Vancouver Writers Fest!

One of my goals in moving back to Canada from Japan was to interact with more fellow writers, so last fall I determined to volunteer for the Vancouver Writers Fest. I ended up filling a lot of shifts because the production of my last book was on hold and I really got to see how the sausage was made. I lugged chairs and equipment around to set up events, prepped food for authors and volunteers to eat, sold event tickets, manned the volunteer lounge, and wrangled a line of people eager to get a book signed by Margaret Atwood. 

It was a great experience and I got on friendly terms with most of the festival staff because I was around so much. It’s been nearly a year now and I’m excited for the festival to kick off again. I’m signed up for even more events this time, with a few more roles with more responsibility too. With luck I’ll be able to squeeze in some events while I’m at it and won’t blow my monthly book budget right out of the water. 

As far as meeting writers goes, I can’t say I met anyone and formed a relationship beyond a hello and a handshake, other than some festival volunteers and staff who are writers as well. I had a good time at the Volunteer Appreciation Party and Reading after the event, where I recounted my experience with eating progressively raw food, but I think I have a long way to go before I’m a part of any sort of local writing community. 

Here’s hoping that the Writers Fest 2018 is even better! 

How do guidebook researchers write restaurant reviews for tourists? 

Restaurant reviews can make or break a restaurant, especially from a noted publication or a famed food critic. The food pages of the New York Times aren’t the same as a travel guidebook, and the researchers have to choose restaurants in a decidedly different manner, with different criteria and priorities than we would use in picking a place to eat back home. 

Problem #1: Location

First is location. All restaurants more than 30-minutes journey from a cluster of hotels and attractions, whether by public transit or taxi, are excluded. This naturally excludes many high value small restaurants that can’t afford center city rent. 

Problem #2: Hostile

Second, the absolute requirement for a basic willingness to serve foreign guests and deal with bumbling tourists eliminates many other dining places. Popular and famous restaurants have been known to discourage foreign guests from making reservations or walking in because training staff to deal with them is not worth their time, and the disruption of clueless intruders is a net negative for the ambience.

Problem #3: Language 

Still, most restaurants are more than willing to serve you, but insurmountable language barriers make dining out all but impossible. There’s scarcely a backpacker who can’t recount having to point at someone else’s plate just to get food to come to the table. No English menu, no English spoken, inability to handle English reservations, and a smiling but panicked staff all eliminate many good eateries from the running. 

Problem #4: Price Spread

Now we are left with restaurants in good locations that are willing and able to serve foreign guests. The first real criterion that a typical diner would use is value. Tourist trap restaurants are rife in our remaining pool so these are eliminated for high prices, low food values, and often poor ambience. However, among high value (taste and ambience vs price) restaurants, there’s a large spread of price points, everything from the $6 lunch to the $600 once-in-a-lifetime culinary masterpiece. With limited space to print restaurants, covering the price spread is the next important consideration, but at least at this point the researcher is beginning to write restaurant reviews.

Problem #5: Dietary Restrictions and Variety

Dietary restrictions reserve ten to twenty percent of restaurant selections, whether for vegetarians, vegans, or those with food allergies. Such places are often lower value than other establishments due to the lack of options that meet the above criteria outside major cities. 

Finally, given space for, say, twenty restaurants in a major city, the researcher needs to select a mix of cuisines, levels of popularity, and kinds of ambience across neighborhoods and the price spread, making sure there’s a good balance in each district. Pride of place goes to local cuisine, but international options round out the offerings in case the reader has gotten sick of the local specialty.

Problem #6: Budget

And here’s the real kicker: most guidebook researchers have neither the time nor the budget to try out every restaurant considered for inclusion in a guidebook. At best, three or four eateries and a couple bars could be visited and small dishes could be sampled. Anything more than this merely burns through the writer’s advance at an untenable rate. Worse yet, not every restaurant that is taste-tested is a keeper, even if the online reviews seem favorable. 

So, what to do?

