Sunday, October 5, 2014

okinawa

This weekend finds us flying down to Okinawa. Our original plan was to go to Tokashiki Island to do some snorkeling but due to the strong wind all ferries were cancelled.  So then we went to grab some food on Kokusaidori - the main shopping street in Naha.

taco rice - 550 yen
The origin of taco rice is unknown but can be attributed to the strong American presence in Okinawa. I love tacos so it makes sense that I would love taco rice too.

As we went around Naha City, I was struck by how similar the city was to Taiwan. The cement buildings, the architecture and the water tanks located on the roofs gave me flashbacks. There were so many Taiwanese tourists here, I swear I saw more Taiwanese people than Japanese. First stop was to Shuri Castle which was the palace of the Ryukyuan Kingdom, the indigenous people of these islands.

the approach
main hall of shuri castle
The bright colors makes this castle stand out from other Japanese castles. I especially loved the approach to the castle. The contrast of the castle walls surrounded by lush greenery with views overlooking nearby red tiled palace buildings is a breathtaking sight. We missed the main entrance and took a roundabout way to the castle which afforded us better views and solitude from the tourist masses.

cape manzamo
Next up is Cape Manzamo, famous for its rock formation that looks like an elephant drinking water. The waters were such a beautiful cerulean blue. It was super windy...

not exaggerating about that wind!!
We had initially planned to do some scuba diving in Okinawa but the prices were outrageous! There is a popular diving spot known as The Toilet Bowl around this area. No idea why it's called that...hopefully not cause of the things you can find there! We decided to go exploring and found a giant cave called Uduigama with a beach only accessible by climbing over some crazy sharp coral rock. We then decided it would be a good idea to climb some cliff formations made from that same sharp ass coral, I was wearing flimsy Old Navy flip flops. They were wrecked of course. The sun had set by then and getting down and back to the bus stop was actually a little spooky with no one in sight and no street lights.

exiting from Uduigama Cave
Back in town we went back to Kokusaidori where we ate Okinawa Soba at this restaurant called Okinawan Food & Live. Despite its name Okinawa Soba doesn't actually use buckwheat noodles but wheat so actually resembles udon more.

okinawa soba - 800 yen
Many of the restaurants have performances in Okinawan dance and music but unfortunately we had missed most of them. Luckily one restaurant had a late performance and I really enjoyed it since due to the late time the restaurant had only 6 customers including us. Afterwards we all danced in the Okinawan style which was a major fail for me. I just flailed my arms around and did some random clapping. Haha. The guy performer even tried to use English to talk to us! Very sweet.

okinawan music

The Details
Shuri Castle
Access: Shuri Castle - Okinawa Monorail then a 15-20 minute walk

Hours: 8:30 to 19:00 (until 18:00 from December to March, until 20:00 from July to September) Admission ends 30 minutes before closing
Closed: First Wednesday and Thursday of July
Admission: 820 yen - can get a discounted price with monorail pass

*Note you can buy a one day (700 yen) or two day (1200 yen) pass for unlimited rides on the Okinawa Monorail and includes discounted entrance fees to certain attractions.

Cape Manzamo
Access: Manza Beach-mae (万座ビーチ前) - Bus 120
The journey takes 80-100 minutes from Naha Bus Terminal 7th platform 1390 yen one way. It is then a 15 minute (700 meter) walk up to the cape.
website - Bus 120 time table, route and fare (*click on the blue or pink buttons for different days)

website - This website is a great English resource for buses on Okinawa with maps, time schedules, fares, etc

Okinawan Food & Live
on Kokusaidori near the McDonalds

Sunday, September 28, 2014

BBQ - japanese style

Sachiko invited us to a barbeque! I was excited because I was going to have a first hand account of a BBQ - Japanese style. I expected the food to be different but Japanese people go all out for the one day excursion. Not sure if this is particular to family bbqs but tents, tables, chairs, portable canopies were unloaded.


