Europe 2018: Amazing Iceland

Skógafoss

Geez, Iceland. Where do I even begin with? It’s a place like no other.

Seljalandsfjoss

Reynisfjara

Otherworldly landscapes. Countless waterfalls. Rainbows. Volcanoes and lava fields. Glaciers. Larger than life tree-less mountains. Crazy weather. Black sand beaches. Beautiful people. Interesting history and culture. And although we didn’t see it in person, northern lights!

Iceland has gained more and more popularity amongst travelers in the recent years. Before, when someone thinks of touring Europe it only meant the “highlights” – the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France; Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain; the cities of Rome and Venice in Italy, London in UK, and others.

Nowadays, many people visit just Iceland and spend days driving around the unique landscapes of the country, sometimes without any other stops in Europe – even though the Schengen visa (needed by Philippine passport holders), that covers almost the entire continent, can be maximized.

Our tour guide from Reykjavik Sightseeing shared that the tourism boom started around 2008 when the country went bankrupt, hence the value of their currency Icelandic Krona dropped and suddenly the country was more affordable to tourists.

Distant islands and monstrous waves as seen from Reynisfjara

The tipping point though, was in 2010 when Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted, the last being 200 years ago. The volcanic ash cloud closed Europe’s airspace for days, resulting to countless cancelled flights, not only those going in and out of Europe but other routes that utilize the airspace as well– thus the country was on a global spotlight.

Gullfoss

I’ve read a beautiful phrase from this article: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-3956844/In-volcanic-Iceland-eruptions-bring-risk-tourism-boom.html

“An Icelandic volcano brought much of the world’s air travel to a halt. And then it brought the world to Iceland.”

Thanks, Eyjafjallajokull volcano.

Þingvellir National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage site

So now, in this social media age, “word of mouth” spread like wildfire and suddenly everyone wants to go to Iceland – including me. Hype is one thing, but honestly – who wouldn’t be lured by those professional travel posts on Facebook showing the Mars-like landscapes, rainbow-clad waterfalls and northern lights? When I learned that the boyfriend would be assigned again in Sweden for 3.5 month-work, choosing my side trip destinations was a no-brainer. Iceland, it was so my destiny to meet you.

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Strokkur Geyser

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The basalt columns of Reynisfjara

Key take-aways:

  1. Visa. Schengen visa is needed by Philippine passport holders to enter Iceland, and other parts of Europe. Aside from Schengen visa, you might also need transit visas depending on where your connecting flight/s is/are. Please do your research! 😊
  2. Geography. Iceland is an island country sitting on +0 GMT timezone, hence it is 8 hours behind PH time. It is separated from mainland Europe, situated far northwest nearer the arctic circle where the northern lights appear. Iceland strongly reminds me of Batanes and Taiwan – being surrounded by oceans (and the attractions we went to being in the south coast), it is cold and windy, and weather is super unpredictable. During our 7-hour Golden Circle tour, it got snowy, rainy, windy and sunny.
  3. Flight. WOW Air offers cheap flights between Stockholm and Reykjavik (Keflavik Airport). In fact, we scored roundtrip flights for Php 4k each. Obviously, flights from Manila would cost more. To those who are wondering how much, I could tell that if you booked a roundtrip flight from Manila to any major city in Europe (including Reykjavik, capital of Iceland) at around Php 30k per person, it’s cheap enough – because normally it would cost around Php 50k, sometimes even more, depending on the airline.
  4. Accommodation. There are plenty of hotels, hostels and AirBnBs in Reykjavik city center for every budget. The apartment we booked costs almost Php 10k/night, but the place was comfortable enough for a group of 5, and it has a living room and full kitchen, which is not present in most hotels at the same rate. Also, it is a short walking distance to Bus Stop 1 (Radhuseet – City Hall), which is one of the major pick-up/drop-off points for all tours.
  5. Getting around. Iceland lacks public transportation. It is understood for a large country of less than 400k residents, where there are more tourists and sheeps than locals. There are no trains or subways. There are no public buses from the airport, and in Reykjavik it is scarce, so it is very important to plan how you’re gonna get from point A to point B. A lot of tourists are doing DIY tours by renting a car and driving on their own around the country. Many travelers vouch that this is the cheaper option, especially when they share the ride and expenses with other travelers.
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For us though, we booked all our tours from Reykjavik Sightseeing. There are other popular tour operators in Iceland, like Reykjavik Excursions and Gray Line. All of them offers similar prices for the tours, and similar itineraries, so it probably doesn’t matter that much which tour operator to choose.

6. Food. Europe is expensive, but Iceland is exceptionally expensive. Even the convenience store microwaveable ready-to-eat meals – which would typically save the day when in other countries (including Switzerland!), they cost an arm in Iceland.

 

Day 1 – Oct 19 2018 – Friday

It took 3 hours plane ride to reach Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, from Stockholm. We arrived in KEF (Keflavik International Airport) at around 2pm. We had a quick lunch at Dunkin’ Donuts near the exit to the bus terminals, exchanged our pre-booked voucher to bus pass, and boarded the bus going to Blue Lagoon. It was a 15-minute ride from the airport.

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Rean and I brought a backpack each, it kinda fit the things we needed for this 3-day getaway.

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Walking through the lava fields – rocky pathway to the lagoon proper.

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We have a pre-booked schedule at 4pm. Lines were long, but fast-moving.

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The original plan was to go to Blue Lagoon BUT not pay the entrance fee – just spend sometime in Blue Cafe while staring at the people in the lagoon. A lot of people do that because not everyone wants to soak in the warmth of an artificial lagoon.

Honestly, Blue Lagoon was not originally part of our plan (or rather MY plan because I planned everything :D) Plenty of “Why we won’t go to Blue Lagoon” checkboxes were ticked: It’s expensive, the Trip Advisor reviews were generally alarming, we have only 2 hours to spare there, Rean and I are not exactly the swimwear-wearing bunch, we couldn’t fathom the thought of going out half naked at 4degC, etc.

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But here I am anyway, enjoying my smoothie. We went because FOMO (fear of missing out :P). Turned out we kinda enjoyed the experience.

What was not pictured was after we checked in, we got our (dirty) wristbands and (clean) towels, and proceeded to the changing rooms. Obviously camera is not allowed. In the ladies’ room, aside from the bikini-clad and naked visitors (some nationalities don’t care about being naked around – something we Asians might not get used to) there are plenty of full-length lockers. My 16L Herschel backpack fit nicely there.

img_5354If you go with luggages, there is a storage room near the entrance where the buses are parked. It’s quite a walk between that and the lagoon proper, so plan ahead what you’re gonna bring with you in the lockers.

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Iceland is expensive, but Blue Lagoon is even more expensive.

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The basic “comfort” package includes a free drink. Skyr is Iceland’s answer to yogurt.

Visitors are required to shower before entering the lagoon. There are plenty of private showers, equipped with shower gel and conditioner. Contrary to reviews in Trip Advisor where you might shower naked and just deal with it, I think they renovated the place to have more private showers. Also, don’t forget to leave on lots of hair conditioner to protect your hair from harmful effects of silica. Silica is good for the skin, though.

After we changed to our swimwear and showered, we brought our phones in waterproof cases and towels. Outside the shower areas, the building is still heated, so Rean and I planned how to run from there to the lagoon itself. We were barefoot and the wooden floor outside was cold, so after he hung the towels, we kinda ran (for our lives).

