shiawase / シークワーサー

such infinite crystalline waters
I bathed my troubles in them and they emerged anew

still present, transformed 
refracted through the sea and my soul, ready to begin again 
as lessons

– Umi no shiawase by  Alice 

On several occasions I have had good intentions to attempt solo travel. I am an impulsive planner when it comes to discovering new destinations, always booking flights on the spot when I find good deals or jumping on trains to places unknown, and it can be difficult to coordinate these spur-of-the-moment schedules with friends. Each time though, I have happily had friends join along the way, like when I went to Vietnam over Golden Week or climbed Mt Fuji last summer. Or sometimes I go to a place arranging to stay with a CouchSurfing host and they end up being really easy to get along with so we spend the entire trip together, like when I visited Portland a few years ago (shout out to the wonderful Kuenzi sisters!).

This time, I booked a flight to Okinawa over a holiday weekend and found myself alone on a beautiful tropical island where the locals are friendly and have a life expectancy among the highest in the world. I started in Naha, the capital city of Okinawa prefecture, and made my way north up the Western coast to Onna, Nago, and Motobu.

I felt a sense of peace and stillness; away from the noise of emails, conversations, and city life. I felt I could really breathe, meditate, and be alone with my thoughts; no one to entertain but myself. I relished the freedom to go at my own pace, to learn the local bus routes, and chat with strangers in my limited Japanese. The day I flew back I had meals with friends in Tokyo and while it felt nourishing to my soul to bask in the warmth of their companionship, the peace I found in solitude was a familiar feeling that I cherish.

Several years ago, I was in a dark place. For a host of reasons, I had difficulty getting out of bed, finding joy in the things that once made me happy, and interacting with friends and loved ones. Depression feels so personal, and yet, a lack of community or even self-rejection of existing community is what further entrenches this feeling of disconnectedness. I have come away from this experience with a deep empathy for myself and others who have gone through feelings of helplessness. But at the time, I did what many unhappy people do, which was to retreat into myself.

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IMG_8610img_8617.jpgIMG_8513It took me a year and even longer to recover from this mindset and its aftershocks. When I first made the choice to take steps to change my mental perspective, I began to read voraciously alone in my room. I didn’t feel that I could really create anything of value in that state of mind, so I just consumed stories and words. Slowly, as I felt light energy returning, I felt more comfortable venturing outside my house. I began wandering to new neighborhoods by myself, visiting art exhibitions, or taking the train to a different part of town just to visit a particular cafe or ice cream shop. This time allowed me to reflect on myself, free of any distractions and external expectations, to consider each feeling and thought. What were triggers for my sadness? What were my deep intentions? What did I want to feel and how could I manifest the state of mind where I could attract these feelings? How could I honor the people in my life who were no longer with me without wallowing in anger at forces beyond my control? Distance, drifting apart, and the dearly departed; these were all factors that contributed to my sadness. The loss of important relationships and imminently facing a future full of uncertainty. Perhaps this sounds familiar to you.

During this time I worked and participated in a 200 hour yoga teacher training where many of my class mates were also going through life upheavals or major transitions. The process of learning the asanas and alignments of muscles and bones coupled with intimate revelations from these people helped me to see my vulnerability as strength and to take steps to look deep within myself. Most importantly, I gradually shed the layers of resentment I held close, which had calcified to a hard mass of negative feelings, drowning out all the usual gratitude and joy for life I have. While this journey might have similar elements to others, I believe the process of recovery is necessarily individual. For me, the important steps were to forgive other people, let go of things I could not change and allow myself to feel sadness but manage its reactions, and to above all else, forgive myself for stumbling.

From a social perspective, it may seem like that year was a stagnant waste of youthful productivity and opportunity. But to me, it was a necessary time to really learn to understand my adult self and the many factors that have contributed to who I am today. These tools will stay with me through whatever changes I will face so that I may maintain a self-awareness of my core values and motivations. I learned to change my distorted perspective of anxiety and loneliness into strength, to find magic in solitude, and acquire an intimate knowledge of self.

I feel confident that I’ve reached a space where I am truly comfortable with myself though I am not content to remain as I am in this moment. As Whitman said, we each are large, and contain multitudes, and it is my intention to continue challenging myself to examine these dynamic pieces of self. Sometimes we need the gentle reminder of waves flowing over our bodies, of stillness and seclusion, as a chance to consider all that we are.

