Hiroshima

So we went to Hiroshima.

Yeah, the place where the A-bomb struck. That’s pretty much the only reason anyone knows about this city. Which is really sad, when you think about it.

We took a bullet train south, from Odawara to Osaka to Hiroshima (it wasn’t be choice, it was very expensive and we weren’t pleased) and marveled at the smooth ride and flashing scenery.

The next morning we went out to see the sights. The two biggest things to see in Hiroshima are Hiroshima Castle and the Peace Park and Memorial. We easily did both of those in one day.

As we walked through the city, I was slightly nervous at the reception we might get as Americans. A year ago we talked to an Australian couple who stayed in Nagasaki and said they once had to pull out their passports to prove they weren’t American before the restaurant would serve them lunch. To be honest, I can’t really blame the restaurant.

So far, our trip through Japan had been wonderful (transportation issues aside), and we’d met some of the kindest, friendliest people. I talked with a Japanese girl who’d just returned form a three-month stint of travel in the States and mentioned how much it meant to her when Obama visited Hiroshima. “It made my heart move,” she said. Japan and the US have great foreign relations, and that extends to the everyday people, not just the government. Frankly, it’s amazing how much brutal history we’ve both been able to set aside in the past 70 years.

But in Hiroshima, no one batted an eye when learning we were American. I think Obama’s visit in May smoothed our way through the city, which I was grateful for. Still, as we walked, I wondered what it was like to live in a city known for tragedy. It’s only been 71 years. As beautiful as this thriving city is (and it really is a great city), 71 years is no time at all when you consider collective history and shared narratives of people groups. For example: one of their bus stops is called “the A-bomb dome.” What a burden that must be.

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The peace park, museum, and memorial are set up just a few hundred meters from the hypocenter of where the bomb struck. At one end is the museum (200 yen per person), at the other, the one building that survived the nuclear weapon. In between is the ever-burning flame of peace, which will burn until nuclear weapons have been banned, the children’s memorial with a statue of Sadako and her cranes, a Korean memorial, and more.

The A-bomb was dropped at 8:15 on August 6, 1945. It instantly killed 80,000 people. Over 6,000 of those where middle school children in the city center working to create firebreaks. About 20,000 were Korean slave laborers the Japanese had brought over to work in factories for the war effort. Twelve were American prisoners of war. It is very difficult to gauge the death toll, but the museum estimated about 350,000 people died from the bombs and radiation afterward.

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The bomb was detonated a little more than 600 meters above ground for maximum damage. While the city was used to air raids and bombers coming through, they stood still when the atom bomb was dropped. Three airplanes went past, dropping the bomb and two parachutes. Curious, people watched instead of fleeing for shelter.

The heat of the bomb was around 1 million degrees centigrade at its center. The heat of the explosion twisted steel, melted concrete, incinerated flesh and bones, and left only shadows of people behind. The few that survived were mostly 1km away from the hypocenter. They stumbled through the streets, some diving into the river, with their skin melting off their body. A few made it home, only to find their homes destroyed by fire and wind, even up to 4 kms away from the hypocenter. Others died, trapped in burning buildings.

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Children ringing the peace bell together.

Those that survived the initial blast died 1-20 days later from radiation. No one knew what was happening. No one understood radiation, and many hospitals were destroyed in the blast. Few images exist of the first day after the bomb. One photographer went into the city to document, but was shocked by the thousands of corpses amidst the rubble, and could only take five photos before leaving. He later died of radiation poisoning.

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This dome building, the peace memorial, was the closest surviving building to the epicenter. It was left just as the bomb ravaged it, with twisted steel rebar running through the interior.Known as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, it was only 160 meters from the hypocenter. Everyone inside died instantly.

Hiroshima was a military city–it had been for many years before WWII, and the 5th division of the army was stationed there. That, coupled with the fact that there was nothing left of Tokyo to destroy, was why the American military chose Hiroshima as its target.

We wandered through the museum, looking a couple of gruesome mannequins and the few remains of a few of the people who died. A charred lunchbox sat on one end, the only thing that a mother found after combing through her the rubble of her son’s school  for three days. There wasn’t enough of a body left to bury, let alone identify. A burnt and twisted tricycle was displayed in another corner, evidence of a four-year-old’s death. Artwork adorned the walls, showing women covered in black rain, digging through their burning homes to pull their children to safety. There is so much more I could tell you.

