March 21, 2013

Travel Factor: BACKPACKING Japan (Sakura Edition) 2011

[Edit (2017): There are some additional notes in this post as errata, as some of the information are incorrect, which I noticed as I was fixing broken images due to a photo hosting site that does not allow third-party references anymore.]

The trip that almost wasn't.

Of all the countries I dream of visiting, Japan most definitely tops my list.  Everything about Japan fascinates me; being able to go there to experience, at first hand, the food, culture, fashion, and entertainment is surely one that I won't forget.  You can only imagine my excitement, seeing a Japan tour package being offered in the Travel Factor website late last year.

So, I immediately signed up for the BACKPACKING Japan tour package.  I've just finished PHOTOHOLIC Bataan, and had signed up for BACKPACKING Korea as well. Things were going smoothly with the preparations; I successfully applied for a Japan visa, and was able to get promo flights for the trip.  Korea was a blast; only a month to go before Japan.  Then the earthquake hit.  Needless to say, the unfortunate events following the March 11 Tohoku earthquake almost cost me the trip that I've been planning for since last year.

Suffice to say that I'm not a stranger to last-minute glitches, prior to a trip.  Some two weeks before we did Korea, there was this incident where North Korea fired shells at an island in South Korea.  People were already discouraging us to push through with the trip, but thing eventually settled down and we were still able to push through.  The earthquake was different, though.  Things were a little more complicated, not to mention difficult.

On the week of the trip, power distribution in Tokyo still didn't come back to normal. Adding to the issues was the nuclear threat of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.  Travel Factor sent a survey to the participants, if they still wanted the trip to push through.  They also gave an alternative itinerary; instead of going to Tokyo, we would just be going around Osaka.  Should we choose not to push through, they would reimburse the money, but they did not guarantee a 100% return.  I chose to push through with the trip, sayang lang kasi ang visa and plane tickets.  Sure, I still wanted to go to Tokyo, but Osaka will do for now.

Good thing we still went for the trip, albeit a change in the itinerary. We still had fun!!!

All things said and done, we still pushed through with the trip.  Out of the 16 original participants, we were down to nine.  Nevertheless, we all had a blast at Osaka.  Atapang atao, 'di atakbo!!!

DAY ONE (OSAKA) - March 24, 2011
  • Manila - KIX
  • Commute to Hostel 64 Osaka 

MANILA - KIX

Took the Cebu Pacific afternoon flight to Kansai International Airport.  It was a nice, crisp weather.  We were fortunate enough to have clear skies, so I was able to capture a few images while we were on the air.

A few notes:
  • Cebu Pacific has a check-in baggage limit of 15kg per person; 7kg for hand-carry luggage.  More info here.
  • Terminal Fee is 750 PhP.
  • Travel Tax is 1,620 PhP.
  • Make sure that you check-in at least 45 minutes before the flight!  Make it 3 hours to be safe.
 
Left: Aerial view of the Skyway
Right: I don't know which part of the Philippines this is, but it is GORGEOUS 

Travel time from Manila to Kansai took about five hours, Japan being one hour ahead of Manila.  We arrived at the airport at around 8:00 PM.  The weather was cold, but surprisingly not that bitter as it lacked the wind chill factor.  We were able to brave it without the need of earmuffs and gloves.

Currency Tip: The good thing about money exchange in Japan (actually, the same goes for souvenir shopping) is that the rates are standard; they're basically the same wherever you go.  So, if you only carry USD, then it's okay to exchange them all in the airport.  That, or you can have them exchanged while you're still in the Philippines -- Sanrys have their own stock of Yen.  Or if your bank's ATM cards accept international transaction, you can also opt to withdraw some cash.

COMMUTE TO HOSTEL 64 OSAKA

The train system in the Kansai region is impressive.  They have all sorts of lines to and from the airport, and you can choose whether to take the rapid (express) line, or the local line.  We took a bunch of trains, and travel was about an hour or so (maybe less; I didn't keep track of the time).  It was already past 10PM when we arrived at the hostel.

   
Left: The famous Japanese vending machines
Middle: In the subway.  I envy advanced transport systems
Right: Automatic subway ticket dispensers. So hi-tech! 

