Where can you find the world’s most bizarre theme restaurants? Japan still has the most madcap ones, but Taiwan is coming in at a close second.
While in Taipei, I visited some of these quirky theme cafes — which include a Barbie dream house, and a fake European castle. Let’s start with the blonde plastic doll, shall we?
She’s a Barbie girl, and this theme cafe is her world. The glowing staircase is a prelude to the spacious, neon-pink restaurant upstairs. (Address: 2F, #128 Section 4, Zhongxiao East Road, Da’an, Taipei)
If your friends are late, you can sit on the plush handbag-shaped sofa and relax on poodle pillows.
Mattel opened this “dream house” in 2013, and it is the first officially licensed Barbie cafe in the world.
A glass case displays cakes and other sweets stamped with Barbie’s ponytailed profile. Other pastries are topped with hearts and bows (colored pink, what else?)
In the back, there are Mattel dolls for sale. I saw Barbie, Ken and friends in various outfits.
Here’s a princess Barbie, wearing what looks like a cake dress with swirls of icing. (All photos by Ken Yuen and noircorner).
The waitresses even get in the spirit by wearing hot pink skirts and tops, topped with tiaras. None of them had blonde hair, however.
As typical in theme restaurants, the food is nothing special and on the pricey side: a set lunch with salad, curry and cake costs $15-20 US.
Still, it’s a unique venue for a girly-girl bonding session. The Barbie cafe is not far from Zhongxiao Fuxing station exit 2, and next to the SOGO department store — in case you suddenly get the urge to dress in pink ruffles.
(Personally, I will stick to Gothic dresses! Purchase a skull dress like mine here.)
Walking around this district, you’ll come across cute shops and unique eateries. My film team and I stopped by Soma, a “tea and mocktail” parlor.
I had a grapefruit mix, which had chewy, gelatinous basil seeds in it. Such a bizarre texture, like a mouthful of little eyeballs.
While I’ve visited plenty of theme restaurants, I haven’t seen anything quite like Deja Vu. It’s located in Huashan Creative Park (Address: No.1, Section 1, Bade Road, Taipei).
The velvet curtains open into what looks like a tall European castle, with royal portraits and gargoyles staring down from the high stone walls.
This restaurant is the brainchild of Jay Chou, Taiwan’s most popular singer-actor-idol. Fans love to take photos of the personalized decor, which includes his Batmobile and an aristocratic piano.
The food, however, is nothing to sing about: mediocre and over-priced Italian (around $12-15 US a plate). I suggest coming just for a coffee and to pose in the grand space.
How about Taipei’s nightlife? My friend Boris took me to several laid-back, artsy bars in the Xinyi district (by Taipei 101). For those in the know, there’s a secret bar inside the popular nightclub, Barcode. (Address: 22 Songshou Rd, Taipei)
Walk in and to the right, and look for an unmarked door. It leads to a narrow staircase, which ends at a bookshelf. But if you slide the shelf open, you’ll find yourself in Alchemy. The speakeasy theme matches the “insiders only” cozy feel, featuring a fireplace and dark leather seats.
Try a signature Prohibition cocktail, made with whisky and wrapped in an American newspaper announcing the 1920s ban on alcohol. The Miso-Tini comes in a miso soup bowl, and smells like bonito flakes — but when you take a sip, it’s sake and wasabi with a light, pleasant sweetness. Cocktails are around $12-15 US each.
Boris also took me to Mod bar, and his favorite MonoMono, which has architectural photographs on the walls. We ended our final night at “F-king Place” (above) — yes, that is the actual name — and drank cocktails while listening to a retro-rock playlist!
Go on a pub crawl to all these Taipei bars, and you’re guaranteed a fun night.
During the daytime, I encourage you to check out Taipei’s contemporary art scene. Many of these exhibits are free, and found in the unique Huashan 1914 Creative Park.
