Japan, Preps and Research

Japan-Envy

In just two days, it’ll be a full year after I have finally visited Tokyo, the land of my dreams and a regular fixture of “winning the lotto jackpot” fantasies.

There is not a day that I always look back on the day when I first saw Tokyo with my own eyes — how I cried when I saw the Sky Tree looming over the horizon as the airport limousine bus crossed the skyway leading to the city.

Call it crazy, but my dream of seeing Japan (or at least, Tokyo) took me at least 20 years. That was worth a liter of tears, right?

This View.

This View.

The moment I boarded the plane going back to Manila, I already wanted to go back.

This year, my Facebook feed is filled with photos of people celebrating holidays in Japan — Christmas, New Year, Valentine’s, Holy Week, birthdays and just everything in between in Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto. The flurry of pictures, of cherry blossoms and Osaka Castle and the big Gundam automatically induces “Japan-Envy” in me. Or: the unmistakable deep envy felt towards anyone currently in Japan at the moment. A bit crazy, I know but I actually know of people that feels the exact way like I do.

The good news is that I am currently planning a second honeymoon for the hubs and myself in Osaka. We are planning to catch the end part of winter in February 2016 but this early, I am again stricken with the unmistakable dread of wanting to plan everything. I managed to convinced the Hubs to renew his passport (we are going to DFA this week) and next on my Gaant Chart is the purchase of cheap tickets going to Osaka. I am still trying to decide if we should fly in to Osaka, then fly out of Tokyo after – it’s a possibility that I can’t wait to try.

Since I might not be traveling out of the country as much this year (in lieu of the Osaka-Kyoto-Tokyo trip being planned for 2016, I promise to feature more local destinations and tourist spots in Manila.

So, please cross your fingers for me and the Hubs. If ever, this will be his first time in Japan and I would like to make it as magical as possible for him, as it was for me.

DSC_2900

DSC_2942

DSC_2980

Standard
Japan

Review: K’s House Tokyo Oasis – the best place to stay in Asakusa

I finally had the opportunity to write about my Tokyo trip — following a busy and harrowing two months where I had to concentrate on many projects that has been left on the sidelines.

For my first Japan trip-related post, I decided to post a review of K’s House Tokyo Oasis – a nice and quiet home located near the famous Sensoji Temple.

We all know how hard it is to find a good place to stay in Tokyo. After all, accommodations in Tokyo, especially in places like Shibuya, Shinjuku, Roponggi or even Ginza is not cheap. A twin bed can take you to as much as 6 to 7 thousand a night. Manageable if budget is not an option but kinda puts a dent in the wallet if you are a budget traveler. If you want to be somewhat in the thick of the action, but with slightly cheaper cost of accommodations, I would recommend that you consider the Taito area. The Taito area is located on the northeastern parts of Tokyo and covers the Ueno, Asakusa, Asakusabashi, Ameyoko and Yanaka area. It’s close proximity to temples and other sights while offering cheap means of accommodation make it an appealing option for budget travelers. Do not be alarmed by “cheap accommodation” — this being Japan, I can assure you that the hostels are most likely still very clean and secured in spite the not-so-high price tag.

Read more about Taito here.

One of the best place to stay in Taito is K’s House Tokyo Oasis, located a skip, hop and loooong jump away from the Senso-ji Temple in busy Asakusa.

Note: I wasn’t able to take photos of the hotel, so attached photos are not mine

K's House Facade - photo not mine, from hotel TripAdvisor page

K’s House Facade – photo not mine, from hotel TripAdvisor page

Some honest to goodness observations:

1. It’s not easy to find this hotel. From the airport, you will have to take the bus or train heading to Tokyo. You can follow the instructions on the hotel website on how to go to K’s House but I assure you, even if its written on a step-by-step format: IT IS A CHALLENGE TRYING TO GET TO IT. Be prepared to walk for a few blocks. For your health’s sake, do not pack like a fiend — if you stay at K’s House, you will be dragging your heavy suitcase for 15 to 20 minutes. And from experience, your hand will hurt. A lot.

