Saturday, November 30, 2013

Journey to the Daizaifu Tenmangu Starbucks

To wrap up a very successful second visit to Fukuoka, I decided to spend my last morning in the city with a relaxing trip to the famous Dazaifu Tenmangu Starbucks.

When I was in Fukuoka five years ago, this place did not exist, and I had no reason to travel 40 minutes from the city center to Dazaifu. Now with the presence of one of the most iconic Starbucks stores in the world, I thought I world at least make a trip there for a coffee.

Little did I know that my relaxing sojourn would turn into an epic crusade.

First of all, there are two Starbucks in Dazaifu. One of them is the famous Starbucks at Tenmangu Station, the other is a drive-through Starbucks in a quiet suburb of the city.
Yeah, I know. I know because I went there by mistake, and my 40 minute commute became 2 hours as I studied my GPS thinking,
“Goddamn this place is really off the grid.”

So my point is, be careful when you look up direction for Starbucks in Dazaifu. Don’t do what I did.

But on the bright side, I know possess a vivid image of what a Fukuoka suburb looks like. So vivid that I should probably write about it, so that trip is not in vain.

Now I will share a few images from my mis-adventure. I think you'll find a subtle and raw beauty to them that is not as deliberate as the Tenmangu Starbucks:

IMG_6438 IMG_6437 IMG_6436

When I realized my mistake I re-routed my GPS and was back on track to the real Dazaifu Starbucks which was about one hour away, including walking time. By the time I made it there I was hot, sweaty, sun burnt, and only a time to sit for a few minutes before returning to the city to catch my train to Nagasaki.  

The fruit of my labor is in these photos, in which I tried to capture the harmony of the Tenmangu Starbucks. 

starbucks tenmangu collage small

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Fukuoka Revisited

The bridge in the day time

It’s been five years since I was last in Fukuoka, and when I returned this year, it was to a very different city, or was it?

As I walked from Tenjin to Hakata Station at 2:00 a.m., and sobering up from a night of drinking with old and new friends, I wondered if the city really changed, or if I had.

Five years ago, Fukuoka was the least memorable excursion of a two-month long trip through Japan. I was on a tourist visa, and armed with a JR Rail Pass, which allowed me to ride the bullet trains all over the country. I stopped in Fukuoka for three days. It was just after a most memorable time in my favorite city, Hiroshima, but just before I was meeting some friends in rural Shikoku.

I was alone in Fukuoka. I wondered the streets and ate yatai and tried to find a piece of myself in this city but it didn’t work. It felt line a non-character in an characterless city.
But one night, I met a man on the street who would become one of my very best friend for life. The kind of friend who would fly from Australia to be “man of honor” at my wedding this summer. The kind of friend you meet on the street when you are two foreigners in a city with one hostel (um, there is now more than one hostel in Fukuoka).  

He was a tourist from Australia, midway through a months-long trip like myself.
He asked for directions, I asked him out for a drink.
The rest is history.

On that fateful night, we also met two Japanese girls at Tsutaya Bookstore’s Starbucks. It was 2:00 am. One girl approached me in English and said her friend wanted to speak to me. I don’t remember that girl at all now, but I remember her friend.
We kept in touch over the year through social media, and I met that friend-of-a-stranger-in-a-bookstore once again on my trip to Fukuoka.
In fact, she’s my friend now.

We had an amazing meal at a popular Fukuoka restaurant. The course dishes were from various parts of Kyushu, with the main entry being Fukuoka-style Motsu-nabe, which is a soup of intestines. It was one of the best meals of my life.
And by the way, that friend-of-a-stranger-who-is-now-my-friend also bought along a friend of her own, who is now also my friend.

We capped of the night with karaoke in a smoky room in Tenjin.

And I walked back to my hostel at Hakata station, but not before stopping to pause at bridge in the middle of the night. The scene demanded more than a passing glance.
I stayed there for several minutes, looking out at the cityscape, until I realized that I was drunk, and leaning over a bridge at 2:00 am, and it probably made for a worrisome scene.

The bridge at night

I decided this year that I love Fukuoka.

