Digital Dave's Ruminations

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...where Digital Dave occasionally shares his thoughts on China, Photography, and other various and random subject-matter.

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Sunday, August 8, 2004

Greetings from Tokyo, Japan - home of the ten-dollar cup of coffee

Neither Katrinka nor I have ever been to Japan before. After two months in one of the world’s last great bastions of good ol’ fashioned Communism, it is refreshing to be in Asia’s Old Guard of Capitalism. Man, this place is civilized!

But before I regale you with my observations of Tokyo, I have some final thoughts on China:

Beijing changes so quickly that anything I can tell you about it is only valid for a couple of months or so. Really, the pace of change there is phenomenal. Beijing is truly a world-class city now, and it’s just going to keep on growing. It looks like Katrinka and I will be returning to China in November and I hope we will be able to find our way around Beijing; it will surely be an altogether different city when we come back. Anyang, I expect, will be largely the same, though hopefully it won’t still smell like poop!

Some of my favorite things about China:

1. Beijing Cab Drivers. They are just as opinionated as New York taxi drivers, though substantially more friendly. So much of what we know of Beijing is courtesy of the city’s cabbies. They really take pride in their city and enjoy sharing it with visitors. They especially appreciate the opportunity to learn a little bit of English (which they have been required to learn the basics of in time for the ’08 Beijing Olympics. Fat chance…) Most of all, they love that they can banter with us in their native Chinese, a rarity for them with foreign visitors. Their thick Beijing dialect of Mandarin has made it a bit challenging for us, however. They have a bizarre tendency to replace the trailing-end of words with an ‘R’, so that ‘Wangfujing’, for example, becomes ‘Wangfujar’. We’ve just played along with it and it works. It’s the equivalent of visiting Dallas and talking to the locals in a thick Texas drawl. We came to so appreciate our cab drivers that when we went to visit Zhoukodian, the site of the famous Peking Man caves, we brought our cab driver along with us. He had taken many fares to the site over the years but had never seen it himself. He was pretty blown away by it!

2. The Mountains. China’s mountains are incredibly beautiful and very distinctive. The craggy limestone peaks to the north and west of Beijing look imposing in the distance (on the rare day that they can be seen from the city). Once up in the mountains, the cool air, moss covered rocks, precipitous cliffs, and forested canyons are exhilarating. It’s like being right in the middle of one of those classic Chinese watercolor paintings. Now picture the Great Wall winding along the mountain peaks like a rollercoaster and you can imagine how breathtaking it all is. Henan Province’s mountains at Hongqiqu are equally impressive; their enormous granite rock-faces are reminiscent of California’s Sierra Nevada range but the temples and pagodas on top of them are not! I completely understand why mountains have been held sacred throughout Chinese history.

3. The Culture. The Chinese have found a way to successfully integrate the colorful customs and aesthetics of their long and ancient history into a modern and progressive society. Notwithstanding the factories and pollution left over from the People’s Republic of China’s early attempts at modernization and industrialization in the ‘50s and ‘60s, everything in china is built with ‘Feng Shui’ in mind and is very pleasing to the eye. I can’t imagine a more photogenic country (as my 10,000 photos from this trip attest). Sociologically, the Chinese people have proven themselves adept at rolling with all of the dramatic changes foisted upon them without getting run over. They’ve experienced one revolution after another throughout their history and have managed to keep their sense of humor and charm. This latest bloodless revolution has certainly been a positive one for the Chinese and it is long overdue. It’s gratifying to see them finally attaining a standard of living and status akin to the rest of the industrialized world without losing their fundamental sense of identity and culture. And it is pleasing that they’ve finally begun to embrace us Barbarians from the West!

Some of my least favorite things about China:

1. The Food. Unfortunately, the cuisine in China has been a major disappointment. I had high hopes for a memorable culinary adventure, given China’s famous regional cuisines. But while we certainly had some dishes that were unique and distinctive, such as certain types of very tasty fresh-water fish that are available only in China, most of what we ate was bland and oily at best and noxious and inedible at worst. Northern China is not known for its expansive variety of cuisine like Southern China is; still I had hoped for a far better overall culinary experience. Thankfully, our hotel in Beijing was owned and operated by the French, who know a thing or two about food. The steaks and French pastries served in the hotel’s restaurant was the best food we ate in China.

