Travel and Tourism

Central Jap, Cebu Pac and a thousand cherry blossoms all a quiver

ARTMAGEDDON - Igan D’Bayan - The Philippine Star

Here’s the plan, Stan. Or in this case… here’s our itinerary, Mr. Shadow of My Former Shadow.

I get off work on a Friday at 11 p.m. or so. We’ll head for the karaoke joint where that lonely guy sings the same three songs every night (Ten Guitars, Sway and the Tagalog Heart of Stone). Swig three to four SMB Lights, tops, sing two or three Aerosmith songs then speed off to the airport (NAIA 3) at the crack of Saturday dawn to take a flight to Nagoya, Japan. When we get to Centrair Airport in Chūbu, Mr. Shadow, we’ll freshen up a bit and take the train straight to the shops at the Osu shopping district — particularly Hi-Fi Do Records and the vinyl store beside it. Those shops sell pristine copies of almost all the records you’ve ever dreamed of (Led Zeppelin live cuts, Beatles bootlegs and aisles upon aisles of Miles) at — I kid you not — around P750 to P1,000 each. (Hell’s balls, you can even buy the collector’s item Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” complete with the Andy Warhol zipper at a beggarly banquet-like price of P2,000.) From Nagoya, we can take the Shinkansen to Tokyo, be Bill Murray for a couple of hours (sing a Roxy Music song at Karaoke Kan, meet the elusive ScarJo lookalike at the Shibuya Crossing), head for an-all night café at Kabukichō and live out those pages from Haruki Murakami: in between forkfuls of pasta, while a tune from “Rubber Soul” or “Live from the Village Vanguard” wafts from the speakers, a tall stranger carrying a sheep costume will approach us to reveal the Meaning of Life. The next day, we’ll bullet-train back to Nagoya to explore shrines and castles as well as soak in tales of samurais, sakuras and steel-dragon roller coasters. On Monday, we’ll find ourselves at the airport headed back to Manila, having spent a weekend in Japan to buy records and go on a great gonzo Chūbu-Tokyo-Chūbu adventure.

Sounds like a plan, Stan?

“Nah, the price of airfare is too expensive!,” so says the shadow man, looking at the condo wall as if it were the abyss of decaying dreams. The level of pessimism in this fellow is too damn high. He adds, “You can’t treat Japan like Gapan.”

“Not expensive at all — if we take Cebu Pacific.” 

You see, Mr. Shadow of My Former Shadow, Cebu Pacific Air launched two new international destinations last March, becoming the first Philippine low-cost carrier to operate direct daily flights from Manila to Tokyo (Narita), and four times weekly flights from Manila to Nagoya (Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays). Lowest year-round rates start at P5,499. That’s 70 percent lower than most airlines. Cebu Pac also operates daily flights between Manila and Osaka for as low as P3,999. With those rates, it’s not at all prohibitive to schedule a weekend getaway to Japan. And you’ll be left with more dough for vinyl at Banana Record in Nagoya or RecoFan elsewhere, secondhand guitars at Shinjuku and souvenirs at Oasis 21 in Sakae, and pints upon pints of Suntory for relaxing times.

“I am happy to say that we are the first Philippine low-cost carrier to fly to these three key cities in Japan. What does this mean for ‘every Juan’?,” said Lance Gokongwei, Cebu Pacific Air president and CEO, just before Cebu Pac’s maiden flight to Nagoya.

“First, Cebu Pacific’s trademark lowest fares enable even more travelers from the Philippines to explore the beautiful country of Japan. This is quite evident in the full flights we have on the maiden flights for both Tokyo this morning and Nagoya this afternoon. We look forward to welcoming Japanese travelers to the Philippines, and flying them to fun destinations such as Coron, Siargao, Cebu, Palawan and Davao, among others.”

Cebu Pacific Air and JG Summit Holdings Inc. (JGSHI) — along with Central Japan International Airport Co. Ltd. and partners in Nagoya and the Chūbu region — recently invited journalists to spend four nights at the heart of Japan. The trip would take us from hot-spring towns to misty mountains hops, from thatched-roof farmhouses to automobile and “robot” (mainly mechanical doll) museums.

