Tagged: where to stay

​The Crammer’s Japan Travel Guide

(Travel tips for a not-so-budget-friendly, hassle-free Tokyo vacation)

Shibuya Crossing before the mad scramble of people

My family and I wanted to take that one fun overseas trip this year. After months of procrastinating on the Japan visa application and stubbornly ignoring airlines’ seat sales (we’re not rich, just soooo slooooow to act), my family and I found ourselves headed for a lackluster Halloween/All Saints Day long weekend with nowhere to go. Nganga.

By some unusual surge of inspiration, without having settled any useful itinerary, we all decided at the last minute: “Hey, we can actually do this! Let’s go now.” Yes?

The major deciding factor was the weather. Travelling at winter time was not an option. It would be too cold for my 70+ -year old mother to enjoy. It’s either we go then (autumn) or wait next year (spring or summer).

Eh atat. We got our Japanese visas from the embassy on October 12th. (My mother had problems with her birth certificate which took some time to settle.)

For some reason, we wasted some more time and finally bought airline tickets on the 21st. We finalized hotel accommodations on the 25th.

On the 27th, against all odds, we flew out of Manila and headed for Narita, Japan for a 5-day mini-break. Master crammers, that’s us!

I’m not a fan of impromptu travels because I’m the type who really needs to plan everything and weight out all options (esp. when it comes to luggage, daily expenses, and itineraries). But I realized that sometimes, I just have to let go and just GO!

I learned a lot from this experience and I enjoyed tremendously (time with family is truly priceless!), so I thought of sharing some tips and lessons learned (some of which I learned the hard way) to help fellow cramming travelers.

1. ON AIRLINE TICKETS

Get the cheapest airline tickets from the year-round promos of PAL and CebuPac. Sign up for the email alerts and follow their social media pages.

But don’t stop there, because there are other airlines to consider like AirAsia, or if specifically going to Japan, there’s ANA and JAL which are both a notch above the other airlines in terms of service, food, cleanliness, and punctuality.

JAL had a promo when we belatedly booked tickets. The airfare was significantly more expensive than PAL and CebuPac, but at least we got better service. I was thankful to have left  for a vacation at all.

2. ON PUBLIC TRANSPO

To travel from Narita airport to the city center of Tokyo (where all the touristy stuff are, hahah), get a flight time that would arrive in Narita early enough to catch the Narita Express train (or N’EX of the JR East Railway Company). That’s the quickest way to travel — travel from Narita airport to Tokyo Station, then transfer to a subway or hail a cab to get to your hotel in the city center.

If you booked at a hotel along the route of the Limousine Bus, get on this bus instead that would take you from Narita airport then drop you off right in front of your hotel. The bus driver will even help you with your luggage. Although not as quick as the train, it remains the more convenient and less expensive option.

We missed both the N’EX and Limousine Bus because we took a late afternoon flight from Manila which arrived  evening in Narita. And so we had to take a train (slower than N’EX), then transfer at Sugamo station (with all our luggage!) to take a subway line, then walk a block to our hotel.

On our return trip to the airport on October 31st, we took that Limousine Bus. It was easy to book at the hotel and the bus picked us up at the hotel at the appointed time.

Although buying or renting a pocket wifi would be very useful for navigating around Tokyo, you can actually ditch the additional expense for the wifi and get by with just your mobile phone’s GPS and an offline map. MAPS.ME is highly recommended.

It worked for our family. We used the free hotel wifi to research online in the evening then went offline the next day. We survived with screenshots, handwritten notes, and an offline map.

Figuring out how the ticket dispensing machine at the subway works could be intimidating at first, but you’ll get the hang of it. Japanese characters are scary when you don’t know the language, of course.

Top tip: The first thing you do when you’re facing the ATM-like console is to stay calm and look for the “English” button. That’s it, and the machine will guide you through the motions of buying the tickets.

When you’ve been riding trikes, jeeps, buses and dilapidated MRT coaches all your life, an efficient train system seems frightening and exciting at the same time. Getting all travel  information I could get my hands on  just hours before our departure flight, I read so many official tourism and transpo sites and travel blogs talking about the routes and stops of the JR Yamanote line (the single most useful train line to reach the main attractions in the different Tokyo districts).

