The Big 21

On May 31, 2019, I turned 21.

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Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner 

The big 21 is sundrenched in Californian heat, pulsing in road trip vibes, and peppered with desert sand and surrealist tree-like cacti with muscled arms (think: the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter). Outside of the window are lonely gas stations, abandoned houses, and then a humongous pink ice cream rupturing the barren, earthy landscape. Glitzy outlets in deserts. 50’s diners in ghost towns. A candy factory by the highway. Wasteland dotted in green thorns.

The big 21 is 1,500km over three days. Being on the car for hours at an end, with my legs up on the seat in front, light filtering through the windows, my fingers shuffling songs on Spotify, basking in the shadow of mountains. Highways nestled in endless expanses of land. So much land that my dad says, America must be blessed. There’s so much history — historical injustice — and circumstance wrapped up in that statement, but as the land whizzes past, it seems true.

The big 21 is perching on a hot, red rock at Grand Canyon West’s Guano Point, wind ruffling my hair, and sun in my eyes. It’s gazing into the canyon abyss on a glass skywalk. It’s the glory of nature’s hand, so close to mankind’s own feats, but those pale in comparison.

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The big 21 is returning from that display of nature to the haven of capitalist excess. It’s being surrounded by temptations in the desert oasis that’s Las Vegas. It’s weaving in and out of the glittering sprawl of casinos, amidst the intensely colored slot machines making cute sounds. It’s marveling at the incredible, gravity-defying feats of Cirque du Soleil acrobats at KÀ (which had multiple VERTICAL combat scenes?! and people strewing rose petals as they make an arc over the air). It’s learning the danger of unchecked desires. It’s beginning to make new principles.

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The big 21 is spending the day at Universal Studios Hollywood (it’s really becoming a tradition! my 20th was at Universal Studios Japan 🥳). It’s licking cotton candy (shaped like Marge’s hair from The Simpsons) off my fingertips, drinking Butterbeer at Hogsmeade, taking my favorite Revenge of The Mummy ride (which I almost know by heart now), seeing the Bates Motel set from Psycho, wearing a bright blue birthday badge and hearing birthday wishes from buoyant voices all day long. It’s feeling like a kid still, and acutely aware and grateful that I’m 21 but always my parents’ baby.  

The big 21 is feeling grateful for all the love and wishes from friends, old and new. Growing up is realizing that some people might only stay with you for a short station in life’s journey but that some people do stay, for a very long time. Time and distance can change things, and somehow I am further apart from friends geographically unlike younger days when we all lived within twenty minutes’ drive. For the friendships that last, I am immensely grateful. For the friends who I’ve met at Harvard, I’m so thankful that college life has been spent by your sides. To everyone who remembered, very blessed to have you in my lives. ❤

The big 21 is about family. Parents who will fly eighteen hours with me across the Pacific to celebrate my birthday. Parents who tolerate my childishness (even when I’m now legally an adult T_T) while treating me like an equal in many matters; who educate me when I make mistakes while always growing and reflecting alongside me; who give me the freedom to fly far away and explore to my heart’s content while opening their arms in wide, warm embrace each time I return to their harbor. 爸比妈咪,我爱您们!💕💕💕

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The big 21 is realizing God’s hand in guiding my life in the smallest, most moving details. At so many points on the West Coast, I’ve realized His wisdom only in retrospect. Thank you, God, for carrying me on Your shoulders. I hope to keep growing into a better version of myself under Your love and to do You proud.

The big 21 is also about this blog, where I pen these thoughts down. I started this in 2017. Now, this is my 57th post. Over 30,000 of you have visited, and many of you have kept reading. My last wish here is to keep growing alongside more of you, to keep writing, and to tell life’s magic in stories that can stay. Thank you for reading the story of my life. ❤

Wishing you, dear reader, all the love and happiness in the world,

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Selina Xu Birthday Cake

(120) Days of Summer/Internship

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Hellooo May! My favorite month of the year. (Because it’s my birthday at the end of it. Jk.)

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Since I’m flying from Boston Logan this Friday, the summer calendar is on the verge of starting. 120 days stretch out before me till September 3 when the Fall 2019 term starts. It’s so surreal that (barring Finals) I am halfway through with college. It feels like yesterday when I first moved in. A snap of fingers and, suddenly, I’m at the midpoint of my Harvard journey, with two solid years behind me and two years ahead.

