindset since I have been here.

Only 1 month and I already feel so connected to Japan as if it were my first home.  The culture and way of life is completely different from America yet I still find so many similarities.  I have gotten to speak directly to natives about life here, both the good and bad and have learned much more than what can be found in a travel brochure.

This entire experience is one I would reccomend that anyone take full advantage of.  Yeah school gets hard and in the way but there is really tons of time to really dive into the life and culture.

Here, I would like to offer my top 10 spots to visit in Japan (in no specific order) and for those who are like me, you may fall in love at first sight.

1) Matsumoto Castle - part of our excursion                                                                              











2)Wasabi Farm - Try the ice cream! - another excursion stop









3) Ghibli Museum - final excursion stop, near the hotel  -->3




4)  Tsunahachi Tempura - Shinjuku - try the ice cream! ---->










5) Don Ki - Ultimate store for crazy random items for cheap (also, see the 100- Yen store and 390 Yen stores in Harajuku for souveniers and clothes)





6)  Government Building - This is part of the Sophia Tour of Tokyo.  We went to the observation deck  -->






7) Mount Takao - Easy to get to, tiring to climb, but its baby fuji and you can see all the mountains from its peak.





8) Disney Sea - Just, AMAZING.  Make sure you stay for the firework show at 7! -->


9) Narukawa Art Museum - A bit far, out in Odawara by the Odakyu somewhere but if you can, GO! --> Famous piece of Japanese Art





10)  Mt. Fuji - need I say more?


Do's and Don'ts of Shrines

As you may know, or not.. Shrines are a big deal in Japan.  It ties into the foundation of their society and culture which is the belief in Shintoism.

Shintoism, or "Kami no Michi" from what I have gathered is defined as the indigenous spirituality of Japan and the people of Japan. It is a set of practices, to be carried out diligently, to establish a connection between present day Japan and its ancient past.

This belief is not so much of a religion in the way we think of it, but as more of a cultural awareness and tradition.  In this tradition, there are many Kami which are things, places, and beings which are honored and seen as gods.  For each of these gods, there is a shine built for people to pray to that specific god for what they are most remembered for if known.

In my short time here, I have seen tons of shrines both big and small, famous and unknown so here is a quick guide for them.

1) How to spot a shrine

Every Shinto shrine has either a Torii gate


Or a Shimenawa


2) Don't drink the water!  The water is meant to purify your hands before praying at the shrine, not to drink though there may be some designated drinking fountains.  Simply use the ladle to pour water over your hands and your done.

3) Try and do research before going.  Shines may become very boring to an outsider if there is no story behind it.  The fact is, every shrine has a story and a reason why it was built.  Find these out and it will make it much more appealing



Ex:  On Mt. Takao, I learned that the monster-like figures at the shrine there were supposed to be a representation of the first Americans to venture to Japan!  They were foreign and scary, so the shrine was built for protection and strength.





4) Be respectful!  Weather you are on a guided tour, or just roaming around, please be mindful of areas you can and cannot take pictures of!  Remember, while you may be there for fun, others are there for serious matters and are actually praying so please show respect!

Hidden Shrine in Matsumoto Castle **  Shirne

The Fireworks! July 31st

For one of the biggest firework shows during the summer, I decided that it would be best if I went and viewed with my host family.

This show was held on July 31st at 7pm but of course, we had to get there much earlier in order to get a good enough spot amongst the thousands of people that would be going to see the show.

To prepare, my host mother offered to loan me on of her sister’s Yukatas from when they were children.  She knew that I had always wanted to try one on and was more than happy to assist me in the fine art of tying.  


Unfortunately, “Yukata is not made for those with such nice curves” according to my host mother lol so, after putting on the dress and before tying the bow, we had to make some adjustments.  It took 3 rolled towels, a piece of cardboard, and a few bandages before I was able to flatten out my sides to make for a pretty bow.  This however made it very hot to wear along with it already being hard to walk in.  Still I wanted to fully commit to the occasion.



After we were all finally dolled up and ready to go, we took a cool cab to the train station.  This cab’s doors open automatically for you before you enter.  I felt like such a tourist staring at the door in awe. 

Then we joined the hundreds of people on the trains to the Showa Kinen National Memorial Park.

