After a long afternoon travelling to different bridges in northern Japan, we were ready for some sushi. Sitting outside the restaurant, we saw what a night would be like in Tokyo as a young person. Very tastefully dressed men and women walked in groups from restaurant to restaurant, while smiling, chatting, and laughing. The city was alive.
We kept pretty close tabs on the different parties inside the restaurant too. Watching as couples and friends gracefully ate fish, rice, and veggies with their chopsticks; a skill we were all still working on. After a few more glances inside and after receiving the gift of an umbrella from an older Japanese man, we were in.
The four of us got lucky and snagged seats together at the bar where we could watch the chefs prepare the dishes. Ordering food in Japan is easier than expected because almost all menus have pictures of what you’ll get on them. After a few menu points from each of us, the chefs began preparing our rolls and sashimi while we sipped on some hot sake.
There were lots of travelers in this restaurant; all in awe of the sushi chefs.
Without a doubt, this meal ruined American sushi. The fish was so fresh and the presentation was so simple and clean. The whole experience, from the ease of communication even with the language barrier, the beautiful scenery, and the freshness from the fish felt extremely Japanese, and these values of acceptance, beauty, and freshness followed us for the rest of our time in the island country.
After an early 6:25 am flight from Beijing to Chengdu and a delicious lunch in our hotel, our group walked next door to the SKLGP Laboratory in Chengdu Institute of Technology’s campus. This lab is one of the key research facilities for geohazad prevention and geoenvironment protection in China. What does that mean you ask? It means they have a bunch of cool machines and sensors used to recreate different landslide scenarios, test rock and structure strength, and monitor slopes in real time to name a few.
While on the tour, we were able to stand in the centrifuge room which is used to create extreme force on a pre-formed slope model. The test itself can take only minutes, but to perfect the sensor location and slope model itself can take many months.
Machinery used to mimic earthquake forces on slope models
These models used for the centrifugal test are scaled down, but to fully understand large scale soil flow, researchers at SKLGP can utilize the Laboratory for Large Debris Flow. This space looked like a geotechnical engineer’s dream with space for modeling, testing, and lots and lots of soil. We got to see a few soil saturation experiments in progress and the location for a new shake table just outside the building.
To wrap up the tour, some of the researchers showed us their UAV technologies, and allowed us to play with their VR system. Both of these tools are great examples of the bright future of research in China.
On Tuesday morning, we went to the Dujiangyan Irrigation System. While the site is commonly visited by tourists for the scenery and gardens, we, as engineers, were able to appreciate the site from a different perspective. Built during the Qin dynasty around 256 BC, the system has continued to demonstrate sustainability and resiliency, as the system has undergone minimal changes and retrofitting throughout its long lifetime. During the visit, we were able to see two of the three main constructions of the irrigation head: the Yuzui and Baopingkou. The Yuzui works to control the water flows of the inner and outer rivers to prevent flooding; as we visited during the dry season, we saw that the Yuzui diverted minimal water to the outer river.
The Baopingkou works to control sediment flow and to divert any excess water before water distribution. As it was the dry season, no water was being diverted. As geotechnical engineers, it was remarkable to see the amount of the mass carved out from the mountains to create the Baopingkou given the lack of tunneling technologies during construction time.
Lastly, when studying the irrigation system in class, we learned that the irrigation system’s resiliency and sustainability are not only attributed to the construction, but also to the maintenance system. The irrigation system is maintained not only on a government level, but also on a city, town, and individual level, which we were able to observe during our visit from maintenance performance on the local level.
Despite the short, three-day stay in Japan, many different dishes were sampled in a variety of locations. At a rural rest stop near Sendai, the group stopped for lunch and ordered items such as tonkatsu (とんかつ), udon (うどん), and Japanese curry (カレーライス). These are all classic comfort food dishes that are often cooked at home, and they make wonderful, hearty lunches for tired travelers. Typical meals come with side dishes that may include items such as pickled vegetables (漬物), miso soup (味噌汁), and savory rice seasoning (振り掛け).
