Next on the Itinerary

I've been back in New York for a few days now, and readjusting to life here has been slow and slightly painful. But I'm getting there. But my internal travel bug will never die. I'm going to try to keep the travel blog alive next year thanks to some frequent flyer mile tickets (Thanks to JetBlue, Virgin America and Northwest) and freelance gigs in some other cities. I still need to make it to L.A., Chicago and London to visit people that I promised, and I still need to work out getting to Montréal. And apparently no one wants to go to Iceland with me. Also, I might go back to Asia in the spring, as my mom wants me to come see her again. I'll probably stop in Tokyo again, since that's the cheapest way to go via Northwest. Along with seeing some more destinations in the Philippines (i.e. Chocolate Hills) I want to throw in an extra city, possibly Singapore. Any suggestions? Despite loving Thai food, I'm going to avoid Bangkok. Here's to hoping Manila doesn't undergo a coup next time I'm around.

City by the Foggy Bay

After 8 hours across the Pacific Ocean, my mom and I are back in San Francisco, where it's foggy. Really foggy. I miss Tokyo. Neither my body nor my iPhone has any idea where it is or what time it is. Usually there's a saying about Big Game Week: No sleep until Big Game. Well, I seem to be succeeding at that without really trying. (And, honestly, I'd really like to get some sleep.) But I'm headed to Point Reyes to visit Janet Fang, star intern at the Point Reyes Light. I get to ride Golden Gate Transit for the first time. Hopefully the fog will clear up a bit later.

P.S. Can anyone tell me what's happened on Gossip Girl and The Hills in the past three weeks? Like in five sentences or less?

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.

Front of the World

Tokyo in one word: Incredible. After arriving to Tokyo Narita Airport, we had to sit around for about an hour and a half until the next shuttle arrived, but honestly it did us some good as I think both my mom and I just needed time to sit down and decompress from all the flying and driving we've been doing. Thanks to the recommendation of my friend and former fellow intern, Anne, I booked a room at the Grand Palace Hotel, which turned out to be much better and fancier than I expected. Plus, they're all decorated for Christmas, even though as I understand it that X-Mas isn't really a big holiday here. But it looks like the target demographic here is made up of business travelers, so it probably caters to them well. 

My mom, however, wasn't entirely happy with the room since there was no air-conditioning. Since it's already autumn here and beginning to get cold (which I am so thankful for since I'm SO over hot temperatures for this year), the hotel doesn't have air conditioning available anymore in order to conserve energy. I understand this, but my mom kept pushing me to call the front desk about it. "I'm hormonally-challenged," she said, which I just began to laugh, literally rolling around on the floor at. So she called. While on the phone with the front desk, I could hear the Japanese attendant telling her that there was no air-conditioning when it is below 20 degrees Celsius (68 F), to which she just kept responding, "Why?" (which I also laughed at). Finally, someone brought up a fan, which calmed the room down.

Naturally, I was quite hungry after unpacking, so we decided to head out of the hotel in search for some ramen (and Japanese candy!). One of the Concierge desk attendants gave me a map of restaurants in the area, specifiying two ramen houses. One of them, she said, was more famous but she told me not to go there as it is "kinda smelly in a bad way." So we walked towards the other one. However, every restaurant we walked by smelled delicious. They also all had pictures of menu selections in the windows. Finally, I couldn't keep passing this up, and I saw a delectable-looking beef and rice bowl (I'm not sure what it was called since it was in Japanese...) along with ramen in a window, so we went in. The restaurant was immaculately clean, and it was very small, with a bar of 5 or 6 seats on one side near the entrance and two or three bar seats around the corner, and then two tables of two on the left side next to the windows. A machine with pictures of all the menu options on buttons, like a vending machine, was near the door. My mom and I stared at it a little, not sure what to do, and then we looked to the waiter for help. He stared back at us for a minute too, as if no one in the room knew how to speak ANY language at all. Then he came over and helped us order. It was definitely the most delicious meal I've had on this trip...and probably the best Japanese food I've had ever. And it cost us a total of about $5 USD. I have to go back before I leave.

Afterwards, we walked around the neighborhood to see what else was nearby. We stopped in a drugstore, where I bought a ton of Japanese chocolate and strawberry candies. I also stopped at one of the many vending machines along the sidewalks to try out how one works and also to get the cutest can of Fanta grape soda ever.

japanese-candy

As we were walking, my mom didn't stop commenting on how nicely everyone was dressed and how clean the city is. She has been to Tokyo many, many times, but it seems that Tokyo doesn't stop impressing people. As my Time Out: Tokyo guidebook says, there aren't many trash cans throughout the city, but most citizens bring their rubbish home. Incredible.

Now, as it is past dawn in the place where the sun rises first in the world each day, I'm going out to explore.