These were by far the biggest and best fireworks I had ever seen.  Each had its own presenter who named the awards that each showcase had won in competition.  I was amazed.  It was much bigger than the rinky-dink shows thrown together in New York for the 4th of July.

Fw1 Fw2









There were so many different designs and shapes from bows, to sunflowers.  Some that glittered and some that popped.  It kept us entertained.



















Festivals and fireworks are a huge part of the summer culture in Japan, so whenever you can, be sure to venture out to one and experience it yourself!

















Again, it is simply amazing! So do it!

Conquering Fujisan (Mt. Fuji)

Since I arrived in Tokyo, set free to travel and do everything my heart desires, I have been living by the best piece of advice our advisor Shannon has given us.  She basically told us that if there is something on our bucket list or “things to do in Japan” list that some people might not be interested in, still does it!  Wee may regret it if we don't. 

This quickly started my list of things I want to do before I leave Japan.  At the top of this list was the ambitious goal of climbing Mount Fuji.

(For those who may not know, Mount Fuji is the highest mountain in all of Japan at a whopping 3,776.24 m tall.)


We had been told that a few of the spring students climbed so I knew I could do it, just needed to figure out with whom, when, and how.  Here is the dramatic story of how I conquered the mountain.

The Plan 

As time passed and people lost interest in climbing with me, I finally decided to go during my last weekend in Tokyo.  I would have to start making my way to the mountain after class on Saturday to see the Sunday morning sunrise and make it back down in time to rest for class on Monday (or so I thought) Of COURSE this was not only during climbing season of the summer, but the peak day of Obon week which is a holiday time dedicated to ancestors which pushes many Japanese people to venture home and to climb Mt. Fuji!  Yet still, I will climb.

I asked a few of the students that have climbed before to get the details on what I would need for a night climb and it came down to this which I barely had to spend money for 


-       Hiking Boots! (An expensive necessity even though I saw some natives hiking in Nike’s and Vans O.O)

-       Thick socks (or multiple layers) for the cold

-       Food (Onigiri is best since it is a great source of energy)

-       WATER!  (Went through so many bottles on the mountain)

-       Flashlight/head lamp

-       Rain jacket/poncho

-       Regular Jacket, sweaters, layers of clothing

-       CASH MONEY!  Bring as much as you can!  No cards are accepted.

Most of these items I borrowed from friends and my host parents so I was good to go.  Now I just needed someone to go with.  Day of the trip, I found out that none of the people I planned on climbing with wanted to go but luckily one student volunteered to go with me.

Were Off!.. I think

We get to the Shinjuku bus station and to my surprise; the ticket booth does not accept cards!  I mean, its in Shinjuku, was I wrong for thinking they were somewhat advanced?  Well there went most of my spending cash for the mountain.  Since they only sell tickets One-way, the person I was climbing with agreed to pay for my return ticket since I wouldn't have enough cash and I would repay him once we found an ATM.


So, we get to the 5th station of the mountain by bus and what now?  Its starts raining!  We asked everyone what this meant and no one could give us an answer.  It would be dangerous to climb but at the same time, it was evening (8 pm) and all bus ticket booths were closed.  Since there was no guarantee of a safe trip up the mountain, or of seeing sunrise, the guy I came with decided it was best that we just figure out a way home by train.  It was the logical choice but I guess I am not the most logical person.  Still, I climbed.

 The Climb Up

I quickly found an Australian couple that was more than happy to climb with me which meant I could still fulfill my dream of conquering this mountain.  Luckily, they also had extra water and rain gear that I could borrow since I forgot to pack it.

From the mountain as we started, we could see the final fireworks of the summer going off in the distance.  It was a great way to kick things off but quickly, our excitement wore off as the first few steps afterwards seemed like the toughest steps I’ve taken, on such a steep incline.  Here we weren’t even at the start of the Yoshida trail yet.  We could foresee that Mt. Fuji would be something we would have to earn with unbelievable amounts of energy, motivation, and bravery.

At night, the trail is beautiful since all you can see is what your flashlight shows, and the trail of headlights and stations all of the way up the mountain.  These lights were our motivation.  Lights ahead were our goal, and lights behind were our past accomplishments.  All of which played a part in the mental struggle it took to make it to the top.  We were demanding that our bodys endure thin-air, and hard excersice of every muscle which was a shock but we did it.  Still, we climbed.