In 1997, a group of young actors discovered an abandoned factory that used to produce wines and breed moths. They took it over and started putting on experimental performances. More artists set up workspaces, and today, Huashan is a protected center for art.
When I visited, there was an exhibit dedicated to the Japanese manga One Piece, and a shop for the Korean Line characters. I loved poking my head into the local design shops, which sold creative goods like the “color-me” robot toy above. Have a look at Huashan 1914’s website for upcoming event listings; the hands-on art workshops are excellent for children of all ages.
Where else can you find cute character goods in Taipei? At Shima Risu picture books store. “Shimarisu” means “chipmunk” in Japanese, so this children’s shop is designed like a fairytale forest hideaway.
The books are in Chinese and English; I found my childhood favorites like Miffy, Tintin, Babar, Moomin, Peter Rabbit. The shelves also stock gorgeously bound and illustrated works by new authors, especially from Taiwan. There are miniature seats all around, and parents are encouraged to read to their children right in the bookstore.
The little ones, however, might be more interested in the plush toys and mascot accessories placed all around Shima Risu. I picked up a small stuffed Miffy bunny for $320 TWD, or $11 US.
Toys aren’t just for children. Taipei has many anime collectible stores, like Hot Dog Toyz in Da’an. A Robot Hello Kitty beckoned us to enter.
All your favorite Japanese mascots are here, including collectible figures of Doraemon the earless robot cat.
As you can see, “kawaii” is big in every part of Asia. The subway had a poster for StayReal’s Disney clothing collaboration.
Songshan Park is another creative art destintaion, and home to the Eslite Spectrum mall. Be prepared to spend hours inside, mesmerized by the selection of cute gifts like these cat-in-hat notebooks. The bottom floor is a cluster of speciality cafes, including a stall for Ice Man shaved ice.
Upstairs is a seemingly endless hall of hip design: I spotted panda bear soap, owl pillows, plants in beakers, oversized fringe pillows and more, mostly by local designers.
The top floor is an Eslite bookstore with an immense collection of photography and art books. Look for the traditional tea house hidden among the racks, which go well with the sun biscuits also sold in the mall.
I leave you with a shot from the entrance of the Raohe Street Night Market. So many bizarre street foods inside…
Taipei has more strange theme restaurants, including Modern Toilet, Sky Kitchen (which looks like an Airbus A380), and DS Music (hospital themed). There’s also a Hello Kitty Sweets Restaurant! However, since I went to the one in Seoul, and John covered the Hello Kitty pop-up in Hong Kong, I decided not to visit it. (I did, however, go to the Sanrio exhibition in Taipei’s Songshan Design Park, which I’ll show you soon…)
Have you tried Taiwanese food? Would you eat at any of these theme cafes?
There’s no place like Tokyo. A city filled with cute shops, theme cafes and game centers. As you know, I love to write about these wonderful places on my blog.
However, Japan can be a confusing place to visit. It’s hard to figure out where to go and how to get around. But I’ve been working on a project with Odigo, to make trip-planning a whole lot easier.
Read on to see the Gundam giant robot, Hello Kitty shops and much more kawaii!
I visited the Odigo team at their Tokyo office. They’ve built a community of passionate experts like me, who want to help travelers get off the beaten track in Japan.
What I’m wearing: Killstar skirt with witchy patterns, and a Nightmare Before Christmas sweater from Lumine Shinjuku. My blue coat with a zig-zag front is by Alice’s Pig.
Odigo is a newly-launched website that lets you create your own custom trip. You can search for cool local spots, and link them together in a customized trip.
You can then download the itinerary to my phone, or print out a pocket-sized version. That way, you have all the necessary info — addresses, opening hours, subway routes — right on hand.
I’ve been helping the team with ideas. Our goal is to make Odigo as helpful as possible for English-speaking visitors to Japan. It’s free to use, and anyone can add their own writeups to the site. If you’re intrigued, you can also keep track of our collaboration on Odigo’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
For example, when I search for Gundam… the site shows me there’s a giant robot exhibition in Odaiba! I can click to see photos, prices, and a review by a local expert.