Consider this photo, I lifted from the internet which I marked with arrows for emphasis:

photo not mine

photo not mine

One of the instructions on the website will lead you to the Subway exit near the red arrow. As you emerge, keep walking to your right (blue arrow) until you have reached the main road at the very end. Turn right, until you have passed Asakusa View Hotel and Life Supermarket. The street where K’s House is located is directly across from Life Supermarket and is to your immediate right.

HOWEVER, the only consolation here is that emerging from the dark confines of the subway and appearing on the subway exit right in front of the Senso-ji Temple, you will be greeted–no, accosted–by guys advertising the rickshaw ride. For girls and the fabulous gays (sorry, guys) if you have a thing for well-built, muscled, tanned and ruggedly good looking Japanese guys wearing scandalously skimpy shorts — think of this as your welcome committee. You’re very much welcome.

Kind’a like these guys:

Japanese Eye Candy (photo not mine)

Japanese Eye Candy (photo not mine)

2. K’s House is a nice catch — clean, secure, comfortable and most of all, affordable!

Secure: The Hostel has a gate that is protected by a number code that will be issued to you upon check-in. While they do not have electronic key cards yet in all their rooms (you will be issued a traditional key), the hostel management is vigilant in protecting guests from unauthorized people. There are limited number of rooms per floor and all are ensuite. The hostel is also located in a quiet and unassuming street surrounded by cheap eats and near Life Supermarket (which I very love due to its fresh produce, salads, breads and cooked meals). It is also beside a covered market where you can find the trusty FamilyMart.

Clean: We are a witness to how manic K’s House is when it comes to cleanliness. We actually witnessed first-hand how one of their team members cleaned our rooms and yes, not a dust in sight. When we saw the friendly Japanese guy bust out a used tooth brush for cleaning the toilet, he immediately won our respect and admiration. This is one hostel that takes cleaning very seriously. There are no weird, funky smells which is sometimes present on cheap backpacker hotels.

Hang out area near reception and directly across to the elevators (Photo not mine.)

Hang out area near reception and directly across to the elevators (Photo not mine.)

Comfortable: This being Japan (where space is premium), the rooms are a bit on the small side but still comfortable compared to what is usually written on some reviews in TripAdvisor. Our party of three (my sister, my friend from high school and myself) were able to fit comfortably and without any hassle at all. In our first night of stay, we were assigned a Family Room where my sister and I shared a Queen-sized bed while our friend slept on the single Japanese-type low bed on the side. We transferred on the second night to a Triple room, equipped with a bunk bed and a single Japanese-type bed. Still, we are comfortable and there’s still extra room to accommodate our luggage (3 medium sized luggage, 3 carry on bags plus other knick-knacks) and the accumulated shopping bags on the floor. Each room are ensuite, with free shower gel, shampoo and conditioner (which was amazing with our hair!)

not mine!

not mine!

Affordable: I inquired directly through their site and was given a quotation for the 5-day stay the following day. The room costs about Y48,000 plus or 24,000 plus in Philippine money. We split the cost into three and shared about PHP8,000plus for a four night stay in Tokyo. Talk about cheap! With the money we saved, we splurged on food and took advantage of the fact that we are in the city known for its flavorful cuisine.

Service: The staff of this hotel provides amazing service and speak English quite well. Look up Sayo-san — a wisp of a woman, very hardworking and accommodating. Goes out of her way to be helpful and cheerful always.

You can read the rest of my TripAdvisor review here.

MY FINAL VERDICT
So, will I stay again here? I will definitely consider staying at K’s House once again but should I return to Tokyo, I will choose to splurge a bit and get a place that is a bit central compared to this hotel. Nothing personal, but the coming-and-going, the long walks and the excruciating uphill climb from the subway will get back to you once you’ve done it for four straight days.

K’s House Tokyo Oasis is a good catch (the amazing reviews at TripAdvisor do not lie) but in my opinion, my wimpy-ass can no longer take the long walks. It’s also far-away from the city central so you’ll be taking the bus or the train a lot should you decide to stay in Taito.

