Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Writer’s Guide to Kyoto

My first impression of Kyoto was not a good one.
It wasn’t really Kyoto’s fault. 
It was mine.
I hate temples. 
And I hate tourists.

Kyoto was on the tail end of a three-month power-trip through Japan, and by the time I arrived I was exhausted. I slept all day in the hostel, then at night I wondered around the city. I tried to go to temples and shrines, but was so overwhelmed by the number of tourists, that I simply lost interest.  Instead of going to the famous Kiyomizu-dera which had long queues at the ticket counter, I happened upon an amazing cemetery nearby and spent a quiet afternoon in solitude there.

Refusing to take buses, I was limited by areas within walking distance of my hostel, which was basically no where. I found nothing of peculiar or unique about the city, so small pockets of oddities or interest. I ate generic food from generic restaurants and walked along well-lit streets. I had arrived in Kyoto with no agenda, and three brief days passed in boredom.

Returning to Japan for work five years later, I decided to give Kyoto another chance. I still hadn’t developed an interest in historical buildings or tourist sights, so I picked up the Kyoto Café Book and planned a trip tailored to my interests: food, coffee, and atmosphere. I narrowed down the options based on location and ambiance. I wanted a space where I could sit and write uninterrupted. I was also looking for unique, local settings, off the beaten path preferably.
And what was the result? I fell in love hopelessly in love with Kyoto. When I say I love the cityI’m talking about the quiet back streets in Karasuma, not the shop-filled streets of Shijo. When I spend four days in Kyoto I spend walking from one café to the next, talking to strangers, and telling stories, not peeking at the world through the lens of a camera, or hurriedly reading up on the details of an ancient temple, or trying to read a map instead of just simply looking around.

Kyoto is a city for the senses. It’s a quiet place.
 It has an easy going culture which sharply contrasts with the anxiety that colors most Japanese cities.
It is a place to be savored, not scheduled.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Letters from Taipei 3

I kept a short diary in Taipei from December 25th, 2013, to January 6th 2014. I had no purpose for writing, other than to chronicle my observations, thoughts, and feelings from each day. Taipei in a city of nostalgia from an untraceable source, inextricably tied to its mood, which changes every moment, as the weather. 

January 1st, 2014

First entry of the new year.
We found a street cart selling stinky tofu in Gongguan. We ate from backless chairs made of plastic. Our seats were turned towards the counter, as hundreds of mopeds sped down the road to our backs, only inches away from use. We ate from a plastic plate with wrapped in a plastic bag. The mopeds roared to our backs. Any closer and they might hit us.
That’s how close we are to the racing, speeding, pumping pulse of this city.
It’s not a far of cry I the distance.
It’s not faint murmur in your sleep.
It’s an engine racing at your back.

Back up the concrete steps to the fourth floor apartment, when you look out of the wire balcony, you can see into every neighbors house. Some are cooking, others sitting on the floor watching TV, children running across the carpet. Behind every red-painted door, behind every rod-iron balcony, the full range of human emotions is being lived. We forget that when we stare at static buildings. Their unchanging, unfeeling structures makes the living breathing life within. We forget that behind ever window a full life is being lived. When I sit on the balcony I can feel romances and tragedies on every floor. Without knowing them, I can feel them. Seeing into my neighbors windows, seeing their mundane routines and their crass decorations, make me more aware of the explosion life behind the stone walls.
Whole books could be written about the life on this one street in the this one city in the world. This simple view from the balcony of a middle-class apartment in Taipei humble a writer like me. What can I possibly produce that could even come close to the rendering of human life in a forgotten pocket of Taipei…
So close to humanity, you can see it right through its windows. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Taipei 101 Starbucks

The Taipei 101, a view from the bottom

Since visiting a few awesomely unique Starbucks in Japan, I am collecting new opportunities every chance I get.

Nothing is too special about Taipei Starbucks. There are a few special drinks, but on the whole most store look like they do in Tokyo, and Portland, and everywhere else in the world.

However, there is one Starbucks in Taipei that has no equal on the planet, and that is the Taipei 101 Starbucks.

The visitor pass needed to get to Starbucks
Located on the 33rd floor of the Taipei 101, it is essentially an almost-free way to get to the almost-top of the Taipei 101.  But it is not advertised anywhere. There are no signs, and the process of getting up there is complicated at best.

First, avoid the main entrance of the Taipei 101. If you are in the mall, go outside and walk around until you see the business entrance. This is the entrance for people who work in the towers.  You will know you have found it when you see guards with suits standing outside.

Go into the lobby, and use the ticket machine to get a visit’s pass (you will need it to get on the elevator). The touchscreen is in English and Chinese. Look up Starbucks, then call them. We had to call a dozen or so times before they picked up.

You will make a reservation with them. We called at 2:00, and the soonest  we could get a reservation was 3:00 that same day. I am told that others have waiting even longer.

So we hung out for an hour, then went back to the machine and called Starbucks when our reservation was ready. Two cards popped out of the machine, one for each of us, and we scanned them before getting on the elevator. Once on the 33rd floor, there is a small sign for Starbucks.

When ordering drinks at the counter, you hand them your card, and the rest of the process is pretty normal. Drunks come out, and you sit there sipping them with the best view in the city.

Definitely a unique experience!  