Life’s moving too fast. High school felt like ten years, but in college, two years have sped by on jet fuel in a month-like blur. So many things have happened and so many things will be unfolding. I always feel like I’m poised to start, but then, semester milestones like this tell me that some chapters are truly ending. Life is a constant flurry of new beginnings and closures. The older I get, the more aware I am of these flipping pages. They no longer slip by unnoticed.

Announcing my summer plans!

May 5-24    Singapore

May 25-June 1    Los Angeles & Las Vegas — I turn 21!!!

June 2-August 10    New York

Fareed Zakaria GPS

This summer, I’ll be interning at CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS.

Super excited to be working for a primetime TV news program on foreign affairs — I’ve been a pretty big fan of Fareed’s works (he was the commencement speaker at Harvard in 2012) and have listened on-and-off to his podcasts from GPS (Global Public Square). On GPS, Fareed interviews world leaders and thinkers — a to-die-for list that includes Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Emmanuel Macron, and Salman Rushdie (fun fact: Kishore Mahbubani, who I worked for as a research assistant last spring, was also a guest on the show back in 2012) — and hosts lively roundtable discussions on topics ranging from 5G to Brexit to the world’s next recession. 

Not quite sure yet what the day-to-day work will be like, but I’ve been told that interns are expected to assist in all aspects of production (from a story’s inception to research and fact-checking to gathering visual elements) — so a big YES! 

I’m incredibly thankful to the Director’s Internship Program at the Institute of Politics for this opportunity — highly encourage more of you to check out the list of 100 or so organizations that partner with Harvard to provide fully-funded internships in politics, government, and public service for undergraduates!

August 10-September 2    Singapore + other travels maybe? Any recommendations?

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Goodbye for now, Harvard! Thank you for another whirlwind of a semester — frosty winter and blossoming spring, some great classes, big ideas, and phenomenal professors, late nights at DeWolfe, Kirkland, and GSD, Harvard China Forum (practically the love of my college life), a flurry of internship applications, a constant state of waiting/in suspension (with a wonderful result at the end of it all 🙏), a precious lesson or two about dating, a long list of UberEats and Snackpass receipts, fluctuating weights and paper deadlines, a Belfer Center research stint on U.S. foreign policy, and friends who always care; I will miss you all dearly. x

But, see you in three days, Singapore~ I’m bringing my Final papers back to you — 42 pages in a week. 😵😵 Let’s do this!!!

Lots of love,

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Two Takes on My Harvard Freshman Year (My Year in Review?)

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TAKE ONE

Here’s how it happens: eyelids fluttering, an image rising, and a sudden plunge into the hot, wet mouth of memory. I’m walking on a boulevard and then this hutong catches my eye and before I know it I’m wandering down networks of neurons, lost. Or I’m talking to someone, laughing, and there’s a tug and I can’t remember what I ever wanted to say. There’s a face, a sentence, a moment. One minute I’m dancing to Bruno Mars on a raised platform in a swanky Beijing club at 1:58AM and suddenly I’m a freshman again in a long snaking line of sweaty, jittery bodies leading towards the First Chance Dance housed in the dark Northwest Labs. Some weird upperclassman guy in crimson is smelling the green tea bottle in my hand like it’s beer, a tendril of hair sticking out from his nostrils. The white cloth-covered tabletop is littered with askew metal plates full of crumbs and crumpled wrappers. Self-consciously, I’m dancing or trying to move to some insipid, synthesized track while the bones in my body hesitantly reconfigure. A crack. Flash forward a few months: I’m leaping around and jutting out my hips to Zumba at the Hemenway, all over me a sheen of sweat, like I’ve been dipped in oil. My shoes are scraping against the bare floor and screeching to Meghan Trainor’s hearty, sassy ‘No’. The air-con licks my skin.

Or, in the present, I’m sucking on a red bean popsicle by the curb near a symphony of honking from Beijing’s sea of vehicles or thirstily swallowing a spoonful of matcha soft serve in Kyoto’s heat and then I recall the first taste of J. P. Licks during a pre-orientation program, immensely hopeful, eyes squinting against the sunlight as we crossed the street like a beaming group of tourists. Samples of sliced, melting mochi ice cream from smiling aunties at H Mart in neat little cups, opposite the freezer with dumplings and banchan. Berryline on cold days, gloves stuffed into the pockets of a down coat. My breath hanging before me like a fog.

