Land of the Rising Fun

My biggest regret about Tokyo is that I'm not staying here longer. It's truly one of the capitals of the world in fashion, technology and just about anything else. It's as close as humanity could get to a perfect city. It's clean, people are friendly and polite, and there's even a crackdown on smoking to the point where its illegal on sidewalks except in very specifically assigned spots. My mom said that she is sometimes annoyed by everyone bowing all the time, but I think its pretty courteous and I could get used to it. Crime is also extremely low, and Tokyo citizens are so comfortable in their surroundings that most men leave their wallets practically hanging out of their back pockets without any fear of theft. (However, assassinations tend to happen here quite a bit, which I'll get to later.) We got up bright and early to watch the rising sun outside of our high-rise hotel window before getting on another tour bus for morning city tour. First stop: Tokyo Tower. Even my mom and I, who are both scared of heights, felt perfectly comfortable in Tokyo's tallest structure, as the observation deck is completely enclosed by windows. The city view was so crystal clear that we could see the snow-capped peak of Japan's highest mountain, Mt. Fuji (which I MUST go see next time in Japan. There will be a next time...)

mount-fuji-tokyo-tower

Then we drove through the Imperial Palace Gardens, where Emperor Akihito and his family live and he works everyday. However, the area was littered with Japanese journalists and heightened security because just the day before, the minister of welfare was stabbed to death by a lone assassin. Our guide didn't seem to convey the gravity of the situation in English, but it's all over the media here. Knives appear to be the weapon of choice in Japan, as I don't think citizens are allowed to own handguns. But then again, crime rates are still low.

After driving through several shopping districts, including an entire anime neighborhood that I didn't have time to visit on this trip, we went to Asakusa Kannon Temple & Nakamise Shopping Arcade, site of the oldest and most popular Buddhist temple in Tokyo. Crawling with worshippers and tourists alike on a bright yet chilly November morning, the area was a little overwhelming but definitely worth checking out. Afterwards we were supposed to go to some pearl showroom as every tour seems to have some kind of attraction selling you something, but the guide gave us the option of being dropped off in Ginza, which almost everyone took advantage of. 

When we arrived in Tokyo's shopping mecca of high-end department stores and designer labels, first and foremost, I had to find lunch. But that was a problem. While I mentioned before, there are places you can eat well and cheap in Tokyo. But would you ever find a place to eat cheap on Fifth Avenue...that was not a Subway or a Quiznos? Well you can't in Ginza either. Either the places we found were extremely expensive, business-lunch places, or they were American chains. And I refused to eat at a Subway in Tokyo. We eventually found a nice looking, affordable restaurant which had pictures and samples of meals outside the door, like most restaurants do here. As my mom says, its always best to eat where the locals eat, and this place was very traditional as we even had to take off our shoes before being seated. The lockers for our shoes were locked by large, square wooden keys. Incredible. 

But then when we looked at the menu, no more pictures. No more English. My mom and I stared at each other, unsure what to do. Then our waiter came by, who spoke a little English. My mom then tried to explain to him what we wanted, but the poor guy just looked completely lost in translation. He had that look on his face that I could almost see how hard his brain was working to understand us, sort of the same way I look when I'm trying to understand someone speaking a language I don't know. Finally my mom just said, "Ramen. Noodles. Chicken. Meat." Then our waiter nodded and smiled, and later came back with Chicken Teriyaki strips with Miso soup and sides of salad and white rice for both of us. I was very happy. 

Afterwards we walked around a bit and checked out the department stores. My mom told me she used to come here years ago (like 38 years ago. Again, pause and think about that.) on the weekends from Manila because she could get really cheap airfares. There was even a full-sized Printemps department store AND two Harrods stores (sized down into boutiques), which I've never seen outside of France and the United Kingdom, respectively. I also stopped in the Uniqlo (the Japanese version of Gap -- but BETTER), and I saw the cutest pair of dark blue plaid pants, but I didn't buy them. And now I really regret it and I can only hope that they have them at the SoHo location back in New York :/