Standard
Japan

This place.

20140521-154934.jpg

This is my little neighborhood in Asakusa and I am missing it badly. i’ve been back in Manila for almost two weeks and the places and sights I’ve seen seem surreal. It was like a dream. I see familiar places on TV and the internet and my brain keeps telling me that I was there just a few days ago.

Will catch up on my blogging in a bit — as usual, real life gets in the way.

Standard
Japan, Travel Tips

A Quick Guide to getting your Japan Tourist Visa

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to go to Japan. My dream started when I was still a snot-nosed eight year old kid with a bad case of crush with Alexis (aka Shaider). In my mind, Japan was the land of flying robots, of magnificent hide outs under volcanoes, of cute felines and their friends. As years passed, I fell more and more in love with the culture of Japan.

When I started working–I made a point to save up in order to travel. I started with visa-free countries, until I got to the nerve to apply for a South Korean and Taiwanese tourist visa. While a part of me wanted to try my luck to get a visa for Japan, a bigger part of me was holding me back–afraid that I might not qualify for a tourist visa. I knew the disappointment will kill me.

However, this year I resolved to throw caution to the wind and just do it.

chibi

I began to religiously follow fare guides and forum exchanges for tips and tricks in scoring cheap airline tickets and of course, getting a tourist visa. I made sure to have money available and saved up any extra money six months before the trip. I read and re-read blogs and attended travel fairs. While I cannot control the outcome of my visa application, being ready and preparing for the application has made me more sane and more confident on my chances to get the visa. All the hassles and heartbreaks and stressful moments preparing for the trip has made me more determined than ever.

To give back to the many blogs and forums that helped guide me during my visa application process, I am sharing some tips based on my experience in getting that coveted Japan tourist visa.

REQUIRED DOCUMENTS
First, the list of document requirements — Submitting a completed requirement is winning more than half the battle and in my opinion, will probably dictate the processing of your application. Here are the documents that you will need to prepare:

1. Visa Application Form – downloadable here and here. Note that applying a visa to Japan is only possible through the following accredited travel agencies: Friendship Tours (the one I used. Highly recommended!), Universal Holidays, Discovery Tour, Rajah Travel, Reli Tours, Attic Tours and Pan Pacific Travel (for applications without Japanese guarantor).

Travel agency contact details here

Some tips:
* It’s up to you to choose the embassy of your preference. Note that, technically there is no cost in getting a single entry tourist visa to Japan, but since you have to do the application through an embassy, it is only understandable that the agency will collect a handling fee. Handling fee varies depending on the agency — when my sister applied for her first visa in 2013 via Reli Tours, she paid close to PHP2,500. We only paid Friendship Tours PHP1,200 for our most recent visa application and my sister was even issued a multiple entry visa!
* Fill up the Visa application form electronically – It’s neater and more presentable. Avoid erasures and do not leave blank spaces. Put N/A when the question does not apply to you. Remember: First impression counts!
* Have your photo taken on a professional photo studio. Just tell them that you need visa application photos — more established photo studios have a format already for visa requirements of different countries. For Japan, measurement is 4.5cm x 4.5cm with white background. You will be asked to remove your jewelry. If you are wearing a tank top or collarless blouse, you will need to borrow from the studio’s collection of blazers. If you have a thing against wearing other people’s clothes, I suggest you wear a professional looking top when you have your photo taken.

2. Passport – should be valid for more than six months. I know people who didn’t realized that their passport validity is up until the very last minute, so I suggest you go OC (even for a bit) and check your passport validity before even booking that flight.

3. National Statistics Office (NSO)-issued Birth Certificate and Marriage Contract (if you are married) – The certificates have to be issued the year of your visa application. Avoid the hassle–do not use your old NSO birth certificates, I assure you the agency will double check if your documents are recent. If you can spare a few thousand bucks to go to Japan, I assure you — you can spare a few hundred to get new documents.

If you already have an existing visa to Japan (used or not), you no longer need to submit this. You may skip this part.

