August 15, 2021

Benzaiten's White Snakes

How a chance encounter with an old friend led to a causal vortex of change that would alter every aspect of my personal and professional life.

A statue of the Buddhist deity Benzaiten and a white snake
“Time is like a river that will take you forward into encounters with reality that will require you to make decisions. You can’t stop the movement down this river, you can’t avoid the encounters. You can only approach these encounters in the best way possible.”

—Ray Dalio

In the spring of 2021, something completely random occurred that would ultimately change the course of my life. There I was, happily enjoying the cherry blossoms over a beer when I just happened to run into an old friend of mine. Now, this was the very same chap that got me into tourism to begin with all those years ago (refer to this article for the backstory) but we hadn’t really been hanging out much since the Airbnb market went to hell in a handbasket. Though the initial rendezvous itself didn’t affect much at all, it set into motion a series of events that would eventually alter the course of my destiny.

So, what the hell does any of this have to do with the deity Benzaiten and her white snakes you ask? We’ll get to that but allow me first to preface the following rant by asserting that this ain’t going to be one of my regularly scheduled Japan travel guides. If you’re here for the hidden gems, this won’t be the article for you. Instead, I want to take a minute and discuss what the hell has happened to my life over the past few months and what that means for both this blog and my future in Japan. As you can likely surmise from this article’s title though, the piece will still be rife with references to the local culture so please do stick around if you don’t mind the one-off shift in focus.

Anyway, getting back to the topic at hand, know that my initial chance encounter with my old buddy was quite benign. We hung out at his rather spacious house in Shibuya, drank a bit and otherwise just caught up. A few too many drinks in though, I somehow got roped into helping him launch an ultra-exclusive NFT that he was making with Kinoko Hajime. Widely known as the world’s premier Japanese rope artist, this risque virtuoso had together with my friend immortalized his work into the world’s first AR shibari installation. The complex process involved leveraging high end scanning technology to faithfully recreate Kinoko’s work in a digital medium.

One of Hajime Kinoko’s many artsy rope art instilations

Until agreeing to help this NFT project, I had then been purposely avoiding anything to do with cryptocurrencies, blockchain, etc. This really should come as no surprise but I am the type of person who goes all in when something catches my interest. Fearing that the potential obsession might detract from my travels and my writing, I had attempted to stay as far away from the space as I could. Alas, this NFT collaboration with Kinoko was the final push I needed to be sucked into the fascinating world of crypto. Though I am still very much a neophyte, these fledgling curiosities were one of the first life adjustments that came from again reuniting with my old friend.

In addition to this newfound interest in cryptocurrencies, NFTs and blockchain technology, a number of incidents also happened around this time that demonstrated to me that the Donny that existed prior to this accidental run in with destiny was simply not enough; I had to evolve. While I’ll spare you the grim details, it was made painfully obvious to me that the pathways that had taken me up to this fateful turning point wouldn’t continue to serve me moving forward. Though my then-held beliefs and habits had been great at producing steady linear gains over time, they were not enough to take me from the point of minor success to having a real impact.

Of course, the contrast between where I was and the insane lifestyle that my friend and his housemates were living made it impossible to put my head back in the proverbial sand. Here I was, slowly chugging away at making daily progress while these guys were playing the game of life with cheat codes on. For one reason or another, the rules of the world just don’t apply to them. Faced with this harsh reality, it was clear that I would need to rethink a lot of what I was doing in regards to my brand, my career, my relationships and my life in general if I wanted different results. To evolve, I’d need to shed my old skin and discard a lot of the core precepts that had taken me thus far in life.

Luckily for me, hanging around with these lads was exactly what I needed to start reevaluating my life and break out of familiar holding patterns. Their ability to bend and shape the rules of reality and society to their whim helped me start to question a lot of beliefs that I had held sacred. For example, their incredible network of cool dudes made me begin to realize just how easily I could unchain myself from the need for traditional employment and be an entirely freelance marketer. Quite literally, I met more new potential business leads chilling on their couch than I did hustling online in the past year.