Because I met my best friend there five years ago.  
Because I have friends living there now.
Because I had an awesome meal of cow intestines.
Because of the beautiful scene at the bridge at night.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

An Idealist in Islamabad

Just outside the Faisal Mosque, I meet a young, outspoken poet who was the son of a Karachi father and a Pashtun mother. My friend,  a globe-trotting , NGO-working, peace activist introduced us. There, in the sunlit gardens of the largest mosque in Pakistan, I chatted with two of the country's young dreamers. 

Islamabad is a city of dreamers
Islamabad itself, is the dream of dreamers.

What was little more than a mountainous terrain half a century ago became the capital of Pakistan in just a few short years.
Construction broke in 1960. Fifty years later, I’m walked in the quiet gardens of the Faisal Mosque. 

In the daylight, the peaks of mountains would be illuminated, but at night the backdrop is patterned with stars out to the horizon. I haven’t seen such a sky since I went camping in the hills of west Texas when I was fourteen years old. I didn’t know that the next time I would behold such a scene would be from a rooftop in Islamabad. 
Such uncertainties are worth living to discover.

The next day we walked down the wide paved roads only dreamers could imagine, we ate quesadillas in cafes and drank juice from street vendors that only the dreamers could have dreamed. And in the parking lot of a pizza restaurant we met the birdcage man.

He crouches over on a curb in the parking lot.
Rubber sandals worn down to the sole, dirty toes hanging over the edges. His face hides behind a wiry beard.
At each end of a long stick he carries two small wire cages, hundreds of birds squeezed to the rims, their tiny heads poking out between the wires, gasping for freedom.

He is selling the birds, but not to keep. When a patron pays him sixty rupees, he will release one lucky bird into the open sky.

 It brings good fortune, he says, more good fortune than slaughtering a goat.

We can feel free too, watching this bird fly away from its captor, who is now sixty rupees richer.

The birdcage man is a dreamer, living in a city of dreams. But he doesn’t live the dream others do. 
He stares out at them through his cage, nor more free than the birds he carries.

This scene is one of the many juxtapositions I witnessed in Pakistan, where the lives of the rich and poor intersect. Change comes at the hands of the privileged elite, but  I take comfort in knowing that some of these elite are people like my friends.  People with education, interests, ambitions. People who live and breath peace, tolerance,  and equality. 
People with dreams.  

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Back in Osaka, I'm wearing

Fall is in full swing and I finally had a good excuse to wear this old classic of mine. I updated it a bit since I last wore it. Now it looks less Hobbit-ish. 

IMG_6585 IMG_6587

Poncho and Belt: Made by me
Pants and Undershirt: Uniqlo
Tote:  from the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo, Norway
Shoes: Ether

Monday, November 18, 2013

My Go-To in Osaka: Standard Bookstore and Cafe


Every writer has to have a go-to place to write, read, sip coffee. In my case, I need one in each city I travel, and in every country I live. After chronicling the writer-paradises of Astoria and Ashland in Oregon, this post will be my first in a series detailing the lovely cafes of rural and urban Japan.

First, it is important to mention that the word “café” has a slightly different meaning in Japan than the image I took with me from the states. True to definition, a café in Japan is any place that serves light meals and drinks. Seriously, they don’t even have to necessarily serve coffee, which I thought was a requisite of a café.

Being from Portland, my definition of a café requires the following criteria:
-       Coffee and espresso in the form of frothy and sweetened lattes
-       Wifi
-       Ordering at the counter, and not having a waiter check up on you
-       Seating for single people
-       The ability to bring your laptop and sit there uninterrupted for at least two hours without  feeling pressured to order something else or leave

I know some people are going to tell me, “you’re just thinking of Starbucks,” to which my answer is yes, I am thinking of Starbucks…and Coffeehouse Northwest, and Barista, and Peets, and Stumptown, and Insomnia, and Ava, and World Cup, and Sisters, and….
…I am obviously way too spoiled being from Portland.

Such cafes are much harder to find in Japan, where almost every place hands you a menu and assigns you a seat, wifi is rare, coffee only comes in one form: black, no one knows what a latte is, you are expected to order a food item with your drink, and you better hurry up and leave because the place only has 10 seats and you are taking up a table for 4 while 15 people wait in line outside.

