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How We Spent Two Days in Tokyo

This is the last of a series of blog posts about my trip to Japan. First part can be found here. Second part, here.

After more than 3 hours of traveling by bus from Niigata, we arrived at the Ikebukuro station in Tokyo. We dropped by Don Quixote, a retail blackhole (ha!), for a bit since Gail needed to look for something. Off we went to Ueno where our hotel was located.

This is our hotel. They must have ran out of appropriate paint color. LOL

Hotel is still a little cramped but it was clean and there was a fridge so we’re fine.

We wanted to go somewhere that day but we did not have enough time. We decided to just find a place to eat. We found this place that has a vending machine for orders. One would have to push a button to choose and order, insert the bills and get the receipt.

We gave the receipt to the server inside and after a few minutes, our order was served.

After we finished eating our dinner, we roamed around the area and found out that the Ameyoko market was just around the corner. We did not find anything interesting so off we searched for the nearest Don Quixote which was a few blocks away. After some retail therapy, we went back to the hotel ready to call it a day.

We really do not have a very tight schedule for our first whole day in Tokyo, we just chose places we wanted to visit like the Imperial Palace, Uniqlo Store at Ginza, Hachiko at Shibuya, Sekaido (art store) at Shinjuku then back to Ueno for the zoo and park. We agreed that we would just visit what we could cover for the day. We took a leisurely pace. Tita na kami kasi.

First stop was the Imperial Palace. We rode the train to the Tokyo Station.

As soon as we reached the station, we looked for a place to eat. We think that there were better choices in a train station than outside. We found this place that served breakfast sandwiches so we quickly settled to the available seats.

Look there is a bucket under every seat for a place to put your bags.

Off we went the Marunouchi exit of the Tokyo station. Just before we exited, we looked up and the ceiling was beautiful.

This was the reason why Grace reminded us to take this exit and when we were already outside, we should not forget to look back. This is what the station looks like outside. Just beautiful.

When we crossed the street, there was this commemorative installation for the Rugby World Cup that was being held in Japan that time.

After we had enough photos, we walked our way towards the Imperial Palace grounds. I thought we would be able to see the palace from the grounds. I guess not.

So we took a few photos in the palace grounds area and we are off to Ginza!

Google told us that it was 17 minutes away by foot. We also got to pass by Hibiya park.

I love how there were pockets of greens in between concrete jungles in Tokyo.

So what is in Ginza? The largest Uniqlo store in the world!

There are 12 floors and I was only able to buy 1 thing- thermal undergarment because it was on sale. It was already fall/winter season and I live in a tropical country so nothing caught my fancy. Plus, I was on a limited budget. We also kept on computing because prices were more or less the same as the ones in Manila.

This is the view from the top!

After going through all the 12 floors in Uniqlo, we were off to Shibuya.

I just needed to visit Hachiko at least once in my lifetime.

And since we were already in Shibuya, we might as well cross one of the busiest intersections in the world.

We went to Shinjuku afterwards to check out an art store. This was my special request. And we had difficulty in finding the store and just when I was so ready to give up, it was just in front of me all those times. Naks! I was meant to get those paint tubes, notebooks and pens. Rationalizing the purchase.

I guess we lost track of time because by the time we reached Ueno, the zoo was already closed. We will just have to visit it next time. We trekked back to our hotel after we had dinner. We had to pack. We would be checking out of our hotel the next day. And the highlight of our Tokyo trip was also scheduled the next day.

Our last day in Japan would be spent at the Ghibli Museum! And somebody was prepared to go there. Look at her earring.

Ever since Grace went to the Ghibli museum with her kids, I wanted to go there too. I know nothing about Ghibli until Grace mentioned it and I caught up with 4 Ghibli movies since then. I know. I needed to catch up.

It was difficult to get those entrance tickets. One needs to book a month in advance. We tried to book online at the specific time and date when tickets were available but the website crashed on me. I messaged Grace about it so she called her local Lawson office and personally bought the tickets for us. Whew! When I checked the website a day after, the tickets were sold out!

We had a specific time when to enter the museum- 10 a.m. The museum was 45 minutes away so we checked out of the hotel at around 7 a.m. We had to leave our luggage at the lockers at the Keisei Ueno station where would ride the train to Narita later that day.

To reach Ghibli, we had the option to go to Mitaka station and ride the Ghibli bus or take the Kichijoji sation and walk. We took the Kichijoji route because we saw that there was a Catholic church along the way. I traveled with a saint so we needed to visit a church. Kidding aside, it was a nice way to be thankful for our trip.

The church was tucked away behind a building which we first thought was the church.

You know you are in the right place when you can understand what is written in the sign.

Our walk from the church to Ghibli was an easy one because we passed through the Inokashira Park. Gail was on heightened alert because trees meant spiders between tree trunks. Hehehe

There were directions on which way the museum was. It was hard to get lost.

We saw the Ghibli bus that we did not take because we opted to walk.

We finally reached Ghibli. This is not the entrance yet.

We turned to the other corner and we found a line! We arrived 20 minutes before it opened and there was already a line. I was looking at the people and told Gail, “So these are our competitors in getting the tickets!” LOL

Photography was not allowed inside the museum.