In addition to planting the initial seeds of change in regards to both my marketing and content production career, spending time with these unique comrades also made me start to question other areas of life too. Here are just a few of the queries that I began asking myself following that initial run in with the architects of fate during this year’s cherry blossom season…

  • Why the hell am I not acting on all the health, wellness and longevity knowledge that I have accrued over the years? Why do I continually keep self-sabotaging my efforts to fix what I can easily fix?
  • Are my frequent struggles with anxiety, confidence and self-worth actually just the result of my failure to properly handle sleep, diet and exercise? Would nailing these make all the mental angst vanish completely?
  • What do “work” and “career” mean to me and does it need to be anything more than a way to fund my wanderlust? Do I really care about building a business and being well known as an industry leader?
  • What other systems can I set up that will create additional income with little to no further hourly requirements? How can I free up more time for traveling by reducing the need to do regular work?
  • Honestly speaking, how often do I actually want to be on the road? Am I just not traveling across Japan right now all the time due to the many in-person responsibilities that I am begrudgingly beholden to?
  • In all areas of my life, where am I just following societal norms and playing a game that’s been defined by someone else’s rules? Where should I be better about throwing out the standard playbook?
  • What’s the right balance for me between work and leisure? How much time should I put into paying the bills vs. seeking pleasurable experiences? What harm will a little bit of hedonism do here and there?
  • Is this stable but somewhat routine romantic relationship really something I want long term or would I be better suited to being more free? Is being with this person a choice or am I merely defaulting to the familiar here?
  • Why do I constantly keep getting sucked into the frames and realities of other people? How can I be more assertive with saying NO to what I don’t want so that I can get more out of life?
  • On that note, what do I really even want out of life? Aren’t many of my current ambitions actually just borrowed beliefs that don’t really strike a chord with my true self?
  • What other sacred cows have I not yet slaughtered out of ignorance or some arbitrary morality that doesn’t actually jive with my own standards and what I ultimately want out of life?

As you can see by the list of queries above, I’ve basically started questioning every possible aspect of my life. We’ve got career, fitness, leisure, meaning and even mental health in there. Talk about an upheaval…

An ink painting of of the Buddhist deity Benzaiten

Since I know everyone’s wondering, let’s now get back to the topic of Benzaiten and her sacred alabaster reptiles. You see, somewhere in the middle of all this madness, I started constantly coming across imagery of white snakes. At first, it seemed merely coincidental but the frequency of their appearances quickly started to border on the eerie. Reflecting, I think the first instance that I can recall is Obanai Iguro, the snake pillar from Kimetsu-no-Yaiba, and his serpent companion Kaburamaru. This character was like a mirror to soul as he also deeply struggled with feelings of self-worth.

I don’t want to get too much into why I strongly identified with the Obanai because it’s impossible to do so without spoiling the storyline for those who haven’t yet read the Demon Slayer manga. That said, this was one of the first clues on my path towards evolution. Seeing myself reflected in Obanai gave me some initial clues. In turn, these sent me down a self-discovery rabbit hole that ultimately led to giving hypnotherapy a try. Following this extremely deep and intense self-work, all the various questions listed above started popping up thereby leading to a full-on questioning of my life’s path.

Around this time, I also started going quite hard on prolonged fasting again. When coupled with the aforementioned hypnotherapy, the starvation-induced clarity helped me gain new perspective. Now, those that follow me on Instagram already know this but I always wear a snake bone bracelet when doing extended fasts. The trinket is just annoying enough to remind me of the fact that I am not supposed to be stuffing my gullet with food until the decided upon time. Though I’ve been using it for some time now, the snake bone bracelet was yet another instance of reptiles overtaking my attention.

Still with me? Good! If you’ve bothered to read this far, you likely want to know what the hell the cultural significance of the white snakes is. Without going entirely full on #DonnyThings mode on you, the short answer is basically that they are heavily associated with the Buddhist deity Benzaiten, the patron goddess of water, eloquence, music and knowledge. Considered to be omens of good fortune in many Asian cultures, the motif of a white snake is often heavily correlated with financial success. Given that one of my new goals was location-independent income, the imagery was very much on point.

