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Sayonara, Tokyo

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91 days ago, we stepped out of a plane and directly onto the roof of a skyscraper, where a woman clad in a kimono was bowing to greet us. “Welcome to Tokyo! We’re so glad you’re here!” She beckoned us to the edge of the building, so we could gaze out upon the city’s incomprehensible size. “Look at all that awaits you,” she said. Then without warning, she pushed us off. As we plummeted toward the ground, scenes and images of the city flashed in front of our eyes, before the inevitable THUD. We’ve since picked ourselves up and re-adjusted the broken bones, but we’re going to need a long time to fully recover from Tokyo.

Goodbye Tokyo

Never before has one of our 91-day stays passed by so quickly. Tokyo was intense. For three months, we tried to match the city’s pace, rarely taking time off and packing as much into every single day as possible. Tokyo demands it. Tokyo does not have time for your lethargy. By the way, while you were sleeping in, a great new band debuted who everyone’s listening to. That huge line stretching around the block is for gourmet hot dogs. Hot dogs are the trendy new thing, as of this morning. Didn’t you know? Oh, that? That’s a new skyscraper and, no, it wasn’t here yesterday. Get with the program!

Tokyo is tiring but, man, is this city fun. Getting out of bed was a daily struggle, but by the time we boarded the subway, we were fully awake and ready to go, usually assisted by a hot can of coffee from the vending machine. As draining as the city is, it’s equally inspiring. As long as you’re outside of your hotel or apartment, you’ll be consistently (and constantly) entertained. You don’t have time to remember how exhausted you’re supposed to be.

We loved Tokyo. Not everything about it, of course, but almost everything. We loved the architecture and food and bowing and sumo, and the city’s efficiency and cleanliness. We loved our fellow passengers on the subway: the uniformed schoolgirls who just could not stop giggling, the salarymen who were either drunk or asleep (or both), the kids playing Puzzles & Dragons on their phones, and even the gruff older gentlemen who clearly wanted us out of the way. We’re going to miss you guys!

Goodbye Tokyo

But even more than the people, I’ll miss Tokyo itself. It’s a place with a personality all its own. From now on, every other city we visit is going to seem ridiculous. After leaving Tokyo, we flew into Frankfurt and, seeing its skyscraper district from above, I laughed out loud. This is a city? It is, of course, and quite a large one… but look at it. It’s hardly the size of Shinjuku! As far as cities go, Tokyo is an entirely different beast. Comparing it to Frankfurt is like pointing out that a gorilla and a kitten are both mammals.

So, we say sayonara. Usually, upon leaving one of our temporary homes, I find myself getting emotional. But that hasn’t been the case with Tokyo, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it was just too big to get to know as intimately as we did places like Savannah or Iceland. Maybe because, as fun as the city was, our over-taxed bodies and minds were ready to escape. Maybe it’s because we know that it’s only a matter of time before we return.

And there’s the distinct possibility that, as Tokyo grows distant in our rear-view mirror, we’ll become more attached. The experiences which we’ve spent three hectic months crushing into little balls and cramming into our minds will be given time to unfold. Although the 91 days we spent here seemed to pass in 91 seconds, the space which Tokyo occupies in our memories will probably come to feel like 91 years.

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Goodbye Tokyo
Goodbye Tokyo
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July 14, 2014 at 4:02 pm Comments (2)

Tokyo at Night

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Tokyo At Night

It should come as no surprise to learn that the world’s largest city lights up spectacularly at night. Whether you’re in Shinjuku or Ginza, Tokyo changes completely once the sun goes down. Cities often seem more sinister in the dark, but not Tokyo. People are more relaxed, the atmosphere is more lively, and the illuminated buildings are even more stunning. Following a long day of sight-seeing, there’s nothing we loved more than walking home at night, especially after a rainfall when the air was crisp and the city’s lights reflected off the wet pavement.

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July 14, 2014 at 2:25 pm Comments (2)

The Beckoning Cats of Gotoku-ji Temple

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The Maneki Neko, or “Beckoning Cat,” is one of Japan’s most iconic images. Thought to bring luck and prosperity to their owners, these cats are frequently found outside businesses and within homes. And in the neighborhood of Setagaya, we found the Gotoku-ji temple, where the Maneki Neko plays a starring role.

The Cat Temple In Tokyo

Japan’s most famous cat has a few origin stories, one of which is set in Setagaya. Long ago, a lord who had been travelling to Edo was starting to feel weary. As he passed the Gotoku-ji temple, a cat caught his attention and seemed to beckon him inside. As soon as he followed the cat into the temple, a thunderstorm broke out and lightning struck the ground, exactly in the spot where he had been standing. He was so happy with his good luck, that he donated a small fortune to the Gotoku-ji and had it made into his family temple.

