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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Chasing Planes Day 3: Bonjour, Gundam

Fatigue (and old age) finally caught up with us, so today we decided to take it easy. Our original plan was to go to Hakone, but for that we had to get up really early, and, well, no.

So we went to Harajuku instead.

Omotesando
Somebody did not get any shopping done
I somewhat planned to go shopping in Omotesando, but then I suddenly remembered I had no money to splurge on designer crap. So instead I just sat there, basking in the sunlight and trying to figure out what the hell these Japanese women were lining up for. People here have no problem with kilometric queues as long as there's something good at the end of it, which was how we picked out where to get crepes.

Japan has always had a fascination with all things French, so much so that the Japanese are most susceptible to Paris syndrome - a bizarre psychological condition that arises when one's ideal picture of the resplendent City of Lights meets the reality of reeking metro stations and rude waiters (if you've experienced Japanese customer service, then you would know how much of a shock this would be). Everywhere you look there is something French-inspired - a patiserrie, a boutique, a giant man in a French maid costume (with blonder ringlets and fishnet stockings, thankyouverymuch).

Harajuku Crepes

There are probably as many crepe stands in Tokyo as there are in Paris (or maybe even more). In Harajuku alone, there is one in practically every street corner. The most popular ones are Marion Crepes and its rival Angel's Heart, and they're right across each other (how crazy is that!?!). We went with Angel's Heart because it had the longer queue. Also, Cafe Crepe Image Girls.

Cafe Crepe Image Girls 2013

My staple order has always been strawberry cheesecake crepe, because ice cream and nutella and bananas you can get anywhere, but where else could you find a crepe with a solid block of cheesecake inside?

Because my shopping dreams went out the window we decided to proceed to Odaiba instead. It's a man-made island filled with several attractions and shopping malls, and you get there via the driver-free Yurikamome line, which I am especially fond of because it sounds like "Eureka moment".

Odaiba
Mahangin sa labas

Our first stop was Diver City to see Gundam.

Gundam


It's huge, I'll give it that, but I was expecting it to be more prominent - we actually missed it because it's hidden behind the shopping mall and we had to consult a map. It was still too early for the evening show, so we went to Deck's first because I wanted to visit the takoyaki museum.

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It's actually not so much a museum as it is a takoyaki-themed food court. And with very few people (we went on a weekday) it was kinda bleak, if I'm being honest. We ordered a sampler of four different takoyaki, and while interesting I can't help but think that Gindaco's is just as satisfying (and cheaper, too). But then again I don't have the most sophisticated palate. Plus they have the catchiest jingle.

From Deck's we went down to the beach. It was a very chilly evening, and for the first time in this trip I was forced to buy a hot drink from the vending machine. I used to do this all the time during winter if I'm caught outside at freezing temperatures without gloves. By the time I get home my hands are still attached to my arms, and I have an ice-cold drink.

There's an outdoor pathway back to Diver City, with several good spots to take photos of the Rainbow Bridge and the Statue of Liberty (yes there is a Statue of Liberty in Odaiba and yes it does not make sense and no, not everything has to make sense). Or in this case, take photos of people taking photos of the Rainbow Bridge and the Statue of Liberty (and themselves).

Odaiba

We hurried back to Gundam Front and waited excitedly for the evening show. I have it all on video - all ten years of it - but I can share with you the highlights. Gundam's head moves left. And then right. And then he looks up. And then smoke goes out his boobs chest. Twenty minutes of cartoons (projected behind him). And then his head moves again! Left. Right. Up. Smoke. End. What. the. French. In hindsight we should have googled for videos first so we would know what to expect, but ah well. The moon looked pretty, though.

The Moon over Odaiba

Monday, April 14, 2014

On Living Simply

I have always been highly attracted to clean, empty spaces. And yet, everyday I come home to a room overflowing with stuff, clutching a paper bag filled with even more things to add to the mountain of clutter.

It just does not compute.

Surely, I can live with much, much less. So one day I decided to try and do just that.

Simplify

I started by getting rid of ten things inside my makeup drawer. Ten things that I would either throw away, give to someone, or sell, but essentially, ten things I would no longer keep. It was easy enough - all I had to do was empty out that back drawer we all have that contained long-forgotten makeup items that, at the time of purchase, we thought were "must-haves".

The next day, I moved on to my closet. Ten articles of clothing. Out came the shirts with rips and missing buttons that I "promised" to fix someday but never did.

Day three: shoes. I don't have a lot of pairs, so I picked out five and then compensated by going back to my closet for those dresses I was going to wear when I lost twenty pounds (read: not happening).

And so on and so forth. I've been at it for two weeks or so. Some days I skipped if I was too tired from work, and some days I can only manage to dig out three items or so, but more often than not I found myself increasingly excited to go home and find more things I don't need. I was excited to throw stuff away. It's kinda crazy.

