Chasing Planes Day 4: Out and About

So we abandoned the Hakone plans entirely and decided that today we were taking it easy. This meant leaving the hotel just in time for lunch, which is how we ended up in CoCo Curry.

CoCo Curry

Curry is usually served over rice, either with meat mixed in the curry itself or with a fried breaded something. In CoCo curry you can also select the spice level, from 1 to 10 (10 being the level that will incinerate your innards). I have a pretty high tolerance for spicy food, higher than most people I know, but three is the highest I can go and still have the ability to taste.

Japanese curry is on a league of its own. Our travel wiki in my ex-office had explicit warnings against ordering it for lunch. In a nutshell: it's not for everybody, and it isn't like any other curry you have tried. Personally, I don't have a problem with it, but my stomach has been weaned on street food. I still advice against ordering it for lunch on a weekday, though, because it can make you very (very!) sleepy. If you plan on trying it while on vacation, just schedule it on a day when you are sure to have regular access to clean restrooms.

Tokyo Skytree

Our first stop was the Tokyo Sky Tree, the latest installment of the "my tower is bigger than your tower" game that rich nations love to play. We skipped the Tokyo Tower because I have seen it one too many times - when I was living in Tokyo every month there is a new business tripper and we would have take him to there and on the fourth month or so we were so tired of it we told the poor tripper that it was a good idea to try and find it by his lonesome, which he did, and so every subsequent tripper was told "Hey, tripper X was able to do it, don't you want to do the same?" and we never had to go there since. Yay. The SkyTree, however, was entirely new to me, because by the time it was completed I was already in Singapore. It is a broadcasting tower with a restaurant and observation deck, and the paint used for its exterior is officially named "Skytree White". The things you learn through Wikipedia (Random: The first time I browsed the wiki page I thought it was a broadcasting restaurant - and that was believable to me because, well, Japan).

Tokyo Skytree

There are two observation decks - the Tembo Deck which is 350m up, and the Tembo Galleria which is a further hundred meters above. You first get tickets to the Tembo Deck, and then from there you can get tickets to the Galleria, which we skipped because it was a cloudy day so visibility was limited and we felt it would not be worth it. Supposedly on a clear day you can get a glimpse of Mt. Fuji. There are also some areas where the floor is perfectly clear, so it feels like walking on air from 350 meters up. Very fun. And maybe a bit scary, too.

Tokyo Skytree

We intended to visit the Sumida Aquarium which was in the same complex, but after reading less-than-lukewarm reviews we decided to pass because we'll be going to Yokohama Sea Paradise anyway. So we went to Shibuya for a bit of shopping instead.


The most famous part of Shibuya is Hachiko square, named after the faithful dog who waited for his master everyday outside the station (the movie had me bawling for an hour). It's also right across what is arguably one of the busiest crossings in the world. Sometimes I feel like they pay some people to just cross the street over and over; it's hard to believe that many people really want to get to the other side of the road (but then again it's also hard to believe that many people really want to get on the Yamanote line trains but they do). There's a tiny statue of Hachiko tucked away in one corner, and as it has become a popular meeting point the area is always swarming with people. The actual Hachiko can actually be found in the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno, preserved and on display.

Photo taken in 2009, when we ran out of things to do in Tokyo and started museum-hopping

My only shopping goal, because of course there is one, is to get a bunch of Hakuhodo brushes. I've been stalking them relentlessly, and I almost caved and ordered from their US site, but I've managed to hold off until this trip. We got crazy lost trying to find their Tokyu branch (I'm almost certain it's already closed), but eventually gave up and went to their Hikarie branch instead.


I may have squealed when I saw the counter, after which I panicked and hyperventilated and looked pleadingly at the boyfriend to please, please stop me from buying more brushes than I need. Which of course he did not do, enabler that he is, and I went home with four carefully selected brushes. I have to say that if you buy from their normal range, their brushes are actually a great bang for the buck - they are handcrafted in Japan, extremely soft, and way cheaper than MAC. But of course you'd have to pretend not to notice the pretty vermillion handles and gold-plated ferrules of their premium line (I was so thankful that they only had a few of these in stock in this particular branch - disaster averted).

Our next stop is PDC, which is a store that sells perfume for crazy prices. It's the reason why I can't purchase Lanvin Eclat d'Arpege in Singapore - here it retails for a third of the price. We browsed through a couple of other stores but I was so happy with my brushes I didn't care for anything else.

For dinner we decided, for old time's sake, to eat at Pepper Lunch. While in Manila you can find Pepper Lunch in Greenbelt and Rockwell; in Shibuya it's located right underneath a rusty old bridge. Not exactly the most glamorous of locations.

Pepper Lunch vendo

One of the things I love about Pepper Lunch in Tokyo is the fact that you order via a vending machine - no more blank stares and crazy hand gestures at the counter.

We made one last stop at Shinjuku, and I visited my favorite Matsumoto Kiyoshi branch (beside Isetan, in front of the giant Uniqlo-Bic Camera store) to stock up on Majolica Majorca mascara (half of the price in Singapore!). I would have shopped some more (Shinjuku, after all, has been my favorite shopping haunt for a year) but it was almost ten and the shops were closing down. Even a city as busy as Tokyo needs its beauty sleep.

Shibuya crossing

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Makeup Store Brush Cleaning Soap

Remember the time when washing makeup brushes was exciting and fun?

Yeah, me neither. I especially abhor synthetic buffer brushes - as awesome as they are for applying makeup, they are such a pain in the ass to clean. I have a couple in my stash, and by the time I'm done cleaning them I'm left with half a bottle of brush cleaner and very pruny fingers. Naturally, any product that has even the remotest possibility of making brush cleaning easier is very interesting to me.