It was horrific. I had an audio guide which gave the testimonies of these things, and I had to skip through it. After two narratives I almost broke down in the middle of the exhibit, and I didn’t think that would be respectful of the Japanese’ story. “White tears” wasn’t something I wanted to cry when faced with the overwhelming, incomprehensible violence and loss of this city.

After the bombing, people believed nothing could grow there again for 75 years. It’s only been 71, to put that into perspective.

At the end of the exhibit was a display of photos of world leaders who had visited the museum and center. Front and center was Pres. Obama’s visit in May. It was obvious how special and healing the visit was for the Japanese people.

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At the end were discussion books, places for people to express their thoughts and feelings. I thought this was very touching, since going through an intense experience of the museum really does churn a lot of emotions and concerns up. You can see what I wrote in the bottom right of the page.

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Elsewhere in the park, a memorial was erected to remember the lives of Koreans who died far from their home in the atomic blast.

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Once out in the park, we were approached by several groups of middle schoolers who were there on assignment.

“We have studied English for five years and have questions for you. Can we ask you questions?” Five inquired, blushing and giggling behind their notebooks.

“Of course,” Jordan and I responded.

“Where are you from?”

“The United States,” we said, a little uncomfortable with that fact.

“Oh, wow!” They grinned at one another, excited. “So why are you here?”

“To learn. It is important we learn about bad things in the past so we don’t repeat them. Especially the Japanese and the Americans,” I said.

“What do you think of a bombs?”

“They are bad,” Jordan answered.

“And of Hiroshima?”

“Very, very, very sad.” I said, trying to keep words simple for them. “So many people. So sad.”

“Thank you for your time,” the oldest said. “Here are two cranes. You know about the cranes?”

We nodded and accepted beautiful origami cranes from them.

After they left, we wandered around the park some more. Although the mood was a little somber, most people seemed stoic. We passed one or two people were were crying on the steps (I felt like joining them).

I’ve been to difficult places before–not Auswitz, but the Killing Fields in Cambodia and a museum on human rights in Chile. I’ve been to Pearl Harbor. Those were difficult. But this was different. It was much harder to walk through the park knowing my country caused these deaths. And yes, it was war, and by definition war is terrible and brutal and deadly, but these were innocents.

The visit was difficult and uncomfortable at times and absolutely heartbreaking, but I strongly suggest everyone visit Hiroshima if they get the chance. Especially Americans.

To end on a lighter note, here’s a photo of Hiroshima castle. It was originally built in the late 16th century, destroyed by the bombing, and rebuilt.

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A tree in the courtyard, less than 1 km away from the hypocenter, survived the bomb. That tree gave the Japanese hope that one day, they could rebuild, that Hiroshima would be a city of peace once again. And they did.

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Little mountain town Hakone

After leaving Tokyo and the typhoon behind, we traveled a little way south to a mountain town in the Hakone district.

Because the tyhpoon disrupted train and bus schedules, it was very difficult to get to Hakone-Yumoto (the town we stayed in). I’ll just bypass that stressful evening of buses, trains, walking, etc., and get to the good part.

Hakone-Yumoto is a quaint tourist village with gorgeous nature surrounding it. Mt. Fuji can be seen in the distance, beyond a few lakes, and is very popular with Japanese travelers. Hot springs abound in Hakone-Yumoto, so many hotels have onsens, or public baths. I had been to a jjimjilbang before, so I wanted to check out Japanese baths and see how it compared.

But first: Lake Ashi and Mt. Fuji!

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We took a winding path up and over a mountain on a public bus to get from our airbnb to the lakeside village of Hakone-Mori. It was very cloudy that day, so we strolled along the shoreline just hoping Mt. Fuji would burst through the clouds. Many tourists drive to Hakone-Mori, take a boat across the lake, ride a cablecar up a mountain, and return to Yumoto village after about four or five hours. We didn’t want to spend that much money, so Jordan just went on a quick sightseeing boat ride._MG_0586

Although we didn’t go at a great time–the typhoon made everything difficult, from transportation to photos, the area is really beautiful. I’d happily go back and spend a long weekend there._MG_0568

Japan has beautiful cedar trees! I had no idea how much I loved cedar trees until we saw groves of them here. Although the Japanese are known for being tech-savvy and city-dwellers, they love their nature and have many parks, trails, and lakes dedicated to resting in the great outdoors._MG_0534

And there she is! Mt. Fuji herself! A beloved landmark, Fuji represents the pride, beauty, and determination of Japanese culture. We were so pleased that the clodus cleared long enough for a photo.