I have to admit that I've had some relapses here and there - while fixing my "to give away" pile one dress made its way back into my closet - but for the most part it became progressively easier to part with things. It's almost therapeutic.

Now I might never be the person who owns only one hundred items, or who could fit all her possessions in one carry on. But I certainly can be someone who owns only what she needs and what she loves. I may not be living simply now, but I'm going to get there. Baby steps.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Chasing Planes Day 2: Minnie Mouse Ears

A day that begins with Manneken Pis is bound to be a good day. It's such a wonderful throwback to my early-bird adventure in Brussels.

We were all going to meet up at Tokyo station before heading off to Disney Sea, and the boyfriend and I were (miraculously) running early. When I realized that our train was stopping at Hamamatsucho station I immediately dragged his sleepy ass out of the train. "Manneken Pis is here!" I exclaimed excitedly (with crazy eyes I'm sure). Don't ask me how I know - it's just one of those little tiny packets of information you pick up while googling random stuff that you keep and file for later.

We crossed over to the opposite platform, and there, at the very end, is Tokyo's very own little peeing boy, dressed in a fire department costume. Is it the most wonderful work of art I've ever encountered? Probably not. It's so very highly amusing, though.

Manneken Pis

Even with that tiny distraction, we were the first to arrive at Tokyo station. It's not the ideal meeting place, to be honest, because it's crazy huge, but we had mobile data so we knew we'd manage to meet somehow (see how convenient?).

After wandering about for a bit, we spied a Gindaco stall at the basement and that's where we had lunch.

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Gindaco is a chain of restaurants specializing in fried octopus balls, or takoyaki (read: it's the only thing in their menu). Of all the crazy food that Japan has to offer, this is one of my favourites.

Part of the fun in eating takoyaki is watching how it is made. I've seen it done so many times, but I'm still in awe. Fashioning perfect spheres of deliciousness from liquid batter with nothing more than two metal toothpicks is no mean feat, but they make it look so easy!

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They are served hot off the griddle in pretty paper boats with a variety of toppings, although I usually just stick to the classic sauce with a sprinkling of bonito flakes.

Takoyaki

To eat a takoyaki, you just pop the entire thing into your mouth - bite through the thin, crisp outer shell, and wait for the tears to come as the molten interior slowly gushes through your mouth. After a few minutes of furious, open-mouthed breathing (wild hand gestures optional), you should be able to recover from the searing pain of octopus lava tearing through your tissues, and move on to the next. Lather, rinse, repeat.

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Are we there yet?

Confession: in the four hundred and ninety-eight days I spent in Japan I have never set foot in an amusement park. Not once. The idea of braving the crazy weekend or holiday crowd just did not appeal to me at all.

There are two Disney-themed parks in Tokyo, a mere stone's throw away from each other: Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. The latter is the only one of its kind in the world, and according to Wikipedia it is also the most expensive theme park every built, so we decided it's the one to visit.

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We got no troubles, Life is the bubbles!

The moment we entered Disney Sea what became immediately apparent was the percentage of people wearing Disney head gear. It's kind of crazy - I would say nine out of ten people we saw had some sort of Disney paraphernalia plopped on his head. We even came across a group of seven guys all suited-up and they were wearing matching Minnie Mouse headbands. With huge red ribbons. It got to the point where I could actually feel people staring at me for wearing normal clothes. What? No Mickey Mouse ears? No refillable popcorn container in the shape of a Disney character? What is wrong with that girl?

We ended up spending half our time there scouring through souvenir racks for the most appropriate headgear. It's tough trying to find one, I tell you. It's going to define me for one whole day (or in our case, two long hours), dammit - this decision cannot be taken lightly. Do I want to be Mike Wazowski? The Toy Story aliens with three eyeballs? Goofy with shades? Goofy without shades? Minnie Mouse with an obnoxious pink ribbon? Minnie Mouse with an obnoxious pink ribbon and pink crystal earrings? Wait, is that a Daisy Duck ribbon on that girl's head? Where did she get it? I must try that on!

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In the end I settled for really fluffy pink Minnie Mouse ears because it was getting crazy cold. I even contemplated getting a matching popcorn holder but the Minnie Mouse ribbon-shaped ones were sold with strawberry flavored popcorn, and I wanted sweet corn. Who knew Disney can be this tedious!

We stayed until after the light show, and had dinner in one of the resort's restaurants. After that it was way too late to do anything else, so we headed home. I collapsed into the hotel bed, stared at the ceiling, and thought to myself, "What the hell do I do with those Minnie Mouse ears now?"

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Chasing Planes Day 1: Finding Love

It might seem ill-advised to take two flights to Japan when it's only four hours direct from Manila, but it's Cathay vs Cebu Pacific. Big plane vs tiny plane. Free meals (and drinks!) vs hundred peso potato chips. And TV and movies on demand vs bring me games. Of course it's also a lot more expensive, but we managed to find a great deal which brought down the fares significantly such that even with the Hongkong layover, Cathay Pacific just became infinitely more preferable.

