It all started with a decision.

Kyoto, Japan (Shot on Canon)

Surrounded by lush greenery and tall bamboo trees shooting up into the sky, I observed the beauty of the forest. With each step up the mountain, I could feel the fresh breeze of Japan’s fall season drifting through the air and into my lungs. As I made my way to the top of Mount Inari, I sensed the heat building up in my body from the physicality of the hike. I started off the journey accompanied by a group of tourists. 40 minutes into the trail, they chose to take a break but I didn’t see a reason to stop as I was traveling on my own. I continued trekking for 2–3 hours through the dense foliage on my first afternoon in Kyoto.

I took a moment to pause, breathe in the nature, and fully soak in the moment. I noticed the serenity of the traditional Japanese shrine torii gates integrated into the woods. I arrived at a muddy path without a clear route ahead and signs solely in Japanese. My heart started to race as I realized that I was lost and alone in the forest. I reached for my portable Wi-Fi device, tried to acquire a sense of direction using Google Maps, and asked myself a simple question: “How did I get here?”

3 years earlier…

It all started with a decision. A decision I made in the weeks leading up to attending Northeastern University. Sitting in the living room with my father, we discussed the potential of switching my major from Business Administration (BSBA) to International Business (BSIB) and weighed the options. After much deliberation and extensive research, we decided to officially make the switch to BSIB. At the time, I did not see the magnitude of the decision but merely looked at it as a way to differentiate myself. Reflecting back, this decision led me to study Mandarin from scratch, move to Hong Kong to kickoff my year abroad, and land a 6-month internship in Singapore.

During my semester in Hong Kong, I’m grateful to have met amazing people in the city and experience the diversity of the urban neighborhoods from the streets of Wan Chai to the basketball courts on Wylie Road in Kowloon. My year abroad brought me to explore places in Southeast Asia with rich and fascinating culture. Japan was my first ever solo trip and marked the 35th country I have been fortunate enough to visit in my lifetime. In Robin Sharma’s book, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, he shares that humans process 60,000 thoughts on a daily basis. 95% of those thoughts are ones you’ve already had. During my trip to Japan, I practiced mind management and focused on having new thoughts.

In the documentary film series Abstract: Art by Design, illustrator Christoph Niemann says that there is one city you will go to in your life by yourself with no relatives or any existing connections. For Niemann, that place was New York City. For me, that city was Kyoto. I was completely inspired by the unparalleled uniqueness of Japanese culture, minimalism of the traditional architecture, and compassion of the local people. I visited the Arashiyama bamboo forest, ancient Buddhist temples, and the lantern-filled district of Pontocho. After my exhilarating day in Kyoto, I hopped on the Shinkansen express bullet train to Tokyo. In the metropolitan city, I was hosted by my friend from Northeastern who was kind enough to show me around different parts of the city on his moped from the infamous Shibuya Crossing to ancient Asakusa. I was also able to reunite with my school friends from Belgium after 10 years! The initial decision to embark on a year abroad was the reason I was able to have all of these unimaginable experiences.

The forest path started sloping downwards and bended in long curves. I had hiked to the top of Mount Inari and was descending my way back down. As I trotted down the mountain, I could not let my mind wander to the past or the future but rather focus solely on the present moment. It was like meditation through the jungle. I was fully aware of each step in both body and mind. It was the only way I could stay calm and enjoy the experience without worrying about the complex route back or forward. In the corner of my eye, I finally caught a glimpse of civilization as I descended all the way down to street level. I had to take two buses to get back to the main entrance of the Fushimi Inari Taisha where I had started my hike. I returned to the path of 10,000 brilliant red and black torii gates where I captured the shot above. A shot that I was very pleased with. A shot that made my entire journey worthwhile. And it all started with a decision.