As an unofficial saying goes, the best adventures are oftentimes unplanned. And potentially overly expensive, but hey, it’s the experience that matters the most, especially when you get to share it with your best buddies.
It wasn’t exactly totally unplanned though, as my friends were already set about two months ago; it was I who was situated in a difficult position:
1. Japan itinerary scheduled on June 24-29. Just came back to Riyadh on June 5 from a 3 week vacation in Dubai and the Philippines. Had no booked flight and hotel, no Japan visa, no Saudi exit re-entry visa and most importantly, no approved leave yet.
2. If I do get my leave confirmed, I have less than 2 weeks to prepare everything.
3. Just came from vacation. Had minor surgery days before I left. I’ve spent money, and will need to spend more should this trip push through, and have another leave booked in September.
So the most logical, carefree and financially sound decision would be to just let this one pass. And then see photos of your friends having the time of their lives. Without you. No way. Hahaha.
Going back. Now it all boils down to whether my manager confirms my leave request. Went to her office on the 8th of June since she was not working over the weekend when I reported back again for work. I didn’t expect anything. If she says no, then there’s nothing I can do, really. If she says yes, then, I have to brace myself for a crazy ride.
Crazy ride it is. Timeline: 15 days left.
Things to do: Apply for Saudi exit re-entry visa. Apply for Japanese visa. Gather documents. Request bank certificates. Book flights and hotel. Expect the unexpected. Try not to think of the expenses. Be alive in time for the trip.
June 15. 8 days left. My last weekday off before departure date. 1 AM. Booked hotels. Finalized papers. Failed at booking the flight online via Korean Air. Caught a few hours of sleep. Went to government relations in the morning to collect my Saudi visa. Passed by the bank to retrieve my requested certificate. Sprinted off to the travel agency to book my flight. Yes, only that morning. Card declined. My mind froze for 5 seconds then I asked the travel agent to try again. Success. Took a cab straight into the Japanese embassy, with one hour left before they closed visa application processing at 12 noon. I made it and was asked to come back in 3 days to collect the passport and visa.
I might have shed a tear or two at that moment. Hahaha! Nah I didn’t. All the stress and toxicity was worth it and celebration was in order however, the lingering image of my bed inviting me to well deserved slumber was all that occupied my mind as I waited for a ride home outside the embassy.
BTW. For those who might ask, check out the website of the Japanese embassy first from where you are currently residing to know the travel requirements. As a Philippine passport holder, I was required to apply for a visa, but had waived visa application fees because of an agreement between the two countries. Make sure you have all requirements. At the Japanese Embassy in Riyadh, I was asked to leave all belongings except my travel documents at the entrance for security purposes. And I was the only one inside the visa application section so everything was sorted out quickly.
End of Prologue 😀
June 23, 2015. King Khalid International Airport, Riyadh. 1500 H
I booked a Korean Air flight leaving Riyadh on the 23rd, travelling to Incheon, South Korea for a 12 hour layover, and finally arriving in Osaka at 9PM on the 24th. Sounds crazy? No. I chose the 12 hour connecting flight for another purpose: get out and explore Seoul, South Korea! It’s like hitting 2 birds with one stone. I’ve always wanted to visit South Korea and besides, this was the cheapest flight I could find. My initial plan was from Riyadh going to Malaysia, passing by Vietnam, then Osaka. It was a cheaper itinerary at first but then thinking about the extra expenses (of course I intended to go out of all of those airports), it wasn’t feasible anymore. Perhaps on the next trip.
I left Riyadh at 3PM, and arrived at Incheon International Airport at 630AM local time. My flight going to Osaka was at 715PM that evening. That should be enough time for a day tour!
Korean Air might be my new favorite airline after Emirates. It was very cool and spacious, I got the whole row to myself, and the flight attendants were also very pretty. I meant nice and attentive. Haha! Passengers were mostly Korean, and I expected beforehand that the flight attendants will initially converse with me in Hanggul. I do have that Asian look at certain angles haha. Last year in Shanghai, people kept talking to me in Mandarin. If you’ve read my blog before, you’d also know that I took Korean Language classes before in Manila so I wasn’t at a total loss. But I had to reveal my true identity when they were asking me for my dinner choice. I should’ve learned how to say Chicken, Beef or Fish in Hanggul hahaha.