Hostel 64 Osaka, as we've been told, was built by a professional architect specifically for backpackers.  It has an artsy feel to it; with the lobby filled with photographs and bookshelves.  It even has its own robot dog - a Sony AIBO, which is hella cool.  We had a hard time playing with it, though.

There are various rooms to choose from; some traditional, some Western.  The room we got was the traditional room - complete with tatami mat flooring.  The mattress was surprisingly comfortable, and the comforter was heaven.  The room was also equipped with A/C with heater, so we were able to make the room comfortably warm.  What made the hostel backpacking-ish was the lack of TVs in the room and the communal restroom/showers per floor.

 
Left: The lobby of the hostel also had a lot of tourist resources.
Right: Tatami mat and bedding.

After settling down, we went out again to find food.  Since we were all exhausted by the trip, we decided to go to the nearby convenience store to purchase instant food and perhaps a few more necessities.  I tell you: JAPANESE CONVENIENT STORES ARE THE BOMB.  Of all the 7-11 stores I've been to, the ones in Japan probably have the most variety of food.  Pastries, chips, noodles, even rice meals!!! I chose to sample 7-11's curry that time.  It was wonderful.

 
 Left: 7-11's assortment of prepared meals.
Right: Curry Rice FTW!!!

After that late dinner, we retired for the night, full of excitement and anticipation for the rest of the days of the trip. 

DAY TWO (OSAKA) - March 25, 2011
  • Osaka Castle
  • Shitennoji Temple
  • Namba-Shinsaibashi shopping district/ Dotonbori street food
  • HEP Five Ferris wheel
  • Yodobashi shopping complex 

We were given a two-day city pass to downtown Osaka.  This can be used on public transportation, such as the subway, trains, and buses.  Also included in the city pass are a map and a set of coupons, which can be used to avail discounts on participating establishments, as well as free entrances to certain tourist attractions.  So to make the most out of this city pass, we plotted our itinerary based on the best possible route according to the map.

OSAKA CASTLE

This was the first stop of the day, being a good two stations or so from the hostel. Osaka Castle is a famous landmark in Osaka, perhaps comparable to Intramuros in Old Manila.  The castle of today is actually a reconstruction of the original castle, as perhaps most of the original structures were somehow destroyed during various wars.  The main castle is situated in the middle of a big park, and is mostly used as a museum and viewing deck.  It was in this park where we caught the first glimpse of sakura.

  
Left: Osaka Main Castle
Middle: Sakura in mid-bloom
Right: The park is actually situated in the middle of the city

 
Left: As part of Shinto rituals, water basins are provided in
front of castles/temples for cleansing of hands and mouth
Right: Takoyaki is the iconic food of Osaka. Yummy! 

The main reason why the trip was scheduled on these dates is because for the past four years, hanami was observed on that particular calendar window.  Hanami, which is the traditional custom of viewing the cherry blossoms, is usually done in a span of a week or two because this is period when the sakura is in full bloom. Sakura is most beautiful in full bloom, but this happens in such a short window (and only once a year for that matter).  Maybe this is the reason why cherry blossoms are most treasured in Japan.  Unfortunately, because of climate change, the forecast was moved a week too late.  We were able to catch a few trees in bloom, but were too early to marvel at the paths lined with thousands of cherry blossom trees.

 
Left: Most of the cherry blossom trees still have buds yet to bloom
Right: At least, we were fortunate enough to see some that did bloom 

SHITENNOJI TEMPLE

Our next tourist attraction for the day is the Shitennoji Temple, one of the Buddhist temples in Osaka.  It was a subway and a short walk from Osaka Palace, so we were able to witness some of the locals' everyday lives along the way.

 
Left: I think this is a cemetery, or some similar place for honoring ancestors
Right: Japanese schoolgirls, kawaii!!! 

What I've noticed about the temple and the temple grounds itself is that a lot of Zen elements are incorporated in it.  Minimalist landscaping, with lots of pebbles raked in an orderly fashion.  I'm not familiar with the Buddhist philosophies, but I still felt a sense of peace and tranquillity as I wandered within the temple grounds.

 
Left: Rooftop of the temple.  Very Japanese.
Right: Garden of pebbles. Very Zen. 

