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.

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Japan, Traveling on a Budget

How I survived Tokyo with PHP25K in my pocket

(Long post — so please bear with me)

“So, your dream is to visit Japan — you do know that it’s one of the most expensive countries in the world, right?”

Friends and well-meaning strangers would often tell me this when I mention that one of my fondest dreams is to visit Japan. And then, I will hang my head in disappointment due to my already-deflated bank account (mostly because of shoes and travel), and wonder when it is finally time for me to visit the Land of the Rising Sun.

Until one day, I finally said to myself, “eff it — if you really want to go, then just go”booked myself tickets, got myself a visa, then worked like mad for three months, moved heaven and earth just to get enough savings for the Japan trip.

Plotting to see more of Japan already?

Plotting to see more of Japan already?

In the end, I managed to have around PHP25,000 as my pocket money, enough for the hotel stay, tour and food expenses. Another 10K was safely stashed in my BPI International Card, which didn’t work at all in any of Tokyo’s numerous ATMs (more on this later). With 25K, that translates to about Y50,000.00++ Out of which, Y16,000 went directly to paying for my share of the four night stay in K’s House Oasis Tokyo Hotel in Asakusa.

That leaves me about Y34,000 to spend for the next five days, with plans to go to Tokyo DisneySea and a full schedule wandering around Tokyo. At first I was worried that it might come up short — with a lot of plans and things to see and discover crammed into the 5 days, 4 night stay. It kinda worked for me in the end, thanks to the little gems that allowed me to stretch the yen further, little gems that I am now gladly sharing with you.

1. How to leave Narita International Airport
If your plane is landing at Narita, you do know that it’s an entirely different city from Tokyo and thus requires travel either by bus (said to be the cheapest but with longer travel time), train (a bit affordable, depending on the bus you will take) or for the moneyed class, cab, limo or hotel service. For budget travelers, the usual choice is any of the trains connecting Narita to Tokyo Station or any of the surrounding stops. I was prepared for this option, until I discovered this bus service in one of my researches in various travel threads:

access narita

Presenting — Access Narita the cheapest option going to Tokyo, but with only 2 stops: Tokyo Station and Ginza Station. Riding the bus costs only Y1,000 (about PHP500) one way and will afford you great sights of the city while en route to Tokyo. Buses always leave on time and is ably helmed by a friendly and efficient driver. Take note, the buses leave on the dot.We were able to catch the 12:30PM bus at the Terminal 2 Bus Station 2 and was promptly at Ginza Station before 2PM. Bus has strong aircon and is very comfortable. Since we are raring to leave Narita, we opted to buy take-out from one of the convenience stores inside the airport and just eat it inside the bus.

I took this picture, by the way, while we are passing through the elevated highway leading to Tokyo. This is also the exact moment that I realized that I was indeed in Japan and that I wasn’t dreaming anymore.

This View.

This View.

You might say I am being melodramatic, but as a kid who dreamt of nothing but seeing Japan or at least, Tokyo in the flesh, seeing this made me really tear up. Good thing my sister was fast asleep beside me so she wasn’t able to see me on this otherwise, embarrassing moment 🙂

By taking the Narita Access Bus, we only spent Y2,000 for our round trip transportation to-and-from the airport. Definitely cheap, compared to taking the trip. You can consider this if you don’t mind a longish travel going to the city.

Check out the Narita Access website here.

2. Consider staying in hostels in the Taito area (Asakusa, etc.)

not mine!

not mine!

A very comfortable and very safe triple ensuite room at K’s House Oasis Tokyo in Asakusa costs us only PHP2,000 per night per person. If you think about it: we were in one of the most expensive cities in the world and getting a neat, safe and comfortable room for PHP2K is not exactly a possibility. But luckily, we were able to get a room in this top-ranked hostel in Asakusa.

Read my complete reviews here.

3. Eat wisely

Japan or Tokyo has one of the best cuisines in the world. In my mind, it will be insulting to spend all my time inside fastfood restaurants and not eat like the locals do. I know that I have limited budget, but my limited pocket money didn’t hinder me to enjoy what Tokyo has to offer. I ate wherever I want to eat but balanced it between steals and splurges. I took advantage of the Life Supermarket down the street to buy fresh produce for breakfast like still-warm rice meals, bottles of milk, cheese, salads, breads and even pastries.

Here’s a typical breakfast for us:

life supermarket brekkie

Clockwise: Orange fruit cups for me and my sister, coffee from the Family Mart next door, pancake with whipped cream, a cube of cheese with almond bits, Tonkatsu rice, a serving of fresh salad with corn and egg bits and a loaf of bread with strawberry cream inside. Usually breakfast bill is more or less Y1,000 split between me and the sister.

For lunch, we eat wherever our feet takes us, but mostly we are too full in the morning that we end up having late lunch. We ate ramen, chicken meals, we tried the Wolfgang Puck Express restaurant in Takeshita Dori where there was an abundance of really cute waiters. The same goes for dinner. My sister and I tried the buffet meal at Tokyo DisneySea and spent about Y5,000 for the experience. At the other end of the spectrum is a very enjoyable and hearty dinner at Genki Sushi in Shibuya.

