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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Taiwan

Discover Taipei for PHP16,000!

After a very long wait, I finally came around to posting the final tally of our Taipei expenses. We stayed in Taipei from March 10, arriving at 1:00 in the morning and departed Taipei March 12 on a 9PM flight back to Manila.

While our stay was brief, the impressions we had of the city and its people were truly precious. We had a great time discovering its city streets, which was safe and quiet in the evenings — well, even in Ximending where the happening usually trickles down when the clock strikes 11PM.

We knew that with the short time that we had, it can’t be possible for us to see everything. So, we chose areas that appealed to us and which piqued our interests. Most of the times, we were just travelers walking down the city streets noting how different Taipei was from Manila: orderly traffic, motorcycles parked in the street and just about everywhere, clean and wide roads where buses stop on well-marked areas, friendly people and the amazing mix of old (the temples and Old Chinese architecture) and the new (gleaming skyscrapers! The Taipei 101!) We enjoyed seeing bikes-for-loan parked on ramdom city streets and we had a blast walking the long drive way leading inside National Taiwan University. We satiated our hunger in Taipei’s back alleys or at the famous Shilin Night Market or bit the hype and tried Modern Toilet (we didn’t enjoyed it). We also relived our Meteor Garden fandom and went all the way to the middle of nowhere to eat at PS Bubu. And yes, we get to have the car table, mainly because there wasn’t anyone there but us.

You can read more about our first day adventures here.

Day II: The Yehliu Geo National Park Adventure

We woke up really late, no thanks to the fact that we had to make up for the sleepless first day, courtesy of the rock-hard beds at Keyman’s (A stay in this hotel is best summarized as: nice service, centrally-located, beds that are bad for your spine). So, after getting a very late breakfast at the nearest McDonald’s, we rushed to catch the Yehliu bound bus at the Taipei Main Bus Station near Keyman’s. We paid NTS180 (PHP270) for the fare going to Yehliu which is a county very far from the city.

We had to check our map and a print out of “Directions going to Yehliu” which I found in a blog. Will post a separate account on the beauty of Yehliu — but in a hindsight, it’s like discovering a new planet and being amazed by the surreal kind of art, created no less by Mother Nature.

travel beans

travel beans

While the famous Queen’s Head is the main attraction in the expansive geo park, a lot of other rock formations will surely tickle your imagination. And the view of the ocean is just amazing. Entrance to the Geo park is just NTS 50 (PHP75), very cheap considering how nice the place is. We left Yehliu shortly after lunch, a bit famished — good thing we have brought snacks with us like jelly bread, sushi and our water bottles, so we had something to tide us until we were finally back in the city. We made a quick detour to Beitou Hot Springs and then finished the day at Shilin Night Market where we bought souvenirs for the family and had our fill of the famous fried chicken!

Day III: Reliving our Meteor Garden fandom
It’s my sister’s birthday — we started the celebration at what may be the most overhyped restaurant in Taipei – Modern Toilet. Then, we gave in to our fandom tendencies and went to National Taiwan University, said to be one of the shoot locations for the now-Taiwanese drama classic, Meteor Garden. Disappointed with our lunch, we decided to go to PS Bubu after and check if we can have our early dinner at the convertible turned dining area situated in the middle of the restaurant.

In the Meteor Garden lore, it is also the location where Dao Ming Xi brought Shan Cai on their first date. For Meteor Garden fans, you could say that it’s a bit of a “mecca” — a “must-visit” if you are in Taipei. I now knew what it meant because apparently, PS Bubu is located at the middle of nowhere. You had to take the MRT then take the bus in order to find it. Well, the field trip was worth it because PS Bubu served really good food! We ended the day by getting our luggage at the hotel and taking the bus going to Taipei TaoYuan International Airport.