 I must admit sitting in a nice fold-able chair and eating off a table is way more comfortable than sitting on the ground eating off a paper plate. Food included the usual beef, chicken, fish, yakisoba (noodles), rice balls.... Haha ok maybe not the usual fare we see in American BBQs. Definitely very Japanese with the rice!

first time I had fish at a BBQ
look closely at whats on the grill - a skillet and a tea kettle!
bbqing next to a pretty little stream
thanks for the invite sachiko!
I had a nice time sitting near the river and staring at all the towering trees. All the children were running around shooting each other with water guns and catching small turtles. BBQs a nice way to spend a Sunday. Gotta end the day as all excursions must end with a selfie :P

Monday, September 22, 2014

amanohashidate - the bridge to heaven

I love making lists so you can imagine I had quite a huge list of places I wanted to visit in Japan. Japan and I have the same mindset because you can literally see lists for everything and anything here. The top beefs in Japan, the best castles, the best nature spots, etc etc. One of them is known as the Three Views of Japan which lists the three most celebrated scenic sights of Japan and consists of Miyajima, Matsushima, and Amanohashidate. Ellen and I had the opportunity to visit the latter today and man does it live up to its reputation.

I'm sure everyone knows about Kyoto - famous for its geisha and its plethora of temples. However Kyoto Prefecture is also the location of Amanohashidate, though it is rather far from Kyoto city. Most tourists probably wouldn't make the trek out here if they are just doing a brief tour of Japan but I highly recommend it. So what is Amanohashidate?? 

amanohashidate view land
Amanohashidate which translates to "bridge to heaven" is a pine tree covered sandbar that stretches across Miyazu Bay. From the hills on either side of the sandbar, the sandbar looks like a path that connects heaven to earth. Looking at the above picture you might be like huh? just kind of looks like a bridge across water and nothing living up to the name of bridge to heaven. That is where matanozoki style comes in.

matanozoki style
Matanozoki style or rather looking between your legs is very popular here. There are platforms specifically for this and you'll see everyone doing it. So don't be shy and join in on the action! We can cross the sandbar by foot or by bike. I'm sure you can guess which way we chose...

biking between pine trees

It was cool to see pine trees growing directly on the sand. The bike ride was fun even though we got quite lost on the other side.

 Kasamatsu Park
From the opposite side the sandbar looks like the kanji for one. The view is definitely better from the side closest to the train station. If you don't have the time to make the trek across then I would stay on the other side and just wander a little onto the sandbar. Afterwards we grabbed the ferry back but the view wasn't great since we could only see a line of trees. So glad we could take the ferry since we were too tired to make the trek back to the station. There are a small sampling of shops on either end but unfortunately we didn't have time to browse due to the long train ride back to Aichi.

The Details
Amanohashidate
Access: Amanohashidate Station
I highly recommend getting the Amanohashidate Pass (One Day) - 1600 yen for foreigners only!
This area is serviced by the Kitakinki Tango Railway and the pass covers the train between Fukuchiyama and Amanohashidate. It also covers the chair life/cable car for Kasamatsu Park (the side where the sandbar looks like the kanji one). It includes a ticket to the sightseeing ferry and a two hour bicycle rental.
website

Amanohashidate View Land
Hours: Varies depending on the season but generally 9am-5pm (last sale at 4:30pm)
Chair life/cable car fees Roundtrip: Adult 850 yen - not covered by the Amanohashidate Pass
telephone: 0772-22-5304
website

Kasamatsu Park
Hours: Varies depending on the season but generally 8am-5pm (last sale at 4:30pm)
Chair life/cable car fees Roundtrip: Adult 660 yen - covered by the Amanohashidate Pass
telephone: 0772-27-0032

Sunday, September 21, 2014

thousand year old buildings at horyu-ji

Do you know that one of the oldest wooden structures in the entire world actually resides in Japan?!? Horyu-ji is located in Nara Prefecture and despite having gone to Nara many times to see the deer I never took the time to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

the kondo and the pagoda
Both of these buildings are pretty freaking old but the kondo was damaged by a fire so mostly its a reconstruction whilst the central pillar in the pagoda can be dated back to the year 600. Dang this building has survived for over a thousand years! In Japan I'm always reading about how all the original buildings have been burnt down by fires or destroyed one way or another so it's interesting to stand next to something so old.

