Friday, December 27, 2013

Starbucks Holiday Season in Japan

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Holiday season is my favorite time of year.

Not because of the romance in the wind, or the sound of autumn leaves cracking under your feet.
Not because of Christmas or New Years, or even the long holidays I have enjoyed in both the U.S. and Japan.

It’s because holiday seasons, means holiday drinks at Starbucks.



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For the past three years (2010-2012) I have had the good fortune of being in the U.S. and having the Caramel Brulee latte, which is my obsession from November to January each year.

Now I live in Japan, thousand of miles from the Caramel Brulee latte, and I had to find a way to survive without it.

Fortunately Starbucks in Japan has it’s own unique collection of holiday drinks.
Here’s the line up:

Crushed Marron (Chestnut) Pie Latte
Caramel White Mocha
Gingerbread Latte


I tried the Crushed Marron Pie Latte for the first time in Hiroshima. Impressions: hmm, kinda nasty. There are way too many toppings on this drink to make it drinkable. I especially disliked the nut shavings, which became tasteless and flacky, like bits   of paper floating in the drink.

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The Gingerbread Latte came in to save the day. True to its name, it has all of the sweetness of gingerbread, with none of the spice (I hate spicy drinks). This is definitely a holiday classic everyone can enjoy, even if you are not a Starbucks fan.

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I had high expectations for the Caramel White Mocha, since it seemed to bare resemblance to the Caramel Brulee Latte. Unfortunately it doesn’t take the place of my treasured holiday drink in the states, but it is pretty damn good. Imagine a white chocolate mocha with caramel topping. You got the idea.

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After having each of these drinks in their hot version, well “light hot” version, I decided to try their frappuccino versions as well. Since Japanese does such a damn good job with Frappuccinos, (i.e. the Chocolate Brownie Frappuccino this summer, or the Roasted Almond Frappuccino this fall), I figured that this holidays variations would be just as good.

In general, I prefer to have a hot latte in the morning. Maybe it’s American of me, but I don’t want the first thing I put in my mouth in the morning to be a liquid cake. So I had my frappuccinos in the evening. 

As expected, the Gingerbread Frappuccino was amazing. Similar to the Tazo Chai Frapp, it had a nice mixture of spice and creamy sweetness. 

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The Caramel White Mocha Frapp was a little disappointing, and tasted almost just like a regular Caramel Frapp. 

If you are in Japan this winter, go for the hot version instead!



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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas in Kobe

My first and only night in Kobe was spent here, at the Luminarie,  the annual holiday light festival. 

This event commemorates the earthquake in 1995. This was especially symbolic because I traveled to Kobe with a Japanese friend who was living in Osaka, just one hour away, at the time of the earthquake. Almost twenty years later, she vividly remembers that earthquake, like so many will remember the Tohoku earthquake of 2011. 

What you can't know from looking at these photos is the beautiful choral music that played through the streets as visitors walked under this cathedral of lights.

This will forever be one of my best holiday memories. 


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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Friday, December 20, 2013

What did I buy in Fukuoka and Nagasaki?

I've become a frugal traveler while in Japan, since my trips are now practically occurring every weekend.

Long gone are the days when I used to bring an empty suitcase to Japan and haul back my own body weight's worth of souvenirs and clothing.  Now I have neither the space or the money for such indulgences, so I decided that I will commemorate my time in Japan by purchasing a pair of chopsticks from every town I visit. This is cheap, space-efficient, and practical (as I currently one have three pairs of chopsticks at my house). 

In Fukuoka, I bought a little extra, mainly the Starbucks mug, which I had wanted for some time, and a unicorn luggage badge from Frapbois, which was too good to pass up. 

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Chopsticks, unicorn luggage badge, and Starbucks tumbler

In Nagasaki I picked up two pairs of chopsticks near Glover Garden, as well as some edible omiage for my coworkers. The castella I saved for myself. 


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Chopsticks, Omiage, and Castellas

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Why Write-ins Work

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I have had the good fortune of being surrounded by creative people throughout my life. 

