Cairns, Australia: The Great Barrier Reef

Cairns (pronounced Kens), is a tropical town located at the Northeastern coast of Queensland, Australia. People walk around in bikinis and boardshorts, cyclists greet tourists “have a g’day!” and several locals fetch their grocery barefoot– it’s a laidback place to say the least. How can it now be, when its main attraction is the esplanade, where they’ve built a public pool fronting the sea because it is unsafe to swim there due to the crocodiles! It’s a legit problem they face in Cairns, just like in Manila, except here, crocodiles figuratively come to mean greedy, corrupt politicians. At least they’ve got theirs to run to over there!

IMG_20171109_164158_885.jpg

Cairns has become quite the tourist town where everything’s walking distance: the local Walgreens to source our hotel snacks, the Post office, museums and aquariums, the night market with souvenir needs and massage services. This is because Cairns is the gateway to The Great Barrier Reef.

IMG_20171109_144546.jpg

Having read about this bountiful, large living structure that can even be seen from outer space, I’ve been excited to see it since I was younger and was taking up scuba diving. I never got to pursue my license though, but I wasn’t worried because I knew I’d see a lot even just snorkelling.

Mom and I got on the pier at 7:30AM and were redirected to a terminal that felt like an airport with the number of counters that tourists had to line up for. Since it’s a popular destination it’s highly recommended that you book at least 2 days in advanced and just show the claim stub at the ticket counter, in exchange for your boarding passes. The lady at the counter warned us that it would be a windy day out and to take the anti-dizziness tablets being offered on the boat.

Indeed, it was a wild and bumpy ride. The boat crew would go around offering sick bags to those feeling nauseous. The hour long journey to Green Island felt like a long roller coaster ride with nothing but blue, bumpy waves surrounding us. When we finally got there, we were greeted by a strong stench of feces– only to discover that the culprit is the biggest crocodile in captive, doing shows on the island. Wanting to avoid the foul smell, we didn’t bother seeing the croc and walked around the island instead.

IMG_20171114_093859.jpggreenisland2.jpg

There’s not much to see here, though; it’s just an islet full of trees and shrubs with a lined path on its perimeter and a beach that wasn’t advisable to swim in after a certain point. I did see some people snorkelling on another side, but I think you have to rent out the gear and we only had limited time before going back on the boat again for the outer reef.

The lot of us tourists made a long queue back to our boat for another hour long ride to the outer reef. We docked in the middle of the ocean, right next to a pontoon, which is a strong, solid platform with no legs so as not to destroy the surrounding corals. Here, we were treated to a delicious lunch buffet with a wide variety of delicious food. I loved the Japanese curry, ratatouille, fresh prawns, creamy potatoes and there was even cold cuts and cheese!

IMG_20171114_111211_1.jpg

Because we wanted to digest our food first before going into the water, we were glad to have the option to explore on the semi-submarine, especially for mom who isn’t a swimmer. We appreciated our first-ever submarine ride, so we could go deeper than you normally would in snorkelling. There was a tour guide who was telling us about the reef and its inhabitants, in 3 different languages even, for all the tourists to understand.

IMG_20171114_140918.jpg

There were a bunch of corals, but I do admit that I was expecting to see more variety of fish. The moment we got back on the pontoon, I slipped into my wetsuit and jumped into the water with my mask and flippers on. I looked beneath and was surprised that there still weren’t much fish, and some parts of the ocean floor were bald with no corals. I did see a baby shark and a school of yellow-finned fish, and enjoyed my time in the water so I could distance myself from the crowd of tourists.

snorkeling.jpg

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 8.59.04 PM.jpg

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 8.59.54 PM.jpg

I could only hope though, that the reason we didn’t see much on the outer reef is that they’re protecting majority of the Great Barrier Reef from tourism. Although, some articles do claim that the reef is dying. This is largely due to coal mining activities, surprisingly being allowed by the Australian government, and abnormally high ocean temperatures which causes coral bleaching.