Worshipers at the Gotoku-ji often bring a Maneki Neko statue to leave for good luck at one of the shrines. The result is surreal, with hundreds of cats sitting atop a set of shelves. Except in size, they’re are all identical, exactly the same model with the same paw raised and the same beatific expression on their faces. Cats which don’t fit the strict criteria are removed by the temple’s staff.

Location on our Map

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July 7, 2014 at 4:33 pm Comments (4)

The Summer Sumo Tournament

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We were lucky enough to be in Tokyo during the Summer Sumo Tournament, the Natsu Basho, and bought tickets as soon as they became available. Sumo is one of Japan’s most famous cultural products, and we were determined not to miss out.

Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo

Six tournaments are held annually in Japan, and three of them take place in Tokyo’s National Sumo Hall, the Ryogoku Kokugikan. These tournaments last for fifteen days, run from the early morning to the evening, and involve hundreds of wrestlers in six divisions. Each day gets started with the lower-division bouts, and the crowd grows in size and excitement until the biggest stars appear at around 6pm.

In sumo, the highest rank a wrestler can achieve is yokozuna, followed by ozeki, sekiwake and maegashira. These four ranks make up the top division, the Makuuchi. The rankings are decided upon by a panel of experts, and the number of wrestlers in each class is fixed (44 in the Makuuchi Division, 28 in the Juryo Division, etc), but the number of yokozuna is variable. Once a wrestler has been named a yokozuna, it’s a title he carries for life, so on any given year, there might be zero, one, two or more. We had the chance to see three yokozuna, which is rare.

We showed up early, wanting to take full advantage of our tickets, but most spectators don’t roll into the Ryogoku Kokugikan until around 2pm, when the bouts of the Juryo and Makuuchi Divisions are scheduled to begin. These are the “pro” divisions, with the wrestlers whom the fans know by name and face: those who feature in the programs, and on collectible trading cards. They’re mostly Japanese or Mongolian, but a few come from other countries as well, such as Georgian behemoth Gagamaru, Osunaarashi from Egypt, and the Czech Republic’s small and muscular Takanoyama, who more resembles an MMA fighter than a sumo wrestler.

Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo

I doubt there’s a spectator sport in the world in which pomp and ceremony outweigh the action by such a degree, as in sumo. For every ten seconds of wrestling, there are ten minutes of preparation: entering the ring, slapping the belly, lifting the leg, chalking the palms, and usually at least three false starts. But when a match finally does get underway, it’s usually thrilling. Contests are decided quickly, after a few seconds of these huge guys tossing each other around, balancing on the edge of the ring, and slamming into one another with unbelievable power and dexterity.

Our day at the stadium began slowly, with only a few spectators on hand for the lower-division bouts, but the attendance swelled steadily. By the time the Makuuchi wrestlers entered for their elaborate ring-entering ceremony, the atmosphere had reached a fever pitch. A group of school age girls behind us squealed in delight when a young wrestler named Endo made his entrance, and the sweet old ladies next to us roared their approval as Hakuho won his match. These guys are superstars in Japan, and a wrestler who’s achieved a high rank can live quite comfortably off endorsements and sponsorships.

If you happen to be in Tokyo during one of the tournaments hosted in the Ryokgoku Kokugikan, you should make every effort to attend. Getting tickets is tricky for non-Japanese speakers, but agencies such as BuySumoTickets.com (which we used) can assist. It’s not cheap, but this is all-day entertainment and well worth the price. I figured that we’d eventually get bored, but we were riveted by every match, and stayed glued to our seats throughout the afternoon. Sumo is one of the most unique and exciting sporting events I’ve ever attended. If I lived full-time in Japan, it’s something I could totally get into.

Location of the Ryogoku Kokugikan on our Map
Japanese Grand Sumo – Official Website

Sumo Morning Practice

Sumo Summer Tournament 2014 Tokyo
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July 2, 2014 at 2:29 pm Comments (6)

A Sumo Training Session

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We quietly filed into the stable and after bowing to the sensei, sat cross-legged on the ground. For the next couple hours, we were to remain as still as possible, while the sumo wrestlers of the Kitanoumi Beya Stable conducted their morning training session. Trust me, I wasn’t going to move a muscle. I wanted to avoid the attention of these behemoths by any means necessary.