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The fun part is applying the sticky silica mud mask to our faces. All lagoon visitors are entitled to one free mask (rather, one free tablespoon of mask).

I failed to educate my poor bebe on how to apply the mask properly. You definitely do not want to apply it below the eyebrows 😦 he just dabbed it all over like it’s facial wash or something. Now he’s winking like an oppa.

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After some time the mask dried and it looked like our faces are coming out of cracked eggshells. We rinsed our faces in (guess what) the lagoon itself 😀 I know. I have mixed feelings about it, too

It was a weird feeling having your body submerged in the warm lagoon (which was very relaxing for me) while our heads are freezing. I thought the 2 hours I planned to spend there won’t be enough, but it got colder since it was nearing evening and our faces started to hurt due to frostbite. We decided to leave after an hour in the lagoon. After changing back to our clothes, we walked back to the bus terminal at the front and waited for our bus onward to Reykjavik city center. It was a 45-minute journey.

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We passed by Fish & Co while walking to our apartment. Grilled cod in a bed of basil!

I received an email from Reykjavik Sightseeing telling that our Northern Lights tour was cancelled that night. We had that feeling early on during the day that it will be cancelled because of the poor weather conditions.

Day 2 – Oct 20 2018 – Saturday – SOUTH COAST CLASSIC TOUR

830am we were already in Bus Stop 1 waiting for our ride. The weather was still gloomy, but we were still excited because that was the first day of tour and I’ve read South Coast Classic has the most beautiful stops. We met with our tour guide and driver, and took our seat just 2 rows behind the driver. We were given an iPad-like tablet each, to serve as audio and visual guides.

After 40 minutes from leaving Reykjavik and driving through lava fields covered in moss, tree-less mountains and clouds covering the distant islands, we first stopped in a gas station with a store in order for us to grab a quick bite. Then shortly afterwards, onward to our first tour stop: Sólheimajökull.

Sólheimajökull, a glacier tongue crawling from the ice-cap of Mýrdalsjökull.

Second stop: The black sand beach and basalt-columns of Reynisfjara.

And then we left to have our lunch stopover in Vik, a little coastal town of less than 300 residents.

We had a stopover in Vik for a quick lunch (of lamb burgers).Also there’s a rare sighting of blue skies and the sun 😀

And then we were off to our next stop, probably my most favorite among the waterfalls: Skogafoss.

Rean went up halfway that hill. I, on the other hand, was too old and weak lol

Double rainbows

I felt so happy whenever I saw trees in Iceland. As of writing the whole country is only 2% covered with trees, reforestation efforts are on-going.

And then off to our last stop: Seljalandsfjoss, which is quite famous for that hidden pathway behind the veil of water.

The falls looked harmless from afar. On the right you can see the trail going to the pathway behind the falls. We initially tried to get behind the falls but as we go nearer, the pathway becomes more slippery and the winds blow the mist towards us. The temperature was 4degC, my limbs started to get numb so we just retracted.

Actually going behind the falls is totally doable had I only worn waterproof or leather pants. Although my jacket was waterproof, my pants were not. It was just thermal leggings and regular pants 😀 So, next time I know what to do 😀

Again, I received an email that the Northern Lights tour was cancelled that night. We were back in our apartment at around 8pm.

Day 3 – Oct 21 2018 – Sunday – GOLDEN CIRCLE CLASSIC TOUR

Honestly I was getting frustrated because of the cancelled Northern Lights tour for 2 consecutive nights. We only had 3 nights there! But I couldn’t do anything about it anyway – I’ve always read that one doesn’t go to Iceland and expect the Lady Aurora to show itself every single night. So, even though I prayed really really hard.. I lowered my expectations and instead looked forward to our last tour. 830am the following day, we were again in Bus Stop 1 to wait for our ride. The driver was the same, but the tour guide has changed.

It was snowing when we reached our first stop: Þingvellir National Park

“Walking down the lava canyon where the American and Eurasian continents are literally pulling apart” – Reykjavik Sightseeing

Our group. On a regular sunny day this place would have been perfect for hanging around with a hot cup of drink, while taking in the view.

Second stop: Geysir Hot Springs, where the Strokkur geyser erupts every few minutes.

This establisment has a cafe, restaurant and souvenir shop inside.

Third and last stop: the majestic Gullfoss waterfalls.

Walking towards Gullfoss waterfalls.

It was snowing when we got there so we had lunch first inside the restaurant.

We started going back to Reykjavik while dropping off visitors along to their respective individual tours.

One visitor, for instance, had horseback riding as part of her tour so we got the chance to see up-close the cute Icelandic horses.

It was a sunny afternoon when the weather decided to get snowy.

Passing through the snow-covered lava fields. Iceland is literally the land of fire and ice!

And we were back in Reykjavik at around 4pm! This is the first time we saw the city during daylight.

We were informed the Northern Lights tour would push through that night! So we had around 4 hours to spare before the 830pm pick-up time. After thanking Trusty and Siggy (driver and tour guide, respectively), Rean and I walked towards Hallgrimskirkja Church.

#GratefulEveryday

And then we continued the walk towards the city center.

Babala: Cafe Babalu

I was so grateful the weather gave way for us to walk around this pretty little town on our last day in Iceland.

We went to Ramen Momo but it was still closed so we walked back to our apartment. Rean was dead tired so I volunteered to find take-away dinner for us. I just returned to Ramen Momo after a few minutes. LOL. The place is kinda popular it was packed when I got there.

At 820pm we walked to Bus Stop 1. There are a lot of people waiting, and the crowds thinned as minutes passed by. I kept on calling our tour operator but they said our bus was on its way. We waited for an hour outside, freezing. The bus finally arrived, and Elizabeth the tour guide apologized. Anyhow, I was so tired I was just asleep during the drive. Around 10:30pm we got to the pitch-dark field in the middle of nowhere, where we would wait for the northern lights to appear. The night was actually clear, but the moon was so bright and the aurora forecast was poor, so we were informed that there was slim chance to see it. We stayed there for more than an hour to no avail, occasionally going out to stare in the sky and going back inside because it was freezing; until Elizabeth excitedly shouted for everyone to come out.

I saw a glimpse of it, and then it was gone. It was nowhere near greenish 😀 So we called it a night and went back to Reykjavik. Maybe next time!

Our airport pickup was scheduled at 330am so we had only a few hours of sleep the following day. At 630am we flew back to Stockholm. We didn’t see the northern lights, but we had a great time in Iceland. The trip is definitely unforgettable and one for the books. I hope we could visit again ❤

The Hills Are Alive: Breathtaking Batanes (Part 1)

    How does a moment last forever? How does a story never die? Batanes will bring out the emo from the coldest part of your heart. Seriously, how can a place be THIS beautiful?

Batanes has always had various reputations among travel enthusiasts and non-travelers alike – breathtaking but expensive, hard-to-reach, typhoon-beaten, New Zealand-like, unpredictable weather, wild boat rides, etc. Travel bloggers are raving about it. I’ve always written it on my planner as one of my goal destinations, so when I saw Skyjet’s post about a promo fare one Friday afternoon, curiosity was piqued and I tried mock-booking. It was still expensive for my standards, so I let the weekend pass and tried to forget about it, like a real adult.