I know I haven’t included a lot of transportation information of coming and going, but if anyone planning a trip has questions, let me know. We made a few mistakes along the way (as helpful and friendly as Tokyo folks are, they don’t know how to leave their city very well and offer odd advice). After a time sightseeing, we hopped on the bullet train and went far, far south to Hiroshima.

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Seeing friends

We had the awesome opportunity while in Tokyo to see some family friends!

Ralph and Miho, missionaries with OMF in Tokyo, have stayed with my family when on home leave in the past. This time we got to see their hometown!

But before we did that, we rushed through the largest fish market in the world–Tsukiji Market. Normally at 9 am the place is massive, bustling, and full of fresh catches from the night before. But a typhoon had hit the coast, so few fishermen went out early that morning, and the market was much smaller than normal. It was also raining, so we kind of rushed from awning to awning rather than taking our time and sniffing tuna.

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Still, if you get the chance, definitely go!

We had originally planned a lovely trip along the coast with Ralph and Miho, but the rain made sure that didn’t happen. Instead, they took us to the church they volunteer at and showed us. I had seen photos before, when they were in the States and telling us about their mission, but it was a lot of fun seeing it in person.

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They took us to a local sushi joint, and Ralph kindly told me what to order and how to eat it.

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That’s my face before I tried the squid, I believe.

Visiting with friends was a wonderful experience, and it was so nice to be around people that spoke Japanese and could navigate the suburbs of Tokyo like a native (because they are natives!).

Jordan and I were a little sad to leave them so early, but we had to catch a bus to Hakone before the weather got worse.

 

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Historic Tokyo

On a lark, we decided to visit the Tokyo Edo Museum. We were glad we did!

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It cost 620 yen a person to get in, but the museum was huge and had tons of information about Tokyo during the Edo period, which ran from the 16th century to 1868. In the words of the museum, “In 1590, Tokugawa Ieyasu entered the Kanto area and made Edo his power base. In 1603, he was rising to the rank of seii tai shogun (literally meaning “barbarian-subduing generalissimo,” commonly known as shogun) and established his shogunate in Edo. Ieyasu worked to develop Edo into a capital suitable as the home of the shogunate.”

The shogun and emperor are two separate people. If you want a crash course on the history of Japan (which explains who the offices are for and how they got mixed up), click here.

Anyway. Edo was a little fishing village in 1457 and became a booming metropolis of over 1 million people by 1721. In comparison, London was about 650,000 people at this time. New York City had about 8,000 people. Once the shogun made it his home, commerce took off. Buddhist temples and brothels and theaters were built side by side, samurai built their city manors near the shogun’s residence, and common people lived in tiny, barracks-like homes strung together.

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In the 1850s the United States pretty much forced Japan to end their isolationist policy (which was good for trade but bad for public health–many died of cholera and smallpox). Nationalism was stirring at this point (think The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise), and amidst the nationalist vs. American/modernist views, there was also political upheaval between the emperor and the shogunate/military factions. In 1868 the Meiji Restoration. The emperor abolished the office of Shogun and the Tokugawa family that hadh eld the office for around 300 years. The emperor welcomed westernization with open arms. As you can imagine, it was a very difficult time in Japan. This was when he moved the capital to Edo and renamed the city to “Tokyo.”

The museum depicted this in practically living technicolor, with moving models and beautiful panoramas. We were particularly impressed with how much information the graphs and charts gave. I’ve never seen such detailed info at a museum. It gave specific demographic statistics about many men, women, and children lived in a neighborhood at a certain decade and how many craftsmen were employed along specific streets. I was amazed.

After Edo Museum we strolled to Ueno Park, which is a must-see. Multiple museums, libraries, and gardens converge on this part of the city. We wandered through trees and walked by fountains, admiring signs that proudly displayed “TOKYO 2020!!” At the National Museum (which is primarily artwork–don’t go unless you love art) we snapped a few photos of old teahouses.

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Nearby are also old, famous shrines.

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We ended the day by walking through Yanaka Cemetery. Many famous people are buried here, from poets and novelists to the last shogun. Over 7,000 people are laid to rest here, and from the gravestone we could see some were Buddhist, Shinto, and Christian.

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It’s a great way to get a feel for old Japan, something more traditional and cherished in their culture. It’s also a lovely, quiet place for a walk.

