Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Caribou Coffee: The airports of the Midwest

Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport

Here I have been back from the Midwest for months now, and  I forgot to write about Caribou! 

About 2 years ago I was sent to Minneapolis on a business trip. That whole week ranks as one of the worst in my entire life. Everything about that trip was eerily off base. At every restaurant my order came out wrong. I was mistaken for someone else at least once a day. I kept confusing the dates, times, and locations of meetings. Anyways, everything sucked about that trip but one thing: Caribou Coffee. 

Living on the west coast, I had never heard of this small Midwestern coffee chain until coming to Minneapolis 2 years ago. After trying the Vanilla White Chocolate Mocha I had to sneak out between meetings twice a day to get more Caribou!

I was so happy when I had a layover in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and I got to have Caribou once more! 

Let me tell you, this Mocha was so good that my food blogger friend even blogged about it.

Vanilla White Chocolate Mocha

I also got to visit Caribou in Chicago O'Hare!

The seasonal Pumpkin Spice mocha

Monday, January 28, 2013

Friday, January 25, 2013

Applying for my first Tourist Visa

Recently I have discovered something more stressful than buying international plane tickets, more stressful than packing for a three-week trip, more stressful than reserving hotel rooms and squeezing a three-week itinerary into three days….

Applying for a tourist visa.

As a U.S. citizen I now fully realize how lucky I am to be able to visit dozens of countries without applying for a tourist visa in advance,  because the visa application process sucks. 

Now I know how much work my friends from China and India have to deal with all the time. Being at the mercy of a foreign embassy is an anxiety-inducing waiting game.

It is also surprising to me that I have traveled my whole life without ever having to apply for a tourist visa until now. It’s true, I have been able to just show up at every country I have visited. Although I did have two scares: once when I passed through London Heathrow on my way to Prague, a British Airways employee looked at my ticket and said, “Don’t you need a visa to go to the Czech Republic?” And after I just about fainted, he said, “Oh wait, never mind.”
Another time I was talking with an airport employee in Tokyo Narita, who was certain I needed a visa to go to Taiwan. Apparently this was true at one point, but more recently U.S. citizens can travel to Taiwan for 30 days without a visa, so I made it there after all.

No way around it this time. I’ve got to apply for a tourist visa.
And where am I going?


Why? Well, I’ll get into that another time, but I will be attending the wedding of two good friends. God willing.

So what’s the problem? Why am I stressing out over this? Well, besides this being the first time in my life that I’ve had to apply for a visa, this application process is just slightly less rigorous than applying to grad school.

I submitted no fewer than the following items to the Consulate General of Pakistan:

  1. Complete visa application plus one copy
  2. Four photographs
  3. My original passport
  4. A check for $120
  5. A copy of my driver’s license
  6. An invitation letter from my friend’s father
  7. A copy of the wedding invitation
  8. A copy of my friend’s father’s Pakistani ID and passport
  9. Employment verification letter
  10. A letter from my supervisor stating that I have been approved for leave
  11. A copy of my resume
  12. A recent bank statement

Whew! Glad to be done with that. 

Wish me luck!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

What do I buy in Taiwan?

I was just in Taiwan this past spring, and after discussing what I buy in Japan, I thought I should mention what I got this trip in Taiwan.

Compared to Tokyo, Taipei is really a shopping paradise. They have all the same expensive brands I love in Japan, but they also offer a cheaper alternative.  First of all,  Taipei has night markets, and because Taiwan is a large manufacturer of many products, there are also warehouses with endless bins of cheap merchandise. You won't find such bargains in Japan. 

Because I was only in Taiwan for a few days I didn't get a chance to buy very much stuff, but here are some things I brought home with me:

1. Taiwanese candies!

This company is very famous in Taiwan and makes the best candies. Both are chewy, nougat sweets. One is almond flavored and the other is milky (I like the almond one best). These sweets are also packaged wonderfully, so they make great gifts.

2. Clothes from the night market 

I didn't plan on doing any clothing shopping in Taiwan. Like most places in Asia (except Hong Kong) I'm too tall and too wide for almost all clothing. However, I somehow manage to fit the "free-size" in Japan and Taiwan, so when my friend and I say some cute dresses at a night market stand, we decided to buy them at a discount.   

Full disclosure, I did have to alter them a bit to fit me. Basically, the bodice was too short (i.e. the waist was fitting right under my bust), so I added about 4" of fabric to the shoulders. (that's a nice little trick, by the way). You can see the dress on the left has black fabric added to the shoulders, but I think it turned out to be a nice design feature. 

I had a chance to wear both dresses this summer. You can see my photos here.

3. Books and magazines

Yes, I am learning how to read Chinese, so these aren't just for show. On the left is a women's fashion magazine, and on the right is a famous queer book called Notes of a Crocodile (which I hear is finally being translated in English!). This combination  is just soooooooo typically me: Fashion and culture.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Journey to Izumo: The walk

After leaving Izumotaisha-Mae station you are faced not with the Izumo Taisha itself, but with a long road stretching in two directions.
And which direction is the Taisha? 
To the right.
And what happens if you go to the left?
You come across a strange rock sculpture. 

But you probably didn't go all this way to see the sculpture (though it is interesting), you can here to see the Taisha. So, to the Taisha we go.