Going out of Korea is a different story. Check first if you need a visa and other travel documents. Now again, as a Philippine passport holder, I would usually need to apply for a tourist visa before I am allowed to exit the airport’s immigration. However, if you have a visa going to Japan, US, Canada, NZ and Australia and only transiting through Korea, you WILL be allowed to go out of the airport as long as you show proof of your travel documents. Amazing stuff you learn by spending a few hours on Google. Perfect.
June 24, 2015. Incheon International Airport, South Korea 0625 H
The airport was offering day tours (1, 2, 3 and 5 hours) for all transit passengers for FREE. There are lots of connecting flights via Korea going everywhere so the government has provided free tours to boost their tourism sector. I could also take the AREX and explore Seoul by myself. I opted for the cheaper and safer option. When I arrived in Incheon, I looked for the free transit tours booth, chose a 5 hour and a 2 hour trip since I had time to spare, and was presented with a form to fill up to show the immigration officer before I could exit. There wasn’t a lot of questions, just present your boarding passes coming to and going out of Korea, and the Japanese visa. Passport stamped. Yoohoo!
It was an exciting feeling, exploring a new airport, breathing Korea’s air, which 2 weeks ago I didn’t think would be possible, and finally tasting authentic Korean food! Signed up at the transit tours booth, grabbed a quick bite first since food was not allowed in the bus, and by 8AM, we were on the road to Seoul. Our tour guide was friendly, Miss Kim, and gave us introductions, a bit of history, where we were going and what to expect from the 5 hour tour. The tour bus was almost full despite the MERS-CoV scare. (Coming from the country where it all started, I wasn’t really affected. Hahaha) It took around 50 minutes from Incheon to Seoul, so it was mostly a 3 hour Seoul city tour.
One of the most famous tourist attractions in South Korea, it served as residence to the Royal Family during the Joseon Dynasty. This was our first stop and we were supposed to pay an entrance fee, but there was a special event or something so we didn’t need to pay anything. I’ve seen it many times before in Korean historical dramas but seeing it and actually feeling it up close was really something. We got to see the inside of some of the quarters, the lagoon, a traditional fridge (actually a place where they buried pots and made kimchi and other fermented stuff) and a breathtaking view of a mountain in the background.
Insadong Street – Jogyesa Temple
After the palace tour, we went to Insadong street, a place thriving with lots of restaurants serving Korean traditional food, shops where we could buy souvenir items, and studios where you can have your photo taken wearing Korean traditional clothing. We were having our lunch here. One of the main reasons I chose to stop over in Korea. To taste my favorite Korean food. Bibimbap! It was all Filipino transit passengers in our table and all except one were nurses, and bound to the US after the tour.
After lunch, I got to walk around with 2 other Filipino tourists. One who was a nurse working in the US wanted to have a photo wearing a traditional costume, and so we accompanied her. And moments later I was wearing one myself hahaha. Well it’s not everyday that you get to do stuff like this so why hold back. Better than having regrets, right?
We were off to our last destination, Jogyesa Temple before heading back to the airport. Two major religions in South Korea are Christianity and Buddhism, and locals and tourists alike are welcome to enter and experience the temples up close.
Finally back on the bus, tried to sleep but couldn’t, and I was at the airport again. I bid farewell to my kabayans since they needed to board soon. And I hopped on another tour bus! It’s free so why not. I chose a 2 hour Incheon tour this time.
Incheon Grand Bridge – Drama Shooting Site – Heungryunsa Temple
We had a different tour guide for my second tour, Michelle who was just as friendly. This time it was just 7 of us in the bus. We just passed by the grand bridge going to our first stop. If you’ve seen the Korean drama “You Who Came From the Stars,” then you’ll recognize the site where the main actor stopped the car from falling off the cliff. Yes I’ve seen the drama but never finished it.