All I can say is that Ghibli artists are so creative and detailed. They would label each color they used in the illustrations so every frame you see in their movies are perfectly made. There are notes on how each frame was made. If you are into illustration and art, the place is very inspiring. I was happy to visit Ghibli. My inspiration cup overflows. Thank you, Grace, for securing the tickets for us and for introducing Ghibli to me!

Our last destination before we headed for the airport was this pancake place. Grace told us to try this place while we were planning our trip. It was a short walk from Ghibli. So as a celebration of this trip, we splurged a little in this place. We ordered a meal and a dessert. Yes, a pancake meal and a pancake dessert. Yummy fluffy pancakes!

As I was trying to finish my meal, another set was waiting for me to devour. I shared this with Gail, by the way.

What a way to end a trip to Japan! I hope to go back!

A weekend in Niigata

A Weekend in Niigata

My trip to Japan would not be complete without visiting my friend, Grace. Grace used to live in Dubai but now lives in Tokamachi City in Niigata Prefecture. When she was still living in Dubai she kept inviting me to visit her but it was hard for me to score cheap plane tickets. Then she moved to Japan. I told myself that I should be able to visit her this time. Plus, I follow her Instagram feed. She lives in a quiet and picturesque part of Japan. Very provincial and peaceful. Who would not want to go there?

We made sure that our Japan itinerary included a weekend in Niigata. We chose the weekend so we could also spend time with her family especially her awesome kids, Pristine and Benjamin. Too bad, Pristine was on a school trip. We missed her bubbly personality.

We flew from Osaka to Niigata via ANA. We scored an affordable plane fare that flies from Osaka International Airport (Itami Airport). This airport is different from the Kansai Airport. Good thing Gail read the ticket details. I would have assumed otherwise. This is the reason why we chose the Namba area for hotel location in Osaka because the stop for the airport bus to Itami Airport was just a short walk away. We woke up early to catch the 6:00 a.m. bus so we arrived at the bus stop 15 minutes earlier. We alreayd saw the bus waiting for passenger and we were pretty surprised that it was almost full. These Japanese people and punctuality left us wanting! (Sana all!)

I do not have a photo to show for our trip to the airport or even when we arrived in Niigata airport because I avoided looking like a tourist. I felt that I already look like a tourist because I think we were the only non-Japanese at the airport. I guess not so many tourists take our route. Everyone was quiet and calm. If I kept on taking pictures, I would attract attention. So much so that while we were on flight, I saw Mt. Fuji from the airplane window. I practiced self-control to not take a picture because the Japanese passengers in my row were so behaved and quiet that talking to Gail (who sat near the window) about taking a picture for me would already be too noisy. I just saved the view to my own memory, analog-style. (How did I know it was Mt Fuji? The perfect cone was a giveaway. Plus I asked Grace when I remembered it days after I arrived home. Ha! )

And Google confirmed it.

When we reached Niigata, we needed to travel to Tokamachi where Grace lives. Grace was unable to fetch us because the day we arrive was also the that Pristine leaves for Tokyo for her school trip to the US. Grace needed to drive P to the train station. So she gave us instructions on how to get there. We checked Google and asked her for confirmation of the route.

We used this site for instructions.

If one looks closely, the time when the train leaves was so specific. 12:06. Not 12 noon; not 12:05 but 12:06. That is how precise they are with the schedule. And in particular, at 14:12, we needed to transfer to another train in 3 minutes. I told Gail that we might not be able to get to that train in 3 minutes and I did not think they would wait for us. So both of us put our game face on and focused on the task- find the train and be quick in getting there. As our train approaches the Echigo-Kawaguchi station , we could see the other train on the other track. And to get there, we needed to go down a flight of stairs, cross a hallway and go up another flight of stairs to the platform where the train was. All these steps while carrying our luggage and doing everything in 3 minutes! No wonder many Japanese looked so thin! Traveling is a form of exercise. As soon as I found a seat in the train, I could feel my sweat trickled and I could hear myself breathe a sigh of relief.

Let me say that Google Maps was also very helpful in navigating Japan. Information is in sync with the actual schedule. Even the price of tickets is accurate. It makes me wonder how tourists managed to navigate Japan before the Internet.

We met Grace and Benjamin at the station. Although I missed Pristine, Benjamin came to the rescue. Benjamin kept us entertained all through out our stay there. He was such a pro in keeping us happy and amused.

Grace’s house was just a quick drive from the train station.

She is surrounded by neighbors who have vegetable gardens.

As soon as she stepped out of her car, she was greeted by her neighbor who handed her a bag of eggplants. What a generous community!

When we entered her door, she still had a box of eggplants given by the same neighbor!

She showed us where we would be sleeping. Look at that! We stayed in a traditional Japanese home complete with tatami mats and screen doors/windows.

(Btw, this room is on Airbnb. If you want to experience Niigata, you might want to check this out. )

I love that this is their front door – a thin sliding door and there is no need for heavy locks. Yet they feel safe and sound. (My front door in Butuan had 3 locks. Plus I have padlocked iron grills for a gate. I needed those to feel safe and sound. Sigh. )

As soon as we got acquainted with our room, Grace called us to change into her yukata (summer kimono). While planning our trip, she already offered to lend us her kimono. Renting one can be expensive. She also had to help us dress since wearing one is pretty complicated.