Hopefully, 2018 will be the year where we see more shifts into renewable energy, and advancements in technology will help restore the environment. We can do our part in reversing the effects of climate change and global warming, no matter how small it may seem. If there’s one thing I resolve to do this year and onwards, it’s to reduce and refuse single-use plastic. 1 Million bottles per minute are being purchased throughout the day, so if we could just bring our own tumblers or dine in instead of take out, this would be of big help already. Let’s not wait before it’s too late.

IMG_20171114_112154.jpg

Advertisements

NEW ZEALAND: Rotorua & Hobbiton

There’s something funky in the air. It smells like someone had been grilling hotdogs on charcoal for days. But with a bunch of seniors playing croquet on a huge lawn, some children and folks feeding swans along the lake, no one seemed to mind. Rotorua is a geothermal playground known as the Sulphur City due to the hydrogen sulphide emissions from the ground. People come far and wide to visit geysers of steaming water and bathe themselves in pools of bubbling mud, believed to be gifts of nature and healing from the gods.

_DSC9396.jpg

Much more can be learned from the people who actually live here and have kept their family traditions alive for thousands of years. We visited the village of Whakarewarewa, which derives from the longest word in New Zealand that translates to “the gathering place of the army of Wahiao.” He’s the warrior chief who gathered an army to avenge the killing of his father, so those who live in this village are his descendants, including the tour guides.

IMG_20171111_103137.jpg

The Maori took advantage of the geothermal activity in their area, making use of the steam to slow-cook their meals. They leave bags of meat, potatoes, vegetables in the hole on the ground for several minutes with a lid on, which they now call the Maori Microwave. We had a plate of “hangi” for lunch and I can tell you, the food turned out amazing. The chicken falls off the bone, the beef was tender, corn on the cob sweet, and the veggies, fresh. The meal, and all other meals we had during the trip felt simple but healthy. Besides, the 3-hour drive to Rotorua from Auckland consisted of acres and acres of green rolling hills with cows and sheep grazing the land, and barely any houses. Being in New Zealand means being close to nature and to one’s own roots.

IMG_20171111_102640.jpg  IMG_20171111_120720.jpg

While in the village, we walked along a path lined with sculptures on either side. Most of them had their tongues out, and tattoed faces. These symbolize their ancestors whom they consider as spirit guides, so if you stray off that path you could be faced with danger.

IMG_20171111_102157.jpg  _DSC9393

The road led us to an intimate performance space where the villagers performed the passionate haka dance. This was used back in the day to psych themselves up for war amongst tribes, and at present, for sporting games. The Maori liked to stick their tongues out and buldge their eyes to express aggression towards their enemy. Their chants and dances are so captivating in that they’re full of energy. We drove off with a deeper sense of appreciation of Maori culture, something we had never learned about before going on this trip.

_DSC9411.jpg    _DSC9412.jpg

“But wait, isn’t New Zealand the place with more sheep than people?” Yup, it even used to be that the sheep to person ratio was 22:1, but the numbers have declined to 7:1. Historically, it’s because they were shipped in the country during the 1800’s when Australia was experiencing drought. At the Agrodome Farm, we rode a tractor-pulled cart to see reindeer, sheep with various coats, goats, and my favorite, the alpacas!

IMG_20171111_134201.jpg   IMG_20171111_135452.jpg

23473225_2144821125543372_4964917161386527968_n.jpg  23472022_2144821135543371_6627987807886100605_n.jpg

Another thing NZ is known for is that The Lord of The Rings was shot entirely in this country. In fact, upon arriving at the Auckland airport, you’ll be greeted by a tall dwarven statue and a sign that says “Gateway to Middle Earth”. So off we went to visit the Bilbo Baggins residence and the rolling hills of Hobbiton! To set the mood, the tour bus played snippets from the film so that when we arrive on set, our memories are refreshed on which scenes occured where.

_DSC9449.jpg

Trivia: no two hobbit holes are the same. They’re scaled depending on the size of the character. For example, there are houses where Gandalf is not allowed to stand in front of

_DSC9454.jpg

_DSC9475.jpg

Baggins Residence

_DSC9467.jpg

The tree behind mom is the one that started it all. During location hunt, they saw the tree from the hellicopter and decided this had to be Hobbiton.