Nothing, and I do mean NOTHING, was as clear and helpful as the transpo explanation and color-coded illustrations I got from the Tokyo Disney website’s access page. Everything’s straightforward and simple, and so much better than all the info I got from the travel websites I visited. Although, Truly Tokyo is also an awesome resource.

3. ON CHOOSING HOTEL ACCOMMODATIONS

Choose a hotel that’s near, as in walking distance, to a JR Yamanote line or a subway station. This will spell all the difference in terms of convenience. Our group booked at Shiba Park Hotel in Minato, Tokyo, and it was probably the best decision ever. I hope to write more next time about the hotel’s Japanese Culture Experience.

Believe me, a 3-minute walk in the morning when you’re all “yey, sunshiny day!” is different from a 3-minute walk in the evening when you’re all tired and “gaaahd, it’s too cold it’s not even winter!”

No worries, public transportation is very efficient in Tokyo.  You just need to figure out the train system and prepare your legs and feet for lots and lots…and lots… of walking to enjoy moving around the city.

4. ON FOOD

If your hotel offers an option for room accommodations only, choose that. Don’t include breakfast which will only jack up the room rates.

Buy breakfast and stock up on bread, noodles, cookies, rice crackers, and other yummy treats from Family Mart. Their Family Marts are galaxies away from the Family Marts here in Manila. There are just so many eye-popping choices there, and cheap too.

Yoshinoya is also a good, crazy cheap option for quick meals, and they’re almost everywhere. The beef rice bowl is yummy and filling.

If you love seafood, never pass up the chance to go straight to the source of all things delicious: the market. When in Japan, it’s Tsukiji Market or nothing. That was easily the most colorful and enjoyable part of the trip for me. I loved Tsukiji!

5. ON THE WEATHER

Check the weather. Always. Plan day trips around the weather forecast.

We made the mistake of going to Disney Sea on a rainy morning, foolishly thinking the sky will clear up and get better. It did not. It was the worst part of our trip. Disney was biting cold, and dreary. Of course, my 6-year old niece had a totally different opinion. She loved Disney, rain and all.

Dress in layers, and bring a raincoat or an umbrella. Always, even if it’s sunny in the morning when you leave the hotel. It may be hot, cold, wet, dry, windy — all within the same day. At least in late October, the weather was as erratic as the mood of a hormonal, ovulating woman.

I’m sharing the rest of our family’s itinerary. We may have missed out on a lot of other “places to go” and “things to do” when compared with other travellers, but our leisurely pace was just perfect.

Our family of five roamed for three days (excluding MNL-NRT-MNL travel time). We used public transpo (with our mother on a wheelchair to boot), survived without wifi, endured the winter-like cold considering it was supposed to be only fall — everything was extra challenging, but also extra rewarding.

We’d do it all again, but hopefully plan thoroughly and add Mt. Fuji and Hakone to the itinerary next time!

Our short and sweet Tokyo, Japan itinerary:

Day 1: Travel time MNL-NRT

Day 2: Disney Sea

Day 3:

  1. Senjo-ji Temple
  2. Nakamise Shopping Street
  3. Tokyo Skytree (observation tower and mall)

Day 4:

  1. Tsukiji Market (food trip)
  2. Harajuku (Meiji Shrine and Takeshita fashion street)
  3. Shibuya (Hachiko statue, Shibuya scramble crossing, and shopping)

Day 5:

  1. Origami class at the Sakura Salon of Shiba Park Hotel
  2. Zojo-ji temple grounds (with Tokyo Tower in the background)
  3. Travel time NRT-MNL

Arigato and sayonara, beautiful Japan!

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Sun-kissed, saltwater-drenched: The Budget-Friendly Puerto Galera Beach Getaway

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(UPDATED: April 13, 2015)

Hello! Greetings from the islands where there’s no “summer” season! It’s either just wet or dry, and these past few months, DRY it is!

What better way to beat the heat than to face the heat head on and lounge around at the beach? Swim, eat, drink, sleep, swim, read a book, swim. I don’t even know how to swim, I just stew in the saltwater and stay there until my fingertips crinkle like prunes. Ha! Take that, you sunny day, face-melting heat you!