On the second day after a 4.5 hour Shinkansen train ride to Hiroshima, the group tried another comfort food dish, Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き). Hiroshima has its own type of Okonomiyaki pancake (different than Osaka-Style Okonomiyaki) which primarily consists of soba noodles, a crepe, cabbage, and pork belly slices. After it is fried on a griddle, savory Okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese style mayonnaise, and bonito fish flakes are placed on top of the pancake as a garnish.
Other dishes sampled along the way include ramen (ラーメン), conveyor-belt sushi (回転寿司), sashimi rice bowl (ちらし丼), and yakitori style beef tongue (焼き鳥), all of which were eaten in in places around Tokyo, from the train station to the fashionable Ginza area.
Traditional Japanese sweets (和菓子) are often not as sweet as other Asian or Western desserts. They are typically made with mochi, red-bean paste, and fruit. One of the most common types is Daifuku (大福餅) which is mocha filled with with red-bean paste. It may also have different flavored powders on the outside such as matcha, powdered green tea.
On March 20th and 21st, we drove from the Chengdu University of Technology in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China through the Qionglai Mountains to explore key locations affected by the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake. As we drove towards the epicenter, I noticed the near vertical slopes along the roads. These steep soil slopes were cut to place roads and build terraces on which to place buildings and plant crops. To stabilize and protect the slopes, cast-in-place, lattice-like concrete structures were built. This method of stabilization is easily constructed with basic molds, cement and water, therefore it is suited for this geography, where there is limited vehicle access. Different lattice geometries such as rectangles and diamonds are used. The examples below are from the side of the highway near the Wenchuan Earthquake epicenter and the Wenjia Gully.
On March 23rd, we drove along the coast line of the Miyagi Prefecture near Sendai, Japan to visit key infrastructure damaged by the tsunami induced by the Tohoku earthquake in 2011. The interesting slope structures I noticed were the articulated concrete mat slope protection systems. These heavy duty and extremely resilient systems are used to protect slopes from erosion and scour caused by high velocity flows and are common for coastal regions. The example below is the channel below the Shida Bridge.
On day 6 (Wednesday) we had the privilege to visit the Wenjia Gully which is located a couple hours outside of Chendgu. This gully is home millions of cubic meters of land/rock debris that is being fed from loose debris from 3 higher branches. All of this debris became loose during the the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. During the wet season, this material causes devastating land debris flows that have impacted the surrounding community. To mitigate this risk, 5 separate check dams have been designed and installed to stop the flow and allow for it to be safely manually removed from behind the dams.
Matching SUV fleet that took us all over the mountains
To visit we were provided a fleet of 6 SUVs from Chengdu University of Electronic Science and Technology of China. Our drivers were able to drive us to the highest, and in my person opinion coolest, dam known as dam #5. As you can see in the photos below, it is massive, raw, innovative, and way up in the gully. This is such a significant check dam because it has grates in locations to drain the water out of the debris. The water is drained from the debris flow and sent to the bottom of the mountain through a tunnel that leads to the other side of the mountain.. Taking out the water factor makes the mass of material much less likely to continue down the gully.
Grates for water to drain out of the debris flowConnection point of the draining grates (right) and the tunnel (left) leading to the other side of the mountain
Check Dam #5 (Fernando is sitting on the lower culvert 6th from the right for size perspective)
From what we learned this system has been very successful and it was so cool to explore a beautiful piece of civil engineering up in rural Chinese mountains!
Among the food enthusiasts, Beijing is most well known for its crispy fruit-wood-roasted duck skin, paper-thin slices of baby lamb in a hotpot, and sweet and spicy whole deep-fried yellow fish among various other dishes. We stayed in Beijing for only three nights, hence the allure of Beijing's sophisticated flavors and exotic ingredients prompted us to fit the essential sights and flavors into our limited time and budget. The highlights of our food adventure included the Chongqing hot pot at a famous chain of restaurants called Haidilao and the Peking duck at Liqun, which is another restaurant popular with foreign tourists. It was interesting to watch the chef personally come to our table to carve the Peking duck in Liqun and the noodle show at Haidilao, where an energetic waiter pulled noodles right at our table.
