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

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