Staying in Osaka’s Kita (Umeda) ward

Whenever I travel, one of the things I’m eager to see is the neighborhood where I will be staying. In Saigon, it was at the heart of the backpacker’s district where noisy, touristy bars and hole-in-the-wall cafes and eateries lined the street. In Hong Kong, it was along Nathan Road where all you needed was to roll off the bed and you’d find yourself shopping.

In this recent trip to Japan, we decided to stay in the Kita district. Also known as Umeda, this northern part of Osaka seemed relatively not as popular as the Minami area. With flashy Dotonbori in Minami luring droves of travelers especially in the evening, Umeda, the guides write, is more of a daytime destination with a few good department stores, countless restaurants, and the Umeda Sky Building one of its few attractions.

View of Osaka from the Umeda Sky Building in Umeda, Kita-ku

View of Osaka from the Umeda Sky Building in Umeda district in Kita-ku

Imagining Kita to be not as flashy or crowded as the area of Dotonbori or Namba, but still with a respectable number of places to see, I booked a hotel in its Doyama district. (It also helped that the major rail terminal Osaka Station is located in the area, which conveniently serves the JR Kyoto and Kobe lines and the Osaka Loop Line for those planning to make Osaka their base and see the other nearby cities.)

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A weekend at the beach

Salt water was entering my snorkeling mask and to my nose. The bed of corals seemed to be getting closer and closer to the surface, just a few inches below me (and I seriously had a thing against touching corals since I imagined them to be delicate creatures that will be irreparably damaged with any slight human contact). For a moment, I think I froze and just continued to inhale the sea water. When self-preservation instincts finally kicked in, I got to remove my mask and made unsuccessful violent attempts to cough out the sea water I inhaled. Friends swimming farther away were telling me to join them–where the corals were prettier and there was an area where one could stand and rest. I wish I could tell you I put on my mask again, swam toward them and gaped at the corals until the sun set, but being largely the wimp that I am in the water, I told them I was going back to shore. We were in Batangas, a coastal province near Metro Manila that’s dotted by many beach resorts. Most of its visitors come not for the beach though (it’s very rocky and booties are a must), but for the diving spots scattered off in its waters. Non-divers that we all were who made the trip that weekend came not for the diving spots but for the bridal shower of a friend. We left Manila around 8 am on a Saturday, driving down South Luzon Expressway to Star Tollway, then to several Batangas towns or as my friend referred to them, ‘Tile Town’ (need to buy tiles on the way to the beach, then you’ll be in luck since there are several shops selling tiles and other flooring materials) before we reached the town of Mabini, where the beach resort, Lilom is located. Lilom used to be a private family resort that opened to the public just last summer. It’s managed by the same cool wake-boarding architect mom behind 10a Alabama, a gallery and furniture shop, which holds an arts and crafts fair every so often; it doesn’t surprise that the place has the same artsy charm, refreshing Filipino design aesthetics, and a relaxed vibe. Continue reading

The cure for Saigon and temple exhaustion

Getting to Siem Reap after a day in Saigon and before heading back there for a couple of more days was a relief. Don’t get me wrong. I like the Vietnam city. The energy of the place, the urban sounds, the food, and most of the people. But when you get screamed at in the marketplace, get almost run over by one of the millions of motorcycles (how predictable, right?), and get screamed at by the driver of said motorcycle (because I’m the newbie at crossing the Saigon streets, hence my fault entirely) on your first day, it can get a bit overwhelming. Thank God for helpful hostel and hotel owners, nice Banh Mi ladies, sublime bowls of pho, and cold Vietnamese coffee. (More about Saigon here.)

It was also a relief because we were finally in the town just outside the Angkor temples, a town that–at least for the next couple of days we were there–offered a little time of quiet and not a massive number of motorcycles.

We got things started on the right foot when we got to our inn. We booked a room at Angkor Discover Inn, a lovely little 2-story boutique hotel located in a quiet part of town, but a short 15-minute walk from the Old Market Area. The inn was supposedly designed in a traditional Khmer house manner. Loved how it look, loved the greenery around it, loved coming home to our room (though a bit small was still pretty and always kept clean), loved the very helpful staff, and how nice and quiet everything was. There were other people booked in the inn, but we only saw a couple of them during breakfast and while we were waiting for our tuk-tuk driver to pick us up before sunrise to head over to Angkor Wat.

Angkor Discover Inn

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Back at Casa Vallejo (sort of) and dessert at Hill Station

When I was recalling some of my most memorable travel lodgings, I included Casa Vallejo in Baguio because it scared the living shit out of me and my companions when we stayed there more than a decade ago, just before it closed. We never actually saw anything, we just heard creepy sounds and felt the heebie-jeebies all throughout our stay. Well, I finally made it back to Casa Vallejo on a recent trip to Baguio.

The new Casa Vallejo

A friend was providing us free accommodations, so we didn’t book rooms in the newly refurbished boutique hotel. And refurbished it truly was. It had a bright and more polished looking lobby, the hallway was no longer as dim as before, and most importantly, that eerie I-feel-like-somebody-is-watching-me-from-the-end-of-the-creepy-hallway was no longer present. (It helped that at the end of the hallway, where the old ballroom used to be, was now the lobby with a cheery staff behind the counter. And we didn’t stay for the night, so we’re not sure how it ‘feels’ then.)

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Where to stay: Cheap & cozy in Kyoto

Around this time last year, we were looking for accommodations in Kyoto and Tokyo. Since we were on a budget, P and I had accepted the fact that we would be staying in a mixed dormitory or at least be sharing toilet/bath facilities with other travelers in a hostel or inn.

We found IchiEnSou in Hostelworld.com. It was (still is) highly rated, looked like a cozy Japanese home (which it was originally back in 1920), cheaper compared to ryokans and other inns in the area, and supposedly had an “idyllic location, one street off the main street in the most famous Geisha district in Kyoto, called Gion.” All the previous guests that booked through the website had left positive reviews–confirming that it had a great location, that it had a warm and cozy atmosphere, and special mention to the owners who took their guests on walking tours around the neighborhood. That did it. I booked two beds in the mixed dorm.

Watch out for the small IchiEnSou sign by the bottom of the door

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