4. Tour Itinerary, also called “Schedule of Stay” – there is a recommended format of this downloadable on the travel agency’s website. Bottom line, the Tour Itinerary will be used by the agency to gauge if the money you have is enough based on the activities you plan to do. The schedule of stay contains your whereabouts on the dates you are in Japan, your accommodation options, your contact numbers — in short, it’s your schedule while you are in Japan.

Take note: what you put here is not set in stone. This is just a guide and a reference.

For example, for our five day stay in Tokyo, I indicated the places I will visit per day (but not too specific — just general places no need to indicate specific sites or areas of interests if you are not too familiar). But since I am also a bit OC, I also indicated the possible time where I will return to the hostel.

Just my two cents: if you don’t have too much money in the bank, then do not too much pricey places or attractions. For example, you can’t claim that you will be going to Disneyland, Disney Sea, Hello Kitty Puro Land, a day tour in Mt. Fuji then stay in a posh Shibuya hotel with less than PHP50,000 in your travel budget.

5. Proof of Financial Capability – this is your Bank Certificate, indicating your current bank balance. If you are a BPI bank account holder (like I do), you can get your Bank Certificate in less than an hour. A PHP100-processing fee applies.

Some of you might ask what constitutes an acceptable amount of savings account in the bank in order to qualify for a visa. Honestly, I do not know. I only had PHP7X,XXX in my bank account and yet, I was issued a visa.

6. Proof of strong economic ties to the Philippines – this is to prove that you have a reason to go back to the Philippines. These are usually your Employment Certificate and your most recent Income Tax Returns. For the love of God, please do not be tempted to submit a fake employment certificate. It will be very embarrassing for you if you are caught.

Since I am also traveling with one of my good friends from high school (we were friends since we were 13!) who works independently and does not have an ITR, I was actually a bit nervous if she will be issued a visa. What I know is that she submitted a letter explaining why she doesn’t have an ITR and an employment certificate. I will have to verify with her what she said in the letter. I guess, it also helped that my friend has tons of immigration stamps on her passport already since she is a keen traveler.

If you are in doubt regarding this requirement, do not hesitate to call your travel agency.

Since I am also shamelessly OC, I also attached the following in my application letter:
* A signed leave form annotated by my company’s HR department
* Return airline tickets (MNL-NRT-MNL via Cebu Pacific booked three months before the trip)
* Confirmed hotel reservations from K’s House Tokyo Oasis (rated number 1 on TripAdvisor’s Guesthouses in Taito)

HOW TO APPLY
1. Choose a travel agency and complete your documents even before you drop by the agency. By completing your documents, you have already won half the battle (cos the other half, I believe, is luck). Processing of application usually takes 5 to 7 days (mine took four days) so I will recommend that you apply for your visa a month before your trip.

2. Go to the agency and submit your documents. Pay for the processing fee.

3. Leave and start praying to the Travel Gods for a successful visa application.

Honestly, my travel time from my office in Bonifacio Global City to the Friendship Tours office in Dusit Thani Hotel in Ayala, Makati took longer than the time I have spent inside the agency office. Friendship Tours have very efficient and friendly front liners — who will check your documents one by one before getting your payment and issuing you a receipt. You will present this receipt when you claim your passport after five days.

finally.

finally.

FINAL WORD
If you are from Manila, I hope you will find this guide helpful as you make your dreams come true–the same way that I relied on the tips and tricks shared by others online. While there’s talk that there’s a big possibility that Japan will announce visa-free entry to tourists come June, I will definitely believe it once it’s officially posted on the Japan Embassy Manila website. This is a welcome development and something long-awaited by travelers and Japanophiles alike. In fact, I have already dreaming about my next trip should this happen — visit Osaka and Kyoto with the husband this December, perhaps?

However, I have to admit that I still have reservations should this happen. My only prayer is that, if granted, may this privilege be not abused by those who plan on taking advantage of the opportunity to seek long-term employment in Japan. I hope that when and if this privilege is issued to us, we will respect and honor the trust that will be given to us.