After treating us to fun, filmy trivia, our guide took us to the Green Dragon Pub, where we enjoyed free beer! Not sure if these were the same recipe as the one in the movie where the alcohol content was just 1%, lest the hundreds of extras get drunk on set, but I did enjoy my glass of Dark Amber. Usually, after film production, all the props sets and costumes are taken down, left to collect dust in storage houses or even thrown away. It was refreshing to see how well they’ve preserved Hobbiton and allow fans to feel like they’ve been transported to Middle Earth.

_DSC9533.jpg

Being in New Zealand helped me gain a sense of peace- the kind you get from being constantly close to nature. Even the city of Auckland was built on rolling hills and maintained fresh air that magically made my cough disappear. The people are kind and helpful enough to stop what they’re doing and give directions to lost travelers like my mom and I. We even met a Filipina lady doing volunteer work at the airport, who moved there 20 years ago and mused that she’s become a nicer person by the influence of kind Kiwis and calming nature.

TAIWAN: Spirited Away

The next morning saw us rushing to get ready for the party bus for our out of town trip. Nigel took the front seat since he liked being our linguist and comminucated with our driver through a translator app. This is what I loved about traveling with friends- each had something that we liked doing and conributed it to the group. Trish made sure our group shots were covered, I enjoyed researching for accommodations (excited to share our Jiufen BNB!), and Chris toured us around Yehliu Geopark, which was our first stop.

DSC_0506.jpg

Birthday lunch at a seafood restaurant outside the park

Yehliu is at the northern coast of Taiwan, and the geopark consists of interesting rock formations. The most popular is the Queen’s Head, but we weren’t able to take photos due to the long line, not to mention, the intense heat! Be sure to keep hydrated and pack on the sunscreen when you visit in the summer.

_MG_1249.jpg

DSC_0538.jpg

Next up was Shifen Old Street- on a railroad where people cast paper lanterns off into the sky after writing their wishes. I scribbled a number of things off the top of my head, and the first one was for extra-judicial killings in the country to stop and restore peace in the Philippines. It may seem like a “Miss Universe answer” but it’s as real as it gets.

DSC_0552.jpgOn a lighter note, funny story is that since Chris did this tour the day before, he also set his lantern to the sky, but it got stuck on a tree. That’s just about how far his dreams are gonna go haha!

DSC_0562.jpg

making up for it

DSC_0567.jpg 

Then, we were off to my much-awaited destination- Jiufen Old Street. Hundreds of steps led us up the alleyways, lined by red lanterns and stalls of food. This is where the film, Spirited Away begins. Chihiro and her family find themselves in a market brimming with all sorts of food. Her parents slurp and burp away, until they actually turn into pigs. This leaves Chihiro all to herself, as she discovers a bathhouse, servicing different kinds of spirits. I’ve loved this animated film since highschool for its whimsical nature and peculiar characters, but the beauty of rewatching it when you’re older is seeing a deeper context behind the film.

DSC_0648.jpg

_MG_1349.jpg

DSC_0652.jpg

Before exploring the rest of Jiufen, we decided to check in to our beautiful bed and breakfast, Sunny Room.  We stayed at their suite for just P5,000/night and I immediately fell in love with the balcony view we had, overlooking the ocean from the mountains. The room itself is spacious, with a small sala, mini bar, and bath tub enclosed by stone walls that give it a cozy feel.

IMG_20170821_120155.jpgIMG_20170821_120200.jpg

IMG_20170820_182532.jpg

Though we did go around at night to get lost, most of the shops were closed already at 8PM. We ate at the last resto we saw that didn’t smell of stinky tofu, grabbed some beer and booze at 7/11 and retreated home to one of our rooms to play boardgames. Little did I know, it was a diversion tactic for a little surprise corner Josh and Mandy prepared. They created an assembly line of Ferrero Rocher as my cake, and I discovered that Josh was almost held up at the airport for bringing the balloon pump ❤

IMG_20170820_225124.jpg

greeting my quarterlife with the sweetest people ever 🙂 

The next day was another reason to celebrate, since it was Nigel and Mandy’s 2nd year anniversary. We checked out of our bnb at 11AM, but they were nice enough to let us leave our luggage while we explore more of Jiufen.