So why not just follow online restaurant reviews and skip guidebooks entirely? Aggregate reviews have their own set of problems. Starred reviews skew heavily toward cheap, tasty joints because everyone can afford to try them, whereas famously excellent restaurants are often docked stars because the food, although very good, didn’t taste “$200 good.” 

Another critical issue is that your tastes may not agree with the common opinion. An “odori-gui” (dancing food) Japanese restaurant will drive off 90% of Western customers with its still-living or twitchingly dead seafood dishes, but maybe that’s just the thing an aficionado of fresh seafood craves. Conversely, a horde of foodies could make a trendy new spot seem good with rave restaurant reviews, but someone who likes simpler dishes may recall Julia Child’s quip, “It’s so beautifully arranged on the plate – you know someone’s fingers have been all over it.” 

So what’s the best solution for the problem of restaurant reviews? As a guidebook writer who knows how the sausage is made, I use guidebooks to give me a general lay of the land. I check online reviews of a few places listed and try them out if there seems to be consensus between the writer and the public, or if the writer recommends the spot for a reason I care about. If the guidebook seems reliable after several spots, I have a keeper, but if not, I take their recommendations with a grain of salt and turn to restaurant review websites to cast a wider net. 

If all else fails, ask a local. They may point you to a place that has trouble serving you, but chances are, the food will be good nevertheless. 

Why resussitate an old blog?

Since making the decision to get back into writing after a six-month hiatus, I’ve been thinking about participating more in the internet’s swirl of ideas, and what that would look like. Do blogs and personal websites still have value? Is there a life on the periphery of social media’s vast holdings? If you build it, will they come? 

Much was made of the advent of the blog: it was a situation beyond Gutenberg’s wildest hopes, a publishing platform available to everyone for minimal cost, largely anonymous, free from government censorship in many countries, and capable of reaching any literate person with a computer screen. 

However, personal websites take some work to update and keep running, which made social media platforms all the more attractive for people who had been blogging to keep their social circles updated on the latest news and photos. These easy-to-set up solutions have sprung up like weeds to cover nearly every sector of the market. Twitter for short updates and public discussion (aka argument with strangers), Facebook for family and friends (or a place to feud with both family and friends), Instagram for photos, Pinterest to share recipes, LinkedIn for business networking and so on. This is only news if you’ve been living under a rock for the past 15 years. 

But what space remains for a personal website? As many have discovered, social media websites have their own weaknesses, which highlight the merits of having your own space. Control is foremost. A self-hosted website is not subject to abrupt redesigns, new posting rules, content restrictions, or algorhythmic arrangement of your posts. Your content is unlikely to be taken down unless it contravenes local laws. 

Fair enough, you may say, but few social media users do anything that causes the law or site administrators to become involved and everyone eventually gets used to redesigns. Perhaps then a stronger argument is that a private site is a canvas for your own thinking, free from the clutter and noise of a continually updating feed, of comments, and disputes breaking out. There’s no character limit, no immediate descent into the wastebin of time as newer posts push yours down minute by minute, no need for photos, video, links, or likes. What I want this place to be is a repository for the thinking I’d like to share. If it is any good, it will find its readers. 

But isn’t reading dead? Aren’t all the young kids just watching the talking heads on Youtube? Well, they are until they aren’t. Anyone who has done protracted online research soon discovers that text still remains the king for a quick scan of dense information. Online personalities have made an attempt at telling us everything from the best way to run a dungeons and dragons game to how to prepare for the rise of our machine overlords, but we need to sit through twenty minutes of conversational speed language, when our eyeballs could have scanned a transcript in moments and spotted the relevant passages. Even if book sales are down, the popularity of sites such as reddit, where an infinite amount of written content is building second by second, prove that people want to read what other people are thinking. 

So I’m bullish on text, on private websites. They may have become somewhat passé, but they are still out there for the right sort of readers. Welcome: enjoy your stay. 

Deep Kyoto Walks

The view from Mt Hiei north to Ohara.

