TOKYO: Robots & Ninjas

If you’re a fan of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, then you’ve probably caught a glimpse of what he calls the greatest show in the history of entertainment- The Robot Restaurant. Located in Kabuchiko, Shinjuku’s red light district, the huge neon-lit signs are hard to miss. After buying a ticket, you’ll be led down several flights of stairs into a basement. The walls are decorated with loud prints and flashy diamonds. Once underground, the audience is seated into three elevated rows, and encouraged to buy Robot Restaurant merchandise, popcorn and drinks. Despite its name, it isn’t quite a restaurant as it is a performance, and we were about to find out why.

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A parade of girls in colorful costumes and boys in crazy wigs marched in, banging their glowing drumsets, slinging their guitars mid-air while chanting “ha!” All this while they’re moving on floats, gliding across the room to set the energy high. The stage is glittered with girls in sailormoon outfits and rainbow wigs dancing, ninjas brandishing their katanas, and masked men in shining armour with horns on their heads.

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The craziness had just commenced, and there was a lot more to be had. Suddenly, tribal dancers filled the scene to establish the sacred forest. Then, this huge metal tank of a robot thunders in and says something like, “This place is so peaceful, I want to trash it!!” while his droid minions stomp around with a hammer. Alas, a kungfu panda riding his cow barges in and attacks the robots, who fall to the ground but remain undefeated.

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So this white, fierce falcon swoops in and his beak emits fire through which one of the droids die. This goes on when more and more fancy forest creatures fight the grungy, mean robot machines. There’s a perky spider girl trapping the enemy into her web, and a mermaid squiggling her tail atop a shark that eventually eats one droid.

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The highlight was when the queen of the robot empire, scantily clad in her corset, fish net stockings and cape, arrives with her badass gattling gun. She cackles, claiming the forest as hers, until this huge red-eyed dinosaur eats the queen and carries her away.

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The entire show is such a spectacle! Though it may not make sense to some, it lets you in on Japan’s wild quirks and characters.

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We killed time before the next attraction by shopping at Don Quijote, a popular discount chain that carries all your pasalubong needs: from different flavors of Kitkat to packets of face masks and stuffed toys. Their adult section has a bunch of bodysuits for cosplaying, like a school girl or maid outfit for men. We wanted to bring some home for halloween, but worried about the size.

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Hello, Hachicko 🙂

Then it was time. Our last dinner in Tokyo was nothing short of special. We walked into the Ninja Cafe, which was not quite a cafe as it is a themed-restaurant, and we were greeted by a lady in black who asked for our names. She clapped her hands twice, and out came a ninja who told us that we had to undergo training. We entered the wooden door and he led us through some caves. He told us to act swiftly because the enemy is fast approaching. We let out a loud clap and lo and behold, a wooden plank fell beneath us to serve as our bridge in order to run away. Before we knew it, we were back at the door where we started and had completed our ninja training.

Another ninja brought us to a nicely hidden underground area to indulge in our tasting course. We started with shuriken-shaped breadsticks to be dipped in duck pate.

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Everything from the tomato-based angel hair pasta, to the stone-boiled soup was delicous! Josh, who’s not even a shrimp-eater, loved their sushi. While he had the sweet and sour pork specialty which was covered in black to go with the ninja theme, I enjoyed my salmon with sour cream which was thoroughly tasty from inside out.

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While waiting for dessert, we were introduced to the ninja master who had a trick up his sleeve. First he asked Josh to choose from his deck of cards and write a message for me. He laid the card on the table while reshuffling the deck on hand and then told me to pull out my own card and do the same. I wrote my message and the ninja returned both cards in the deck. After shuffling, he drew one card which had both our messages on it- with the exact penmanship and even the marker smudge!

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I’ve been keeping the card in my wallet since that night, as a constant reminder that we will be back in Japan sooner than later. Whether it’s a second round of Tokyo, a trip to the more laidback Osaka, or an experience of Ancient Japan in Kyoto, we’ll be back real soon for Japan has captured our hearts.

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TOKYO: Slowing down & Speeding up

Delicious sushi from the night before got me craving for more- and hopefully without having to break the bank. Where else could you find the freshest, most delectable raw fish than at the market. Tsukiji market. The world’s largest fish market where chefs and restauranteers come in the wee hours of the morning to participate in an auction for bluefin tuna. Known as the king of sushi, this species is gradually depleting due to the increasing global demand of sushi.

