Sunday, November 01, 2015

Fly with Kitty

Helly Kitty departure gate

From my trip to Taiwan one year ago that I haven't mentioned taking yet: the Hello Kitty departure gate at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. This is a fully functional gate. When I took the photos, a flight had just departed for a Chinese city I'd never heard of.

I have to say that Taiwan gives Japan a serious challenge in the cuteness competition. Stay tuned for pictures of Taipei's Hello Kitty gondola.

Helly Kitty departure gate

On the back wall: Sanrio characters dressed as members of Taiwan's various Aboriginal groups.

Helly Kitty departure gate

Helly Kitty departure gate

A travel-themed Sanrio store, under the watch of Pilot Kitty.

Helly Kitty departure gate

Helly Kitty departure gate

Helly Kitty departure gate

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

20 years ago today - Canadian Unity Rally in Montréal, 1995

Autumn of 1995 was an uncertain time to be a Canadian. The Province of Québec was about to hold a referendum on whether to take steps towards independence from Canada.

The referendum question was as follows: "Do you agree that Québec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?" A vote of OUI/YES would be for sovereignty while NON/NO would be to remain as part of Canada.

The vote was set for October 30th. As the date got closer, the opinion polls found the OUI and NON sides almost even. For many of us outside Québec, fear set in. Everything was uncertain. What happens if our country splits?

So the NON side organized a rally in Montréal to take place three days before the vote. The idea was to show that the rest of Canada supports and needs Québec.

My high school was offered transportation for interested students to join the rally. Immediately after the Halloween dance, a collection of Grade 12 and 13 students climbed into coaches that had been provided by the Liberal Party (which ended up being a bit of an issue...) We travelled through the night, eight hours, then we were disgorged into a chaotic downtown with our flags and banners.

I've scanned some photos and ephemera from my high school scrapbook. In the centre photo above is the prime minister Jean Chrétien at the podium. 

I am not certain how it happened but the group from my high school ended up at the very front of the rally, in the first row of the crowd in front of the stage where the politicians gave their speeches. We later found ourselves in Macleans Magazine, on TV, even on the front page of the New York Times.

The exact size of the crowd at the October 27th Unity Rally is unknown. Estimates range from 30,000 people to 150,000 people. Here's the NYT's take on the event: "what had started here as a grass-roots call to show solidarity with Quebecers mushroomed into an emotional national event, drawing people from as far away as the Yukon, many taking advantage of cut-rate "unity fares" offered by train, bus and airline companies. It was the biggest demonstration in recent years in the city that is Quebec's commercial capital".

So tens of thousands of us hit Montréal as a love-bomb, asking Québec to please stay. To be honest, I don't know how many undecided voters would really have been convinced by our presence. The NON crowd completely took over le centre-ville, brandishing placards in mangled French. We were intrusive. There were arguments with OUI supporters and other kinds of disruptions. Still, we were there and we showed that the rest of Canada did care.

In the end, the vote was one of the closest ever. A 93.52% voter turnout resulted in 49.42% for OUI/YES and 50.58% for NON/NO. Canada would remain united in 1995.

As for my experience at the rally, it was a memorable day for me and it's cool to be able to say "I was there". The atmosphere that day is not something I can forget. I am actually not a patriotic person whatsoever but I did and still do care very much about Canada remaining a united country.

As of 2015, the issue of Québec sovereignty is by no means resolved forever. In last week's federal election, the Bloc Québécois won ten seats, up from four in 2011 (in 1995, the party held 54 seats in the Canadian parliament). Party leader Duceppe re-stated the BQ's stance simply: "I think we're better off being a country in the world than a province in Canada".


In 2005, the CBC put together a three hour documentary called Breaking Point/Point de Rupture about the 1995 Québec referendum. I found the French version on YouTube, Part 1 and Part 2. The portion specifically about the Unity Rally starts here. I also found... myself! Crushed at the front barrier, I was next to none other than "Hurricane Hazel" McCallion, a well-known Ontario politician. She ended up being plucked from the crowd by the security staff to join the other VIPs, but first we were captured in frame together.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

4 songs

Apropos of nothing, here are four songs I've been playing a lot recently.

"New music"? What is that?

Up On The Catwalk - Simple Minds

Available on iTunes.

Pictures of You - The Cure
I actually prefer the longer, original version from the Disintegration album but I couldn't find a decent YouTube video to embed.

Available on iTunes.

Dream Dream Dreaming - Glasvegas
Regional pronunciation is such a rare and precious thing in English language pop music. There's more than a hint of Glasgow here.

Available on iTunes.

Everything Fades - Nicky Wire
Nicky Wire is lyric writer and bassist for my beloved Manics. His lo-fi solo album is likely to be "niche interest only" but I have INTENSE FEELINGS about this song.