During the flight to Hongkong I discovered that my fear of takeoff is easily placated by watching the outside camera feed. It's mounted right behind one of the wheels, so you can watch as it traces the straight line of the airstrip (and marvel at the pilot's awesome err... driving skills?) until it folds up when the plane is finally airborne. It wasn't so wonderful during landing, though: I can see the airport right ahead, and I can see the landing strip, and for a while there it felt like we weren't going to make it. I actually felt myselft tilting from side to side in an attempt to swerve the plane so it could land in the center of the strip, the way kids (and adults) do when playing video games and Mario's jump is just a wee bit short.

We only had a two-hour layover at Hongkong - just enough for a bathroom break and a bit of wandering about. When we arrived, however, this was what greeted us:


I kind of assumed that le boyfriend just happened to be the first name in the passenger manifest (a word I was not familiar with until MH370 but let's not discuss that) and they just wanted everyone to proceed to the counter in question. So we did. I presented our boarding passes to Tokyo, they looked at me like I was just a teeny tiny bit stupid, and told us to check the board for the gate number and proceed to the transfer area. So we did. When we were near the end of the queue I brought out our passports to match them with the corresponding boarding passes and made the horrific discovery that both passes had my name on them! That was why the boyfriend was instructed to go to the counter. Gah.

I should note that my stress levels operate at an all-time high when in airports. I don't know why, that's just how it is. At this point I was beginning to feel dizzy with anxiety. We hurried back to the counter, handed them the boarding passes, and before I could say anything they were like "Gate 65. That's your Gate number." And because I was apparently to dense to understand what that meant, they took the liberty of writing it down for me. Thankfully the condescending smirks disappeared when I very politely pointed out that they have issued me two boarding passes and my boyfriend none. Ah. Unfortunately they were unable to find him a seat next to mine (I guess one of the seats assigned to me was given up when they discovered I had two) because the flight was full, so I had to suffer through the four-hour flight sandwiched between a guy who entered the plane with a cup of hot Starbucks and another guy I don't remember. But the entertainment system had this video about sharks so all was forgiven (even kuya Starbucks watched it, right after he finished Frozen).

Narita airport was a breeze, and just as I remembered it. From here we were taking the Narita Express to Tokyo. I still prefer (and would recommend) the Limousine Bus because they have staff to take care of getting your luggage on and off the vehicle, as opposed to doing it yourself within the fixed amount of time that the train doors are open.

We actually had a bit of trouble trying to find the elevators going down to the train platforms, and the fact that a part of the lobby was cordoned off by police tape did not help at all. Apparently someone left a briefcase on one of the seats, and they had to clear people out in case it was a bomb. Would they have acted the same way two decades ago, or would they just have brought that briefcase directly to lost & found?

For this trip, we picked a hotel in Kamata. It's not too popular among tourists, but we've stayed here before on business trips so it's familiar and convenient (direct trains to Yokohama, Akihabara, and Tokyo). I did fancy staying at Odaiba or Shinjuku, for a change, but maybe next time. We were starving by the time we arrived, so after depositing our bags we headed off.

Tradition dictates that our first meal in Japan should be at Tenya.

Bonus: English ("e-go") menu is available upon request ;)

This trip, as would soon be more apparent, is as much a discovery of new things as it is a return to things we know and love. When I worked here for a year, Tenya was always in the rotation of lunch places, and even if there were days when I couldn't stand to eat another bowl of tendon (this happens when there are simply too many visitors that need accompanying - like I said, it's tradition), it will always be near and dear to my heart.

The wonderful thing about Japanese restaurants is how they focus on one thing and one thing only, and do it well. It is not uncommon to have menus that are only three items long; if you're in the company of fussy eaters who want different things then it's not going to be smooth sailing for you. In Tenya's case that one thing is tempura. To be honest I wasn't a big fan of tempura for the longest time, but that was because my experience is limited to anorexic shrimp wrapped in a heavy, greasy batter. But this is Japan, world of wonderful food, and the tempura here is light and crisp and awesome. Prior to setting foot inside this restaurant I would never have imagined that tempura-ed string beans is a thing, but it is, and it's awesome.

Our "default" order (i.e. what we recommend to first-time eaters) is the tendon - a rice bowl topped with an assortment of tempura (shrimp, fish, squid, squash, and the aforementioned string bean) and drizzled with the special Tenya sauce (which you can purchase at the counter should you grow fond of it). It's served with miso soup - my goodness, how I miss the free but wonderful miso soup - and tea (mugicha, I think), served hot or cold depending on the season. Give everything a furious dusting of togarashi (except the tea, of course), and you have yourself a good meal. For five hundred yen you'd be hard-pressed to find greater value for money (you are in Tokyo, after all).