Shiawase (幸せ) means a moment when circumstances come together to produce a feeling of fortune, or a sense of deep and long term happiness, and シークワーサー or shikuwasa is an Okinawan (and Taiwanese) citrus fruit. Its bright rind and sweetly tart flavor serve as a memory for me of childhood and now, adult joy.

So thank you to the ocean, and thank you to Okinawa for giving me space to connect deeply with myself.IMG_8529.jpgIMG_8647xo your friend alice

Location: Naha City // Onna Village (Moon Beach, Tiger Beach, Cape Manzamo, Seaside Park Nabee Beach) // Nago Pineapple Park // Churaumi Aquarium, Ocean Expo Park, Motobu, Okinawa

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one year all over the world

Happy anniversary to this little blog of mine.

In the year that I’ve had it I’ve visited Cambodia, South Korea, and Vietnam for the first time, traveled to several Japanese cities and islands, and re-visited Hong Kong. This brings my current tally up to 21 countries visited, 22 months living in Tokyo, 26 years wandering all over the world, and 56 blog posts! Fittingly, I am off to Osaka for a short trip with my mate Kelly-chan and her parents this weekend.

I love this space so much. I love the freedom of expression it has afforded me, the opportunity to practice my amateur photography skills and share my personal experiences. It truly feels liberating in a way that I did not expect when I finally worked up the courage to publish my first post. I have so many little anniversaries, and I love to celebrate them all on here (birthdays, japanniversaries, and revolutions around the sun). Most of all, it has nourished my love of writing, both reflectively and creatively. It has reminded me that I really love to write and most delightfully, gives me a forum to do it without any pressure or stakes. Thanks to my friends and family who follow along on my adventures, and thanks to readers on the internet for stopping by. You are loved and appreciated.

xo your friend alice

Location: Tokyo, Japan

(ii) just wanna be with you, hanoi

My favorite part about Hanoi was perching on balconies overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake or the ever present roar of motorbikes on the street below; drinking iced coffee with treacly condensed milk, creamy fresh milk, or decadent egg cream whilst listening to compilations of romantic French chansons or bopping along to the self-appointed DJ’s mix of S Club 7 and Eurythmics. Every single day we visited at least 2-3 cafes. Partly to grab wifi to plan our next stop or meet with our Hanoian compadres, but also just to feel the wind in our hair and sit cross-legged on plush cushions. After kicking up dust all day in Birkenstocks, working on that calf curvature, my favorite thing to do was unstrap my shoes and put my feet up whenever we stopped to drink coffee. That probably sounds really gross, but no one cared and it was so comforting and freeing to be outside of my rules-based existence in Tokyo.

In the course of 3-4 days in Hanoi we visited no less than 7 cafes: Note Cafe, Pho Co (2x because this was my favorite rooftop lookout spot), Cong Caphe (2x as this is a chain), Giang, Loading T (2x because the owner Sun was such a homie), Tranquil Books & Coffee, and Dinh Coffee. I have no regrets.

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the sky really was this pink as the sun set overlooking the lake…IMG_8317IMG_7772on Sunday when the street is open to pedestrians only and a festival atmosphere invades the Hoàn Kiếm District…IMG_7788life is tops at Cafe Pho Co, my personal favorite cafe…IMG_7844IMG_7840feat. my super fly manicure from Orchids SpaIMG_7873IMG_7863little girl practicing her roller blading in Lenin Park (Thong Nhat)IMG_7883.jpgVietnamese Women’s Museum [looking down]IMG_7990.jpgIMG_7969.jpgIMG_7818.jpgCaitlin was my travel partner for our 9 day trip in Vietnam. We met on move-in day for college dorms and we’ve remained good friends to this day, never letting more than a year pass before we see each other, and always in different places (so far Richmond, VA, Washington D.C., San Luis Obispo, Oakland/SF, and she visited me in Tokyo). We both have ambitious dreams and every time we reunite we treat our time together as check-ins about where we want to go next. Most importantly, I cherish the honesty in our relationship. We are both very growth-oriented and want to continuously improve and learn from our human errors and vulnerabilities. As much as friends should be cheerleaders in our lives, they should also be able to point you towards real obstacles and inspire you to overcome challenges. I love that we’ve maintained this beautiful support system and our first international trip (where we were both traveling) was definitely a friendship level up! This trip was just 5 days before her graduation from medical school. Congratulations Caitlin! I love you so much ❤