Too indie for iTunes. Try Amazon or eBay.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Top 5 Photos I Didn't Take


Thinking recently about missed chances to take photos, I came up with these five highly picturesque moments that will have to be preserved in my memory only.

5. Row of yak heads at Paro market
October 2010, Bhutan: I joined a group hiking to the Tiger's Nest, near Paro. We came from Thimphu on a bus and we made a short stop at the notorious public toilets beside the Paro market. Along the perimeter of the market, someone had placed three severed yak heads in a row. Each massive, wooly head was sitting at a different angle with its tongue drooping out, eyes in various levels of openness. It was grotesque but would have been a great photo. Unfortunately I'd left my camera on the bus for the toilet break and I couldn't make the group wait for me to rush back to take pictures. I am placing this lowest on my list of missed photos because if I get to Paro on market day some other time, there's a good chance I can find more severed yak heads.

4. Mennonite ladies and a wall of roses
Last summer, near my hometown of Waterloo, Ontario: on a country drive with my parents, we passed a Mennonite farm. Two ladies in their calico dresses and prayer caps were standing in front of a wall of climbing roses, cutting flowers. It was a perfect rural tableau. I had my camera with me but taking photos of Mennonites is pretty rude so I didn't.

3. Falcon in a world of ice
December 24th, 2013, Highway 401, Ontario: it was two days after a major ice storm brought gorgeous destruction to the region. This was the first sunny day since the storm: the sunlight glinting through the ice made the whole landscape gleam with silver. I was in the first row of a Greyhound bus, heading to my parents' place for Christmas. In the centre divider of the highway, I spotted an enormous bird of prey (likely a falcon) perched low to the ground on a broken, twisted tangle of iced-over greenery. It looked spectacular with the world of silver ice all around it. Zooming past on a public bus, it was an impossible situation.

2. Three horses at dusk, Iceland
October 2012, somewhere west of Vík, Iceland: the volcanic landscape here is characterized by funny bubbles and bumps. In a van being driven by my hiking guide, we passed three small hills clustered together. There was a horse standing on each hill: one white horse, one dark horse and one dappled horse. Each was standing still facing the road to the south. It was a magical scene but I couldn't find my voice to call out 'stop!' to our guide even though she was very amenable to photo breaks.

1. 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution
January 1st, 2009, somewhere near Matanzas, Cuba: my then-boyfriend and I were on a Christmas break trip to Cuba. We had taken a public bus to Havana for the day. It just so happened that this day marked the 50th anniversary of the overthrow of the Batista government on January 1st, 1959. Other than a lot of flags on display, Havana had been very quiet. On the night trip back to the beach town where we were staying, the bus made a stop at a petrol stand and snack bar. Someone had placed a small TV on a chair in the dining room and there was a large circle of people silently watching the broadcast of Raul Castro making a speech about the anniversary. It would have been a wonderful photo of normal Cuban citizens reacting to the occasion. I have no idea why I did not take photos, I can only guess that I was too interested in people-watching at the time. This is my #1 missed chance because it will never be the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution ever again.

Can you relate to this? Are there moments you wish you'd captured with your camera?

Monday, May 18, 2015

Manic Street Preachers 101: No love songs!

I wrote and formatted this entire post already then Blogger deleted it for reasons unknown. So, I am feeling completely miserable about starting again from scratch. I will try anyway. I recently became re-enamoured with a favourite band, Manic Street Preachers. In the UK, they are a pretty major act but here in North America, they are not well known with only a cult following. Since the bulk of my legitimate site traffic is from Canada, the US and South Asia, I am going to guess that most readers here will not know the Manics. This is my messy, half-baked attempt to introduce Manic Street Preachers to those who are unfamiliar and list a representative sample of their music, followed by my own experiences as a fan.

top left: Richey Edwards, Nicky Wire, James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore in 1992. top right: 1994. lower left: 2006. lower right: Moore, Bradfield and Wire in 2013.

The Manics story is an extremely interesting one. Here are the basics  from NME's artist biography:
Manic Street Preachers are a Welsh rock band. [...] The group originally consisted of James Dean Bradfield (lead vocals and guitar), Nicky Wire (bass guitar, lyrics), Sean Moore (drums) and Richey Edwards (rhythm guitar, lyrics). However, Edwards went missing in February 1995 and the remaining members have continued as a trio since. The band, who are commonly referred to as The Manics, formed in Oakdale Comprehensive School, South Wales in 1986.