There are different shrines near her place so as soon as we finished dressing up, she drove us there. Since Tokamachi was pretty laid back and quiet, there weren’t many tourists. That is how I want to travel. Not much tourists= no photobombers. Ha!

I took this photo of Gail.

Grace took this photo of me taking a photo of Gail. Cool, eh?

It was starting to drizzle. We had enough photos already so we headed to the grocery. Yes, we were wearing yukata in the grocery! Only the two of us were wearing the attire. Take that Heart E! LOL

This is Gail talking to Benjamin while waiting for us in the grocery. Benjamin and her talked like they have been friends for a long time.

This is our first meal in Grace’s home. Yummy!

For Day 2, we were out to explore Niigata.

Our first stop was in Ojiya. Ojiya is another city in Niigata which is less than an hour away from Tokamachi. There was a bullfighting event that day which Grace was invited so we got free entrance. We were lucky to be able to tag along. While waiting for the matches to start, we walked around the area. The venue was on a mountain area. Look at the view! Lots of Christmas trees!

We also had cold soba to fill our tummies.

We walked around.

We were informed that there is a shrine nearby. What are shrines really? This is how I understand it from Grace’s explanation. These are places of worship of the Shinto religion that originates from Japan. In Shintoism, they do not have churches and regular masses like us Catholics. Instead, they have shrines scattered all over Japan. Some are small ones like that ones we saw in Niigata and some are huge ones like in Osaka. People offer prayers in these shrines. The torii gates we often see are the entrance to a sacred realm.

Inside the shrine are these objects of worship.

After a quick hike we returned to the arena, we had reserved seats. This is Grace’s surname in kanji.

Bullfighting or Tsunotsuki is a Japanese tradition which spanned for more than a thousand years. It is different from the Spanish bullfighting where there is a match between human and a bull. In Tsunotski, two bulls fight each other to show strength and skills.

And no bull wins a match. As soon as any of the bulls show aggression, a group of men (seko) would separate the bulls by tying a rope in the bull’s foot and grabbing the nose (the weakest part of the bull’s body). Then the match is over.

People in Ojiya want to keep this tradition alive. Our host lent us this device so that we can hear him make commentaries in English. Afterwards, we rated the quality of his commentary. We were asked to answer a questionnaire on how to improve the event to attract visitors to the area.

We were also given this delicacy for snacks.

Yummy! This tasted like Surigao’s sayongsong but with red bean filling.

We watched all the 17 matches! There was one bull who did not want to fight. It kept running away from the other bull. The sekos just let it be. Game over. The bulls were led to their holding areas. (Walang basagan ng trip!)

It was a unique experience for us. It was the first time for everyone. Even Grace’s husband, who was born and raised in Japan and he also grew up in Niigata, witnessed this form of bullfighting for the first time.

Now off to lunch! We ate at this katsu place. Happy tummies!

Off to the next spot! Nishikigoi no sato! Entrance was free that day.

From their website: Nishikigoi is the generic name for the carps with beautiful colours and marking patterns. They are sorted out from the edible carps, called “koi” in Japanese. The improvement of edible black carps into Nishikigoi for appreciation started at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Through people’s unceasing efforts black carps have now turned into exquisite Nishikigoi.

Nishikigoi no Sato is the only place in the world where a wide variety of live Nishikigoi are on display along with the materials showing the history of their improvements. Nishikigoi are usually raised in mud ponds from spring to autumn, so their beautiful figures cannot be seen from a close distance during these seasons in breeding districts. In order to solve this problem, the city of Ojiya opened Nishikigoi no Sato in October 1989, so that visitors can see genuine Nishikigoi, in their birthplace, swimming in clear water throughout the year.

How lucky are we to be in the best viewing area with the most number of koi varieties and we got in for free!

They were huge and very hyperactive! Ha!

Can you spot the platinum koi?

Grace, I can’t thank you enough for bringing us here! I took a lot of photos for future painting reference.

It was getting dark when we left. We dropped by their public library where Benjamin borrowed some books to read. Tokamachi is not a very populous city by Japan standards and yet it has an awesome public library! Photos were not allowed so I do not have something to show. Grace told us that during summer when kids are not in school and temperature was high, they would spend the day at the library. Sigh!

When we got home, Benjamin started to write his homework. He was writing on his diary of what happened during the weekend. He did his homework while we munched on edamame.

We also had this delicacy called chimake, a glutinous rice dish wrapped in bamboo leaves.

We had dinner while Grace booked our bus trip to Tokyo for the next day. We are so blessed to have a wonderful host, efficient tour guide, stylist, skilled photographer and booking agent in Grace. These are just a few of her incredible list of practical life skills.

We left Niigata for Tokyo by the third day. But since our bus was scheduled to leave at 12:05 p.m. We still have the whole morning in Niigata.

It was a Monday and Benjamin had to go to school so we accompanied him to the meeting point of school kids. Japan’s school children walk to school with their schoolmates.