Here’s our expenses for the three-day trip:

Plane fare via Cebu Pacific, bought 3 months ahead – PHP4,000.00
Airport Travel Tax and Terminal Fee – PHP2,200.00
Airport transfer upon arrival (arranged thru City Inn) – PHP900.00 each (total fee is PHP1,800)
1 night stay at Keymans “Succint Room” w/ breakfast – PHP1,350.00 each (total room rate: PHP2,700)
2 nights stay at City Inn Ximending – PHP3,270 each (total stay is PHP6,540)
Easy Card for transpo and basic groceries – PHP750.00
Entrance to Taipei 101 and Yehliu Geo Park – PHP1,020.00
Food budget for 3 days – PHP2,000.00
Souvenir budget for the family – PHP1,000.00

TOTAL Expenses: PHP16,490.00

Some things to consider:
Expenses BEFORE the trip: PHP7,100.00 (plane fare + travel tax + terminal fee + airport transfers)
Expenses WHILE in Taipei: PHP9,390 (lodging + food + transpo + attractions + souvenirs)

*Entrance to Chiang Kai Shek, Sun Yat Sen, Beitou Hot Springs, Taipei Expo Park, National Taiwan University are all for free.
* Payment for Taiwan Tourist Visa (Single Entry) is not included. Visa fee is PHP2,100.00. Get directions here.
* Entrance to Taipei 101 is PHP675 (NTD450), while entrance to Yehliu is PHP75 (NTD50), plus bus fare going to Yehliu is PHP270 (NTD180).

We were sad leaving Taipei because we knew we missed a lot of really nice attractions. We wanted to go hiking up Elephant Mountain and maybe see the Fisherman’s Wharf as well as the Rainbow bridge. But we were consoled by the fact that we can easily go back to Taipei, as soon as we find the opportunity. Taipei will always be in our hearts — remembering it as a very good city, gifted with amazing attractions and wonderful people. We can’t wait to go back again.

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Taiwan

(Still) Finding my way around Taipei

It’s a month and two weeks before the Taipei Adventure with my Unnie — and for the first time, my travel research skills is being put to the test.

photo not mine

photo not mine

the incredible, simply amazing view (pic not mine)

the incredible, simply amazing view (pic not mine)

I find it hard to believe but I noticed that there’s not a lot of information source about traveling on a budget in Taiwan. Yes, there were blogs here and there but not as much when I was researching about other countries. And honestly, I find it really odd. Based from initial research, Taiwan and yes, Taipei City seemed like a very beautiful and exciting place. This early, I was already overwhelmed just thinking where we will spend the limited 4 days while there. Shall we visit first the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, or the National Palace Museum where the biggest collection of Chinese artifacts are stored? What about a trip up Taipei 101? The Beitou Hot Springs? A visit to Elephant Mountain Trail for a magnificent view of Taipei? Of course, how can I pass up the chance to see the palm-lined boulevard of National Taiwan University — the same boulevard where a bullied Shancai rode her humble scooter while F4’s sleek cars were passing by? Shall I haunt for Jay Chou’s restaurant first or should I instead look for the restaurant where Dao Ming Sui brought Shanchai for their first date? (You know, the one where they have car cases as booths).

In one of the travel blogs I read, they said that not a lot of people go to Taiwan – maybe for varied reasons. For my kababayans, it might be the hassle of getting a visa. For others, it might be because Taiwan is more subdued and quiet compared to the marketing initiatives of countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand. The article states that NOT going to Taipei and NOT discovering its many beautiful places, the amazing culture and the awesome cuisine is something that all serious travelers should NOT do. Taiwan has so much to offer and so much beauty to share — maybe it’s time that we go beyond our usual comfort zones (multiple trips to HK Disneyland and Resorts World Sentosa, erm, hello?)

So, while I find it doubly hard to piece together a simple itinerary, I can’t help but feel excited. It’s another new experience, another adventure. This early, I already know where to go to mass (St. Christopher Church, a few MRT rides from Taipei Main Station. The church is called “Little Philippines” every Sunday due to the number of migrant Filipino workers attending services there.) I am also starting to get the hang of researching street names and the corresponding MRT stations near it.

I just need to tick off hotel reservations on my list, start preparing for the visa application and I am good to go.


* NOTE: We plan to stay at Keyman’s Hotel in front of Taipei Main Station. Feel free to drop me a note if you have recommendations on where to go!

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Hong Kong, Traveling on a Budget

City Econo Guesthouse – cheap, centrally-located and comfortable.

