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January in Japan: 2019 Travel Diary & 2018 Review


Normally, the first month of the new year blows by in the blink of an eye, but this month, I've been counting every single day.

I have to admit, it's a significant year in my life. Young me always looked forward to 2019 as I thought I would at last be of the ideal age: established enough to have a comfortable lifestyle and yet still have a fair bit of that youthful wild side. Now that I'm here, I have to say, I was right, but also way off. There are things I expected to have (e.g. my own place) but also didn't think of at all (e.g. two little furbabies). It's funny how it feels like I made it here and yet "here" is some weird abstract concept that just doesn't feel real.

Each day of this month has been counted for because I have high hopes and concrete goals for this year. This is my 4th year doing a year-long photography project and originally, my idea was to try to focus on pet photography. However, nearing the end of last year, and looking at all my other goals, I realized a couple of things:
  1. I'm actually rather pleased with the progress I've been making in my photography and in developing a stronger style, especially through the spotlight on lifestyle, fashion, and product/food photography
  2. My written blog content has been more lighthearted and cursory lately, especially compared to the deeper, philosophical musings from when I first started writing
  3. My backlog of travel photos has grown even more, given the 2 major trips I took in 2018, and I dread the guilt of additional backlog with the trips I have planned this year
From these points, I decided my efforts should be focused on a more holistic plan so all my different goals don't become competing priorities, and rather, complement each other. So for the blog, this year I will be working on sharing my travel stories and photos, both from this year as well as the ones last year that I've been putting off. I plan on going back to sharing more of my inner thoughts, including philosophical musings (even though mom sometimes complains that I write too much) because this blog is as much for me to write it as it is for those who read it. And in fact, I periodically go back and re-read my old blog posts, just to see how far I've come and to understand the kind of person I used to be.

I suppose I'm actually a pretty nostalgic person, but I don't think of myself as someone who lives in the past. Some people have a continual sense of self but I feel like my younger self/selves are different people. And it's with that sort of mindset and emotions that when I look back, even just to last year, it feels warm and familiar and yet still separate from my current being. Have you ever seen where someone took continuous shots of one motion, and then layered them into one photo? Even though it's the same person, they're in the photo 6 times. That's kind of how I feel about past versions of myself -- even though we're still the same person, we didn't exist at the same time, so it's kind of like we're separate people.

Related image
example of what I'm describing (source: Google images)

And that's why it's kind of funny for me to look back at older photos of myself, because it's me but it's also not me anymore. It feels more like, "oh, I know this person". And then when I read my old blog posts, it's like I'm reacquainting myself with "that person". It's actually a sweet, nostalgic feeling. And now when I look at where I was back in January 2018, it's fun and interesting for me to connect the dots to how the rest of the year transpired, and how that led me to where I am and who I am now.

I remember when we first landed in Japan. The first two legs of the flight were all fine, even the extra long one, but the last leg, a short 30 minute domestic flight from Narita to Osaka, had us aching and grumbling. After a total full 24 hours of travel, we had finally made it. Only, somewhere between the multiple legs and layovers, we lost our initial enthusiasm. We were tired, we were sore, we were hungry, and we still needed to find our Airbnb.

Then suddenly, seeing these lanterns on the streets brought it all back for me.



We made it. We were really here. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is in fact these shining orbs of hope, providing warmth and comfort in moments of darkness.

From then on, we only had 9 days literally on the ground, and we vowed to see as much as we could. Further time spent in transit was our biggest concern given a whole day was lost up in the air, but our high speed train ride from Kyoto to Tokyo was actually surprisingly rewarding.

view of Mt Fuji from the Shinkansen (high speed train)

I would revisit planes versus trains again later in Summer of 2018, during my first Ottawa-Toronto flight: a journey of 4 hours but only 40 minutes of which were spent up in the air. Whereas the train would have been just as long, but spent sitting in comfort for the entire duration. And even though I won't get to see Mt Fuji from my window seat, I do have renewed appreciation for the views from the train.

Summer 2018 was also when I finally bought a bike. Aluminum frame but still in the sweeping vintage style I adore, in my favourite shade of navy, plus, it was on sale! Seemed like all the waiting for the perfect bike paid off in the end.


But now that I'm reviewing these photos again, I'm connect the dots once more and wondering if seeing all the cute bikes in Japan had any influence on me finally pulling the trigger.

One thing I was consciously inspired by were the wishes people wrote from visiting the shrines. I've never been very spiritual or religious, but I did always believe in the power of writing down what you wanted and then pursuing that goal.

wishes written on small gates at Fushimi Inari shrine

In that regard, I'm quite proud of myself at how diligently I've kept at writing in my agenda and photography journal. I truly believe that putting that pen to paper, inscribing my goals and dreams down helpa solidify them and push me towards to achieving them. I eagerly look forward to checking to-do's off in my agenda, colouring in the boxes for my habit tracker, and flipping through to see all my photography ideas that have come to life -- and also all the ones that are still waiting for me to make them real.