Standard
Japan, Preps and Research

Tokyo Dream Updates

this is my current laptop screen saver. keeps me motivated and reminds me why i work hard

this is my current laptop screen saver. keeps me motivated and reminds me why i work hard

Yes, I did realize that I named my birthday trip with a JPop concert sounding name — quite corny but it gives me the push to make things possible by sheer will and by the Universe conspiring to make this dream a trip of lifetime.

After my last update wherein I detailed how I managed to get return tickets to Tokyo for only PHP6,000 (USD133) all in by sheer will-power, countless prayers to the Almighty and the Universe probably tiring of my usual prayers at night (“Dear Lord and Universe…I really want to go to Tokyo, please help me find cheap tickets…”) I know it sounds a bit funny and probably a bit crazy but it worked for me. It also helped me make the goal clearer.

With the ticket over and done with — it’s now time to look for a place to stay. While I would have loved to stay somewhere central like Ginza, Shibuya or in Shinjuku, my planned budget will not just cut it. Besides, in my head, I wanted to stay somewhere not too modernized. Early on, the idea was to stay in any of the hostels and guest houses dotting Asakusa. At first, I was torn between two strong potential candidates: Khao San Road Kabuki which is located a street from the Kaminarimon Gate and near three types of transpo (Metro Ginza Line, Toei Asakusa Line and Tobu Izesaki Line) and K’s House Tokyo Oasis which is a bit farther than Khao San Kabuki to the Kaminarimon Gate and transpo lines but enjoyed better ranking in Trip Advisor. K’s House is also more expansive than Khao San Kabuki by a few hundred yen but accepted reservations even without down payment.

In the end, I opted to book at K’s House Tokyo Oasis. However, I am still open to suggestions. What do you think? Or are there dirt cheap accommodations in Ginza and Shinjuku areas?

The next (and more excruciating) step for me is preparing for the application of my Japanese tourist visa and building my nest egg for said application. This is the most crucial and nerve-wracking part of the whole thing.

I guess I have told you before how difficult and hard it is for Filipinos to get visa to Japan. Unfortunately, we had a lot of kababayans in the 80s and early 90s who went to Japan in guise of tourism but ended up banishing into thin air. These exploits reflected badly to us, the future keen travelers who wanted nothing but just see Tokyo Tower and Fuji-san in the flesh. While the embassy had “relaxed” a bit these past few years (they now offer multiple tourist visit visas to Filipinos), still going through the whole “visa getting process” is draining my energy. I was actually torn between trying to keep my trip hush-hush or just be positive and avoid any negative thoughts that enter my mind. Right now, all I wanted was to build my nest egg for the trip and I am already wracking my brains trying to think of ways to earn extra cash.

Anyway, I am confident that in the end–it will all work out for me. I just have to be positive, keep praying and prepare as much as I can in order for this dream to become a reality.

Standard
Japan, Traveling on a Budget

The Madness of Airline Seat Sales

Consider this madness:

You wake up in the middle of the night, in cold sweat — full of anticipation. Without turning on your bedroom light, you reach for the iPhone tucked behind your pillow and surreptitiously check the Facebook feeds for some bit of good news. And then you see it. You flip out, almost step on your snoring husband in your haste to get to the bedside stand and get your passport and credit card. You sweat in agony over a few clicks, consider dates and times, check the final cost reflected in the screen then pray to the Gods of Travel that may your card have enough funds to consider the purchase.

That–my friends–is pure madness. And also the exact description of how crazy I must have looked like two days ago when I woke up unreasonably at the unGodly hour of 3 in the morning–as per habit, I reached for my iPhone, scrolled to the Feed and saw that my constant means of budget travel has just announced a new airline seat sale covering ALL destinations, including Tokyo.

My poor husband — I must have looked like a woman deranged when I shot up of our bed and grabbed the laptop to check the airline’s website.

99 (USD2.50) bucks for tickets to your dream destination!

99 (USD2.50) bucks for tickets to your dream destination!