To continue the tour of shopping districts in Tokyo, we headed for the trendy and hipster Harajuku District, which most Americans are familiar with now thanks to Gwen Stefani. They had the usual stuff I've seen on this trip: TopShop, Zara, and H&M, which must have just opened as the line was down the block and there were security guards everywhere. My mom remarked that the H&M bags were being carried around the neighborhoods like badges of honor. We walked around Harajuku Street, a series of back alleys like a lot of shopping streets in this western area of Tokyo, and most shops were tiny, expensive boutiques. My favorite, however, had to have been the second-hand American clothing store. I don't know where they get their stock. Tourists looking to dump their stuff before going home? International shipments from Salvation Army? Who knows.

harajuku-streetThen we made our way back east again to accomplish a goal I have had for years: to see every Disney park in the world. Don't ask why I have this goal. I'm not sure myself, but after I hit up Euro Disney in 2004, I figured I should just go all the way. Anyway, Tokyo Disneyland was my last target. After changing trains three times, we finally made it to Tokyo Disneyland. Disney sure gets people coming and going, as they actually charge a fee (250 yen) to take the shuttle from the JR Station to the park. Hong Kong didn't do that. Hmph. Anyway, we went this late in the day (already dark since sunset is around 4:30 p.m. right now) because at the foreign Disney parks, admission is cheaper after 6 p.m. by at least 50%. I don't know why they don't do this in the U.S. parks. I've never Disneyland park-goers look so good. EVERYONE dresses up here in Tokyo, everywhere they go. It's like New York and Paris, but then some. I brought my trenchcoat, but I even felt shabby with my Converse shoes. Very different from the usual sweatshirt and tennis shoes crowd in Anaheim. Not to mention the kids are all well-behaved here. No children screaming and throwing temper tantrums. Incredible.

After a few hours at the park, my mom and I were exhausted and decided to call it a day. The trip home was supposed to be pretty straight forward. Only one transfer. We couldn't even get that right. We were almost back at our station, when my mom asked if the one we were at was the right one. I said no, but then the lady next to me said it was "Iidabashi" (which was the station we were headed for). So my mom and I jumped for the door, but then the man in suit (well, every guy wears a suit here) who was standing in front of me said that it was not Iidabashi. I turned to stop my mom, but she was already on the platform. Then as I jumped to catch her, the doors shut in front of me. My mom and I stared at each other between the door windows, as we started to move away. I motioned for her to stay there, and I got off the train at the next stop (Iibadashi) and waited on the platform to go back. Then a young Japanese guy started talking to me (in Japanese), but I didn't know what he was saying. He was smiling and then said finally in English, "You want to go get something to eat?" And then I said, "No, I have to go find my mom." Poor thing must have thought it was a line, but it was true. Then the train came and I went back to the other station, collected my mom, and we went back to the hotel, stopping at the restaurant we went to the night before to get some yummy take-out.

Now I'm headed back to the United States, but with a few stops in California before back to New York. But I must, MUST, come back to Japan soon and explore Tokyo and the rest of the country soon. I am glad that I came now, however, and not 10 years ago, as I'd probably be headed back to America with a suitcase full of useless Sailor Moon souvenirs, which I actually didn't see any of...but there was no lack of Hello Kitty here...

*Thanks to my former fellow FC interns for suggesting this blog entry title previously.