The view from Mt Hiei north to Ohara.

Last year at a pub Christmas dinner I was introduced to Ted Taylor, a friend of friends and the co-editor of a book of walks around Kyoto. Learning I had recently published a book, he invited me to contribute an article to the collection, called Deep Kyoto Walks.

It turned out that Ted and his co-conspirator, Michael Lambe, writer on the great blog Deep Kyoto, had assembled an all-star line-up of Kyoto experts and I was sneaking in at the very end of the project. I was both honored and intimidated to be included in the company of well-known writers, artists and journalists. I don’t know everyone, but Chris Rowthorn was the first to help me get into travel writing and thanks to his counsel I was able to publish my first book last fall. Bridget Scott is an extraordinary dancer, a real expert on Kyoto and a dear friend. The headliner for the book is Pico Iyer, who is about as famous as it gets in the travel writing industry. I’m eager to read his piece about how he first came to Kyoto.

Ted remembered me from my very first published article (much to my shame and horror), a piece on The Kyoto Trail for Kansai Time Out, so he suggested I expand that theme into a full circumnavigation of Kyoto. It sounded good, except for being January. Nevertheless, I spent the next couple of weeks covering sections of the 69km route a bit at a time, even though it meant I needed to ski down part of Mt Hiei in my running shoes.

Walking around most of the city I have called home for eight years was a good chance to reflect on all the experiences I have had here. I was in conversation with a friend once and I said that Kyoto always felt big to me. If Canadian towns are all stretched out with nothing much in-between, Kyoto is corrugated with history. I don’t know how many times I have turned down a random side alley and stumbled into something wonderful. This is literally true sometimes: I once nearly got run over by a horse in a festival procession because I popped out of an alley too quickly.

In any case, the book, Deep Kyoto Walks, is out now! I hope readers unfamiliar with Kyoto will be able to see some of its sides through this diverse collection.

Research Tales: The Mixed Bath

It wasn’t the first time I had gotten naked with a new coworker, just hours after meeting. Last summer I met the photographer for my upcoming travel guidebook, Ken Shimizu (, to split costs on a research trip up to Tohoku, the region north of Tokyo that had been devastated by the tsunami and nuclear disaster just a year before. We met outside Sendai, Tohoku’s big central city and rented a car for the trip. By evening we had finished up with Sendai, passed through the village of Tono and arrived at the hot spring resort of Nyuto, a spot I was really interested in adding to the new book, and which Ken thought ideal for photos.

Yours truly, center. Photo credit Ken Shimizu.

Yours truly, center. Photo credit Ken Shimizu.

First off: the name. Nyuto’s Chinese characters are “milk” and “head”, which, when combined, mean “nipple”. The original meaning here referred to the milky-white opaque waters, but Tsurunoyu Onsen, where we stayed, has a second nipplesque theme—its mixed bath. Hot spring bathing in Japan is in the nude, but it is nearly always sex-segregated. Not so here—think broad daylight skinny dipping with total strangers of both sexes. The only saving grace is the opaque water, but it is of little help when you have to get out of the bath and your towel is 5 paces away in the changing room.

So Ken and I arrived late, after most of the guests had eaten, and were assigned a room together. There was as moment of hesitation because we had only known each other for 8 hours at that point, but we finally agreed to share a room as it was the best way to keep trip expenses down. We ate dinner around a sunken hearth, filling our bowls from a hearty mountain potato stew bubbling in the pot that hung over the hearth and talked about our research plans for the next few days. We skirted the topic that was on my mind, and likely his too: would the mixed bath be heaven or hell? Would it be full of buxom young women, their skins as milky white as the waters, or would it be all geriatrics, groaning quietly as the heat soothed their joints?

We went to our tiny 6-mat room and saw to the all important plugging in of the various devices we carried, then got changed into our bathrobes and went to the bath. As we headed toward the men’s bath we passed a group of women in the same bathrobes.

“Oh, headed to the bath again?” said one of the women, likely in her 50s.