Next stop, Heungryunsa Temple. Two of the tourists were also Filipino so we did what Filipinos do best; take pictures of each other haha. They thought I was a soldier because I wasn’t talking in the bus. I mentioned that I will be taking a flight to Japan that evening and they shared that they lived there for a few years and that I will surely have a good time there.
Back to the bus, to the airport. Still had time to kill, and it was 4 more hours before my flight. I decided to explore the airport and eat more Korean food haha. I entered immigration, didn’t need to check-in since I was to collect my bags in Osaka, and looked for the Spa On Air which was recommended by the tour guide. I also read about it online and it wouldn’t hurt to try, and besides I needed a bath because of the day tour and I didn’t want to go to Japan feeling and smelling dirty. I approached the nearest information booth and was told the spa was outside immigration. Too bad. But I did find some shower areas which were free to use for transit passengers. After the much needed bath, I laid down for 30 minutes in one of their lounges, and went looking for food. I already knew what to order when I saw the menu. Black bean noodles it is! Jajangmyun! What watching Korean dramas can do to you.
So the time has come to leave Korea. Not too many passengers on the boarding area. Will I be missing you? Only for a while. I have another 10 hour layover going back to Riyadh on the 29th.
June 24, 2015. Kansai Interational Airport, Osaka 2055 H
Three of my friends, Russell, Anna and Jason were supposed to arrive at 8PM from Manila, but had a slight delay so they were only ahead for a few minutes. I hadn’t thought of changing money in Korea so I just withdrew money from an ATM machine in Osaka. Works for me. Saw Jason in a while trying to change money, then met with the rest of them shortly. I just saw them a month ago in Dubai, and here we are, in Japan, clueless, nihonggo-less, but well dressed hahaha. With team leader Russell on active mode, we were sure to get to our destination. Or were we?
From Kansai Airport, we took the train going to the center of Osaka, Namba station.
The railway system in Osaka is composed of many interconnected branches and lines. It’s complicated for the novice traveler. It would help a lot to do research on this since this is the main means of transportation around and will help you to get to your destination. And if all else fails there is the cab.
We got to Namba station after 45 minutes. Since I only confirmed to join the trip days ago, I was not able to get a room in their hotel so I booked a different one near the area. And I’d rather have my own bed. My fault, I didn’t do enough research on how to get to my hotel from the train station. Which I thought was just your average, small train station. Or so I thought. We found an information booth with a friendly looking woman who tried to help us as much as she could. We showed her our maps and she gave us directions. I parted ways with them and agreed to meet up for dinner after we checked in. I attempted to find my way out of the complex station but it wasn’t that easy. I found myself in one exit and it didn’t seem like the one I was supposed to go to. I went back. Google maps wasn’t working. So I trusted my instinct. I might have spent 15 minutes circling around but I did find the correct exit. Whew.
New Japan Capsule Hotel Cabana
A capsule hotel. Yes seriously. Why? It was cheap, it was in a good area in Dotonbori, and why not, it’s not like I was spending my entire day there. I just needed my own space to sleep at. There are some more important details which I will be disclosing in a while.
Basic etiquette. You need to remove your shoes first and place it in a locker before you even go to the hotel desk. It is considered disrespectful not to do so.
After I settled and checked-in, I called them up to meet for dinner. Meet up place under the Glico man, whoever he is. We chose a random ramen shop in Dotonbori, which was just a few steps from my hotel. They didn’t need to know that I had Jajangmyun at the airport before I left haha and I was famished anyway. Really good ramen and gyoza! Great meal to end my busy day. We called it a day and went back to our hotels to get a good rest for tomorrow’s activities. After 9.5 hours flight from Riyadh, 12 hours in Korea, another 1.5 hours flight going to Osaka, and an hour in the train ride and finding my way out, I was ready to sleep. But not just yet.
3 words. Public. Bathing. Nudity.
So. I already knew about this before I confirmed my booking. That I have my own capsule bed, my own locker, free toiletries, and a common bath area, spa, sento and sauna. Now since my pre-pubescent years, I’ve never, ever been naked with other people. I know some people do it in the gym. Some do it in nude beaches. But not me.
