Vietnam Vespa Adventure

September 15, 2013

I came from a country that is notorious for motorcycle accidents. The highway leading to my home holds the record for having the most number of motorcycle-related deaths in the Philippines. I have never dated a biker dude. And so, I can confidently say that no, I am generally not comfortable with riding a motorcycle.

It is therefore quite a surprise to me that I enjoyed our Vietnam Vespa adventure as much as I did. I am recommending it to anyone visiting Ho Chi Minh. It is such an efficient way to fall in love with the city in a very short amount of time.

Happy faces on a happy Vespa!

Happy faces on a happy Vespa:)

I asked our tour guide Dat, “Does everyone in Vietnam know how to ride a motorbike?”. “Yes”, he said,  “well, maybe except for my mother”. So no, it is neither an act of courage nor madness on my part to ride a motorbike. In Vietnam, that’s really just how things are done. I heard a lot of tourists just rent a bike and travel all around the country.  It would have been appealling if we had a month or so to stay. This  day tour is the best option given the time we had.

It was my choice to take the Wartime Memories Tour (I am not a war buff. Quite the opposite actually – I know nothing about it) . I was smiling from under my helmet the moment our bikes started moving. I enjoyed our stops in seemingly ordinary buildings that actually played a part in Vietnam’s history. Dat speaks very good English and he surely knows what he’s talking about. It was educational and entertaining at the same time.

Here I am, listening about Dat's stories about the Opera House and the Notre Dame.

Here I am, listening about Dat’s stories about the Opera House and the Notre Dame.

Vietnam Vespa 3

The CIA used to have a secret office here!

Vietnam Vespa 4

Inside the post office.

My favorite part of the trip was the stop at the War Remnants Museum. It is just three floors of pictures, actually – no fancy exhibits, but everything is so moving. It left me with a heavy, feeling that reminded me of how cruel humans can be. I mean, Agent Orange? C’mon! I left the place feeling thankful. I made a promise to never complain about any petty luxury that I don’t have.

I usually don’t like going on organized tours because usually has this tourist-y feel that stops me from full experiencing the country like a local. This one didn’t give me that feeling at all. It was an honest and raw .

Do check them out! Our tour cost $50 each:)

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No to Starbucks

September 8, 2013

I rarely go to coffee shops for coffee. I don’t even know the difference between drip and brewed. So long as I have something to sip, I’m a happy kid. Sad to say, I spend way too much money on and way too much time in coffee shops. This habit started in law school, and is possibly the only reason I stayed as long as I did.

Travelling helped me discover how comfortable I am with being alone – in every sense of the word. I like living by myself, I like eating by myself, I like working by myself, I like drinking by myself,  I like dating myself even. I am okay with being alone even if the rest of the world Is having a party. And so I guess it is my introverted personality, more than my love for food (believe it or not), which makes me love coffee shops so much.

I’d love to say that I read pages and pages of classic books when I’m in coffee shops, but I get distracted so easily. Thank you, Japan-ultra-fast-magical-3G-connection-and-iphone. Thank you, distractingly over-dressed teens who are fun to watch. Thank you, imagination and your endless what-ifs. Shamefully, my books usually become coasters or paperweights to keep tissue in place.

Coffee shop time is “me time”. When I’m in a coffee shop, I feel like a spectator, and I can watch the world go by. I don’t need to show any emotion. I don’t need to nod in agreement to anything. My little coffee shop corner, wherever in the world that may be, is a shielded place.

I recently started a “no to Starbucks” album in my Facebook account. It is admittedly my lazy choice when it comes to coffee shops. I don’t want to be lazy anymore. Visiting coffee shops is a fun way to explore.

Sad that I don’t have pictures in some of the meaningful coffee shops I used to visit in Bangkok. Anyway, here are some of my recent favorites:

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CAFE NOISE, SUNSHINE CITY, IKEBUKURO- Great vibe! very chill. They serve wonderful meals too.

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LON CAFE, ENOSHIMA- They only serve French toast. Four kinds- this one is fig & cheese. They serve it with ice cream. Second best I’ve tried in my life. The best still comes from home!

DEAN AND DELUCA, SHINAGAWA- had this as my birthday breakfast. Pastry selection is tempting.