Sumo Morning Practice

The summer sumo tournament was set to begin in a couple weeks, and our landlord had offered to take us to one of the morning training sessions in a nearby stable. It’s an exciting experience, but not something which tourists should try on their own. Sumo is a serious business in Japan, and the few stables which allow outsiders to watch a session do so grudgingly. Unless you have a Japanese friend who knows what they’re doing, the only way you’ll get in is with an organized tour.

After sitting down, we watched as fifteen tremendous athletes went through their morning routine. I use the word “tremendous” purposefully. These guys are of tremendous size, tremendous agility, presence and skill. I had never seen a sumo match before, but this morning we saw at least fifty sparring sessions. No ceremony, no messing around, just two giants slamming into each other, over and over.

After about an hour of watching from the sidelines, I started to pick up some things. Mass is an advantage, for sure, but the larger guy doesn’t always win. Most matches are quick, and smart wrestlers can end their bouts before their opponents even know what happened. Balance is equally important to strength, and speed is most crucial of all.

To amuse myself while watching in silence, I gave each of the wrestlers a nickname and graded them on their performance in the sparring sessions. There was the Prodigy, the Veteran, Thinker, Cannonball, Shifty, Newbie, Cream Puff, the Natural, Beauty, Sleepy and Workhorse. Prodigy was talented, while Shifty was small but clever, and usually emerged the victor. His matches with the Thinker were excellent, but he stood no chance against Cream Puff. Cannonball was great fun to watch, as round and explosive as his namesake, and the Natural looked exactly like how you’d imagine a “sumo wrestler” to look.

The training session was intense. Besides the sparring, they were forced to do exercises which would tire even a normal-sized athlete, and by the time it was all over, I felt exhausted myself. But mostly, I was hungry. I don’t know if it was watching such big guys for so long, but both Jürgen and I felt justified in marching across the street to Denny’s (yes, that Denny’s), and digging into a sumo-sized breakfast.

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June 21, 2014 at 3:23 pm Comments (2)

Shibuya Crossing and Hachiko

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A statue of the loyal dog named Hachiko stands eternally vigilant before Shibuya Crossing, an intersection which has become one of Tokyo’s most iconic sights. When the lights turn red, the zig-zagging crosswalks are buried under an avalanche of footfalls as thousands of people try to cross simultaneously. It’s hypnotic, especially when witnessed from above.

Shibuya Crossing & Hachiko

The first couple times we ran the gauntlet of Shibuya Crossing, it was for the thrill; we’d seen the intersection in movies and on TV, and it was fun to dive headlong into such a famous mess. Although the novelty soon wore off, we continued making frequent use of the intersection during our 91 days in Tokyo. The reason it’s so busy, is that it’s extremely practical. If you’re in Shibuya, crossing this crazy street at least once is almost unavoidable.

Between Shibuya Station and the intersection, sits a statue dedicated to Hachiko, who lived from 1925 to 1938. Every single morning, this friendly Akita would walk to the station with his master, a professor at Tokyo University. And every afternoon, he’d be there waiting for his master’s return. One day, though, the professor did not come back. He had suffered a brain hemorrhage while at school, and suddenly died. But Hachiko never lost faith. Every single afternoon, he went to the station to await the train which might finally bring his master home. And he did so until his own death, nine years later.

By demonstrating such unwavering loyalty, Hachiko became a celebrity. His stuffed remains can still be seen in Ueno Park’s National Museum of Science, and his story was the subject of a well-received film by Lasse Hallström, starring Richard Gere. Hachiko has also been credited with rescuing the Akita breed which, at the time, had been in danger of disappearing. Strong, intelligent and brave, Akitas have since become the country’s most popular dog. As a fun bit of trivia, the first two brought to America were owned by Helen Keller, who had visited Japan in 1937.

Today, Hachiko’s statue is one of the most popular meeting-spots in Tokyo, because everyone knows where it is. It’s fitting that Tokyo’s most famous spot to wait for people, is next to the dog who became famous for waiting.

Location of Shibuya Crossing on our Map

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Shibuya Crossing & Hachiko
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June 19, 2014 at 3:22 pm Comments (2)

The Robot Restaurant

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It’s hard to imagine an experience more perfectly suited to Tokyo, and one less likely to exist anywhere else, than Shinjuku’s Robot Restaurant. With a stage show that stretches the definition of terms like “elaborate” and “bizarre,” the restaurant has quickly become one of the city’s most popular venues.

Robot Restaurant Tokyo

We were dazzled by the Robot Restaurant from the moment we spotted it. The entire facade was illuminated in blinding LED lights, and towering lady robots with giant bouncing breasts were roving about the foyer. A band inspired by Daft Punk was rocking out behind the robots, and everything was flashing and loud and over-the-top. Sensory overload? Definitely. And we hadn’t even picked up our tickets yet. I suspected that the performance was going to be more like sensory assault.