Children in Benjamin’s school were assigned groups where they walk together to school every day. Older kids serve as leaders. This is Benjamin’s group and look how they lined up in an orderly manner.

Since Benjamin was in school, Grace and her husband, Maki, drove us to the Kiyotsu Gorge. Kiyotsu Gorge is one of Japan’s most gorgeous gorges.

The tunnel that runs along the gorge was transformed into an art installation.

Even the toilet was turned into an art installation. Yes, this metallic structure that looks like a space craft is a toilet.

This is how it looked inside.

And this is the view when you sit on the throne.

The tunnel had colored lights in the hallway.

And the pièce de résistance is at the end of the tunnel. This is the light cave with a water feature and mirrors reflecting the Kiyotsu Gorge outside. It looked awesome!

After we toured the tunnel, we dropped by this structure.

On the second level was a foot spa.

We dipped our weary feet.

We looked up to this opening that lets us see the nature outside like a periscope.

We climbed down the steps to get a closer look at the river that flowed in between the gorge.

What a way to end our last day in Niigata!

Grace dropped us at the bus stop.

We were the only people inside the waiting area.

Thank you so much, Grace! I will be back someday!

Look what is inside the bus! A comfy foot rest for the 4-hour ride. There was free wifi and charging socket. Not bad.

Off to Tokyo!

*** Thank you, Grace, for the wonderful photos!

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How We Scored Cheap Promo Fare Tickets and Walked 46,310 steps in Osaka and Kyoto

Nothing motivates me to travel more than a prospect of securing a promo fare. My friend, Gail, and I planned to travel to Japan this year until we saw an affordable South Korea package tour that we skipped the Japan trip. We were happy with that Korea trip that we agreed that we would only travel to Japan if we find an offer we could not resist. Lo and behold, Cebu Pacific had this promo.

It was heavily promoted on Facebook. (Maybe I was just an easy target of their marketing campaign.) So I informed Gail about it and asked if she was interested. And she was! So together we agreed to book tickets if we find something below Php 5,000 per person, roundtrip. We agreed on a date. I said I wanted to go sometime around October because I wanted to watch Sweeney Todd with Lea Salonga as Mrs. Lovett and it runs in October. (Will blog about that soon!) Since the mechanics of the promo had a schedule, experience told me that these seats easily get sold out at the first hour of the promo. We agreed we would wake up early and both look for slots simultaneously. We also agreed on the destination in Japan. We both wanted to go to Osaka for Harry Potter at the Universal Studios Japan. And we also wanted to go to Tokyo because my friend, Grace, lives more or less two hours away from Tokyo via shinkansen. She is one of the reasons I wanted to go to Japan. I follow her on instagram and she lives in a charming Japanese city, Tokamachi, in Niigata Prefecture. Check her Instagram @findingbackroads. So the plan was either to arrive in Tokyo and exit Osaka or the other way around. I found seats for Manila- Osaka and Tokyo-Manila for only 7,310 for two people! We took it as a sign that we were meant to go to Japan.

Another sign that we were meant to go to Japan was that we found an accredited agency that would process a Japan visa that only charged us Php 700 each because they had a promo. They were so fast! We got our visa just two days after we submitted our documents. Japan single entry visa is only valid for 90 days after the issue date so we needed to apply within a certain date for visa validity. This time, I was a little more confident in applying for a visa because I got a Korean visa earlier this year.

Our first stop was Osaka. We arrived past seven in the evening so we still had time to buy our train passes and local SIM card with data credits. I loosely say “We” but, really, Gail did all these things. Ha!

We had dinner at Lawson and rode the train and navigated our way to our hotel in Namba. Gail chose the Namba area because it was near the stop of the airport bus to Osaka Airport (different from Kansai). We would fly to Niigata two days after to spend the weekend with my friend, Grace. I love traveling with Gail because she thinks of these things. If it were up to me, I would have booked any cheap hotel near a train station.

This is our hotel room in Namba. When I needed to get things from my luggage, I had to open it and close it back again every time or else I would be blocking the way.

It was cramped but clean and it was within our budget so we can’t complain. We would be spending most of our time exploring anyway.

Our first whole day in Osaka was dedicated to Universal Studios Japan. This Harry Potter fan was happy.

There is Uncle Vernon’s car just by the entrance to the park!

I got to see Hogwarts…

… and Hogsmeade.

We went inside Ollivander’s. I cannot afford a wand so we stalked people who bought wands when they tried magic spells using their wands around the Wizarding World area. (Will post a video soon!)

We explored more of the Diagon Alley. We went through the shops and I also could not afford a scarf. Ha! Here’s a tip: you can try on a scarf and photograph yourself wearing one. I did not have that brilliant idea before I went so I do not have that photo. ( I only learned that from Grace. Thank her for that tip by following her on IG! )

Gail did not want to try the rides because of motion sickness so we opted for a castle tour.

This is Fawkes, the Phoenix. I think.

We went through the hall with the talking frames.

There is Albus and Harry, Ron and Hermione.

We tried butterbeer!

My only caveat in USJ? Everything was in Japanese. I was trying to figure out what language the talking frames are speaking and it took me awhile to realize they were all in Japanese. We went to most of the shows in the park and they were all in Japanese. We just tried to understand everything by taking hints based on their actions. All in all, it was a fun experience.

