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.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive: dark and delightful


Have you seen the film 'Only Loves Left Alive'? It screened in early 2014 and is now out on DVD, iTunes and so on (Update! On Nexflix now too, at least in Canada). I wanted to write a little something about 'Only Lovers Left Alive' because it is so rare for me to find a film that I've enjoyed as much as this one.

This is a vampire movie (the trailer oversells that fact). I expected the film to be a generic horror melodrama. Surprise! OLLA turned out to be a sweet romance with many oddly funny moments, too. The vampire stuff was secondary.

Tilda Swinton combines her regal alien beauty with rock chick swagger - so perfect for a vampire. Tom Hiddletson became a very big name as a scene-stealer in comic book movies but I'm old school so I remember him as tactless, snarky Martinsson on Wallander. They were both excellent in this film: I have officially bought into the Hiddleston hype.

Adam and Eve are an adoring vampire couple who have been married for centuries. The 2,500 year age difference is not important: their chemistry is obvious. They are a true ying and yang pair. Eve is vibrant, a literary connoisseur who lives in Tangier. She is fascinated by everything and everyone she observes around her. Adam is a heavy-hearted musician living in an abandoned part of Detroit, hidden away from the 'zombies' (ie. humans like us). He is finding his immortality to be a little too much to bear. Who says vampires can't be clinically depressed? It's up to Eve to keep him going.

This is a film about the mundane moments in the lives of extraordinary beings. It asks, what keeps you interested in life if you're immortal? Art? Science? Love?

It struck me that 'Only Lovers Left Alive' has a lot of elements in common with another of my favourite films, Wong Kar-Wai's 'In The Mood For Love'. For example:
-rich atmosphere
-extremely slow and deliberate pace, very sparse on action
-focus on characters, story is made up of small moments
-so much texture
-more is left unsaid than is actually said
-impeccable soundtrack (I've had the OLLA soundtrack on repeat, listen here)
-nuanced, believable performances by the two leads

'Only Lovers Left Alive' is definitely not for everyone, as the reviews calling it dragging, pretentious and indulgent will show. However, I loved drifting through this charming, gorgeous, strange story and dwelling in the mood for a long time afterwards.

Filmwell posted a thoughtful and detailed review of OLLA here.


Note: if you're considering watching OLLA solely for that famous Hiddles smile, be warned that there is but one in the entire film and it was relegated to a deleted scene. I'll save you some time: here it is. Not a spoiler.



Bonus Tom Hiddleston details! A film called Crimson Peak was filmed this past spring in Toronto and at various heritage properties around southern Ontario. Hiddles stars in this one too and there were reports of sightings coming from all over. Two of my professional associates gave me their accounts of seeing him:

Informant #1: "I didn't actually meet him! I was so starstruck and intimidated I couldn't even make eye contact. All I could do was gaze! To be fair to myself, I was also trying really hard to be professional, since I was technically there as a consultant - I had to crush my inner fan girl. He seemed pleasant and laid back and gorgeous. He was much taller than expected. He was very tall, looked kind of Edgar Allen Poe-ish with black hair, a Victorian suit and the little round Victorian sunglasses. You can see why I was a little intimidated....but he didn't act snobby or anything he was smiling and chatting with people and very professional."

Informant #2: "I  tried very hard to get his autograph in Hamilton and stood in line for hours but to no avail. He was actually so polite: he was taking 10 minutes with each person and posing for photos with babies and dogs etc. But he drove past us leaving the park and I honked and he looked at us and waved! Sadly for me, I realized on account of bridge construction when he was filming in Hamilton that he was likely passing my house every day. My front yard was covered in bathroom reno stuff and looked super low rent. The thought of him seeing my ghetto front yard on a daily basis really irks me. He is a very huggy person - very physical - even with complete strangers. He was not in costume. They'd finished filming and I guess it was a meet-and-greet thing that they had organized on account of so many people wanting to see him. I think he stood there for hours and hours and hours. He had been there for hours already before I even knew he was down there and we were there for at least two. Very patient, lovely, very genuine and open - never seemed grumpy about the fact that he was standing next to a washroom in a public park for like five hours."

