Words of Wisdom

Note to Self

“What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?”

I’ve heard several responses to this recently popularised question, varying of course, by the differing years that have lapsed between the answer and one’s own youth.

In the short decade that has passed in my own, I’ve learned that this is my life. You may not be able to control everything that happens in it and to it, but what you can control is how you accept things as they come, and what you do next. At the end of the road, you have nobody but yourself to blame if you’re unhappy in life.

The most unhappy people I’ve met thus far are the ones who blame everyone and everything else around them for things that go wrong, without having ever paused to see the change they can bring within themselves. People can be bitter. And some will make it their mission to spread that brand of bitterness to anyone who would allow it. So guard against that, and stay focused on who you are, and what you can do.

This has always been a favourite prayer of mine, and one I’ve held close in times bad and uncertain:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

Food, Tipple, Travel

A Tokyo Minute

There was always something in the air in Tokyo. Some call it a pulse, an energy – yet unlike its counterparts across the globe, in this city there’s an odd sense of calm amidst the madness, a stratosphere of zen that if you just reach for, the rest of the clatter dissolves away. A giant mute button as you watch it all go by, close enough to see it all, distant enough to observe it all.

So much of Japan and things Japanese have become almost a caricature of sorts. That restaurant where Uma Thurman beat up a bunch of ninjas! Men in traditional wear serve you food on paddles while yelling up a storm (I don’t understand a word but it sounds foreign and fun!)

It’s hard not to fall in love with the food in Japan. It’s beauty – inside and out, for the eyes and the palate.

Some cities have the luxury of a rural escape whenever the urban life gets all too much. Here you get a couple of hours of fresh mountain air and a sunset in silence, before returning to the city for your last meal of the day.


Nature’s Narcotic

2017 – the year I finally started drinking the hiking Kool-Aid. I had previously never understood why people voluntarily subjected themselves to physical exertion and intense discomfort while on precious vacation time, or why the view from a summit couldn’t simply be enjoyed from a photo (two words: drone photography).

I’ve since learned that it’s not so much the view as it is the sense of self that is enjoyed at the top; the satisfaction that comes at the end of perseverance, and the savouring of a peak you worked hard to get to. Nature’s very own narcotic.

Preikestolen (the Pulpit Rock), Norway

Conventional wisdom preaches that the journey is always the greater experience to be had – not the moment at the summit. As much as I dislike clichés, this rang all too true during each climb.

It’s like life really, even when you lose all semblance of motivation and am wondering why on earth you did this to yourself, the only thing you can do is to keep putting one foot ahead of another, and to keep moving along. Hiking turned out to be quite the formidable teacher to an ill-disciplined mind. So much of the journey is mental, that the hours on the indoor treadmill or the yoga mat only take you so far.

Mount Pico, Portugal

As much as the incline burns your quads, calves, and lungs – each step forward takes you that much further, and higher. Nothing else in life is guaranteed quite the same way. One of the earliest lessons I learned out of school (while still fresh in the corporate world) was that reward is never commensurate with effort. Of course there are times where hard work absolutely pays off and you prop your feet up in the evenings and bask in a job well done. But there are even more times where you sacrifice both sleep and sanity and at the end of the day get less – or absolutely nothing – in return.

Lunch with Mt. Azumaya, Japan

Little by little, you plod on. And then you’d surprise yourself. You reach the summit, and look down at the view, and be amazed at just how far a pair of legs can take you.

芝麻灣 (Sesame Bay), Hong Kong



Mono no aware 物の哀れ

When you live on the equator with no true distinct seasons, life can pass you by in a monotony of indistinguishable days. Nature’s ushers are nowhere in sight in the grand amphitheater of time. There are no first blooms of spring to herald the beginning of a new year; no burnt oranges and fading reds of the falling autumn leaves to mark the mellowing of the year; and no snow and cold for the Christmas trees and festive carols. Every day is a consistent beat of scorching rays and the blinding blues of summer, broken only by wet humid rain. The months creep past like unnoticed visitors – how are we in the end of June already?