The lesser known Mahatao Rolling Hills. Can you see the Tayid Lighthouse from afar? and my uncooperative hair?

Monday came, and I casually checked Skyjet again. The promo fare was still there. Before I knew it, I booked a roundtrip flight for 2, a month before the trip. Oopsies, said my spontaneous Sagittarian self.

It’s quite a challenge to DIY things in Batanes, because it’s not a place where you can wait in the street for a taxi, jeep or bus. There, commuting means contacting the TODA so that a tricycle comes to pick you up and bring you wherever you want. It actually made things simpler. I didn’t have to make an itinerary. I just had to find a tricycle driver to tour us around.

Now this is what we call road trip!

Days leading to the trip, I read blogs about Batanes. For the accommodation, there are plenty of options for every budget. Many lodges offer dorm-type accommodation, as well as private rooms for solo, double, or family occupancy, but often they have common bathroom. The price ranges from Php 300-1000 per night for fan room.

I booked Marfel’s Lodge for 4 nights, but they relocated us to Savatan Homestay because I opted for a room with a private restroom. The location didn’t matter because the lodges/homestays in Basco town proper are just within walking distance from each other. Our room originally costs Php1000/night, and it’s more than enough for the 2 of us since the room has 2 solo beds and 1 queen-sized bed. We upgraded from fan to aircon so we added Php 300/night, making it a total of Php 1300/night.

The weather wasn’t very cooperative on our 2nd day in Batanes. Mt. Iraya was almost covered in clouds. This was the view from our room.

For the tour, there are van tours and the cheaper tryke tours, although there are also cars or motorbikes for rent for those who don’t want guided tours. There are many tour providers in Batanes, the most popular being BISUMI and Chanpan Tours, and their rate is at Php 1000/pax for the North Batan tour and Php 2000/pax for the South Batan tour (both are inclusive of lunch).

We availed of the cheaper tryke tour at Php 1000 for North Batan and Php 1500 for South Batan (good for 2-3 pax already but without lunch). I found the contact details of Kuya Eugene Castillo – our tryke driver/tour guide, through this blog (thank you!). Kuya Eugene is quite famous amongst travel bloggers and he doesn’t even know. The humble Ivatan has no Facebook but communicates promptly through calls and texts. He’s a GREAT photographer too!

Uhmm nakapikit lang sya dito 😀 with kuya Eugene – 0935 965 5317 / 0920 609 0770. Side note – puro sila SMART subscribers sa Batanes. My Globe phone has no LTE/3G signal there, only 2G.

Nov 30, 2017

Day 1 – South Batan Tour

November 30 came, we arrived at 4am in NAIA Terminal 4 and waited for the check-in counter to open. This was the first time we flew Skyjet. We took off at sunrise and landed in Basco Airport at 7am. The trip was a short hour.

Upon arrival in Basco Airport (and after taking loads of obligatory photos with Skyjet and Mt. Iraya behind), we queued to pay for Php 700 environmental fee. We got our baggage and met with our airport pick-up courtesy of Marfel Lodge.

At 8am, after a short 5-minute drive from the airport, we arrived at Savatan Homestay. Tired and hungry and internet-less, we planned to move our tour after lunch to have a bit of a rest, but Kuya Eugene insisted to start the tour early to maximize the good sunny weather. Later that day we realized, boy was he so right. We had a quick breakfast prepared by Ate Janice then at 930am, off we went to start our South Batan tour!

Savatan Homestay is literally just a home away from home.

They sell souvenir T-shirts.

Simple breakfast in Savatan Homestay (Php 150/pax). Hot/cold water dispenser and coffee/milo are always available for free downstairs.

Many thanks to this blog for the list of places to visit in North Batan, South Batan and Sabtang. I chose not to research too much, to have that element of surprise when we get there.

South Batan quick list of places to visit (credits to Lakwatsero, note that we didn’t visit all of these):

  • Chawa View Deck
  • Mahatao Shelter Port
  • Mahatao Town
  • San Carlos Borromeo Church of Mahatao
  • Blank Library
  • Tayid Lighthouse
  • Racuh a Payaman (Marlboro Hills)
  • Diura Fishing Village
  • Fountain of Youth
  • Alapad Hills
  • Sitio Song-song Ruins
  • Uyugan Town
  • National Museum Batanes
  • San Jose de Ivana Church
  • Honesty Coffee Shop
  • House of Dakay
  • Alapad Hills of Uyugan

Kuya Eugene’s creative panoramic shot in Chawa View Deck. That’s South China Sea right there.

There’s a staircase going down the rocky and slippery shore, but we were warned not to go there – a couple of fatal accidents apparently have happened there.

Mahatao Shelter Port overlooking Maydangeb Beach – a.k.a. a cool place to safely park the boats.

It took some 30 -minute hilly tryke drive to the other side of Mahatao. You gotta give DPWH-Batanes the credit for well-paved roads! Somewhere in Mahatao Rolling Hills, you can see the Tayid Lighthouse from afar

On the way to Tayid Lighthouse. And that’s Marlboro Country from afar! The little bump right there is “Rean’s Rock” 😀

Definitely not trying to be seductive here. It’s just my OOTD won’t friggin cooperate with the wind! 😀

Now we’re talking! The first jaw-dropping place we visited that day – the back of Tayid Lighthouse. This is simply one of my top 3 favorite places in Batanes. So serene, so pretty, so unassuming from the entrance. We went back here on our 4th day.

We spent probably a short 20 minutes in Tayid Lighthouse. We caught up with some visitors there, taking insta-worthy photos, feeling the damp wind coming from the approaching rain clouds, and admiring the view of the Pacific Ocean and the distant Diura Fishing Village below. I was so adamant not to leave. Yes, that was THAT pretty.

It seemed like forever since the tour started, but only 2 hours had just passed since leaving our homestay. We headed to Racuh a Payaman (the most coveted and most famous place in Batanes among tourists – Marlboro Country) before lunchtime.

There was a little store (selling expensive chips – understood), a restaurant, a roofed “tambayan” and restrooms at the side of the road leading to Marlboro Country. When we entered, our jaws dropped for the second time.

The struggle with the wind is real! This is in Racuh a Payaman (Marlboro Country) at the other side of Mahatao! The Tayid Lighthouse is still in the picture for reference.

We got so excited to literally roll down the hills but there were plenty of raisins (a.k.a. goat poop) and some cold cakes (a.k.a. cow poops) around. Nah, we’re good. It was a struggle to walk though, the wind was so strong I was afraid for my phone and my 49-kilo self to be blown off. I looked like a fool occasionally holding the ground for dear life, good thing there were only less than 10 other people around, including Kuya Eugene who seemed to be amused by the idiot tourist in me.

The colors of the surrounding depend on the sun’s presence. The ocean is bluer and the grass is greener when the sun is out. Unfortunately we can see the rain clouds approaching us.

We continued walking to reach “Rean’s Rock”. He claims the rock was his and says it was the highlight of his Batanes trip. Weird guy right there.

Rean: Bato ko yan

It’s a good idea to hang out here except that you won’t have any cover from the rain or sun.

We got so overjoyed going downhill, that we found ourselves panting as we went back uphill to the entrance. Off to the next destination, Alapad Hills and Rock Formation/Alapad Pass, where “i-Dawn Zulueta mo ako” happened:

Posing with the popular road sign that is symbolic of Batanes. I even bought a t-shirt with that print. Tourist hits.