a closer look at a century old wooden structure
I wanna say I was blown away by this temple but after seeing so many temples in Japan they all start to blend together. Besides being super old there wasn't anything particular about this temple complex that made it stand out in my mind. Aesthetically I've seen prettier temples or shrines with more unique features so if you are just visiting Japan I would recommend skipping this temple and just heading straight over to Nara where there are more things to do. Like feed the deer, get struck in the crotch by antlers and then proceed to be chased down by them.

side by side buildings built in two different time periods
late lunch - curry udon
followed by some parfaits - caramel, milk tea and yogurt (actual sour yogurt and not froyo - 870 yen)
Ended the day in Kyoto where we took more photo booth pics! One can never get too tired of these or can they...Went back to get some more delicious parfaits unfortunately mine was horrid! Ellen helped me ask them if it was yogurt or more like ice cream ala froyo and the server said the latter. However it was gross ass sour yogurt which totally ruined the whole parfait. Super disappointed!

The Details
Horyu-ji
Access: Horyuji Station and then a 20 min walk from the station or a 5 minute bus ride
Hours: 8am-5pm
Admission Fee: 1500 yen (freaking hefty - not worth it)
No closing dates
There are also volunteer guides who can show you around and tell you about the temple. The guides themselves are free but you would have to pay their entrance fee...

Karafuneya Coffee Sanjo Head Office
39 Daikokumachi, Kawaramachi Sanjo-dori Kudaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan
Hours: 9:00am-1:00am
Telephone: 075-254-8774

Saturday, August 16, 2014

puerto princesa underground river

One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Palawan, out of all the islands in the Philippines, was because of the Puerto Princesa Underground River which is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.


In order to access the park we had to take these boats there. The park has a limit of 900 visitors a day in order not to disturb the wildlife too much.

entrance to the underground river
There was a lot of waiting involved. Waiting for the boat to bring us to the park and then more waiting to get onto the boats to actually bring us into the Underground River. While we were waiting we saw monkeys steal snacks from other tourists and we even saw a monitor lizard!


Everyone in front of us on the boat was part of our tour group. Look at our fancy outfits - in case we fall out of the boat or smack our head on low hanging rocks. I enjoyed viewing the Underground River because it was cool sailing on a boat in the dark. However because it was dark it was also very frustrating not to be able to see anything since only the person in the front controlled the flashlight. I couldn't see how grand of a scale the cave was while inside or even take any decent photos. The whole place smelled like bat guano and the tour guide even said if something cold dropped on you then it was probably water but if it was warm then you were lucky because a bat pooped on you! There were so many freaking bats and they kept swooping everywhere. I had an irrational fear they would hit me. Because we were so far back I couldn't hear the description of the different rocks or stories the tour guide was saying so that was a bummer. All in all in comparison to other caves I've been to I would say this was pretty disappointing. I would love it if they had lights and such in the cave so that we could view the stuff but then of course that would disturb the ecosystem of the cave and all the animals living within.

Our tour included a buffet lunch at this restaurant that every tour group seemed to stop at.

the first plate of many: lumpia and roast pork!
Right outside the restaurant a little girl was selling tamilok, a wood worm found in rotten mangroves.

tamilok
Some people in the tour group tried it and it looked so disgusting especially since its super long and they just ate it like this. Bleugh can't give eating bugs a try though actually tamilok is a mollusk and not actually a worm...but too slimey and gross looking! As part of the tour there were side excursions we could have done like zip-lining or spelunking but because it was raining while we were there we didn't get to do them. Sometimes it feels like my rain curse will never truly leave me...

The best food I've had so far here has been the endless amounts of fruit. Granted I've had way better fruit back in America because my grandma and mom actually know how to pick the ripe ones but I've been deprived of fruit for so long that I went slightly insane at the market. This small selection was only the tip of the iceberg.


Here were have black and red rambutan which taste like lychee, though harder to get to with its tougher skin. So many mangoes. Mangoes in Japan sell for $5-6 for ONE! Though in one of my mangoes there was a freaking bug. The sad part was that I had already eaten one half of the mango just to cut the other side to find bugs in it! Ugh so disgusting. These bugs were a reason why mangoes can't be transported outside of Puerto Princesa, they want to keep it from spreading. Our bus was actually stopped on the way to Port Barton so that military personnel could do a check. The last but not least in the picture above are some green mangoes. Unfortunately they were very sour. So difficult to find sweet green mango like the ones I had in Taiwan.