Shopper's Paradise

On Saturday morning, I was very reluctant to get up at 6 a.m. Although I've gotten used to waking up at 5 a.m. on this trip, this was the first night I've spent in a comfortable bed in over a week. But the idea of taking a piping hot shower for the first time in over a week was more enticing. Plus, I had to get rid of the cigarette smell that seems to loom over our room. After getting ready for the long day ahead, my mom and I got aboard a half-day city tour bus of Hong Kong Island. First stop: Victoria Peak. I'd say this was the attraction I wanted to see most, and we definitely lucked out on the weather. Picture perfect skies. Plus, it's 3 degrees Celsius cooler up there than down here. On the zig-zagging roads up, reminiscent of those on the Pacific Coast Highway, our lovely and very hilarious local guide, Vivian, gave us some info on Hong Kong, including the fact that 7 million people live here. High-rises are the architecture of choice here and land is extremely expensive. She said jokingly, that's why they're all so small. She made a lot of jokes referencing the petiteness of Chinese people compared to Westerners, which the bus full of Britons, Australians and Canadians (I think my mom and I were the only Americans as I didn't hear any other American accents...) just found adorable about her. Next stop: Aberdeen, where the local fishing village is and the home of the Jumbo Floating Restaurant (As Vivian noted, you've probably seen this place in any Jackie Chan movie.) Jackie is pretty popular around here, and we even saw his seaside home on the way to Repulse Bay, which looked like a small English castle. Repulse Bay, named after the HMS Repulse that used to be docked here, was gorgeous, with the first sandy beaches I've seen up close and not from a plane window this whole trip. Last stop, at this point on completely the other side of mountains of Hong Kong, was Stanley Market, a series of outdoor stalls selling everything from knick-knack souvenirs to local artwork, more knockoff designer handbags. I was sort of surprised at the lack of these bags, and Manila seems to be bursting at the seams with them, and I've heard from many people that Hong Kong is too. Although I didn't do much shopping in Hong Kong (only a package of nice wooden chopsticks and a small jade elephant for myself), HK is, as Vivian said, "a shopper's paradise," nearly everything here is tax-free. Only four goods are not: cars, gasoline, cigarettes and alcohol.

After getting back to our hotel in Kowloon, my mom and I quickly changed into more sophisticated attire and hurried down to the hotel shuttle for tea at The Peninsula Hotel. Tea is served in the decadent lobby of the grand old hotel between 2 and 7 p.m, and the dress code supposedly prohibits flip-flops and beach sandals. That didn't stop anyone, as I looked down the long line and most tourists were wearing said shoes or tennis shoes. It's a good thing we went at 2, considering we only waited about 30 to 45 minutes in line, and when I looked back as we were being seated, it was then already out the door (it's a long hallway). Over $400 HKD (~$50 USD) including 10% gratuity (that's the standard here), the tea-for-two selection was extremely worth the wait. If you go, I recommend getting the "Peninsula Blend." The lobby, once a site just where local Britons and many American ex-pats relaxed in colonial times, is now THE place to go when on holiday here. My mom noted that the lobby had been sized down, however, since her first visit here in 1964. (Pause, and think about that.) Now half of what used to be the full lobby of the hotel is ritzy, top-of-the-top stores like Cartier and Prada.

peninsula-tea

After tea, it was close to 4:30 p.m. and almost sunset, so we headed for the Star Ferry to Hong Kong. At $2.20 HKD ($0.28 USD), as my mom says, it's the best buy in Hong Kong. Much like I do when I'm on the Staten Island Ferry, I got off the boat and got right back on to head back to the other side. Not because I didn't want to see Hong Kong, but I wanted to take pictures of the sunset on Victoria Harbour (and I was really tired and wanted to go back to the hotel). After getting back to shore and walking around Nathan Road (the main thoroughfare and shopping street in Kowloon) we headed back to the hotel. After a full day of walking, we were exhausted and hungry. So we got take-out Chinese food at the restaurant two doors down from the hotel: Teresa Coffee Restaurant. I highly recommend this place as well if you ever stay at the Metropark. Not only was the food (chicken with cashews, pan-fried noodles and fried rice) all delicious, the portions were huge and we got all of it for $90 HKD ($11.60 USD).

TopShop

One of the best things about traveling to Manila for Americans is that it is low-cost city, and the exchange rate is very favorable to the dollar (about 49 pesos to $1 today). I've picked up a lot of necessities here for less than $20 USD, and most of my meals (combined with my mom's) don't usually come out to more than $4 USD. However, that isn't to say I haven't picked up a few special items. Before I got to Manila, I found out there are eight TopShops in the metropolitan area alone. EIGHT. It was my second full day here (Saturday) when we were at the Edsa Shangri-La Mall when I first saw it. The promised land. Two words fashioned into one: TOPSHOP. I stood outside for about 30 seconds without moving, my jaw hanging open and my eyes glazed over in wonder. Ok, so maybe this is a little much, but I've been waiting patiently, and now desperately, since I first heard about the first TopShop opening in America (in SoHo in New York) in March. It was supposed to open its doors on October 10, but because of stupid rules and bureaucracy at the NYC Board of Commerce, it's not opening until at least March 2009. They sure know how to keep an American girl waiting. Anyway, I picked up one shirt (even though I wanted so much more) since the prices aren't cheaper here but about the same as the U.K. and U.S.-online store prices. The store was quite petite, not much bigger than the size of my bedroom here, nothing like the ones I've been to in Dublin and London.