And we rode the carousel! Ha! It was the only ride that Gail could manage without getting motion sickness. It was my first time on a carousel so I was game.

It was already dark when we left.

We ate dinner at the train station and called it a night.

For day 2, we went to Kyoto. We got ourselves this day pass.

We picked two destinations: Fushimi Inari Shrine and a temple in Gion because the temple was a few trains stops from Fushimi-Inari.

I had a sabaw moment (that moment when the brain seemed to be floating). As soon as we arrived at the train station near Fushimi Inari, we went out to cross the street. We heard bells signalling that a train would be passing. So I prepared my camera in anticipation of the train. I was thinking it would be an old train. Duh! I realized it was nothing fancy. I took a photo of the similar train I rode. Of course, I was in a train station. I guess I was used to subways that it did not occur to me that I was not on a subway and that I would also see the actual train I rode in when I leave the station. Ha!

I guess I needed food to feed my brain. Good thing there were shops along the way. We got this fried mochi type of snack.

Gail, the foodie, would stop and look at the what kind food was sold in the shops.

But first things first, we must walk our way towards the shrine. Oh, too many people for an introvert like me! But we pushed on.

We found an area with less crowd…but with lots of spider webs which frightened Gail. Hi, Gail!

We took enough to photos so off we went and try some of the food along the way.

The titas took a break in the rest area.

We are now ready to sample the food in the area.

We bought crabstick..

… matcha ice cream

… and fish shaped cake with red bean filling.

We bought the green biscuit to try at the hotel later. The shop owner gave us the fox-shaped biscuit for free. It did not pass quality control so we got it for free.

Next stop was Gion. I think it was a tourist area because we passed by souvenir shops.

Around the corner was the Yasaka Shrine.

Our goal was to reach Kiyomizu-dera so I just asked Gail to take my photo from afar with the shrine at the background.

Errm. Nice timing, Gail. LOL

It was easy to find the way to the Kiyomizu-dera. We just have to follow the street with people wearing in Japanese attire.

We passed by the Hokan-ji temple.

Unknowingly, we found ourselves in Nineizaka, a quaint and charming area with traditional homes. So cute! (If only there weren’t too many people. LOL. The introvert in me strikes again.)

From the Kiyomizu-dera, you get a great view of Kyoto.

We hang out for a while because Google maps told us it would take 16 minutes for us to walk back to the train station. We relied on Google maps for direction. The thing was, I was not very good with directions and Google maps adjust the instructions according to our location. We passed by residential areas we did not pass by before. We took a totally different route that Google led us to a different train entrance. We found ourselves in this long underpass. Only two of us were walking inside. We eventually found the right platform of the train bound for Temmabashi- our stop for Osaka Castle.

A few minutes of walking from the train station was needed to reach the castle grounds. As soon as the castle slowly came to sight, Gail said, ” I am okay with just looking at it from here.” I replied, “Me, too.”

Then I said that we’ll just go near and take photos. So I had this photo.

Then, Gail said, ” We walk a little more and check out what’s out there.” So I asked her to take my photo because the leaves in those trees started to change color.

We saw that there was a boat tour around the castle. See that bridge? We kept on waking until we reached that bridge.

Look at her, so effortlessly relaxed even with all the walking. And how about me? Never mind. LOL

And that was not the end of it, we walked inside those walls. This was the closest I could get at taking a photo of the castle.

It was about the get dark so it was time for dinner. But first we dropped by Rikuro’s to get that famous fluffy and jiggly cheesecake..

Off to Dotonbori!

Dotonbori was just a block away from our hotel so we dropped a few of our things at the hotel, rest awhile and went to Dotonbori.

I really did not do any research but the way I understood it was that Dotonbori was street market for food. So what we did was to try food where there was a long line.

There was a line for crabs but I was not interested because we ate crabsticks earlier.

We saw people looking up at this Doraemon-themed billboard. We realized what it was all about. So we waited for our turn. If you squint hard enough, you will see us . LOL

There was a long line at this takoyaki shop so we lined up.

The takoyaki was delish! The takoyaki I tried before did not taste like this.

We walk further and we saw the line at Melonpan. So we bought one.

Melonpan is a soft sweet bun and to add to the sweetness, you can have it with ice cream. Of course, we chose a matcha flavored one.

While looking up the bright lights around, Gail kept telling me to look for the running man. I have no idea what she was talking about. So we took the route along the Dotonbori Canal.

We saw this huge building with modified version of a ferris wheel. No way. The acrophobic in me would tremble.

There was a boat cruise along the canal. All the tourists looked up. They looked like they saw something behind us. I finally saw the running man Gail was talking about. So we walked to the other end to get a better vantage point at the running man.

At this point, our trip in Osaka came to a close. We need to go back to the hotel and pack because we would be flying to Niigata the next day.

Plus, we really need to rest from all the walking. When I checked my phone’s health app. Look at that! 27, 245 steps just for that day.

If you add the 19, 065 steps the previous day, I took a total of 46, 310 in the two days I spent in Osaka.