The right direction

The street is lined with beautiful pine trees. In the distance you can see the deep forest green mountains. The Taisha is deep in those woods, about a 15 minutes walk away. So long of a walk in fact, that we were often wondering if we were indeed going in the right direction. 

To keep one entertained, there are many interesting sights along the way. For example, observe this mysterious and elusive night club called, "Live" (pronounced like "live show" not the verb "to live"). So the Japanese indicates that this is a "snack bar," which is like a hostess bar, but less expensive...and with snacks. Snack bars are apparently all you have to choose from for adult entertainment in the countryside.

check out this guy, walking suspiciously out of "live"

Just before the shrine, we met  an old man and woman making Kinako mochi on the side of the street. Thinking this opportunity was too rare to pass up, I bought some, and stuffed it in my mouth while walking obtrusively along the street
. (In Japan, it is a  huge cultural faux pas to eat while walking). 

waiting in line for mochi

I never ceased to be amused by the sights of rural Japan. Even this shanty alley holds some kind of mysterious appeal to me.

a random ally

After we ate our mochi and walked up a steep hill, we turned around to snap this photo. The station is just in front of the white gate (on the left), and the mochi stand is directly off to the left (where you see the purple banner), to give you an idea of the distance. 

the view from atop the hill

Along the way we passed a strange residence. 

 I was sort of fascinated by this random house. There are almost no windows, and the driveway is enormous! What is anyone going to do with all that gravel? Seems odd to me. That strange house almost made me forget about Izumo Taisha. Well, you know you are close when you pass this house.

a random house with a large gravel front yard

Finally we've reached the entrance to the Taisha! Too bad there was a lot of construction going on when we were there. It kind of detracted from its ancient look. Oh well...

you've made it!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Mad Men-themed work party

At work we had a "Mad Men" themed party
This is odd because I work in an office of all women. 

That day I wore a retro dress which I made, and my grandmother's cream coat
That same evening, I attended a party on a boat. 
These pictures are from on deck. They are not very good pictures and we didn't take many because it was freezing! 

Coat: vintage from grandma
Dress: My designs, Fall 2012 Collection
Shows: vintage

Monday, January 7, 2013

Journey to Izumo: Izumotaisha-mae Station

After a 20 minute trolley ride from Izumoshi Station through Japan's scenic rural countryside, one is greeted at IzumoTaisha-Mae station by this lonely sign.

As I may have mentioned, IzumoTaisha-Mae literally means, "in front of Izumo Taisha." This led me to believe that the station would literally be right in front of the Taisha (shrine)

I was a bit off in that assumption. 

The Taisha is another 15 minute walk from the station. There are no clear signs to point the way (but there may be some not-so-clear signs), however upon exiting the station there is only one main road, so after glancing both ways, you have a 50% chance of guessing the direction correctly.

The arched ceilings and stained glass windows of the station reminded me of an old country church. The benches inside the station all faced the same direction, like rows of pews. I had wondered if in fact it was an old church that had been remodeled into a station, but alas, it is just an old western-style station. 

Don't be fooled by the "Information" sign in English. There was no English to be found in this neck of  the woods.

When we left the station, we actually guessed the right direction to the Taisha the first time, but we decided to take "the path less traveled" and see what was at the other end of  the road as well. We came across this large gate, and a very interesting stone sculpture.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Journey to Izumo: The Trolley

After our meal at Izumoshi Station, I decided the check the times for the trolley that leave for Izumo-taisha-mae station. When I approached the trolly stand, I was surprised to see it unstaffed, with only an old rusty ticket machine.

Apparently the trolly leaves only a few times a day, and we still had another hour to kill before the next departure. I bought my ticket and went to shop at the station's mini-mall, which consisted of a rock quarry, a man-made indoor pond, and about 8 shops. We were among the only people in the train station the whole time. The scene was terrible depressing, but somehow I was charmed by it.

Our classy ride

The trolly to Izumo is a tiny version of a train that shuffles passengers from the main hub of Izumo station, to the truly rural parts of Izumo.

The train itself looks to be from the 1960s or 70s. In fact, it is sort of charming that they haven't updated it in all these years. Why would they? There were barely any passengers when we were there.

Instead of the elaborate kaisatsuguchi (ticket gates) in the train stations fo Tokyo and Osaka, to board the Izumo trolly all you do is show your ticket to the man at the window, who only appears 15  minutes before the train departs, and promptly disappears afterwards. With only a few departures a day, it's hard to justify why he would need to work more.

Because we didn't want to haul our luggage with us to the Taisha, we checked into into a locker at Izumoshi stations. I had also, foolishly, hidden my umbrella on top of the locker, way out-of-sight from anyone, and yet somehow, when we returned, it vanished. It remains forever in Izumo

Looks totally legit

my friend just doing his thing

Along the way are many wonderful sights of the countryside. Rice fields, old Japanese rooftops. It was a gloomy day, the skies were streaked with grey and rain was falling intermittently. 

The train line is known as the Kita-matsue Line. After about 10 minutes of riding on the red velvet seats, who come to Kawato station, where everyone dismounts the trains, and boards an identical train for the Taisha  Line. Another ten minutes, go by, and you arrive at Izumo-Taisha-mae station, which  is appropriately named, "In front of Izumo Taisha" station.

Waiting to change train lines

View from the window 

Touchdown Tokyo

Every time I fly to Japan, I have this routine of changing clothes in one of the large, accessible stalls in the arrivals lobby. I would do ...