I’m in Japan. This is a normal thing here. I don’t know any of the guests here. They don’t know me. I’ll be here for 2 nights only. So let’s do this. I’m all up for new experiences, which is the point of vacation and adventure. The best way to experience a different country is to embrace and live it’s culture. (Trying to rationalize for my want to save money hahaha)
The lockers are pretty small, so you leave your luggage at the hotel counter and keep your important stuff in the locker for easy access. When you’re ready to take a bath, you strip off at the locker, and wear only the tiny blue shorts provided and your waterproof locker key which is also a bracelet. Other people were doing it. It’s already past midnight. I should be fine. I read about this, the basic things I needed to do, but I had to ask the guy there for instructions, in case there was something I missed. He was very helpful despite our language barriers. I took a deep breath, stripped and went to the bath area.
There were not a lot of people since it was almost 1AM. Some old men, some young men. This was an all male, 18 y/o and above only hotel. I took off the teeny weeny shorts and started the bath. You could either do it sitting in the stools, or stand up, whichever you prefer. But most were doing it sitting. So trying to fit in, I imitated the others. It was not bad. Everything you needed was in front of you. Soaps, shampoos, conditioners, shavers and toothbrushes. I thought I would be nervous throughout the whole experience, but there was nothing to it really! Just do your thing, let the others do theirs and most importantly, avoid eye contact haha. You’ll be fine.
If you just want a normal bath, it’s fine. But there’s still the sento, or the hot bath. It is the indoor equivalent of a Japanese hot spring bath or onsen. Since it is not a natural hot spring and is produced by artificial heating of the bath water, it is called a sento. I had to try it. Basic rule: take a bath first. Again, no clothing, no underwear, only your birthday suit. You may bring a small towel, cover your ‘jun-jun’ when going out of the hot bath and place it on top of your head while immersed. But you cannot put it in the water and soak it. So you’re supposed to stay in the very hot bath, then shift to a very cold one, then you can repeat the process or take a final bath again. There’s also the sauna, steam room, and swimming pool. I tried everything. It was very relaxing and I had a very good night’s sleep.
What about the capsule? Yes, it looks very small from the outside. A claustrophobic’s nightmare. But it wasn’t! I was able to sit up, and despite my big body built, it didn’t felt cramped. It was very comfortable. A very good first night in Japan. 😀
June 25, 2015. Osaka, Japan
From what I remember, coming from JR Namba station, you’re supposed to go down Imamiya station, then change to another line that will take you to Universal City station. But I could be wrong so just ask Google. I just relied on Russell mostly 😀
I’ve never been to any Universal Studio park before, so I didn’t know what to expect, which is a good thing. The park was jam packed! Some foreign looking tourists, but mostly Japanese. We aimed to get express tickets but it already ran out so we got the regular fare instead.
It might be the biggest theme park I’ve been to, which meant it involved a lot of walking, and getting sun burnt. I didn’t expect the sun to be at it’s highest but it’s summer time so what to do but enjoy everything. We got tickets first for the Harry Potter section of the park, had lunch, and entered an entirely different world. It was huge! We were walking through Diagon Alley, had butterbeer, visited the wand shop, and got to see Hogwarts castle. We might have spent 2 hours or more inside the complex, before trying out the other rides outside. We went for the roller coaster, backdrop! I hated the waiting time but riding a roller coaster backwards, you should expect a different kind of thrill!
We tried out a few more rides, but only those with short waiting times since we had another itinerary planned in the afternoon. If only we had an express ticket. Oh well, there’s always next time. We had Takoyaki first before heading out for the train station towards our next destination.
It was a long walk from the train station to Osaka castle. So the lazy ones that we were, Jason, Anna and I had started planning to convince team leader Rus to take a cab instead going home haha. We didn’t enter the castle anymore but the view from outside was great. There were some souvenir shops near the castle, an ice cream store that served green tea ice cream and it was compulsory that we tried it. And what is this, a Takoyaki food truck? No need for more questions haha. This is a Takoyaki binge day.