...During an interview with NME's Steve Lamacq, Edwards responded to questions about the band's sincerity by carving the phrase '4REAL' into his arm with a razor blade; he was treated in hospital and received 17 stitches. The Manics signed with Columbia Records to release their debut album 'Generation Terrorists': the band themselves claimed that the LP would be the "greatest rock album ever" and sell 16 million copies worldwide. Instead, the album sold an estimated 250,000 copies around the world upon its release and peaked at Number 13 on the UK Albums Chart, but it was given a 10/10 review by NME who declared it "nothing short of a modern miracle". The band's second album, 'Gold Against The Soul', was released in 1993, while their career-defining masterpiece 'The Holy Bible' followed in 1994. NME have described the album, which unflinchingly explores Edwards' emotional and mental struggles at the time, as a "work of genuine genius". The album, however, also reflected on Edwards' continued problems: by early 1994 he had been admitted to The Priory mental health hospital. On February 1, 1995, Edwards disappeared: he checked out of the Embassy Hotel in London at 7am and his car was later found abandoned near the Severn Bridge service station. He has not been since and was declared presumed dead on November 23, 2008, by his family.

After his disappearance the band considered disbanding but later decided to carry on, although they have kept a percentage of their royalties aside should he ever return. The band's fourth album, 'Everything Must Go', is considered one of their most triumphant: recorded in the wake of Edwards' disappearance, it was released in 1996 and became a critical and commercial success, partly due to the popularity of the single 'A Design For Life'. The band continued their success with their next album, 'This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours', which was similarly well-received upon its 1998 release. Since then, the band have released the albums 'Know Your Enemy' (2001), 'Lifeblood' (2004) and 'Send Away The Tigers' (2007). Their 2009 album 'Journal For Plague Lovers', meanwhile, featured lyrics left behind by Edwards before his disappearance, and they released another album, 'Postcards From A Young Man', in 2010. In 2013, Manic Street Preachers released their album 'Rewind The Film': a sparser, more acoustic-based record. Less than a year later they released 'Futurology', a more experimental and expansive record which has been hailed as one of their finest yet...
If that is a little much for you to read, try this two minute clip instead.

The band's music has shifted through so many styles through the years. It is safe to say that they specialize in the 3.5 minute guitar rock song with a straightforward verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus format. The music, written by James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore, often has an unexpected key or melody. Lyrically, the themes are politics, history, art, philosophy, social issues, economics, feminism, despair, and later, more introspective topics. Twisted or grotesque imagery was frequent early on. One detail that is somewhat unusual is that lead vocalist James Dean Bradfield sings lyrics written by other band members. Initially the words (oh so many words) were written mostly by Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire but after Edwards's disappearance, Wire has written almost all of the lyrics. His writing is more sparse which allows Bradfield's voice enough space to stretch out. Bradfield seems to be a good sport about singing the often very personal lyrics (eg. Edwards on self-mutilation and self-starvation, Wire and "I wish I had been born a girl not this mess of a man"). Note: there are essentially no love songs! Well, a couple tracks come close but at least they aren't ballads. Even songs with the word 'love' in the title are not about romantic love. I really like this aspect of the band. Also, they occasionally smash their instruments, which is a delight.

Manic Street Preachers, April 27th 2015, Danforth Music Hall

Lucky Toronto, we were one of only seven North American cities to see the Manics in 2015 (or actually, in the past 5 years). The same week as the Toronto show, the Manics had (hard to believe) their first American TV appearance. They opted to perform their massive comeback single from 19 years ago, but with a bit of a lounge crooner delivery:


I wish I could share these as audio only. With the exception of the first one, I think videos distract/detract from the music. This is a long list but it covers 24 years of music, albeit unevenly. Headphones in!

You Love Us -1991
"We won't die of devotion, understand we can never belong." This is just brazen fun: acting out rock star bravado although they were only on their first album. Pretty, young things Nicky and Richey fashioned themselves into instant icons.

If you liked the song itself, try this one which is much better. If you seek more Richey and Nicky yaoi frolic regardless of song quality, step this way.

Motorcycle Emptiness - 1992
Everything about it is so early 90s but this anti-consumerism anthem really catches my heart.

Faster - 1994
NME said of The Holy Bible,  "Originally their MO had been to subvert from within, sugar-coating disturbing ideas in a radio-friendly glam-rock shell, but by 1994 it was their response to the resultant tectonic shift that set them sonically free. What emerged was an album [The Holy Bible] that seethed. Its labyrinthine lyrical concerns of collapse of the self set against the worst depravities of the 20th century was an equal and unholy marriage of militantly abrasive lyrical content and punishing music."

'Faster' is very much an exemplary track from The Holy Bible album. Some of the band's most quoted slogans are in here.

I love this one even more. So menacing.

