Personal indie travel guides

SINGAPORE - He loves coffee and Japan, so film-maker Pok Yue Weng decided to combine his twin interests to create a specific type of travel guide: one to cafes in Tokyo.

In October last year, he spent about $8,000 to publish Tokyo Cafe. The 97-page volume is filled with his photographs and write-ups on each of the 46 cafes featured, as well as their addresses and telephone numbers.

A coffee filter - imprinted with the name of the book and the printing label - is slipped into the middle of the book as a quirky touch.

It costs $18 and is available at Books Kinokuniya, BooksActually and a few cafes here such as The Marshmallow Tree in Telok Blangah and Maple & Market in Cassia Crescent.

Pok, 42, says he came up with the idea of the niche travel guide after noticing how coffee culture in Japan has changed over the last few years. He has travelled to Tokyo at least eight times over the last three years, as his wife used to study and work there. The couple do not have children.

"Just two years ago, the cafe scene in Tokyo was very unremarkable, with just Starbucks and a few other chain cafes. But then the number of independent cafes just exploded," he says.

Noting that the Japanese tend to emulate Western lifestyles, he says the cafe culture in Japan took off shortly after the "third wave coffee" movement - which emphasises high-quality coffee and appreciating it as an artisanal, hand-crafted foodstuff - hit the United States. The term was coined in 2002.

The idea of sourcing beans from different parts of the world and being in total control of the coffee, from bean to cup, soon caught on in Japan, says Pok.

And the Japanese quickly moved from being copycats to pack-leaders, he adds. "A lot of Japanese baristas are now winning international awards for their latte art. They are very creative and on top of their game."

While he collected bits and pieces of information on cafes throughout his trips, he did the bulk of his legwork on a two-week trip he took in February last year.

Based on others' recommendations and his own experiences, he shortlisted slightly more than 80 cafes to try.

"I drank 10 to 20 cups of coffee a day," he recalls. "I couldn't sleep that week, but I narrowed the list down to the 46 cafes that are in the book."

His criteria included the quality of the coffee, the effort put into creating the beverage and the ambience or theme of the cafes. In total, he spent about $2,000 on the coffees and travelling expenses.

While he cannot pick a favourite cafe from those listed in his book - they are all "different experiences", he says - his favourite cup of coffee was at Omotesando Koffee in Shibuya. The quality of beans used and the balance of flavours between the coffee and milk hit the sweet spot to create a really good cup of coffee, he explains.

Tokyo Cafe will be the first in what Pok plans to be a series of guides to the best cafes in various cities.

While he initially aimed to focus on Japanese cities, suggestions from friends have prompted him to expand his search. He now wants to include places such as Bangkok and Seoul as well.

Next up is a guide to cafes in Kyoto, which he hopes will be out by the end of the year.

Tokyo Cafe had a print run of 1,000 copies and more than half of these have been sold. Pok is in talks with bookstores in Australia and Thailand to stock the book, and he may do a reprint if he receives more overseas orders.

He acknowledges the futility of trying to keep up with the proliferation of indie cafes in Japan.

"There are more than 1,000 cafes in Tokyo alone," he says. "After publishing my book, I went again and so many new cafes have popped up."

However, he still sees value in guides like his, as he can introduce cafe gems to other coffee lovers.

"When I hear about people taking the book with them to Tokyo and coming back with good feedback, saying it helped them a lot, I feel that my time, money and effort have paid off," he says.

He hopes to publish a guide to cafes in Singapore as part of his series as well.

"The scene here is very much like that in Japan, with an explosion of indie cafes in the past few years," he says. "These places are swamped on weekends. It would be interesting to do a guide to the cafes here too."

jennanid@sph.com.sg

IT consultant and blogger Adrianna Tan has been to India at least 70 times in the last decade, mostly as a single female traveller.

When news of several rapes in India broke over the last two years, the 29-year-old found that there was "a lot of renewed interest in the country, in a negative way".

"There was almost a perspective that it is too dangerous, and women shouldn't ever go there," she says.

She decided to write a guide to travelling solo in India - mostly through the southern and coastal regions - as a woman. She is halfway through the book, titled Travelling Solo: A Modern Woman's Guide To India for now, and hopes to publish it as an e-book in May. She has raised $900 so far through crowd-funding website Indiegogo to help defray the costs.

"What I want is not necessarily to change anyone's mind but to share my experiences. I was often asked how I did it, so I thought I'd write a book on it since I find myself telling these tips and stories to people all the time," she says. "It's also a way to share a part of this country that I love."

She first visited India in 2004, when she was studying at the Singapore Management University. She had gone to Kolkata for two weeks with students from other universities here to work with a non- government organisation that combats human trafficking.

Her book will be part-travelogue and part-guide book.

"There are very few narratives of women travelling alone in India," she explains. "I'd like to share both my personal point of view and the 10 years' worth of suggestions and tips that I've learnt about how best to see this amazing country."

One of the book's key hypotheses is that travelling alone as a woman is going to be difficult anywhere in the world.

"I've never felt that walking alone in Bombay or Bangalore or any other remote region in India is more dangerous than in New York City or San Francisco," she says, adding that the only time she was robbed during her years of travel was in the Californian city two years ago.

She believes there are no "better or worse countries in terms of travel for women", but that certain aspects of a country's culture must always be taken into account.

"This can range from wearing culturally appropriate clothes to understanding what behaviour men and women there expect from one another."

One of the tips she shares in her book is something she learnt from an Indian friend very early on in her travels.

"He told me that if ever I felt uncomfortable with a situation, I should look for an older Indian woman and tell her I am feeling harassed, and she would take care of me," Ms Tan, who is single, recounts. "I've done that in two instances and it worked both times."

She is not quite sure why the method is effective, but thinks it could be because men who have an unhealthy relationship with women also tend to have a deep fear of older women.

Talking about travelling in India is a highly polarising subject, she has found.

"Unlike other countries, every person has an opinion on India," she says. "It's the sort of place that really inspires passion or distaste, depending on your experience. So it's a good place to write about because at least people care about it."

She also plans to create an app to help women travel safely in Asia.

"To me, this book is a great first step towards that."


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