Saturday, August 02, 2014

TUMATAMBLING SA TAAL VOLCANO CRATER


Bubbly Sh., Newman and i decided to take a day trip out of the metro, and do some trekking at Taal Volcano. 

Yours truly did the research, and booked a Taal trekking banca and guide with the Taal Lake Yacht Club (TLYC). Whilst this was more expensive than the touts flashing 'boat ride' placards around the Tagaytay rotonda, we were enticed by the fact that TLYC's boats came equipped with life vests (as their website sternly intoned, "NO LIFE VEST, NO TRAVEL"!) and fire extinguishers; and they have back-up boats, if needed.

Plus, they have free parking and free shower facilities. As events later in the day proved, one needs a good shower to get rid of the muck and mud from the volcano trek.

We took the scenic route via Sta. Rosa-Tagaytay Road, and faithfully followed the directions given by the affable people of TLYC. Turned right at Ligaya Drive, which proved to be a steep, rather challenging road to navigate. And we eventually turned into the TLYC's sloping, narrow dirt road driveway.

To the banca! We excitedly climbed our motor boat for the day's adventure (TLYC has a total fleet of 6 bancas). 




The boat ride proved to be a pleasant one, with a balmy sky and gentle breeze blowing, and took around twenty minutes. We arrived at the Taal Volcano Island, where the visitors' center was located.


Our guide tried to hard sell us to ride horseback going up the crater (Note: To be technical about it, we were going up one of the craters. There are 47 of  'em in total, of varying sizes). He mentioned that it was a difficult uphill trek, yada yada.

Of course, being the undaunted adventurers that we were (!), we didn't give it a serious thought and decided we were gonna go on foot. Riding horseback was for faint-hearted tourists, ya know.
Or maybe we were just cheapos. Haha!


First part of the trail proved to be rather steep, and dusty (especially as numerous other tourists riding on their horses walked past us, kicking up billowing clouds of dust); and it was indeed difficult to maintain one's footing as the sand kept on shifting underneath one's weight.

                                    (photo taken by Hello Newman)

And as Forrest Gump used to say, when there are horses, there's sure gonna be horseshit. Clumps of them! So mind your step, and be careful not to step on these land mines. And the smell is as can be expected. Here's a particularly festive bunch:



Along the route, we also came upon an active volcano vent, with sulfur (smells like rotten eggs) vapors wafting out. Very hot to the touch!



The huffing and puffing did take its toll, and we got all sweaty and thirsty. When you ask the guide how near the crater was, they just invariably say, "it's near"; so no other choice but to keep on walking. Here's Sh. taking a rest (and more likely than not, wondering what on earth convinced her to wake up early and expend so much physical effort, being the notorious non-exerciser that she is :-D)




The trail became faster at the midpoint. Newman observed that the tourists going down on horseback all had a rather pained look on their faces (with glazed eyes). "Parang natatae" were his exact words.  Why? They didn't enjoy going up the crater, and they were disappointed?  They got vertigo from the jostling and swaying of the horse? 

 



Towards the final stretch, the trail became steep again so we made one final push. And wallah! Here was the sight that greeted us:


                                  (photo taken by Hello Newman)


Beautiful, huh? I'd say it was definitely worth the effort. 

But after a few minutes of admiring and taking photos, what does one do while up at the crater viewing area? 

Errr, nothing much, i'm afraid. WARNING: There is NO toilet here. You are welcome to pee into the crater, though. Hahahaha! 

There were lots of Korean tourists (with a Korean-speaking local guide, to boot). 


And oddly enough, one can choose to play golf. Yup, this lady holding an iron, with her bucket of golf balls, will let you whack a ball into the crater for a handsome fee. Easiest hole-in-one in the world, huh? 



Here's the 'Wi-Fi' zone, and here's some hapless tourists waiting for the very slow, non-existent signal. Zero mbps! 



Our guide revealed, with a wide smile, that it was just a sign. Apparently the locals take delight in tourists who fall for it hook, line and sinker. Haha. 