Everything Must Go - 1996
And here's the big change.

The disappearance of Richey Edwards in 1995 remains one of the biggest mysteries in rock'n'roll. His absence and the lack of answers must have been beyond devastating for his family and friends. Eventually, the three remaining Manics found a way to write music again and decided to continue as a band. This song expresses that resolve directly: "freed from the memory, escape from our history, and I just hope that you can forgive us, but everything must go".

The big single from this album was 'A Design for Life', the song from the American TV performance posted above. And hey, Sony Music UK have shared the entire 'Everything Must Go' album over on YouTube, right here.

If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next - 1998
From XFM: 'The band's first number one single was about the Spanish Civil War that took place between 1936 and 1939. A group of Welsh miners travelled to Spain to join in the fight against General Franco's troops, and the title was taken from a propaganda poster of the time. One line from the song is a genuine quote from a Welshman: "If I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists." Nicky Wire later claimed that the ideology behind the song was that political issues seemed to have lost their relevance in modern society.'  

The 'This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours' album is sometimes wistful and sometimes dispassionate. Elegant, with a meticulous, almost glazed-over sound but so beautiful. I still genuinely love 11 of the 13 tracks on this album, however, I can totally understand why fans of Manics from the punk-pop beginning would hate it. Likewise, I became a fan of the band from this album so it was a shock to discover the earlier heavier, rougher sound.

MANIC STREET PREACHERS if you tolerate this from WIZ on Vimeo.

Ready for Drowning - 1998
I have been playing this song for 16 years and only learned today that it's about Welsh identity and the flooded village Capel Celyn. *shrug* Stunning vocals by James Dean Bradfield and that early unexpected key change is so Manics-y.

The Masses Against The Classes - 2000
Respect forever to them for managing to make this a #1 single. Starts with a quote from Chomsky, morphs through 'Twist and Shout' then a Nirvana-esque verse, but the epic chorus is all Manics. Sorry for the low sound quality.

Found That Soul (Live in Cuba) - 2001
MSP were the first western band to perform in Cuba since the 1959 revolution.

To Repel Ghosts - 2004
I was unaware until very recently that Lifeblood is the most hated album by the band, critics and many fans, too. This is a little hard to take because I adore it. I understand it was recorded in a different way from the other albums, with generous synthesizer and millions of layers. I think it is gorgeous in its own way and some of the better Nicky Wire lyrics are on this album.

In February, I went to a major retrospective on the work of American Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was already a captivating experience but when my eyes settled on this piece, I could only say OHHHH. There are so many art references in Manics songs: Basquiat must have inspired this particular favourite of mine.

I also have a lot of love for this one.

Facing Page: Top Left - 2009
Writings left behind by missing Richey Edwards in 1995, set to new music. So, not standard rock lyrics. 'Journal for Plague Lovers' is an amazing album.

Also this one sounds great.

Rewind The Film - 2013
Below, I explain that there were three Manics albums between 2007 and 2013 that did not pique my interest. The main exception is this song which I think is exquisite. A slow burner. The guest vocalist Richard Hawley adds interest and a point of contrast to James Dean Bradfield. 

Let's Go To War - 2014
New 'Futurology'. I'm happy to say there's an arch sense of fun here and lots of style too.

From the same album, this song is very simple/repetitive but effective. An ode to the EU.


Here's how being a Manics fan has played out for me:

-In 1995, I was given a mix tape with one Manics song by my friend Meghan (she was very clued into the UK music scene). The song was 'She Is Suffering'. The only line of the lyrics I could really understand was... "she is suffering" but I did appreciate the song's tempo and the way the lead guitar works around the bass structure. Although I liked the song, I didn't investigate further.

Phoenix 96 shirt

- In the summer 1996, aged 18, I visited Meghan in the UK and we went to one of those massive music festivals (Phoenix). Manic Street Preachers performed the day we were there. I clearly remember when they played ‘A Design For Life’, which I liked. But again, I wasn't inspired yet to go out and buy the music.

-Mid-1999, I first heard 'If You Tolerate This...' when MuchMusic played the video. I was immediately taken with the song. I scrambled to write down the artist info and bought the CD at my local HMV right away, then I played it constantly. (It was released, like, a year later in Canada than in the UK.) The ‘This Is My Truth’ album was all over alternative rock radio in Toronto that summer. At the time, all I knew about the band was 1) they were from South Wales 2) they were big on leftist politics. So, I was not aware of the band's backstory or the meanings of most of the songs. I thought it was weird to have only three members in a band, not knowing that it was really (four minus one) members. Of course, in the late 90s, you couldn’t just hit up Google or YouTube to learn everything about a band. In those days, I was lining up for the university library computer terminals to check my e-mail twice a week. I wasn’t spending time on fan listservs to decipher the meanings of lyrics! I didn't have access to the British music press like NME, either. This does represent an uncharacteristic lack of curiosity for me, though, and it took me years to find out the heartbreaking truth of songs like ‘Tsunami’ and ‘Nobody Loved You’. I guess I was used to songs having meaningless lyrics?