DEAN AND DELUCA, SHINAGAWA- had this as my birthday breakfast. Pastry selection is tempting.


Ueno, Tokyo, Japan

September 8, 2013

I realize that I’m going to leave Japan soon. I find it unfortunate that I haven’t written much about this country yet. These last remaining weeks, I will try to make up for my lack of writing, and perhaps for my lack of travel too. Let me start with what happened today.

I live in Okachimachi. It’s one of the stations of the JR Yamanote Line, meaning it’s right in the heart of practically everything happening in Tokyo. It’s adjacent stations are Akihabara and Ueno. Akihabara is known as Tokyo’s electrical town. And the other  station, Ueno, is the side of Japan that I kind of like. It is home to cultural sites, and a street market district that is so different from the bustling high-end stores of Ginza and Shinjuku.

I went to Ueno today. By that I mean I spent my time relaxing like a tourist instead of rushing like a mad salaryman to catch the train. My sister was with me. Being with this kid made it feel like I was on a field trip.

at the start of our long day!

at the start of our long day!

It was about a fifteen-minute walk from our house to Ueno park. The more common way to find the place is to ride the JR Yamanote line, get off at Ueno station and then take the Park Exit. It is almost impossible to get lost. English signs are available all around. A tourist can easily spend an entire day in Ueno. There is so much to do in this place.

We went to the Tokyo National Science Museum first.  I paid 600 yen for my entrance but it was free for my 6-year old sister. Considering the size and caliber of the museum, the admission is reasonable. I opted to pay another 300 yen for an English audio guide, and even taking this into account, I’d still say the trip was worth it.

Maybe it was just my own mistake, but I assumed that the exhibits start on the first floor. As it turned out, it was supposed to be the last stop. We ended up starting on the exhibition about astronomy and the scientific methods of study. On the sixth floor, where one is supposed to start, there is a room that provides the overview of the whole trip. Here are some of my favorite parts of the trip:

This is the preserved body of the famous Japanese dog, Hachiko.

This is the preserved body of the famous Japanese dog, Hachiko.

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Space food!

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Traditional Japanese clocks for the typical middle-class Japanese.

I wanted to have lunch at a place called Park Side Café, but the line was just too long. I’ve learned that a hungry kid should never be kept waiting. So we opted for a pizza stand just outside the Ueno Zoo. We had a nice cheesy pizza, some fries and a corndog for 1,500 Yen. It was a pretty good meal, and it added a field trip vibe to our lunch.

Next we went to the Ueno Zoo. I think I enjoyed it more than my sister did! We went to Tokyo Disney Sea recently, and I felt like the zoo was organized like that. It is a very happy place. All it needs are bunch of floats and Mickey Mouse singing in Japanese.

I am amazed by how organized, clean and smell-free the zoo was. The zoo area was huge but organized. There were tables and chairs for resting and eating. My sister loved the zoo map with square boxes that she needed to stamp as we visited different places. Really, it was like Disneyland.

This made me miss BKK.

This made me miss BKK.

Riri

Can you spot Riri?

The highlight of the zoo seems to be Riri and Shishi, the pandas from China.  In typical Japanese fashion, these pandas were made into cute cartoon characters and brilliantly marketed with posters and kawaii merchandise. My sister knew their names even before we came to visit. And amusingly, the Japanese, even the senior citizens, all made a fuss over how cute the pandas were. I agree they are cute, but the elephants are cute too. And the polar bear. And all the other animals. Riri and Shishi are not even from Japan!

One thing though, I am not entirely sure how I feel about zoos in general. These animals are taken away from our natural environment for our amusement. I guess the animals should at least receive 5-star treatment to justify their imprisonment.

Overall, any tourist should spend a day in Ueno- especially those who are interested in seeing a more down-to-earth and relaxed side of Tokyo. I haven’t even talked about Ueno shopping yet! It is so different from Shibuya and Shinjuku. It is a good place to get a taste Japanese culture in a day.


Training Abroad

May 29, 2013

I find it quite useful to have a hobby. I got into MMA when one of my friends dragged me to a gym in Cubao because we were both heartbroken (Hi David!). I don’t know what kept me going even after he stopped. I just found myself training and training and training even if I had no plans to compete… Even if I was the only girl on most days…. Even if it was getting quite expensive. Eventually, I willingly gave up weekends just so I can train. Training was a stress-reliever, and team felt like family.