Thanks to Odigo, I know exactly how to get to “Tokyo Teleport” station (how sci-fi!) and walk to the Gundam Front.
It’s located in Odaiba, the Japanese man-made island. You can spend a whole day here, shopping and enjoying the various entertainment activities.
On the way, we passed by the Fuji TV headquarters. I’m digging this futuristic glass building, with a big “hachidama” ball at the top that serves as an observation room. hachidama ball
Odigo’s travel tips including arriving at the top of the hour, to see the robot in action. We got to Diver City just in time, to see the Gundam’s head turn and lights flash.
Somehow, this towering metal mecha fits into the Japanese landscape.
I felt so tiny, looking up at the Gundam’s bright yellow eyes. The statue rises 18 meters from the ground.
DiverCity mall also has a Gundam Cafe, which serves roboto-themed drinks and food. (There’s one in Akihabara too.)
I ordered a green tea Haro latte. I suppose matcha tastes better when it’s decorated like a cute little robot.
You know you’re in Japan when you are ordering coffee from the Gundam cafe, and the signs tell you to “cooperate with judgment.”
Later that evening, a colorful Jpop boy band performed at the foot of the Gundam. Their look and dance moves reminded me of the Power Rangers.
Hundreds of Japanese teen girls gathered and screamed, while waving neon lights above their heads.
Odaiba is a great place to visit on rainy days, since most of the attractions are indoors. In addition, you can usually take photos and videos without a storeperson running up to you and screeching “Dame-ehh!”
I said hello to children’s TV character, Gachapin the green monster, at the Sweets Paradise cafe.
Odaiba is full of cute characters gift stores. You’ll even find obscure mascots like Chikin the ramen chicken. I found Miffy coin purses and cards in other parts of Diver City.
So many big-eyed cuties, everywhere you go!
Of course, there’s a Sanrio store. This one features traditional Japanese-themed goodies, like Hello Kitty in a pink kimono.
One side of the shop sells My Melody and Hello Kitty pancakes. The batter goes into special molds, to make the shape of these characters.
Odaiba is home to Rainbow Bridge, and this electric tunnel that leads to Venus Fort. The colors change every second.
Illuminated in space-purple. Odaiba is full of wonders. (Photography by Melissa Rundle and Eric Bergemann)
Random… there was an antique car show inside MegaWeb and VenusFort. This mall is decorated like ancient Italy, with Roman-style fountains and a sky-painted ceiling.
We continued to this humongous game center. So many video games, crane machines… and even robot pandas and lions that you can ride for a 100 yen coin.
I tried this sumo fighting game, where you lean on this stocky wrestler and try to push him back. I lost…
I hope my Jpop adventure showed what you can experience, with travel website Odigo! Soon, they will also have a mobile app that lets you add your own discoveries, and be part of a community of travellers.
What type of features would you find most helpful, in planning a trip to Japan? Stay tuned, and we’ll release a video of my adventures in Tokyo.
I’ll never get tired of writing about Hong Kong — I discover something new, every time I visit. The above image sums up the eccentric energy of the city, especially in the Central district. I was trying to take an outfit photo, but this dapper old Chinese man stole the show!
Read on for my favorite memories from HK: including food, fashion, lucky cats, and Miffy galore.
And what are these prismatic marvels on my forehead! Round, trippy, kaleidoscope glasses from H0les Eyewear! Lady Gaga and others are fans of these light-refracting sunglasses. I wore them as forehead goggles, since I can’t actually see clearly through them (everything shatters into a prism).
My cyber-kitty look fit with the colors and chaos of Hong Kong. In the Central district, be prepared to walk uphill and on uneven steps.