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In recent news, the market would soon be relocated somewhere further, in order to make way for new roads to the 2020 olympics in Tokyo. That said, the streets were fully occupied with tourists feasting on all sorts of food: from fresh octopus flamed on the spot to tamagos for a mere Y100 and newly ripened strawberries on a stick. Took delight in shopping for snacks to take home- wasabi nuts, caramelized gunnel, rice crackers, seaweed- anything and everything to satisfy the frequent snacker.

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Overwhelmed with so many choices on where to eat, we did the touristy thing and settled at a restaurant with a Tripadvisor sticker plastered on its door. Plates of sushi spun like mad around the room– on a conveyor belt that is! We sat surrounding the sushi masters as if we were spectators in an arena. Their swift hands sliced gracefully through the raw fish, gathered a neat batch of soft rice, and basted wasabi onto it, serving as the glue between the tuna (or salmon/shrimp/squid) and rice. The plates were color coded according to price, and truth be told, the golden plates/fancier looking ones were the best tasting.

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After stuffing ourselves with as many plates of sushi as possible, we took a long walk to Hamarikyu Gardens. Suddenly, the fact that we were a week too early for cherry blossom season didn’t matter at all, because we encountered a whole field of bright and beautiful yellow flowers. _MG_0581.jpg

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Troll in the garden

We laid on the grass for a while, then walked to the other side to watch the boats dock, the seagulls come and go, and the time pass us by. It was such a breath of fresh air, considering we were in one of the busiest metropoleis in the world.

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only a handful of cherry blossoms

It still astounds us how a place like Tokyo exists; how it’s very much alive and technologically advanced like in the movies, but within the city, you’d find pockets of peace and spaces for meditation. It’s a marvelous conjunction of traditional and modern.

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Barrels of sake donated to Meiji Shrine

 

One minute we were observing traditions in the Meiji period, and the next, we were watching teen tribes strut their kawaii costumes at Takeshita Dori, or more famously known as Harajuku. Schoolgirls strolled the streets with their  shopping bags, and clouds of cotton candy coloured the scene while we went crazy over crepes. They came in every flavor you could think of — strawberry with nutella and whipped cream, hot caramel and cheese with nuts, or as stuffed as a crepe could be: a “Mega Marion” with vanilla & chocolate ice cream, brownie, a slice of cheesecake, custard cream, bananas, almonds… sounds more summoning of toncilitis to me, rather than a treat, so if you’re not so into sweets, they’ve got savory ones too.

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Took the rush hour train to the iconic Shibuya, turning towards the Hachiko exit, but strangely couldnt’ find him, probably because there were way too many people and it was too dark anyway. Instead, we were distracted by a grown man in a school girl outfit and bunny ears. He was dancing around, lifting his skirt and giving away glow in the dark bracelets. Oh Japan, just as eccentric as how I imagined.

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Just off that road lies the busiest intersection where businessmen and tourists, who were whipping out their selfie sticks while crossing, scrambled from point to point. And yes, it took a handful of walking back and forth to get these shots. A Japanese guy even trolled us by doing jumping jacks behind me.

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emulating Simon from Misfits

We walked around aimlessly, just taking in the cool city vibe, and realized that what made it so unique was the theme music playing in the background. Usually when you’re walking in a foreign place, you’d have a song playing in your head, but this time, there was an actual epic soundtrack to push the mood further. Originally, we wanted to head to Shimokitazawa to catch any gig that would allow us a peek into their music scene, but our days in Tokyo were numbered. As if by fate, we didn’t actually need to look any further than where we were.

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Tokyo: Temples, Owls & the Lost Sushi night

If there’s any food in Japan that is truly deserving of a ritual aside from sushi, it’s Ichiran Ramen. Punch your preferences at their vendo machine as you enter, then have yourself a seat at one of the cubicles. It’s just so good, you’ll need precious, quality time alone with it. In a few minutes, the blinds you’ve been facing will lift up, and you’ll be handed your customized, umami ramen.