We had walked about nine miles at that point, so we were tired and went back to our hostel to collapse in bed. Good thing, too, because it began to rain. We weathered the beginning of our very first typhoon that night!

 

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Imperial Tokyo

Tokyo has many gardens, botanical exhibits, and parks. I had no idea there were so many green places in the city!

The most famous, of course, are the Imperial gardens by the Imperial Palace in downtown Tokyo. (Note: While you can visit the Imperial Palace, reservations must be made at least four days in advance. And they have a weird schedule. We weren’t able to go because they don’t give tours in afternoons in August).

_MG_0438Although the emperor still lives in the palace, the gardens are free and open to the public. While they are loveliest in spring during the cherry blossom season, it was nice to see wide, green spaces and trees surrounding medieval moats.

Built on the old Edo castle, the gardens were once considered some of the most expensive real estate in the world (circa 1980s).

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Between the East Gardens, peeking through the trees to get a view of the palace, strolling through the National Archives, and exploring the Science Museum, this part of Tokyo took up most of our day. I also got a sunburn._MG_0462

A famous watchtower–all we could see of the Imperial Palace.

The gardens host various types of fruit trees, irises, and cherry trees. It’s a great place to enjoy good weather and take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city.

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Land of the Rising Sun

We arrived in Tokyo midmorning without much planned except a hotel to drop our bags off. Although people had warned us that transportation in Japan would be difficult because they speak little English, we didn’t have a problem communicating to the train ticket agents about where we needed to go and how to get there.

What we should have done: purchase a suica card while at the Narita airport. But we didn’t, because we weren’t thinking about how complicated public transport is in Tokyo.

Tokyo is the largest city in the world. Including the surrounding area, Tokyo has upwards of 3o million people. Because of that, we had a hard time settling on a district to stay in. We finally picked Asakusa.

A historic district, much of the older buildings were either destroyed in an earthquake in 1923 or American bombings in WWII. However, there are still nice cultural pockets in the neighborhood to enjoy. Jordan learned that this is one of the few places in Japan left that we could spy a real-life geisha in. Sadly, we didn’t see one, but we did see lots of girls in traditional dress.

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There’s also a pretty cool temple/shrine in the neighborhood.

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Senso-ji is the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo. The two statues in the gate behind Jordan are the god of wind and the god of thunder. During the Edo period of Tokyo, brothels and theaters cropped up in the neighborhood, beside shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Today it’s a great place for souvenirs, Japanese food, and enjoying a beer.

Across the river is SkyTree, a massive tower/mall opened in 2012. At 634 meters tall, it’s one of the highest structures in the city. Inside is an aquarium, planetarium, gardens, and many restaurants.

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Everyone here plays Pokemon Go, and SkyTree has an amazing pokemon center. Jordan had to have his photo taken with it, as you can see.

Behold, the tower:

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We had a lovely view of the city. Towers and buildings stretched as far as the eyes could see. By the time we’d explored Asakusa and Sumida City, it was night and we decided to save the rest of Tokyo for tomorrow.

Tokyo Sky small

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Boracay

One of the most popular islands in the country is Boracay, a small beach paradise nestled in the south. It’s blue waters and white sands call all types of tourists and travelers year-round.

Sheltered by other, larger islands, Boracay doesn’t receive as much of the rain and wind, which makes it a great place to visit even during monsoon season.

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We hopped on a plane in Manila to Kalibo airport. Although the flight took only an hour, the small island airport had us hold in the air for about 30 minutes because there was too much traffic on the runway. While there’s another, closer airport to Boracay, Kalibo is cheaper to get to.

After landing, we hopped off the plane and looked for transport. Taxis and buses all wait around the arrivals doors, shouting prices and places. A taxi driver approached us and offered to take us to Caticlan, the town where we needed to go, for 1,000 pesos. This is extravagantly overmuch, so we ignored him and went for small, white buses.

“250 pesos for bus ride and ferry ticket,” another man called to us.

“200 pesos and no ferry ticket,” I bargained.

“Okay,” he said happily, and took us to his white van.

We waited about20 minutes, until he found other passengers, and we were off. Traffic is still a problem, even on smaller islands, and I watched as he weaved between cement trucks, tuktuks, and other vans through the middle of town. The trip to Caticlan is normally two hours, but he made it in an hour and a half.