My Pirate crew and I had lunch at NOM, which stands for “Not Only Meatballs” (Address: 1-5 Elgin Street, Soho, Central, HK)
John Skeleton gives it five stars: “NOM lived up to its name by serving up one surprising twist on rustic Italian comfort food after another. ”
“Chef Fabrizio Napolitano told us that he wanted NOM to be the kind of place you go with family and close friends to enjoy an intimate atmosphere. With each dish, the chef personally came to our table to tell us about the story and inspiration behind each dish, including some of his own grandmother’s recipes.”
“We tasted an array of cocktails, my personal favorite being a red beet whiskey concoction with hint of thyme.”
I could have eaten five plates of NOM’s burrata (cheese) and tomato salad. What appears to be simple ingredients are chosen with the utmost care.
The classic meatballs lived up to their name: nom, nom, nom! Chef Napolitano only purchases beef from family businesses in New Zealand and Australia, which take an ethical approach to raising livestock.
The sliders were also a hit, and a perfect example of how the chef brings modern interpretations to heritage flavors.
We lapped up every bite of the caramelized banana/ginger/sesame seed dessert topped wdith goat milk gelato. I also adored the lemon tart, and ordered a second scoop of the cardamom gelato. (You can order this for yourself, at NOM in Central.)
We walked down the street to visit an interior design store, Homeless. Look who is peering from the window… Miffehhh!
This lifestyle store sells a wide array of modern furniture, lights, home decor and gifts… Such as these fat-faced Miffy bunny toys.
Their ears look a bit like my horns hairstyle, which is the work of Stephanie Hoy at Stratosphere Hair in Vancouver. (Can’t get enough of these prismatic H0les Sunglasses.)
The Netherlands lighting designer also has a smiling child and bear lamp, both carried in the HK Homeless store.
We continued our walk to PMQ, a constantly changing hub of artist studios and shops. (I wrote about PMQ in this post, with tons of photos from inside.)
Posing in front of the deconstructed, meat-like Year of the Goat statue.
It was inspiring to see how artists created modern works that celebrated Chinese New Year. This one strings together gold origami to form a giant sheep.
On the cute and weird side… There was a sheep-carousel that let children pedal tricycles in a circle.
The Refinery always has something quirky on the racks, such as this Nelson Blackle dress with a retro video game motif.
Time to eat again (that’s what locals do, in Hong Kong!) I was intrigued by Check-In Taipei, a new restaurant that takes inspiration from Taiwanese street food. (Address: G/F, 27 Hollywood Road, Central)
My Pirate team and I sampled the Chinese New Year “lucky menu”. We were impressed by the creative dishes, like purple yam mochi balls served on a Ping Pong platter.
John writes: “I have to admit that I wasn’t all that aware of what kinds of dishes defined Taiwanese cuisine, but after checking out of Check-In Taipei, I felt like I had taken a grand tour of the country’s finest. Everything is taken one step beyond to elevate each aspect of the dining experience. The pearls in the bubble tea are not just handmade every day, but they are also only kept for a few hours before being replaced in order to ensure that every single one has the right texture and consistency.”
I enjoyed hearing the folktakes that inspired the “lucky” dishes. Braised Pork Nachos are mixed to symbolize success, pepper pig ears remind you to “listen and learn,” while barbeque prawns encourage you to “laugh out loud.”
John recommends the chicken and waffles, which is “elevated to haute cuisine here. The chicken is marinated in an array of spices, and pineapple chutney joins the waffle to create a satisfying combination of texture and flavor.”
Don’t leave without trying the “Tea-Ramisu” cocktail. John says, “The Taiwanese are apparently known for their hospitality, and Check-In Taipei certainly takes that to heart, as I left with a full stomach and a warm feeling that told me it wouldn’t be long before I checked in again.”
It’s a good thing that you walk a lot in Hong Kong… because we seem to eat nonstop here! As you probably gleamed by now, the hottest new restaurants are usually in the Central district.
(Photos by Naomiyaki, Eric Bergemann, Melissa Rundle and La Carmina.)