2. The Traffic. Amazingly, in just two years since we last visited China, automobile traffic has reached a critical mass. It used to be that the only vehicles we’d see on the road - besides the zillions of bicycles, scooters, and all the other funky pedal-powered contraptions - were taxis and the occasional big black Audi sedan with tinted windows (mostly driven by Communist Party higher-ups, rumor has it). Now that cars have become affordable to many average working-class citizens, Chinese cities are experiencing for the first time traffic jams and rush-hours. In Beijing alone, 430,000 new cars were sold last year. I shudder to think of what China’s (and the world’s) pollution problems will be like if all of a sudden 1.3 billion people have automobiles at their disposal.

Now that we’re here in Tokyo, China seems a world away. As a child, I was always fascinated by the aesthetic differences between China and Japan, to the extent that I could tell them apart. Now I’ve had the opportunity to see both cultures closely juxtaposed and the differences are profound.

Japan is, first and foremost, clean. Not only by comparison to China, either. Tokyo is probably the cleanest city I’ve ever been to - anywhere. You can eat off the sidewalks. In China, one uses bathrooms (if you can call them that) at one’s own peril. In Tokyo, my toilet is digital. Honest to God, it’s got a built-in control panel with a Graphical User Interface. I’m kind of afraid to use it without consulting the instruction manual…

The modern architecture here is not nearly as bold and innovative as in China, but it’s in keeping with the classic Japanese aesthetic of simplicity and elegance, and it’s very pleasing. Like Beijing, Tokyo has a vast and imposing mountain range (anchored by Mt. Fuji) to its west, but unlike Beijing, it has a river running through it and a harbor and bay to its south which gives the city a whole different ambiance.

Ueno & Shinjuku

There are millions of people here in Japan, as compared with billions in China. Tokyo is bustling and crowded. But whereas Chinese cities are the epitome of barely-controlled chaos, Tokyo is refined and ORDERLY. Cars actually stop at traffic lights. There are no weird diesel-powered, three-wheeled, awning-covered, hybrid rickshaws barreling down the sidewalk and one need not worry here about getting run over in a crosswalk by a donkey-pulled wagon hauling five peasants, a baby and a cat on top of a nine-foot tall stack of rotting watermelons driven on the wrong side of the road by a shirtless, ninety-year-old man whipping the donkey with one hand and chatting on a cell-phone with the other.

Japan is a train culture, with an mind-bogglingly extensive network of railway, subway, and light-rail mass transit. Consequently, Tokyo is delightfully free of traffic snarls on it roads and it’s really fun to ride the trains and people watch, as opposed to having to be cooped up in a taxi to get anywhere of practical distance in China.

The Japanese people are cultured, impeccably dressed, and very, very reverent. They are also extremely friendly; perhaps not as playful and flirtatious as the Chinese, but good-humored nevertheless. There is a calmness and serenity about them that contrasts sharply with the intensity of the Chinese. There is very little crime in both China and Japan. In China, it is because you can be summarily executed for, well, for just about anything. In Japan, the crime rates are extraordinarily low because, culturally, it is not acceptable. China is, of course, a very secular country; the Communists erased centuries of Taoist and Buddhist religion in their country by basically banning its public practice. But the Japanese have a very strong Buddhist belief system that carries over into everyday life, even among those that aren’t necessarily practicing Buddhists. It’s as much a lifestyle as it is a religion.

Kamakura Buddha

I would describe the Japanese aesthetic as elegant simplicity, as opposed to the Chinese’s gaudiness. Some of the ancient temples and shrines in both countries are virtually indistinguishable from one another, but otherwise the differences are stark: Whereas Chinese iconography tends toward bright reds and shimmering golds, brick and metals, dramatically sweeping curves and arches, and bold, highly-detailed embellishments; the Japanese style is defined by wood and rice paper, straight perpendicular lines, minimal embellishments, and earth-tones.

And suffice it to say that the Japanese cuisine that we’ve experienced here thus far has been a treat for the taste-buds. I know this will sound like a total cliché, but we had no idea what sushi was really supposed to taste like until we ate it here - the fish was the freshest and tastiest we’ve ever had. And the fruit here is in a class of its own. I don’t know how they do it.

Tokyo is an impressive city both in scale and appearance, and Japan’s countryside, with quaint little towns and ancient shrines and temples nestled between the mountains and beaches, is fairy-tale beautiful. But ultimately, Japan is a country not significantly unlike most other modern, industrialized nations in the sense that it has for all practical purposes assimilated with the rest of the world…it just happens to be dressed in Eastern accoutrements. In Japan I definitely know I’m visiting an exciting and beautiful foreign country with a lovely and charming culture. But China is so utterly exotic and totally different from anywhere else in the world, so singular in its style and unique in its ways, that it feels like I’m visiting another planet. That, of course, is what makes it so compelling. I can’t wait to go back!

- Dave

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