Choosing to travel meant I had to leave the gym I’ve grown to love. However, I love the sport enough to look for other gyms. It was like starting from scratch, but I didn’t want to stop training.

Imagine how difficult it was (is) for me. I am a girl with little background in MMA. It is a full-contact sport dominated by strong men. And -here is the clincher- I will learn the lessons in languages I don’t understand.

In Thailand, I trained in three gyms. In one of the gyms I first trained it, I felt like the coach was hitting on me. Good thing I had to transfer cities so I had a non-paranoid reason to transfer gyms too. Eventually, I stuck with a gym affiliated with the Royal Thai Army. Best decision ever. I ended up being friends with the owner. I even joined them in watching Muay Thai matches. We tried Muay Boran. Also, I ended up doing volunteer work for them by teaching English on Saturdays. Although training was never as hardcore as the ones for fighters, I feel like my Muay Thai experience came in a complete package. My only regret is I never bought legit Muay Thai shorts.

Now here in Tokyo, I train only in one discipline in one gym. I’ve fallen in love with Jiu-Jitsu, and I believe I am in one of the top gyms in the country. In general, I think jiu-jitsu is the friendliest of all martial arts. I know most jiu-jitsu gyms encourage a sense of community among it’s members. I don’t know if it’s like this in all gyms or if I really just got lucky with mine. Point is, I really feel like they welcome me…even if I am a girl…. and even if I don’t know Nihonggo.

About 80 percent of our lesson is in Japanese, and a lot of my partners cannot speak English well enough to explain my mistakes. Luckily, the coaches can speak English. And the headcoach does so really well. And everyone is pretty much trying. Most of the guys try to help me when they can. I guess the advantage of this is I’ve become very observant when it comes to movement because it’s the only way I can learn. Often though, I feel shy to ask for advice or to have someone teach me after sparring- only because of the language barrier.

For a close-contact sport like this, it is extremely important to feel comfortable – with the environment and with the people. I still remember the night I went for a trial class. I spent about five minutes psyching myself up before entering the gym. It would’ve probably been easier if I were a boy or if I knew Japanese or if I already knew a lot of jiu-jitsu moves. I’d consider that one of the brave moments of my Japan stay – yes, even braver than sparring for the first time.

Training makes my travels more meaningful. Jiu-jitsu gives wise ways to spend time. The gym gives me some form of social life. It is just a hobby, but it means so much more – especially because I am training abroad.

 


Quick Update

February 3, 2013

I admire people who can diligently maintain their blogs because I have this nasty habit of creating and deleting any sort of online account whenever I feel like something in me changed. I haven’t written in a long time because I don’t know where or how to start again. So much has happened, and it’s so tempting to just create something fresh. But surprise, surprise I am still here. Making a new blog is just too much work, and certain days of my life are still quite interesting. And so I write.

How time flies! Here’s a list again. Hopefully, when I write more regularly, I could come up with real entries once more. If you’re my facebook friend, you probably know all these already. But it still feels good to put everything together coherently.

1. I really love working with kids!

I am a teacher by accident. I got here by trying out so many things that I thought I like, but finally, I think I’m happy with where I am. When my students look at me not only with appreciation but also admiration, I am reminded of how capable I am to inspire. They make me want to be better. I learn so many things in teaching. I like how the kids teach me to trust my ability to make decisions, black or white. Whenever twenty young faces look at me for answers, I cannot just go with the flow, I need to trust that I am mature enough to choose. I think that’s something that the universe has been struggling to teach me for quite a long time. Just like magic, things fell into place and the most effective tool to teach me turns out to be a job that I’d unexpectedly like.

Here are some of our kids in school in the happiest elevator in Japan. The kids wave happy goodbyes to all those passing by. Fun to watch the faces of the grown-ups.

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2. Japanese Konbinis are emptying my pockets.

I spend way too much on food. With  the exercise I think I’m getting, I don’t feel too guilty anymore. It’s the unnecessary spending which gets me. Convenience stores here are the most convenient ones I’ve seen – and they sell the most interesting kinds of food. I’ve tried a lot of Kitkat flavors (which will probably be the topic of my next blog entries), all sorts of drinks and snacks. My new addiction is this winter food called oden.  Also, flavored water. Every trip to the convenience store is an adventure, and I always find something to amuse me. I am trying to convince myself that money spent on food is not money wasted.

