The trip through Fukushima was both a heartbreaker and a ray of hope. The destruction caused by the earthquake, tsunami waves, and nuclear disaster was daunting and the effect on the people who lived their and are still affected by this event is saddening. On a brighter side though, many actions have been taken by many groups focusing in on the sustainable development and recovery of the area in many different parts of Fukushima, hoping to make Fukushima an even more sustainable, healthy, and beautiful city then it once was.
While at Fukushima, we got the chance to observe many different things. First, we took a trip to the Tokyo Electrical Power Company (TEPCO) Decommissioning Archive Center to learn more about the disaster in Fukushima on March 11, 2011. There, they showed us videos and pictures giving us a background on the overview of what happened that day with the nuclear reactor and the amount of destruction to the surrounding area caused due to the explosions, and also the earthquake and tsunami beforehand. When we reached the exclusion zone, we came to learn that because of the nuclear explosion leaking harmful chemicals into the surrounding environment, much of the soil, water, and plant life was permanently damaged. With the soil in particular, it was mixed in with these foreign chemicals making it no longer able to sustain plant life, specifically locally grown crops. As this soil could not be fixed in its present state, the choice made was to completely remove the existing soil altogether and replace it with new soil from various places. Currently, there are about (probably more than) 19 million bags of contaminated soil across the exclusion zone. We also saw abandoned houses, nursing homes, fishing shops, and elementary schools that had either been abandoned or badly damaged since the catastrophe. It should be noted that while the nuclear explosion affected the environmental health of the area, the 10 and 15-meter-high tsunamis brought much of the physical devastation and damage to the community, sweeping away entire towns and most buildings within the coastal area near Fukushima. The sites we saw and the stories told to us seemed unimaginable, and the saddest part is that they were all true.
In relation to the resistance and recovery of the Fukushima area now, the residents and workers here are a tough and determined group to say the least. Continuous work is being done on the reactors to safely and efficiently clean up the area to successfully decommit the reactors from action. This work includes searching and removing chemical and physical debris from the site to limit harm to anyone, flushing out any reactive nuclear waste from the area to prevent any further combustion or accidents, and carefully removing the structures as harmful materials are removed to ensure a full clean-up of the zone. Other efforts like digging fields to hold the many bags of contaminated soil, creating solar panel fields across kilometers of land, and making more sustainable living conditions in houses, energy distribution, and natural resource convenience and efficiency are all ways the people of Fukushima are showing everyone that they will not put down by this disaster, and rather come back better and work harder to make Fukushima even better, and their work and attitudes are truly inspiring to an aspiring environmental engineer like myself.
On March 11, 2011, tragedy fell upon the community of Fukushima and still leaves its mark on the area and will continue to for possibly the next 30 plus years according to sustainability and clean-up officials we talked to on site. But this loss and displacement has not discouraged the people of Fukushima, as they are aiming to make the area completely sustainable, running on renewable energy, and even better and healthier than its past city. With this goal attained, hopefully this new development can welcome the refugees of the disaster back to their home where they can flourish and help in the goal of a healthy, sustainable Fukushima.
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.