NAMBA-SHINSAIBASHI SHOPPING DISTRICT/DOTONBORI STREET FOOD

It was already lunchtime by then, so we decided to halt our city tour and find something to eat.  What better place to find food, than in Osaka City's shopping district?  Namba and Shinsaibashi are two adjacent stops of the subway, connected by a vast network of underground (and overhead) retail shops.  Dotonbori, on the other hand, is more of a tourist area for street food and souvenirs, just beside Shinsaibashi.

There were so many restaurants to choose from, so it took us quite a while to agree upon a particular restaurant.  The restaurant we chose had an English menu (quite a rarity, actually), and I immediately went for the salmon sashimi.  The fish was fresh; rather comparable to the sashimi from Little Tokyo in Makati, but the best part of the dish was the wasabi.  Distinctly fresh, made from actual horseradish.  Absolutely perfect.

 
Left: Namba Walk, the underground shopping area
Right: Pachinko arcade in Shinsaibashi

  
Left: Dotonburi filled with tourists and locals
Middle: Condiments.  Pretty much like Japanese restaurants back home
Right: Miso soup and the wonderful salmon sashimi 

HEP FIVE FERRIS WHEEL

It was already quite late into the afternoon when we finished our lunch, so the group decided that we had time for only one more tourist attraction.  We chose the HEP Five Ferris wheel, as we thought that it would be nice to view the sunset from that ride.

HEP Five is a shopping mall in the Umeda district, and on top of the mall is a pretty large Ferris wheel.  Our call time to the ride was about 6:30PM, so we strolled around the mall for a bit.  It was a bit of miscalculation in our part, actually, because we witnessed neither sunset nor night lights while riding the Ferris wheel.  It was fun, nevertheless, to see the city from such heights.

  
Left: A scenic alleyway in Shinsaibashi, while going back to the subway
Middle: Ferris wheel on top of the HEP Five mall
Right: City view from the Ferris wheel 

YODOBASHI SHOPPING COMPLEX

The sun was down when we got off the Ferris wheel, so the group decided that it was time to have dinner.  Subways close at 10:00PM in Osaka, and HEP Five was a bit far from the subway exits.  So we decided to eat at an area that is nearer to the subways, just in case we finished a little bit late.

The Yodobashi shopping complex is a multi-story mall that categorizes the shops by floor.  Each floor has shops that sell different things, like electronics, cameras, clothing, and food.  The restaurants are placed in the highest floor, and we were given ample time to roam around the mall before meeting up for dinner.  I was able to buy a gray blazer from Uniqlo before meeting the group for dinner.

For that night, I had ramen and gyoza.  The ramen was quite interesting, actually.  The ramen that we chose was shoyu ramen, which is ramen on a soy-based soup.  What came to us is quite different from the shoyu ramen we had before, because the soup wasn't clear or dark in color; it was actually quite milky.  But we were in for a pleasant surprise, because the soup was actually good.  Quite tasty, really.  I hope I am able to find that kind of ramen in one of the restaurants here in the Philippines. [Edit: I wasn't aware of it that time; but I actually ordered tonkotsu ramen, which is all the rage in the Philippines right now (2017).]

 
Left: Shoyu ramen, but with a rather milky soup [Edit: This is actually tonkotsu ramen]
Right: The gyoza is nice, but I still prefer the one in Little Tokyo

After dinner, we headed back to the hostel to retire for the day.  But before that, we did a quick stop in 7-11 to buy our breakfast for the next day.  I swear, 7-11 in Japan is the best 7-11 ever.

DAY THREE (OSAKA) - March 26, 2011
  • Den Den Town
  • Santa Maria River Cruise
  • Floating Garden Observatory 

The original itinerary for that day is to go to Universal Studios Osaka.  Ge and I have already been to Universal Studios in Los Angeles, so we opted out of the tour and just went around the city by ourselves.

(Note: Travel Factor was kind enough to refund the entrance fee to Universal Studios Osaka, as this is an activity that was part of the package fee.)

DEN DEN TOWN

One of the places that we really want to go to is Akihabara, the shopping district in Tokyo that mainly sells electronics, anime, and otaku goods.  Since the trip took a major detour to Osaka, we thought about researching if Osaka has such a place similar to Akihabara.  Fortunately, our research paid out and we were able to find out about Den Den Town.  Albeit smaller, and a lot tamer, we were still able to get a feel of the otaku life.  We were able to buy souvenirs ourselves, and even tried out a local maid cafe for lunch.