IMG_20170821_100822.jpg

Free hearty breakfast c/o Sunny Room

IMG_20170821_163812.jpg

We took our time munching away at street food. Personal favorites are the sausage with sticky rice as a bun, milk tea, and hand-rolled peanut ice cream. We also revisited Amei Teahouse, which is inspired by Spirited Away, but found the price of P600/head to enter too steep, so we decided to just go through the stone tunnel that led Chihiro to the market.IMG_20170821_153424.jpg_MG_1477.jpgAt the end of the road, was my favorite little shop selling Ocarinas– wind instruments very much similar to a recorder, but what made them more special are the various shapes and colors they come in. Josh bought a yellow submarine, while I got a blue duck and a black and white dalmatian._MG_1534.jpg

I must say that it wasn’t just the ocarinas that reeled us in, but the middle-aged man, happily playing his instrument like he had no other care in the world. He played the My Neighbor Totoro theme song, which we made Blue-y (stuffed toy) dance to, and Colors of the Wind, which made me well up a bit because I could feel his heart in the music. In between songs, he would take breaks by painting on the newly molded instruments. _MG_1509.jpg

We asked if he knew how to play A Song of Fire and Ice, and though he didn’t know of it, he was eager to learn after we googled the chords for him. He thanked us for adding a new song on to his repertoire, but I think it should be us, thanking him for the love and light he radiates- for being a humble reminder that we do the same.

ocarina.jpg

TAIWAN: Taipei City

The high noon sun blared fiercely through the bus windows on my way to Taipei City. When I got out to transfer to the MRT, I felt like I stepped into a steamer with high levels of humidity. Regardless, I was looking forward to exploring Taiwan with close friends during my birthday weekend.

I left my luggage and freshened up at our Airbnb in Ximending. It’s a cute little apartment good for 6-8 people and if you don’t mind having to climb 2 flights of stairs, then I would recommend this place for families and groups of friends. It has 3 bedrooms so you could still have your privacy with the added convenience of hanging out in the living room, Terrace House style. There’s even a Family Mart across the street where we’d grab morning grub, plus the train station is only a 5 minute walk away.

237f291e_original.jpg

Photo from Airbnb

Spent the first day with Trish and Jero since the rest of the gang were to arrive past midnight cause they were coming from work. We started off at the Museum of Contemporary Art, featuring the works of artist Li Chen, who began his career by producing traditional Buddhist statues for shrines. This is evident in most of the artworks we saw, which now had a modern and more relatable twist.

IMG_20170818_143539.jpg

Notice the hand signs on this one

It turned out to be an artsy day when we decided to visit the Huashan 1914 Creative Park. It used to be a vineyard back in the 1920’s so it has a rustic, cozy feel to it. There are several exhibitions up, so you can choose the artist and pay a fee to see their works. But our first priority was to reward ourselves from the 16-minute walk with some Oolong ice cream.

viber image.jpg

DSC_0329.jpg

At the Gaudi exhibit

At night, we roamed around the Ximending Night Market where we tasted grilled octopus on a stick (your choice of flavored powder), the famous beef cubes, and misua, a delicious, spicy thin-noodle soup with sardines. Our alcohol craving took us to a nearby area with a host of bars. Gravitating towards the dance music playing from the second floor, we asked if we could go there and the waiter said, “upstairs is different.” I then noticed rainbow flags strewn everywhere, and understood what he meant. We sipped on colorful cocktails and toasted to pride!

IMG_20170818_220619.jpg

Ximending by night is like low-key Shibuya

Our group was finally complete the next day, and we made it to Taipei 101 for late lunch at Din Tai Fung. Xiao Long Bao and pork buns were obviously pinned as priorities and the meal did not upset. I’d say it was worth the 20 minute wait, but if you’re planning to do Taipei 101, they say the view is better at night when the whole city is lit.

