Monday, June 30, 2014

Tokyo Experience: Asakusa, Sensoji Temple, Nakamise Dori

Asakusa area is known for keeping the old edo (former name of Tokyo) or the traditional neighborhood. I was able to book a capsule hotel that is 10 minutes away from Sensoji, a Buddhist temple which is the main attraction. There are maps available in the Tourist Information Center but I was lucky to have a guide while exploring Asakusa.

The Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate is the first large entrance that leads to Sensoji Temple. According to my guide, the gate is named from the two guardians - God of Thunder (Raijin) and Wind (Fujin). 
The red giant lantern is a very familiar symbol of Japan
After entering the gate, I passed by the Nakamise shopping street that leads to the main temple. This is the perfect place to shop for omiyages or traditional souvenirs and even sample local snacks! I was full from free tasting everything when I reached the main hall.

I've shopped til I dropped at Nakamise-dori
Before walking to the main temple, I noticed the standing red metal rods with pieces of papers knotted around it. It turned out to be the fortunes of the temple visitors from Omikuji. Of course, I had to try it myself. I had to put 100 yen coin into the slot, pick up the metal Omikuji container, shake it and get one of the fortune sticks. The stick has a corresponding number and I had to find the drawer with the same number. My fate is from the paper that I'll choose inside that drawer. If its a good fortune, I can keep the paper. Unfortunately, it was bad fortune for me, so I ended up tying the paper on the Omikuji rod! I asked my guide if I can pick again but she said that it should be done once a day, oh well  I am the master of my destiny! =))
Metal rods and knotted papers - goodbye bad fortune!
Before entering the main temple, we need to "purify" ourselves. My guide provided the incense sticks that we used to bathe ourselves in smoke. Basically, we thrust the incense sticks on the huge bronze incense burner located in front of the main hall. By doing this, smoke covers our hands and faces and it signifies the smoke warding of illnesses before we climb the stairs to offer our prayers.
Bathe with smoke
Every temple or shrine in Japan has a small fountain that is used for another type of ritual to purify. I held the ladle using my right hand to pour the water over my left hand. I switched the ladle to my left hand and poured the water over my right hand. I switched the ladle to my right hand again, then poured the water in my left hand, drank it, swished it on my mouth before spiting it to the ground. The last step is tilting the handle perpendicularly so that the water will run down the ground and clean the ladle before placing it back.
Washing of mouth and hand

Finally, we're ready to enter Sensoji temple
I've known Kumi through the Tokyo Free Guide site and it was a great decision to go to Asakusa with her. Asakusa can be easily explored by foot but without Kumi, I would've missed out on those purification ceremonies and trivias. She certainly, made the walking tour very educational but fun!
With my guide, Kumi from Tokyo Free Guide
I've spent several days exploring the Asakusa area. My second guide, Chiaki, booked a Kimono/Yukata rental for me on this store found on Dempoin Dori. 
I felt like a royalty while dressing up because 2 Japanese aunts were helping me out in wearing my yukata. I originally intended to wear a Kimono but since its spring and the weather is warm, they recommended a Yukata. The main difference is that a Kimono is made of silk while a Yukata is made of cotton. First, they asked me to wear the socks because it will be hard to bend later. Then they helped me in wearing the "juban", a white cotton top and skirt. They carefully put on the kimono, its always "right side over left" for both men and women. I was just standing the whole time while spreading my arms on the sides. They adjusted the length of the kimono so that it ends on my ankle before finally tying the "koshi himo belt". They also styled my hair and let me pick a bag.
Pink flower to match my Sakura Yukata
My Cherry Blossom themed Yukata, with Tokyo Sky Tree on the background.
Sakura girl =))
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Friday, June 20, 2014

28th: Year of Independence

It's already mid-June but I've decided to blog about my better late than never birthday post. 

