HUTONGS, BEIJING, CHINA

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Our last tour in Beijing was the traditional residences of China, which are slowly but surely disappearing under the crush of concrete.

Hutongs (simplified Chinese: 胡同; traditional Chinese: 衚衕; pinyin: hútòng; Wade–Giles: hu2-t’ung4) are a type of narrow streets or alleys, commonly associated with northern Chinese cities, most prominently Beijing.

In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences.[1] Many neighbourhoods were formed by joining onesiheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. The word hutong is also used to refer to such neighbourhoods.

Since the mid-20th century, the number of Beijing hutongs has dropped dramatically as they are demolished to make way for new roads and buildings. More recently, some hutongs have been designated as protected areas in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history.

A few of my favorite shots from around the Hutongs.

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Everything is painted grey … I was told in large part due to the previous Olympics, although now it is the standard. Black and white shots seem to be the best, as it was rather hazy.

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Very old mailboxes.

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Progress. Slowly, but surely, the old buildings disappear.

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Many of the cars have pieces of carpet or wood against the wheels – to stop the dogs and cats from marking the tires.

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Mixed in behind the side streets are a few remaining temples and buildings – buried deep.

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This many hundreds of years old plaque (if I remember correctly) is a list of the local elders.

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History disappearing.

REFLECTING ON JAPAN

Our time in Japan has come to an end.

We could have stayed longer, but factors played out that a different choice was the right one for our family. Leaving a country is always a bittersweet experience, there are things you are looking forward to in your next destination while you know there are things that you will miss from the previous country. You also get into a groove in a new country after 2 years …. that groove is over.

In no particular order are the things I will miss about Tokyo:

Safety and cleanliness:  A society that is homogeneous with very little immigration means that they have 3,000 years of shared tradition and values which drive their society. The downside is that it leads to rigidity, hierarchy and significant innovation constraints. On the plus side, it makes Japan truly unique. There is no garbage because people care about their society and are too proud of Japan to litter. You can walk a back street at 2:30am and be completely safe, while a 4 year old child can walk to school with zero issues. That is truly unique.

The people: Our western society is so fast paced and all about the push. I will admit to being too abrupt, irritable or not polite enough. In Japan, as a whole, that is not the case. Sure the subways get crowded but over the last two years I have come to respect the little things like the politeness of a bow. We as westerners have not lost all of that and not everyone is rude (insert Canadians saying “excuse me” joke here), but in Japan it is the way that they all live. I heard a story the other day where a fellow was in Japan teaching English and he happened to mention to a few of the women he was teaching that he found Tokyo cold. The next day they showed up with extra blankets and a warm jacket for him. The sense of community, sharing and “team” is alive and well in Japan.

The food and drink:  If you like food, you need to go to Japan. Good food on every corner, with more drink choices than you can imagine. There is no where like it. Odd to think that Tokyo has more Michelin stars than any country in the world and Canada, sadly barren.

January and February:  Why? Because if you want snow you can jump on a train and be at the ski hill in 90 minutes. Otherwise, my heavy winter jacket did not come out once in over 2 years. Now that is the type of winter that I love – tennis in January.

Amazon.jp and Japan Post:  I know, miss a postal system? Japan Post is amazing. Order something on Amazon on Saturday morning at 8am (and you can order EVERYTHING on Amazon) and see it arrive that same evening. A post man working on a Saturday night? Now that is customer service.

The 5pm song:  Every evening in Tokyo at 5pm huge loudspeakers play a song. I have been told it is so that children know it is dinner time. How quaint.

Vertical parking:  Why? I don’t know. But I always found it interesting and Roppongi Towers has to have the most advanced parking system in the world.

The wonderful, oddity of Japan:  As I have said before, living in Japan is like living on Mars. You could never feel more different (As a side note, I have heard Japanese say the same thing about when they are in North America). They do so many things differently than us and it is always interesting to stumble upon new things. A simple example; they have these sinks in the washrooms in our office and I could never figure out what they are for.

Sink

Turns out they are for brushing your teeth and the button on the left (blue swirl) is a special flushing button that swishes water all around the bowl in a circular motion to clean the sink. And of course, don’t get me started on Japan’s greatest invention – the Toto. I had 3 installed into my house in Canada instantly – and yes there is a Toto Canada, and yes they sell their products on Amazon.

Japanese English:  I love to read interpretations. I snapped this one recently because of the gargling insert. I also like the detailed instructions – it feels like mom wrote it – “don’t forget to wash under your fingernails” (smile)

Infectious disease

 

Facemasks:  This might seem like an odd one, but I like facemasks. To understand the Japanese facemask culture, you need to understand how they think.

To the Japanese, facemasks are about being polite. If you have a cold, you wear one so that you will not get anyone else sick. If you have a baby, you will wear one so that you don’t bring home any germs. To see someone wearing a facemask in western society is an oddity, in Japan it is incredibly common – people wear them everywhere. On a few occasions I have worn them when ill in the office, I have worn them at home to try not to spread a cold when I get off a plane and I love wearing them when on a plane (for hydration reasons – a great way to reduce your chance of getting a cold or sore throat).

A reflection on their community focused culture.

Last but certainly not least, Japanese customer service:  Customer service in Japan is THE BAR. There is nothing that compares and it is consistent, people take pride in their work and bend over backwards to service the customer. The primary driver for this is that the Japanese people expect excellent service and are therefore willing to pay higher prices – something “Lowest price every day” mentality in North America has destroyed – it is our consumer choice.

Good-bye Japan. You are very, very unique in this world.

THE GREAT WALL, A FEW MORE SHOTS

An amazing hike.

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Mind the gap.

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An excellent perspective on the elevation changes – as the wall winds up and down the hills/mountains.

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A rather “overly steep” part of the wall that we did not climb.

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And one that we did.

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A truly impressive remnant of days long past.

LIFE ON THE GREAT WALL?

Resting at the top of a tower after the arduous climb up the mountain/hill left time for reflection and two predominant thoughts.

First, we simply hiked the 800m up to get to the top. Imagining the quantity of human labor needed to move rocks/bricks to the top and build the walls seemed very “pyramid-like” in effort.

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My second thought was what would it be like living up here as a soldier? Kilometers of empty wall to patrol as you watched for the hordes from the north. Looking out across the mountain from our tower you can see the wall snake it’s way along a ridge. In this area, a strategic pass between the mountains, the Chinese had built walls along different ridges.

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A 300mm shot. You can see the wall making it’s way up some very steep terrain. According to our guide, that area of the wall is like mountain climbing and quite treacherous, for some deadly.

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Imagine sitting on that tower 700 years ago, watching for an invasion in January.