Then I saw a Marks & Spencer, so obviously I had to get something there too. I got a dark black and grey plaid top, and although they carry a lot of the cookies, chips and candies that the British stores carry, no strawberry trifles. Sigh. My mom said maybe in Hong Kong they will, but since they didn't at the Prague location, I'm not getting my hopes up.

On the drive to Makati on Sunday, my mom asked if I had a radio or CD player. I pulled out my trusty iPhone, which she didn't realize had an iPod too. I started playing the Mamma Mia soundtrack (Yeah, I had to buy it after seeing the movie on the plane so many times), and she asked if I had any oldies. I said I had a 1960s playlist, to which she scoffed and asked, "Don't you have any Journey?" As if I didn't…

After shopping for my camera at the Rustan's in Makati, my mom and I met up with her best friend, Lourdes, and we went to her brother's new restaurant, Le Régalade. The brand-new French bistro, opened in September, features a Michelin-star chef, Alain Rayé, from Vancouver. Le dejeuner was très bonnes, including a succulent pot of bœuf bourguignon and French onion soup, which I normally don't even care for much, topped off with crème brûlée and the most delectable apple tart I've ever eaten. Not to mention the restroom was the size of a small New York apartment -- and it was absolutely gorgeous with cherry wood walls and giant plush leather chairs in the waiting area. I would live in it.

Since I've had extremely weird sleeping patterns over the last week (which have really thrown my entire body for a loop), I've been watching a lot of television at random hours. I've noticed that if there are two things you can count on when traveling internationally, it's CNN and BBC World News. I won't watch Rachael Ray at home; I refuse to watch it here. Another thing I noticed is while watching NBC's Today, there's a big difference on the international version versus the American one. When Al Roker does his little weather bit and says his token phrase, "Here's a look at the weather in your neck of the woods," it typically cuts to the local weather station. Now, since obviously they don't do that here because of the time change, other shows like CBS' Early Show and ABC's Good Morning America play music while displaying the American map. However, Today does not, and Roker doesn't seem to realize that we can hear everything he is saying. He sure does make fun of Robin Williams a lot. Très bizarre.

Camera Shopping

Asia is known for having cheap electronics, particularly cameras. Hong Kong, as my mom said, is one giant camera store. I wanted to get a Canon digital SLR camera there on Stanley Street, and I asked for a lot of advice from my friend Victoria, but I thought it might be easier to pick up a camera here in Manila instead for a number of reasons. For one, my mom speaks the language here and also it's easier for us to pay here since we have pesos in the bank. I was right and wrong. First the wrong. Apparently Manila only carries two models of Canon SLRs: a 450D and a 1000D. Strangely, the 1000D is cheaper. And they were both out of my budgeted price range. We went from store to store over three days, and I couldn't find anything else. We did see a few cheaper cameras at the tech bazaar area in Green Hills, but my mom was resistant to buying the camera there since its a series of stalls, not real stores (this is also the place to go for really good designer knock-offs).

Now the right. Since my mom speaks Tagalog, all of the salespeople we talked to were incredibly nice and helpful. (Buying anything in English here is a totally different situation.) This kind of courtesy and customer service just doesn't exist many other places. Additionally, my mom is able to pay for the camera here in pesos on her local debit card, making the transaction more secure. We finally settled yesterday on the 1000D model at the Shoe Mart (that's the local department store chain) in Makati. We even got a free Batman: The Dark Knight backpack, which I'm not sure what we're going to do with. I spent more than I planned, but I know I can return this easily should anything go wrong.

On the way home as I was ogling my new camera, my mom suggested that we should buy a gun to go with it around here. I looked back at her slightly stunned as she just giggled slyly, looking out the window over the polluted Pasig River.

On a side note, only in the Philippines have I ever experienced the awkwardness of being taller than everyone else. But never have I been taller than my bed. Every single night here, I keep hitting my toes against the iron rods at the front of the bed. I've always dreamed of being taller. Now I'm happy at 5'3".