The first months of my 28th year was probably definitely spent on home section of malls. I was buying a lot of stuff from comforters to knives to frying pans. I was also busy calling my condo agent to follow up on my turnover date. Finally, I was able to move in this January to the place that I can call my own well, technically speaking, that will be 4 years from now! A place that I can decorate with Cherry Blossom theme and fill with Kokeshi doll displays! I know its only been 6 months but here's what I've learned so far:
  • On cooking and hosting dinner parties - I don't really need to know how to cook everything. I just have to have my specialty dish - "buttered garlic shrimp" and "spicy tuna carbonara."  I've  memorized the ingredients and recipe by heart. It's easy to make but leaves a good impression to my guests. I think..I hope!
  • Pants is optional - This is TMI but freedom at its finest is walking around in my underwear and a comfortable top. Because my unit's floor is deserted, I often get my trash out while I'm on my bathrobe and with a facial mask. Fortunately, I haven't bumped and scared a neighbor, yet! 
  • On creative multitasking - I'm used to multi tasking but these days my definition of "exercise" is cleaning my unit or washing my clothes while waiting for the cooked rice. 
  • On having a checklist - Preparation before hitting the grocery is always crucial because even if the mall is just within walking distance, its still a hassle to go back and forth. I always bring an eco bag and realized the value of membership or rewards card. 
  • On taking charge of my health - Take out food is the easiest option but its not the cheapest nor healthiest. It can also be expensive to cook for one person only, good thing that I don't mind repeating my viand for lunch and dinner.
  • Its not scary - I'm used to having my own room so I didn't have a lot of adjustments. Sometimes, its hard to turn off my imagination and I hear everything so I do sleep with a lamp and music on. 
  • On being alone but not lonely - People often think that it would be lonely to live by myself. Honestly, I'm outgoing and keeps a lot of set of friends so I can really use my alone time to recharge. I'm comfortable with silence and talking to myself, a lot, sometimes out-loud! Have I lost my mind? Hmm, I have this habit of "laughing out loud" alone in public when I see  a good meme, even before I started living alone. So there. =)) But seriously, this is the closest that I've been to my family. I found myself texting or calling my parents randomly to ask them about their day. I have a Facebook group with my parents and a separate group with my siblings and different set of friends. Being away made me exert more effort to catch up with them.  

A week before my actual birthday, I was able to cross out 2 items from my bucket list - tried solo travel and visit Japan! I actually spent my birthday on airports and airplane but who cares, I had an amazing pre-birthday week!!

They say that you'll either passionately hate or love traveling solo, no in between. I loved this experience and I'm happy to do it at least once in this lifetime. Here's what I've learned on my Eat, Shop, Love Tokyo trip:
  • It's scary but I have to get over the fear - It was scary to be travelling alone plus there's the language barrier but it was an amazing experience! I was able to explore the city the way that I wanted to. I don't have to feel apologetic due to my frequent bathroom trips =))
  • The barriers can be broken - I can understand a little Nihongo but I cant speak well. Somehow, I managed to communicate with the locals. I was able to find the right train station and buy the ramen with the help of random people that I've met or disturbed? lol
  • There's always room for new friends - Through the Tokyo Free Guide program, I've met two different yet both amazing Japanese women who are friends for keeps. I would love to return the favor and tour them around Manila, someday!
  • You'll come out better -  Indeed. 

When people ask my age, I often say that I'm forever 23! I know that my 23 year old self will be happy to meet the older and wiser Mei. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Tokyo Experience: Don Quijote, Anime Center in Akihabara

Back in college, one of our projects was to create a CD cover. Of course, I grabbed the chance to be a "model", I edited myself to be standing amidst the crowd on Akihabara, Tokyo.
giant Mei in Akihabara =))
While sorting the pictures for my photobook project, I realized that I was able to take a photo of that same spot that I used as a background. How cool is that!
Welcome to Akihabara, Tokyo