-I spent the summer of 1999 on excavation in Pompeii with a large group of British students. I ended up talking music with one guy who told me a lot about the Manics and the Richey story. He also lent me his ‘Everything Must Go’ cassette. To this day, that album always reminds me of summer in the ancient city and the looming atmosphere of death that nobody else seemed to notice (especially ‘Small Black Flowers’).

MSP 1999 Toronto

-In September 1999, Manic Street Preachers came to Toronto and I went to the show (alone, none of my friends were interested). I don’t recall much about the concert to be honest. I do remember that a large proportion of the audience was in Wales rugby tops but I was really caught off guard by the girls up the front wearing light-up devil horns and feather boas. At the time, I was unaware of the Manics’ early 90s glamour-punk era: I had only seen the button-downs and boiler suits Manics!

- I investigated the older Manics stuff several times but none of it stuck with me. The 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004 albums remained very important to me over the years but my interest slumped after the 2007 ‘Send Away The Tigers’ album revealed a new, bland adult-contemporary sound. With the exception of one or two songs each and a few B-sides, the 2007, 2011 and 2013 albums are not listenable for me. I guess I didn’t read The Guardian the week in 2009 when ‘Journal for Plague Lovers’ was released because that’s new to me and I definitely love it. In 2009, I also somehow missed hearing about another concert in Toronto, 10 years after the one I did see. I still feel completely gutted to have missed this. Heartbroken, really, because I hear it was a fantastic show. Being a Manics fan in Canada is a bit of a solitary situation.

- I’m back in the fold these days, loving much of the 2014 ‘Futurology’ album. Still, I almost managed to miss another Toronto show this April, being alerted by my brother only 10 days before. There were still tickets available despite the venue capacity of 1500. This was The Holy Bible 20th Anniversary tour and they played the whole album in order. After hearing ‘The Holy Bible’ performed in full, I gave the Richey-era Manics stuff another chance and discovered that I genuinely love it now. I would like to wind time back three weeks so that I could appreciate the show more, line up earlier, be more familiar with the older music. Is it weird that it took me until age 37 to embrace pop-punk and overwhelmingly bleak rock?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Are we at 'peak Bhutan' yet?

Masang Gang, Bhutan

I mean, not literally given the mountaineering ban, but Bhutan has been in the western news a whole lot in the past week. Here's a round-up.

Photo by Thinley Namgyel, shared with permission. See the rest of his March 17th match album here.

• The big, big story was football (or soccer, if you insist). Bhutan is officially the lowest ranked national team in FIFA: 209 out of 209. The squad is made up of amateur players except for #7, seen leaping above.

Qualification rounds for the 2018 World Cup have already started for the Asia group and over the past week, Bhutan had a two match series against Sri Lanka (FIFA ranking 174). To the great delight of all Bhutanese and underdog supporters everywhere, the Yellow Dragons won both matches! It must have been marvelous to experience the win at Changlimithang Stadium on Tuesday. The defeat of Sri Lanka means that Bhutan moves forward in the qualification rounds for the first time ever. Check out the press coverage below for more details on the story.

Modest Bhutan begin World Cup adventure
Bhutan bewilder as India, Timor-Leste cruise

Fifa World Cup: Bhutan face Sri Lanka in Asia qualifying opener
Fifa World Cup qualifying: Bhutan in shock win over Sri Lanka
Fifa World Cup qualifiers: Bhutan step closer to Russia 2018

New York Times:
A Moment Atop the World for Bhutan’s Last-Ranked Team
Last-Ranked Bhutan Stuns Sri Lanka a Second Time

The Guardian:
World’s worst team Bhutan kick off 2018 World Cup qualifying with victory
‘World’s worst team’ Bhutan seal shock World Cup qualifier win over Sri Lanka
Bhutan, Bhutan – football chanted like a prayer as World Cup success grips nation

Deadspin Screamer:
Scenes In Colombo As Bhutan Wins In First Ever World Cup Qualifier
Bhutan Wins Again! A Match Report From A Deadspin Reader In Bhutan

'World's worst team' Bhutan make history in World Cup qualifier
Bhutan hoping to parlay World Cup qualifying success into lasting stability

Bhutan, World's Lowest-Ranked Soccer Team, Advances In World Cup Qualifying

• Bhutanese media darling Namgay Zam was interviewed by NPR 'All Things Considered' about the football wins.