We sooooo deserved this cheesecake!

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That Whirlwind 5-Day Trip to Dingalan, Minalungao and Baler

I have an obsession with Batanes. I so want to go there but it is still too expensive for me. So whenever I see a photo of a place that looks like a Batanes landscape, off I go. This led me and my friends to off-beaten places like Palaui in Cagayan and Mariveles in Bataan.

This is Palaui.

This is Bataan.

When I saw a similar picture which pointed to Dingalan, we found our new destination for a trip.

You see I have this annual trip with friends where we book promo fare tickets to a certain destination every year. We have been to Naga, Sagada, Ilocos, Pagsanjan, Cagayan, Coron, Bataan, Dumaguete, Siquijor and Cebu. So this time around we were aiming for Dingalan, Aurora. We have five days to spare so we googled for other destinations to visit that are near Dingalan so we decided on Minalungao and Baler.

Day 1: How to reach Dingalan

My friends, Jen, Bryan and Bamba, and I were excited to go! We sent this photo to our friends who did not go with us. Boohoo!

Dingalan was two rides away from Manila. Good thing there was a bus terminal in Pasay. When we arrived at NAIA 3, we had our breakfast at the airport. We then took the airport loop shuttle to Pasay MRT which brought us to the Genesis Terminal located in the same compound as the airport loop shuttle terminal. But lo and behold, the buses for Cabanatuan were stationed in Cubao not in Pasay. However, I knew that the Five Star Bus terminal was somewhere in this area and a quick Google search confirmed that it was less than a block away. A bus for Cabanatuan was about to leave when we arrived. Talk about great timing!

We were all nicely settled in our bus seats.

We left Manila at around 11 am. By the time we arrived Cabanatuan, we were already famished. We welcomed the sight of SM so we immediately got off the bus right there. We found this resto inside the mall. The rule was to eat somewhere that does not have a branch in Butuan. So we went to this adobo place in the mall. Nothing fancy. Nothing amazing also but enough to fill our grumbling tummies.

They said Dingalan was only an hour away from Cabanatuan. It felt like two hours. We arrived Dingalan close to 6pm. It was a long day, a holiday and a small town. It was so quiet.

We ended up eating at 7-11. Yes, there was a 7-11!

It was also raining that evening. Typhoon Ineng was somewhere in the North. We wondered if weather would be better the following day.

Day 2: Dingalan Tour

But they say that “tomorrow’s another day!”

This was where we stayed. My beef with this inn? No mirrors!

We could hear the strong winds the night before but I guess the Universe wanted us to go to this trip because the waters were relatively calm. I was traveling with people who sail frequently across the Surigao Strait so Dingalan’s sea was chill.

First stop was Lamao Cave. It was a small cave. We just stayed for some photos and off we went to Suwa Rock Formation.

We were very cautious in this site because the wind was so strong. I could now understand that news when someone was blown off the cliff while taking a selfie. We were holding on to dear life while climbing on the rocks. We did not pose of pictures until we were very sure we would not be blown off by the wind.

Look at my hair! It was that windy. I had to secure my phone under my shirt!

But look that the landscape! It was awesome.

But wait there is more! We docked at the White Beach. This was the starting point of our trek to the mountain view, the reason for this trip.

It was a relatively easy trek yet I did break a lot of sweat. The view was worth all the muscle pains.

Sigh! This is just majestic! Dingalan’s mountain view has its own charm.

There was also a viewing area for the lighthouse. Going to the lighthouse was a separate trek which we skipped.

By the way, we hired a tour guide and the charge is Php 200/spot. Tour guides make the trip a lot easier. Plus, we also get have a personal photographer for free. This was our guide taking photos of two of my friends.

We had buko juice after our trek down.

We had a simple lunch at the town area.

Off we went to Tanawan falls! Another hiking but it was all fun because of the many chitchats with friends.

It was a small falls but we swam anyway.

There was a small view deck near the area also.

We also made a stop to get a photo of the Aurora Memorial National Park, part of the Sierra Madre mountain range.

We were ‘oohing and aahing’ over the sight of the mountains on our way to Dingalan. We were easily identified as tourists (and blown off my goal to blend in with the locals) because we ogled at the sights like silly first-timers!

We decided to go back to our accommodations after. It was a long day. We freshened up, had dinner and called it a day.

Day 3: The Arduous Journey to Minalungao.

We were off to Minalungao, Nueva Ecija for this day and would travel to Baler after. The route would be Dingalan -Cabanatuan- General Tinio-Minalungao-Cabanatuan-Baler. We estimated that it would take us 2 hours to reach Minalungao. In reality, it took us almost 5 hours. Dingalan to Cabanatuan took us 2 hours plus we went to a different terminal. When we arrived at the correct terminal, the jeepney won’t leave until it is full.

UNFAZED. My friends are seasoned travelers.

We had to transfer to a tricycle to reach Minalungao. It was almost 2 pm when we arrived at Minalungao. We immediately ordered lunch.

When we were all recharged with food, we went on a 1,000-step trek around the park. There was a hanging bridge we needed to cross for the trek. The acrophobic me walked ever so slowly.

It was a long trek. I could feel my sweat trickling down my face.