Akihabara district is known as the "Electronic Wonderland". These days its also the mecca for sub cultures because of the emergence of quirky shops for anime and manga lovers. 
Akihabara Station
I went to the Tokyo Anime Center located on 4th floor of UDX Building, Akihabara Crossfield, right across the Akihabara Station. Surprisingly, its just a small scale anime exhibit and almost half of the place is dedicated to the shop area where you can buy toys and other anime related souvenirs. It didn't really live up to its name "Tokyo Anime Center" but it was fun to see some of the actual character sketches used for anime development. 
character sketches
Akihabara is famous for themed restaurants and maid cafes. There's always a long line whenever I pass by Gundam Cafe and AKB48 Cafe and Shop. I was able to check out the menu and gift shop where everything from dishes to decor were Gundam themed. The next door cafe is dedicated to Japan's answer to Girl's Generation, but honestly, I just learned about their idol group AKB48 when I was researching for my itinerary. 

Gundam Cafe & AKB48 Cafe and Shop
While walking on the alleys, I found a small ramen shop. 
on my to do list: eat ramen sa tabi tabi
The owner doesn't speak English but he was nice enough to teach me how to use the vending machine. There's no English menu either so the photos were a big help. I chose a soy based ramen, paid using the machine and got my receipt slash ticket that I gave to the owner.
Ramen vending machine
My first taste of authentic Japanese ramen, from a store sa tabi tabi =)). It was served on a large sized bowl and I knew it would be hard to finish everything by myself. The owner even offered me a free bowl of rice, I thought that it would be rude to decline. It was super delicious but it was a struggle to finish everything! =))
Soy based ramen with tamago (egg)
Don Quijote is my shopping heaven in Akihabara! It's a duty free store that sells everything from groceries (KitKats in all flavors!!!), electronics, toys, clothes, cosplay costumes, souvenirs! AKB48 is really everywhere, they perform daily shows at their theater located on the 8th floor. "Maids" can be spotted giving out fliers outside this building because @Home Cafe is located on the 5th floor.
Duty free!!!
I almost bought a Sailor Mercury costume =))
You can find EVERYTHING at Don Quijote. See photo below =))
Can't think of an appropriate caption
I also explored this aptly named Shonen Book Tower, a 10 floor building dedicated to manga and other reading materials. I was amazed that each floor was divided into specific genres and each were filled with book and manga lovers from all ages. Hentai or adult themed manga were also casually displayed on some areas =))

The search for Pokemon book led me here
I found a ramen shop on the basement of the building in front of Shonen Book Tower. I tried the tomato based seafood ramen and Asahi beer, kampay!
Recharging with another ramen

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Tokyo Experience: Ueno

From Narita Airport Terminal 2, I bought a Keisei Skyliner ticket to Ueno (Y,2470/PHP1,100). Good thing that the immigration line was short because I had to catch the 12:02PM train, this line arrives once every hour. It's a 41 minutes train ride and I was so amazed how the trains arrive on the dot!
Train stations are located on the basement of Narita Airport Terminal 2
My first destination is Ueno Zoo to see the pandas!!! =)) It's crazy how the whole Ueno Station is dedicated to pandas. From panda shaped mochi, breads, stuff toys, clothes - anything you can imagine!
Ueno Station
I even tried this bread even if I don't know what's the pudding. It turned out to be red beans and whipped cream!
1st red bean dessert
From Ueno Station, it's a 15 minutes leisure walk to Ueno Zoo. I passed through Tokyo National Museum, National Museum of Nature and Science, Ueno Kodomo Yuen amusement park and even this yet another panda themed stalls and vending machines.
Panda overload!!
Ueno Zoo is open everyday except on Mondays, from 9:30AM–5PM (Admission: ¥600/PHP260).
I noticed a lot of students from prep to high school were on field trips on Ueno area.
Field trip!!
I've learned that Japan leases the 2 pandas, RiRi and ShinShin from China for $950,000 a year! No wonder they've maximized the Panda theme all over Ueno to recover the cost!
I'm hereeee
Here's RiRi (the male panda), failing miserably in hiding =)) I'm so obsessed with pandas, come to think of it they just cutely eat all day!
Riri <3
Ueno Zoo is also a home for thousands of other animals like elephants, red pandas and polar bears! The zoo is sooo big that you have an option to ride a monorail to go from East to West garden. 