In Portland, this meant that every winter season my friend and fellow writer Albert William and I  would spend winter afternoons at Starbucks in Pioneer Square, writing, talking, and talking about writing. In the summer, we would take a road trip to the coast of Oregon and write in local cafes

In Shimane, where I live without Albert William or Starbucks, this tradition has taken the form of weekly dinners with the only other two foreign residents in town. We three girls take up six seats at the bar counter of a local Cafe-Bar and write and talk while sipping lattes and eating Japanese versions of Italian food. 

In Okayama I attended my first organized write-in for NaNoWriMo. After that experience I decided to talk about the importance of write-ins, which are basically social gatherings of writers. Being around creative people has influenced me in the best possible way, and I want to share a bit about the social aspects of being a writer. 

First, I will list the advantages of a write-in:
1. Most importantly, you can exchange ideas and work out obstacles in the story, while sharing advice and inspiration.
2. The group atmosphere can help you focus. In my case, I work better in public places, although  I know not everyone does. If you are around people who are also writing, it may help you to stay on track. 
3. Social fuel:  what I describe as the "feeling" of being productive. I know that if I stay home all day, even if I am writing or checking things off my to-do list, I still feel majorly unproductive. Going out, at least once a day, is necessary for me to feel like my life in progressing.
4. Being in public settings stimulates the senses, (at least for me). Sometimes the scene in the cafe creeps into your story subconsciously.

IMG_6644However, there are also a few challenges in doing write-ins:
1. Conversation, and too much socializing. This is especially difficult if you are meeting people for the first time. The social norms says that we have to sit and chat for a while before burying our faces in our laptop screens. 
2. Everyone is working on different stories, topic, and content, and it can be distracting. Sometimes the fact that you may have nothing in common with a group can be more of a hinderance than a benefit.  
3. Some places are sensory overload, especially if they are too loud or too crowded. 
4. Finding a location for a big group of people for a long time is difficult. Most cafes have limited seating, especially for groups, and you usually can't make reservations. 

So what's necessary for making a write-in successful? Here are my thoughts:
1. A table: having a laptop directly in front of my face keeps me looking at the screen instead of at other people. For this reason, I'm not very productive on a couch or in living-room environments. 
2. Bar counters: sitting next to each other, instead of across from each other, limits conversation, without completely restricting it. 
3. Endless lattes.
4 Time limits and breaks (max fours hours with a short break after two hours, for me).

Although NaNo has ended, I  look forward to continue writing alongside my amazingly talented friends. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Hiroshima Street snap

Took this snap on the streets in Hiroshima. Finally got a chance to wear this awesome vintage fur coat I bought at Goodwill in Portland for $15. 
How I do miss Goodwill here....

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Coat: vintage from Goodwill
Blouse: American Apparel
Satchel: Steve Madden
Skirt: thrited from a used clothing store in Izumo


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Hiroshima at dusk. My favorite city. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

NaNoWriMo Victory!


This is what success looks like. 
30 days, 50,413 words, and 3 bottles of wine later I have an almost-finished novel to my name. 


A toast to myself
On November 1st I took part in National Novel Writing Month and set the lofty goal of completing 50,000 words for my novel by the end of the month. It was my first attempt at NaNo, and I managed to pull it off. 

How did I do it?

Well, when all is said and done, 50,000 words is really not that much. It takes effort, focus, and discipline, but it is 100% doable. I've heard a lot of people complain about how challenging NaNo is for people who work full-time or are just plain busy. However, having completed it myself, I am struggling to understand their point of view. Let me break it down:


I managed to accomplish NaNo while:

-        working 40 hours a week (8:00-4:00, plus one 7-day work week, and three late nights until 9:30 pm)
-        going on one 2-night out-of-town business trips
-        hosting an enormous house party
-        making two weekend trips (Okayama and Hiroshima)
-        running 5K every non-rainy day
-        skyping with my family back home several times a week
-        keeping my one-a-week dinner date with the only two foreigners in my town
-        making a new friend and hanging out once a week
-        taking days off from writing
-        taking naps after work

So what's this myth of literary abandon? If I can still take naps and chill with my friends then it can't be all that intense, right? But you're probably wondering what I did give up to make NaNo happen, because, after all, if I was writing 50,000 words every month then I wouldn't need this event to motivate me. So here is a list of things forgone in order to accomplish NaNo:

-        sleeping in on the weekends (was up by 9:00 every morning, when I usually sleep in until noon)
-        blogging (I scheduled posts in advance during November)
-        writing long emails to my pen-pals (sorry guys!)
-        reading (I usually finish at least one book per month but not in November)!


