Sunday, September 12, 2010

Backpacking Kawaguchi Lake: Finding Fuji San

2nd stop of Backpacking Japan with Travel Factor.

I thought long and hard whether to bring along a neck pillow on a backpacking trip, it's not an inflatable one but one like a bean bag which takes up a lot of baggage space hoping it will make me sleep better on overnight buses.  I have sleeping problems, I don't get to sleep anywhere, anytime.  So I did bring one with me.

We took the Kintetsu Highway Bus from Kyoto to Kawaguchiko Station; twas a nine hour overnight bus.  We were delighted to see that there was three rows (all aisle) of individual seats.  Unfortunately, the road was a lil bumpy and the bus was running no more than it's speed limit of 50kmph.  The aircon bus was warm, i guess the wool blanket, pashmina, and jacket were definitely useless.  We complained to the bus driver that it was warm and if he could switch off the light but to no avail.  At 2am, the lights were finally off and there goes an orchestra of snores on the bus and one blurted out, do you have something to kill a fly?  We had to burst into laughter, our tour leader snored a magnified version of a buzzing fly beating its wings.  At somepoint another snores in a different tune and an earphone falls off with disco music loud enough for us to hear. Well, well, well... i barely had sleep on that overnight bus ride.(more info on trips from Kyoto to Kawaguchiko here.)

We arrived Kawaguchiko Station a few minutes earlier than expected.  While waiting for our complimentary hostel transfers, we spotted Mt. Fuji from behind the station.  I took a snapshot by the window, and gladly I did because finding Fuji san the rest of day was difficult on a seemingly sunny but cloudy day.

Mt. Fuji on the background

After a while, my fellow travellers spotted a Filipino, from abs-cbn... ecstatic about seeing fellow Filipino (which is rare in Japan), he said he'll be back with his camera.  He came back with his camera and Ya-chang!  Remember Ya-chang?  He was discovered for being candid as a contestant in Wowowee; they were there filming for Bayaning Pilipino, to be shown sometime in December.  They caught a video of us with him at the station, hopefully we get our tv debut soon.  They invited us to join them on their tour to Oishi Park, unfortunately, we still have our luggage in tow... we ought to check-in at our hostel first.  Ya-chang insisted, that we can leave our luggage in the station, anyway it won't get lost... nothing gets lost in Japan.  Really?! (tourists like us do! haha)
abs-cbn camera man with Ya-chang!
K's House Mt. Fuji is about 5 minutes by car from Kawaguchiko Station or 15 minutes by foot.   The lobby, kitchen, living room was spacious, by far was the cleanest and most spacious hostel we've checked-in during the whole trip.  Six of us shared a room en suite a private comfort room but i preferred the common toilet and bath since it was clean and more spacious.  We slept on the floor like Japanese do; being the smallest, I had to tuck myself in a corner to fit six mattresses in the room.

Kawaguchi Lake is the jump-off point to see Mt. Fuji (from afar). The place is serene with lovely little towns best for rest and relaxation.  Travel Factor provided us with a ticket around Kawaguchiko on Retro Bus for 1000 yen. Later did we realize that with limited time, it is wiser to avail of a day tour like Mt. Fuji Bus Tour for about 4,900 yen (or a 70 minute open bus Kaba Sightseeing Bus for 1,200 yen also looked interesting). It gets you to see more places faster since the retro bus schedule is not too frequent.
town's specialty Hoton Noodles for lunch.
We were left on our own to wander around with the Retro Bus; most attractions close by 4 or 5 in the afternoon, with little time left, we narrowed down our choices to two:

Mt. Kachi Kachi Ropeway; no Mt. Fuji in sight, it was covered up with smog.
Oishi Park:  very few flowers bloom in the summer; but the corn on the cob & blueberry ice cream were sweet!

more info about Fuji Five Lakes / Kawaguchiko
 While browsing through some brochures in the hostel; there's more to see in the area:
Thomas the Train Bus to Fuji Q Highlands and so my nephew asked, "did you buy it?"
ecstatic knowing that there is Thomas Land in Fuji Q Highland; my nephews will love this!
Late in the afternoon, some of us did the laundry while 3 of us were tasked to buy food from the grocery for our dinner.  We had an inexpensive sumptuous dinner at the hostel with sashimi, gyoza, tempura, katsudon and more.   Mt. Fuji was standing high and mighty on our way to the grocery, of all times, I left my camera. *boo!*

We capped the day with a dip on a forty degree jacuzzi at the onsen to pamper those tired muscles.  There is proper etiquette to be observed at the onsen; but oops i came across this the morning after.