The ferry port was a madhouse. People streamed around, looking for proper lines and down the pier tourists hopped on ferry after ferry.

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In one line, we paid the environmental fee, which was 100 pesos a person. In the next line we bought our actual tickets for 25 pesos apiece. The third line was registering our passage and validating our ticket. And then, finally, we walked down the pier and hopped on a ferry. (On the way back, we had to pay an environmental/terminal fee AGAIN, but this time it was just 30 pesos a person).

The ride itself was short, but it took us to a different port on Boracay than we had anticipated. So our walk across the island to our hostel was long.

But the beaches are worth it!

We stayed at a small hostel about a 12 minute walk from the beach, far from drunk partiers and expensive resorts. Although there’s lots to do on Boracay, we mainly rested on the beach and enjoyed the palm trees.

I went scuba diving(!) and later we built a sandcastle.

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It was my first time diving, and I was very nervous about the water pressure and my ears, but it ended up not being a problem. My instructor/guide was patient and let me take all the time I needed to pop my ears and equalize as we went. We went only about six meters deep, but that was plenty for me.

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Jordan stayed on the boat and sketched, not wanting to spend the extra money. Still, it was a great price– I paid 2,000 pesos for a dive and a CD full of photos and videos. I really loved exploring underwater, especially at such an affordable price.

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The sandcastle was my idea, but Jordan really ran with it. After about two or three hours’ work, one shovel, and one small bucket, this is what we got:

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Unfortunately, our time in the Philippines is almost at an end. This country deserves so much more of our time, but we’re leaving today and heading for Japan.

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Taal volcano

Although its monsoon season, we decided to risk the weather and take a day trip out of Manila. Jordan really wanted to see a volcano while in the Philippines, so we set out to Taal Volcano about two hours southeast of Manila.

We hopped in a jeepney to take us to the bus station. At first a jeepney ride seemed daunting. Lonely Planet said you rarely end up where you want to be the first time you hop on, and the people at our hostel hadn’t given a lot of information beyond, “look for one that says BuenDia, the bus station you want.”

Jeepneys are US army jeeps leftover from WWII, repainted and tricked out. Run as a private bus, these jeep runs up and down one or two main streets and charge 9 pesos a ride. So we braved Manila traffic and flagged down a jeepney, which was easier than I expected.

The traffic light was red, so we climbed aboard the back end, cramming next to some Filipinos. We passed our pesos up the line, and the person sitting nearest the driver handed our change to him. This jeepney just went up and down Taft Ave., which was where the bus station was, so we just kept our eyes peeled for anything that looked like a bus terminal.

When we saw it, I shouted, “Para!” and the driver pulled over to the curb. Para means “stop” in Spanish. It’s really interesting to see the leftover Spanish still in Tagalog—sometimes I can even tell what people are talking about because I speak Spanish (but that’s pretty rare).

We paid the bus driver and hopped on board to Tagaytay, the town near Taal volcano. One-way a ticket costs 83 pesos. It was hot and sunny for three hours, but as soon as we were dropped off in the middle of town, rain began to pour.

That’s rainy season for you. We ran into a store, bought an umbrella, and then it quit raining. For a while it was 30 seconds raining-cats-and-dogs, 30 seconds dry, on repeat. We stopped for lunch to let the weather make up its mind.

Although the hope had always been to climb the volcano and peer into the lake of the crater, we weren’t sure if the rain would allow. After hemming and hawing for a while, we decided to pay a tuktuk to take us down the mountain to the edge of the lake.

The volcano is in the middle of a lake, and makes up one of the islands in that lake. The volcano’s crater, however, is filled with steaming water, and inside that mini lake is another tiny island, making it an island in a lake in an island in a lake on an island in the Pacific Ocean (Wrap your mind around that!).

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We bargained with a tuktuk driver to take us down to the lake for 150 pesos. He started at 250, but agreed readily to the lower price. It took abotu 30 minutes to get down the winding, narrow road. At the bottom of the hill in the little village of Talisay, tour operators offered to take us to the volcano island for 2,000 pesos (about 40 USD). It was standard price, regulated price, they told us, and I believed them because no one had offered any other price than that.

_MG_0251The boat driver threw two ponchos into the deal, so we agreed and got in the boat. After about 20-25 minutes through the rain, we arrived at the Taal island. Rain had stopped (thankfully!) and we were hassled about riding horses to the top of the crater. They were charging 450 pesos a horse, which we weren’t going to pay.