Luckily, there were many people, from all over the world there to support us.  After many hours, breaks, naps on rocks, rain showers, and more breaks, we finally made it to the 8th station (final station before the summit).  Here is where we were able to watch a great sunrise, which came and went quickly as clouds apparently wanted to see the sunrise too and blocked our view. 


Now, we had to muster up the strength to go back down. 

The Climb Down 

By about 12pm, we finally made it back to the 5th station which you think would mark the end of this story but nope, not for this lucky girl! 

I had completely forgotten about the aforementioned deal with my friend that he would pay for my ticket back down.  So there I was, with 600 yen to my name and a 2,600-yen bus ready to leave without me.

After playing charades with the ticket booth women, I finally spoke with an English-speaking teen who told me that I could take a bus to Kawaguchigo station, which would be about 2 hours, and use an ATM there to pay for the bus I would have to take to get there and also for trains to get home.  Easy enough?

Kawaguchigo Station

Well of course, we finally get there and they show me a Japanese bank, which obviously won’t accept American cards! So, this determined bus worker walked me 4 blocks away to a 7-11.  Mind you, I JUST climbed Mt. Fuji, so every extra step is like another mountain.  Here, I found that the minimum amount of money you can take out at a time is 20,000 yen, which are roughly $200 and more than what I have in my bank account.  Still, this woman is looking for me to find a way to pay for the bus.

We walk back to the station to the tourist center where I can speak with an English-speaking woman about my case and she can offer no help except to tell me that they can’t let me go until I pay for the bus (not like I had money or directions to go very far anyway).

Luckily, the couple I had climbed the mountain with appeared at the station like a gift from heaven.  I was then able to use their phone to call the CIEE advisors for help.  Wakana Okamoto, our assistant advisor picked up quickly and started brainstorming ways to help.  We couldn’t transfer money because it would take 2 days, and couldn’t use my sluice because we were in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t have enough on it.  So, Wakana being the most amazing person she is, along with her husband, DROVE 3 hours to the Kawaguchigo Station to pick me up and drop me off home.  It was the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.  I was rescued!

I finally made it home around 8pm extremely exhausted.  Dinner was waiting for me at the table and the rest of the night is now a blur.  All I do know is that I made it safely, and I conquered Mt. Fuji.

Moral of this story, DON'T give up on your goals, DO bring tons of cash wherever you go and ALWAYS know that when you need it most, there are great advisors that can and will help you in any emergency, not out of duty, but because they care.



Study abroad would truly not have been possible for me without financial aid so I suggest you take a gander at this post!

Just  a word of advice for future CIEE Tokyo participants and financial aid!


-The requirements are pretty general and apply to almost everyone

-Pretty much everyone who applies gets funding

2. Hold a fund raising going away party to raise spending money!

   - Japan is expensive, and you are going to need the full estimated spending budget to really enjoy yourself

- I did it! And I raised over the estimated spending budget!

-If you invite roughly 20 people (mentors, supportive professors, and well to do friends) and they give about $50 a person, that is easily $1,000!

3. Keep informed about your home school's deadlines for financial aid and scholarships

-Chances are, your school will have at least one, if not multiple scholarships that can be applied to study abroad.


Remember, you are still a student, and no-one expects you to come up with the full amount all by yourself. Use your resources around you including your home institution, scholarship sites, and CIEE scholarships.

My host family - Risk gone right

Hello again all!  Now that you know a bit about me, I can tell al about my challenges and great experiences I have had here in Tokyo. 

When I first came to Tokyo, I was very nervous because very few people chose to do homestays.  My line of thought when applying was that I would be able to get the full effect of Japanese life by living in a Japanese home.  After hearing of horror stories from past CIEE students of curfews, miscommunications, and just bad matches, I began to get worried.

The Meeting:

We didn’t find out information about our families till we got here.  Even though I read over our package explaining our host family members’ names, likes, and hobbies about a million times, I couldn't help to be nervous.  Meeting with my host mother for the first time in the CIEE office felt as if I were an orphan, getting adopted by a new family.  The night before, I had bought a whole new outfit just for the occasion so I could make a good first impression.