  
Left: Den Den Town, unlike Akihabara, is more or less just one avenue strip
Middle: Locals use bicycles for transportation
Right: This shop sells action figures, Nendoroids, and the like 

SANTA MARIA RIVER CRUISE

As this is the last day of validity for the city pass, we decided to use up more coupons para hindi naman sayang.  First up was the Santa Maria River Cruise, which is a ferry boat ride along the river in the heart of Osaka's shopping district.  It was quite a chilly day that day, so we were a bit cold throughout the ride.  Still, I was quite amused at how accommodating the locals were, because as we were cruising down the river, some locals made the effort to wave at the boat.  If I were a local, hanging around the area where hundreds of tourists avail of boat tours every day, I don't think that I would bother waving at them every time they pass by.

 
Left: Santa Maria River Cruise
Right: Glico Man by the Ebisu bridge (i.e. Ebisubashi).  Apparently, he's famous 

We hung around a bit to do some more shopping at the Shinsaibashi/Dotonburi area.  We bought souvenirs of giant Pocky and exotic-flavored KitKats, and tried on some clothes and shoes at retail shops until the early evening.

FLOATING GARDEN OBSERVATORY

Perhaps we had too much fun ogling at the shops in Shinsaibashi that we lost track of time.  As we were worried about not being able to catch the subway, we decided to accommodate just one more tourist attraction.  We decided to go to back to Umeda and visit that Floating Garden Observatory.

The Floating Garden Observatory gives a 360-degree rooftop view of Osaka City.  Since we weren't able to maximize the view on our tour to the HEP Five Ferris wheel, this tour most definitely made up for it.  Only downside, though is that we had to brave the freezing weather as the rooftop was in open air.  Despite the bitter wind, the view was breathtaking.

 
Left: Dotonbori at night
Right: View from the Floating Garden Observatory.  Nice, 'no? 

After soaking in the view, we hurried back to the hostel, stopping to eat at a nearby restaurant where we had some delicious nabe and yakitori, a pleasantly warm ending to an otherwise cold day.

DAY FOUR (KYOTO) - March 27, 2011

The next couple of days in our itinerary were set for a tour of Kyoto. We took the rapid line from Osaka, which took about 40 minutes as there were fewer stops.  There is also an option to take the bullet train, which will take us there three times as faster, but the cost would be three times more expensive.  As we were a backpacking group, bullet train rides would have to wait.

 
Left: Time table of the trains coming into the station
Right: A glimpse of a train car as it leaves the station 

As far as my knowledge on Japanese history goes, Kyoto was the country's capital during the shogun era, and it was only after World War II when they transferred the capital to Tokyo.  For this reason, Kyoto is rich with temples, castles, and shrines; each site would take you back to an era where warlords and samurai rule the land.

  
Left: Entrance to the Kiyomizudera Temple
Middle: "No photograph" signs are mostly seen near ancient sites
Right: A local dressed in kimono.  Apparently, kimonos are in fashion this spring [Edit: This is probably a tourist from another part in Japan (or probably Chinese), and the kimono is probably rented in a shop somewhere around the area.]

 
Left: Wooden cards with wishes, offered to the gods
Right: It is required to take off your shoes before entering the altar 

These heritage sites are considered historic monuments of ancient Japan, and people aren't allowed to take photos of the areas where they keep artifacts and the rest of the cool stuff.  For this reason, I was only able to take pictures of the facade of the buildings, the temple grounds, and of course, the flowers.  Still, it was an enriching experience for me to be there in the midst of the foundation of one of the most sophisticated cultures in the ancient world.

 
Left: Some group of guys cosplayed as sentai are seen in the temple grounds
Right: Lunch at a nearby restaurant.  I had tonkatsu curry rice. Yum!

 
Left: More pictures of cherry blossoms! Trust me, I have a LOT
Right: From the Fushimi Inari Shrine, I think these are wishes as well 

Right before sundown we headed back to the train station for dinner in one of the restaurants in the underground mall.  We chose a restaurant that serve ramen, but using Chinese noodles.  It tasted weird, a bit too salty.  And their gyoza didn't taste that good, either.  Oh, well, just charge it to experience.  After that, we took a train back to Osaka and the subway back to the hostel.