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Saint Joseph’s CathedralIMG_7754IMG_8350.jpgIMG_7942IMG_7939Dan Q. makes a Hanoi cameo…IMG_6561IMG_7875IMG_7994IMG_8392a night at the Hanoi Opera…IMG_7929IMG_7914IMG_7918.jpgIMG_8485IMG_7758IMG_8365.jpgwhen lovely strangers want to take a photo with you…

IMG_8343IMG_8341hello from the Long Biên BridgeIMG_8440One
You’re like a dream come true
Two
Just want to be with you
Three
Girl, it’s plain to see
That you’re the only one for me
And four
Repeat steps one through three
Five
Make you fall in love with me
If ever I believe my work is done
Then I’ll start back at one

‘Back at One’ by Brian McKnight is the inspiration for this blog title. It also happened to be the first dance song my brother Will and sister-in-law Priya chose for their wedding ❤

xo your friend alice

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam

ha long(ing iv you) bay

I’m not sure if it’s because I grew up in Utah going on hikes, swimming, and camping or if living by trails and beaches in California ingrained it in me, but as much as I love the big city, nature is where I am able to rest and recharge most. We took a 2 day 1 night jaunty cruise in Ha Long Bay, an approximately 3 hour bus ride from central Hanoi, and it was as majestic as all the photos I’ve seen.

feat. Nicole, CFranswag, Lara, Thien, and hella limestone karstsIMG_6537.jpgIMG_8082IMG_8105

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xo your friend alice

Location: Hạ Long Bay, Quảng Ninh Province, Vietnam

(i) miss saigon

“Like oil on water, my memories resurfaced all the time. Today in Vietnam, one can feel a secretive, inward life that is not visible on the surface and yet is there, all around us.” – Pierre Schoendoerffer, French film director and Vietnam war photographer


I have to be honest. I did not expect to love Vietnam as much as I did. I imagined it the way many travel bloggers depict it — a tropical place with abundant and extremely cheap street food, and nearly as prolific and parsimonious backpackers. This was probably colored by my most recent experience in South East Asia last summer when I visited Siem Reap, an otherwise sleepy town that is dominated by the tourism trade due to its proximity to the Angkor temples.

I admit I am wary of comparatively affluent, Western backpackers using South East Asia as a marching ground for their wanderlust and self-appointed mission to ‘find themselves’ in a mode that can feel exploitative. But everyone, and especially young people, should feel free to make mistakes and explore without the burden of judgment; their experiences shape what kinds of people they will become. Who am I to judge? I belong to this category too. I hope that contact with Asian cultures grants a broader perspective and shapes cultural sensitivity, rather than encouraging hit and run tourism due to its relative affordability. But really, I do judge you if you visit a place for the first time and your only memories are from the inner organs of bars. There is more to a place than its booze (even if that is sometimes a significant part of a place).

Vietnam seems deeply affected by the memory of war and the scars of foreign intervention. Agent Orange seemed horrible in history books, but the reality of it was even more gruesome when faced with pictorial evidence at the War Remnants Museum. After seeing this, I declared in my own mind my intent pacifism. And yet, I question myself even on this platform. Is it enough to disavow war? Can a passive pacifist change the course of future armed conflicts? How do you honor pacifism while respecting those who sacrificed themselves for a conflict imposed by higher powers?

I’m grateful to have visited at an age too where I have learned some measure of critical thinking, because I think as a younger person, maybe at 12 or 13, I might’ve missed the strong propagandist tone of some of these same museum exhibits. The two narratives of national defeat and reunification in Vietnam post 1975 seem equally present depending on who you ask and it wasn’t always clear whether people preferred the pre or post war regime.

But, aside from the heavy historical introspection, I am happy to have discovered Saigon is a metropolitan city full of young people chasing dreams. I am grateful I came into contact with Vietnamese peers of my own age group who helped me to see it from the perspective of the ‘New Vietnam’; an emerging economy with a creative and entrepreneurial class. Thanks to my friend Dan, I met such kind people with an appreciation for mixed media, literature, and music. Having a connection with young people from far flung places makes your experience seem not that dissimilar.