I don’t usually blog about non-writing stuff, but I’ll go right ahead and file this under “Musings.” Here’s a post about Puerto Galera (White Beach area) in Oriental Mindoro, Southern Luzon, Philippines.

Yes, good old Puerto Galera — touted as the poor man’s Boracay (comparable probably because of the rowdy party scene). Without airfare, it really is waaaay cheaper than a Boracay vacation, and accessible/commuter-friendly too. The bus+boat rides combined will take approximately 3.5 hours from Buendia Avenue in Manila. I didn’t even finish The Godfather movie playing on the bus.

Prior to this trip (May 7-10, 2014/April 9-12, 2015), I searched and browsed through so many blogs hoping to find cheap but decent hotel accommodations and new bars and restaurants to try. Blogs have been helpful, but I found that the most fun way to discover anything would be to dive right in and explore.

In short, no overly complicated plans. Just schedule the days off, file the vacation leave, and go away, far far far away from the office cubicle. Hahah. Stressed much?

This being my 6th time already in Puerto Galera, I’m done with island-hopping, snorkeling, fish-feeding, trekking, seeing Tamaraw Falls, being awed by the giant clam (taklobo), holding on for dear life on a banana boat, all the touristy stuff. Just give me sun, sand, and surf, and I’ll be fine, thank you. No matter how gasgas, I’ll keep coming back to this beautiful place, a quick beach getaway from the city center.

So I thought of sharing here my travel notes and a few tipid tips while in Puerto Galera. Hopefully, the commuting, budget-conscious first-timers to White Beach will find these useful.

How to get to Puerto Galera

1. Go to the intersection of Buendia Ave. and Taft Ave. near the LRT station, and board a bus going to Batangas Pier. Ceres and Jam Bus Lines go direct to the pier. Buses exiting the city usually leave hourly, but Ceres leaves every 20 minutes or so. They don’t fill up the bus with passengers. Just ask the driver or conductor if it will pass through Star Tollway because that’s the faster route; it won’t pass through the small  towns with congested streets in Batangas.

Bus Fare: P157/person

Trip Duration: 2 hours

2. At Batangas Pier, board a boat going to White Beach Puerto Galera. Boats leave every 30 minutes. The well-known shipping lines are Minolo, Father and Son, and Gallerian. Avoid Minolo if you can — they hoodwink customers and say they’d take you straight to White Beach but they’d actually dock at Muelle Pier (far away from White Beach), then ask you to ride a shuttle to actually get to White Beach. They do provide the shuttle for free, but still, that’s the long way to the beach and the short way to… dwindling vacation time.

Boat Fare: P500/person (roundtrip).

Remember to confirm your departure time with the boat operator one day before departure date. The boat lines’ ticketing stations are located at the beachfront. Just ask around. Minolo’s is in front of VM Beach Resort. Father and Son’s is located just 30 meters away. (Forgot the name of the resort or restaurant near it.) Gallerian is right there at the arrival area of the boat terminal; you may confirm departure as soon as you arrive at Puerto Galera.

Terminal Fee: P30

Trip Duration: 1.5 hours

3. Disembark at Puerto Galera White Beach!

Upon arrival, pay Environmental Fee of P50. (Before leaving, pay Terminal Fee of P10.)

Hotel Accommodations

Stayed at Las Villas del Natividad in 2014. Nothing extraordinary. Aircon works just fine. Cable TV works (TV is cute, kinda small, but you’re not staying in the room to watch TV all day, right?) Bed is comfortable enough. Blanket is thin but it wouldn’t matter because you can control room temp. with the AC. Toilet works. Faucet works, with strong water pressure. Shower works (no hot water though, but who cares).

No toiletries, bring your own. Bath towels are provided but bringing your own is highly recommended. Their towels are discolored, raggedy thin and sandpapery. In fairness, the towels smell good and will be given to you freshly laundered, but they have seen better days.

Didn’t book the hotel in advance. If you’re not coming during the Holy Week break anyway (the busiest time of the year at Puerto Galera), you can forego advance reservations. You’ll get a much better deal negotiating room rates when you’re already there where you can straight away say your budget ceiling to the hotel admin, see the rooms, and haggle prices.