So what does actually writing 50,000 words in one month look like? Here is my case:


Day
Date
Comments
Goals Words
Actual Words
Friday
1
work
1000
996
Saturday
2
work
1000
1011
Sunday
3
work
1000
0
Monday
4
no work!
4000
4591
Tuesday
5
no work!
4000
0
Wednesday
6
late night
500
2007
Thursday
7
work
1000
0
Friday
8
work
3000
2405
Saturday
9
Hiroshima
3000
2997
Sunday
10
Hiroshima
3000
0
Monday
11
work
1000
438
Tuesday
12
work
1000
2261
Wednesday
13
late night
500
959
Thursday
14
business trip
0
1620
Friday
15
business trip
0
0
Saturday
16
house party
1000
0
Sunday
17
no work!
4000
0
Monday
18
work
1000
1050
Tuesday
19
work
1000
2235
Wednesday
20
late night
500
1398
Thursday
21
work
1000
1042
Friday
22
work
1000
997
Saturday
23
Okayama
4000
8819
Sunday
24
Okayama
4000
1592
Monday
25
work
1000
1173
Tuesday
26
work
1000
4799
Wednesday
27
work
500
3210
Thursday
28
work
1000
3495
Friday
29
work
2000
1318
Saturday
30
no work!
3000
0





50000
50413


As you can see, there were quite a few days in which I intended to write and wrote nothing, while other days I wrote way over my goal. Also, you can see that my word count improved towards the end of the month, after I was able to overcome a few creative hurdles and get into writing mode. NaNo is really good training for people like me: people who call themselves "writers" but don't write regularly. NaNo forces you to write, and in my case, it forced me to really think about my novel, make a solid outline of the story, and prepare extensive to-do lists.  

Before this, I didn't know much about myself as a writer. Now, I have a much better understanding of my strengths and limitations. 

10 Lessons Learned
  1. If I don’t start writing before 9:00 pm, I probably won't get anything done. I previously I imagined myself to be some kind of night owl, and while the late hours tend to bring more poetic thoughts into my mind, those thoughts don't always make their way on to the paper at 1:00 am. 
  2. Two hours is as long as I can sit at a cafĂ© before I need a break from the computer. Sometimes I just need to change tables or face a different direction. Sometimes I need to leave and walk around, but whatever it is, my internal clock says two hours. 
  3. I do my best writing after 5:00 pm, so working full-time from 8:00-4:00 is no excuse!
  4. In reality, even if I'm free all day, I can only write for a max of five hours. This is sad but true. I guess that kills my dream of being a professional writer. 
  5. Planning ahead and making outlines helps me stay on track,  especially when my creativity is drained. Daily to-do lists and outlines are a must for me!
  6. Write-in’s work! Instead of finding other people distracting, I find that they often help me focus.
  7. I don’t really need any background music.
  8. I prefer to keep a routine schedule but I need variation at least once a week. For example my Tuesday write-ins from 6:00-10:00 were something I looked forward to every week, and I knew I would get a lot doen, but on the weekends I liked to change my routine. 
  9. I focus better in public than at the home no matter how much of a (freezing) oasis my home is. For some reason, being out in public keeps my focus on the screen and stuck in my story. At home I get distracted by skype and social media. 
  10. I didn’t drink as much alcohol as I thought, and drinking doesn’t actually inspire me, help me focus, or make me a better writer.
So what is the status of my novel now? Well,  it is still a long way from completion. I  need to do a lot of research into the details, which means fact-checking and site-visits. I also need to embellish my writing. Just because I wrote 50,000 words does not mean they are all good. It will take a while for me to edit the story for overall quality. 
But I won't worry about any of that now. 

The point is that I am done!
Cheers to me!

Cafes of Taipei

Last time I was in Taipei, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of cafes present on every street corner, I didn't ev...