Me whispering to Rean “i-Dawn Zulueta mo ako” but he refused. Bro can u even lift

I guess what sets Batanes apart is that there is beauty around, like literally 360deg around.

 

 

Next stop: okay I totally forgot what place this was.

We were halfway through our South Batan trip and to recap: we came from Basco then went to Mahatao, crossed the island to reach Tayid Lighthouse, went south for Racuh a Payaman and souther for Alapad Hills in Uyugan (not in map). At this point, we started heading northwards to Ivana.

Map of South Batan courtesy of http://www.victoriaabadkerblat.com/updates.htm

The famous Honesty Coffee Shop is actually a humble sari-sari store where you can prepare your own 3-in-1 coffee and munch on cookies.

San Jose de Ivana Church

Port of Ivana, a.k.a. terminal for the boats from/to Sabtang Island.

House of Dakay – oldest stone house in Batanes.

Old Spanish Bridge – still operational.

And then we were back in Mahatao – this is in Homoron White Beach.

We had late lunch in Paulvana’s Canteen. Lunch set for 2 costs Php 600.

San Carlos Borromeo Church of Mahatao

The Blank Library inside the church – where you can pick any book and write anything you want on it.

Because 12th of September is special for us

It started to rain at past 3pm – Kuya Eugene took us back to our homestay. Boy was he ever right about starting the tour early.

Key Take-aways:

  1. Flight. This is the only expensive part in any Batanes trip, so you’re off to a good start if you scored promo fares. There are daily flights from/to Manila – Basco offered by Skyjet and PAL. Some travelers manage to snag cheap roundtrip flights for Php 2000 (the extremely determined ones), some for Php 6000, but regular roundtrip flights cost a whooping Php 15000-ish (even more expensive than flights to Singapore, Hong Kong or Taiwan). We got ours from Skyjet’s year-end promo at Php 18346 for 2, roundtrip (so Php 9173 each, roundtrip).
  2. Hotel. Lodges range from Php 300-1000/night for fan rooms and up to Php1500/night for aircon rooms. There are midrange and luxury hotels, too (Fundacion Pacita) at Php 18000-ish/night. We stayed in Savatan Homestay (Php 1300/night) for 4 nights, hence a total of Php 5200.
  3. Tours. Tryke tours are good for 2-3 pax and cost only Php 1000 for North Batan tour, Php 1500 for South Batan tour and Php 1000 for Sabtang Island tour, a total of only Php 3500 which you can split. So if you’re a party of 3, these 3 tours (which you can compress in 2 days or maximize for 3 days) cost only less than Php 1200/pax.
  4. Food. Food is generally inexpensive. Pension Ivatan wins this category because they offer large servings of delicious Ivatan food for a cheap price (like Php 160-ish per meal).
  5. Weather. It’s true – the weather could be really unpredictable. I didn’t understand why it rained (very hard) on our 2nd day, given that there was no nearby clouds as per the weather forecast maps that I monitored daily prior to the trip. Also, it could be extremely windy in some days.
  6. People. Due to limited daily flights, the influx of tourists is also very limited, making it very easy to take photos in Batanes without the photobombers.

 

Woah, South Batan, that was hard to beat! Stay tuned for Part 2!

Japan 2016: Kaway-kaway from KANSAI (Part 4)

Nov 16, 2016

Day 4/8

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

We saved the best for last – our fourth and last day to explore Osaka (before heading to Tokyo) was spent in Universal Studios Japan (USJ). For some, USJ is just another theme park. For me, it was the realization of a childhood dream, or at least a part of it. In July of 2014, USJ opened “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter”, which houses the majestic Hogwarts castle fronted by the Black Lake, and the snow-covered little town of Hogsmeade. Since then, it has been a subconscious goal to get there – by Firebolt or Floo Powder or a Portkey or Apparition or what-have-yous, I had to get there.

But it appears I had to take a plane and train to get to Hogwarts. Heading to JR Universal City station!

Come 16th of November year 2016, I knew I was about to have one of the best days of my life. Aged 26 and not a successful Auror, I still looked forward to that day. I didn’t come unprepared – I have been waiting for my Hogwarts acceptance letter since age 11, so it deemed appropriate to dress accordingly. I donned my Hogwarts uniform, red-and-gold neck tie and a matching scarf, worthy of a true Gryffindor, and headed our way.

I almost forgot I had a mom and a sister with me, by the way, who are Muggles.

Welcome to USJ! I was so keen on getting inside WWOHP itself, I wasn’t able to take photos while walking.

USJ Studio Pass/ Express Pass

Prior to the trip, I did lots of reading and I found out that USJ is ALWAYS packed with visitors – tourists and citizens alike, regardless of the day. Sometimes when the crowd is overwhelming, they close the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and only allow those with timed entry tickets. During these unfortunate days, you can get timed entry tickets to WWOHP at no extra costs once you get inside the park, but you have to be really early and the issuance is not guaranteed.

We passed through the “Forbidden Forest”. So nice of them to literally pave the way 😛 So beside me is the flying Ford Anglia that came to the rescue when Ron and Harry were escaping spiders from the forest. You can hear the Hogwarts Hymn while walking. Oh, my Potterhead heart.

Nonetheless, there is another way to guarantee your entrance to WWOHP even on peak days, and that is to get an Express Pass. This is something you purchase on top of the Studio Pass, so obviously this option is more expensive. I figured I cannot risk NOT getting inside WWOHP, so I opted for this. There are many types of Express Passes, but the minimum I should get to ensure our entrance to WWOHP is the Express Pass 4. It is a skip-the-longer-queue-but-you-still-have-to-queue VIP pass for 4 rides, and the HP ride is one of them.

Last year (because a year has passed already at the time of writing this LOL), the Studio Pass + Express Pass 4 combo from Klook costs around Php 7k++/pax, but thanks to Google I managed to find a cheaper option: buying from the Japanese USJ website, which costed me Php5700/pax. Also thanks to a number of blogs that helped me get through the Japanese transaction successfully! The express pass is not available in the English website.

We were greeted by a busy Hogsmeade

Still expensive for Php5700, you’d say? Well I’d say, what a bargain – because of the Express Pass we spent like only 15 minutes in queue to get to the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride (which we rode twice), without the pass the queue normally takes 2 hours. We spent around 20 minutes to get to the Spiderman ride (normally 2 hours) and in the Space Fantasy ride, we literally just walked our way directly to the ride itself, which normally takes an hour in queue. We didn’t mind paying a few extra pesos to spare us the time and effort of falling in line, which we could have spent elsewhere while enjoying the park.

Hello Captain! Welcome to Hogsmeade Station!

Honeydukes, home of the finest sweets including Chocolate Frogs

In front of the Three Broomsticks (our go-to pub) is where we can buy Butterbeer!

 The experience was overwhelming and it felt like Christmas had arrived on that very day – what with the cheerful crowds, festive atmosphere combined with the chilly weather and my excitement. We quickly made our way through Hogsmeade only to find what we were looking for:

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry!

Mama easily recognized the castle from “Harry Pattern”. True fan fo’ sure – my mom, who just looks like a brunette Mrs. Weasley 😀 And on my right is Dobby.