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caloriemate is supposedly a diet food. but i think i eat too much of this. i doubt it helps me lose weight at all.

3. I finally started jiu-jitsu a month ago.

And it’s a lifesaver! December was hell for me. Winter was depressing, and I felt like a robot because of the school-home routine. How things are in training definitely deserves an entry on its own. For now, let me just tell you that I don’t know how I’d manage to amuse myself in this lonely country if I didn’t try it out.

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4. I’ve gotten over my constant fear of being lost or losing things.

You’d be familiar with this feeling if you’ve tried commuting alone in a foreign place with a language you cannot understand. For the first few weeks, I was on my toes all the time because I was scared. Now, I think I’m finally comfortable with finding my own way. I sleep on the train a lot. I don’t need to constantly confirm the directions that I need to follow. I’m okay with having just the exact amount of cash that I need in a trip. I guess these are signs that Tokyo is finally becoming a comfort zone somewhat- not completely, but it’s nice to know that I’m getting there.

5. I officially hate winter and I hate snow.

It makes me sad for no reason, and everything becomes too dramatic because of the gloomy weather. I hate, hate, hate walking on the streets with melting snow. I am so glad that the season will soon end!


Shimo-Kitazawa (Odakyu Line)

December 29, 2012

I’m afraid I was caught up in the school-home cycle the past weeks. Admittedly, I haven’t been exploring as much as I want to. I blame it on laziness, and the cold weather. Fortunately, a long holiday just started. And I’m taking this opportunity to get to know the city I live in.

Today, I spent my afternoon exploring the lovely neighborhood of Shimo-kitazawa, a district popular with people interested in interesting things. One of my friends described it as Harajuku’s cooler cousin. While I have doubts about the term cooler, I am sure that I enjoyed my two-hour exploration. And I definitely, definitely enjoyed the place more than Harajuku.

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I guess the idea is similar to Harajuku. The stores are mapped out in alleys and passageways, and you never really know what interesting store you’ll see next. I say it is better than Harajuku for two reasons. First, there are fewer people and they are not as young as the Harajuku crowd. There is no pressure to look weird or unique or hot. Actually, I think the words I’d use to describe the Shimo-Kitozawa crowd are non-judgmental, laidback, relaxed, artistic and surprising. Exactly my kind of crowd. Second, I think the shops in Shimo-Kitozawa are more interesting. Aside from the typical shoes, clothing, and accesories stores, there are thrift shops, a postcard shop, art galleries, a caricature shop, furniture stores, several beer pubs, and many undiscovered little places. I kinda felt that all the stores in Harajuku were the same, but I did not get that feeling in Shino-Kitazawa.

Our first stop was Angel Bakeshop, where we got the famous miso bread. I had mine for dinner and it was amazing. It is not expensive too, costs less than 200 yen a piece. I would definitely have this bread again. Here’s photo of the bakery where you can get it from. It is a couple of steps away from the south exit.

ImageShimo-Kitazawa is famous for thrift shops. I visited several but I wasn’t in the mood to buy anything. There was this particular store that sells everything for 500 yen. There was also this one which sells vintage outfits that make me want to go on a date. Here is a very hipster photo of me, inside a very hipster shop, taken in an embarrassingly hipster way. I did not bother to edit with Instagram as that would be too much.ImageI saw an interesting caricature place and I would love to have my tourist friends drawn, such a personalized souvenier for a low price. They said drawings could be finished in ten minutes.

ImageI think I may have found one of the most interesting shops in Tokyo, a postcard shop. Yes, an entire shop that sells only postcards. I could probably spend more than an hour just looking at the postcards they sell. They have all kinds from different artists, both Eastern and Western. They have movie-posters-inspired and album-covers-inspired. They have cartoon-inspired and manga-inspired. In other words, heaven for a girl like me. I’d post a picture of the ones I bought but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone who will receive my postcard lovin’. My only purchases from the trip were a couple of postcards and a 2013 planner because I am a nerd like that.