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Take a sip of the spicy, thick soup. Slurp on the noodles- your choice of soft or al dente. But before you gobble it all down and burn yourself, throw in your soft boiled tamago, mushroom, seaweed, and best of all- the fatty premium pork shoulder. Everything’s so delicious, you’ll want to close your eyes to savour the taste, and top it off with a cold glass of draft beer. IMG_1567.jpg

After having the best ramen we’ve ever tasted, we took a stroll around Ueno Park. There were rows and rows of trees, waiting to be awakened by Spring. Found ourselves at a temple within the park and participated in the Buddhist hand cleansing ritual. The park was peaceful and it was great to be surrounded by nature amidst the bustling city._MG_0386.jpg

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Next thing we knew, we were on a pink swan pedalling away like excited children on a lake!_MG_0437.jpg

Then we were off to Sensoji, Tokyo’s oldest temple built in 628 during the Edo period. It’s said to be dedicated to the Buddhist goddess of mercy, and is the most widely visited spiritual site. Getting off the Asakusa station,  you could already get the feel of old Japan with its stone cobbled streets and girls walking about in rented kimonos.

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Once inside the temple, you’ll encounter various rituals and flocks of tourists and locals alike. Aside from the incense, water cleansing, and coin-throwing, there’s one where you pick up a silver cannister, shake it up and draw a wooden stick from inside, with a number that corresponds to the drawer from which you draw your fortune.

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Then we took the train to the starkly contrasting Akihabara- Tokyo’s Electric Town. Stores with loads of toys, figurines and mangas attract anime fans/ otakus from all over the world. Women in corsets with wings on their backs and a headgear come as no surprise in this cosplaying side of the city. While those in maiden attire were giving out invites to the maid cafe, we chose to visit the owl cafe. The small fee of Y500 gets you a free cup of coffee and a few hours with these wide-eyed, nocturnal creatures.

They were all really chill. Some were gazing out the window, planning their escape into the city.

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Others were plotting against the humans who’d pester them with their phone cameras.

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The one who looked like Hedwig didn’t mind being petted, and most of them were asleep during the screening of My Neighbor Totoro. The owl that amused me most was the one turning his head at any strange sound- and he could do it at any point of the 360 angle!

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Stepped out of the cafe almost as wide-eyed as the owls in it, when I spotted a tax free beauty/drug store with two floors- Matusmoto Kiyoshi. I found everything on my wishlist, including Cure, a popular exfoliant. Pumped some product out of the tester, rubbed it on my skin, and voila! dead skin along with a bit of dirt started to come off. Other affordable skincare recommendations would be Biore water-based sunblock (to prevent greasiness, plus it’s PA ++++!), and lululun everyday face masks which serve as a treat on a long, hot day.

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After trying our luck at some stuffed toy catchers in the arcades of Akihabara, we decided to head home to Nakano and have dinner in the area. I was craving for sushi big time so I googled and let maps lead the way. Upon entering the tiny restaurant, we received strange stares from the diners, as if they were saying, “how did these tourists find us…”

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Took a seat in the corner and browsed the menu. The waitress bursted in laughter as she flipped it to read up to down. Silly tourists, not reading Kanji the right way! We legit couldn’t understand a thing though. Even if we wanted to choose the cheapest thing on the menu and point to it, we couldn’t because there were no numericals- everything was in Japanese. Still, it was too late and too rude to leave at this point, so I told her, 1 chirashidon please! And she shook her head and put two fingers up and we said, no one only, since Josh isn’t a big fan of raw fish but wanted to know what else was on the menu.

Good thing, a man by the bar felt our struggle and translated for us. He said having just one is disrespectful, and we apologized immensely because we didn’t mean it. But also, we asked him how much one chirashidon was and he said, 5,000 yen. Gulped at the steep price and asked if he could recommend anything else, and he said the sushi set for 2,500 and we agreed and said, yes two please!

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heavenly heavenly sushi~

When our orders came, the waitress watched us eat. Of course, the sushi was naturally delicous and oh so fresh; I’m sure she could see that we were enjoying it. Little did we expect that she would come up to us and explain something in nihonggo that we couldn’t understand. We just bowed our heads respectfully and then the kind man by the bar told us, “you shouldn’t dip too much soysauce- only a little.” Oops, gomen nasai again from these two, tiny uncultured flies hehe.