Since a couple friends have asked, we enjoyed Piu Piu for dancing, The Lunch Lady for the bomb-est streetside noodles (featured on Bourdain’s No Reservations), Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa (beware the light green chilis though!), and this Phuong spot for phở (conveniently around the corner from the Lunch Lady).

feat. Caitlin Franswag, Dan QT, and Molly

optimal hangover food phở real! now I knowIMG_7570.jpgIMG_7576.jpgit was phở-nomenalIMG_7584.jpgIMG_7605.jpgbeautiful cotton candy pink Tân Định Catholic ChurchIMG_7628

IMG_7639IMG_7620.jpgIMG_7669.jpgIMG_7632IMG_7606IMG_7629banh xeo, one of the greatest food revelations I had in Vietnam. it’s a sizzling rice pancake whose golden skin is christened with turmeric powder, then stuffed with slivers of fatty pork, shrimp, diced green onion, and bean sprouts, wrapped in a big leafy green blanket and bathed in chili sauce // we made half day trip out to the Cu Chi tunnel system, about 45 km north built by Viet Cong guerrillas during the Vietnam WarIMG_7693IMG_7682we were there on April 30, the 42nd anniversary of the Fall of Saigon April 30, or the Liberation of Saigon, depending on who you ask; in modern Vietnam it’s celebrated as ‘Reunification Day’, a national holiday poised just the day before ‘Workers Day’.IMG_6219.jpgIMG_7714IMG_7621We crashed at Bunker Bed, Breakfast & Bar, with the dopest host Mike Pham, an entrepreneurial renaissance man who worked with Dan to film a series of videos featuring cultural aspects of Hanoi. Check it out here on CNN! In addition to being a really chill dude, I was inspired by his lifestyle and all the nooks of his place stuffed with all sorts of literature and art. I’ll follow up with posts from Hanoi and Ha Long Bay as well, the respectively quaint historical and natural wonder legs of the trip. (Actually I took the least photos in Saigon. There were much fewer tourists in the city so I felt goofy brandishing my DSLR even if it is small hanging fruit compared to the cameras I’ve seen out and about.)

xo your friend alice

Location: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

spotted in: narita airport

khmer we can 047.JPGwhat if fish could fly?

On my way to Vietnam for the Golden Week holiday (a cluster of national holidays during the first week of May that allows many Japanese employees to take a week off from work)! Squeee! I can’t wait to explore this country and also meet up with my high school friend Dan, whose grandparents and several family members live in Saigon, and also Caitlin and Molly, friends from college. I got smart and booked a non-stop flight that earns mileage this time around, which cost about $100 more than the budget option, but I think is worth saving the extra 10 hours of travel time and not dealing with rude flight agents and random delays (cough china eastern cough cough).

I know I’ll be in good hands with Dan, but any recommendations out there for must-sees/dos/eats in Vietnam? Cảm ơn! (thank you!)

xo your friend alice

Location: Narita Airport, Chiba Prefecture, Japan

dont stop chasin’ sakura

This is a photo diary of my various hanami hunting exploits this season…feel free to skip if you get queasy seeing the reproductive organs of angiosperms.

Hanami means flower viewing, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it becomes a national pastime in Japan during the month of April when the cherry blossom buds come to fruition and yield a magical canopy of flowers. There is no way to capture in words or images the beauty of Japan during this time of the year; an effervescent week of full bloom that ends before you blink your eyes and notice the heavy rains that have fluttered the blossoms to the streets beneath your feet.

“The cherries’ only fault: the crowds that gather when they bloom”
– Saigyo Hoshi, 12th-century poet

feat. Agnes, Kelly, Daniel, and many beautiful strangersIMG_6604IMG_6607IMG_6687.jpgIMG_6644lady’s harmonica club, Yasukuni-jinjaIMG_6668IMG_6639IMG_6761IMG_6698weeping sakura, Imperial Palace

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paper lanterns, Meguro RiverIMG_6877IMG_6918.jpgsalaryman hanami, Ueno Park

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my boo ❤

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IMG_7040IMG_7051till death do us part, Shinjuku GyoenIMG_7066

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The sakura season this year has been uncommonly, luxuriously long but is mostly over here in Tokyo. But the beautiful thing about spring in Japan is that different varieties of flowering trees bloom at their own pace. Every week I look up from the handlebars of my bicycle on my commute and see a newly evolved fresh face ready to greet the day.

xo your friend alice

Locations: on the street in Taito-ku // Kitanomaru Park // Yasukuni-jinja // Meiji Jingu Gaien // Yoyogi Park // Imperial Palace East Gardens (Higashi-koen) // Meguro River // Ueno Park // Shinjuku Gyoen // Inokashira Park // Mount Takao
Tokyo, Japan