We had a cozy meal together at Linguini Fini (49 Elgin Street, Central). John writes: “Home-style Italian cooking is the name of the game here, and judging by the packed seating and lively atmosphere that we experienced, it’s definitely a hit with the locals in Hong Kong.”
“Linguini Fini keeps it simple and casual, the perfect place to relax with a group of friends and share a few slices of mouthwatering brick-oven pizza and a bowl of pasta. The Radiatore alla Vodka was particularly memorable, with the vodka adding an unusual but surprisingly delicious touch to the mix of homemade pasta, ‘Nduja, mozzarella cheese, tomato, and basil.”
I’ll leave you with photos of “fortune cats” in Hong Kong. This one was guarding the back of our taxi.
Manek nekos aren’t only popular in Japan. You’ll see them everywhere in Hong Kong, waving their paws to bring in luck.
Hello Kitty is also huge in Hong Kong. Literally: this light display took up the front of a building.
Yet another “maoo maoo”, towering over pedestrians in Tsim Sha Tsui. Love the random-ness of HK.
I leave you with my two latest nail art designs, by Glam Nail Studio. Chinese New Year and sakura blossom nails, with my Scottish Fold cat raising his paw. Currently, I have steampunk Gothic nail art… in time for my trip to England and Iceland!
And I just confirmed… I’ll be reporting from the RuPaul’s Battle of the Seasons extravaganza in Reykjavik! These all-star drag queens will be heating it up, in the land of ice. Can’t wait to cheer on my favorites like Sharon Needles and Bianca del Rio (who I saw in San Francisco).
You too can see the ladies in the UK, Iceland and Barcelona during their world tour, happening now. Join me and pick up tickets on the RuPaul BOTS World Tour site.
I’ll be interviewing the performers backstage — got questions for your favorite drag queen? Let me know in the comments, and don’t forget to keep track of my Iceland adventures on my Instagram @lacarmina.
Graveyard Goth! Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans. Egyptian Sphinx pyramid tomb, Weeping angel statue.
Every Goth who goes to New Orleans is naturally drawn to the graveyards here. St Louis Cemetery is the most famous one, and home to the tomb of voodoo queen Marie Laveau.
However, I’m going to take you on a tour of a lesser-known but more fascinating resting place: Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery (5100 Pontchartrain Boulevard, New Orleans, LA).
My friend Molly and I heard about Metairie through our playwright / artist friend, Cynthia von Buhler. Like in a lucid dream, we wandered between Metairie’s dramatic marble tombs…
… and kissed the Egyptian Sphinx. Read on, and we’ll take you to the Weeping Angel (as seen on the cover of Nightwish and Evanescence albums), and more marvels.
If there’s one place where a vampire cape is appropriate attire, it would be a graveyard in New Orleans. Mine is by Black Peace Now, a Japanese brand (so it’s well made, not a costume piece).
Molly reflects, “I remember learning that cemeteries were the first parks, where you would go for a day out in the sunshine, and this felt true to me at Metairie. I felt a tremendous sense of peace, in this place where thousands of people were resting who had experienced the same things we do: love, sadness, learning, changing, curiosity. It made me feel strangely connected to people around me.”
“I always like to think that I’m so different and weird, but the sheer scale of the number of graves made me feel wonderfully not unique… that in one of those tombs lay someone who must have viewed the world like I do, even if it was in another era and thus, with different circumstances. Basically, it made me feel like the ‘good old days’ weren’t really different.”
I enjoyed walking quietly down the well-manicured paths, and noticing small details like this butterfly headstone.
Details of my purple-blue-red hair, braided at the top to show the colors. My hairstylist is Stephanie Hoy, at Stratosphere salon in Vancouver, Canada.
The cemetery is enormous. It’s not located in the city of Metairie, but within NOLA city limits (about a 30 minute taxi ride from the French Quarter).