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One thing we didn’t do was walk out of that sumptuous sushi bar without saying, “Gochisosama deshita!”

TOKYO: Disneysea

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TOKYO, DISNEYSEA is the only one of its kind in the world. Walking into the Disney train station made me feel all kinds of nostalgia because of the Disney soundtrack playing in the background, plus the kids and adults donning their Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck hats. Even more so when you enter the park and are greeted by a thumping bunny mascot or an animated Goofy giving free hugs!

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In place of Cinderella’s castle that you see in Disneyland is a vibrant volcano that erupts smoke from time to time, plus a river that winds around the park. What makes Disneysea different from its land counterpart is perhaps that it’s more suited for adults. Well for one, it’s the only Disney park that serves draft beer. The crowd mostly consists of groups of friends and couples, some of whom wear Duffy the bear onesies and snap kawaii photos of their stuffed toys against the scenery. But of course, what is never lost is the magic and joy the theme park brings to everyone who visits.
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Mysterious Island would bring you to a sci-fi, somewhat post-apocalyptic world that we later on came to realize, is inspired by Atlantis: The Lost Empire. The spiral staircase leads down 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Once you’re at the end of the line, your group will be hopping on a submarine that’ll take you down underwater to see some glowing crystal gems and treasures. Occassionally, you’ll get hit by an octupus’ tentacles, but nothing too scary happens here.

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The shouting from a nearby distance got me excited for the next ride. After taking a second look, we discovered that the roller coaster was inside the volcano! But before falling in line, there was a sign that warned of a 180-minute wait, and they weren’t giving out fast passes anymore. Not to worry- there’s still so much to see!

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Little Mermaid’s colorful castle glistened in the sunlight and welcomed us down where it’s better, under the sea! The dimmed lights and coral-ful design really makes you feel like you’re underwater– amid jumping jellyfish and spinning pufferfish. The rides over here are more for children, with some Disney crew waving at you the whole time you sit on dizzying teacups. Here, we found our treasure trove of ice cream: sea salt vanilla ice cream in the form of a pink shell, and Mickey Mouse’s tiramisu sandwich bar. YUM!

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Crossed the bridge, and we were immediately transported to a whole new world, made all the more dazzling by the flying carpet!

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We went to see a magician show in 3D glasses and matching vibrating seats, but I think we would’ve enjoyed it more if we understood Japanese. But we did fall in love with this side of the island, especially when we tasted their chicken curry with naan bread and lassi. Good thing we had early dinner, because the line for this curry got really long by nightfall. Curry popcorn, anyone? Sounded strange to me at first, but if you’re into Indian spices, go ahead and try it out!

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Made the most out of this whole new world and hopped on a little boat to see Sinbad’s adventures. This was a blast from the past for me, because I suddenly remembered “It’s a Small World” from Disneyland back from when I was very little. Loved the song on this version, plus the intricate props, animated puppets and sound effects.

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In the outskirts of the Arabian castle, lay a jungle full of hidden temples and ravaging rides. I was curious about the roller coaster with a 360-degree turn, but decided to save that for next time. Because of the queueing time for these last two rides (more than a hundred-twenty minutes), we had to choose which to take- the Indiana Jones, or the roller coaster back in Mystery Island, whose queueing time went from 180 minutes, to 150.

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I had an inkling that the Indiana Jones ride is available in Disneyland too, so the ride that’s more unique to this park won us over: The Center of the Earth.

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From the start of the line, you couldn’t really see how far to go before reaching the ride because it kinda just snakes around. I think they intentionally craft it that way, plus place props in the area, so instead of dying of boredom, you wait in anticipation.

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Once we finally got to the end, we were ushered into an elevator, that I hoped wasn’t the start of the ride because it looked dystopian and steel. Well, we didn’t line up for tower of terror… right?

Everything was so steam punk when we got in, like we teleported into the Industrial Age. Got on the train-like roller coaster, which started out slow so that we could see the crystals, gold, the mined treasures. Then suddenly, it picks up speed after this huge, cockroach-like two-legged bug (really freaked me out!) huffs at you, and you lunge down what feels like the slope of the volcano. The adrenaline rush from the ride left me laughing as we exited– or maybe it was the sound of my screaming amidst the complete silence from our all-boy cart that made me laugh.