“You must take a guide,” the men taking environmental fees told us.

“We want to do it ourselves.”

“You must take a guide. It is the only way. 500 pesos for a guide.”

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Then Jordan and I did that really awkward talk-with-your-eyes-but-be-discreet-because-they’re-watching-us thing that we’re still not very good at. We saw a couple coming down the track with a guide, and thought maybe it was legit. We also knew that we couldn’t ask anyone else on the island if it was true–they’d all back the men up.

Unhappy with hidden fees, we agreed. Our guide set a grueling pace up a well-worn path. Even though I’d eaten lunch and had both coke (caffeine and carbs and sugar!) and water, I had to stop a couple of times. Even after reaching the top, I was lightheaded.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you hike that fast,” Jordan commented.

“I have this ridiculous fear of people thinking I’m weak,” I huffed, my face bright red. I was very glad to see our guide breathing hard at the top. I sat on the stairs to let my heart rate fall while Jordan explored the observatory point.

Across the lake are fish farms, growing mainly tilapia. Our guide said he did the volcano circuit once a week and ran a fish farm the rest of the time. About 2,000 people live on the island, mostly running horse rides to the crater and living on subsistence corn farming. We passed through part of their village, crossing the basketball court. Toddlers stared at us as we went past, dressed in old hand-me-downs and barefoot in the doorway of their bamboo homes.

“Rain is coming!” some of the teenage horse guides called back and forth, and the few of us still at the top of the volcano huddled under a couple of rickety bamboo shelters. When the wind blew the rainclouds over us, our guide decided he was done and wanted to go home. So another grueling pace was set down the volcano.

At this point, I should add: You don’t have to buy a guide. You CAN do it yourself, no matter how hard they pressure you. We figured that out later.

Jordan was tired of the guide setting our pace for us, so he meandered down with his camera. I was tired and thirsty, so I kept pace with the guide.

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Once returning on the boat, a tutuk took us back up the hill to Tagaytay for 250 pesos. We hailed a bus on the main road through town and headed back to Manila (cost about 70 pesos a person). Even though we didn’t get back to Manila until 8:30 at night, and I had wanted to return around 6, I was really pleased with how we’d navigated buses and jeepneys and tuktuks. Everyone speaks English here, so that made a world of a difference.

Despite getting roped into the tour guide, we had an awesome time exploring another part of the Philippines. We really like how friendly and outgoing the people are, and we just wish we had more time to do island-hopping.

We do get to visit one other island, though, before we leave. Next stop: Boracay!

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Pearl of the Orient

Jordan and I arrived in Manila much later than anticipated. We had a very short time planned for the city of Manila to begin with, but this flight delay ate into half of it. So we were scrambling to readjust our city itinerary and condense our plans into the “must see” list only.

I had heard that Manila’s international airport always hits the top three list of the worst airports in the world, so I was a little concerned about what we’d find once arriving. Terminal three, which we flew into, is brand new, I believe. Built in 2014, its waiting area is small and has few seats, but overall I experienced no problems. We will fly a domestic flight through the airport, so we’ll see if that’s any different.

Being sleep deprived and a bit confused on taxi services (I thought a yellow taxi and regular taxi were the same thing and was surprised to find signs pointing different directions), we made a bad call there. We let an airport taxi convince us that they were safer and better. I was vaguely sure that the trip from airport to our hostel in the Malate neighborhood shouldn’t cost more than 300 pesos, but wasn’t sure. They started quoting a 1,850 pesos, which is about 31 USD. I knew that was ridiculous, so we walked away. They haggled down to 750, which I agreed to. And that’s how we paid double. Instead, we should’ve gone straight for the white taxis with “Taxi” signs on their roofs and asked the driver to run the meter. That’s the smarter, more frugal plan.

Everyone that’s ever visited or lived in Manila talks about the traffic, and after one taxi ride I see why. Cars, jeepneys, trikes, and motos weave in and out of the lanes, just like any other undeveloped urban sprawl with roads under construction. Manila has about 12 million people and not enough roads, so its understandable when traffic jams occur.

Malate is a hip, fun neighborhood near the bay and many cultural sites in the city, and we’re glad we picked it. We checked into our hostel, crashed in bed for an hour, and then forced ourselves to get up and explore the city.

A taxi took us from our hostel to Fort Santiago, costing just 75 pesos. As we got out of the taxi, the wind picked up. It had been overcast all day, threatening rain, but we hoped to avoid the worst of it.