• Bhutan's Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay is on a tour of the US at the moment. He was interviewed on PBS's Charlie Rose Show on Tuesday. You should be able to watch the interview here even if you are outside the US.

• Bloomberg talks to the PM about water conservation: Bhutan Wants a Kickstarter Deal From Wall Street to Protect Its Massive Water Supply

• Over on BBC World Service, there's an interesting radio program about Bhutan and linguistics. There are about 18 different languages spoken in the small country.

• Last month, the blog Bhutan Street Fashion was also featured by the BBC. (Check out BSF on FB and Insta)

• From The Atlantic: A Virtual Drive Through Bhutan via Google Street View! Ahhh, #30!

Something about the NY Explorers Club and a search for the Yeti aka Migoi. *shrug*

• To top it all off, in last week's episode of Archer, there was also a little reference to Bhutan!

Screen cap from Archer S6 E10 "Reignition Sequence", FX Productions

Monday, February 23, 2015


Hi, hello. I'm still here and alive although I've been quiet.

It's my birthday today: 37. Over the years, I've posted a photo of myself on every birthday. This one is the best representation of my life recently. Today was the coldest February 23rd on record here (-21.6 C and -31 C windchill). Considering that I hardly go anywhere besides work, the gym and the grocery store during the winter, you'd think I'd have been spending my free time posting all kinds of words and photos. It didn't work out like that but I plan to get back to it soon. I have lots of good stuff to share about a visit to Taiwan last fall, among other things. Maybe check back in a couple of weeks?

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Canada's First MUJI - now open in Toronto!

On Saturday morning, despite a temperature below freezing and a brisk wind, the line of people on Dundas Street stretched a whole city block. These shoppers were not lined up for a sale, however. We were welcoming a Japanese retail giant to Canada!

Muji Toronto Opening
Muji Toronto Opening

Canada's first MUJI is in The Atrium, at 20 Dundas Street West, Toronto. It is across from the Eaton Centre H&M and kitty-corner from Yonge-Dundas Square.

Muji Toronto Opening
The big question: what is MUJI? This question was anticipated: read the sign above. MUJI could perhaps be described as a minimalist's general store. There is something extremely appealing about the simple design of the products. MUJI has many loyal fans around the world, with branches in 26 countries so far. I admit, however, that the positive aspects of reduced packaging, recycling and reduced production wastage may be neutralized when the goods are shipped around the globe...

I first learned about MUJI just a couple of days after I moved to Japan in 2001. I certainly relied on MUJI stuff to set up my apartment and keep myself organized at work. Even now, I seek out branches of MUJI whenever I travel, to Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan and of course to Japan. I've been wishing for a local MUJI for a decade and as of last weekend, there is now a branch close enough to my work for lunch break errands! It still feels a little surreal, like a corner of Japan displaced.

Muji Toronto Opening
Muji Toronto Opening
Muji Toronto Opening
Womenswear. Opening day was not the time to try on clothes so I cannot confirm if MUJI is sticking to smaller Asian sizing but I expect that they are. The striped and coloured tops above are priced at $20.

Muji Toronto Opening
Menswear. Again, I can't confirm if sizing runs smaller than North American brands but it's safer to assume it does.

Muji Toronto Opening
A display of personal care goods, all with minimal packaging and simple design.

Muji Toronto Opening
MUJI is arguably best loved for pens and stationary. There was a vortex of pen lovers surrounding this display on Saturday and I couldn't get any closer. To be honest, I stocked up on pens and stationary at MUJI in Taipei a couple of weeks ago. The extremely popular gel pens, available in a variety of colours, cost $1.25. The plain covered notebooks can be used with the spines to the left or right.

Muji Toronto Opening
The line-up to pay for purchases was over 40 minutes on the opening morning. It was not chaos, though, just crowded. I went back to MUJI on my lunch break on Monday and although there was no line to get inside, there was still a considerable wait to pay. I went back again today after work on the fifth day since opening and the line-up to pay was about 15 minutes.

Muji Toronto Opening
On Saturday, MUJI head office managers, in town for the store opening, were put on bagging duty.

Muji Toronto Opening
Muji Toronto Opening
Muji Toronto Opening
MUJI set up a stamping station so that shoppers could personalize notebooks and cloth bags. I stamped my initials and a sakura blossom onto a mini ringed notebook.

