Sunday, May 08, 2016

6 months leave

This is kind of big news although it has been in the works for two years. I've taken six months of unpaid leave from work to travel. I've given up my apartment and put my stuff into storage. Here's the plan I've come up with after months of overtime work, saving and planning:

Trip 1
May 8: transit
May 9-19: UK (Bristol, Cardiff, London to see Manic Street Preachers two nights)
May 19-22: Istanbul
May 23-31: Uzbekistan
May 31-June 3: Tajikistan
June 3-7: Kazakhstan
June 7-13: Kyrgyzstan

Trip 2
June 29-30: transit
July 1-21: Bhutan (Eastern tour, Thimphu, Haa)
July 21-31: India (Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Varanasi)

Trip 3
August 8: transit
August 10: Australia (Victoria only)
>>> August 25-Sept 3: Tasmania 
Sept 9-23: Japan (Kansai only)

Trip 4
October 7: transit
October 8-23: Myanmar
October 23-25: Hong Kong

November 3: back to work, bankrupt

Right now I'm at my departure gate at the Toronto airport while my first flight of about two dozen this year is delayed for parts replacement. Not a great start as I am very likely to miss my non-refundable bus connection to Bristol and I may end up having to kill several hours at Gatwick for the next available transit. I thought an hour and 40 minutes would have been enough to catch the bus but... I guess not. Thanks AirTransat. I can only hope I'm getting the worst over with at the start.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Hotel Thoughts

Let's start with this. EVERY HOTEL needs one of these: a digital luggage scale with a chart of the baggage allowances for every airline operating in the region. It could save you an embarrassing check-in counter re-pack. This set-up was at CityInn Hotel Taipei Station.

When I'm planning trips, I always try to cross-reference aggregator site reviews with blogger reviews. And whenever I travel, I intend to write up my hotels when I get back. But, I haven't written anything about my last three or four trips. Instead of agonizing over perfect prose, I just want to get into posting again so here are some very quick, rough thoughts on four hotels I enjoyed on the past three holidays. I tend to choose mid-range, non-chain hotels that have some element of local flavour.

After dusk, there is very little going on in this neighbourhood.

XVA Art Hotel Dubai (2 night stay in Nov 2013)
It's tough to find anyplace in Dubai with much patina. XVA Hotel and Gallery, in the Al Fahidi/Bastakiya, is a restored Persian merchant home. The night before, I'd been in one of the glass skyscrapers more typical of Dubai, an indulgence for sure, but it was nothing less than a delight to walk into the courtyard at XVA to see trees and vines and sleeping cats and art.

All the rooms here lead off one of three courtyards and each is decorated differently. I had a very small but comfortable single room. A fresh, Gulf-style breakfast was included in the room rate. Other than the cafe and the gallery, there aren't any amenities here.

Even if you can't get a booking at the hotel, it is worth visiting the space to see traditional Persian architecture. You can experience how the wind towers work to cool the lower floors. The cafe also serves the absolute best iced lemon-mint.

Dandy Hotel Tianjin
Dandy Hotel Tianjin, Taipei, Taiwan (3 night stay in November 2014)
I had the worst jetlag of my life in Taipei. I think it was the 12 hour difference from home - I couldn't figure out which side to be on - sleep early or sleep late? Wake early or wake late? I settled for waking early and sleeping through the middle of each day then staying awake 'til late. This means that my experience in the Tianjin neighbourhood was a bit off-kilter, but I did really like it. It reminded me of some parts of Kyoto, with the narrow streets of small cafes and izakayas, convenience stores and cute shops.

Dandy Hotel Tianjin is compact but fresh, clean and efficient. I had a standard room so I didn't get one of those rock star balconies you can see in the photo. The hotel's proximity to Zhongshang Station is convenient. The free breakfast buffet was a combo of Chinese and western items, nicely set-up. The only negative I can give is that the staff were extremely strict about check-in time, meaning I sat in the dining room with a convenience store drink drenched in sweat waiting for 3pm to arrive. Taipei was about 10°C hotter than seasonal when I was there (36°C in November?!) so I made ample use of the free laundry.

Dandy House Daan Park - my room
Daan Park Station, Taipei
Dandy Hotel Daan Park, Taipei, Taiwan (4 night stay in November 2014)
The same hotel group as the Tianjin Dandy Hotel. Many of the same features like a well-designed and spotless room, helpful staff, a really good breakfast buffet and free access to the laundry. I treated myself to a park view room here and it was worth the price difference. I loved sitting by that big window, watching the people pass by. Daan Park Station, which has to be one of the most pleasant subway stations in the world, is just a few metres from the hotel entrance and many bus routes run along that street, too.

Moment Hotels, Malmo - tiny and perfect

Moment Hotels, Malmö, Sweden (2 night stay in June, 2015)
This place had everything I needed and nothing I didn't. My single room was tiny - just a platform bed and a fold-down table - but I started fantasizing about living a serene, minimalist Swedish life with a capsule wardrobe and no clutter whatsoever. Again, I was having a slightly weird time in Malmö with jetlag compounded by Scandinavian mid-summer and it still being light outside at 10:45 pm. So, I spent quite a lot of time resting by looking out that big window onto the Central Station.

Moment Hotels has free bike rental (note: I'm 5'5" and the bikes were too high for me, riding them was scary). There's a dining room with a coffee and tea set-up and a roof-top garden where I ate take-out dinners. There's also a lovely open sandwich buffet for breakfast. Sweden in general was expensive but I felt this hotel was excellent value if you don't mind teeny little rooms.

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
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