“We did go to the Philippines during monsoon season, so I guess this is what we get,” I told Jordan as it began to rain.

Fort Santiago is one of the oldest complexes in Manila. Built in 1571 over an indigenous village, the Spanish held the fortress for over three hundred years despite attacks, earthquakes, and storms. When the American forces took over the Philippines, it was the headquarters for the US military. The Japanese took it in 1942, using it as a prison for Filipino and American soldiers. Near the end of the war, in 1945, during battles waged to reclaim Manila from the Japanese, it was destroyed. Rebuilt by Americans, it was handed over to the Filipino government in 1946. Now it’s a historical site, housing important Filipino history and a shrine to their most beloved national hero, Jose Rizal.

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Although many historical and culturally important things happened at the fort, the most important is the execution of Jose Rizal, which happened right here in this square._MG_0202

Isn’t this architecture just amazing?

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Anyway, inside the fort is a museum dedicated the life and death of Jose Rizal. A doctor, poet, novelist, and artist, Rizal was born to an affluent Filipino family in 1861. Privileged with a great education and social status, Rizal spent much of his time writing about Filipino culture and nationalism, joining a growing force of Filipinos that wanted the Spanish out of their country. Although he did not fight or plan the revolution, he supported the cause and encouraged other Filipinos to consider retaking their homeland.

He was executed on December 30, 1896 by firing squad and buried in an unmarked grave. His large family, including his new wife, were heartbroken. But the revolution was underway, and in 1898 gained independence from Spain.

While we were in the museum, it began storming. Thunder crashed around us, and although we were wet from some rain, Jordan and I looked at each other and mouthed, “we’re inside!”

Then the power went out. Actually, while we were indoors, a tornado swept across Fort Santiago and headed north. I just found that out while writing this blog post. It really was a good thing we were inside, because the wind broke branches and crashed heavy metal fencing, which would’ve hurt. We were perfectly safe as we parsed our way through the branch-littered sidewalk, unaware that 100 homes in northern Manila had been damaged.

The rest of the afternoon was spent dodging rain and trying to see as much of Intramuros as we could. The historic quarter of Manila, it’s the only place left with a few Spanish colonial buildings. Much of the neighborhood was destroyed during WWII, but a few streets are still cobblestoned and a few old churches still stand, like the Cathedral of Manila:

_MG_0212

Other things to see in Intramuros:

  • Casa de Manila museum
  • Bambikes ecotours (this was recommended to us by some friends that loved it)
  • the old city walls (most reinforced by Americans during WWII)
  • plazas and grotto parks

This district is kind of a place to explore the nooks and crannies in, to admire the architecture and enjoy the Spanish vibe. Plenty of men hawked their trikes and their horse carriages, encouraging us to hop in and ride around the quarter with them. We decided we’d walk, even if it was raining.

San Augustin is the flagship of the district, and with good reason. The church was bilt by the first missionaries to the Philippines in 1571. The church, built between 1587 and 1606, is now more museum than convent and church. They do still offer mass everyday, and we almost ducked inside at the call of the bells.

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Admission into the museum is 200 pesos per adult, but very worth it. We walked through the halls and courtyards of the church, admiring old paintings and sculptures. There were exhibits of 17th century religious art, like ivory statues of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Child. We looked at old prayer books from the 1700s and admired the wood carvings done by monks hundreds of years ago.

Based on the information given at the church, it seemed that Filipinos welcomed Christianity and the Augustinian order to their islands, and converted without many problems. Although this opened the country up to Spanish colonialization, many Filipinos in the past (and today) are staunchly religious and protective of their faith and churches. It was honestly really nice to see an example of evangelism done well. I’d guessed that Catholicism had been in the Philippines for many years, based on how many Filipino missionaries are spread across the world, but I didn’t know exact dates. I loved learning more about Christianity in another culture and time period.

When the museum/church closed at 6, we wandered through the district a little longer before heading to The Aristocrat, a Filipino restaurant on Manila Bay. I have a friend from college who married a Filipino man, and he very kindly recommended a few places for us to check out. I am so glad he did, because this food was amazing.

_MG_0236

That’s rice and BBQ chicken. We were wet, bedraggled, and sleep deprived. Delicious, hot food was exactly what we needed. If you’re in Manila, check it out!

Hopefully weather will clear up, and tomorrow we can head out of town for a daytrip. So far, though, I’m loving Filipino culture!