We decided to start trekking down eventually, due to inevitable hunger pangs (and zero Wi-Fi!). Going down was actually not as easy as one would think, as one misstep can result in a rough, not to mention dusty, tumble into the dirt path. 

Then it dawned on us why those visitors on horseback looked the way they did. They weren't natatae, after all; they were hanging on for dear life!




Check out the website of Taal Lake Yacht Club for full information regarding their volcano tours, at www.tlyc.com.

Monday, June 09, 2014

GUS GUIDE: FIRST-TIMER'S GUIDE TO TOKYO


 (This is the last post of my HAJIMEMASHITE, NIHON series; and i thought it would be nice to write down assorted thoughts/musings/insights which would hopefully be helpful for first-timers to Tokyo. Personally, i'm raring to go back! ;-D)

1. Getting Around

Whilst planning the trip, this was actually my greatest apprehension - the fear of getting lost amidst the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, and having difficulty in getting directions due to the language barrier. 


The Tokyo public transport system is certainly one of the most extensive in the world; and is even more certainly confusing at first glance. For example, check out this official subway map from WhereinTokyo site:



Looks pretty daunting, eh? In fact, i'm willing to bet only locals and the cartographer who did it can actually understand it! :D

But fret nor fear not, dear tourist. The Grumpy Urban Slacker is here! #kapalmuks

The key is to forget (yes, forget) about this map, and instead remember this one - the Japan Railways (JR) Yamanote line (i.e. the "green" line), an above-ground train system which loops around the major tourist sites in Tokyo.

 

Infinitely simpler, huh? A good starting point would be to stay in a hotel near a major Yamanote line station (such as Shibuya, Shinagawa, Ikebukuro and Tokyo), and figure out which station(s) is/are nearest the particular tourist site(s) you want to visit. In most cases, you will just ride along the green loop (a major exception being a trip to Tsukiji Market, which would involve changing to a subway line).

Here's a link to a summary of tourist sites near each Yamanote station: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2370.html

2. English, English

We found English comprehension to be surprisingly good in the major train stations, convenience stores, retail shopping areas and restaurants, etc., but it can be patchy in suburban Tokyo.

Learning a few key sentences of Nihongo would definitely help endear you to the locals. I particularly recommend the 'Teach Yourself' audio series of Elizabeth Smith.

3. Local customs

One thing i noticed was that the locals do not carry around food & drink (such as soda, Starbucks coffee, donuts, etc.) while walking around, so i would not recommend doing so. Besides, it can be difficult to find a public trash can to throw your leftovers and/or packaging to.  Believe me, even the busiest subway stations such as Shibuya hardly have garbage bins, not even inside their restrooms.

Likewise, observe decorum while riding the subway and/or trains. There is almost total silence in transit, as locals either look half-asleep with glazed expressions (especially office workers in suits and ties); or busy playing games on their phones/tablets; or reading books. No boisterous chatter here.

4. Food

When in Japan, eat Japanese food, period. We had this eat-all-you-can Yakiniku (grilled meat) in Shinjuku during our last night. Expensive, but you get your money's worth. Drank this sake (rice wine), which was pretty smooth. 


Some other good meals: Small no-English tempura (fried shrimp) joint below the train tracks of Yurakucho station, check. 




Fastfood-y rice bowl and gyoza (dumpling) outlets, check. A no-English ramen (noodle) place off Omotesando Hills in Harajuku, check!


I remember this bowl of ramen, plus one order of pork gyoza, came to less than 800 Yen. Perfect lunch for a cold, overcast, slightly rainy day.

This sushi (raw fish on rice) restaurant named KIZUNA we stumbled on in Kabuki-cho, Tokyo's red light district. Check!!


Dig this sashimi platter, bursting with freshness! My HDL cholesterol levels are zooming already!


Tsukiji Market sushi breakfast, a giant check!

My conclusion: A bad meal is hard to find in Tokyo. In fact, forget about researching the Michelin star restaurants, or the lists of "best" sushi/ramen/katsu/etc. joints, or celebrity chef places. 