 
Left: Shoyu Ramen with Chinese Noodles.  Looks good, tastes meh
Right: Gyoza. No comment 

DAY FIVE (KYOTO - ARASHIYAMA) - March 28, 2011

This is the second day of our Kyoto tour, and the last day of our Japan guided tour.  As we wanted to see more historical sites than the day before, we tried travelling at an earlier time.  However, we weren't able to catch the rapid line, plus Kyoto had a heavier traffic that day.  So we ended up seeing the same number of historical sites as the day before, but we still had fun because the places we went to on this day were a bit more scenic than the places we went to the day before.

 
Left: Mini-trains that we took to one of the historic sites
Right: A couple wearing traditional Japanese clothes [Edit: These are probably rental clothes, too] 

The places that took most of our time were the bamboo grove near Tenryuji Temple, and the awesome site of the Golden Pavilion.  Most of the temples in Kyoto have a perfect Zen landscape, but it is only when I came across a special in NHK World that I was able to understand the purpose of the landscape.  According to the special, every tree, rock, flowering plant, and even the reflective qualities of the lake symbolizes a particular geography or quality of Japan.  For example, a Zen lake's largest island symbolizes the country of Japan itself, and the rocks in the lake are special rocks given to various imperial leaders as gifts.  I never realized how a seemingly simple landscape could hold such deep meaning.

  
Left: Bamboo grove.  So tranquil.
Middle: More flowers.  So beautiful.
Right: Zen landscape.  So serene. 

We had lunch at what seemed to be a town center or plaza of some sort, which I could describe as a street lined with shops and local restaurants.  The restaurant we picked served yakimeshi, which I thought before as just simple fried rice with meat bits.  It was only then when I learned the "proper" way of eating yakimeshi.

The "proper" way of eating yakimeshi:
  • Fried rice topped with your choice of meat is served in a special tin bowl.
  • Scoop a portion of the rice and meat to the regular bowl.
  • A pot of dashi is served with the set.
  • Pour dashi onto the rice (and meat) in the regular bowl.
  • Nori, spring onions, and wasabi are served as condiments.
  • Put some condiments onto the rice (and meat) in the regular bowl.
  • That's it! Itadakimasu! 

I thoroughly enjoyed the meal, it certainly made up for my disappointing dinner the day before.  After eating, we hung around the plaza a bit, people-watching and trying out some snacks.  The bus that we are about to take came about half an hour later than expected, that is why we were only able to go to one more temple before heading back to Osaka.

 
Left: Authentic Yakimeshi.  Omnomnom
Right: Hachiko!!!

 
Left: More youths [Edit: or tourists] in kimonos, this time with geisha make-up
Right: Last stop of the day, the Golden Pavilion.  Painted in real gold!!! [Edit: I learned that this is not actually gold paint, but gold leaf and the pavilion is covered with it.] 

DAY SIX - March 29, 2011

FREE DAY!!!

We checked out early, and the hostel attendant was kind enough to stow our bags in a small storage space in the lobby.  After that, we were off to explore the city one last time.

In hopes of catching more cherry blossom trees in full bloom, we went back to the Osaka Castle Park.  Unfortunately, the major sakura trees aren't in full bloom yet; just teeny tiny teaser buds, so we settled on the ones that we caught in full bloom back in Day Two.  Next year, there's always next year.

After having our fill of sakura pictures, we went back to the Namba-Shinsaibashi shopping area, to see if there's anything else we'd like to buy.  Only this time, we had to limit ourselves from buying food, because halfway through our trip, we read a news article that Philippine customs have started banning Japanese dairy products, especially chocolate, from entering the country.  Out of sheer worry that all the Pocky and KitKat we bought would just end up confiscated, we took all of them out of the box and stuffed them in our used clothes.  Good thing that the airport didn't inspect our bag, when we arrived home.  Whew.

Anyways, there wasn't anything much left to buy, so we had lunch before heading back to the hostel.  I wanted to have my last slice of sashimi, or maybe ramen, so we looked for a restaurant that has an English menu and that gives an impression that they serve sashimi.  Inasmuch as they love to serve raw food, they would mostly serve them sushi-styled instead of san rice.  Fortunately we were able to find such restaurant, and since this was the last time I would be eating sashimi in Japan, at least for a while, I decided to go for the most expensive sashimi in the tuna line.  The Toro sashimi.