“No, we actually arrived late, so we are getting in for the first time just now,” replied Ken.

“Oh really? We were just in the mixed bath. Too bad!” This flirtation elicited a round of schoolgirl like giggling from her companions, who were anything but school girls. To this day I can’t quite tell if she meant “too bad for you” or “too bad for us.” I like to think it was the latter, or perhaps she meant “what a shame we couldn’t all see each other naked!” That’s a generous way of reading her expression, in any case. To this ambiguous flirtation Ken only managed a “Yeeeessss” that was about as uncertain as the whole conversation. I had understood the whole exchange but was tongue-tied.

I checked out the men’s bath by myself while Ken shot some photos around the grounds, then we met up at the mixed bath, perhaps for moral support or shared anticipation. Seven years prior I had just arrived in Japan and met my new colleagues at the school where I would work for the next 2 years. The following day we took a road trip together to get to know each other better and visited a hot spring in the evening, where I had my first Japanese hot spring experience and also saw my coworker Richard, whom I had known for just over 24 hours, buck naked. Even after countless hot spring experiences, getting to know someone in the nude was something that was hard for me to adjust to.

So Ken and I got naked and hit the bath. A handful of men were lounging about in the steamy waters but no women were in sight. The men had this practiced slouch that seemed to mean, “I’m cool and not a creep ladies! Come in so we may spy upon each other.” What would have merely been the posture of a relaxed man in a bath now seemed like a manufactured display, the peacock at rest. A sign posted at the entrance to the bath had read, “Don’t stare; don’t show off”; I thought these guys were failing the second rule, but there were no ladies in attendance yet.

I had a good soak and was starting to overheat, but there was still no sign that this was even a mixed bath. Ken got out to process some photos on his laptop but I decided to stay in the bath a bit longer. Finally, a collection of high voices, laughter and the flash of white towels tying up hair at the periphery of my vision put all of my senses on edge. This mixed bathing area was designed in such a way that the women could enter the water behind a screen, then wade into the main area submerged up to their necks, completely modest (errr, relatively modest anyway). So it was: a group of four women waded through their entrance and took up position along one side of the pool.

And I couldn’t see a damn thing. My glasses would get damaged by the hot mineral water, so I had left them with my robe. I sat and squinted through the dark and the steam rising off the water. Were they young? If young, were they beautiful? We were there on a weekday—the likelihood of a young woman was quite low as they’d either be busy with work or university classes. If I were to go closer they might freak out and flee, perhaps with good reason. Or maybe I’d get close enough to see and then I’d be the one running off. Chickenshit, I sat on my rock tried to pretend that I wasn’t peering at them, casual as hell. The other men there seemed to be in the same position. No one stirred, and while I considered doing a dramatic “emerge from the bath right next to them in all of my snowy-skin glory” manoeuvre, I sat tight until they had eventually had enough and slipped back into the women’s section.

The next morning I posed for Ken in a series of embarrassing semi-nudes as the bath was all but empty much of the time and he needed a model. Eventually some people arrived and Ken scurried about asking naked people for photographic releases, his least favorite task. I found myself silently praising the complete opacity of the waters as I fell into a conversation with an elderly couple, the wrinkled visage of a grandmother floating upon the white waters the complete extent of my real, confirmed experience. So despite the total lack of orgiastic bathing and the near complete lack of nubile maidens, I enjoyed myself. I’ve been to the bath a lot in Japan and I am pretty comfortable in my own skin, but this way my first time to skinny dip around women and that excitement has stuck with me.



Site Reboot

Well it ain’t pretty, but is getting fired up again! Two years of insane research have passed and the new National Geographic Traveler: Japan, 4th Edition is hitting bookshelves this September! The final haul to publication was exhausting so it has taken some time to recover my enthusiasm, but now that the book is a scant 4 months away and soon to be in front of the eyes of readers, I’ve decided to post several funny stories from researching the book, as well as some recommendations that I didn’t have space to include or more details on my favorite places.