The coffee shops and restaurants really got me interested. One day soon I promise to date my favorite book in one of those quaint little places. We did try out a coffee shop called Southern Hill Cafe. Coffee and cake for 550 yen is not so bad, especially considering how comfy and homey the place is. It felt like I could sit there all day. ImageImageI think I love this place because of how it made me feel so relaxed. It felt like it was okay to do anything, and be pretty much my usual self. No rules, no standards. It also felt like Shimo-Kitazawa would welcome anyone. No matter what kind of things you’re into, you’ll probably find a way to amuse your self with. I look forward to trying out the restaurants and pubs. And I want to visit the galleries too. One day very soon.

If you are in Tokyo, do yourself a favor and visit Shimo-Kitazawa. Because Harajuku is too mainstream:)

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Christmas 2012

December 29, 2012

It`s now winter in Tokyo, and coming from a country with only two seasons, I am trying to make all sorts of adjustments, physically and emotionally.

Winter is an expensive time of the year. I cannot help but wonder how it’s like for the homeless. The only things that keep me warm are layers and layers of clothing (imagine how our laundry looks like), the heater in our home, and lots of food – all of which translate to expenses. I am fortunate enough to have enough to survive, but I can imagine random people freezing, starving and dying because of the cold. I’ve been sick twice since I arrived. Truly, I am not built for the cold weather.

The city is almost always gloomy, and one cannot help but feel lonely. At five in the afternoon, the sun is already down. It feels like sadness is everywhere. Because of the season, everyone is wearing dark-colored clothing. I always wonder if it’s just me, or if the strangers out there feel equally nostalgic. Spot the brave soldier in this picture. it’s the only house decorated with bright Christmas lights.

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This is not my first Christmas away from home. But I think that it is my first time to work on Christmas eve AND Christmas day. You see, Christmas is not a big celebration here in Japan. It could be compared to other commercial holidays like Valentine’s day or Halloween. I came from a country and a family who welcome Christmas as early as October. And half the fun of Christmas is waiting like a kid for it to arrive. So this season doesn’t feel complerte. I took this photo on Christmas day on my way to work. Look at how busy Ikebukuro is.

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My only consolation is my work with kids. Fortunately, even the Japanese culture  encourages everyone to make Christmas special for the young ones. I got my dose of Christmas music as we spent a couple of weeks practicing for a kiddie performance. The class I am now handling prepared a song and dance number for the school Christmas party. I remembered the days when I practiced with my own kindergarten class when I was five. I hated it. I’m pretty sure some of the kids we forced to perform did too. But their parents were so proud and supportive. I guess performances like that really are for the parents, and for the students’ adult selves, so that they have something good to remember about their childhood Christmases. I had a wonderful time at our party.

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And I got to wear a Santa costume.

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Yes, I celebrated Christmas a bit differently this year, but I cannot say that I did not have fun. I will always appreciate this season for making it possible for us to see love in places where it used to be ignored. I hope you saw love wherever you were last Christmas!

On a happy note, the world did not end!:)


Random Japan Weekend (because I’m too lazy to write)

November 26, 2012

november 2012


Project KitKat: Chili KitKat (vs Theo and Philo Siling Labuyo)

November 18, 2012

Chili chocolate, I never thought that it would tie Manila and Tokyo. It doesn’t make sense because neither of the countries is world-famous for spicy food. Such an interesting coincidence, isn’t it? Things like this keep life amusing.

Anyway.

One of my Manila best friends said goodbye with a Forever21 winter wear and a bar of Theo and Philo 65% dark chocolate with siling labuyo (Thank you, M! I love you forever). Here is a photo of me wearing her beautiful gift. Another friend said I look like I’m in Holland and not in Tokyo. Why I’m posting this, I don’t even know.

And here’s a photo of the chocolate bar.

M says, “mas adventurous ka pa sa 65% dark chocolate with siling labuyo. Love you, Twinks”

Theo and Philo boasts being “the only bean to bar chocolate from the Philippines”. Also, it is manufactured by people intsead of machines. I am a fan of things like this, and so I was happy when I tried the 70% dark chocolate variety. I was even happier when I got the siling labuyo variety as a surprise from M.  The packaging is too pretty to throw. I stuck the wrapper on my scrapbook. It’s nice to know that much effort is put on the overall appearance and taste of the chocolate.