OH MY GOD. BEST. SASHIMI. EVER.

If I were to compare this sashimi with steak, it would be grade 8 Wagyu.  Perfect marbling, melts in your mouth, but not to quickly as not to rob you of the privilege to savor the freshness and the flavor.  Mmm mmm mmm.  Thinking about it makes me smile, and weep at the same time.

 
Left: We just HAVE to be back next year, to see them ALL in full bloom
Right: Toro sashimi: BTS sashimi.  Aaaaah... [Edit: This is probably Chu-toro sashimi] 

After that awesome lunch, we went back to the hostel, took the subway and the train back to Kansai airport, and headed back home.

Some thoughts on BACKPACKING Japan (Sakura Edition)
  • Souvenir shops prices are pretty much standard.  Even if there are lots of stores to choose from, all selling the same item, chances are, the prices all stay the same.  So it doesn't matter if you buy the souvenir before or after seeing the tourist attraction.  It's all the same.
  • Vending machines are cool, but they sell at more expensive prices.  So if you want to bring a bottle of water during your travel, buy it at the convenience store or local grocery, rather than getting one from the vending machine.
  • Main modes of transportation would be the subway and the train.  And a LOT of walking.  So do bring your comfy shoes.
  • We were fortunate enough to find a place to stay in the heart of the city.  Still, it was a long way from the hostel to the subway station.  So, if you're bringing rolling luggage, make sure that they're sturdy.  If not, make sure that you can carry them.
  • If you have bank accounts with ATM cards that can withdraw internationally, use these to withdraw money in the airport.  This may come cheaper than exchanging currency, as the rates could be smaller.  Don't know about the bank charges, though.
  • Again, PACK LIGHT!  You never know how much you will buy in your destination.
  • Be a friendly traveller; as you will get to meet a lot of new people in Travel Factor tours.
  • If you are going to a country where the English language is the least of their priorities, do not bother constructing sentences in the proper grammar. Simple what-where-when-how sentences will do.  Also, it helps to learn a bit of THEIR language for a change.

4 comments:

  1. Awesome! Love your blog! How much is the tour package? I would like to go to Japan someday and witness the cherry bloosom or during its autumn season. WOuld you know when is the best time then? Thanks and god bless!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, thanks for viewing my blog! :) Here are some links that might be of help to you:

      For the tour package, check out Travel Factor's website. Note that this organization caters mostly to Filipinos, but if you're a foreigner it's still okay. Their website is where they post upcoming tours for the year: http://travelfactor.org/

      For the best time to view the cherry blossoms, you may check out japan-guide's cherry blossom reports. I do think they do this every year. Here's the link for 2013, for you reference: http://www.japan-guide.com/blog/sakura13/

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  2. Hello, Im planning to go to Japan early next year so I'm doing the planning as early as heheheh...

    Im planning to follow your Osaka itinerary but I would like to go to Tokyo as well for 3 days, would you let me know what are must see places in tokyo so I could squeeze in my 3 days there?

    Thank you for your help :O)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading my blog! I'm glad my Osaka itinerary helped your planning. :)

      Tokyo for 3 days, hmm, it would really depend on your interests, and when you would plan to visit Japan.

      If you plan to go there in the spring time, I DEFINITELY recommend going to the Hanami spots. Ueno Park, Shinjuku Gyoen and Chidorigafuchi are the Top 3 in my list (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3050.html)

      I assume that Osaka/Kyoto will take care of your historical Japan needs, but the temple in Asakusa will do, and there's also a souvenir market nearby. (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3004.html)

      As for shopping, I would recommend Shibuya (so you can also see the famous crossing), Harajuku (more youth-oriented shops are here) and Odaiba (so you can see the life-sized Gundam!)

      And for the food, you can try to visit the Tsukiji Market in the morning/brunch (for fresh sushi), but I think 3 days is too short for food trips. Pretty much any food area in the mall or shopping center will do. For fastfood - try Yoshinoya and Tenya Shushi. :)

      Good luck!

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