The Details
Isla de Puerto Underground River Tour
I really enjoyed the tour guide who showed us around. He had amusing stories and cracked dumb jokes on the ride there. The tour includes transportation, entrance fee and lunch. If you go to the Underground River yourself you will have to register for a permit yourself in the city and then find your own transportation there. There are so many tour groups we reached out to but unfortunately a lot of them didn't respond which was super frustrating. Also many places required a deposit to be transferred. Because sending money over international waters carried such a hefty fee it was not a feasible option for us. Luckily this company was fine with collecting the money when we landed in Puerto Princesa. However a worker of theirs drove us to the bus terminal when we first arrived to catch the bus to Port Barton and overcharged us by a lot for the ride - now that I know how cheap it actually was. I would suggest meeting them to pay for the tour and then just hiring a trike outside the airport to bring you into the city.
Tour Price: 1500 php per person
website

Lakas ng Trip - a do-it-yourself guide to visiting the Underground River

Puerto Princesa Underground River Official website

Friday, August 15, 2014

under the sea, under the sea

Sing the title of this post. OK so we went scuba diving today - my first time! It was awesome! What wasn't awesome was getting to the scuba diving place and realizing that whilst I had brought my waterproof camera there wasn't a battery inside it. Where was it? Being charged back at the hostel. Sad thing was that I had two extra batteries...Where were they? Yup you guessed it, not being useful at all, back in the hostel. The town was small enough that I could have ran back and gotten it if it wasn't for the fact that we were already late. We had woken up at the crack of dawn, sweating - another city that only has electricity at certain times, to make it to the scuba diving center. However we needed to get the paper that proved we paid the environmental fee mentioned in my previous post. The guy working at the hostel said a guy was bringing it over in the morning and of course running on island time the guy is late. Then when he comes he brings the WRONG freaking slips, they had the wrong names on them. It's like REALLY?! How hard is it to get the names correct?!? So then again we had to wait for him to come back so we were super super late by the time we left. Being late makes me super anxious. Fking hate it. Thankfully the dive instructor wasn't super angry but there was no way I could be like "Please wait longer while I run back and grab my camera." So that day I didn't have any freaking pictures of my experience down in the water.

I was freaking out a bit just because I don't have the best swimming abilities so I was afraid I would drown or fail the test and not be able to scuba dive. Entering the water with all the gear I felt calmer and it was such a marvelous experience. You forget you're underwater. So surreal. I had to remind myself many times to actively breathe and as for swimming that wasn't a problem at all. One of the first things we had to do to enter the water was to wear all the gear and then flip backwards into the water - that freaked me out but it was actually very fun. What's not fun is having to pull the goggles away from your face to clear it because man trying to get rid of the water in the mask is a pain. If not done properly water leaked in and you basically was snorting in water. That and retrieving your regulator were part of the mini test to see if we could even scuba dive. Is it weird to say I was a little anxious I wouldn't pass the "test?" I' haven't had to take any tests or exams in so long that the pressure to pass one was getting to me!

I highly recommend going scuba diving even if you can't swim that well. It's such an amazing experience. There are no words that can describe it accurately. YOU JUST HAVE TO TRY IT! What about getting certified before you can scuba dive? No worries a lot of dive centers off Discovery Scuba for people who aren't certified but want to experience it! We saw so many fish down in the water that you can't possibly see while just skimming the surface snorkeling. I wanted to freaking punch myself in the face for not being able to use my camera especially when we saw these giant Bumphead Fish.

source
Unfortunately that's not me but a picture I got off Google but yah these fish were huge! Their teeth were particularly creepy since it looked like it belong to a human. They have these huge bumps on their head, hence their name, which they use to bash coral to eat. We saw them doing that and I just thought they were angry but turns out these fish that eat coral, they actually poop out sand. So sand is fish poop. Awesome to know.