The Robot Restaurant

Having arrived well in advance of the evening show, we passed the extra time in the restaurant’s upstairs lounge. You’ll want to do the same, because the lounge is unbelievable. It’s as though the world’s most outrageous interior designers were given crayons, glue sticks, glitter and mescalin, and told to go crazy. Everything is mirrored and shining. On every table, there’s a robot dinosaur. On the stage, a lady-band clad in metallic bikinis and angel wings is playing soft lounge music. The drinks are cheap and the vibe couldn’t be better. You and the people around you are in a place unlike anywhere any of you have ever been, and you’re all excited and giddy and talkative. It’s a bonding experience.

Now, however, it’s showtime. You and your new friends head into the underground theater, take your seats, and await the spectacle. Soon, the lights go out, the speakers switch on, and giant vehicles appear on either side of the narrow stage, ridden by ladies dressed as Amazonian war princesses from the year 3000. They’re pounding on drums, rotating around the stage, screaming and dancing to the music, and you’re just… confused. What the hell is happening? It’s hilarious, pointless, impressive and overwhelming in equal measure.

And that’s just Act One! By the end of the show, which stretches out across seven or eight acts, you’ll have perhaps seen boxing robots. Women riding huge mechanical cows. An alien-eating shark robot. Huge motorcycles and airplanes with pole-dancing lady passengers. A tank, I think. There was definitely a freedom-fighting panda. The shows change frequently, so you might see other things entirely, things which no sane human would ever be able to predict.

We had fun from the moment we entered the Robot Restaurant, and I’m not sure my brain has yet been able to process everything we saw. Almost as much as the show, we enjoyed watching the spectators sitting across from us. Without exception, they had their eyes wide open and huge smiles plastered across their faces. I’m sure it’s how we looked, too.

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Location on our Map

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Robot Restaurant Tokyo
Robot Restaurant Tokyo
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June 13, 2014 at 9:38 am Comments (5)

The Miraikan Future Science Museum

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We had a feeling that our visit to Odaiba Island’s Miraikan Future Science Museum was going to be awesome, and we were right. The only disappointment came when it closed, and we had to leave. Officially named the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, this is the most cutting-edge science museum we’ve ever visited.

Miraikan Museum Tokyo

Hanging from the ceiling in the foyer, the Geo-Cosmos globe welcomes visitors into the Miraikan. A Super-HD model of the Earth six meters in diameter, with organic LED panels that project over 10 million pixels, the Geo-Cosmos displays a rotating series of maps, from up-to-date global weather patterns, to topics like “Human Migration,” “Train Systems” and “Tuna Migrations.” It’s as absorbing as it is gorgeous, and we could easily have spent an hour on the lounge chairs in the foyer, watching it spin.

After tearing ourselves away from the globe, we toured exhibits dedicated to the International Space Station and the human genome. The museum is kid-friendly, but hasn’t been dumbed-down. There’s a hands-on model of the internet, for example, and an interactive room called “The Songs of Angura.” This is a fully immersive introduction to the science of Spatial Information. Kids can walk around playing with their “shadow-selves,” while adults can delve into supplemental material about creating digital space maps or the tracking of behavioral patterns.

The museum is usually crowded (this is Tokyo after all), but many of the exhibits ask you to take a number and assign you a time to return. It’s a great idea; when your time comes to play with the internet model, for example, you can do so in relative peace. And in the meantime, there are more than enough distractions.

One such distraction is provided by Honda’s famous robot, Asimo, who performs every hour in the museum. Initially, we found him adorable, this little humanoid tramping out onto the stage and waving at us. But as the demonstration progressed, I started to feel uneasy. Here was Asimo demonstrating how fast it could run, how it could jump, grab and throw, and all I could think was, “This thing could hunt me down and rip my head off, and there would be nothing I could do about it.” I’ve always known that the day would arrive on which we would bow before our robot masters, but in the Miraikan I realized how close it already is.

Before leaving, we went to the Miraikan’s dome theater for a 3D movie about the cosmos called Birthday. The 3D was top-notch, and truly created the illusion of diving into the Milky Way. I immediately wanted to watch it again, but we couldn’t. 5pm had rolled around and the museum was shutting down. We were ushered out… in the Japanese fashion, of course: politely and with much bowing and apologizing, but firmly. So for your own visit, make sure to show up early. Even then, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to see everything it has to offer.