I could be scrolling through my phone to airdrop someone a photo, or enlarging a selfie, or searching for an ancient screenshot. Maybe I see a photo of a beige wall decorated with yellow post-its and fenced off by purple and red ribbons. That’s all it takes. One look brings back the quote wall, the dubious carpets, the spiderman gravity-defeating moves, and the laugh-addled screaming-cum-squealing sessions that invited some poor guy from the floor below to check in on us out of concern. Five minutes later I’d still be standing there, unsure what I was looking for, like emerging from a pool with a smile on my lips. The phone screen turns black.

Or, crowding beside roundtables of hotpot with floating shrimp, meatballs and spicy vegetables, rotating a glass turntable laden with Peking duck and thirty appetizers, sipping on cheese tea in a crowded mall, chewing on pumpkin seeds in a teahouse simulating the old days while a lady in cheongsam sings opera, suddenly it’s the third week of Fall semester again and I feel like a stranger walking into Annenberg and drowning in the din. Then I drift into another memory. My third bowl of golden hash brown nuggets, with a heavy green blob of guacamole on top. Eating breakfast food for lunch on Sundays because I never wake up otherwise. The times we sit at a table next to someone’s crush, or two guys who looked decently cute in the dim light, or just some awkward acquaintance from God knows where, and we communicate with only our eyes, collapsing into giggles on our way out of the hall.

It’s living several lives, curled up in a hotel room’s rumpled sheets, or the pristine homestay bedroom just a door away from my new Japanese family, or my familiar, old bed with three pillows and a fluffy panda in Singapore. And when I come back to the present, eyes blinking, I am typing on the same screen, listening to the same Spotify playlist, the yogurt cup on my desk leaving a rim of condensation. On my computer the same blinking cursor. Inside my mind, I am remembering and forgetting a thousand tiny things.

TAKE TWO

Very honestly, I was planning to seriously write out a comprehensive Year in Review post with bullet points, labels, a slate of photos, and coherent paragraphs of descriptions. As I tried to write that post, beautifully envisioned and probably much easier to read than whatever I wrote above, the inevitable came: my impressions of those moments were always shifting and being filtered through the numerous new experiences I had. It felt pretentious even to slip back into my own skin and write about how I feel about something at its most visceral when it happened months ago. But. To go back in time and capture how I exactly felt would have been near impossible EXCEPT for the fact that many of such moments and my reflections have been penned down in the 21 blog posts published over the course of freshman year. So here’s another way to look at this year.

In my freshman year…

  • I explored writing fiction: I’ve never written as much fiction. Ever. I’m most grateful for the tremulous beginning to this writing journey—when I applied, got rejected and subsequently got off the waitlist for Claire Messud’s workshop in the Fall. One year later, I’ve completed three short stories for class, enrolled in another workshop (with Neel Mukherjee), and still struggle with this lonely, poetic affair. But this is what started it all. Embracing Rejection At Harvard (also unexpected surprises)
  • My main extracurricular life could be boiled down to three words: Harvard China Forum—when I surprisingly pulled together, with the help of many many people, a panel of speakers that I never could have imagined coming face to face with before Harvard (director of my favorite 2017 drama! lyricist to my lifelong pop idol Jay Chou!!! sci-fi novelist! variety show producer! CEO of online fiction publishing juggernaut! veteran journalist!). This Fall, I’ll be doing it all over again, yay! To Harvard China Forum • 致哈佛中国论坛
  • I spent my winter break at Dumbarton Oaks interrogating cultural philanthropy, diplomacy, and art in the cold. Girl in D.C.
  • I spent this sweltering summer in Kyoto. When In Kyoto ≧◡≦
  • I also ate my way through Japan. From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit
  • I turned 2-0! From 20-year-old Me, With Love
  • I experienced my first shopping week, my first snow in Boston, a November of Taylor Swift, BBC’s Austen adaptations and daylight saving time, and made a list of things I love.
  • I told my own growth on this blog through stories. On navigating love after a bleary-eyed whirlwind Black Friday, on coming to terms with materialism in Gangnam, on those fleeting moments of great metaphorical meaning or unexpected snippets that we cannot capture behind every grinning photo, on combating drama addiction after a dreary spring break.
  • I deal with debilitating doubts about my writing; on bad days, I yearn for external validation like an addict. But, in the end, it’s really just the page and me. I feel extremely nervous about putting my edited works onto this blog for more eyes to scrutinize, but I would like to start doing more of that! Here’s a throwback to the two stories I’ve published here during freshman year: [Story] Why Believe in Fortune Cookies, and 7-Eleven: A Summertime Romance?.