Sounds like a good sport.

Monday, August 18, 2014

FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Toronto: North Korea vs. USA!

The FIFA Under 20 Women's World Cup is being played here in Canada this summer. The rules of this tournament are just the same as the "big boys'" World Cup, except that the players are women aged 17 to 19. Sixteen teams qualified for the U20WWC.

I have always wanted to attend a World Cup match and this one was played on a Saturday afternoon just a transit ride from my apartment. Perfect. It was a quarterfinal match so when I bought the tickets last month, we didn't know which teams we'd be seeing. In the end, the opponents were USA versus the team variously referred to as North Korea/Korea DPR/PR Korea/PRK. It was a well-balanced pairing!

I brought my good zoom camera to the match, wrapped in a plastic bag against the rain. I think this is the first time I've used the 'sports' mode for photographing actual sports.

The match in photos from the third row:

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - flags
Opening formalities.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - North Korean anthem time
North Korean anthem time. Their uniforms seem to include a team haircut. Very practical, ladies.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - American anthem time
Star Spangled Banner time.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - the refs
Here are the refs.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - pre-game handshake
Pre-match handshake.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - USWNT huddle
US team huddle.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - North Korea huddle
North Korean team huddle.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup
Game on! Lots of excellent footwork on display for both sides. The North Koreans seemed to have more cohesive teamwork, though.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup
It was raining throughout the first half.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - BMO Stadium
The stands look a little empty but attendance was 7,200. More people were sitting on our side of the stadium.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - USA celebrates their goal
USA celebrates Mackenzey Doniak's goal at the six minute mark.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - North Korean throw-in
The famous Brazuca ball.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - FIFA in Toronto
FIFA flag over Toronto.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - Half Time
USA was up 1:0 at half time.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - Jon So-Yon scores
Jon Yo-Son scored with a penalty kick at 54 minutes. The ball is in the bottom right corner of the net. The score stayed at 1:1 through to 90 minutes and 30 minutes of overtime.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - Mackenzy Doniak had a chance with this kick
Lindsey Horan had a chance with this free kick but couldn't break the tie in overtime.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - penalty kick time
A very close match: possession was 51% North Korea and 49% USA. Now it was down to penalty kicks.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - USWMNT reserves watch the penalty kicks
USA substitutes watch the tie-breaking penalty kicks.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - penalty kick time
Waiting for penalty kicks to begin.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - Fans of North Korea
Some North Korean flags emerge from the crowd! To be honest, I think many of the Canadian spectators were cheering for North Korea... I confess I was favouring the reds, too, just because I suspect those ladies have had extremely tough lives training as athletes to represent North Korea.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - Kim Chol-Ok stops the kick
Kim Chol-Ok stopped three of four penalty kicks. Apparently she just loves penalties! (The ball is in front of the S in Emirates.)

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - winning penalty kick
Katelyn Rowland allowed three out of the four penalty kicks she faced. (The ball is in front of the T in Emirates.)

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - Winning Moment
North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - Winning Moment for North Korea
The winning moment for North Korea!

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - Kim Chol-Ok shakes US coach's hand
Kim Chol-Ok shakes hands with the US coach. The keeper was voted Player of the Match.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - Handshake
Some long faces on the American players who were now eliminated from the tournament.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - Winning Tears
And a few tears of relief for the North Korean players, particularly the girl with the taped knee who had been taken off injured.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - Winners' Bow
Thanking the crowd for their support.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup
We were undeniably damp but it was a good evening out with co-workers.

North Korea vs USA, U-20 Women's World Cup - After the game
It's all over at BMO Field. No more U20WWC matches in Toronto and sadly, none of the 2015 Women's World Cup matches will be played here, either.

Official FIFA video recap here. Match report here.

Four teams now remain in the tournament: North Korea, Germany, Nigeria and France. Follow the rest of the U20WWC here.
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