It took a while for me to track down the Makeup Store's brush cleaning soap - it's almost always sold out, which I take as a testament to how effective it is.

The Good:

+ Crazy effective. My litmus test? My friend Anj's makeup brushes. She's awesome and I love her, but my goodness, her brushes - it's like they were dipped in beige paint and left to dry for ten years. The first time I cleaned them I used up an entire bottle of Daiso's sponge cleaner (no kidding), but with this soap they were good to go after only two swipes. That means for normal brushes (read: not Anj's) you only need to swipe once.

1. Wet the brush
2. Work the brush across the soap to form a lather
3. Sweep the brush across your palm repeatedly to clean the bristles
4. Rinse clean, and lay flat to dry

+ Minimal product wastage. You pick up very little product with each swipe, and that's enough to clean the brush.

+ Convenient. After a cleaning session I let the soap dry along with the brushes and then I just keep in the plastic box it came in.

+ Also works well with makeup sponges.

The Bad:

+ Hard to get ahold of. Like I said, it's almost always out of stock.

+ A bit pricey. One bar costs around twenty dollars, and while it would undoubtedly last a very long time, the alternative is shampoo which is virtually free.

The Ugly:

+ Cleans a little too well - it leaves my brushes literally squeaking. It's alright for synthetic brushes, but personally I wouldn't use it on animal hair - the one time I tried it there was some shedding, which is never good.

TL;DR: A godsend for synthetic brushes. For natural hair brushes, stick to mild baby shampoo.

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.

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 (Max Brenner's, some other popular cafe, and what appears to be some Barbie-themed store). 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 they ended up being 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 blonde 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 literally an arm's length from each other. We went with Angel's Heart because it had the longer queue that morning. Also, Cafe Crepe Image Girls.

Cafe Crepe Image Girls 2013

My staple order has always been the 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 left Harajuku for Odaiba. 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".

Mahangin sa labas

Our first stop was Diver City to see Gundam.


It's huge, I'll give it that, but I was expecting it to be more prominent - it took a while for us to find it because it was hidden behind the mall. It was still too early for the evening show, so we went to Deck's first because I wanted to visit the takoyaki museum.


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 types of 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 - can you spot them in the photo?).


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

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.


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.

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.


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!


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.


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.

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.

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!


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?"

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).


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.

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

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.

Friday Favorites: Travel Apps, Japan Edition

I don't even know how to travel without a smartphone anymore. It has made such a dramatic impact on the way I go about - my itinerary is more flexible, I can afford to be more adventurous, and I just have less things to worry about in general.

During my recent trip to Japan I decided to rent a pocket WiFi so I'd have data on the go, and I have to say it was one of the best decisions I made on this trip. I selected the LTE model, and the internet was blazing fast. The whole set-up is pretty convenient, too - I reserved and paid for the device rental online, picked it up at the airport terminal (there is also an option to have it delivered to the hotel), and then at the end of the rental period I just slipped everything into the prepaid mailer envelope and slid it down the post office box at the airport. Easy peasy. If you're like me and you get data withdrawal symptoms I highly recommend you get one if you're going to Japan. There are a number of companies to choose from; I ended up with Japan Wireless, although my first choice was Global Advanced because they had more competitive prices but they were all out.

Anyway, on to my favorite travel apps.

1. TripIt
It's a very convenient (and effective) way of keeping track of my travel itineraries. I just forward everything to the TripIt e-mail address, and it sorts out all the information and presents it in a more organized manner. You can also subscribe to the TripIt calendar so you can see your trip plans on your Calendar app (both iPhone and Mac).

2. Dr. Moku's Katakana
The Japanese writing system has three sets of scripts: Kanji, the adopted Chinese characters; hiragana, used for native words; and katakana, used for foreign words. It can get insanely complicated, and it probably doesn't make sense to learn all three for a week's stay. It is, however, quite helpful to learn katakana, because more often than not, it is used to spell English words. For instance, recognizing the characters チーズ can save you from having floating bits of grated cheese on your curry (the Japanese have an inexplicable habit of sprinkling cheese on just about anything).

It can be scary at first, but it's possible to teach yourself katakana in one weekend. Dr. Moku's Katakana takes it a step further and associates each character with a picture to serve as a mnemonic device of sorts. Not all of them make sense to me, but it's better than writing the characters over and over until you have them memorized.

3. Japanese!! by squarepoet
It's not as fun (and colourful) as Dr. Moku's, and the two exclamation points are driving me crazy, but this app is free and it also contains hiragana as well as some common kanji (and even some "fun" ones such as "communal bath house").  Did I mention it's free?

4. Navitime for Japan Travel
Hyperdia and Jorudan are awesome for finding train routes, but their mobile versions are horrible. Enter Navitime.

If you don't think you need a train route finder, I implore you to take a look at the train map of Tokyo, and tell me you have it covered. Navitime helps you make sense of this tangled web of railways, and it also lets you know when it's time to leave the izakaya and start sprinting towards the train station to catch the last train back to the hotel (cabs are ridiculously expensive in Japan, so you want to catch that train) - just select "Last" under the "Time Setting" option.

5. Waygo
This is kind of an awesome app - it detects characters via your phone's camera and gives you the translation. Microsoft's Bing translator does this too, as well as Google Translate for Android, but as far as I know they require you to be online. Waygo does everything offline, which is pretty impressive.

It used to support only Chinese, but the latest update enabled Japanese translations as well. Obviously I'm a bit miffed because it came after my trip, so I can't comment on its exact usefulness, but I think it would come in really handy. At the very least it could tell you what flavor Kitkat you're bringing home (Wasabi. You should totally try the Wasabi flavor).