On top is a cross and, from there, we walked downhill.

It was a tricky slope that I gingerly moved one step at a time.

We saw the spring pool still for completion.

The guide said that the longest water slide in the world is also due to open soon.

The main attraction in Minalungao is really the Penaranda river with its limestone rock formation on each side.

There are rafts for rent if you want to explore the river. We did not have time for rafting and opted to just stroll along the sides.

We left Minalungao at 4pm. We learned from our guide that there were no longer jeepneys that would be traveling to Cabanatuan from General Tinio at that time so the tricycle driver brought us to the Fort Magsaysay community area where there was a jeepney for Cabanatuan. It took two hours to reach Cabanatuan and we asked to be dropped to the nearest fastfood joint for dinner. We saw Jollibee and just ate there. We took another jeepney for the terminal and boarded a van for Baler. We left at around 7:30 pm and arrived in Baler at around 11pm. What a day!

Day 4: Baler Tour!

I guess we were fully recharged because we were up and chirpy the next day.

We hired a tricycle to tour us around the spots in town.

First stop was Diguisit beach. There were rock formations there which reminded me of Nanya in Taiwan.

We dropped by a small falls. There is a mother falls somewhere. It required trekking which we opted out. We were ‘trekked out’.

We climbed up Ermita Hill.

The 2-kilometer coastline of Sabang beach can be seen from the view deck here.

Ermita hill was the place where people took refuge to survive the 1735 tsunami that hit Baler. Those who survived were commemorated with these sculptures.

We made a short stop at a hanging bridge.

The tricycle dropped us off in Dona Aurora’s house and we were on our own after that.

I like the layout of the house of Dona Aurora.

We visited the museum.

We strolled around the plaza.

We spent some time at the beach.

When the evening came, we decided to eat at a bistro near our inn. Good thing we went in early because the place was packed by the time we had our meal. It was a good meal to cap the night off. The best meal we had on this trip!

Day 5: The long bus ride to Manila.

We woke up early to attend mass.

We had breakfast and headed out for travel to Manila. We took a 10 am bus from Baler and we arrived Cubao by 5 PM. We were able to watch three movies.

We met up with some friends in Glorietta and we hung out with them until it was time for us for board for our plane ride home to Butuan.

It was a whirlwind traveling from one destination to another using public transportation and lugging our bags around. It can be a hassle but it is better to do these things now while we are still strong and relatively young. Every discomfort is well worth the trouble every time we reach a destination. The Philippines is such a beautiful place. I am proud to call it my home.

Photo Credits:  Bryan Edulzura, Barbara Japitana, Jenifer Deligero,  Katrina Centeno.  We copied all our pics to each of our phones every night.  I can no longer identify who took which picture.  I placed the watermark for consistency. 

Chasing Cherry Blossoms in South Korea

Annyeonghaseyo! My friend, Gail, and I initially planned to go to Japan for cherry blossom season. We have been waiting for good deals for airfares but we have not found something that fits my budget. Then, this photo appeared on my Facebook feed.

This got me thinking: How about Korea? The country has cherry blossoms. With this package tour, we did not have to worry a thing. Or, so we think! Ha! We have been DIY travelers. I have traveled with Gail to Coron, Bacolod, Iloilo, Siargao, Taal and Taiwan. We have relied on our research skills in planning for these trips. Oh, let me rephrase. I have relied on Gail’s research skills in planning for these trips. No travel agency, we booked our own plain tickets, hotels and what-nots. Not having the control can be daunting for us. It was reassuring for me that it was Globelink who took care of us. My cousin owns the travel agency and I know her well. It would be easy to just sit and relax and let them do their job. And yet, we still bombarded them with a thousand and one questions through texts, emails and messenger because we, as travelers, were built that way. We were giddy excited and just wanted know everything. Hahaha! Thank you, Globelink, for your patience.

This was also the first time for me to travel to a country that requires visa for Filipinos. Waiting for the visa application results was nerve-wracking. I couldn’t continue planning for the trip with that cloud over our heads- that they could deny me that visa. Thankfully, we were granted visas. We were really only after the cherry blossoms. The Philippines is too beautiful a country to leave behind for long.

Anyway, back to South Korea. We strategically chose travel dates when the cherry blossoms would possibly start to bloom. There weren’t much forecasts on Korea’s cherry blossoms so we just picked the first week of April.

We arrived at the Incheon airport in South Korea at 10:30 P.M. The airport was huge. We had to ride a train and walk thousands of steps just to get to immigration, get our bags and look for our guide. We had to wait for others in our tour group, too. There were 43 of us in the tour group.

Early April in Korea is cold. It was really cold. That blast of cold wind greeted me as we stepped out of the airport doors to wait for our bus. We actually did our research. Temperature forecast was around 14 to 18 degrees Celsius. I figured that would be “aircon” weather. I have been to Baguio earlier this year; the temperature dropped to single digits and I survived with layers of clothes. I figured I could handle early spring in Korea. Nah! If only I brought enough coats and jackets! I brought only 1 coat! Talk about traveling light! But I am a trooper so I just winged it and still had fun.

Our spirits were still up while waiting for our hotel room assignment. Gail’s mom and her mom’s friend also traveled with us.