Room Rate: P1,500 per room per night or P750 per person on twin sharing basis

Others: Pay a deposit of P200 (refundable upon check out when you return the room key and the TV remote control). Nothing’s free — you can’t just “ask” for hot water (for your noodles, 3-in-1 coffee, Milo, whatever). You pay P5 for a small cup of hot water and P10 for a big mug.

Location: Right where the action is. The hotel is a few meters behind Mikko’s Bar (the beach’s most famous, noisiest bar with the most number of customers) and Food Trip sa Galera (the cheapest and fastest rice meals, naturally also with the most number of customers).

Natividad is just a 2-minute walk from the beach but private and secluded enough with a gate separating it from the crowds. The noise level in the evening is tolerable and actually muffled when you’re already  inside the room, nothing to lose sleep over.

Other hotel options with the same room rate as Natividad: White Beach Lodge, Nautilus Inn, VM Beach Resort, V Lodge, Medelyn’s Place, Agbing Beach Resort

I already tried Sea Jewel Resort which has cleaner and bigger rooms with newer facilities, but it offers a slightly higher rate of P2,000 per room per night. Worth the price for the soft, plush towels alone. I heard Dreamwave Resort and Mindorinne Hotel offer much fancier and more expensive rooms.

Tried Agbing during my most recent trip (2015). It is located near Marco Vincent Hotel, inner street but still near the beachfront. Agbing is highly recommended, definitely much better than Natividad. The room is clean and new. Rate is also P1,500 per night.

Didn’t bother getting contact numbers because I just walked and asked around. I was on vacation, no time pressure. Hahah. Maybe this hotel directory from Jolly Juan can help. 🙂

What I do have are the numbers of Joice Francisco (09218170764/ 09177840104), a friendly neighborhood room fixer and tour coordinator ready to sales talk tourists like me who just got off the boat at White Beach. I use the term “fixer” lightly because she wasn’t pushy and overbearing at all and didn’t wrestle for a “tip” for her “fixing services.” 🙂

She said she’s “connected with” Las Villas del Natividad so I guess she gets her commission from the hotel. I stated my budget and she helped me look for  hotels within the affordable price range. We went to see 4 or 5 hotels, even those she didn’t recommend and which I just heard from a friend or read in a blog. In fairness, without prodding, I still chose Natividad in 2014 because of its convenient location.

Food and Drinks

Rice Meals: P80-P140 in Food Trip sa Galera, Chicken Inasal sa Galera, VM Restaurant, and a myriad of  small eateries.

Highly recommended: Grilled Pork Chop with Rice (P100 at VM), Chicken Kebab or Pork Kebab with Rice (P135 at that nameless smokey grilling station between Mikko’s and Food Trip), Tocino and Tinapa with Salted Eggs and Unlimited Rice (P109 at Chicken Inasal sa Galera), Chicken Pecho with Salted Eggs and Unlimited Rice (P129 at Chicken Inasal sa Galera).

Water: Six (6) liters of Dalisay Purified Water is P100. Refill is just P60 for six  liters. This is much much cheaper than the well-known brands like Summit or Wilkins. Just bring a small personal water jug or bottle you can fill up and use while you’re out and about. When dining out, request ice from the food server. Sodas, juices, and bottled water, when tap water is not available at the restaurant, can easily cost you P20-P40 more per meal.

Beer: P40-P70 per bottle depending on which bar you’re hanging out. The cheapest ones would be at the White Beach Lodge and Restaurant and at Isla’t Alon Bar.

Mindoro Sling (rum and sugary fruit juice cocktail): P300 per pitcher, available in almost all bars along the beach

Red Bitch (a cherry/berry-flavored variation of Mindoro Sling): P250 per pitcher, available only at Isla’t Alon Bar

Halo-halo: P60 anywhere

Fruit Shake: P60-70

Green Mangoes: P20 (indian mangoes), P50 (carabao mangoes variety)

The Ultimate Tipid Tip

Go to Parkway grocery and buy chichiria/pulutan (chips and nuts), bread, cookies, noodles, chocolates, light snacks, toiletries and other items good for your entire stay at Puerto Galera.