DIY post trip accounting: (1 yen = .53 pesos)
Y8000  bus fare from Kyoto to Kawaguchiko on Kintetsu Highway Bus
Y2700 1 night @ K's House 2,700 yen/person, 6pax sharing
Y1000 retro bus
Y1300 hoton noodles
Y800 dinner from the grocery
Y1700 bus fare from Kawaguchiko to Tokyo Station/Shinjuku Station

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Reviews: Backpacking Japan with Travel Factor

Travel Factor (TF) is a pioneer in organizing budget tours (especially for 40 below) around the Philippines.  In recent years, it's new partner Cedric Valera expanded its reach by covering international destinations while it's founding partner, Leia Nagal, decided to tie the knot and settled down in America.

Prior to Japan I have joined two travel factor trips;  the first was a photography workshop called  Photoholic Ilocos organized by Leia and the second was the river rafting trip Conquer Kota Kinabalu facilitated by Eric.

For backpacking Japan, there were 11 of us in the group:
  • 1 travel coordinator with 4 of his TF friends; 
  • me and 3 of my friends and 
  • 2 other first time TF solo travelers.  
All my friends and the 2 solo travelers swear they will not join or recommend Travel Factor.  They were completely dissatisfied with the service.  There was an absence of a leader, who will do some briefing or break the ice and unite the group.  In the primer it said; there are 11 travelers, please be friendly; i guess the tour coordinator himself failed to observe this.  It was a consensus that it felt like joining the travel coordinator's friends' vacation rather than joining a group tour.  One said, it felt like "nakikisabay lang and paying for their share".  We barely see them in some days, so we had to explore on our own; and "adopt" the 2 solo travelers to our group.  The itinerary is not necessarily followed; they tend to appear much later (minutes or an hour) than the agreed time.
I too was disappointed with the service; TF is not the same without Leia's touch.  On the other hand, from day one it dawned on me, I was with the wrong company; no matter how much conditioning of the mind I did to my friends prior to joining a backpacking tour; they cannot stop complaining throughout the trip.  When you're used to some luxuries in life, it's somehow difficult for some to accept the thought of living in hostels and using public transport.
Travel Factor is for you when you don't mind:
  • not having airport transfers - in Japan, when we move from one city to the next, we had to lug our luggage around; up and down the stairs in between stations/subway ride; this for me was hell.  Escalators or elevators are not always available; or if they are, some could be a block away from the desired exit.
  • taking public transport like bus, trains and overnight buses - in Japan, no transportation was chartered exclusively for the group to go around sightseeing; unlimited day pass on bus or subway was provided as part of the package; overnight bus was chosen over shinkansen (bullet trains) or flights between cities.
  • sharing a room with other TF participants - they normally book a hostel room for four or more and share it among TF participants; if you are a group of friends, chances are they'll put you in a room together (with or without other participants).
  • using common toilet and bath - condition will depend on the chosen hostel; in Japan, they are generally clean.
  • not having a tourist guide - the tour coordinator does not act as a guide; they will only arrange the accommodation and transportation;  you'll be left on your own to explore the sights or get lost with them.  It is likewise important to do your own research, there won't be much input from the coordinator especially what to do during free time.  If there are issues like folded train ticket, laundry or room key you have to deal with it on your own.  Basically, the group is organized to share some travel cost like transportation and accommodation.
  • having a flexible itinerary - the itinerary agreed maybe not be followed; some sights may be skipped (in this case, you'll be refunded by that amount of entrance fee) due to time constraints.  You may join the group or opt to explore on your own.  The pace is normally laid back and meet up time is not strictly observed.  Even the tour coordinator shows up an hour after call time.
For me, joining Travel Factor is about managing expectations.  Traveling is about the experience.  It doesn't always have to be luxurious; it's with these modest pleasures that you'd appreciate even more what you have and don't have.  Going around Japan for ten days for U$999, what do you expect?!

