My Winter Travels, Part 5: Sendai

Picasa Sendai Photo Album
After leaving Yangshuo, I separated from the rest of the group and took a bus back to Guilin and then a train to Guangzhou. I flew out the next day to Japan, arriving in Tokyo on February 1st. I spent a week in Japan, visiting my cousin Tim, who is spending a year at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan as part of a PHD program at Pennsylvania State University in Acoustical Engineering. Tim and I met at Tokyo Station and immediately went to Sendai, where we spent most of the week. We also visited nearby Yamadera and Matsushima, and spent 2 days in Tokyo, but those'll have to be seperate posts. There's only so much I can put in one post.

Before coming to China (and then Japan), I thought of the Chinese and Japanese cultures as being roughly similar--to me they were both Asian countries, where the people look the same (i.e. I can't tell a Japanese person from a Chinese person based on how they look), they eat meals with lots of rice using chopsticks and they have cool martial arts. After being in China for 5 months, I was surprised at how different Japan was. Briefly, here are some of the differences I noticed:
  • In China there is often garbage everywhere. They don't have the same anti-littering standards that we have in the US. Japan, on the other hand, goes to the other extreme--it was by far the cleanest place I've ever been. You walk around in downtown Tokyo or Sendai, and you don't see any garbage anywhere. I really liked this aspect of Japan.
  • Besides the rice and chopsticks, Chinese food and Japanese food do not have a lot in common. Overall, I'd say I like Chinese food waaaay better than Japanese food. I've already written about Chinese food. Japanese food has teriyaki sauce, which is fantastic...but beyond that, I don't care for it very much. Being an island nation, they eat tons of seafood. I love salmon and some kinds of shrimp, and I can go for fish & chips occasionally, but beyond that I don't care very much for seafood. In Japan they eat all sorts of seafood I would never touch. And then of course there's sushi. Laying aside the raw fish aspect for a second...I've never even gotten that far because I can't stomach the seaweed wrap. So I've never tried anything but the tamest sushi and didn't like it because of the seaweed. On the other hand, Japan has really great fresh produce, even better then what we get in the U.S.
  • People in Japan are super-polite--definitely more polite than anywhere else I've been (18 countries and counting). I wouldn't say Chinese people are rude, but they certainly have different standards for what is rude and what is polite, and they can appear to be rude by U.S. Standards. For example, lining up single-file is unheard of in China. When a bus comes, you all rush and push until you get on. It's just the way it's done. In Japan, like in the U.S., lining up is how it's done. It would be extremely rude to push your way out of bus or cut into a line. At the hotel I stayed at in Sendai, the front-desk staff would stop whatever they were doing anytime I passed by and bow to me. At first it felt weird, but I grew to like it. I'd never felt like such a guest before.
  • Japan and China have very different standards of public hygiene. In China, you see people spitting all the time--not just outside like you occasionally see in the U.S., but also inside. People huck big loogies on the floor of the train or at a restaurant. It's certainly disgusting, but you get a bit used to it after a while. In Japan, this never happens. People are so hygiene-conscious that coughing in public is a bit of a taboo...you've somehow got to hold it in, or get away from the crowd where you can do it without the risk of breathing your bacteria onto another person.
  • The hygiene standards extend to the toilets. China has some of the crudest, lowest-tech toilets in the world--holes in the ground you've got to squat over. They've got western-style toilets installed in most city residences, but the vast majority of the public toilets are of the squatty potty variety. Japan, on the other hand, has probably the highest-tech toilet in the world--the shower toilet. After you go, this device extends out underneath you and sprays you off. No need for toilet paper, and you're far cleaner then when you use T.P.
  • China has lots of beggars asking for money anytime you go into the central districts of a big city (downtown Qinhuangdao has plenty). But in Japan, I never saw a beggar my entire time there--and I was walking around in the central/downtown districts of Sendai & Tokyo. I did see one homeless person, but he wasn't asking for money. I don't know if the Japanese government does something to keep all the beggars away from the downtown areas, or if there really aren't any. I can think of three factors that would reduce the beggar population--1) the Japanese economy is very well developed; 2) the culture places a high value on education and 3) there's not much of an immigrant population. But I was still surprised by this.
  • I always used to assume that Chinese and Japanese were similar languages, but this couldn't be further from the truth. I've already written about Chinese, so let me say a few things about Japanese. Japanese has three different written systems--Kanji (characters which have been borrowed from Chinese and usually have the same meaning but different pronunciation), Katakana (Japanese characters that represent syllables) and Hiragana (another Japanese syllabary...I'm not sure how it differs from Katakana). Each Katakana/Hiragana character is the combination of one consonant and one vowel sound. Things get written using a combination of the two systems. Tim, who has studied both Chinese and Japanese, tells me that Japanese pronunciation is much easier (you don't have tones to worry about, and all the sounds have simple English equivalents), but that overall he finds Chinese easier because there are more direct one-to-one translations between Chinese and English than between Japanese and English.
  • Japan was way more expensive than China. Not taking into account the airfare, my week in Japan cost me about the same as the other 5 weeks of traveling in China combined.
  • China has a ton of software, music and movie piracy. Japan didn't seem to have any.
  • China has very few Starbucks (Qinhuangdao doesn't even have one). Japan, on the other hand, has tons of 'em. It was nice to be able to get Starbucks several times that week.
And then of course there are other more obvious differences, such as the level of technology found in the two countries, the systems of government, etc. One other thing that surprised me about Japan (and has also surprised me about China) is the amount of racism in these countries. I usually think of racism in terms of the KKK and segregation/discrimination against African-Americans (since that's been its primary form in the U.S.), but in China and Japan it's entirely different. In these countries, they have a lot of prejudice against people that come from other Asian countries. Chinese people KNOW that they are the "superior Asian race" and of course Japanese people know this about themselves, too. Chinese people still point to the events of World War II (especially the rape of Nanjing and Japan's refusal to apologize for that) for why they are justified to hate the Japanese. Anyhow, that's enough about my general impressions of Japan. Let me tell you about my time in Sendai.

I can't tell you a lot about it (largely because I don't really understand it!) but my cousin Tim is doing some research with his adviser, Dr. Biwu, about sound waves. The research involves this cool device that has a green laser going through a tube with smoke in it, and then sending sound waves through the tube:



Tim had to work in the lab a couple of times during my week there, but he was free to hang out the rest of the time. One day we visited a temple in Sendai:





I also got to visit Tim's church in Sendai, which was pretty cool. In a lot of ways it felt like a church in the U.S. (besides the obvious language difference), but one cool thing is that you take off your shoes and put on slippers at the entrance. It keeps the building very clean. Some pictures:



I guess the Game of Life is still popular in Japan.


We got together with a bunch of Tim's friends and played Uno on Sunday afternoon.

Downtown Sendai was quite nice. Some pictures:







I have no idea what a "pet bottle" is, but apparently it has something to do with recycling since there was a separate place to put them. Maybe pet bottles are the kind you take for a walk when you need to stretch your legs. I saw these labels at the garbage/recycling receptacles all over Japan.

Next, I'll tell you about my trip to Yamadera.
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Husband and father, musician, software engineer at SEOmoz, open source developer specializing in Ruby and Rails, world traveler and Christian.