The inside of Starbucks

Asian Dolce Latte and Mocha Praline
The many faces of Taipei: view from 101 Starbucks

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sakura Season at Starbucks


It’s back! Each spring Starbucks releases a new beverage and merchandise with a sakura (cherry blossom) theme. It’s a wonder how they can keep coming up with new drinks using the same flavor year after year, but it seems that whenever spring comes around, bigger and bigger crowds flock to Starbucks for the new latte.

This year, the flavor is Sakura Chocolate Latte. Strawberry flavor has also been a big trend, so Starbucks added strawberry toppings to their seasonal spring latte. Unfortunately the strawberry flavor overwhelms the sakura flavor, so that’s all I taste.

In hot form, it tastes like a strawberry white mocha. I don't like it much actually. The warm-fruit taste kind of grosses me out. Sorry Starbucks. 

Sakura Chocolate latte

In frappuccino form, its like a strawberry vanilla bean frappuccino. I like this drink a lot, but it's too summery considering that it snowed last week in Japan. 

Sakura Chocolate Frappuccino

Another source of excitement is the sakura merchandise. This year the design of the cherry blossom is juxtaposed with a geometric checkered background, creating a very edgy look. Most of the mugs and tumblers are already sold out around the country, but fortunately I was in Fukuoka for its debut (February 15th) so I grabbed a tumbler and mug.

Mugs and tumblers, most already sold out

Friday, March 14, 2014

Letters from Taipei 2

I kept a short diary in Taipei from December 25th, 2013, to January 6th 2014. I had no purpose for writing, other than to chronicle my observations, thoughts, and feelings from each day. Taipei in a city of nostalgia from an untraceable source, inextricably tied to its mood, which changes every moment, as the weather. 

December 26th, 2013 Taipei Xindian Starbucks 9:30 pm

Down a rain soaked ally, lined with motorcycles tipped against red doors, building and the wire windows lean into the street, five stories high in every direction. At the end of the street, the buildings surround you on all three sides. The sky is only visible if you look straight up. Even then, it’s coated in a thick mist. Like a forgotten mirror in the attic. Reflecting light from the city streets. You can see yourself in this mist, if you look long enough.
We woke up early and sauntered down the rainy streets to get breakfast. When we found it, we ate on a rickety wooden bench, sitting on plastic buckets that had been turned over and used as chairs. The rain was still steadily playing drums on tin roofs when we returned, and we slept two hours in the afternoon rain showers, the sound drumming us to sleep.
At dusk the city is painted over in grey, making the hour of the day indistinguishable. Defying time.
Winter here is just a kiss of cold air, just a light cold breath on your neck.
And when the sun sets there no theater of light dancing across the stage. It’s a slow performance. Without anyone noticing the sky, always an expanse of monochrome,  changes from a muted shade of pale blue, to the stillness of a pale grey, to a smoky charcoal color, then dimming low enough for the city lights to overpower it. The pinks and oranges and yellows come only with the neon of night. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Weekend Warrior: A Travel-holic's Life in rural Japan

Some may be wondering how I spend my weekends in a town of 3,000 people in the foothills of rural Japan. The short answer is: I don’t. Nearly every weekend I commute by car, bus, train, or plane to cities all over Japan.

If I am staying within Shimane prefecture, I usually drive my car out somewhere on Saturday or Sunday. Getting anywhere takes a minimum of 40 minutes to the nearest place that can be called a city (Oda), an hour to most other places (Hamada, Gotsu), and the farthest areas of interest from my town are about 2 hours away (Masuda, Izumo, Matsue). Typically I can get by with just a day trip, but sometimes I will stay overnight. Since I know so many people within the prefecture, I can usually find someone’s house to stay at, so I don’t have to drop money on a hotel. So far in Shimane, I have been to Ohnan, Oda, Gotsu, Hamada, Masuda, Izumo, and Matsue.

If I am traveling outside of the prefecture, but staying in Japan, things get more complicated. On Friday I finish work at 4:00 pm, then I board a 5:00 pm bus, and arrive at Hiroshima station two hours later. From there I can go anywhere in Japan by bullet train. It takes about an hour and twenty minutes to Osaka or Fukuoka, and about four hours to Tokyo. So far I have traveled to these cities outside Shimane:
Hiroshima (x8), Osaka (x3), Tokyo (x3), Kyoto (x2), Fukuoka (x2), Shimonoseki, Nagasaki, Onomichi, and Nagoya.

If I am traveling abroad (not Japan), then things become even more interesting. The closest airport to my house is Izumo Airport, but since it is not an international airport, and has very few flights, it really doesn’t serve my interest. Hiroshima Airport is the second closest, but flying in or out of that airport is cost prohibitive. Usually I fly out of Kansai Airport in Osaka. This means I have to take a two hour bus to Hiroshima station, then a one hour and twenty minute bullet train to Osaka, then a one hour local train to the airport. A total commute of just under five hours. By plane, I have gone to Taipei, Taiwan, and soon I will visit Seoul, Korea.

So goes the life of an urbanite and travelholic in rural Japan.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Onomichi Instagram Diary

A few weekends ago I spent my Sunday in Onomichi, a small city east of Hiroshima. It was a quirky and colorful place with a Bohemian atmosphere.


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 ...