Kyoto Diary 2016

Kyoto, 2016
Kyoto, 2016

Dear friend,

I am currently at the Kansai international airport (closest airport to Kyoto), just downed a double-espresso from Tully’s (pretty good), and wanted to use this time before my flight back to Hanoi to reflect on my trip in Kyoto.

The Zen of Kyoto

Eric kim photography Kyoto black and white zen swan

I love Kyoto. I love the sense of peace, zen, and tranquility here.

I took the shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto, and the second I got off and started to walk around Kyoto, I instantly felt at peace.

The pace of living in Kyoto is much slower, more relaxed, and peaceful than that of Tokyo. Kyoto feels like a big village, and it feels warmer here. The people are warmer, less robotic, and more friendly. There is more culture and heritage here— you can see it through the traditional buildings, and the fact that Kyoto was the former capital of Japan.

I loved Tokyo, but I think my heart really fell in love with Kyoto. I loved the spare, minimalist, aesthetic here— which is also focused on nature. Subtle designs like the wood paneling, stone arrangements, plants, and short buildings.

Walking around Kyoto feels more personal — there are limits to how high you can build the skyline (compared to Tokyo, where you feel that the skyscrapers are enveloping you).

Time with Sean

I consider Sean Lotman one of the best contemporary color photographers. He shoots color slide film, prints in his own color darkroom, and just put out “Sunlanders” — my new favorite colors street photography book.

I came in 1.5 days before the workshop this weekend, and I loved my time with him. He’s a local — he’s lived here for close to 10 years, and he took me to his favorite joints in Kyoto. We had an amazing crepe breakfast, great Indian food for dinner, amazing ramen (Ippudo), and superb coffee (he recommends “Weekenders”).

Not only that, but it was great walking with him and exploring the city. Kyoto is an incredibly walkable city— we didn’t take any public transit while we were together. Not only that, but the back alleys are quiet and peaceful. People in Kyoto also walk slower— you don’t feel like in a hurry with Tokyo.

Sean and I both spent a lot of our lives in California— so it was great catching up with him, talking about married life, having a kid, and also American-pop culture, film, and politics. Oh yeah, his California-inspired breakfast burrito was amazing (cheese, avocado, sausage, egg, chives, red onions).

I was mostly inspired by Sean through his dedication to his craft. He spent a ton of money printing Sunlanders— but the final outcome is beautiful. Each page in his book is like a print. Sean took several trips to Italy to over-see the printing, to make sure the colors just looked right. It was such a great inspiration to me — as I hope to start working on a coffee-table styled book of my own.

Being a kid again

Eric kim photography Kyoto black and white zen architecture

Not only that, but Sean’s kid (Tenbo) is awesome. 2-years old, full of energy, and hustle — he is incredibly social, and loves to play. We went to the park with him, and he would guide me around the park (holding my hand), to play on the swings, on the see-saw, or him locking me and Sean up in a cage.

Which made me realize— children are much more intelligent than adults. They play for fun. For the sake of it. They don’t do what they want to do because they are paid or “incentivized” to do so. They are curious, creative, and have no restrictions. They don’t obey “social norms” or “social rules” — which are pounded into us in adulthood.

I want to forever stay a child, a beginner, and curious my entire life. I want to follow Tenbo, and be a kid again.

People, not the place

My travels have always been inspired mostly by the people I meet, rather than the place I go. I am always inspired by different cultural things in different places, but the most memorable are always the people.

I loved teaching the workshop with Sean and Junku Nishimura— two photographers I admire, are my friends, and both who I learned a lot from. Not only that, but I loved the time with my students, especially after the workshop — over dinner, drinks, laughter, and reflecting about life.

I loved my time in Japan, but I am very excited to go back home to Hanoi — to reunite with the love of my life, Cindy. I do feel that distance and time apart makes the heart grow fonder— I often take her for granted when I am with her. When I am away, I appreciate her more.

And now that I will (soon) be back home to her, I don’t want to take any moment with her for granted. I want to cherish every second, every moment, every argument, every frustration, every little joy, every cup of coffee, and every conversation. She is really my soulmate, and the one who keeps me focused, inspired, and motivated.

What now?

So after I get back from Hanoi, I only plan on doing a little bit of travel for workshops. I have a week-long Hanoi to Sapa workshop Feb, 2017 (technically not traveling, but staying in the country). I’m also doing a 2-day workshop in Bangkok, part of a street photography festival there (more details to come, we will host it sometime in April).

But other than that, I plan on spending as much time with Cindy as possible in Hanoi. I love practicing and learning Vietnamese, having my coffee with her, great food, and spending time with our friends. I feel that every time I travel, I am losing my roots. If you always move a tree, it never is able to take root and grow. I therefore plan on spending more time reflecting, meditating, writing, and of course— drinking more coffee.


The biggest inspiration from my time in Japan is this appreciation for spare, minimalist, Zen aesthetics.

I think the most beautiful aesthetic is the most simple one— that is also inspired by nature.

I have an allergy to plastic, fluorescent lights, and anything unnatural. I love wood, stone, green plants, and soft light.

I also am a huge believer in cutting away the fat, the superfluous, and the unnecessary. As a self-professed Steve Jobs fanboy, I am always trying to simplify my life, simplify my possessions, have fewer decisions to make, and more focus for what is really important to me — writing, blogging, creating/sharing information, and teaching. I know this life is short and limited, and I don’t want to waste a second of life.