Tokyo: Hotel Asakusa and Capsule Experience

I originally booked a single room because I always want to have my own bathroom but I realized that I didn't want to spend PHP10,000 for accommodation only. I couldn't find a budget friendly Ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn) so I chose the next uniquely Japanese place to stay in.  I cancelled my room reservation from the same hotel and booked a capsule instead. Thank goodness for's no reservation and easy cancellation policy!

Hotel Asakusa and Capsule was featured in 10 of the most unusual hotels in Tokyo but it's either I'm extremely low maintenance type of girl or its really not so bad..
4-14-9 Kotobuki, Taito-ku, +81 3 3847 4477
The check in time is from 4pm onwards and we're required to check out at 9am the next day. We can store our luggage on the lockers found on the basement.
The ladies capsule on 5th floor
The capsule's rate is Y2,500 or PHP1,200 per night. Not bad at all, especially if you're out and about the whole day and just need a clean, safe (CCTV cameras are everywhere) and cheap place to sleep in. I was surprised to wake up and see those slippers because it was so quiet on our floor. I didn't realize that I had a lot of capsule neighbors.
The girl on 516
Definitely, capsule rooms are not for claustrophobic. You can sit comfortably but you cant stand inside because its size is literally 1/4 of a regular room. But hey, I even have my own TV, locker, phone and aircon!
Inside my capsule
I tried the coin operated TV where I chanced upon Doraemon! You need to insert Y100 or roughly PHP43 to use it for an hour.
No subtitles :))

Whenever we're inside the hotel, we're kinda required to wear this Japanese bathrobe and slippers. I wish I knew that beforehand, I would've left my 2 pairs of sleepwear.
When folding, its always "left over right"
The common room on the ground floor has a lot of vending machines for coffee, tea, softdrinks, beer and even ramen. There's a TV that surprisingly shows Korean drama every time I go there.
vending machine is a must
 I think, I was in high school when I last used these bulky computers. Nevertheless, the internet connection was really fine.
ojiisan, checking out his Yahoo email
Taking a bath in an onsen, Japanese stone pool, is on my to do list and I was able to enjoy it for free well, included on my capsule payment on the hotel.

If you don't have a problem going through the steam with other naked bodies, good for you! I don't have any inhibitions either, but I don't really make an eye contact or engage in a conversation while inside the shared bathroom lol.
Photo credit:
One of the main reasons why I chose this hotel is that it's conveniently located near train stations and 7/11. 
4mins walk from Asakusa Station Toei Line
5 mins walk from Kuramar Station Toei Oedo Line
6 mins walk from Asakusa Station Tobu Line
It is within walking distance to Asakusa area, known as the Edo or old Japan area in Tokyo. More importantly, 3 minutes walk from Tawaramachi Station Tokyo Metro Ginza Line or Orange-i line which connects to most of my must see sights from Shibuya to Ueno to Ginza!
My home station for 5 days - Tamawarachi Station Ginza Line

P.S. You'll know that a neighborhood is safe when people casually leave their bicycles on the streets without any lock.
Bike friendly city

Eat, Shop, Love: Tokyo Birthday Trip

Whenever people hear that I'm going to Tokyo for my birthday they would often say "oh, goodluck on your soul searching." Truth be told, I just watched a lot of Japanese movies and TV series that made me really want to see those places and eat authentic Jap food! AND, I wanted to use all those Nihongo I've learned, in real life hahaha. 

Its been a common knowledge that traveling to Japan is expensive, while preparing for this trip, I have seen that myself. Or maybe, I'm just used to Southeast Asia prices. Anyway, my game plan is to go on a budget tour and do my 2 favorite things in the world - explore and eat! All I want to do is 5 days of walking around Tokyo, visiting the tourist spots, meeting interesting people then eat and shop as much as I can! 