We walked all the streets of El Nido to find the perfect dive center. A lot of the places offered discounts for two people so that was excellent. Unfortunately time was against us as a lot of dives were longer than the amount of time we had before catching a bus down to Puerto Princesa. We wanted to be able to do at least two dives since one dive wasn't worth the price. The guy we finally went with was Yoshi who turned out to be a Japanese guy whose been living in El Nido for years! Haha I guess it was serendipitous that he was our dive instructor. Now I need to get scuba certified!

Now back to us trying to catch a bus back to Puerto Princesa. As usual we were running late and we made it to the bus stop just at the scheduled time a bus was to depart. Unfortunately we didn't see any bus and when we made inquires if a bus was leaving anytime soon we got a no. Ugh the unreliability of transportation here drives me bonkers. We couldn't wait to take the bus at a later time because we were already arriving in the city at 10pm and we hadn't booked a hostel yet. So then I noticed that a Lexus Van was leaving soon and we managed to get the last two stops on the van. The Lexus Van was super crowded but it had the luxury of not stopping along the route which meant it was faster. It also dropped us off  directly in front a hostel we wanted to stay at which thankfully was still open!

Actually managed to find an ATM and grab some food at a really local local place. This restaurant had a bunch of different food in pans and you point to what you wanted and they scooped it into a bowl for you. We had a difficult time trying to order since we didn't know what kind of ingredients were in the dishes and they couldn't describe it to us. So it was a surprise in what we got. One of my dishes was just liver. Bleugh. Alanna did not like her meal at all. I was ok with mine a lot of it tasted very Chinesey.


The Details
El - Dive
Instructor: Yoshi Ohstuka
diver.yoshi@yahoo.com
Discovery Dive - 2500 php for 2 dives (do some haggling for that good price :D)

El Nido to Puerto Princesa - Lexus Van
Cost: 500 php but the driver quoted me 600 php until I mentioned that another passenger had said she was paying 500! Ugh always the scheming and trying to make more money off of us. So annoying.
Travel time: 5 hours

Tree House Inn
400 php per person (haggled with them and got this price because we stayed 2 nights)
close to markets and an ATM
Apparently Puerto Princesa has electricity 24 hours! Finally got a decent shower!
http://www.danintranet.org/media/adimg/2558.jpg
http://www.danintranet.org/media/adimg/2558.jpg

Thursday, August 14, 2014

el nido island hopping tour A

El Nido has four island hopping tours A,B,C, and D with each tour going to different islands. Everyone on the web says Tour A and C are the best so for this first time we chose Tour A. Tour A will take you to Small Lagoon, Big Lagoon, Shimzu Island where you will have lunch, Secret Lagoon and Seven Commandos Beach. Most tours follow the same itinerary and therefore each area becomes super crowded with people but Alanna and I were being boushy and decided to book a PRIVATE TOUR! This way we could alter the route and go backwards and avoid the crowds. Even though we paid almost double for a private tour it was SO WORTH IT!

limestone cliffs
helicopter island
Look at the amazing views! Breathtaking! First stop on our tour was snorkeling at Seven Commandos Beach. The water was so clear that we could see for miles - a watery wonderland!


Lots of different types of coral and a blue starfish! First time I've seen one that color and that big! Our tour guide had a floaty ring and would pull us around. Haha I loved it since that meant I didn't have to struggle to swim. The life jackets were too big for us so they were choking us most of the time. Next stop on the tour was the Big Lagoon which had brilliant turquoise water surrounded by limestone.


My pictures can't do this place justice. I couldn't capture the magnitude of these cliffs towering over us or even the varying shades of water that could be found here. From the brightest turquoise to the deepest emerald color. Supposedly sea turtles swim here but no matter how much I strained my neck trying to find one I didn't see any! You can choose to explore the lagoon in depth by renting a kayak for an additional price.

Both the Big and Small Lagoons are located on Miniloc Island and adjacent to one of the lagoons there was a small beach where we would have our lunch. We saw a lot of boats passing by to enter the lagoons but none of them disturbed our peaceful slice of heaven. While the boat captain and the tour guide made our dinner we went exploring!


The erosion from the water causes these awesome overhangs of limestone to jut out over the sea and it was cool to be able to "walk" and paddle beneath them. In the side of this limestone cliff I found a hole with an underwater entrance!