A few points:
-MUJI has a popular line of snacks, drinks and basic grocery items. The North American stores do not have any of the food products at this time but I have heard rumors that they may be bringing the snacks over next year.
-MUJI makes appliances too but the only appliance in the Toronto store was the aroma diffuser.
-The selection of items available at the Toronto store is much larger than I'd expected to see but it doesn't cover the full range of what's in the big box MUJIs in Asia or even in the US e-store.
-Most of the items for sale carry the original Japanese labels which show the price in Yen. As you'd expect considering the cost of shipping, there is a price mark-up to Canadian dollars. This mark-up varies widely. Here are some examples:
80円 pens -> $1.25
150円 stationary items -> $2
450円 bottle of facial cleanser -> $6.50
1900円 travel pillow -> $29
3500円 men's double zip hoodie -> $60
3500円 cotton queen size duvet cover -> $69
The biggest price difference I saw was a set of storage drawers labelled 1500円 but selling for $38 CDN. However, there were cozy flannel slippers with a 1200円 tag for $12 CDN, which is actually a slight mark down.

Muji Toronto Opening
Voila! The first shoppers through MUJI on Saturday got a souvenir MUJI Toronto bag. It wasn't worth the line-up alone but it was a nice little bonus. After taking this photo, I chatted out on the street with some MUJI staff who had travelled from Japan to set up the new store. They seemed surprised/humbled to see the huge number of people waiting on such a cold morning. According to Twitter, design savvy shoppers were still waiting up to three hours to get in on Sunday afternoon. That's how keen Toronto is for Japanese goods!

Here are all the MUJI locations in North America as of 2014. I'm feeling lucky that we got one in Toronto even before cities like Chicago, Boston, Miami etc. I'm especially shocked that Toronto was the first Canadian launch instead of Vancouver.

Muji Toronto Opening Day
Get used to seeing MUJI bags around Toronto! If you've never been inside a MUJI, I do recommend going in for a browse once the line-ups have died down.

More about Muji from the Globe and Mail: Decoding the Cult of Muji, the Japanese minimalist retailer

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Ásgeir Trausti in Toronto

In October of 2012, I took a refreshing trip to Iceland. Six days of this holiday were with a small group hiking tour. From Snæfellsnes to Jökulsárlón, we hiked, overnighted in simple lodges and drove. Our guide Anna brought along a new CD, the debut album of young Icelandic singer-songwriter Ásgeir Trausti. As I mentioned back in March 2013, we must have heard this album 50 times at least. After the tour, I bought a copy of "Dýrð í dauðaþögn" to take home to Toronto. 

I guess that album really imprinted on my brain over the six days in that van. I especially remember half dozing, half watching the rainy landscape east of Vík slip past to the strains of 'Heimförin'. Since 2012, it has probably been the most-listened-to album for me. I particularly like to play it while I'm at work. There's a reason: the main part of my job involves reviewing technical reports and scrutinizing maps. Ásgeir Trausti's music soothes me and keeps my spirit buoyed up while the Icelandic lyrics do not interfere with the technical English I'm reading (I prefer anything but English vocals while working). His voice is so lovely that I'm completely fine not to understand a word he sings.

Being entirely out of touch with the music scene, I was caught off guard when a North American tour was announced for Ásgeir, including a show in Toronto! The concert was a couple of weeks ago. I get out of the office tower only about three days a year but by pure luck, I had a work meeting across from the venue on the day of the concert. I could see that a tour bus was parked in front of Lee's Palace so I took a walk past and I spotted the whole Ásgeir Trausti Band out on the street. This was my opportunity to say, 'Hello, welcome to Toronto, very much looking forward to the show!' However, I did not. I stood there in freeze mode. I could not manage so much as 'hi' when the group walked past me and then back again a few minutes later when I was still standing in the same spot on the pavement, trying to work up some courage. Opportunity missed, shyness to blame. I was extremely frustrated with myself.

Since I had found out about the artist more or less at the source, I had no idea how many other people in Toronto knew of Ásgeir and would show up to see him that night. I got there early. Yes, I am the kind of person who goes to a concert alone and stands at the front centre. I think the venue ended up close to capacity (~500). The opening band was Low Roar. I had not heard of them before but their cinematic synth sound was captivating. I've been listening to their album '0' a lot since that night.

Then it was time for Ásgeir and his band to perform. Key words: flawlessly clear vocals, exquisite acoustic guitar, earnestness, dreamy layering, uplifting harmonies. As a crowd, we were enthralled. To my right were several people singing out every word of every song in Icelandic, to my left was a young man who was full-on weeping for the whole show. It was not a long performance, which is to be expected from an artist who has released just one album of songs so far (technically two albums if you count the 2013 version - the same track list but with English lyrics). No question, though: Toronto loves Ásgeir.