    Friday, September 10, 2010

    What's up Philippines?

    There has been much hullabaloo about the hostage crisis,  I wasn't around to see the live stream, so it might not have struck me as much as it did to others, I was off to some place more peaceful.  Nevertheless, it was shameful and it definitely put a slump on Philippines' tourism.

    Anyway, what's up Philippines?  Aside from the soaring index of the stock market (I have yet to sell my stocks, is it time?)  I'm getting feeds from facebook and here on google, about the ziplines hanging up around the Philippines.  Is this a craze?  If it is, I am so out!  I haven't tried one in my entire life, and that's so sad.  My cousins are coming over two weeks from now and they are bugging me to go on one, why not!?

    Here in Cebu, there has been two (or three?) already:
    • K33 Green Adventure - located 33kms from the city, on east of the Cebu Transcentral Highway. K33 claimed to be the longest zipline in Cebu with a 300 meter and 220 meter zipline pegged at P200/zipline.  They can be reached through Barry at +639209272449 | (032) 5112158
      or | Address: Ga-as, Balamban, Cebu, Philippines
    • Gaas Eco-Adventure Park Inc. - resto-adventure cafe with a shorter zipline at P100-P150 and offers other activities like rappeling and spelunking.  Contact: Nigel +639209474460 +639228237138
    Around the Philippines, these are a few that I've come across lately:
    Take me high up and fast around the Philippines.  Your feedback on any of these (and other) facilities would be greatly appreciated.

    Tips and Lessons Learned in Applying for US Visa

    The day came.  Applying for US visa can be exhausting, heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time.

    I woke up at 4:30 in the morning to catch my early morning flight to Manila.  We arrived at the US embassy thirty minutes past eleven in the morning for our 130pm appointment.  (Note: Cellphones and other electronic equipments are not allowed inside and there's no concierge to leave it with.)

    Step 1:  At the gate, present appointment confirmation with DS-160 submitted online, passport and blue copy of visa fee payment.  Time of appointment doesn't necessarily follow anymore; one will be given a priority number on a first come first serve basis.

    Step 2:  Proceed to the Pavillion (non-airconditioned waiting area); food and drinks are available for sale here.  Fill up the pink form given at the entrance and make sure you know the following details (my father completely forgot these details, luckily they did not make a big deal out of it):
    • Applicant's full name (surname, given name, middle name/maiden name)
    • Father's full name and birthday
    • Mother's maiden name and birthday
    • Spouse full name and birthday
    Step 4:  Wait for you number to be called; the blue copy of payment form will be verified and you'll be given a new priority number.

    Step 5:  Groups of 4 and up were called separately and documents are checked ahead.   However, it wasn't such a good idea, in our case, it took longer.  1 group is assigned a priority number after every 20 individuals.

    Step 6:  Once you get your new priority number, you will proceed to the room where the consuls are.  Wait for your number appears on the board; looking at those red colored numbers makes me dizzy.

    Step 7:  Your number will be called for ten printing.  Ten printing means, your fingerprints will be scanned.

    Step 8:  After ten printing, you have to wait again til your number is flashed on the screen, for the interview with the consul.

    Step 9:  If disapproved, you'll be given a notice for the reason of denial.  The passport will no longer be stamped as denied.  On the other hand, if approved, you'll be asked to proceed to Air 21's booth and pay for courier.  On several occasion, the courier will update you via text message the following:
    1. tracking number of the passport (at midnight on the day you paid the courier)
    2. when the passport is dispatched out of the consulate
    3. status in transit
    4. estimated delivery time (I got mine after three working days)
    All interview appointments will be done by 4 in the afternoon.
      Here are my personal tips in applying for a US Visa.