The delicious hotpot dinner we had in Haidilao
The noodle show
Authentic technique of roasting a duck and the prepared Peking duck
After setting off from Beijing, we spent the next four days at Chengdu. Apart from being the panda hometown, Chengdu is known for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, which is one of the eight regional cuisines in China.
Grand lunch on arriving Chengdu
The range of classic Sichuanese dishes that we tried in Chengdu included the spicy Kung Pao chicken, Hongyou chaoshou (dumplings of minced pork meat), Dandan noodles, Mapo tofu, Chong Qing WanZhou (grilled fish), spicy pancakes and Fuqi Feipian (Sliced Beef Tripe in Chili Oil), among various others.
Different food items we tried at Chengdu
It was not hard for us to see why Chengdu was named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2010.
In 2008, the Wenchuan Earthquake struck in the Sichuan Province of western China. The earthquake measured 7.9 - 8.0 on the Richter scale, and it is estimated to cause over 83,000 deaths across western China. Because of the earthquake, many structures were damaged or destroyed.
Collapsed Building - Old Beichuan
Sadly, the earthquake caused massive landslides in the area as well - two of which struck the town of Beichuan.
Landslide Damage in Old Beichuan
Old Beichuan Secondary School
The first landslide struck the primary school and a medical center, and the second landslide hit the secondary school. As you can see in the images below, there was almost nothing left of the middle school, and for many families under the “One Child” policy of China, they lost their only children in the disaster. I was immensely sad for the town of Beichuan, and the town’s damage was heart-breaking.
Destroyed Bridge in Old Beichuan
From a structural view of the disaster, many of the buildings saw collapse in the 1st floors due to lesser supports on the first floor. Additionally, many buildings had structural failures that resulted in total collapse or partial collapse, rendering them unable to be lived in. However, miraculously, a few buildings survived full damage and the hospital made it through the event unscathed.
Two Nearly Identical Buildings, One Survived Well, The Other Collapsed - Old Beichuan
Surviving Hospital - Old Beichuan
The citizens of Beichuan and the government of China decided to leave Beichuan and create a new city, New Beichuan as it is called, in a safer area known as Yongchang, meaning “eternal prosperity.” Old Beichuan remains as a memorial to those who died in the earthquake and landslides.
While China and Japan both have a long former history of rule under Emperors, both countries differ in their royal residences.
In China, the Forbidden City formerly housed the Emperor, the family of the Emperor, and significant members of the government from about 1420 until 1912. The Forbidden City was closed off to the general public, hence the name, and the Emperor and government elite rarely left the walls of the compound. The vastness of the city and its incredible detail struck me first. In the Forbidden City, carved animals on the buildings marked which structures were most important, and the ornate decorations and carvings within each building also denoted importance. Today, the Forbidden City is open to the public and serves as an important part of China's history, and I am glad we got the chance to see it.
Gate of Supreme Harmony - Forbidden City
Animal Figures - Forbidden City
Mountain of Accumulated Elegance - Forbidden City
In Japan, the Tokyo Imperial Palace still houses the Emperor. Today, the Emperor serves as a ceremonial figure, and the Emperor's residence remains to be in the Tokyo Imperial Palace. I accidentally wandered into the park housing the Imperial Palace and as it turns out, thousands of people flock to the palace at the end of March because the gates to the palace open to the public for everyone to see the cherry blossoms bloom in the Imperial Gardens. The Imperial Palace overall felt more like seeing the White House than seeing a historical site as the Forbidden City felt like in China.
Days 1 and 2:
Nonstop would be an understatement for how this day went. We left our airport in China at 6am to catch our flight to Tokyo. We arrived at Nairita airport at 3pm and only got to Tokyo at 6pm. After we dropped our bags off at the hotel it was 7pm — our day would finally begin. We decided to embark on a journey to climb Mt. Fuji in time to be at the top for sunrise. However, we hadn’t eaten the entire day and decided to stop at the most reliable food source of them all. McDonalds. After a quick happy meal, we left for Fuji.