Here’s to a sophomore year with more blog posts!!! To everyone I met during my freshman year and over this summer, wherever our paths may lead us, thank you for being part of this journey. I hope you will stay with this blog ❤

Lastly, Happy Birthday Daddy!!! 亲爱的爸比,生日快乐 🎂🎉✨ I’m not sure if I can keep myself from crying when I say goodbye to you both at the airport tonight, but I know that because of you, I can venture continents away with strength in my wings, love in my heart and an unyielding faith in the kindness of life. 没有您,就没有我。谢谢您总像魔术师般地将我的烦恼和忧愁化为动力和正能量。您的智慧、引导和关爱让我这棵小树一直在幸福的包围中茁壮成长。谢谢您为我撑起了一片天,为我遮风挡雨。我会让您骄傲的。永远爱您,爸爸!❤️❤️❤️

Lots of love,

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From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit

Read other From A Foodie installments: 
From A Foodie: Tasting Taipei — worn, but lovely 🍹
From A Foodie: California Dreamin’ 🌴

Although my two months in Japan were ostensibly for Summer School (note the emphasis on my liberal arts education), with the overarching agenda of weight loss (refer to my birthday post: From 20-year-old Me, With Love), it was in truth spent on eating, diligent planning of where to eat, and lovingly documenting every piece of food that went into my stomach. It was a glorious two months in a land that worshipped food as much as I did. I present to you the best food I’ve eaten—sadly, not an inexhaustible list and very much narrow in scope as I don’t eat raw fish (no sushi/sashimi etc.! I hear your cry of ‘travesty!!!’)—in Japan, with most of the places in Kyoto (which was where I was predominantly located). Some brief thoughts on the shokunin spirit at the end.

Dessert

Tokyo

  • Asakusa Suzukien Nanaya Gelato

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Eaten on my first full day in Japan, this was the unforeseen beginning of my two-month-long obsession with matcha ice cream. Located on a street behind the famous Sensōji Temple, this shop is famous for having the richest matcha gelato in the world (see the round blob below). It was overwhelmingly bitter (considering the fact that I have a huge sweet tooth) and I immediately wished that I had gone for one of the lower levels instead of the highest out of the seven levels of matcha. Instead, I took over my dad’s Hojicha (roasted green tea) and level 1 matcha gelato cup—it was heavenly.

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  • Dominique Ansel Bakery Omotesando Store

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Tucked in an alleyway behind Omotesando, the zelkova tree-lined avenue leading to Meiji Shrine, this bakery is slick, modern, with incredibly photogenic pastries. While everything looks pretty, the best of the bunch is the Tokyo-exclusive Paris-Tokyo Matcha Passionfruit Cake (top left), which tastes as good as it looks—it’s a spin on the classic Paris-Brest with passionfruit curd and matcha ganache. Other innovations include the Frozen S’mores which are burned before you as they are being served.

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Osaka

  • The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Japan

Butterbeer is a must-have! With a sweet, creamy layer of foam above the carbonated, bubbly drink (non-alcoholic), it tasted like an interesting mix of foam milk soda and butterscotch macchiato. The amber color (resembling beer) is beautiful, the mug is a souvenir to keep, and the taste is smooth. It also magically cured my motion sickness after the Final Fantasy XR Ride with the virtual reality headset.

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  • World’s Second Best Freshly Baked Melonpan Ice Dotonbori

Located in Dōtonbori, Osaka’s over-the-top food/entertainment/shopping district, the name of the food truck caught my eye: why proclaim itself as the world’s second best? (And, honestly, who’s the first??) The melon-pan was still warm and crispy, with a subtle sweetness, which lightened the richness of the vanilla ice cream. It was a larger, fatter version of Singapore’s iconic ice cream sandwich, and no less delicious. More points for the experience (rarely did I see melon-pan sold with ice cream throughout the rest of the trip) than for the actual taste.