A tea ceremony at Joukeian

A tea ceremony at Joukeian

I had the pleasure recently of helping out a student of mine, Soko, with her tea room. She and I have been working together to translate all of the polite phrases involved in a very formal tea ceremony and this photo is from the ceremony she put on for me and a couple friends. I just love the vibrant color of the tea—I haven’t adjusted the color saturation at all. Soko’s place really stands out because she is willing to put on a full tea ceremony, the four-hour spread including delicate dishes and multiple bowls of tea, and in English to boot. For more details on Soko’s tea room, see the Joukeian homepage.

National Geographic Traveler Japan, Fourth Edition!

I’ve been hard at work on my latest project, a massive overhaul of NGT’s Japan travel guide, and I wanted to share more about the process of updating a guidebook on my website. Seeing as it is a guidebook about Japan, why not “open the kimono”?

As this is my first guidebook, a lot of my travel experiences have become tempered through the experience of “work as travel.” For instance, my preferred mode of getting around has always been on foot, especially in a new place, and I find now that I can’t really get a good sense of a new city unless I lay down some serious kilometers and scrutinize maps by myself. In the cases where friends have “helped out” and driven me here and there, I ended up having a poorer understanding of the layout of the place. The subway systems of large cities such as Tokyo are even worse: you descend into tunnels and pop up like a groundhog in a totally new place. I often have to turn to my compass watch just to figure out which direction to go.

Part of that walking is understanding the situation of the average traveler. If I get lost, a visitor is screwed, so I have to reconsider the area I’m recommending. My iPhone’s mapping app has saved my bacon on numerous occasions, but I can’t assume that all travelers will have smartphones or will want to use international data roaming.

By walking, you understand things you’d never figure out from a map or even by other means of transport. I took the subway to the new Sky Tree Tower in Tokyo this week and was surprised by several things that I encountered there. For one, the two stations that serve the tower are directly beneath it, so you have to walk out and away from the large building upon which it sits in order to actually see it. Visually, it is a letdown, as there’s no “round the corner or up the stairs and there it is!” feeling. Better to go to Asakusa station across the river and walk 15 minutes to the tower, appreciating the view from a distance.

Sky Tree, otherwise known as sukai tsuri tawaa.

Also, backwards Japan chose English words for the its new tower, but if you search for Sky Tree Tower station you’ll have a hard time finding it. Why? Because the subway system has turned the words into Japanese, and you have to search for “sukai tsuri tawaa”. Another lovely surprise was that you need reservations for the tower. Okay. Go online to do so. Need a credit card. Ok no problem. Getting a ticket is by lottery, so I might not get one. Ok, understandable, it just opened. Credit cards issued by Japanese banks only. Huh?

I’m sure it isn’t discrimination or even the desire to limit the first two months to locals only, but rather some sort of bureaucratic complication, the ramifications of which some city official didn’t really think through. Hundreds of tourists showing up and getting turned away. Many more trying to make a reservation and reading “Japanese cards only.” I doubt that there’s any bad feelings intended, but there’s no explanation of what sort of niggly problem they have that prevents the use of foreign-issued VISA or Mastercard. The girl at the tower taking tickets was very apologetic so I’m sure she’s had to put up with disappointed tourists for 6 weeks running now. I hope as a researcher I can catch as many of these goofy things as possible so that visitors don’t have to struggle to get around: taking an irritation bullet for the team, so to speak.

Christmastime in Kathmandu and Acute Lowland Malaise

Christmas finds me this year cringing to odd versions of carols blasting out of bars in the tourist ghetto of Thamel, Kathmandu — once rectal end of the Hippie Trail east, where brain-fired spiritual questers flopped down in a place aptly called “Freak Street” — now the nylon-coated business-end of “Himalaya: the Experience.”

If that sounds jaded, it’s because I’m suffering the exact opposite of Altitude Sickness: Acute Lowland Malaise. After the relative solitude of nearly a month walking around and among the peaks of the Annapurna Himal Range, I find the press of humanity too much: all heavy panting and scrabbling fingers.