The room was clean and the bed was comfy. We had a heated toilet with a bidet that worked with only a push of a button! No more tabo (dipper)!

We woke up to this view. We were near some port area near the Yellow Sea.

But not for long! We were off to Nami Island for sightseeing.

Nami Island is popular with Filipinos because it was the backdrop of ‘Winter Sonata’, a K-drama shown in the Philippines. I have only watched 4 K-dramas so far. Three of which I watched in the early 2000s and I hardly remember the scenes so everything is new to me.

We found cherry blossoms in Nami Island!

The advantage of having a package tour is that you do not have to worry about meals (except for 2 dinners and 1 lunch). There was buffet breakfast every day. And lunch was also arranged. These were our meals during the entire tour.

We made a quick stop at the Soyang River Skywalk.

We also visited the Sokcho Fish Market.

We made a quick photo session with the cherry blossoms lining the streets because we almost forgot them when we spent some time inside the market.

Oh we bought fresh strawberries and our guide gave us face masks so we used them that night at the hotel. We stayed in a new accommodation nearer to the Seorak mountain, where we were off the next day.

The Seorak mountain range was magnificent!!!

We did not find cherry blossoms there but there were pretty magnolias.

Look at all those tourist buses!

The guide, Mr Park, showed us where we should take pictures with the cherry blossoms. They lined along the highway going to the Seorak mountain.

And so we took a lot of photos.

This was a dream come true for me!

Next stop was Everland. Our guide called it the 2nd best theme park in the world. It was the Korean version of Disneyland. Because we had only a few hours to spare here we quickly searched for the Four Seasons garden after having lunch.

Look at all these tulips!

We also went to a safari ride where the bus went near tigers, lions and brown bears.

We rode the sky gondola ( I forgot what it was called) and the cable car.

And off we went to Seoul! I took of this cherry blossom while on the tour bus.

Our first stop on our 3rd day of the trip was the ginseng museum.

I did not know that it takes 6 years for ginseng to mature and, after harvesting, the land where it was planted on would not be used for 10 years because the ginseng already absorbed all the nutrients. Thus, the Korean ginseng they were showing us was very expensive – top of the line. It was supposed to prevent/cure many diseases. I already forgot what ginseng does. All I know is that it is good for the body. My thoughts were on the price- around 200 thousand pesos for the premium one. The cheapest was around 35 thousand pesos, I think. I still cannot afford. Ha!

As part of the tour, we were also toured to the red pine tree shop that sold some medicines and the cosmetics duty-free. The back of my hand was so smooth after trying Korean skincare! As much as I would love to have those products they were demonstrating to us, they were way beyond my budget. I only bought face masks at the cosmetic duty free. I think that if we had done the DIY route, we could have visited other tourists spots instead of these shops. I was not built for shopping but it was an interesting tour nevertheless.

We visited the National Folk Museum. We learned about their culture and traditions.

We saw some cute girls in hanbok.

We hung out at the Cheonggyecheon stream. We ate some Korean street food. We did not stay longer because it was sooo cold.

There was supposed to be a nearby monument of King Sejong, who invented the Korean characters but it was too cold to walk towards the monument so we went to the mall where there was ample heating. Ha!

Night time was free time. It was also the time we planned to meet our high school friends. Since we were staying in Myeongdong area and it was more than an hour before our agreed meetup with friends, we decided to visit the Myeongdong Cathedral first. It was beautiful.

We were able to catch the end part of a mass. It was in Korean though. It was still early so we decided that we roamed a little in Myeondong shopping area. Gail and I walked ahead while her mom and her mom’s followed behind. There were crowds and crowds of shoppers and when we glanced at them, we lost them. What supposed to be a leisurely stroll turned into a manhunt!!! Ha! We retraced our steps and we did not find them. We went back to the hotel and found our high school friends waiting for us. We told them about losing Gail’s mom and we got them involved in the search. Still, we did not find them. We just decided that we eat dinner and hoped that Gail’s mom and her mom’s friend would find their way back to the hotel.

We walked back to the hotel after dinner and Gail found her mom in her hotel room. I could hear myself sigh in relief.

This was a memorable night! Glad to see you, Popay and Clint! Thank you for enduring the search!

On our last day in South Korea, we went to the Namsan tower.

We can actually see the tower when we went to the rooftop of our hotel.

It was grand up close especially with the canopy of trees.

There is a wide open area on top where we could see the Seoul skyline.

We also went to Deoksugung Palace. Many Korean dramas were filmed here but my only concern was to have a photo with the cherry blossoms here.

And here, too. So pretty!!!

This was the grandest one I have seen in this trip.

We also went to the seaweed museum where we learned how to make gimbap.

Of course, I also got to wear the hanbok, a traditional Korean dress.

Last stop was outlet shopping. Since shopping was not in my list, we just hung out with our LINE friends. I actually use LINE to chat with some of my friends.

And just like that, the vacation ended. We said goodbye to our tour guide, Mr. Park. He could already go home to his family after spending the week touring us around.

Kamsahamnida, South Korea!

The compilation of the videos I took during the trip is now up on my YouTube channel.