Escape from Manila

Well, it sure felt like an escape. Let me begin, however, with the return to Manila on Monday afternoon. In order to keep costs down, it was cheaper to fly back to Manila from Hong Kong to catch a connecting flight to Tokyo, leaving us with about 12 hours back at the house. Considering its Big Game week (my favorite week of the year), there is not supposed to be any sleep this week, and so far I haven't really gotten any thanks to airports and planes. I think I might even have my passport number memorized by now. Going from a nice 22 degrees Celsius to 33 was only the beginning. The taxi ride back to the house in Santa Mesa was almost two hours thanks to a six-car pile-up on Roxas Boulevard, involving 4 cars, a jeepney and a big truck. The truck went away spotless, but the back of the jeepney looked like an accordion and there weren't any windows left on the other cars. When we got back to the house, I tried to nap, but I got distracted by Wheel of Fortune, and then we headed to SM Centerpoint to get some more snacks. As my mom was buying some buko (coconut) juice, I looked over to the first vegetarian restaurant I've ever seen in Manila, only to see they served barbeque pork and chicken adobo, among other things. I think the only thing on the menu that was legitimately vegetarian was a fruit salad, and even then I'm not sure...

Our Northwest flight to Tokyo was set to depart at 7:35 a.m. from NAIA, so we had to be out the door by 4 a.m. just in case there was traffic. Trying to be as quiet as possible without waking anyone up, my mom and I loaded our luggage into the car. Just to give me the right send off, a giant roach appeared near the car to wish me goodbye. I will not keep in touch.

While the drive was only about 30 minutes, I think it was the longest drive of my life. As we pulled out of the drive way, we turned the air conditioning on, which I wish we never did. The car was sluggish already by two blocks away, so we turned it off and opened the windows, which at night was just fine. However, the car never really got back to normal. I'm used to our driver blasting down the streets, but since it was so dark and there are hardly any streetlights in Manila, he was being on the extremely cautious side. Yet the car was still making a funny sound. Every block seemed to wear and tear on the vehicle, to the point where I thought it was just going to break down and we were going to have to find a cab to get us to the airport. Then I became afraid that since it was so dark, we might hit another car since other drivers weren't as cautious. Or even that we might be car-jacked/mugged since there have been so many incidents near our area lately. When we finally made it to the airport, we missed the exit to the terminal because our driver was only used to dropping us off at the Philippine Airlines terminal, forcing us to make a completely illegal turnaround in the dark.

By some miracle, we made it to the airport. Again, this other international terminal looks like it hasn't been updated since construction, but it was still cleaner and more organized than the old JFK JetBlue terminal. A little after sunrise on a clear morning, our jumbo jet headed for the Land of the Rising Sun.

Chateau D'if

One of the best things about moving to the East Coast was that flights to Europe are both faster and cheaper. However, traveling to Asia has become an even bigger odyssey than ever before (sorry to state the obvious, but I've never been this jet lagged). After two days of flying, I have finally made it to Manila -- but not without bumps along the way. Amazingly, all of my flights so far have departed and arrived early. The Northwest Airlines-trip to Tokyo Narita Airport was remarkably smooth, yet I couldn't sleep and I watched Mamma Mia twice. Ten hours after I looked out of the plane window to see the Golden Gate Bridge behind us, I finally saw the beaches of Japan below rosy and yellow skies, with mountains popping up over fog in the distance. Flight #3 of 9 was going smooth until the last hour when not only did the plane start shaking violently side-to-side, but also the aircraft started dropping rapidly in altitude to the point that a few people were shrieking behind me. Here I was, after 8,000+ miles and one hour away from my destination, and I was terrified that the plane was going to crash into the pitch-black Pacific. Thankfully, after a few minutes, it stopped.

Then there was the airport to deal with. I got through Immigration and Customs quick enough, but finding my mom was another ordeal. Unlike the posh Philippine Airlines terminal at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the terminal where all of the other international flights land is a madhouse full of locals waiting for families, carts full of balikbayan boxes and cars that stop for no one. Furthermore, there is a system where you exit based on a letter system that coordinates with a last name. I suddenly got confused (keep in mind I haven't really slept in almost 24 hours at this point with the exception of right before the sudden drop ride before). I wasn't sure if I was looking for my name or my mom's last name. I decided just to go with "K" and pray that I was right. I walked down the ramp into a sea of humanity without having any idea where I was going. My phone started vibrating in my pocket, and it was my mom on the line screaming to find out where I was. I looked behind me and said I was in front of the Duty Free shop, which is exactly where she was. Figures we'd both be in front of a store. I haven't seen my mom in eight months, and every mile and bump in the air was worth getting here.

On the way back to the house in Santa Mesa at the very last street of Metro Manila, my mom tells me that my grandma doesn't look the way she used to, as she has been quite sick but she is still strong. Mommy also tells me not to expect much from the house. "Welcome to the Chateau D'if," she says with an evil giggle. Honestly, it was a five-star hotel compared to what this place was when I was last here five years ago. First off, there's a shower installed now so I don't have to use a plastic bucket. I've only seen two roaches so far, both of which were dead upon arrival. Plus, there's air-con, so that alone makes life bearable. 24 hours after getting on the BART in North Berkeley, I finally sat down and got into bed.