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My personal favorite is the yasai tendon, which is all-vegetable - eggplant, lotus root, maitake mushroom, and several others I couldn't remember. It's not that I don't like shrimp (and squid and fish), but I've always found fascination in the variety of vegetables they can batter and fry. If I'm feeling fancy I might throw in some extra scallops (hotate), but I find that the vegetables are sufficient for a good meal.

Full and happy, we headed off to Shinjuku to meet up with our friends. I made a quick pit stop at FANCL to, eh, hoard stuff. See, after enticing me with their cleansing oil and collagen drinks, FANCL Singapore suddenly decided to close down due to change in company ownership or something. Gah. I was told they would reopen in a few months, but in the meantime I had to stock up. Besides, it's insanely cheaper in Japan. I remembered they had a shop near the Central East Exit of Shinjuku Station, but as it turns out they have moved six floors up in Lumine Est. I may or may not have made a mad dash towards the elevators, but I can tell you that within five minutes I was clutching a giant paper bag of collagen drinks (and a tiny bottle of cleansing oil).

Confession: I actually got ten packets of collagen
It has been a while since I've visited Japan, and while I remembered the fact that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building is within walking distance from Shinjuku station, I have forgotten precisely how much walking is involved. Heavens. Even the boyfriend was incredulous whenever we'd turn a corner only to find an impossibly long corridor that culminates in yet another turn (read: we're not there yet!). I don't know how I managed to visit it so frequently before without developing some really awesome calves.

Shinjuku
Photo taken inside a building that is NOT TMG. We may have kinda gotten lost a bit. 
Crazy walking distance aside, I like TMG. It's not as touristy as Tokyo Tower (and the new SkyTree), but the view is just as awesome. Maybe even more so, because you can see the towers amidst the city lights. And it's free! I remember viewing the Sumida fireworks from here, and being so thankful I'm not out there camped elbow-to-elbow with the million other people at the riverbanks. It might not be as enthralling, viewing fireworks from high above the ground, but it's a very interesting perspective.


Since we were already in the area, we decided to hunt for the ever-elusive love sculpture - when he was here on business, the boyfriend tried to find it and failed, and so did a few other people. But this time we were armed with Google maps and mobile data and tons of willpower, and sure enough after a bit of walking about we stumbled into it.

We found LOVE ;)


We would've taken more pictures but a bunch of really enthusiastic boys came sprinting towards the sclupture, looking very ecstatic to have found love in this cold, winter night, and who are we to get in the way of that?

We didn't realize how late it has gotten until we tried to find some place to have dinner, only to discover that most places are already closed. On a Sunday evening, most of Tokyo shuts down at 10. After a great deal of walking we managed to find a Sukiya branch and plopped down our weary asses on the counter.

Sukiya is a beef bowl chain, not unlike the more popular Yoshinoya, except I find it yummier. The menu is comprised of several dozen types of beef bowls, the only difference being the toppings. My favorites are grated daikon, kimchi, and raw egg, but to be honest everything tastes quite similar so you can't really go wrong. Unless you hate okra in which case you shouldn't order the one topped with okra.

At this point we were extremely exhausted - we've had very little sleep the night before, we've just been through two plane rides, and we have just walked what I estimate to be at least ten kilometers. The rest of Tokyo would have to wait.

In the meantime, here's one of the things I miss most about Japan: train posters. Enjoy ;)

Japan Train signs

Monday, April 07, 2014

Things I Didn't Know I Needed: Le Tube Wringer

I love hand cream. No, scratch that. I need hand cream - my hands get crazy dry and uncomfortable without it. But the best ones always come in aluminum tubes, which I hate. Pretty? Yes. Practical? Uh, pretty. Not only is it harder to squeeze everything out, but once the tube gets all wrinkly it is also likely to develop tiny holes on the creases. On more than one occasion I've had to deal with the aftermath of a punctured tube inside my bag, and while it's lovely slathered on my hands, it's a disaster on everything else. So I've tried to stay away from aluminum tubes, but my goodness do I miss Crabtree & Evelyn.

As it turns out, there exists a gadget whose sole purpose is to squeeze out aluminium tubes. And apparently it's been around for ages, but it was marketed towards painters and artists and craftspeople, not crazy women with serious hand cream problems.

I managed to hunt one down from this arts and crafts seller in eBay, and I got it within a week (it shipped from Korea, I think, and it was made in Korea too). Naturally the moment I got my grubby mitts on it, every single aluminum tube I owned got squeezed within an inch of its life.


I've often wondered how the in-store testers get that lovely corrugated pattern on the tubes and now I realize this must be it! Awesome, awesome product. If you have a love-hate relationship with aluminum tubes like I do, you really should be ordering one for yourself. Like, right now.