Less than a month to go before I head off on my annual culinary odyssey to the land of the rising sun and the excitement continues to build. Unfortunately, this year, the late start to production and my increased Exec. Producing duties (to say nothing of this cursed script) have prevented me from doing much in the way of research for my forthcoming trip. Hell, this time last year I already had my restaurants booked and was happily perusing print-outs on the various temples, museums, and maid cafes I intended to visit. Still, I think I’ll be alright. I’ve spent enough time in Tokyo to consider it my home away from home, an awesome vacation destination that offers the best of both worlds: the comfortingly familiar and the adventurously unusual.
And so, in the lead up to my trip, I’d like to offer a series of spotlight pieces on some of the individuals that make Tokyo so damn interesting.
Today, a Q&A with resident Tokyo fashion diva La Carmina…
La Carmina is a travel TV host, author of 3 books (Penguin USA and Random House), and writer for CNNGo.com and Lip Service. Her popular blog on Japanese Goth fashion and subcultures - www.lacarmina.com/blog - has been featured in major publications (The New Yorker, Washington Post, WWD, Village Voice, Time Out New York, Fox News, LA Times). She’s appeared on The Today Show and co-hosted an episode of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern for Travel Channel. Recent TV hosting and arranging credits include Dutch Pepsi, Sony Australia, Canal Plus France, and CNN International in Tokyo. She will be the Asia host for educational travel TV series, Project Explorer.
So how does a girl from Vancouver, Canada end up at the heart of the alternative fashion in Tokyo? What brought you to Japan and what led you to stay?
LC: I’ve always had a yen for Japanese pop culture. There were Hello Kitty toys on my shelves for as long as I can remember. I first went to Japan with my parents when I was quite young; we traveled around Asia pretty much every summer. I loved the opulent and Gothic fashions I saw in Harajuku, and started dressing in alternative clothing as a teenager.
While I was in law school, I began my La Carmina blog (http://www.lacarmina.com/blog/) to share my love of Japanese youth fashion and subcultures. It led to bigger projects — books, fashion design, TV hosting — which continue to bring me to Japan.
So would you consider Japan your second home? Did you face any specific challenges in acclimatizing yourself to life in Japan?
LC: I certainly consider Japan a second home. Many of my closest friends are in Tokyo, and it’s the center of the Visual Kei music and Japanese Goth/Lolita/Cyber fashion we love. I’ve got to say… I’m not a fan of the summer “mushi-atsui” weather (hot and humid). Or the mosquitoes, who feast on me like vampires!
You’re an author, illustrator, photographer, blogger, a travel TV host, and a fashion designer. Not exactly the type of life one would expect from a Columbia and Yale Law graduate. How did your friends and family respond to your decision not to pursue a career in law? And how have they responded to your success?
LC: Did you know Ben Stein also graduated from Columbia and Yale Law? He’s an actor (Ferris Bueller), novelist, Nixon speechwriter, financial expert, former NY Times columnist and overall funny guy. He’s a great example of someone who succeeds in a creative path full-time, and in a variety of artistic media. My friend and family know that creative pursuits were always of the highest importance to me; it’s hard to imagine me working in a law firm. So it’s not at all surprising that I’m doing what I do.
Has that degree nevertheless come in handy in time?
LC: Absolutely. I think many artist don’t (or refuse to) pay enough attention to the business and legal aspects of their work. As a result, they’re too often short-changed.
What makes the Japanese fashion scene so unique? Is there something particular to Japanese society that inspires such inventive counter-cultural display?
LC: Often, too much is read into Japan’s street fashion and its social meaning… Japanese festivals (matsuri) are traditional outlets for letting loose and wearing vivid fashion. Today, young people wear alternative styles for fun and personal expression. For the most part, there’s not much more to it.
What can you tell us about some of the more colorful fashion sub-groups (ie. Lolita, gyaru, etc.).
LC: The various “style tribes” are associated with certain brands, magazines and lifestyles. For example, Loli fashion is associated with the Gothic Lolita Bible and Kera magazine, designers like Baby the Stars Shine Bright, and cute-retro-elegant activities such as tea parties. In Japan, however, the “tribes” are fluid; many young people mix styles and don’t have any particular “manifesto” about them.