Sometimes, especially when I'm out in a very public setting, I get pangs of inexplicable shyness and embarrassment. Maybe it's a new crowd of friends, or maybe I've already taken up too much time having people wait for me to get my perfect shot. Whatever it is, I feel myself pulling back and putting down my camera.


When I see this photo again, it is a reminder that I love photography. It is akin having my reflection speaking to me: this is part of who you are, the friends that are true friends will understand, and love you for it. Try to find the right balance in respecting others' time and patience, but also acknowledge that your art also takes time and patience. Don't give up on yourself so easily. Do what you love, and do it unashamedly.

I try to repeat this mantra to myself over and over and live it in every day life, but there are situations that are harder than others.

Okinawa-style restaurant in Ponto-cho 

Restaurants, for example. Trying not to keep everyone waiting as the food is getting cold. I laugh and joke, "camera eats first". I make sure to share the photos after so everyone can enjoy them, but also as a form of payment for their patience. Every time I click "send" and sit waiting for the response, hoping to hear praise. Not because I need the validation for my ego, but more to assuage my guilt.  Please, tell me, was it worth the wait?  From a quick review of 2018 food photos, especially restaurant photos, and I can clearly see the improvement in circumstances where I have more time. It's a reminder for me that I need to take that time to practice what I love in order to get better.

Some situations may appear easier than others but also have their own triggers for different insecurities. I love that 2018 has been a year full of food and fashion for me and my photography. Fashion continues to be a source of passion and inspiration and I don't see that ever changing.


I love taking fashion photos for others, but it is hard to coordinate with models when shooting isn't my full-time gig. And then for the photos of myself...I cringe from seeing myself as often as I do in my own photos, especially on my Instagram account. There is this fear I have of appearing too vain or conceited. I know it's somewhat silly because I had to do so many steps to get to the point where someone might be judging me for that photo I posted -- picking the pieces, putting together the outfit, shooting the outfit, picking the photos, editing the photos, and finally posting -- and so it is this frustrating, conflicting feeling. I suppose it's true of all my photos, that feeling of wanting to show my hard work but scared of harsh judgment. It just feels extra personal when it's photos of me.

I'm probably also sensitive about my fashion choices as well. Sometimes it feels like I'm constantly being judged for looking a certain way or dressing a certain way. There's this nagging worry that through my efforts to express myself and my individualistic style, I will stand out too much, attract too much unnecessary attention, make the wrong impression.


Taking another look at this photo, I feel a renewed sense of confidence, a surge of empowerment and assurance. Amanda said this once and I'm reminded of it again: look good, feel good. Being happy and confident with how I'm portraying myself to the outside world is a direct investment in my mental and emotional well-being. Otherwise, it can really wear a person down over time.

In hindsight, 2018 wasn't the greatest year for me in terms of self-care or self-love. I neglected various aspects of myself due to a combination of stress and anxiety, worries and nerves, and a multitude of other factors. But those things will always be there, it's all a part of life.

Starting at the end of last year, I strengthened my resolve to better take care of myself. I want to be more tidy and organized. I want to still be creative but not leave it to carelessness and instead have an intentional design.


stunning architectural orderliness and design

I want to get my house in order, both things and people. I want to spend more time with my family.


Knowing that I'm not a child anymore. Knowing we have to work hard to figure out a new dynamic, now as adults. It'll be worth the work to have a fulfilling relationship from here on out.

I don't want them to worry about me as much. I know I can take care of myself but I also want to take risks.

Crosswalk in Ginza 
...but calculated ones. I'll always watch out for traffic (and pedestrians). Risks will be necessary because I want to experience fresh perspectives, rise above challenges...

view of Toyko Tower from office building in Roppongi Hills

...and look upon my accomplishments with pride, not guilt. I'm done with guilt, especially over things I can't control, like other people. I want to spend time with people who also want to spend time with me. I'm through with one-sided friendships and one-sided effort.


I want to be with people who want me in their photos, not just those who want me to take nice ones of them. Thank you for your companionship. I'm so grateful for having you in my life.


For those late walks and talks, staying up late, talking about life and love and everything else.


But I also want to be comfortable with myself to sometimes be in solitude, to be able to appreciate those quiet moments alone, knowing very well that I've got my friends' backs...

Chicago O'Hare Airport

...and they've got mine.

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Cheers to another great year.

More Japan photos here: http://zhangling.photography/5shinnenkai/

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