Shout out to my sister who watched HP movies 1-8 prior to our Japan trip! Although she calls the Hogwarts Express train operator Hagrid..

Straight outta JK Rowling’s head. What started out as some scribbles on a tissue paper… has become THIS. Oh the grandeur of what have materialized.

Channeling my inner Hermione

So we spent like 32 years in front of the castle just adoring it and taking loads of pictures. We decided to use our Express Pass for the first time to experience Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey 4D ride. And so we went inside the castle!

The House Points! With Gryffindor in the lead (red), Slytherin (green), Hufflepuff (brown) and Ravenclaw (blue).

As expected, the paintings are moving and talking to each other.

The Pensieve inside the Headmaster’s (Dumbledore’s) office!

Do you see Ron, Hermione and Harry? I didn’t know they can talk in Japanese! And oops sorry for the flash photography, although it’s not really prohibited. This, by the way, is the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom. We also passed by the Gryffindor Common Room – although we didn’t have a picture of it because we had to drop all our belongings inside a locker prior to the ride.

The hype is real! The ride was amazeballs! We played Quidditch and obviously we were on our broomsticks! Woohoo!! It lasted for a good 5 minutes.. that is so worth the queue!

After the ride, this was the way exit, at the back of Hogwarts.

A truly magical Christmas time

After the ride, we skimmed the Hogsmeade shops:

Everyone’s favorite Honeydukes

Chocolate Frogs with collectible cards of the great wizards and witches inside! What card did you get? I got Rowena Ravenclaw!

Bertie Bott’s Every Flavored Beans

Fudge Flies

Exploding Bonbons

The restrooms are called Public Conveniences LOL

You probably guessed that you can hear Moaning Myrtle here. You are right! I solemnly swear that I’m NOT up to no good (for instance, making Polyjuice Potion) 😀

The Three Broomsticks Pub, home of the Butterbeer

Zonko’s Joke Shop is Fred and George’s inspiration for their Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. Here you can spend your galleons for stuff like Extendable Ears, which you can use for more effective eavesdropping (only present in the book – not physically available for Muggles, if ever you’re interested :P)

Here you can get a copy of Gilderoy Lockhart’s narcissistic books, if you care about him, ‘coz I don’t

Them woodworks. Can you see the owls? This was in the Owl Post – a.k.a. magical world’s courier/messenger service. They like it better than, you know, FedEx or emails or text messages. Don’t ask me why.

The Owl Post

We went inside Ollivander’s and witnessed a show, recreating the scene where the wand chooses Harry. Here, the wand chose that lucky boy so he gets to take home a free wand.

I love Harry Potter but I’m not gonna spend 4900 yen for a pretty stick

Dervish and Banges, where we can buy an assortment of magical instruments and Quidditch supplies

Like Omnioculars

Broomsticks

Bludgers and Snitches

Sneakoscopes

Robes for all Houses

Even the Monster Book of Monsters!

When in a theme park it’s easy to forget that you’re hungry, except my mom. So we had  lunch in Three Broomsticks – Fish n’ Chips, and Pork Ribs Platter.

This is just a dummy of their Christmas Feast which looks really inviting.

Finally I got to taste Butterbeer..

This is cold Butterbeer with a souvenir mug. As expected it was sweet and buttery

A magic show. Look at how everyone sat down so everyone can see. I love this country.

I just regret the fact that we didn’t bother queuing for The Flight of the Hippogriff ride so we didn’t see Hagrid’s hut at the back.

When in Japan – wearing a costume is perfectly normal especially inside a theme park! Just look at that Spiderman behind me

No filter!

It’s easy to forget that there are other areas in USJ that need exploring. As a Harry Potter fan, my USJ area logic would be: Harry Potter, and others. 😀 Darn, the place is HUGE. Since we paid a hefty sum to get inside this theme park, we left WWoHP and quickly explored around and watched the Christmas show. Then, we returned here at night.

I’m never gonna leave Hogsmeade without my stash of Honeydukes goodies

Another round of Butterbeer, this time hot – to battle the 7deg C evening.

The Hogwarts castle looks even more astonishing at night

I left WWoHP with a heavy heart. And a heavy bag of Honeydukes goodies.

I also bought a Time Turner from Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods

I will write another blog post for the other things we did inside USJ outside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter! 🙂

Japan 2016: Kaway-kaway from KANSAI (Part 3)

Some 7-11 purchases

Nov 15, 2016

Day 3/8

Nara

I never thought deers would make me literally laugh out loud.

It was a cold Tuesday autumn morning and we were already tired even though that was only our 3rd day in the Land of the Rising Sun. We had no other spare time so we went ahead with the original plan – firstly, go to Nara and spend time with the famous deers.

On the way to Nara, pretending we were not tired. But hey! Gotta be thankful for being able to travel 😉

We totally don’t know the lady at the back but she seemed to be very happy so let her be.

Looking at this, I realized we walked almost 1.6 km from JR Nara station to Nara Deer Park, and another 1.6 km going back, not even including the walk around the park itself. No wonder we emptied 2 teishoku sets during lunch!

Nara is a city about 1 hour by train from Osaka. We went here just for the deers, but I’m pretty sure there’s more to this city, if only we had more spare time!

Autumn in full bloom! In the left side of this photo, there are stairs leading to Kofuku-ji, the 5-storey pagoda, which also leads to one of the many entrances of Nara Deer Park.

The stairs leading to some temples and Kofuku-ji, the 5-storey pagoda

Kofuku-ji, the 5-storey pagoda

Our first sighting of a deer!

The sister trying to befriend a deer. Deer was not amused.

Deers can be really aggressive if they saw you holding any food! They might bite, kick, headbutt – and WTF, knock you down!

But we didn’t see this sign prior, so here’s my mama just chilling under the maple tree

while we take selfies because duh tourists

While we were busy taking photos, a wild deer appeared in front of my poor mother who basically screamed.

Not gonna lie, their mouths are big and we didn’t know that they can bite! Nonetheless we found this really funny LOL. Bakit ka kasi may Gardenia sa bag, Mama.

We recovered from the shenanigan so we walked some more. The gloomy weather did little to obscure the beauty around.

Honestly we could be taking photos under a post that says some profanity and we’ll never know

The National Museum of Nara. We never got inside due to time constraints. This is where we witnessed “Kamote Vigil”, a group of ahjummas holding hot sweet potato high above their head while walking, because the ever-aggressive deers are freaking trying to get them. I never got the chance to take a photo because I was busy dying of laughter.

You can buy deer cookies around the park. Nagastusan ka na, na-kuyog ka pa (ng deers).

He seems to be older than the other deers. Yes, I just assumed his gender and relative age.

Make yo Mama happy! Hey traveling millennials – travel with yo Mama!

I kind of wish PH moved up a little bit farther from the equator to have this season! Autumn is just so so pretty!

While walking back to JR Nara Station, we passed by this quaint unassuming little teishoku house. Prices are reasonable, food was scrumptious, and the ahjummas serving and cooking for us were really nice!

Yummmmmmmers

And so we left Nara at around 2pm. We took the train going to our next destination – Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto.

 

Kyoto

We missed Arashiyama Bamboo Grove while in Kyoto on our 2nd day, because apparently it was hard to compress destinations when you get out of the hotel at noon-ish and it gets dark at 4pm.