      Although no documents were asked during our interview (some applicants were asked), bring a birth certificate and/or marriage  certificate, and prepare documents that will establish your ties in the Philippines and proof of capacity to finance your travel, like:
      • original income tax return
      • original land title
      • passbook with significant transactions for several months (a bank certificate may not be sufficient)
      • significant credit card billings
      • original business registration/stock certificate or employment certificate
      • license issued by professional regulation commission, where applicable
      Make sure you know by heart what you  have written on the DS-160 (application form).  The consulate doesn't have a database to verify your application.  The consul will ask you questions and will verify whether the same information is on your application; any discrepancy will be construed as if you're lying.  Questions raised in our case were:
      1. What do you do (for a living)? - when having your own business, the consul did not like hearing answers like "I'm the manager of A Corporation";  For them, it's pretentious to claim as if you work in a corporation recognized worldwide.  He wants an answer as simple as "I have my own business" or "I work for my father".
      2. What is your position (at work) and compensation?
      3. How old are you?
      4. What is your profession? - undeniably there is discrimination against certain profession.
      5. What is you longest stay in America?
      After the first question, the consul said, "you have enough ties, all of you are qualified".  Then he proceeded with the other questions and verifying our answers on our application form online (without asking any documents).  We did not realize that my brother answered incorrectly the last question.  While we all answered 3 weeks, it totally slipped my brother's mind (and us too) that he once stayed there for 5 months for an on-the-job training.  Looking upset, the consul looked into his previous visa and asked what he did there.  My brother explained that he was sent by his previous employer from the Philippines to "work".  With the wrong choice of word, the consul thinks that he should have gotten a H1 working visa instead of a B1 business visa and as such, he can be banned re-entry to the USA.  (However, that period has lapsed.)   The consul became ill-tempered and felt that he was lying and would not accept that he made an honest mistake.  All these were noted in his record; and so he asked further what his work was and asked if he received compensation in the USA.  He was paid in peso in the Philippines and only received training allowance in the USA.  This pacified the consul a lil bit knowing he was not paid in USA.  But damage has been done, he was denied for failure to establish ties in the Philippines and have not overcome a presumption that he will use the visa to immigrate or work illegally in the United States.   As such, he may reapply soon; no documents were required to rectify his status, his next application will depend on the next consul's judgment.

      With no further question, the rest of us remained silent, fearful that our application will be jeopardized, we were granted a visa.

      Technically, my brother had the correct visa, choice of words is very crucial, he could have used the word "training" instead of "work".

      Consular officers tend to focus on factors whether the applicants possess compelling ties to applicant’s home country:
      • If the applicants have traveled to the U.S. previously, how long did they stay? If they stayed longer than 6 months, did they have INS approval to do so? (Note: Please have the applicants bring their INS extension approval notices to their interview).
      • If the applicants have traveled to the U.S. previously, how long have they been back in home country?
      • How many children and grandchildren do the applicants have back in home country?
      • Have the relatives in the U.S. ever returned to home country to visit their families as is normal for foreign students, workers, and residents in the U.S.?
      • Are the applicant active professionally in their home country; if so, what is their income and the nature of their work?
      Looking back, more than anything else, presence of mind is key, one wrong answer will be construed as insincerity.  Be consistent and keep your answers simple: less talk means less mistakes.

      The B1 in lieu of an H1B

      In certain, limited circumstances the US Consulate may issue an employment-authorized B1 visa where the work to be undertaken would usually require an H1B visa. This provision is particularly applicable to situations where you may need a non-US company to send a member of staff to the US for a limited period in order to undertake specific projects for you, or where you wish to bring in an employee of an overseas subsidiary, affiliate or parent for a limited period. The requirements for acquiring a B1 in lieu of H1B are:-
      • The work to be undertaken in the US must be H1B level – i.e. the worker must be engaged in a 'speciality occupation';
      • The worker must permanently employed (i.e. not a contractor) and paid by the employer outside the US;
      • The worker may receive no compensation other than expenses from a US source;
      • The worker must have a degree relevant to the services to be provided– there is no provision for work experience to be considered equivalent to adegree, as there is under the H1B.
      While in the US as a (B1) business visitor, an individual may:
      • Conduct Negotiations
      • Solicit sales or investment
      • Discuss planned investment or purchases.
      • Make investments or purchases
      • Attend Meetings, and participate in them fully.
      • Interview and hire staff.
      • Conduct research.
      The following activities require a working visa, and may not be carried out by business visitors:
      • Running a business.
      • "Gainful employment".
      • Payment by an organization within the US.
      • Participating as a professional in entertainment or sporting events.

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