DSC_0416.jpg

_MG_0947.jpg

Inside joke was that they’re our PA’s cos they were all in black, carrying our cameras and water bottles HAHA. I guess blogger jowas goes well too 

Went off to snap our way around Chiang Kai Shek Memorial and watched the changing of guards. There weren’t much signages in English about who he was, but in the information age, that shouldn’t be a problem. Chiang Kai Shek was the head of the Nationalist Party of China but lost control over it to the communists, so he set up a benign dictatorship in Taiwan, with the help of fellow Nationalists and of course, the United States of America.

_MG_1155.jpg

_MG_1073.jpg

Our dose of history was balanced out with pop culture when I prodded the group to visit P.S. Bubu, the place where Shan Cai and Dao Ming Su had their first date. My 12 year-old self was giddy all over! I was such a huge fan of Meteor Garden that I went to see F4’s concert in Manila and had all their merch- including a blanket which had their faces on and it creeped out my friends during sleepovers. I had the biggest crush on Dao Ming Su, so it was a dream come true for me to recreate this scene with my own angas man.

DSC_0484.jpg

PS. thank you friends for being so patient. We waited quite a while for the family to leave this pink car 🙂

Then we went off to Shilin Market and let the food tripping commence! Though I have to say I was turned off by the smell, thinking it must be garbage around, but it was actually stinky tofu. I didn’t quite catch the difference of taste between that and normal tofu, so I didn’t appreciate it much. Stinkiness aside, there’s so much more to love in Shilin: cheesy oysters, beef cubes which the boys loved so much we had to go back for it before leaving the market, HUGE Hotstar fried chicken that we paired with cheesy okonomiyaki, and underrated mushrooms topped with cumin powder.

_MG_1212.jpg

IMG_20170819_221428.jpg

IMG_20170819_232535_1.jpg

At the stroke of midnight, we were on the bus back home, and just like that, I turned Taiwanty-five. Our tummies were full, and my heart even more so. I had spent the past few days doing what I love most, with friends I hold close. We capped off the night with some whiskey, stand-up comedy on Netflix, and the promise of another two days of adventure.

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.

_MG_0765.jpg

_MG_0767.jpg

_MG_0778.jpg

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.

_MG_0794.jpg

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.

IMG_1803.jpg

_MG_0811.jpg

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.

_MG_0807.jpg

_MG_0813.jpg

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.

_MG_0828.jpg

_MG_0842.jpg   _MG_0843.jpg

_MG_0848.jpg

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.

_MG_0905.jpg

_MG_0866.jpg

_MG_0888.jpg

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.

IMG_1790.jpg

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.

IMG_2030.jpg

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.

IMG_1821.jpg IMG_1822.jpg

_MG_0922.jpg

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!

IMG_1823.jpg IMG_1824.jpg

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.

IMG_1826.jpg

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.

_MG_0541.jpg

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.

_MG_0562.jpg   _MG_0545.jpg

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.

IMG_1689.jpg

IMG_1693.jpg

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

_MG_0599.jpg

IMG_1704.jpg

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.

_MG_0650.jpg

_MG_0620.jpg

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.

_MG_0671.jpg

_MG_0676.jpg

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.

_MG_0696.jpg _MG_0699.jpg

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.

IMG_1770.jpg

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.

_MG_0727.jpg

_MG_0739.jpg

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.

_MG_0749.jpg _MG_0748.jpg

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.

IMG_1574.jpg

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

_MG_0366.jpg

_MG_0398.jpg

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.

_MG_0485.jpg

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.

_MG_0474.jpg

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.

_MG_0516.jpg

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

_MG_0523.jpg

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!

IMG_1636.jpg

IMG_1655.jpg

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.

IMG_1672.jpg

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…”

IMG_1682.jpg

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!

IMG_1679.jpg

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.

IMG_1681.jpg

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