Encounters Spring 2013
From the blue waters of the Maldives to the natural bounties of Mozambique, SCMP's regional travel magazine, Encounters, takes readers on rich journeys that are up-close and personal.
Blogger La Carmina thrives in the spooky subcultures of goth and Harajuku, from where she draws inspiration, writes Tracey Furniss
Described by Andrea Walker in The New Yorker as "kind of adorable in a somewhat bizarre way", popular blogger, author, journalist and TV host La Carmina is bringing subculture to the forefront.
She specialises in goth and Harajuku fashion and Japanese pop culture, and has written three books: The Cosmos in a Carrot, Crazy, Wacky Theme Restaurants: Tokyo and Cute Yummy Time.
Canadian-born with Hong Kong parents, La Carmina writes on travel for CNN, AOL and The Huffington Post, and hosts TV shows in countries including Japan, France and Norway. She has also appeared on popular TV programmes such as Bizarre Foods, Oddities and Taboo. With a large and passionate online following, La Carmina writes a regular online travelogue and is now filming a documentary in Japan.
What first attracted you to subcultures?
Even as a child, I felt dissatisfied with the dominant culture and people around me. In my early teens, I began exploring alternative, punk and goth fashion, music and lifestyle - I felt much more at home in this "spooky" world. Subcultures gave me a space to fully express myself and find like-minded friends.
What has been your most bizarre experience?
Appearing on TV show Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern ranks at the top. A few years ago, a travel channel producer found my blog and read Crazy, Wacky Theme Restaurants: Tokyo. She asked me to appear on the show as Andrew's guide to strange Japanese theme cafes. We visited a schoolboy cafe in Harajuku [where the waiters dress as boarding school students] and a jail-horror restaurant where you eat behind bars and monsters run around screaming.
What do you never leave home without?
For the past few years, I haven't gone anywhere without my iPhone. Today's travel coverage relies heavily on social media sharing, such as uploading photos on Instagram and using hashtags. Many press trips are now geared towards social influences, so it's important to build a strong network and keep up with technology.
Who inspires you?
I'm inspired by my Scottish Fold cat, Basil Farrow. He's a plump, cream-coloured, earless fuzzball - remarkably intelligent and with the gentlest personality. Basil Farrow reminds me to keep Zen calm and confident.
What is the strangest food/drink you have ever tried?
I've eaten many strange foods in Japanese theme restaurants. I didn't quite know how to react to the cocktail that came with a hot pink vibrator.
What is the strangest souvenir you have bought?
I bought my friend a jar of chocolate-covered poison from Obscura Antiques, the New York shop featured in the Science/Discovery TV show Oddities. Look for me in season four of Oddities - I'm the spooky girl in a Wilde Hunt skeleton corset.
What tops your wish list - if you have one?
Egypt has been my top travel destination for years. I was fascinated by ancient Egyptian myths and mysteries as a child, and I still am today. I hope I can cross the Sphinx off my list very soon.
Where do you feel most at home?
I feel most at home in the Harajuku district of Tokyo - I love to hang out here with friends. Everywhere you look, there are Japanese youths wearing flamboyant street fashion, such as Gothic Lolita, Visual Kei, Kawaii [cute] and punk. It's a joy to browse the experimental clothing boutiques on Takeshita-doori and Meiji-doori.
What's been your biggest surprise?
One day, I turned on the computer and realised I'd gone viral. Beginning in 2009, my company, La Carmina & The Pirates, fixed or co-ordinated several TV episodes about Japanese bagel heads, or forehead inflation. This body modification involves a saline solution drip into the forehead, creating a bagel-shaped bulge that lasts for about a day.
Last year, we arranged the National Geographic Taboo episode about Tokyo bagel heads. When the segment aired, the media went nuts and ran the story everywhere: I even appeared on CBS' The Doctors to speak about extreme body mods. Unfortunately, most media reports were overblown and spread misinformation: bagel heads are not permanent or dangerous and are certainly not a trend. I hope people will keep an open mind.
Favourite fashion statement?
I'm obsessed with the art nouveau aesthetic, especially the flowing works of Alphonse Mucha. I love incorporating aspects into my outfits, such as flower headdresses and long, sheer layers.
Favourite fashion icon?
I don't have a specific icon, but I am mesmerised by the fashion in Tokyo's club and underground scene. Every time I attend goth/industrial parties such as Osaka's Black Veil and Tokyo's Midnight Mess, my eyes are popping out of my head at the decadent, experimental make-up and styling - from towering Rococo wigs to cyber body modifications. It feels like I've landed on another planet.
Your ideal TV show to host would be about/called ...
I'd love to do a travel TV show where I explore alternative and underground cultures around the globe, such as extreme body modifications, experimental fashion and alternative/gothic nightlife. How about calling it 'Where in the World is La Carmina?'
What does your family think about your adventures?
Subcultures can be shocking to those who aren't familiar with them. However, when people are willing to listen and learn, they often realise underground practices - and people - aren't anything to be afraid of. At this point, family members expect me to be surrounded by drag queens and extreme body modders.