Alright, I am exaggerating a bit, but this is pretty characteristic of my experience in Japan.

So when I moved here, armed with a MacBook Air and insatiable desire for lattes, I set out on a quest to find true cafes in this country.

Let’s start in Osaka.


I have to admit that I didn’t find the Standard Bookstore and Café by my own wits or intuition, it was introduced to me by a friend and local designer who has long been frequenting this café.

The Standard is an edgy bookstore selling an array of hard-to-find magazines, and boasting a hefty collection of art and fashion books. The rest of the merchandise consists of mostly quirky novelties, canvas totes, and anything that might be worn by creative people who read hard-to-find magazines.

The Standard also has one of the largest and most laid back cafes in the city.
In a place as dense as Osaka, it’s not easy to find a place with seating for more than 15 people. For that reason, spending all day at any one place is a bit tricky. The Standard Café however, has such an excess of space and seating, that it is often the used for hosting lectures and public readings. Some days the whole café is devoted to an event  (the one down side of relaying on the Standard) and other days the café is partitioned into an event space, and café space.


So let’s revisit the list of criteria:

1.    Coffee and Espresso in the form of frothy and sweetened lattes
Ø  Yes…but no on the lattes, they are sweetened but not frothy. The drinks are good though.
2.    Wifi
Ø  No, but I have not had a pressing need for it
3.    Ordering at the counter, and not having a waiter check up on you
Ø  Yes, its great
4.    Seating for singles
Ø  Yes, there are long counters and one large banquet table that can comfortable seat 20 single people
5.    The ability to bring your laptop and sit there uninterrupted for at least two hours without  feeling pressured to order something else or leave

Ø  Yes, it is a bookstore so they expect you to be reading for hours. This is probably the best thing about the Standard. 




Friday, November 15, 2013

NaNoWriMo Progress Report

Me in my winter spot

Well, I'm 15 days into November and halfway through NaNoWriMo. My goal is to write 50,000 words by the end of this month. 

Just a quick update. I'm more or less on track, but about 4 hours or 4,715 words behind schedule.
Here are a few notes on my challenges and successes so far: 


  1. Lack of creativity and inspiration: I anticipated that this would be a problem, given that I’ve written so little in the last few years. This is basically what I face every day when I sit down staring at my computer screen thinking, “I really don’t know what to say.” To remedy this issue, I’ve started outlining scenes that need to be written in advance, so that I don’t have to waste precious writing time.  
  2. Lack of energy to write. Too many nights this month I’ve sat down at my computer at 11:00 pm with every intent to write 2,00 words and instead fallen asleep after 300...or none. The fact is, it takes energy to write, especially after a long day at work when my social capacity is drained, and entering into a world of my own creation is just too exhausting.
  3. Lack of time to write. I thought I wouldn’t encounter this issue since I scheduled my writing time out for the whole month. Pacing myself with a reasonable word count per day and even allowing for days when I knew I would have little free time. Well, we all know that’s not how life works. Actually, things unexpectedly come up and woops, there goes your weekend. I am also not willing to give up socializing and running each day...


1.   Haven’t wasted any time. Once I realized that I needed to plan out my topics and scenes ahead of time, this saved me precious minutes staring blankly at the computer screen .
2.  Got a lot of organizing done. My digital writing folder went from fragments, paragraphs, and random quotes on ambiguously-named documents to being sorted, organized, and in chronological order of the story.
3.  Been pretty disciplined. I have been more or less sticking to the schedule time-wise and word-count wise. I have let my lack of time and energy get the best of me, so I am slightly behind, but as of today it seems I will be able to catch up by next week!

Progress Report

The kotatsu

Goals Words
Actual Words
no work!
no work!
Late night
Late night
Business trip
Business Trip

Goals Word Count: 24,000
Current Word Count: 19,285
Difference: 4,715

My writing haven: the kotatsu. November in Japan brought with it some freezing cold temperatures, so I have been basically living under the kotatsu, which is a heated table with a blanket sandwiched in between two plies of wood. The blanket helps keep the heat in, so I can write warmly for hours... 

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 ...