I came across this top-rated sushi resto at TokyoCheapo (which served as one of my guides for the trip) and was immediately curious on the dining experience at Genki Sushi. Dubbed as a kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi) experience with the most bang for your buck, I relentlessly searched for this restaurant while we were in Shibuya. We almost gave up but after taking a right turn in one of the little side streets, I finally managed to find it and it was worth it!

Don't forget this sign!

Don’t forget this sign!

Peruse. Order. Tally.

Peruse. Order. Tally.

These screens are what makes Genki Sushi unique. You peruse your menu, place your order, check your balance and signal for payment all on the screen. The prices at Genki Sushi are extraordinarily affordable: a pair of maki usually goes for Y180. After eating 2 pairs of chicken wings, a soup, a pair of maki plus softdrinks, my total bill only came up to Y700 (about PHP350) or about the entirety of my spare coins after a day of going around Shibuya.

This is what I meant with “eat wisely” — know when and where to splurge. Save on some of your meals then splurge when you feel like it. The convenience stores anywhere will feed you sufficiently, if are really on a tight budget. They are also our go-to places when it’s 2:30 in the morning and we just want something to nibble on.

4. Take advantage of the free attractions.

Here’s what’s free in Tokyo: going inside the Imperial Palace East Gardens, taking a picture with Hachiko in Shibuya, visiting Senso-ji Temple and enjoying the sights and sounds of Nakamise Dori (unless you are buying your souvenirs already), enjoying Odaiba (visiting the life-sized Gundam or going around the different malls), going inside Meiji Temple, soaking up the vibe of Takeshita Dori and Harajuku environs, ogling on cos-players and the alternative fashion culture hanging out on the bridge leading to Meiji, crossing the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world, walking around Ginza, seeing Tokyo Sky Tree and Tokyo Tower in the flesh (free, unless you decide to go up their respective observation decks), enjoy the Tokyo Skyline atop the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, among others.

In my case, I decided early on the I will spend money and experience Tokyo DisneySea. Why? Because it’s the only one of its kind anywhere in the world and it’s worth seeing. For a Disney fan, this is an experience like no other. I planned on going to Mt. Fuji but we were pressed for time so I am saving the visit to Fuji-san for another trip. That, and a visit to the Studio Ghibli Museum which needed reservations prior to visit.

When my sister asked us if we can go to Cat Cafe, I also did not mind paying Y1,000 for 30 minutes of nibbling on small cookies while waiting for a cat to take notice of me. Again, it’s an experience that is very uniquely-Japan — never mind if the cats snubbed us the whole time of our stay and that my sister ended up trying to get their attention (to no avail).

My sister, with the not-so-happy nekos of HapiNeko Cat Cafe in Shibuya (maybe they are not in the mood to play with us :( )

My sister, with the not-so-happy nekos of HapiNeko Cat Cafe in Shibuya (maybe they are not in the mood to play with us 😦 )

Bottom line: decide on your what you would like to experience and customize your itinerary based on your interests and preference. Learn when to splurge on attractions.

5. Omiyage shopping at Don Quijote aka “Donki”

Don Quijote or Donki is a discount chain store that has massive presence in Japan. You can almost find anything in Donki — from food to cosmetics to big bags of noodles and delicacies at very cheap prices. Fortunately, there is a newly-opened Donki near our place in Asakusa so, the night before our return trip (yes! it is open 24/7), my sister and I loaded up on Green Tea KitKat, chocolates, flavored nuts, body wash and Japanese biscuits to give away as souvenirs. This was aside from the magnets we bought at Nakamise-Dori which we gave out to our closest friends.

I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t able to use my BPI International ATM card in any of the ATMs in Tokyo. I didn’t know if it was because of the fact that it’s a MasterCard (my sister’s Philippine ATM with VISA affiliation worked just fine) or maybe because I failed to call BPI and have it activated for international travel. I almost came up short, but I managed to borrow Y5,000 from my sister while I transferred online the peso equivalent to her bank account. Lesson learned, always tell your bank that you are going abroad, especially if you are withdrawing money from international ATMs.

I guess, with proper planning and research — you can survive Japan even while on a budget. It’s always up to you to design your own travel experience. True, it is kinda expensive in Japan–expensive, yes but livable and still enjoyable even for someone who is on a tight budget.

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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.

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Japan

This place.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Japan

This!

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Hirosaki Castle, Japan

“Break open a cherry tree and there are no flowers, but the spring breeze brings forth myriad blossoms.”

I have told myself that the Trip to Japan symbolized a lot of things for me.

A fulfillment of a dream that I had since I was in elementary grade.
A temporary conclusion of my wanderlust years as I concentrate all efforts to starting a family and moving forward with my truly pathetic, miserable life.
A rebirth for someone like me who have bee at odds with herself for so many years.
The acceptance of middle age as I truly and finally say goodbye to my beatnik-wannabe self.
A coming home of sorts — being someone who loved Japan from afar since I can remember.

Eight more months. Why is it that time passes by so slow when you are anticipating something?

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