Just like my other trips (except Thailand), I bought a ticket on sale from CebuPacific. The trip was 6 months in the making but I always feel that preparing the itinerary is the second best thing to traveling. I had an ample time to prepare. I checked out the rates of guided day tour and bus tours but its too expensive for me. Fortunately, I stumbled upon Tokyo Free Guide from my Japan Lonely Planet book, they are a group of locals who volunteer to tour foreigners within Tokyo. They also have a website where you can enter your details along with the date, time and itinerary of your choice. I've appreciated the back and forth emails again because of this. I was happy when a guide emailed me that she's available for my prefered day.

I only booked a 5 day trip, yes it was a short trip so I listed all the sights that I wanted to visit then arranged it by area. I also found the Tokyo Walks itinerary from the Tourism site. Its a list of detailed walking tours along with opening/closing time and admission rates.

After 6 revisions, this is my itinerary:
DIY Tokyo Marathon =))
* See the pandas on Ueno Zoo
* Visit Sensoji Temple and shop for souvenirs at Nakamise-dori.
* Explore Tokyo midtown - Tsukiji Fish Market, Imperial Palace and Tokyo Tower
* Walk on Shibuya Crossing, visit Hachiko's Statue and shop at Tower Records
* See Sumida River and Tokyo Sky Tree
* Shop at Don Quijote and explore the Anime Center in Akihabara
* Experience onsen - Japanese public bath
* Eat at a rotating sushi store, lots of ramen, tonkatsu and Gyudon A-set!
* Konbini (convenience store) and 100 yen shop shopping
* Figure out the Tokyo Subway

I didn't go to any paid areas, except for Ueno Zoo. I'll definitely pay to see a Panda!!! Next time, I wont pass up to see Disney Sea and Mount Fuji.

I've booked a capsule hotel because I wanted to try it for experience and its the cheapest option. Here's my sample daily budget to give you rough estimates for my DIY Tokyo eating and walking tour =)) My budget for shopping is another story.

 * Capsule accommodation - Y2,500 PHP 1,200
* 3 Meals - Y4,000 PHP1,800
* Train - Y1,500 PHP700
* Average Admission Rate (temple/museum) - Y700 PHP300
* Street food/drinks - Y1000 PHP500
Total:  Y9,700 PHP4,500 or $95

I can understand little Nihongo but I cant really speak a lot aside from Konichiwa, Arigatou, ichi, ni, san..My usual conversation with locals start with 
"Sumimasen" - excuse me.. 
"Eigo ga hanasemusu ka?" - Can you speak English?
"sukoshi nihon" - I know a little Japanese
"Gomenasai" - sorry

Apart from the language barrier, Tokyo is very traveler friendly. They have a no tipping culture. People are very polite and warm. Taking a cab is very expensive so riding the train is the only option for me. 
Very intimidating, indeed.
You just need to "connect the dots" to navigate the train system and find out the fastest and cheapest route. Even locals still use apps to figure out the connecting train lines to go from one place to another. It was a good decision to rent a pocket wifi because Google Maps and Japan Trains app are my best travel buddies but both requires internet connection! (I rented from XComm found on Narita Terminal 2's basement, Y600 PHP250/day) Special mention goes to my powerbank and monopod. =)) 

I planned this trip without fear but honestly, on the day before my flight it finally sink in that I'll be on a foreign place, alone. I was quiet the whole day then and my office mates were teasing me that its okay to show some excitement.  It wasn't my first airplane ride alone, my biggest worry was to go over budget =)). 

Through this solo trip, I've learned so much about Tokyo and myself.  I'm happy that I was able to stick to my "be in the moment rule", thus I only have less than 200 photos. I promised myself that I will take in as much as I can, do as the locals do and refrain from being on social media all the time. I just update my accounts when I'm back at my capsule but I send messages to my parents from time to time so that they would know that their daughter is safe and is busy boosting Japan's economy =))

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