How does the Goth scene in Japan differ from that of North America if at all?
LC: Goth fashion in Japan is much more intricate, with an attention to detail and quality. Think Interview with the Vampire meets Queen Victoria and Marie Antoinette.
One of your books, Cute Yummy Time: 70 recipes for the cutest food you’ll ever eat, offers up some of the most adorable culinary creations to ever grace a cook book. What was the inspiration behind the book and how prevalent is “cute cooking” in Japan? Is it limited to children’s bento boxes or do grown ups delight in chowing down on hedgehog risotto balls and pecan pie turkeys?
LC: The interest in cute charaben (character bentos) probably peaked a year or two ago; there aren’t as many cookbooks or tools displayed in Tokyo any more. However, it remains a recurrent theme in Japanese cuisine — you’ll typically see cakes with kawaii bear faces, or ice cream decorated to look like a cat. People of all ages enjoy cute food.
Another one of your books, Crazy, Wacky Theme Restaurants: Tokyo is a guide to some of the city’s most inspired theme restaurants, from Alice in Wonderland to the Vampire Café. Do you have a favorite? In a city where you can sample anything from crab ice cream to fugu sperm tempura, I imagine an adventurous eater such as yourself has tried pretty much everything. What was your most memorable meal in Tokyo? The biggest pleasant surprise? And is there anything you wouldn’t eat?
LC: My Theme Restaurants book (http://www.lacarmina.com/tokyorestaurants.php) has photos and stories from over 30 maid cafes and bizarre theme restaurants; it’s hard to pick a favorite. I always have a great time with my friends at the Alice in Wonderland café, which is charmingly decorated and offers Cheshire Cat sundaes and pizza. Here are photos and a video from our last visit to Tokyo Alice: (http://www.lacarmina.com/blog/2010/08/pepsi-tv-show-fun-places-in-tokyo-japan-alice-in-wonderland-cafe-shinjuku-karaoke-singing-harajuku-fashion/)
I try to stay open to any experience, but I’m quite certain I’d never eat a cat, dog or other animal companion… The horror.
What can you tell us about your La Carmina line? What kind of people wear your clothing?
LC: I most recently did a T-shirt collaboration with Akumu Ink, which you can see here: http://www.lacarmina.com/main.php Anyone who appreciates Edward Gorey, Japanese scary-cute girls and Scottish Fold cats might enjoy these designs. Quite a few people have told me they’ve seen La Carmina shirts at anime conventions and Visual Kei (Jrock) concerts.
Put on your travel TV host hat. What kind of itinerary would you put together for an adventurer who only has one day in Tokyo?
LC: I also do fixing (local production coordinating, scheduling, arranging) for TV crews that come to Tokyo, so I’ve had quite a bit of experience with taking people around to my favorite pop culture underground spots. Typically, we begin with shopping in Harajuku and visiting wild Gothic Lolita Punk stores (here are maps and my Tokyo shopping guide http://www.lacarmina.com/blog/2009/04/tokyo-gothic-lolita-shopping-guide-sweet-and-goth-harajuku-stores-where-to-buy-clothes-in-japan/). Then we might stop by a game center and eat cheap conveyer belt sushi. Popping into a cat café and a theme restaurant are musts. And the adventure isn’t complete until we’ve partied all night at my favorite Goth/Fetish/underground nightclubs! (Here is a list with directions to my favorite clubs. http://www.lacarmina.com/blog/2009/04/japan-goth-club-nightlife-guide-tokyo-decadance-dark-castle-midnight-mess-gothic-lolita-heaven/)
Where do you see La Carmina in twenty years? What else has she accomplished? Is she still in Tokyo? Is she still cute cooking, laced up, and hitting the Harajuku scene?
LC: The legendary “Yellow House baba” hasn’t stopped — 25 years later, the elderly lady is still partying with Japanese rockers and designing clothes in Harajuku. I feel like I’ve only begin this journey; I am always striving to push things further in every arena. Stay tuned to my blog http://www.lacarmina.com/blog/, as I’m about to announce a new business venture and more exciting projects!
† LA CARMINA †
blogger. author. tv host. designer.
Facebook http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=10225211197 and http://www.facebook.com/pages/La-Carmina/7168818462