Here’s the first of my many posts about my recent vacation in Hong Kong.
Don’t worry, one of these is definitely the revelation of my PHP15,000 Vacation Challenge as mentioned in my previous post. I will just finalize the tally of the total expenses and I’ll be all set to reveal if I am indeed successful.

First, I’d like to give credit where credit is due. I stayed at the City Econo Guesthouse, located on the 5th and 6th floors of Cumberland House in Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon — exactly parallel to exit C of the Jordan Station of the MTR.

I found the guesthouse during a harried, lodging-scouting period where most of the boutique hotels and guesthouses were booked due to the October conference month. Tired after being rejected by about six accommodations, I quickly searched PinoyExchange and found it as one of the recommended places by Filipino budget travelers. I fired a quick email to Jenny, the property owner and received a prompt reply the next day. Suffice to say, I was able to book the room without any deposit, but with strict instructions to confirm reservations three days before the trip.Email correspondence with Jenny is very quick and efficient–hence, I honestly don’t think you need to pass through a third-party agent.

We were given instructions to take the A21 Cityflier bus from the Hong Kong International Airport and alight at the Prudential Centre stop, roughly the 11th bus stop from the airport. The hotel is just across the road. I recommend you take the back entrance (along Bowring and Pilkem Street) to avoid the narrow and steep stairs facing Nathan Road. Upon check-in, go directly to the 6th floor and look for Jenny who will assist you during the whole check-in process. You will also be asked to settle the entire bill during check-in.

the narrow but very clean hallways leading to the bedrooms

Room Comments
The rooms were basic: clean, comfortable and safe — just what we needed after a long day of sight-seeing. We really didn’t stay much indoors. We are pretty much out of the room by 9AM, only to return by 10 or 11PM. We were tired, cranky and just ready to sleep.

City Econo Guesthouse provided us what we need minus the frills and without the hassle.

Double Room for mum and dad. Our room was just across the hall.

our spacious quadruple room and with the equally spacious bathroom. and these three are my constant room mates!

the spacious T&B for the quad room

We were given six bottles of free mineral water upon check-in, but these were not replenished during our four-day stay. Didn’t bothered us though because we also decided to stock-up on water following a visit on the supermarket located at JD Mall.

The room was roomy and airy, did not smell that old building smell (common on guesthouses) and seemed newly renovated. Wifi was free but spotty, plus there’s also telephone and working TV (with 4 channels only). At noon (most likely) someone comes in to tidy the place, throw the thrash and replenish the tissue paper inside the bathrooms. There were also shower gels and shampoo provided, as well as towels which are freshly changed everyday.

Now for some obvious realities: the building being old, we noticed that the tiles inside the bathroom were fixed (it showed) and the cracked ones repaired (it showed). The shower curtains were also old, but still does the job (and it didn’t smell) plus there’s hot water available for those who hate cold showers.

Being a family-run establishment, you can sense the care and the sense of dedication of its owners. After we have checked in, Jenny dragged her son to change the light bulbs inside our room and have it checked to ensure all things are in order.

Service
Jenny and her husband, along with their son, handle the day-to-day operations of the guesthouse. They are quick and efficient, hospitable yet professional. They also offer tours and tickets to some of HK’s attractions. In fact, we were able to buy Disneyland tickets at City Econo Guesthouse at HKD20 off. Talk about savings!

Location
One of the best things about City Econo Guesthouse is its location.
It’s right beside exit C of the Jordan MTR and smack at the middle of Nathan Road in TST. Located on the next street is the Kowloon Park and directly across Pilkem Street is the famous Temple Street Night Market (named after the temple in the middle of the road).

After visiting the Avenue of Stars and the Symphony of Lights, we decided to walk from the corner of Peninsula HK to our hotel. It was just a good four blocks away and about 15 minutes by foot. There were a few “safety spots”, but the rest is simply too overwhelming and bright and fun, considering the many-colored billboard along TST.

So, if you’re the type who’s rather spend their hard-earned money shopping than splurging on a hotel room you won’t get to see much anyway, try to consider City Econo Guesthouse. It’s money well spent.


NOTE: This is not a paid advertorial. I paid for both rooms during our four-day, three night stay. They do not accept credit cards, please bring cash.

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