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Kyoto

  • Kyo Cafe 

This cafe is operated by KYOBAUM, a famous brand of baumkuchen (a layered sponge cake, resembling a tree with concentric rings). The matcha and vanilla soft serve rests on several small, chewy pieces of baumkuchen (made with Uji green tea and soy milk). The sprinkled powder on top is a nice finishing touch. If you’re shopping along Shijo Avenue in Gion and need a pick-me-up, go for this different spin on soft serve.

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  • Gelato Pique Cafe Bio Concept

Since I was passing through Kyoto Station every day on my commute to school, I spent a lot of time exploring all the underground (and overhead) malls connected to the sprawling transportation hub. This newly opened cafe in the basement of the CUBE caught my eye due to its bright, minimalistic interior. I ordered a Rouge Smoothie and an assorted gelato set (I chose chocolate, matcha, and pistachio), which was surprisingly good with its granola bits and a butter cookie. It lasted me for more than an hour on my Kindle, reading Yuko Ogasawara’s Office Ladies and Salaried Men. ^_^

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  • Sir Thomas Lipton

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My absolute favorite dessert place. ❤ The white peach tart (pictured above) was love at first bite. I went back three more times—twice with friends and one last time by myself—to eat it. Everything else on the menu, from matcha tiramisu to matcha kakigōri (shaved ice) to hibiscus black milk tea was delectable. The pot of tea, however, was not a standout.

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  • Arashiyama Obuu

What a blessing on any swelteringly hot, sticky day. My friend and I ventured into Arashiyama (with its famous bamboo forests, scenic railways, and picturesque temples) on a 40 degree Celcius afternoon—the whole time, we were immersed in an inescapable outdoor sauna. After lining up for half an hour, we got seats by the counter facing the Togetsukyo Bridge. This was the only time I tried a Hojicha parfait throughout this trip. The slightly bitter, roasted taste of the ice cream perfectly complemented the doses of matcha.

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The tea room of this breathtakingly gorgeous museum (an architectural feat nestled in the mountains) offers a tasty Anmitsu. With natural sunlight streaming through the glass ceilings and metal beams, both this space and the food are meant to present a harmonious blend of natural beauty, architecture, art and food—this museum’s object, after all, is to use art (in its broadest sense) to bring about a religious experience. Founded by the Shinji Shumeikai religious organization, even the culinary experience of the museum’s restaurants adheres to its philosophy. This dessert item utilizes ingredients produced by the Shumei Natural Agriculture approach, free of any additives such as fertilizers and agrochemicals. The azuki beans are boiled to a soft texture while the round balls made of mochi rice flour are chewy and the matcha ice cream cold and soothing. Almost a transformative experience, but not quite yet.

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  • Ito Kyuemon Uji Honten

My host family brought me to this traditional tea-maker shop, now famous for its parfaits. Absolute matcha heaven! Although everyone at the table ordered a parfait, I really couldn’t help but order the matcha cheesecake option with the Hojicha jelly (because it looked so pretty on the menu). The chilled Hojicha jelly was bouncy and slightly bitter even after honey is poured, but it lightened the palate between bites of a rich, creamy cheesecake. I happily bought several boxes of matcha goods—sandwich cookies, chocolate, and warabimochi—from the shop before we left.

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  • Saryo Suisen

Best parfait. With matcha waffle roll, dorayaki (red bean pancake), azuki paste, dango (sweet dumplings), mochi, cookie, baumkuchen, and jelly decorating the matcha soft serve, eating this parfait was like unearthing a seemingly bottomless treasure chest. I choose to disregard the number of calories contained in this beauty.

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Okonomiyaki

Tokyo 

  1. Asakusa Okonomiyaki Sometaro

Delicious beyond words. Definitely make a trip here if you’re in Asakusa. This Japanese-style savory pancake is called okonomiyaki (literally ‘grill as you like’), with flour, eggs, tempura scraps (tenkasu), cabbage and some form of protein. The final pancake is topped with a variety of condiments like okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, dried seaweed, and dried bonito flakes. Seated on tatami mats around an iron griddle on the tabletop, everything is do-it-yourself (we also asked the friendly staff to help us flip the pancake). The rustic interior is charming.