When walking in the room and seeing my host mother, all I could think is “wow, she looks so nice!”  And she was!  I then went on to gain a host uncle, aunt, father, and 2 year-old little sister named Haruka.  They made my beef stew, out of a can because they wanted me to feel comfortable with American food, which I thought was the sweetest thing!

After that, all the American ways of living were out of the window lol 


Daily Life:

I have a room that is way bigger than the one I have in the US and sleep on a futon on top of a shag rug, which is pretty comfortable.  Every morning, we get up at 6:30 for breakfast and to see my Otoosan (father) off to work.  Literally, we stand by the door and wave as he walks out like a cute little family.  If I am around, naptime is from 2-4 and then there’s snack time (which I love! Lol).  Dinner is at 7:30 and is always something new and delicious.  If I am not going to make it for dinner, I can just call ahead and let my mother know and its okay so no worries. 

The bond grows strong:


 Family time!

The first outing we had together as a family came very quickly.  We went to Tsunahachi Tempura, which is a famous restaurant known for the best Tempura around (Tempura (天ぷら or 天麩羅 tenpura) is a Japanese dish of seafood or vegetables that have been battered and deep fried.)  They even paid for me to try the dessert, which was Tempura ice cream with a strawberry sauce.  The BEST thing I have ever tasted!  Here is where I realized that my parents are awesome!  They are so funny and I can talk to them about anything.  We went around Shinjuku and shopped for a while before coming home, and from then on I knew


Since my host parents now brag about me to the entire family about how hard working and nice I am, the whole family wants to meet me.  I had the great honor to go with my host family to Odawara and to meet my host father’s parents.  I felt very lucky to have gotten such a good deal, having been really accepted into this family.  My grandmother owns her own shop where she sells jewelry, bags, antiques, and random trinkets she collects from around the world.  This shop is connected to her home, which is just as beautifully decorated with exotic pieces.

After lunch, we took a trip to the same Shinto shrine that my host parents got married in.  Since it was the day of the dog (the dog symbolized productivity and is plays a major role in delivery preparation), I got to whiteness first-hand a ritual prayer for easy-birth for my unborn host little brother.  It was great to be part of such a meaningful ceremony.

Then, we went to the most amazing Narukawa Art Museum which from its café, you can view Mt. Fuji and a lake full of ships and swan boats.  It was amazing and the art was astonishing.  I recommend this place to anyone brave enough to venture that far out. 


More food!

We made a few more stops and finally went back to the pretty house.  Here we had a sushi dinner. This would be my first time eating real Sushi and I was excited!  My host family didn’t think I would be able to eat it all and like everything but when I did, I was offered a permanent place in the family lol. They all stared and simultaneously said, “You know you don’t have to go back to America right?”  It was great.  As a bonus, my host mother let me choose any Italian bag or bow she had in her shop, which brought me to tears.  Blog2_dinner

 Couldnt have dreamed it better

Since I have been here, my host family has taken me to see the best fireworks I have every seen, shopping around, and have provided more than what they have to for me.  I never imagined I would see these “strangers” as a real family.  I love them dearly and know I will come back soon to stay with them again.  Deciding to take this great leap of faith to live with them has been one of the best choices I have made and I cannot thank CIEE enough for finding such a perfect match!



Ikebana – arranging nature

Bloggers! So glad you could join me again :D

Today’s post topic is Ikebana.  It’s the Japanese art of arranging flowers and leaves in an aesthetically pleasing way, and tends to have a lot of symbolism and meaning behind the arrangements. I was fortunate enough to attend a session provided by the Ichiyo school of Ikebana. The Iemoto (headmaster) himself was there to give us a demonstration, and his English was pretty good.

Ikebana (28)

I have to say, I was pretty impressed with Katsuya-san. It was fascinating to watch the various combinations he put together (some of them I’d never think possible, like the one above where he arranged Nandina (or nanten) branches and roses together). Every one of them turned out beautiful and eye catching, even without knowing all the meaning behind the combinations.

   Each arrangement was made in a different Ikebana style (upright, low, wide, and varying with the container) but the same textbook principles of the Ichiyo school were being applied in the way the flowers were cut and the basic placement of them. He pieced together 7 arrangements while we all looked on in appreciation of how to place the Kenza (stand supporting the flowers) for summer (in the back, to see the water in the container) versus winter (in the front, to hide the water in the container), and the meaning of each of the plants used to convey the seasons, etc.