The mountains have always been a meditative experience for me, a chance to let my thoughts quiet a little, to get away from distractions. Long descents, bus trips in the countryside, long mountain highways: these acted as a buffer between the fragile communion with the natural world and screeching urban hustle.

No such boundary exists here in Nepal. The mountains are more habited that I was used to, but from the trailhead village only an hour on a sardine can masquerading as a highway bus stood between me and the total tourist culture dousing I received upon arrival at 9pm in Pokhara.

The first person I met back in “civilization” was a pimp. “This is Pokhara,” he said, standing 50cm from my right ear, grinning. “Lakeside.” I turned to look at him directly, as he was standing too close to concentrate on figuring out a taxi with my companions. “Pokhara,” he repeated, “Full servicing.”

Somehow the insinuation was worse than “You want girlfriend?” which I was to hear repeatedly thereafter, as though I, another money machine, had arrived to be greased with whatever foul unguents I required and he was my willing mechanic.

We fled across the street to tangle with lying taxi drivers.

I became less certain of the services that the city could really offer me. A hot shower and some laundry were immediate in my mind, but having a celebration meal was all we had talked about in the last few painful hours of downhill, so there was no turning back. We bathed and ordered steaks, beers. It was a lot of food, but unsatisfying, as though I had been eating fried noodles and mountain sunsets for dinner during the whole trek.

We went to a bar, ordered more, more. The talk was a horrendous smear of misunderstood politics and cock-fight conversations. We cringed in unison and tried to shout over it, to shout the quiet conversations we’d enjoyed in the mountain lodges. Dismal failure. Snarling dogs chased me back to my hotel at 2am.

The next day I woke hungover, sick as the dogs that pursued me, half my body in revolt against the meat, cheese and booze I had stuffed into it.  My headache faded, but not the dizziness of being back among so many people in a city designed to suck as much marrow out of me as possible.

A three-day “strike” where roaming Maoists shut down the entire country on threat of violence was something of a reprieve from noise, but now that their demonstrations are over and the forced idleness lifted, the country is seething like a dog with fleas, everyone hungry, everyone trying to get somewhere, something. I too, scrabble on a bus along sinuous highways back to Kathmandu, ready to do battle with visas, passports, embassies.

After all my fantasies in the mountains of women, luxurious meals and hot showers, I find I’d rather just have another dose of quiet, 10 minutes of dawn light among high peaks and silent eagles.

Death of a Magazine

Last Issue of KTOI’ve been out of Japan for a while, so I was behind on the news that Kansai Time Out had gone out of business. KTO was the oldest English publication in Japan and unlike a lot of English language magazines based in non-English-speaking countries, it’s editors actually gave a damn what was put between the covers.

It’s a huge loss to Kansai and Japan, as the competing monthlies are either free and lousy/trivial (I’m looking at you, Kansai Scene!) or glossy and content-light. KTO only cost ¥300 (about $3USD) per issue and had a great text-to-advertising ratio, though perhaps that was what killed it off. I haven’t been able to reach the former editor in chief to ask.

On a personal note, KTO gave me my first shot at writing before a large audience, cracking voice and sweaty palms and all. Christopher Stevens, the editor, made me jump through hoops, writing little pieces, before he would even look at a longer travel article I had written for his magazine, but it was for the best… that first long piece was UGLY.

I eventually wrote three travel pieces, one on Basic Japanese Buddhism, and was then invited to do a column on statues of deities and historical figures scattered around the region. In total wrote about twenty pieces for the mag over two years and was always happy to contribute to it.

Now that KTO is defunct I may post some of them online here so that the rest of you not living in Japan can have a look.

I don’t know what will replace KTO: Kansai Scene will fill in with events listings and Kyoto will cover the highbrow pieces, but I doubt that anything will pop up with a similar mix of Arts, Politics, and Japanese Culture.

Those of you living in Kansai, what are you reading? Do regional magazines matter? I sure think they do.