The dark chocolate is quite strong, just the way I like. I was enjoying the cacao, and then chili surprised me. The spicy taste just trailed across my throat. Not too spicy. Just enough to keep the chocolate interesting. I hope there’s a way for me to distinguish the taste of labuyo compared to other kinds of chili. For now, all I could say that it was spicy.

And now, the Kitkat part.

When I arrived here, my aunt surprised me with a bag of Japan goodies – various KitKat flavors included, of course. The one that really got me excited is the box of chili KitKat. The drawing on the box is a bit scary. Why in the world would chili wear shades? Because it’s hot? Anyway, notice the bottle of chili flakes? Quite intimidating.

The chocolate is also dark but a bit sweeter. I’m guessing it’s only around 40% dark. Like Theo and Philo, this isn’t outright spicy. The chili taste just came after the sweetness. In general, the flavors of this one are stronger- sweeter and at the same time, spicier. What I like though is how it still feels like KitKat the whole time, still youth-friendly. I think it’s just about right for the brand’s target market. Also, I tried it with cold milk, and the pairing was good!

So there. Sugar and spice, literally. 🙂

I’m really excited about this, I just need to post: Kyoto goodies from my Uncle. Thank you!


In the Land of the Limitless

November 18, 2012

The limitless is fascinating. No, this is not philosophical. This is about living in a first-world country, and how conveniently available the resources are. It is a common selling point for restaurants here to offer something limitless: dessert, bread, drinks- like Tokyo versions of Mang Inasal’s unlimited rice. The marketing strategy works for people like me. And like moth to flame, I am lured to these restaurants helplessly.

1. Limitless Bread

The concept of a bakery-restaurant is new to me. And being a bread-lover, this made me fall in love. I am a fan of good bread, and the only way to determine what is good is to eat all kinds. Anyway, before I elaborate on my gluttony, let me tell you about Kobeya restaurant.

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Last night, we enjoyed unlimited bread for my cousin’s dinner. That doesn’t sound too inviting, does it? Well, real meals were available too, and my relatives ordered proper dinner. Being me, I opted for the salad bar and bread bar. Here’s a picture of what I had. Maybe about six plates like that.

The bread was good! There were so many kinds, and the servers were so diligent in asking me if I wanted more. They were walking around in cute uniforms and bread baskets filled with so much goodness. The only downside is that the bread wasn’t served hot. But I’m pretty sure they baked it on the same day.

And here’s a tip: you can take home food for 50% off if you come in late. I’m not too sure, but maybe the sale starts at 8pm. I took home a couple of loaves for mama and Jas. One is choco and the other is walnut, both for only 315 Yen!

2. Limitless Dessert

I felt like I would die from excitement when I heard the words LIMITLESS DESSERT. This is what Sweets Paradise (as the name suggests) is known for. It is the nearest thing to Charlie’s chocolate factory.

Truth is, I’ve only been here once last year (so sadly, no pictures). But I still vividly remember how confused I got because everything looked so good. One good thing about this restaurant is that they also serve pasta and rice, but really, with all the cakes around, who would want those?

Most of their customers are women. I guess this makes sense because of preferences. Thing is, you are only given an hour and a half to eat. Yes, you are timed. Oh and as you stuff yourself with all the sugar, note that coffee is unlimited too! Caffeine and carbs, what a way to make women high and happy!

On my first salary, I plan to take my 6-year old sister here, and challenge her to a cake-eating contest. Place your bets!

3. Limitless drinks

This one is not entirely new. I’m pretty sure there are drink bars in Manila, but there are more options here, and being in Japan, more interesting too.

Drink bars are available in most family restaurants like Saizeria and Jonathan’s. They are not expensive, and you can upgrade your meals to come with a drink bar. The choices are extensive. There is a variety of juices, softdrinks, and coffee and tea. Oh and most family restaurants have alcoholic drinks too. This sake is from Jonathan’s, but no, sadly not from the drink bar. AND don’t go to Denny’s, they don’t have drink bars. (last photo I’m borrowing, K. haha! Thanks)

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That, my friends, is one of the reasons I will be fat. The other will be konbini stores, an entry on that soon!