Ikebana (234)
Ikebana (235)

   Katsuya-san’s son was there as back up, and also has inherited his father’s Ikebana occupation, but has his own style. He later walked us through doing our own Ikebana, which was both fun and humbling. It really made me realize how much thought and effort goes into ikebana. It’s not just tossing flowers in a vase and making sure the colors match.

I also found it very relaxing and peaceful to work through how to place the flowers. It becomes a sort of game almost, like a contest against yourself to see how creative you can be within the stringent basic three rules an Ikebana-ka (practitioner of Ikebana) must adhere to.

Ikebana (182)

;p Almost looks like a rocket science diagram, doesn’t it? You have to not only have artsy taste, but also be pretty smart to practice Ikebana. The more modern style was shown to us in the demonstration, and we were informed that each Ikebana school has its own approach to the art, although three basic ground rules (as shown on the board in the picture) remain the same among all practitioners of flower arranging.

But to call it simply ‘flower arranging’ doesn’t do it justice. Ikebana is much more than that. Like the tea ceremony, this art and all the other arts that thrive in Japanese tradition, are ways to further perfect yourself through practicing them. It is beautiful and poetic, really.

After this demonstration, I’m pretty sure I’ve found me a new hobby (^,^)

Till next time, bloggers! Hope to post soon!

Ja ne!



Adventures at the Tokyo Skytree

I shouldn't been in bed a ridiculously long time ago, so I'm going to have to make this quick.
Today was (of course) class as usual. After class, I went to a CIEE lunch with a few other students. We went to a delicious Indian restaurant near the university campus and the entire thing was quite enjoyable. After lunch, I spent a little time in BookOff buying J-pop and then headed back to the hotel. The fun story of today begins around 5pm. 

This evening several of us went to Tokyo's newest tallest tower; The Tokyo Skytree! As big as it is, you would think it would be easy to find. No. It looks close pretty much no matter where you are because of its immense scale and no matter where you look for directions it's kind of confusing. Google maps lied and took us the wrong way, but eventually we did arrive!!! 

It costs about 2000yen to go up, but we took the elevator all the way up to the 350th floor! It was definitely the right time to be in Japan. The skytree only opened back in May and the crowds are only just now becoming manageable to visit. We were only in line for tickets for around half an hour, but once you get up to the top there's even a line to take the escalator down to the 345th level to see the glass floor.
Despite the pervasive theme of "waiting" and "lines", the view was absolutely beautiful. It was definitely worth the trouble of getting there and I would recommend it to anybody visiting Tokyo. I of tried to take a few photographs of the view, but my camera definitely couldn't do it proper justice!

When I got back to the hotel I still had to do laundry, finish up round 2 of postcards to get them sent out tomorrow, and get all the stuff off my bed that had been put there when I needed to get into one of my suitcases. Suffice it to say that it is almost 1am and I still have to be awake at 6:30am tomorrow to be ready for school. Oh well, I suppose I can sleep next Friday while I'm on the plane. There won't be much opportunity before then!

Tea Ceremony and Host Siblings For Life

The day of my midterm was the day of the tea ceremony event at school! We didn't get to participate in the tea ceremony, but we learned all about them and then watched one with accompanying explanations. After we watched, everyone was given some Matcha (Japanese green tea) and a tea cake. 

Then later that same week,
Today is the day I got to meet my sister and her mom in Ueno!!! I hadn't seen Hiromi since she went back to Osaka at the end of her exchange, and I hadn't seen okaa-san since I first met Hiromi the summer before that, so it was a wonderful reunion! We met up in front of the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno, Tokyo. None of us had been before, so it was a new experience for everyone. We were all so happy to see each other!!!

The National Museum is a rather large establishment, and it is full of some absolutely amazing Japanese art. From samurai armor to paper fans, this place has EVERYTHING!It was fascinating and I definitely recommend it if you're ever in Tokyo. The Ueno Park Zoo is also in the area if you have a second day.
Anyways, we explored the enormous museum for what I thought was only a short while but turned out to be about 2 hours! I couldn't believe how fast it flew by! I think my favorite room was the one with all of the Ukio-e, or maybe the netsuke, or maybe the wall screens? Oh, I don't know, I can't pick a favorite, there were just too many fantastic things I saw!