Plus, prices aren't as high as one would be led to believe (somehow, people have this preconception that Tokyo is hugely expensive). It is not cheap, definitely; but you can definitely find something good for 1000 Yen or below.

Most department stores have basements which serve as some sort of food court, with different stalls offering freshly cooked viands for takeout. In particular, the Seibu branch in Ikebukuro was full of tempting food and desserts! Definitely great value for money.

5.  Accommodations

Hotels, hostels and inns of all shapes and for all budgets can be found; but location is key. We stayed at the Shibuya area, which i heartily recommend. I was glad we didn't stay in Shinjuku, as i found the area to be confusing and too loud for my taste. 

If you want to try something uniquely Japanese (and cheap), stay in a capsule hotel. Check out fellow blogger Hello Newman's vivid account of his overnight stay in one:

http://www.hello1newman.blogspot.com/2010/06/capsules-arent-just-for-swallowing.html

So book your ticket, plan your itinerary, and go! All together now, Ohayo Gozaimasu Tokyo! 


Tuesday, June 03, 2014

HAJIMEMASHITE, NIHON: SAKURA here, there & everywhere

A great time to be in Japan is during spring, as this is the time of the cherry blossom season. For a bit of background, the cherry blossom ("sakura") is Japan's unofficial national flower.  There are many varieties; and as a general rule, they bloom for only a short period each year - typically around one week. For Japan's major tourist cities, such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, it is usually during end March to early April. 

For the locals, this time of the year is a totally big deal, and they celebrate by holding picnics and parties ("hanami") right underneath the blooming trees. Personally, i find it a bit strange to party underneath a tree; but for the Japanese, the short blooming season symbolizes the ephemeral nature of life.

As Chef Homaro Cantu wrote in the Huffington Post last year:

"The significance of the cherry blossom tree in Japanese culture goes back hundreds of years. In their country, the cherry blossom represents the fragility and the beauty of life. It's a reminder that life is almost overwhelmingly beautiful but that it is also tragically short. When the cherry blossom trees bloom for a short time each year in brilliant force, they serve as a visual reminder of how precious and how precarious life is."

Deep, huh? 

We were rather fortunate to catch the tail end of the season. Some selective sightings, such as this one below - at the grounds of Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto.




Of course, sakura-flavored food items are never far behind. This cherry blossom cream puff (found along the shopping road going to Kiyomizu Temple) was a winner! :D



Upon first bite, i tasted its light, strawberry-like flavor. The cool, refreshing filling contrasted well with the crunchy crust, and i gobbled it up in no time at all.


Here's a scoop of sakura ice cream i tasted in Tokyo. Not quite as flavourful as the cream puff, but it provided a welcome respite from the burning noontime sun.



The well-known chocolatier Lindt has a cafe in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, just a few steps away from the famed Shibuya scramble crossing.  We went there twice for their signature hot chocolate drinks, and i ordered this sakura macaroon once.
 

 Pretty expensive at 258 Yen, but it was good. 

 Ah, going back to the cherry blossoms. Here's a tip: In Osaka, the Mint Bureau opens its garden (with more than 300 cherry trees, mostly of the later-blooming varieties) for free public viewing for one week each year.

After our sushi breakfast at Tsukiji Market (check my previous blog post), i decided to go to the Imperial Palace Gardens and see if there were still any sakura to be found. 

Fortunately, yes! This photo below shows locals, most of whom seemed to be working folks, enjoying their noon time break underneath the cherry trees.



Here's a closer view of one of the few remaining sakura in bloom:


Lovely, isn't it? Just sitting and taking in the view and chatting with friends and watching the world go by. Why not?

And here's a close-up view of this Japanese salary man, who has truly taken to heart the ephemeral nature of life and has chosen to appreciate the sakura in the best way possible. Watashi wa suki des! :D





(Check www.japan-guide.com for their published Cherry Blossom Reports)