This was the topic of conversation one evening while we were wandering the streets of Tokyo. The Japanese call it Mono no aware (物の哀れ) – a sensitivity to the ephemeral, the awareness of our impermanent state of being. That melancholic wistfulness at the transience that is life, love, and all things we feel; and a longer, deeper, sadness about this state being the reality of life.

It was Golden Week in Japan, a bumper crop of public holidays, the last of which was Children’s Day. Originally known as Boy’s Festival, families traditionally flew Koinobori – Japanese carp streamers – in honour of their sons. Legend has it that a Japanese carp (Koi) once swam upstream to become a dragon. The Koi became the chosen symbol because it was considered the most spirited fish – so full of energy and power that it could fight its way up swift-running streams and cascades. It was courage personified; strength and determination to overcome all obstacles, and the ability to attain high goals – all traits traditionally desired in boys.

After some querying with the locals, we hopped on a train out of Tokyo and found ourselves in Tatebayashi in search of these carp streamers. There is a Japanese proverb – 鯉の滝登り- literally translated to mean a Koi’s swim up a waterfall, and used to encapsulate the victorious triumph over seemingly impossible obstacles. The burst of dancing colours over the muted greens and blues of the countryside captured perfectly the essence of the spirited Koi’s energy and vigour, yet somewhere in the breeze there was a gentle sadness, almost wistful flutter about the streamers. Another Japanese proverb springs to mind; same fish, but an entirely different spin. 及ばぬ鯉の滝登り – translated to mean a Koi unable to swim up the waterfall – this is used for a situation in which no amount of passion, dedication, or sheer effort could help you attain your heart’s desire. Often used with a play on the character 恋 (also ‘koi’, and which means love), this proverb best describes the helplessness of unrequited love.


Tokyo: Pride, Perfection, Punctuality

My first time was in 1999. Japan was in its heyday, blazing from its success of exports and the poster child for all things booming post-war. It was the go-to third language to master because this was the market to cater to, the tourist dollar that we hankered after.

My first glimpse of the famous Shibuya crossing was everything that a eleven year old hoped it would be. So. Many. People. Zipping across like a million ants scurrying about in their nest. And all with purpose, with some destination they all just had to hurry to. It felt like I was bearing witness to the Big Picture, a greater ecosystem that my young self was not quite ready to enter into yet. My dad still recalls fondly how my brother (then five years old), tugged eagerly at his sleeve while gesturing excitedly out the windows of our hotel room at the “Giant TVs!” It was a blitz of lights, products, and buzz. It didn’t matter that none of us could actually read the strokes and scratches that the Japanese language looked to the undiscerning foreign eye. Here we were, in the thick of things – the excitement was palpable.

Fast forward 15 years later, and there I was back in Tokyo, looking at the same famed crossing with older eyes. Tokyo was by now, a slowed giant, but by no means weak. People still hustled and bustled. Things still worked perfectly. Things looked old but there was still a newness to everything. It was a strange dichotomy. So much had changed, but yet many of the same buildings looked exactly like how they were. This was something the Japanese did well. When something broke, they always found a way to fix things instead of throwing it out for something new. You would see the cracks that came with age, but there was a pride in the way something old or broken was carefully put back together, or reinforced to make stronger. A Japanese-American lawyer recounted to me the days that followed after the 2016 Fukushima disaster (during yet another visit to Tokyo in 2018). While the Americans scrambled desperately to book flights out (when they weren’t swarming the embassy daily for Iodine pills), the Japanese simply carried on, as they were. Life just simply doesn’t stop until it does…

In many ways, this city embodies good, healthy, qualities which would do us humans all some good. Punctuality – nowhere else in the world does a train arrive precisely at 10.32am on the dot; Pride in everything – no task is too small to be done with purpose and self-respect; Perfection in all details – every craft, every act of service; everything has been honed and perfected to the minutiae.