JR Saga-Arashiyama Station (this was taken on our way back to Osaka so it was already dark)

I forgot what this place is, we passed by a couple of other tourist spots on the way to the Bamboo Grove. I’m not even sure if this is a tourist spot or a cemetery?!

But the trees are pretty so we took a brief look inside.

Finally! We were lucky we arrived here while it was still daytime. It might be hard to take proper photos when it gets dark, and I’m not even sure if the place is open at nighttime.

These are tombstones that can be seen at some point while walking inside the bamboo grove, but I didn’t take this photo for the tombstones – rather because of its colorful backdrop.

It was pretty crowded.

Outside Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, we took a rest while eating some snacks.

Iced coffee and street xiao long baos.

And then we went back to Kyoto Station, then Osaka Station.

 

Osaka

Boy was it crowded. This was around 5pm. We reached Osaka at past 6pm and met with my sisters’ college friend.

Genesis is my sisters’ (plural!) generous college friend who is based in Osaka! She treated us to a delightful dinner! Yay!

An assortment of all things good – okonomiyaki, okosoba and tamago, with Calpis and Melon Soda to wash ’em all down our stomachs.

Cheery noises of locals after work, the sound of sizzling food on the tables and great ambiance. Eat where the locals eat! Thanks Genesis for the dinner! The leftovers even reached breakfast! LOL

Osaka Station

The faces we make after having free dinner

This caps off Day 3! We basically went to 3 cities in a day! Whew!

Stay tuned for Day 4 as I take you to Hogwarts! B-)

oOo

You can read previous Japan 2016 posts here:

First day in Osaka and Dotonbori foodtrip:

https://virtuallytalkative.wordpress.com/2017/06/08/japan-2016-kaway-kaway-from-kansai-part-1/

Japan Rail Pass and Kyoto Temple Hopping:

https://virtuallytalkative.wordpress.com/2017/09/29/japan-2016-kaway-kaway-from-kansai-part-2/

 

 

Japan 2016: Kaway-kaway from KANSAI (Part 2)

Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion

Nov 14, 2016

Day 2/8

Japan Rail Pass

Days before our trip, we bought 7-day Japan Rail (JR) Passes for each of us. It’s basically unlimited rides on JR trains, including Shinkansen or bullet trains, for 7-days, from/to anywhere in Japan. Aside from the airfare and Tokyo accommodation, this takes one of the biggest cuts from our budget pie chart at a whopping Php 14500 each pass. The pass can’t be bought by Japanese residents nor can it be bought inside Japan. Exchange order is only available online for delivery outside Japan, or through accredited travel agencies, and is designed for tourists.

In our case, we bought the exchange orders in Friendship Tours in Dusit Thani Hotel in Makati. These are not the actual train tickets – these needed to be exchanged for actual JR Pass booklets in any JR station when you get to Japan. We did it when we arrived in KIX. JR Office is located outside but adjacent to the main airport building. We picked our day 2 as the start of our 7-day JR pass.

Actual Japan Rail Passes – you simply show this to the guard to literally let you “pass” through the gate beside the turnstiles.

So there goes this common question: Is it worth it to buy JR Pass? If you are to ask me, the answer is “it depends on your itinerary and who you’re traveling with”. You can skip this part, because there is a long story behind why I needlessly spent a lot of money due to lack of proper planning.

The “Illumination” of trees in autumn – Kiyomizu-dera temple

First, I booked a roundtrip flight from Manila-Osaka, with only one 15 kilos of baggage for Mama and me. November is a very cold autumn month which means more jackets. Initial plan is to tour Osaka only. Second, the sister joined in, and we solidified our plan to include Tokyo (because “mas mahal bumalik” + “YOLO” + other excuses) which made me modify our flight details from 4 days to 8 days stay and add more baggage allowance. I contemplated on changing the airport of return flight, from KIX to Tokyo, but it costs like buying another flight. So, this whole trip means arriving in Osaka, going to Tokyo, and then going back to Osaka for our flight home. For this, our choices would be: 1-hour flight ($$$$$), 8-hour night bus ($ + major inconvenience for Mama) or 2.5-hour bullet train ($$$ + roundtrip bullet train experience + chance to see Mt. Fuji). We chose the latter, hence the JR Pass. JR Pass is worth it IF, aside from the regular JR train rides, you need to ride the bullet train at least twice, because a ride from Osaka to Tokyo already costs around Php 6500.

Airplane-like feels inside the shinkansen (bullet train) going to Tokyo. As you might see, there are 3 seats each row on the right side (ABC) and 2 seats on the left (DE). Left side is the “Mt. Fuji” side, even on trains from Tokyo to Osaka, hence seats on DE are always fully booked. The shinkansen has reserved/non-reserved seating, but JR Pass holders can reserve seats anytime at no additional costs. Here we were seated at Car Number 11.

Key take-aways:

  • Don’t be a lazy trip planner. As of writing, I’m proud to say that I have applied in my recent travels what I have learned from my past travels. (More mindful of spending + more comfortable OOTDs – slightly off-topic, I will forever grudge on the fact that I haven’t worn a nice OOTD during my whole Europe trip.)
  • Being indecisive is expensive. Before clicking on that “Pay Now” button, decide on the dates of your flight and which cities to go. For Japan and other multi-city destinations, make it a point NOT to book roundtrip flights on the SAME airport.
  • Plan your OOTD according to your destination’s weather. Don’t think twice about packing thick clothes and jackets for autumn season. Chances are, you’re not gonna fully enjoy the trip with cold hands and trembling body.

Sorry for the long intro, but there’s a reason why this blog is called virtually talkative. 😀

Mothership and sisterhood at the entrance of the shrine. I know, I look like my father. Hahaha

Kyoto

A brief background about Japan trains and stations as far as I know: there are A LOT of them. The subway maps are insane. The trains are color coded because they are of different train providers (JR is one of them) and are bound to different routes. You must be in the correct queue (triangles and circles on the ground) –  because again you might be queuing for the wrong destination.

Local or rapid? Triangle or circle? And all the other train details I wish I knew before going to Japan. I will leave you the reading.

Consider yourself warned – just don’t hop on any train that stops in front of you (unless you’re 100% sure that it’s the right train, and/or you’re willing to be lost). The first time I saw the subway maps of Osaka and Tokyo, I was strongly intimidated. The lines and loops and different color coding are as complicated as a woman’s brain. (Ha, you found a match in me.) Thankfully there are digital monitors around the station to help us confused tourists. I’d still prefer this problem over the lack of actual trains in Metro Manila.

One of the older trains which got seats parallel to the walls, and ceiling fans :O

The agenda for that day was temple-hopping in Kyoto, one of the cities in Kansai region and one hour away from Osaka via train. In contrast to the current capital Tokyo – modern and vibrant urban concrete jungle; Kyoto is the rural, quiet former capital of Japan and features the more historical and traditional side of the country. First on the list: Fushimi Inari Shrine. With JR Passes + pocket wifi + HyperDia (train route web app) in hand, we aimed to reach our destinations via JR trains only. From JR-Namba (Osaka) we had to get to JR Kyoto Station – a major station, then change trains going to Inari Station. The trip took about an hour.

Inside a Limited Express train to Kyoto Station. Different trains have different interiors.

This was a Monday but look at all these swarms of tourists. Pro-tip: Get there early!

There is no entrance fee in the shrine.