I am also trying to make this blog more simple, straight-forward, and helpful. It is always a difficult design decision— how can I make things even simpler, but more functional? What superfluous functions can I remove, and what can I highlight?

Steve Jobs was a visionary with user design — making sure that everything the iPod would be accessible with 3 or fewer clicks. By getting rid of superfluous buttons on the iPhone. By removing unnecessary ports on the iPad. By cutting unprofitable and distracting product lines at Apple, and focusing on a few core products.

Blogging vs workshopping

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot — and been talking a lot about with my students, and friends.

Sometimes I feel a tension between blogging, traveling, and teaching. I feel that my focus in life is blogging, creating information, and empowering others. Every time I travel and teach workshops, I feel that I am being distracted.

I know that both feed into one another. When I teach a workshop, I get inspired and have new ideas to blog about. When I blog, people get interested in the workshops. And I make a living.

Another issue— I feel that blogging can help more people in the world (a blog post can get 20,000 people to read it, while a workshop is limited to only 20 people or so). But I actually don’t consider myself a very good writer— I consider myself a far better teacher.

Whenever I teach, I feel fully-alive. My extraversion goes to 120%, and I feel energy from the students. I feel a natural skill for teaching, and it is what makes me the happiest. But yet— I feel that I can’t help as many people when I am teaching, compared to when blogging, and (potentially) helping millions online.

I got good advice from my friend Steve who attended the Kyoto workshop — do both. Workshops and blogging are symbiotic and help one another out.

Traveling vs teaching?

I am starting to feel the solution is perhaps traveling less, but teaching more. I hate being away from Cindy, but I love teaching. So how can I teach more, while traveling less?

Perhaps it means to do more local workshops wherever I live. To do more workshops in Vietnam, and not traveling much elsewhere.

I also want to do fewer workshops in 2017 and 2018, but make them more valuable. I also plan on charging more money, so I can earn the same amount of money (if not more money), while traveling less, and conserving more of my energy. I want to be more effective with my energy, time, and effort. Not to do more work for the sake of doing more work.

Is traveling overrated?

I love traveling— for the experiences. To meet new people, to be inspired by other cultures, and for expanding my mind.

But then again — I think a lot of people over-romanticize traveling. Jetlag sucks. Being away from your family and loved ones sucks. And honestly, I feel that you can always travel inside your mind and soul — without ever stepping on a jet.

I find myself personally to be inspired by spaces. Especially interior spaces. I find the great inspiration from great architecture, from minimalist aesthetics, and places which I feel are “zen”. I find the biggest inspiration in coffee shops, certain stores, and cultural centers.

When I was in Tokyo, I was less inspired by walking the streets of Tokyo — and more inspired by the few stores, coffee shops, and back-alleys that I walked through.

When in Kyoto, I was less inspired by the Zen temples, shrines, and trees— and more inspired by the slow pace of life, attention to detail, and minimalist aesthetics in the buildings.

Couldn’t I experience all of this without traveling? Yes. I’ve found so many amazing places in Hanoi, great interior design, and inspiration in books.

I’m starting to feel that while traveling does help inspire you — you can be inspired regardless of where you are. Especially with access to the internet, what limits do we have on ourselves?

Unfortunately the last frontier— we cannot experience the feeling of “space” via technology (virtual reality is getting pretty close, but still not the real thing). That is what I think ultimately cannot be replicated (without traveling).

So to end this long-winded section, travel in moderation. Don’t be constantly on the road, constantly on a plane, or thinking that the way to be happy in life is to always be traveling. Traveling in moderated doses will help you break out of your cage of pre-determined thinking, open your mind to other cultures, and new experiences. And when you feel that you really got a great insight from a travel experience, I don’t think you need to keep traveling to that place again. If anything, the ultimate zen is to never need to travel again — because you are content, at peace with yourself, and know that you aren’t missing anything at home.

Even at this point in my life, I honestly feel if I never traveled again — I know I’m not missing out on anything. All I need in life is good coffee, a wifi connection, and my loved ones. What else do we need?

Take risks

The last thing I want to focus on in life is to take more risks. To be less afraid of the worst-case scenario. To have confidence in myself, my ideas, and to follow my own gut. I have to thank Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Kanye West, Picasso, and all the great innovators in history for this inspiration. And also my friend Steve from Kyoto, for his encouragement, as well as the encouragement from everyone else I met in Japan.

Life is short. You will die. Why live a standard life? Don’t you want to change the world, to innovate, to create new things, and to push society and the human race forward?

Your needs will always be met. Even the homeless in America don’t starve to death. No matter what, you will have a roof over your head, water, (hopefully coffee), free wifi, and food. Sure, you might not be driving around a BMW anymore, but your needs will always be met.

So what are you afraid of? That you can no longer send your kids to private school? They will be fine. That you won’t be able to eat organic food anymore? You will still live. That you will not be able to afford mortgage payments on your house? Perhaps a smaller apartment might reduce stress in your life.

I don’t want to just keep talking. I want to put more risk into my life — to do crazy, insane things — for the greater good. To create more helpful, useful, information, that will drive society forward.

Let’s do this together.


9:08am, Mon, Nov 21, 2016 @ Kanai International Airport. Still got 30 minutes before my flight to Hanoi — probably going to have another coffee, take a nap on the plane, and give Cindy the biggest hug when I see her back home.

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