 

Categories: Philippines, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Getting to the Philippines

Summer break has arrived!

I’ve been waiting a very long time for this. And finally, our two-week vacation is here, and we can go travel some more. Jordan and I had booked our tickets a few months ago, back when flights were still cheap, and had decided to visit the Philippines and Japan.

Our flight went from Busan to Manila on Saturday evening. We were supposed to land in Manila around midnight, get a good night’s sleep, and hit the city running in the morning. But that didn’t happen.

The airplane was delayed because of bad weather, so instead of leaving at 9:40 pm, like scheduled, airport staff said it could be 10:30 “or canceled because the airport closes at 11.” The airplane landed at 10:40, and people poured out of it, disgruntled from being an hour behind schedule.

“Everybody board!” crew announced, and we rushed for the airplane as fast as we could. I’ve never gotten through a gate and into a plane as fast as we did. Ticket agents were ripping boarding passes and pushing us on. When we got onto the airplane, we were told no to buckle our seatbelts because the plane was being refueled as we boarded. By 11:05, cabin doors were shut and everyone held their breath in anticipation.

Then the pilot announced that the flight had been canceled and we all had to disembark. This was all very difficult to understand, because announcements were first made in Korean, then English. But all the Korean passengers groaned and complained over the English announcements, so we had no idea what was happening. Jordan and I looked to the few other Westerners on the flight, asking if they heard more. As we got off the plane, we realized that the tower had probably decided it was 11 pm, they wanted to go home, and shut down the airport.

Airline agents and staff were in a tizzy, rushing around and whispering to one another as we all filed back through immigration, got our passport stamps voided, and waited in the gate. No one knew what was going on.

Information was passed out first in Korean, then English, but by the looks on people’s faces, neither Jordan nor I were convinced the information was accurate. The entire airport had been shut down, so we filed through dark hallways until back in the departure hall, where we lined up at the ticket counter. Thankfully, we were fourth in line from the front. We stood, sweating without AC, waiting for someone to tell us anything.

After about twenty minutes an agent began explaining that the flight was canceled, would fly tomorrow weather permitting, but not before 6 am. She walked down the long line, speaking to groups of six or seven at a time. Finally one man came to the ticket counter and beckoned the first person forward. Five minutes later, the passenger left, unhappy, and the second person went forward.

We had made friends with another American traveler, and joined him at the counter when it was his turn.

“Okay, so what’s going on?” he asked the ticket agent.

“One moment.” The airline employee scurried out from behind the desk and to a back office. Two minutes later he came out. “The flight will go tomorrow.”

“When will that be?”

“We don’t know yet. Write your name and phone number down, and we’ll call you in two hours and let you know.” He gestured to piece of paper and pen on the counter. “Everyone will do this.”

We asked about hotel vouchers.

“We called, but every hotel in Busan is full.”

We asked where we were supposed to stay for hours with the airport closed.

“I do not know.”

We asked about a taxi voucher.

“Maybe not.”

We asked about them calling a cab.

“The airport is closed. All the taxis have left for the night.”

So we left, unhappy with the inefficient way it was being handled. Over 100 people streamed behind us, each waiting to get up to the desk and receive the same disheartening information. Twenty minutes later they announced over the PA the flight would depart at 10:30 am, but maybe earlier if everyone showed up earlier.

Jordan, me, and our friend found a cab and split a fare going back to Sasang, the main bus station in Busan. There we walked for over an hour, looking for an available room. No hotels had room. No love motels had room. No noraebangs had room. I tried to cool off in a hospital waiting room, but the security guard shooed me out.

“I had a scuba diving instructor who’s Korean,” our friend mentioned after stopped at the 7-11 for water and Gatorade. “He said in a pinch, you can rent a DVD room and sleep there. Pay for the movies, but not actually watch them.”

We agreed to give that a try.

So that’s how at 2 am Jordan and I ended up in a small room, paying 24,000 won for pirated copies of The Merchant of Venice and Jurassic World and asking not to be disturbed until 6:30 am. The room provided two pillows, a small blanket, and a leather lounge that we stretched across and tried to sleep.

Long story short, we turned back up at the airport the next morning having slept very little, boarded the flight at 9 am, and FINALLY landed in Manila. Most of our day to explore Manila was shot. But here we are, safe and sound and so relieved to finally be on vacation.

Categories: Philippines, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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