Location on our Map
Miraikan – Website

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June 11, 2014 at 2:30 pm Comment (1)

The Tokyo Tower and the World Trade Center

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Although it’s been unseated from its position as Japan’s tallest structure (and, at 333 meters, is positively Lilliputian in comparison to the new champion, Oshiage’s 634-meter SkyTree), the Tokyo Tower remains a popular tourist attraction. Modeled on the Eiffel Tower and painted bright orange, the tower has been a part of the city’s skyline since opening in 1958.

Tokyo Tower

Our reaction to the Tokyo Tower was mixed. It’s a shameless copy of the much grander Eiffel Tower, but still an impressive sight. Maybe it’s the bold orange color which contrasts so strikingly against the normal steel gray of the city’s skyscrapers. Or maybe it’s the weirdness of seeing the Eiffel Tower in Japan. Regardless, we consider the Tokyo Tower to be one of the city’s coolest structures.

Unfortunately, visiting its observation deck isn’t all that great of an experience. The view is nice, but the observation deck is always crowded, and more than a little annoying. Besides, when you’re inside the Tokyo Tower looking out, the best-looking building has effectively been removed from sight.

World Trade Center Tokyo Video

For a superior view, walk to the nearby World Trade Center. It’s not as tall as the Tokyo Tower, but the observation deck at the top of this building is cheaper to visit and much more serene. The huge windows are spotlessly clean and you can sit at them for as long as you want, without impatient tourists trying to shove you aside. You’re even allowed to bring in your own food and drinks. And there, in the foreground, is the Tokyo Tower in all its bright orange glory.

Locations on our Map: Tokyo Tower | World Trade Center

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More Views from Tokyo’s World Trade Center
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May 21, 2014 at 8:52 am Comments (3)

Dinner Behind Bars at Alcatraz E.R.

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It’s safe to say we’ve never dined in an atmosphere remotely similar to that of Shibuya’s Alcatraz E.R. The name says it all: this theme restaurant is meant to emulate the experience of eating inside the blood-spattered emergency room of a high-security prison. Have I mentioned that Tokyo is a little strange?

Alacatraz ER Restaurant

Theme restaurants are all the rage in Tokyo. People will line up to eat in places dedicated to topics like ninjas, vampires, Alice in Wonderland, maids, robots and butlers. And, of course, the emergency rooms of prisons.

After stepping off the elevator, we pressed a big red button smeared with bloody hand-prints in order to open the door of Alcatraz E.R. A woman dressed as a nurse-waitress-torturer greeted us and led us to our table, which was within a prison cell. We walked past grisly scenes of bloody emergency room madness, including mutilated corpses who’d been interred in the floor, and were locked into the cage where we would be enjoying dinner.

Dinner Behind Bars at Alcatraz E.R.

The menu is hilarious, with intestine-shaped sausages served in bedpans, sexually-deviant cocktails and weird culinary experiments like bright blue curry. We ordered a lot, and were enjoying fried chicken when suddenly the lights in the prison went out. Warning signals flashed red down the corridors outside our cell, while blood-curdling screams blared over the intercom. The inmates were loose! We sat silently, until noticing a silhouette in the cell with us. From what I could discern in the strobing red light, he looked rather like a murderer. Jürgen unleashed a wail of terror, the likes of which I’d never heard from him before.

It was quite a night, and not too expensive. I had expected the food to be over-priced to compensate for the show, but that wasn’t the case. Even the drinks were reasonable, and the cover charge was only ¥500. You might want to stay away if you’re afraid of the dark, or prison, or masked men suddenly standing next to you in your prison cell, or evil nurses forcing you to drink from decapitated heads, but otherwise a night out at Alcatraz E.R. is a lot of fun.

Location on our Map

More Strange Stuff from Japan

Alacatraz ER Restaurant
Alacatraz ER Restaurant
Alacatraz ER Restaurant
Alacatraz ER Restaurant
Alacatraz ER Restaurant
Alacatraz ER Restaurant
Alacatraz ER Restaurant
Alacatraz ER Restaurant
Alacatraz ER Restaurant
Alacatraz ER Restaurant
Alacatraz ER Restaurant
Alacatraz ER Restaurant
Alacatraz ER Restaurant
Alacatraz ER Restaurant
Alacatraz ER Restaurant
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May 15, 2014 at 9:35 am Comment (1)

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Sayonara, Tokyo 91 days ago, we stepped out of a plane and directly onto the roof of a skyscraper, where a woman clad in a kimono was bowing to greet us. "Welcome to Tokyo! We're so glad you're here!" She beckoned us to the edge of the building, so we could gaze out upon the city's incomprehensible size. "Look at all that awaits you," she said. Then without warning, she pushed us off.
For 91 Days