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The park was emptying out when we finished our ride, and everything was beautifully illuminated under the night sky. We had the time of our lives in Tokyo Disneysea- a mesh of different worlds, filled with magic and wonder. I still get giddy and smile like an idiot each time I look back at this day 🙂

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TOKYO: Airbnb & Piss Alley

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TOKYO was brimming with life when we arrived. Throngs of people zoomed past us to make it onto the next train, while we carefully navigated our way to our airbnb with our luggage in tow. Our humble home for the next 6 days was located 2 minutes away on foot from Shin-Nakano station, which is only a few stops away from the central Shinjuku.

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(photo from airbnb website)

We rented a room for two with a heater and a cozy comforter to keep us toasty during the tailend of winter. Not to mention, there was ample space for our luggage and railings to hang up all our clothes. There were three other rooms in our flat, some of which were occupied by tourists like us. Amongst us, we shared a small dining area with kitchen appliances, teabags and coffee left for us by our host. There was a bath/shower area with a separate toilet, and even a washing machine and drier. I highly recommed this clean and cozy Airbnb accommodation that won’t break the bank.  Thanks to Chang for recommending it to us!

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After settling down, we couldn’t wait to get out there to get a taste of the city. We made our way to Shinjuku and were greeted by the bright lights and indecipherable signs.

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We were lured into one of the rows of restaurants with displays of bento meals and the delicious scent of rice bowls. We got our first fill of authentic tempura and katsudon respectively. The shrimp was fat and juicy with a generous topping of tamago on their reknowned soft and sticky rice, and a side of miso soup, tofu and pickled veggies to get you fully satisfied.

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A short walk from there took us to a tiny street under the bridge, famously known as Tokyo’s very own memory lane, or Piss Alley. Historically, it was a place where criminals came to drink and feast on exotic street food like pig testicles and frog sashimi. It got its name because back then, in the 1940’s, there weren’t any decent urinals, so people would relieve themselves along the alley or by the train tracks. Today, it’s just about the best place you can get your yakitori skewer fix, with rounds of beer and soju.

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The narrow streets, decorated with red lanterns immediately fill up with salarymen and tourists alike. Heavy smoke wafts through the air, and most of the stalls are fully occupied. We take a seat at the next one that says “with English menu.” Still quite full from our bento dinner, we order a Sapporo to share, but the waitress politely convinces us to have some yakitori, aside from munching on the complimentary edamame she puts on our table.

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One bite of that mushroom-wrapped meat sent us straight to foodie heaven. The chewy mushroom goes perfectly with the juicy, smoky meat, and just the right amount of teriyaki sauce. Seated right in front of the bartender, we wanted a taste of the drinks he’s been mixing. But it was a bit of a struggle to place our order due to the language barrier. Google Translate advised us to say “koketeru”… “uhm, cocktails? mixed drinks..? hmm.. not beer!”

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“Ah! Not beer.” and shortly, we had one of the most interesting drinks we realized we could create at home whenever we’re missing this place- shochu and oolong or green tea, served according to your choice of hot or cold. They also served us up some sour, which actually tasted like green apple iced tea.

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We were curious about the number of other stalls around us, so we decided to try the one where a lot of foreigners were eating. We were able to sample a little pot of hot sake and it was amazing! ’twas my first time to try sweet rice wine, perfect for keeping warm in the last few days in winter. However, we still preferred the food in the previous stall, because this one was a tad bit too salty, not to mention the touristy price of 450 yen per stick. We enjoyed ourselves nonetheless and headed back home shortly, since we had a long day ahead of us at the happiest place on earth.

New Year with the Crew (Kalibo)

Last December, Mom announced that for New Year, she’d be having a flight to Kalibo, and invited me to come along. I had never actually been there to linger, as it’s always been just the passageway to the popular beach destination of Boracay. Arrived there at night and went straight to where the crew was staying, Sampaguita Hotel. To my surprise, it’s a year-round Christmas village! We were greeted by a row of Precious Moments angels and Christmas lights. Plus, check out our room! IMG_0555.JPG

Got me quite nostalgic since I used to have Precious Moments coloring books and figurines as a child. More where that came from…

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These dolls are housed in the hotel’s very own Christmas museum. Apparently, the owner of the franchise wanted to retire in the Philippines, and so he put this up.