Molly and I saw maybe three other people during our stroll. She says, “We were definitely rare tourists at Metairie, but I thought the staff was incredibly kind and welcoming. I liked seeing how well organized the records of the tombs were. It felt like the memories of people’s loved ones were safe here, which is how I felt about NOLA in general.”
The cemetery was once a horse racing course. In the late 19th century, it turned into the final resting place of notable and wealthy locals.
At first glance, the white marble mausoleums look similar. But the closer you look, the more you see.
The staff told us that there are about 10 different types of crosses gracing the roofs. Above is one with a crown.
The atmosphere at Lake Lawn Metairie wasn’t sad or eerie. Instead, it felt like a peaceful space for reflection. I admired the intricate carvings on this tomb (the family is not related to the Moog synthesizer, though they share the name).
At Avenue D, Plot 113, we found what we were looking for. This is the Lucien Napoleon Brunswig tomb, shaped like an Egyptian pyramid.
Brunswig (1854-1943) founded a large pharmaceutical company. I’m not sure why he chose to have such a unique and striking tomb. There isn’t any other design like this in Metairie (although actor Nicholas Cage erected a pyramid for himself in Saint Louis Cemetery).
Practicing my disco moves, to match the guardian on the left.
She points to a Winged Sun, surrounded by two cobra snakes. This ancient Egyptian symbol is associated with divinity, royalty and power.
There’s something uncanny about this Sphinx, who wears the royal “nemes” striped headcloth. When you look in his eyes, it is as if he stares back. I haven’t sensed this with any other statue.
He’s the keeper of riddles and mysteries. Who carved him? Why? Is the crack down his nose intentional? An accident, or tribute to the noseless Great Sphinx of Giza?
I don’t know. (If anyone holds the keys to these mysteries, please let us know in the comments).
All we can say for sure is that the Sphinx deserved a kiss. Our friend Cynthia did this first, and inspired us to make the same pilgrimage. Perhaps you’ll come here too, and add another peck to his lips.
Molly holds on to his big paw. The Sphinx is, after all, a mythical creature with the head of a man, and body of a lion. (Oh, I want to go to Egypt so badly…)
Metairie has the largest collection of funerary statues in the city. I could have wandered here for hours.
(Sneakers are Michael Kors)
Some had colorful stained glass windows.
Some plots were empty. Some had fresh graves.
Others were dark and crumbing.
For the most part, however, the tombs were strikingly well cared for. This doesn’t at all feel like a tourist destination (unlike Saint Louis Cemetery, where you’ll see groups going on guided tours).
Our shadows approach the Army of Tennessee memorial. This monument honors fallen Confederate soldiers of the American Civil War.
We paid a visit to the Chapman tomb’s Weeping Angel, which glows under blue stained glass. (It’s found between Avenue G and Central Ave, at plot #1.)
This “Angel of Grief” is modeled after the 1894 sculpture by William Wetmore Story. You might recognize this moving image from the album cover art of Goth bands, Evanescence and Nightwish.
Angels also rest on the top of monuments…
… and stand on guard at the entrances. As you can see from the photo above, some of these memorials are the size of a house.
I felt like I had landed in a strange new world. When I glimpsed the Sphinx, I felt like the time-traveler in H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.”
A buried family, guarded by their faithful dog who holds fresh flowers.
The dog is shedding tears for the dead.
Believe it or not, this was one of my favorite travel experiences of 2014. It’s hard to describe, but I think Molly expressed this feeling well at the beginning of this post. Standing by tombs from the 1800s, we felt like we were part of the same human experience.
On the other side of the lawn, there’s a garden and Heaven’s Pets.
A place to remember our loyal animal friends, who leave “paw prints in our hearts forever.”
Thoughts upon thoughts, as the sun began to set.
And then I spread my vampire cape, and flew away.
How do you feel about visiting cemeteries? If you have any insight into the Riddle of the Sphinx, please let us know in the comments. (The staff wasn’t able to tell us anything, and I couldn’t find much more about the enticing Brunswig tomb.)