This is just one among the thousands of torii gates inside Fushimi Inari Shrine, patterned after foxes (black ears/feet, orangey body) which are believed to be the messengers of Inari, the Shinto god of rice.

You can see the Japanese names of donors inscribed per torii gate. Also, you can see that it was hard to take photos without the unintentional photobombers.

After some walking through the torii-gate covered trails, we reached this plaza with stores and water wells.

The whole trail going up and down Mt. Inari. We didn’t go to the top, just closed the loop from the entrance. The hike to the top would take around 2 hours.

From here we had the option to continue hiking or go back to the entrance. We did the latter.

Mama: “Nak dito yung way pabalik”

“Wait lang ma mowdelling muna ako”

“Ako din ma”

“Ako dapat bida”

Mama’s laughter is priceless 😀

At around 1 pm we left Fushimi Inari Shrine to get back to Kyoto Station.

We had curry for lunch in Soup Stock, Kyoto Station.

Second stop: Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion. Unfortunately, most tourist destinations in Kyoto are not directly reachable by train so we had to take a bus. We went to Kyoto Tourist Information Center somewhere in Kyoto Station and bought a Kyoto Bus One-day Pass (500 JPY each). Fret not, there are plenty of signage in the station to help commuters.

Even though the buses look old, there are monitors inside showing the stops so you’ll know when to get off.

The map of Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion. There is an entrance fee here of JPY 500 each,

It was starting to rain when we got there.

There are plenty of tourists on that side. We stayed in that area for quite some time thinking that that’s just how close we can get to the temple.

Interestingly, the top two floors of this temple are made of gold leaf. Visitors are not allowed inside.

A closer look.

Autumn in full bloom!

We capped off the Kinkaku-ji trip with matcha ice cream despite the cold weather. You gotta do it for the ‘gram yo.

It was just past 4pm but the skies were already turning dark.

We waited for the bus going back to Kyoto station…

Aaaand it was jam-packed (rush-hour).

Back to Kyoto Station, only to ride a bus again to our last stop for the day.

Third stop: Kiyomizu-dera Temple. There’s an entrance fee of JPY 300. It is 15-minutes from Kyoto Station by bus. From the bus stop, we just went along with the crowds of tourists going up to the temple. It was a long 15-minute walk. When you reach the Y-path, do yourself a favor and take the left path with all the lights and stores and people. We took the right path which was dark and boring.

Finally, after the tiring long walk and a disgruntled mother, we have arrived.

Maple and cherry trees in all their orange glory

It totally rained when we got there

This is the Kiyomizu-dera Temple and a view of Kyoto Tower and city from afar.

Autumn Illumination

In front of the temple entrance

Some cute shops along the way back to the bus stop

A day is simply not enough to visit all of the temples in Kyoto. Exhausted, we made our way back to Osaka.

You can read Part 1 here, which was written nearly 4 months ago. One of my life goals is to document my travels before their 1st anniversary. Kidding! Or maybe not. 😀 Stay tuned for parts 3-8 of Japan 2016 series, a 5-part Taiwan 2017 series, and a 4-part Hong Kong 2017 series. Hopefully before the year ends. LOL

Japan 2016: Kaway-kaway from KANSAI (Part 1)

 

Dotonbori in Osaka

Japan Quick Facts:

Timezone: UTC +9 (1 hour ahead of PH time)

Currency: JPY or Japanese Yen

Denominations: Smallest bill is 1000 JPY = around 450 PHP; 10000 JPY = around 4500 PHP; for coins, there are 50, 100, 500 JPY coins. Typical meal costs 700 JPY. Typical vendo drinks cost 100 JPY. I didn’t see anything you can buy with a 50 JPY coin.

Power outlet: Same with PH, 2 flat parallel prongs BUT voltage is 110V. It will work fine with most chargers for mobile phone and camera but double check the specs. Might have problem with hair curlers/straighteners/dryers, make sure they’re compatible with 110V. Really guys, we girls often bring them with us during travel, don’t fret. 😀

Geography: Kansai region is located at the southern part of Japan and is comprised of many cities including Osaka, Kyoto and Nara.  Osaka is 1 hour away from Tokyo by plane, 2.5 hours away by shinkansen (bullet train) and 8 hours by bus.

Visa Required? Yes, for Philippine passport holders. Around 1 week processing time. Always through accredited agencies, direct application to Japanese Embassy not possible.

 

Nov 13, 2016

Day 1/8 – Osaka

Still basking in the afterglow of my short twoweek European affair, a month later – I found myself packing my overused/over-Instagrammed leather jacket and tossing rolled winter jackets for Mama and Ate in the luggage. This was the “planned” Japan trip, booked immediately after my Korea trip with Mama last March. Having spotted a good deal from Jetstar, I booked roundtrip flights to Osaka without much thinking (calculated risk, of course).

At around 3am we left Migi (Ate’s car) in Park n’ Fly, and then boarded their shuttle to NAIA Terminal 1. I remember being stressed out the day before due to some imaginary problem I was having related to the credit card I used to book. I read somewhere that Jetstar requires physical presence of the card and its owner before checking in, otherwise you will be denied to check-in. Because I don’t have my own and I borrowed Rean’s card and he’s not joining us in the trip, and because I can’t find any working contact number for Jetstar to validate this, I requested him to come over at 4am in the airport. That was a Sunday. By the time we reached the check-in counter I asked the lady about it, and she casually answered “That’s not necessary, at least for Osaka-bound flights from Manila.” If you read this, sorry for wasting your time and effort, Be. At least you got to see me before we left, that’s more important. Hart hart.

This is how crowded Metro Manila is.

Sea of clouds.

So, at 7am we flew to Osaka. That was our first time to ride Jetstar, and it’s not far off from other budget airlines. After almost 4 hours, we landed safely in Kansai International Airport. Welcome to Japan!

Mama’s smile was worth the gastos. LOL.

I booked a ride to our AirBNB place via KLOOK. What a very millennial sentence that is, using apps to get things done. Anyway, our driver was very kind because he waited for us for more than an hour. The delay was caused by us getting our JR Passes, and getting lost finding where to.

It was around an hour drive from the airport to our place near JR Namba Station. I recommend our driver, whose name I forgot, because he was patient while trying to locate Ellie’s Apartment (Consolare Namba Building). He assisted us with our luggage, and didn’t leave until we figured out how to enter the secured building. To be fair, for first-timers in Japan, self-check in is quite complicated – that’s why, my friend, read the instructions your AirBNB host sent you.

I was quite amazed with myself having booked a totally fab accommodation near a JR train station. Ellie’s Apartment is centrally located, spacious, modern, and let us have our first experience of the famous Japanese toilet seat.

Really. First time in Japan and the first thing you look for is the high-tech toilet seat.

You’re lucky if you find something like this in Tokyo. And not to mention the price! This place was PHP 3100/night only.

Most AirBnBs in Japan offer free pocket wifi you can take outside! It’s hard to get around a foreign country without Internet, even with proper planning.

The bathroom is separated from the toilet. Shampoo, conditioner, body wash and hand soap are provided, even laundry detergent! This place has washing machine and flat iron. How handy.

Mama is sitting on a sofa bed. There’s enough space for 3, I was supposed to sleep in the upper deck but the bed was wiggly, so I slept beside Mama. There’s an extra futon bed, pillows and blanket in the cabinet and Ate slept on it on the floor. Also, that split-type aircon double-functions as a heater, as it was normally 15 degrees outside when we were there.