After much convincing, it was agreed we would take a cab home. We were lost for a bit but we did find one after a while and it was actually cheap for four persons sharing the fare. We went to our hotels first to freshen up before scouting for a dinner place. I took a complete bath since my body yearned for it after a long day. And I was over the nudity thing since it’s the 3rd time already.
I don’t know the name of the restaurant, but it was really really good! A bit costly compared to yesterday but it was worth it. Sushi, sashimi, fresh ingredients, tempura, japanese rice, what else can a Japanese food lover ask for?
After dinner, we walked around and explored Dotonbori, took a picture again with the Glico guy, bought some chocolates and stuff to bring home, resolved some issues between 2 people haha, ate cake, ate okonomiyaki, until it was time again to call the day.
June 26, 2015. Osaka-Nagoya via Shinkansen Bullet Train
Time to leave Osaka. I bid farewell to my capsule, and all the attached experiences with it. Certainly refreshing, liberating and titillating haha! We took the Shinkansen going to Nagoya, where we will be meeting Fifi and Peter who arrived last night. I’ve tried the MagLev in Shanghai last year, and there wasn’t much difference. We reached rainy Nagoya in 45 minutes and took a cab to our hotels.
Finally we were complete! We had late lunch, took an afternoon nap, and started to explore the area. It was night time and raining but as I quote from the pabebe girls, “Walang makapipigil sa amin” hahaha! We walked around Sakae area, Oasis 21, and chose one restaurant that had vacant seats. Another round of ramen and tonkatsu! We got ice cream and started the walk back to the hotel. And then decided that we will eat sushi back in the room. One of the best things about Japan is that you can buy sushi at any convenience store, and it’s actually good. So we end the day with sushi binge, and dozed off thinking of more sushi for the coming days.
June 27, 2015. Nagoya Castle, Osu Kannon, Flea Market
We bought a day ticket because we were likely to use the train the whole day, and it was cost effective. The rain has stopped so no one thought of bringing an umbrella, which proved to be a bad move later. On our way to Nagoya castle, we saw a Takoyaki stand. Takoyaki should not be kept waiting. Takoyaki gives us energy. Haha.
This time, we were able to enter the castle. We saw the golden dolphin, which looked like a golden Magikarp hehe, got to visit all floors and revisited Japanese history. Outside the castle, more souvenir shops and food carts. It was raining again as we made our exit, but we didn’t let it keep us from going to our next destination. Took the train again, asked for directions, and made our way to Osu Kannon Temple and Flea Market.
While standing outside the temple, an old man approached me and Anna, and gave us bird food! There were lots of pigeons in the area and we just threw it everywhere. One birdie went up my shoulder and thankfully didn’t poop hahaha
We entered the flea market, ate some more street food, bought souvenir items, a kimono set for someone, until we became hungry again which necessitated the need for more ramen.
Went back to home base after for siesta time, explored the sakae area again at night in search of eel, found it in Yoshinoya where we had dinner, walked around the area some more and finally, slumber. I believe we had sushi night again before actually sleeping haha.
June 28, 2015. Nagoya-Chubu Centrair International Airport
Last day in Japan (for them). We just took things slow and had late brunch in a busy shopping center near Sakae. No itinerary for the last day, just chilling out.
In the afternoon, we took a bus going to the airport, and had a final dinner before separating ways. They were bound to Manila that evening via Cebu Pacific, and I still had one more night to spend here before my morning flight back to Riyadh. My vacation was nearly over, and again the questions: why do good things come to an end, why can’t we just be on vacation forever, why o why?? So it was farewell. See you again on our next adventure.