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On New Year’s Eve, Mom and her crew were bound for a roundtrip flight to Incheon. They currently have several flights of that route because in Korea, going on a trip to Boracay is on everyone’s must-do lists. To the point that if you haven’t been to Boracay, you’re not “in.”

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Saying bye to my mom, the purser 😉

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So, I still had lots of company during New Year’s Eve because PAL crew of different flights were stationed there or on standby. It was a simple celebration of wine, beer and chips, with only a handful of fireworks in sight, but hours of chatting and playing Categories.

I used to wonder if they ever felt lonely during occassions like these, normally spent with family. I looked back at those Christmases and birthdays when mom would be away. I clearly remember those long distance phone calls she would make using those phone cards (Skype and Viber were non-existent) and oh, how I would miss her back then!

But I took comfort in what lay before me- people who were not necessarily close, but who made each other feel warmth and companionship. Who knows when they’d be on the same flight again? What mattered was the moment, the fact that they shared it with one another, with laughter and celebration. In fact, some of them shared with me how blessed the feel to be there, to have made it into their dream profession.

A middle-aged couple, upon meeting me asked if I had plans to apply as a flight attendant, and I said no because I was still enjoying my job. The husband replied, “Yeah, flying is so demanding. I mean, we get to stay in such nice hotels, we get allowance while traveling the world, free wifi, free breakfast, it’s a tough job!” — of course it goes without noting his sarcasm..

Later on, someone working for about 20 years, still feels it’s the best job in the world because “how many people can say they saw the ball drop in New York for New Years Eve?Let alone, bring their families along with them on free vacations- something that corporate folk spend their entire year saving up for”

That got me thinking quite a bit haha. But one thing’s for sure- I’ve always been proud of my mom for all her hardwork and for sticking it out for over 30 years, even more so now. So, cheers to these people who are at the forefront of our safety and comfort throughout our travels!

Bellevue Bohol

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Our last two days in Bohol were spent making the most of our hard-earned vacation by lounging around in Bellevue. Just a little back story on why I chose this place: a few years ago, I was part of the team who created their web and in-room video ad. It was one of my first projects as an assistant director, but even to this day, it’s on that list of favourite shoots and works I take pride in.

We set up Bellevue Manila to be the grand, luxurious hotel for the lady, while the B Hotel, for the hustling business man. Then, the two characters spent their honeymoon in Bellevue Bohol, frolicking along the shore, taking a boat out to see some fish, and having a romantic dinner set up by the resort with some fire dancers to boot. I’ll let the video speak for itself:

Even if we stayed there as their crew that time, we still felt like we were on vacation.  Their rooms were very comfortable- we slept like babies on their comfortably cushioned beds after days spent under the sun, shooting. They would greet us with comfort food for working our butts off. To top it off, the resort staff was hospitable, cheerful and ready to help in any way.

I’ve always wanted to come back since then, so our 2nd anniversary was the perfect opportunity. Following them on Instagram gave me leads to a bunch of their promos. We got to grab our 4D3N stay for around 20k for both of us, which is not bad at all, considering their original rates and free breakfast.

Speaking of breakfast, their buffet was a delicious smorgasboard of pancakes, breads and cheeses, creamy potatoes, stuffed tomatoes, and the crispiest, best bacon ever! Aside from breakfast, you also get one hour free use of the kayak, which I suggest to use it in the morning during high tide.

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I do have to warn you that the water far out is teeming with seaweed. That’s probably why they put up a T-shaped floating platform. Given the amount of seaweed, not to mention the possible sea urchins latched on to them, Alona beach seems to be more condusive if you want to swim far. Otherwise, the shore’s still pretty neat- you can swim up to a certain point without being bothered, and the sand is white and fine.

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We’d switch it up swimming from the beach to the pool, playing with sand to playing billards, and eating to our heart’s content.

Bellevue is the perfect paradise to unwind and be away from it all. I would highly recommend this place to anyone visiting Bohol, seeking tranquility, and quality time with family, friends or a loved one.

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