Tag Archives: japan

Descending the quiet desperation

Recently I applied for an educational counselor position, and as part of the application, I had to write a “personal statement”. I almost didn’t want to follow up out of laziness, but there was a topic I wanted to write about anyway, so yeah, I did it. This year, the common application has enforced a strict 650-word-limit so my essay had to oblige to that regulation. Turn out, I’ve reached a phase where writing complete yet meaningful sentences, not to mention “conveying your thoughts and describing your growth” in under a thousand words is really, really hard.

It was fun writing this bit, though. I still feel like it misses something, but compared to my actual college essay 10 years ago, it is a big, big leap.

And it’s only “based on a true story”. I love how that phrase is just a glorified, but justified way to fabricate the truth.


The sub-zero temperature chilled my bones, to the point that I had to frequently pinch myself to assure my senses weren’t numb, as well as to stay awake because I was afraid I might get hypothermia in my sleep. I huddled with my friends to keep warm, even though it didn’t help much. I spoke gibberish to the girl next to me, and the story of how I got here, the summit of Mount Fuji, became clearer to both of us.

It started with the news that I failed the H1B lottery and must leave the US within two months. I tried to downplay my disappointment by condemning the US immigration policy for its pure dumb luck system. But I couldn’t lie to my consciousness. My job was my quintessential dream. It was where my career was headed, the goal of many classmates’, and I attained it all on my own. Now, the symbol of my self-esteem was ripped off of me, and there was nothing I could do about it.

It wasn’t the end of the world. There were easy ways out for me: a marriage to my fiancé, a doctoral program, a promising career in my homeland. But whatever decision I chose wouldn’t be a decision I made. I wanted things to happen on my own terms.

So three weeks later, there I was, on this iconic mountain. There’s a saying that people climb it for the sake of the status. That was exactly what I was looking for. I didn’t even know to whom I was proving myself. I just knew that if I had to postpone my future, it had better be for an awe-inspiring reason.

I reached the summit two hours earlier before the sunrise. It would have been a proud moment for me, had it not been for the freezing rain. Amid the hallucinations from exhaustion, sleep deprivation and the cold, I found words flowing out of my mind, unrestrained. In a disrupted and inebriated-like voice, I told the girl next to me that I had always been defined by my career, I made it the sole focus of my life. Now that I lost it, I became so desperate for recognition that I was risking my life in this strange place. Then I hit the epiphany. I wasn’t Thoreau searching for transcendence. I was just a self-pitying narcissist, disguised as an inexcusable, so-called “soul-searcher”.

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Maybe it was the cold hard truth that wore me down, but my mentality gave in. I dozed off for 15 minutes when my friend woke me up and led me to the viewpoint. The furrowed clouds swept around the sky, hemmed in by a golden haze. Then, the Sun slowly ascended from the horizon, spilling its orange-hued rays over the mountain. Soon enough, it laminated the whole landscape with warmth and light. Everyone cheered and applauded, while I stood still, dumbfounded and teary-eyed. It felt oddly, yet naturally soothing to be vulnerable and inadequate in front of a wonder this monumental.

My friends and I then headed down to a nearby onsen. I must have picked up some Japanese spirit along the way, because for the first time, I didn’t feel self-conscious at all. I skinny dipped into the hot water. Nobody was peeping at anybody. We relaxed our muscles, exchanged brief pleasantries, and overlooked the Sun, which had haughtily reigned over the unassuming mountain. In the back of my mind, I knew I’d boast of this achievement on Facebook later. But at that moment, I just wanted to enjoy this scene as long as I could. It was a long overdue compensation for many sunrises and sunsets I had missed whilst working 10 hours in a city office.

Then I closed my eyes, not looking for a nap, but dreaming of what the rest of Asia would offer me in the next 12 months.

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Travel tidbit: The spirits of Takayama, Japan

Takayama was an add-on to my tourist’s route in Japan, just because I found the name somewhere amidst the colossal research. It turned out to be a pleasing, serendipitous experience that only a small town can bring.

My first impression off the train: a lot of Western backpackers here. It could be either a good or bad sign, depending on your purpose. At least this meant there wouldn’t be vast crowds of tourists.

And that was an understatement. After checking in my ryokan and enjoying their indoor onsen, I walked out to the door. The town, all of a sudden, fell deep in a decorous layer of silence. For half an hour, I roamed over the streets with my own shadow. I didn’t know what awaited me behind the darkness, but as far as the street lights touched, humanity seemed like it was relinquished by an apocalypse.

And then there were the autumn wind and small shrines to remind me that, no matter how much the sun would come out and the human will be back tomorrow, this landscape belonged to the night, and the night belonged to a rarefied world out of this one.

The rest was left to my own fantasy as I kept walking, pretending not to know about the spirits and statues discreetly going on about their life. I had my tranquility. It was their turn.

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Travel tidbit: Hida Beef of Takayama, Japan.

Hida Beef on Houba MisoHida beef is a treasure of the Gifu prefecture, beside onsen and the Japanese Alps. It is widely regarded to have comparable quality to Kobe or Matsusaka beef. This beef is grilled over magnolia leaf on top of a burning charcoal stove, topped with soybean paste. The texture fits one of those “melt in my mouth” food description clichés, because it is so tender and delicate you are afraid to take the next bite. The taste is an amalgam of the earthy flavor from the leaf, the minimal and slightly fermented miso and of course, the joyful fattiness that just imparted your umami.

I had this dish in a small family restaurant named Kotaro, a capacity of 4 tables at most. I was tasting the delight while the other couple talked about how they was recently ripped off in Vietnam. Even that harsh truth of reality couldn’t bitter down the juice.

Maruaki is a popular Yakiniku restaurant with a selection of beef at a variety of grade levels (up to A12).  Look at the beautiful, sleek marbled patterns!

Don’t they sparkle like the first ray of sunshine after a long winter?

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