The tunnel-like entrance to Zeniarai Benten in Kamakura

After learning more about Benzaiten and her white snake’s connection with entrepreneurship and financial success, I again hit up Zeniarai Benten in Kamakura with my close friend and travel companion Cheeserland. This ancient shrine is dedicated to Benzaiten and reptilian companions. More importantly though, Zeniarai Benten is famous for its mystical powers to double any amount of money that’s washed in its sacred waters. If you’re looking to make it big, consider swinging by this often-neglected shrine in Kamakura (and for you crypto people, don’t forget your cold storage wallets)!

Somewhere along my journeys across Japan, I also ended up collecting a number of other snake paraphernalia. For example, I now constantly wear a snake-shaped omamori ring that I got from Enoshima Shrine as well in addition to another serpentine band that I purchased on my return pilgrimage to Iwakuni (which is famous for its white snakes). As with the snake-bone bracelet and prolonged fasting, these adornments serve as constant reminders to “just follow the white snake” as I like to say in regards to wherever the hell destiny is trying to pull me right now.

While I am still unsure what the fates have in store for me, I now understand that I need to better free my time from the need to make money. Thus far, I’ve already taken a lot of steps in this direction by opting to leave my role as head of digital marketing at AdVertize to be a freelancer. Though this was a difficult decision to part with a friend, it was ultimately the right one. Painful as it was to pull the trigger, my financial bases now entirely covered with freelance marketing work. With my feet unfettered from the need to be in one place, I am now far better equipped to travel across Japan at leisure.

The post town of Tsumago-juku on the Nakasendo trade route

These days, I get asked a lot what my “end game” is for all of this. Honestly, I am still figuring a lot of things out and my journey towards shedding my old skin is by no means complete. For now, I know that I want to be of service to Japan and use my marketing prowess to help places and people that I care about find success online. At the same time though, I am also not blind to the fact that these endeavors likely won’t lead to massive financial windfalls. This means that I’ll need another monetizable pathway that allows me to be of assistance without the expectation of compensation.

How do I plan to do this? Well, in addition to investing in cryptocurrencies, I also intend to launch some products that are synergistic with my online persona. For example, I am currently considering putting together a course on how to go from having zero followers to being able to be a full-time content creator. Though I’ve since been bitten by the travel bug, I originally started promoting Japan’s off of the beaten path destinations simply as a means of showcasing that I knew what I was talking about. Thanks to this, I know all the tricks of the trade when it comes to scaling accounts online.

Frankly speaking, the past few months have seriously been a wild, nonstop adventure. Looking back to my life just before this spring, I would have never imagined that this much change was possible. Compared to where I was only around 100 or so days ago, every aspect of my life is now different. All in all, I’ve resigned from the company I was helping to build, unchained myself from the need to always be in Tokyo, found a group of guys that are now like family to me and adjusted a great many other areas of my personal life. Additionally, I’ve also done a great deal of deep work on myself through hypnotherapy.

Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park during the cherry blossom season

These days, I cannot help but reflect and think about how minor events like linking up with an old friend in Yoyogi Park can entirely alter the course of one’s destiny. That seemingly inconsequential affair ended up being a causal inflection point. Had our paths not crossed that day, I likely would have continued to abjectly chug along on the linear life trajectory that I was on. It’s insane to think of just how much change a single chance encounter like that can have on one’s life. While I tend towards agnosticism, it’s experiences like this that make one question whether there might be a guiding hand of fate.

In closing, all I can do right now is to continue to follow the white snake omens and let the wheel of fortune take me where it will. Though it’s indeed quite terrifying to not be in the driver’s seat right now, not moving forward would be an insult to the many interpersonal relationships that I’ve had to sacrifice to get where I am today. Rather than dishonor their memory by shying away from this vortex of change, I’ll keep embracing whatever the fates have in store for me. At least in my mind, this is the only way that I can take full responsibility for all of the metaphorical blood now on my hands.

Until next time travelers…