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Unagi

Nagoya

  1. Atsuta Horaiken Main Restaurant

THE BEST UNADON I’VE EATEN IN MY LIFE. Nagoya’s hitsumabashi (hitsu = ‘wooden rice bowl’ and mabushi = ‘to scatter’) style entails eating the unagi in four steps: as it is; garnished with the served condiments such as spring onions, nori seaweed, pickles and wasabi (I gave wasabi a pass); mixed with lightly-flavored broth or tea; and lastly, whichever of the three ways one prefers. It was such an interesting way to eat unagi, apportioning the eel out of the bowl, but then I gave up halfway through since the second way was so delicious. Also, I recommend ordering the Umaki (omelet-wrapped eel) as a starter.

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Tempura

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  • Tendon Makino

Golden, crispy, melt-in-your-mouth kind of buttery goodness. The huge bowl includes a generous assortment of tempura—conger eel, shrimp, egg with a soft center, green pepper, enoki mushrooms, seaweed, squid, and scallops all coated in a thick batter—overflowing above the rice (a second smaller bowl is used as a lid to keep the tempura from falling off). The order is done on the spot, so everything is fresh and piping hot. Incredibly, despite how unhealthy this looks, there was no oily aftertaste. Honestly, the best tendon I’ve had.

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Kyoto

  • Yoshikawa Tempura

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Compared to the tendon at Makino, this restaurant offers tempura almost as an artisanal experience—the batter is light, each item barely dipped into a cauldron of oil by the skilled chef before it is expertly placed onto the plate before my eyes. Consuming each item in the nine-course meal—two prawns, one fish and six vegetables—was a savor of the ingredient, the natural flavor brought out by the tempura coating. The different kinds of salt, dipping sauce and the slice of lemon also offered diverse ways to experiment with taste. So, so delicate.

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Wagyu

Kyoto

  • Hafuu Honten

I regretted going for the teriyaki sauce option, but it did not detract that much from the quality of the beef. I ordered the fillet steak medium to well-done, and it still retained its juicy texture, which was impressive. Slightly overrated as one of the best places for wagyu beef in Kyoto, but I can imagine how much better the steak would have been without the teriyaki sauce.

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  • Teppanyaki Gozanbo

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In terms of overall atmosphere, my best meal in Japan. On the fifteenth floor of Hotel Granvia, the restaurant had a gorgeous view of the mountains, the Kyoto Tower, and the city skyline. The chef prepares the meal from scratch before you—from preparing the raw ingredient to the final plate presentation. The eight-course meal hit all the right notes—particular highlights were the teppan-grilled fish with Manganji pepper puree and the dessert (coconut ice cream with passionfruit puree).

The beef cubes literally melted in my mouth. I used to read descriptions like this and immediately label them as hyperbole, but the beef actually did melt in the literal sense of the word! It was buttery, fatty in all the right amounts, freshly seared, and absolutely heavenly when dabbed with salt and eaten with garlic chips. Typing this right now at 10PM makes me so incredibly hungry. 😓 This is the kind of meal that compels you to close your eyes to etch the taste in your mind.

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Takoyaki

Osaka

  • Takoyaki Juhachiban Dotonbori

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Best Takoyaki I’ve eaten. Due to the constant line before the stall and the huge volume of orders, everything is made on the spot with a flurry of hands at almost inhuman speed. With crispy tempura scraps in the flour-based batter, the crunch in my mouth as I tried to eat each ball without burning my mouth was a great respite.

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Throughout all of these culinary experiences, as I traveled from Tokyo to Nagoya to Osaka to Kyoto, what struck me most was the level of devotion and diligence that goes into the craft of cooking—from roadside stalls to rustic inns to air-conditioned cafes to modern restaurants. What I deeply admire is not only the exquisite precision of its artisanal chefs or the decades spent specializing in a single category of food by generations in a family, but also the smiling salesperson painstakingly wrapping up my cake with an ice pack, the scruffy boy making Takoyaki in the hot sun with a tireless smile on his face, and the many other anonymous faces that deeply moved me with their immense sense of pride in feeding my stomach and delighting my palate.

The Japanese word shokunin is defined by both Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan,’ but such a literal description does not fully express the deeper meaning. The Japanese apprentice is taught that shokunin means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.