Though a convoluted sequence of events, I got a second chance to meet Ásgeir after the concert. Once again, I was short of words. I should have told him about how I was introduced to his music, or even mentioned that Nirvana had played Lee's Palace back in 1990 (Ásgeir and his band had performed a Nirvana cover that night). I could manage only to introduce myself and pay him a forgettable compliment. He was exceedingly low key and I suspect he might be a shy person, too. Anyway, I got a quick photo (the back alley lighting was not ideal) and then I ran away before I could become too star-struck again. I was really happy to have this quick moment, though! 

If you have not heard Ásgeir Trausti, here are three tracks from his YouTube page to give you a flavour. These English versions are still strange and new to me but I am getting used to them! Enjoy.

Some of Ásgeir Trausti's music is available from iTunes as 'Ásgeir'.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Souq Waqif, Doha, Qatar

Souq, Doha, Qatar
Souq, Doha, Qatar
Confession: these photos are all from my trip to Qatar last November. I only just edited and uploaded them. I hope that does not make them any less interesting.

Souq, Doha, Qatar
Souq, Doha, Qatar
Souq Waqif in downtown Doha was built on the site of a historical market but everything now seen is a recent fabrication. A lot of effort has been taken to create the faux heritage feel of the place.

Souq, Doha, Qatar
Souq, Doha, Qatar
Unlike many of the places I visited in Doha, the souq is well attended by many different kinds of people: locals, expat residents and tourists. There is a good atmosphere. I ended up at the souq three times during my week in Qatar.

Souq, Doha, Qatar
Souq, Doha, Qatar
1: Make-up, henna and perfumes for sale. I am mad at myself for not buying one of these tubes of Gulf-style kohl. I am the very worst at applying eye make-up but I have never tried this kind.
2: Plenty of black abaya and shayla, each with a unique motif.

Souq, Doha, Qatar
Souq, Doha, Qatar
1: For all your Qatar pride needs.
2: A selection of agal, the fringed cord men wear over their ghutrah headdress.

Taxidermy shop
Taxidermy shop, Souq, Doha, Qatar
I could hardly believe the display at this taxidermy shop. The shop keeper said I was welcome to take a photo, then he insisted on taking mine too. This is my "everyone is dead" face.

Souq, Doha, Qatar
Souq, Doha, Qatar
A side alley behind a shiha lounge

Damascus Restaurant, Souq, Doha, Qatar
Damascus Restaurant, Souq, Doha, Qatar
My cousin and her family took me to Damasca Restaurant in the souq for a Syrian-fusion meal. The restaurant has an appealing vintage Damascus theme, with this enormous lantern hanging at the centre of a curved staircase.

New Gold Souq, Doha, Qatar
One thing I really wanted to get for myself in Qatar was a silver necklace with my name in Arabic. I had heard that these could be made to order within a couple of days at the Gold Souq. Next to Souq Waqif, I saw a large building with the lettering 'New Gold Souq'. Inside was this fresh, modern collection of jewelry stores. There was almost nobody in there. This was not at all what I had expected from the Gold Souq. I did not find a jeweler who could make the necklace I wanted.

Gold Souq, Doha, Qatar
It turned out that the New Gold Souq is a completely different place from the actual Gold Souq. There were plenty of shoppers here - it seems that South Asian workers like to take home their earnings in the form of extremely elabourate gold jewelry and there is a whole district to serve that need. The New Gold Souq is gleaming and immaculate, just for tourists, while the Gold Souq is several blocks away in an area of collapsed sidewalks and decidedly less polish. It was still a lot of fun to walk around with my cousin and look at the golden creations. This was on my last night in Qatar, unfortunately, so it was too late to custom order a nameplate necklace.

One final thing I would like to mention about Souq Waqif:
When I was out for the day on my own, I was desperately searching the market for a public phone so that I could call my cousin to let her know where I was.
I decided to try the Souq Waqif Information and Tourism Centre, thinking there would be a visitor courtesy phone or I could be given directions to a pay phone. This is a very reasonable assumption to make from a tourism district information office.
Me to staff: "Hello, could you tell me if there is a public phone in the Souq?"
Staff: "You don't have a local SIM?"
"No, I'm just a tourist."
"You need to buy a local SIM."
"I only need to make one quick local call. Is there anyplace in the market with a public phone, or anyone that would let me make one call?"
"No. You need to buy a local SIM."
Conversation over.
Meanwhile, there were three telephones sitting idle on the desk between us as we spoke.
There was no flicker of understanding from the staff that not all tourists buy a SIM card while on a short holiday. The lack of public pay phones anywhere in the market is maybe more related to the fact that no Qatari would ever use one. I know Qatar is on a push to become a tourist destination but this kind of encounter shows that there's still a way to go to understand the needs of short-term visitors.

Coming soon: pics and report from my visit to the Falcon Souq.
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