After some rest, Ate and I went to a nearby 7-11 for grocery shopping. And guess what we bought? Freaking noodles, and bento meals! I love the bento meals there!

Meanwhile, here’s a Soju that looks casually like a mineral water. We almost got it until we looked at the price.

There goes this tourist posing beside a bike, because Japan. You can also see some autumn foliage in the background.

At around 7PM we walked from our place to Dotonbori, a place very much like Seoul’s Myeongdong and Taipei’s Ximending, where there are endless shops, cafes, night lights and the most important thing – street food.

The famous Glico sign!

Very long queue outside Pablo, home of the famous cheese tart, which already has a branch in Manila

Shinsaibashi roofed shopping arcade

Japanese restos can’t tell you enough what they’re serving

Huwaw pare laki ng G-Y-O-S-A

I don’t know what the heck this is but probably a really fat fish

Uhmm I wonder what’s the specialty of this place. Grilled dragons?

Ang okonomiyaki at ang Waray. Dito po tayo – sa Warai Okonomiyaki. Waley

They say Ichiran is home to the “best tasting ramen in the world”. They have many branches around Japan. There was a very long queue here, so we had it in Tokyo.

Don Quixote is one of the famous discount stores in Japan.

A quaint resto that’s not as bold as its neighbors

There’s this little place with tables so we ordered some food to eat here for convenience.

Melonpan!!!

Yakisoba

Takoyaki!!

 

“The second most delicious melonpan ice cream in the world” LOL. How honest and specific 😀 I wonder what’s the first?!

It was a very cold mid-November autumn night

We passed by this interesting building while walking back to our place.

Stay tuned for more Japan posts!

Europe 2016: Finding Netherlands (Part 3)

Oct 6, 2016

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That day I planned to experience everything Old Holland – Dutch windmills, tulips, wooden shoes, cheese. When planning this trip, I initially aimed going to that place I always see as background video in videoke (I know, weird) where there was some sort of cheese exhibition, many people dressed in what looks like their traditional costumes and carrying loads of round cheeses. I learned that it takes place in Edam, another city in Netherlands where the name of the cheese (edam, or quezo de bola in the Philippines) originated. The “cheese demonstration” is held every Wednesday at 10am but unfortunately there was no schedule of it on my trip and that they will resume on March 2017 (as per their website).

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[Image not mine! Source here] Edam Cheese Demonstration

Of course, I’d also like to see the “Holland Tulips” in the flesh, so I googled whether early October is a good time to visit Keukenhof, probably the best place where you can see those world-famous rows and rows of colorful beauty. Unfortunately again, I found out that I won’t see any flowers when I go there, and that the best time to go is around April to May. Gives us a lot of reasons to visit Europe during spring/summer – this and the fact that the weather is more tolerable for tropical people like me, and eliminates the bulk of winter jackets in our luggage, making room for more shopping because priorities.

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[Image not mine! Source here] Keukenhof and the Holland tulips

Crossing out these places, I decided to go in Zaanse Schans in Zaandam, a city about 40 minutes away by bus from Amsterdam. I prepped up to check out from Owl Hotel at around 11am. After bidding goodbye to my room and leaving my luggage in the lobby for safekeeping while I’m away, I walked to Leidseplein and took the tram going to Centraal Station. I bought a burger from a fast food store in the station and looked for the bus going to Zaanse Schans. There was free wifi onboard, and I think that applies to most of public transportation in Europe. How good it would be living in countries like this?

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There is no entrance fee to see the farm and the windmills and houses.

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Also from Wikipedia: “Zaanse Schans has a collection of well-preserved historic windmills and houses.”

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90s Pinoy kids will remember Nelo and Patrasche (Dog of Flanders) with this carriage full of traditional milk cans

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A lot of product demonstrations take place in each of the houses inside Zaanse Schans. Here, they showed how Gouda cheese is made. Like Edam, Gouda is a name of a city in Netherlands.

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The same house, aside from offering an assortment of cheeses, also offers syrup and honey waffles, which are called “stroopwafels” in Dutch. Stroopwafels are the greatest invention on earth, according to me.

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Animals roam freely around here. In fact they are probably so used to people that they are the ones who approach you. A chicken approached me as if it wanted to start a conversation, and so I did.

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What a beautiful day!

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My dream house would have one of these cute little bridges over a little stream.

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This house showcases the making of wooden shoes.

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These are not real tulips. They’re, well, wooden.

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Inside the wooden shoe-house img_3159

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A demo of making wooden shoes was taking place when I entered.

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I wonder how much that costs.

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They actually have sizes, you know! Pretty and colorful souvenirs! I didn’t buy though, mainly because of the price and baggage issues.

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After 2 hours and a bag of stroopwafels and cheese, I left Zaanse Schans and headed back to Amsterdam. I roamed around Centraal for a bit then boarded the tram, got off at Koningsplein for the flower market in Singel.

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Stalls after stalls of ready-to-plant tulip bulbs (which I didn’t buy because it’s impossible for them to grow in tropical countries), typical souvenirs like keychains and ref magnets, and.. did you see that?

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This is where we should be extra careful 😀 Examine carefully the things you buy in any place where cannabis – or marijuana, is legal. It could cause you some serious trouble in your home country’s airport.

And then I got settled inside Amarylles, a quaint little resto I saw while walking. It was around 4pm and the last thing I ate was the free taste of stroopwafels lol.

And then I got settled inside Amarylles, a quaint little resto I saw while walking. It was around 4pm and the last thing I ate was the free taste bits of stroopwafels lol.

Full english for very late brunch!

Full english for a very late brunch! Did you see that speculoos? The Netherlands is also home to that popular biscuit.

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Different types of cheese

I learned that there are plenty of Henry Willig stores in Amsterdam. I decided to buy more stroopwafels because basic necessities.

I learned that there are plenty of Henry Willig stores in Amsterdam. I decided to buy more stroopwafels because basic necessities.

I went back to Owl Hotel to get and arrange my things. I was having a little sepanx before going, it was just a short two-day trip and I hoped to stay longer. It was only on my last day when I finally figured out the shortest way to go back to the hotel, oh well. My flight was scheduled for 930pm. I headed for the airport at 5pm.

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Because I was too early in the airport, I roamed around and found this display at the roof deck.

Duty free shop selling 2 for 49EUR perfumes

Duty free shop selling 1 for 29 EUR, 2 for 49 EUR perfumes

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I wish I learned earlier that security in Schiphol Airport would take this long. It took me about 40 minutes in queue. I really didn’t see it coming, it was not the case in Bergen and Paris – there was no queue there at all. Amsterdam Schiphol takes its security very seriously, they will tell you to take out all electronics and liquids, they scanned and rescanned my items, they made me take off my shoes, it made me rethink whether I bought that cannabis lollipop (kidding, of course I didn’t). After I was cleared, I ran like a madwoman to my gate. Lesson learned: Upon arriving at any airport, immediately check the queue for security.

This caps off my Europe 2016 series! It has been four months since my trip and I sorely miss it. I will try to make helpful travel guides in the near future 😀 You see, my posts actually serve as my online travel diary, so bear with me for writing even the most nonsense stuff.

Japan series coming up! Stay tuned 😀