The entrance to this cave is marked by that rock wedged in behind me, next to the "window." When trying to leave the cave the tide kept pushing me back in so I got smacked around on the sharp stone below and above me. I freaking love having a waterproof camera especially here in the Philippines I feel like its a must have. All that beautiful scenery and water adventures that I wouldn't be able to capture without it.

Back on the beach we stumbled upon this creature...


We had no idea what this was and was afraid to touch it. Finally Alanna got a stick and we poked at it and we didn't see it move. Then we scooped it up with the stick and upon closer inspection we realized it was a creature of some sort and we dropped it back into the sand. Later on at a market I saw it being sold and learned that it was a sea cucumber. Sorry for torturing you sea cucumber, we thought you were a sea snake or something and had to protect ourselves!


Our lunch consisted of chicken, pork, fish, shrimp, a prettily arranged salad, bananas, mangoes and a giant ass coconut! When you arrange the tour they'll ask you what kind of foods you would like to eat and they will buy it and cook it for you on the tour! The food was delicious and there was too much for just the two of us to eat. Eating on the beach I felt so pimp and with such a lovely view...


After lunch we headed to the Small Lagoon which isn't accessible by boat.

entrance to the small lagoon
Now you can see why we had to swim in. Also we had to be careful when entering because there are a lot of sea urchins around with crazy long needles. Don't wanna step on one of those. We had the whole place to ourselves! It was freaking amazing to just float on my back and admire the view. Felt like I was transported back in time into the Jurassic Era with the silence and the moss covered cliffs looming overhead. As you can see the life jacket was definitely chocking me and actually impeded my swimming so I was trailing so far behind the group.


Our tour guide wanted to show us a secret cave all the way at the other end of the lagoon but since I was so slow he just ended dragging me along by my life jacket. Haha. I took a video of myself getting dragged around while Alanna swam in front like a boss!


After the Small Lagoon we did some more snorkeling this time we were out in the open and not next to a nice little beach. We actually snorkeled next to those two giant limestone islands in my first picture. The water was getting a little rough and we had to make sure we didn't wander too far out and get dragged by the current. It's crazy to think that I barely enter the ocean even though I've lived near one my whole life and then find myself just swimming in the middle of it. Of course the water here isn't crazy like the waves back home.

is that Dory with her costars Nemo and dad?!?
Unfortunately this area had a whole bunch of small jellyfish that kept stinging us. When I was swimming I noticed a plastic bag floating pass me and was disgusted with the pollution just to realize it was actually a jellyfish! They were clear palm sized mofos that kept stinging us. We would thrash around to make sure they didn't get us and were shouting at each other that we needed to pee in the water to help with the jellyfish stings. Haha, that's what you do when you get stung right?? Pee on it?

We ended the day with what I believe is Shimzu Island which wasn't that impressive, especially after all the splendid views we've been exposed to that day. Apparently there's a giant lizard that lives in one of the caves here so we even though we wanted to explore them, we were afraid the lizard would get us.


Unfortunately we didn't get to see the Secret Lagoon because our guides told us that due to the weather the past few days a lot of trash had accumulated at the entrance. In order to reach the Secret Lagoon we would have to swim through the trash since you entered through a small hole. Ugh I was so bummed out about that since one of the reasons we went for Tour A was because of secret entrances to places. I still had a great time though and looking at videos of the Secret Lagoon it was just a smaller sized lagoon where people could swim and such - which we got to do in the Small Lagoon with total privacy and on a bigger scale.

The Details
El Nido Island Hopping Tour A
1200 php per person includes lunch - a regular tour where you joined others
We paid 4000 php for a private tour so 2000 php for each of us. If you had a bigger group then the price is cheaper for each person. Lunch was included in our tour. We walked around and looked at all the people offering tours and this was the norm for the November season. A worker at our hostel Hakuna Matata arranged our tour for us. There are so many tour companies online and in town or you can even approach fishermen yourself and try to work out a deal. A lot of the companies I emailed about the tours didn't respond so I guess its better to call them or go to their office in town.
Eco Tourism Development Fee - 200 php (everyone has to pay this fee to do activities in the area - make sure you get a piece of paper proving that you paid - we needed it when we went scuba diving later)
Snorkel Gear - 100 php (a must have for the tour!)
El Nido Tour Map