If you’re travelling with a barkada and didn’t lug bottles of drinks all the way from Manila, you might like to mix up you own hard drinks and just chill by the sandy beach…in which case, buy the liquor at Parkway. The bars at the beachfront are hawking grossly overpriced booze.

Parkway is a small grocery store located along the main road, on the side away from the beach. It’s true — the farther away you are from the beach, the cheaper the goods. For comparison: instant cup noodles cost P20 at Parkway… and P45 at the beachfront stores. It’s just a short 10-minute walk from Natividad, and you’ll get to see the quiet side of Puerto Galera. There are other small street routes leading to Parkway aside from the one behind Natividad. As usual, just ask around and you’ll get there safely. The locals will gladly show you the way to Parkway.

Awaaaaaard(s)

Best Bar: Hands down, it’s Isla’t Alon. Facing the sea, go towards the left side of the beach. The bar is a few meters after Dreamwave Resort (the hotel with the largest signboard on the island so it’s a convenient landmark).

Isla’t Alon has cheap, cold beer and a relaxing atmosphere bathed in chill music and fuzzy candlelight glow. While the other bars play the latest dance tunes and show funny skits and glittery production numbers of lipsyncing gay performers, Isla’t Alon plays The Beatles, Jack Johnson, and a smattering of alternative bands. Yessssss, no bossa nova renditions of pop songs.

Low wooden planks as tables, mats spread out on the sand (no chairs), and pastel-colored canopies complete the beachy, summery feel. But I had you at “cheap, cold beer,” right? San Mig Light is at P45. (Tanduay Ice is at P40.)

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*** But since Isla’t Alon Bar already transformed into a tattoo shop as of April 2015, the best bar would have to be Coco Aroma. It’s located just a few steps away from the old Isla’t Alon.

Playing on Saturday nights is a fun reggae band with three awesome female vocalists and a guitarist with mad mad maaaad playing skills.

Coco Aroma’s Mindoro Sling is P400 per pitcher — more expensive than the usual, but it actually tastes better because it’s not sickeningly sweet. 🙂

Most Innovative Bar: The best unobstructed sea view and best spot for photo ops is onboard Liki Tiki Floating Bar. It… errrm… floats around 300 meters off White Beach.

A small motorboat stationed near the front of Dreamwave ferries customers to and from Liki Tiki for free. The boat trip won’t take more than 3 minutes.

Owned by an expat and catering to mostly expat customers, the bar offers food and drinks that are a bit more expensive (P70 for San Mig Pale Pilsen, P100 for Tanduay Ice, P150 for cocktails, P300+ for bar chow). But still, the live music by a reggae band at Liki Tiki was a welcome respite from the *tugstugs* thumping of the usual White Beach bars. And the beautiful view of the sea away from White Beach’s mayhem is divine.

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Best spot on the beach at sundown:

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Facing the sea, go towards the right side of the beach where there’s a big rock. It’s the place where the more adventurous used to go cliff diving. Used to, because the authorities disallowed it recently. This is the sweet spot away from the crowds — there are no bars and hotels in this area so not too many people mill around. No shaded area and trees too, so go in the late afternoon when the sun is less harsh and just lounge around until  the glorious sunset. The sand is finer, cleaner; the pebbles, smoother and bigger; the waves, a wee bit stronger.

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Best value for your P300: Try the one-hour full body massage at the beach. The price is regulated and the same for all massage therapists roaming the beach. Highly recommended in the evening when it’s cooler and darker and you can undo your bikini top without overexposing yourself to the beach crowd. 🙂

The Aftermath I spent a total of P4,600 for my 4 days / 3 nights stay in Puerto Galera. This includes expenses for transportation, hotel, food and drinks. If I include the massage fee, that’s still less than P5,000.

The amount easily doubles or triples up for a 4-day getaway at more famous beaches like Boracay, Calaguas, Coron, or Bohol.

Puerto Galera is not bad at all for a mini break. I’m stoked to work again. 🙂 And I’m so looking forward to my next getaway from my office cubicle with a view of Quezon Ave.

Here’s to work, approved vacation leaves, and the 15th and 30th days of the month which make these awesome days at the beach possible! Cheers to summer!

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