                                                               After we finished looking though the National Museum, we walked through Ueno park. There is a very famous statue on the other side from where the museum was, and we decided that we wanted to go see it. Along the way, we stopped when we saw many tori gates lined up down a path. Okaa-san suggested we follow it to the shrine. It was a very short walk to the shrine and Okaa-san gave me and Hiromi each a 5yen coin (they are good luck) to make a request of the shrine. I could tell you what the shrine was for, but I that might give away our requests, and we can't have that! The walk through the park was beautiful since the weather has cooled down substantially after it rained two days ago. We did find the statue we were seeking and took a photo in front of it to commemorate the day.

By this time we were starting to get hungry, so we left the park in search of food. There is a shopping center very close to both the park and the station, so it was convenient for us to walk over there and find something delicious. After exploring the available options, we decided that tonight was a night for Kaiten Zushi! Kaiten Zushi is what you might be used to hearing called "conveyor belt sushi" in the states. I love these places; they're really fun and the sushi is always fresh and delicious! We had our choice of sushi from the varied assortment available, as well as miso soup with shellfish and an unlimited supply of hot Matcha (Japanese green tea). The only problem I ever have at these places is getting full before I can try everything!! I'll have to go back so that I can try even more wonderful sushi. Some of these I have seen in the states, but the vast majority I only see on my occasional trips to the Land of the Rising Sun. Maybe there's a Kaiten Zushi place near the hotel or the University, I will have to look into that!

After dinner, we explored the shopping center. It was such a fun time! We looked through many floors of the large building and had a blast talking. I am so happy that I was able to see Hiromi and Okaa-san today. I am very thankful that they were able to make the trip all the way from Osaka to visit. Eventually we had to part ways. I was sad that we had to separate, but I know that in time we will definitely see each other again.

Street Style: Hitting up Harajuku the Right Way

Okay, so you've probably all heard of Cosplay Bridge (well... you may know it as Harajuku bridge or JinguBashi); Where all of the lolitas cosplayers congregate every Sunday. People I know in Japan (including lolitas who generally participate in this weekly pageantry), the internet, Japanese magazines, pretty much everyone I've ever talked to about Harajuku has mentioned this spot and what generally takes place. So about 12 of us decided that today we would get all dressed up and make the trip to 原宿の橋 to try and get some pictures with local fashionistas. It was boiling outside, and we all had on various forms of heavy dresses, tulle under-skirting, and wig-etry making it even hotter, but we went through with it because we all really wanted to take part. Now take a second look at that picture on the top left and see if you can tell me what the problem is. 

Got it yet? Here's a hint: who do you see in the photo? That's right. Us. Not a single person outside of our CIEE group. It was kind of sad really, because we had all been looking forward to this event we had heard so much about! The funny part was, people starting coming by with their cameras and asking to take our pictures. We ended up becoming the very attraction we had come to see.  Personally, I think part of the reason nobody was there today is that it was really far to hot to be standing out in the sun. ESPECIALLY in outfits with so many hidden sources of heat. I would go again to hopefully see some people, but definitely not in the middle of August. It's far too hot and as fun as it was, a lot of the enjoyment was spoiled by the humidity and overwhelming temperature.

Now of course I couldn't let a good pair of (excruciatingly painful) new Shibuya 109 high heels go to waste, I had to do some walking around Takeshita Dori! I met up with Jamie at the train station to have some more Harajuku fun. 
We started the afternoon with some purikura, in perfect BGE tradition. It was especially fun getting to do it with my big hair on.  It's a pretty convincing style, don't you think? 
We also went to lunch in a cafe. They had some delicious fruit pancakes with ice cream. Maybe it wasn't the healthiest lunch, but it was a delicious way to cool down when it was far too crowded to push all the way down to the crepe place. I'd always heard that Sunday was the busiest day since nobody has school (and yes, school does happen on Saturdays for many students here), but WOW I didn't realize it would be so insanely packed! It was almost impossible to get anywhere. Everywhere we went had lines wrapping around to the back of the store, one even went all the way outside. We only went about 1/8 of the way down Takeshita Dori because all the people were so packed in. I have never seen such insanity!