In my head, I had but one goal: book that damned ticket already!

I don’t know in your part of the world on how seat sale works, but in my country — scoring a cheap ticket is akin to finding the Holy Grail — not impossible but at the risk of your sanity. Cebu Pacific, the country’s largest air carrier, is known for its price drops and PHP0 fare seat sales. Literally, the Queen My Sister and I were able to go to different Asian countries (Seoul and Taipei, in particular) due to the cheap rates that this company offers. Cebu Pacific is also instrumental in changing the mindset of Filipinos about flying. Whereas before when Filipinos view air travel as something that only the rich folks do, Cebu Pacific made air travel accessible to every Filipino due to its low rates. That’s why Pinoy travel buffs like me monitor this carrier’s news feeds like as if we were monitoring the birth of our future children: intensively and seriously.

But the low rates also has a trade off. Again, it’s like going on a quest to find the Holy Grain. Price drops are usually announced at midnight when every body is supposed to be sleeping. Seats are of course, limited so unless you start your booking at a very ungodly hour, do not expect for get a truly cheap fare to wherever you are going. Because usually what happens is that your outbound flight might be available for a low fare (for example) but your inbound flight for the date that you prefer might cost you your arm and your big toe on your left foot. It would take a lot of magic, praying and tenacity for you to find a Return flight that is just okay — inbound AND outbound.

The PHP99 ticket fares are of course, exclusive of tax and all the other additional costs. In the end, my final cost was at PHP6,000 for a return trip bound for Tokyo. Yes, that’s PHP5,101 worth of taxes! The rate also does not contain your payment for travel insurance, seat selection, meals and additional baggage fees. Basically, everything to make flying in a highly pressurized tube more comfortable for us mere mortals with tiny wallets and humongous wanton for traveling.

However, the PHP6,000 return trip is still eons away from the normal cost of a return trip ticket to Tokyo, pegged from PHP25,000 to PHP30,000. For budget travelers, this is still heaven sent.

Bottom line: I finally had my tickets. I can finally move on with my life and start my novena for successful visa issuance.

Standard
Japan, Travel Diaries

Cramming for Japan

Hello, sorry for being out of touch for the longest time. As mentioned in my other blog “KamikazeeGirl’s Guide to…,” December has been quite tiring and draining for me. A relative got sick and the task of taking care of him (both physically and financially) fell on our family’s shoulders. Add to the fact that I was working myself sick until the last day of the year and now, I am paying dearly for it (writing this blog while on my sick bed — coughs and a bad bout with flu has finally caught up with me).

This planned Japan trip for my birthday is making me crazy. It’s just five months to go before the planned trip and I still don’t have tickets. Mostly because the money for the tickets (bonus money and all the other savings I have socked off) went to helping the relative. I know, it’s a bummer — part of me was still mourning losing all that cash, but I knew that I used the money to help save a life. The end part makes me feel better, but nonetheless still bummed because all I could think of is how I will get to Japan on my birthday.

I already checked the ticket costs and it’s about PHP25,000 (about 600USD). Right now, I have about USD300 saved up but I know it’s not enough. My only hope is the forthcoming TravelTour Expo happening in February where tickets will be selling for less than USD600. I gotta buy my tickets on that day otherwise, the latest I’ll be able to go will be in November — waaaay past my birthday.

For those in Manila and interested to buy cheap travel tickets, packages or hotel stays, The PTAA Travel Tour Expo is scheduled from February 14 to 16, 2014 and is usually held at the SMX Convention Center in Pasay City (the trade hall right beside the behemoth that is the Mall of Asia). Tickets usually go for PHP50 or about USD1.20. I have attended its last two events (2012 and 2013) but didn’t purchased anything. But lines usually for airlines are the longest and most chaotic probably because every one is trying to snap a deal.

More information can be found at their Facebook page.

Hopefully, I’ll have my tickets available by mid-February, please keep your fingers crossed for me. For now, all I can do is build up my nest egg and hope to have enough money to show the embassy when I apply for my tourist visa.

Standard