Kieron had done quite a bit of research prior to the trip on how to get to Fuji. None of the paths were ideal but we ended up going with 3 trains and a taxi cab that put us right in the bottom of the 5th station of the mountain. Stations were small rest area points for hikers to recuperate before progressing further. The hike was a 6-hour journey so we knew that we had to start immediately as the sunrise was at 5am.
We got off the cab at 1am and the journey began. I had been suffering from a fever and food poisoning and almost immediately fell back from the rest of the guys. We decided that since we all had our own paces we would just aim to meet up at the top. The terrain seemed to change its mind on how to make the ascent difficult every kilometer. There were switchbacks – type of walkway that goes back and forth in mind numbing fashion that makes it seem like no progress is being made. There were also large rocks that we had to quite literally get on all fours to get across and even forest understory to cut through. Yet were all able to watch the sunrise at 5am and even though we weren't together then, each view had its own beauty. At 8 am we all stood proudly side by side grinning from ear to ear at the summit.
At this point we were dehydrated, had altitude sickness, and were incredibly sore from the ascent. After an hour of taking pictures and resting, we were ready to go home. Little did we know what laid ahead of us for the descent. There were 100 switch backs with rocks that collapsed at the slightest touch. It wasn't the difficulty of traversing the switchback that made this hard. It was the sheer repeated was of the task. Imagine completing a very difficult task only to see that a another variation has presented itself to you – again and again. With that being said, it was super cool to walk through clouds on our way journey down.
It took us about two and a half hours to get through these as we were all suffering from weak knees and severe headaches. We then had a short 3km walk – a period of 20 minutes that has never felt longer in my lifetime get back to the car and bus loading tea. After a bus and 3 train rides where we fell asleep I desirably – we finally got back to Tokyo. By the time we got dinner and got back to our room it was 6pm. 36 hours had passed in this journey with not a single hour of sleep. One of the most difficult experiences any of us have been through but definitely one of the most fulfilling experiences.
Today we traveled to Sendai. Joining our group was Professor Satoshi, a professor at the Port and Airport Research Institute and Seth, a PhD candidate at GT. We traveled to areas where the 2011 Tsunami had caused major damage. To get Sendai we took a 2 hour long high speed train and then rented a large van to go around the area. It was fascinating to see the different structures that were able to withstand the water damage as well as those that had completely collapsed. Dr. Frost had shown has pictures he had taken 2 years ago and we were able to see the progress in the area since then.
However, we soon went from being fascinated to heart broken. In one of our stops, we happened to come by what I can best describe as a makeshift mini-mall strip. We soon found out that this area used to contain a thriving town with many markets. One of the shops’ owners, an elderly woman, came down and gave us her account of the tsunami. She had pictures before, during, and after the disaster. Even through her retelling, she never lost her positive attitude. She always had a large smile and it was inspiring to see someone at her age stay so strong.
On the way back we stopped by a ramen shop and had a famous piping hot bowl of hot ramen.
Hiroshima was the last part of trip in Japan. We knew it would be a hard sight to swallow but all of us looked forward to learning more about the bombing from a perspective we had never seen before – the Japanese side.
After 3 long train rides, we finally arrived in Hiroshima. At first sight, the town is just another tourist location. You have your Pradas, Tiffanys, and food carts at every corner. However, a few bus stops into the city, the Hiroshima memorial comes into play. Surrounded by a river, this memorial is best described a park with many monuments. The whole area is tastefully created and the sense of “tourism” slips away and is instead replaced by a feeling of peace and respect. The whole park preaches peace and removal of nuclear weapons.
Inside this park is a museum that housed a lot of the artifacts from the bombing. It told the shocking stories of the people before, during, and after the fact. There was even a pledge that people could sign near the exit of the museum where people could pledge against the usage of nuclear deterrents.