But not yet for me. I booked a hotel which was connected to the airport. After checking in, I roamed around the Tokoname area and the airport. But my real destination was the Fu No Yu or Bathhouse with a View. I might have missed the experience in Osaka so I wanted to have a relaxing bath to end my Japan escapade. The unique feature of the spa was a transparent ceiling where you can see planes taking off and landing, and an open area in the balcony with lounging chairs for you to relax and enjoy the cool breeze outside. I slept comfortably that night, and might have bought sushi on the way back to the hotel 😛
June 29, 2015. Choice Hotel, Chubu Centrair, Tokoname
My last day. And I had to maximize it. I went down early for the complimentary breakfast buffet before my morning flight at 930AM. On my way back to the room, I saw two bicycles at the hotel lobby. They were free to use by hotel guests. And I had enough time for a quick ride. Something I learned from this vacation, Just Do It. And so I did! I was told I could only go in circles around the area but it was fine with me. I haven’t ridden a bike in a very long time and I’ve been wanting to ride one here in Japan so it couldn’t have come at a better time. Enjoying the cool air on my face, not worrying about anything else but just to pedal and enjoy the scenery around as a last memory of Japan was absolutely fitting. (Forgive me for the shameless selfie haha)
Incheon International Airport, 1130AM
Back in Korea’s arms! I knew the drill, get to the free transit tour booth, pass through immigration, register for the tours, and be back in time for my flight to Riyadh. I had 10 hours layover this time, so I chose the 1 hour Yonggungsa Temple tour at 12 noon and the 5 hour Seoul shopping tour from 1-6PM. It was Michelle again this time who served as the tour guide. I was looking for other tourists but there was no one else, so I knew I had to talk a lot or else make things awkward for an hour.
Yonggungsa Temple, Incheon 1300 H
It was just an hour tour, so it was a quick ride from the airport going to the site. We chatted for a bit since she recognized me from the previous tour, and she asked where I was working, where I went for my vacation, and I also returned some of her questions. See? Human interaction is not that hard. Haha. When we reached our destination, she gave a short history on the temple, when it was made, it’s significance at present for the local community, and she introduced me to the temple dog who played dead when you say the word ‘Bang!’ I said goodbye at the airport and we exchanged IG accounts.
Seoul Shopping tour, Namsan Hanok Village
I won’t say much about the tour guide, because she didn’t seem like one. She never introduced herself, never talked during the bus ride, and looked like she was just filling up for someone else. But this is a free tour so I dare not complain. We were four in the tour this time. I should have taken the AREX and explored on my own, but I can do that next time.
We went to a traditional Korean village, got to see young students doing Taekwondo, and explored the area for a while before going to Myeongdong, a shopping district. She said she could take us to a nearby church if we wanted, but we all agreed to just meet after 2 hours in a designated spot.
I haven’t had lunch yet so I walked around until I saw a Galbi place. I ordered spicy Chicken Galbi, with additional Parmesan cheese sticks. I then saw one of the tourists in the bus enter the restaurant and he sat at the table next to me. He had all features of being a Filipino and I almost talked to him in Tagalog in the tour bus. But he was Hawaiian haha. He was a piano teacher so we got to talk a bit about music while eating. We then separated ways as I window shopped along Myeongdong. Finally, it was time to leave and we were back at the airport in an hour.
Four more hours to kill. I was deciding whether to see a movie in the cinema, or freshen up in their Spa. I chose the Spa since I could not find the movie house and I felt sticky from the day tour. Or maybe I’ve become addicted to it already.
Spa on Air/Jimjilbang
Same setting like in Japan. But the Korean style bathhouse or Jimjilbang had a common area for both genders where you can lie down, sleep, relax and eat after taking a bath. If you’re fond of Korean dramas, then you’ve most probably seen one. I didn’t stay long though, as I was afraid to oversleep and miss my flight.
Finally, I passed through immigration and went inside. Some last minute shopping, looking for kimchi and jjampong to bring back as ordered. And then the final meal. My first meal should be my last as well. The taste of Bibimbap as my last memory of Korea. Excellent.
Left Incheon International Airport at 10PM for a 9 hour flight, arrived in Riyadh 3AM local time, took a cab towards my accommodation, and prepared to leave by 6AM for work.
Crazy it may be at first, but it was a well enjoyed vacation. I felt like I was gone for more than a week. Let’s not talk about money, because I don’t have much left anyway haha. I’d rather revisit all the memories, because it was worth every penny. 🙂
Till my next adventure!
*Photos courtesy of Russell, Jason, Booking.com, and the world wide web