— Tasio Odate

I was at first surprised and then intrigued by this shokunin spirit that surfaced in the most mundane of interactions and at places where I least expected to find craftsmanship (to put it bluntly). This assiduous focus on the smallest, most trivial of details and a relentless pursuit of perfection while cooking the same dish, preparing the same takeaway box, or even doing the same singular action at the grill over and over again moves me. I can’t begin to fathom what drives their dedication to this ‘craft’—or what many might not even perceive to be a craft—when I find myself faltering in persisting in a habit after mere days. There’s something special about each of these meals that I’ve eaten in Japan that has moved me beyond its sensory aspects. From my perspective, each of these meals is a singular life experience. Yet, for them, I am but only one customer in a sea of consumers who have come and gone. But, somehow, driven by perhaps what Odate calls a spiritual and material obligation, they hold themselves up to an invisible bar that cannot be found on such a wide scale in any other country I’ve been to.

I think that’s what lies at the heart of Japan for me this summer, beyond its cuisine, the earthquake and the flooding, the heat, its shrines and temples, its quaint alleyways and wooden buildings, its punctuality and the efficient transportation system. Amongst its people, are millions of dedicated shokunin, who are unnamed but not unnoticed.

Lots of love,

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[Story] Hills

materialism

“Self Improvement is Self Destruction” by Lexy Gaduski (http://lgfoundobjects.blogspot.com/)

She isn’t sure what it is, the colors—Supreme red, the blocky black letters of Balenciaga, the wild marbled swirls of Dries Van Noten—sharpening like psychedelic blotches, the strap on her shoulder suddenly prickly and leaden, an indignant discomfiture that rises like a gorge in her throat until she furrows her brows and realizes with a start that it’s something akin to humiliation.  All the while the slanted-eye lady with a silk scarf wordlessly scans her from head to toe, a deliberate pause here and there.

Whatever it is, she hates the naked appraisal. What she hates more is what collapses within her, as she inadvertently, guiltily adopts that gaze and turns it onto herself. She doesn’t have time to control her drifting thoughts because almost instantaneously she regrets carrying the unnamed bag with the guitar strap she fancies so much. She wonders why she wore that funny pair of horn-rimmed sunglasses she bought on a whim in a shoe store instead of a logoed one. She even feels a spurt of what could be called gloating triumph or conceit—she doesn’t dwell on it—when she catches the glint of approval in the lady’s eyes as they land on her watch. She thinks—

Oh my God.

All her education, upbringing, and higher aspirations are stashed in some locked room. She doesn’t know how she became like this, whoever she is—like observing an unfamiliar reflection in a funhouse mirror, or discovering some other self that has been latent for a while—in this moment of encounter. But, it painfully occurs to her that she has become the kind of person she detests. She remembers the Horatio Alger books she grew up reading and then the Bennett sisters and suddenly of Daisy Buchanan and even briefly of a passage from American Psycho. She goes over the -isms one by one: capitalism, consumerism, materialism. The brand name dropping that she had an instinctive aversion to when immersed in the vulgar mind of Patrick Bateman. The superficiality of the Buchanans. Her favorite heroines and heroes always undaunted and untempted by wealth but devoted to a cultivated mind and character.

She feels sorry for herself, but her feet—she imagines invisible tendrils snaking down and down into an abyss of something frightful but delirious—stay rooted to the glossy floor. For a moment, she looks at the shimmering mess on the racks like a child in a candy store. There’s a whisper of a younger, simpler innocence, but a surge of anxious restlessness overtakes her. She’s on the other side of the hills now but she can’t remember where she wanted to go or how to go back.

*

She’s fishing out a bottle of peach juice from a vending machine when she gets it.

The hills that she has crossed, the path that she is fumbling through, they are all one person’s journey alone—hers. This new world she thought she has entered has no power over her unless she chooses to lose herself in it. There’s no external metric for self-worth, no essentiality of looking outside oneself for another’s evaluation, no actual force other than her own vanity (and perhaps, even greed) pushing herself to excessively covet, compare and subscribe to the material value of things. She lets the temptation of consumption and display roll over the tips of her fingers and tongue and the tightrope across her mind, and then surrenders it.

The past week seems like a dream now that she is back along the train tracks again, rice paddies by her feet and electric lines overhead.

She slowly breathes in through her nostrils and then out through her mouth.

She feels the roiling tumult within her finally quieten and she presses the softness of her belly.

She is, for now, content.