“Spring can really hang you up the most,” so claim those torch singers of yore. Not if you’re in Central Japan, under April skies, in the middle of a constellation of cherry blossoms all in first bloom.

So central reign

For this particular trip, we traveled just like J-rock stars on a bus driven by a fellow named Mr. Sakai that went to cities and towns in key prefectures in the Japanese heartland. On day one, just after breakfast, we made, uhm, fake plastic food.

In Japan and even in some Japanese restaurants in other parts of the world, molded plastic resin replicas of menu items are often displayed  in the show windows — enticing, inviting, you would immediately want to wolf those mothers down. Food replica-making is still a thriving industry in its birthplace Gujo-Hachiman, which we visited. Eighty percent of dish samples are made there. On view at the shop were delectable orange crabs, oodles of noodles, shiny sushi and salmon as well as mugs of Kirin beer frothy enough to quaff down — all made from liquid vinyl and airbrushed with oil paint. A piece of trivia: the very first dish replicated was that of an omelet; it was called “The Commemorative Ome.” The Sample Kobo studio offers workshops for those who want to learn how to create gustatory doppelgangers.

“After making food replica, we will have lunch,” remarked Yoshi Tomiyama, our cheerful tour guide, a Japanese version of Joan Cusack. (When she told us her name, she did so by making a cute smoking motion. “Like yosi, cigarette,” she said.) “So now, we will eat food replica (laughs).”

That didn’t happen, thankfully. We didn’t get to gnaw on a synthetic facsimile of a fried chicken. Although we met someone at the next stop whom we suspected to have hair replica. They promptly dubbed him, “Peluka San.”

The gassho-zukuri style house settlement of Shirakawa-go, Gifu Prefercture — punctuated with dwellings with thatched roofs — was a sight to behold. Those cribs were designed to withstand the onslaught of heavy snow. Curiously, the roofs resembled hands pressed in prayer like a Buddhist monk. These sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List offered us a glimpse of a way of life that is timeless and Zen-like. You could just imagine the solemnity and ritual errands of those transcendent days.

Moving with silkworm exactitude.  

So i’m packing my bags for the misty mountain

The morning market stroll in Takayama in the mountainous Hida region was ice-queen cold yet revitalizing, an airy shot of spirit zing. Mountain air surely does great wonders for smoked-out, phlegm-plagued non-iron lungs. 

We braced ourselves for a trek up the “Japanese Alps” by putting on thermals and buying gloves (500 yen) in one of the shops near the Miyagawa River. Serobobo the faceless monkey doll stared at one of the glass windows, along with all the souvenirs one can hope to find — well, except a vinyl album by Yellow Monkey. One vendor even painted horse and dragons on the spot.

Most of my companions broke into song once we traveled up the snowcapped Yari and Hotaka mountains via the Shinhotaka Ropeway or cable car — from that Disney movie your nieces (even grownup Yellow Girl) pester you into watching with them for the 78th time. Let it go, kids. We rode what you’d call a double-decker gondola toward the observation deck at Nishihotakaguchi Station. It may be springtime of our loving in Japan, and we will surely burn, baby, burn back in Manila in the dead heat of summer, but up those mountains the Snow Queen still holds court.

Oh yeah, a replica of Olaf sits on deck. Annoying as the original.

In bloom

This Cebu Pac trip to Nagoya was different things to each of us travelers. For some, the eureka moment came during the ride atop the Steel Dragon 2000 roller coaster at Nagashima Amusement Park, rushing along at a wig-losing, lip-deforming maximum speed of 153 kilometers per hour. (There is also the White Cyclone, Giant Frisbee, Shoot the Chute and Tornado Slider, among other rides at the amusement center cum spa cum outlet stores; I’d rather go for the cutesy Flying Elephant ride.) For others, it was Japanese castle magic: Inuyama Castle and Nagoya Castle (more on both in a future article). For the rest, it may be in between destinations and indulgences that deserve another roundabout: the hot-spring and onsen treats at Gero, the Toyota Techno Museum, the meals (from ramen to kaiseki to Hida beef), the souvenir-hunting, the list is endless. 

We can all agree that the highlight of the trip was the first glimpse of the phalanx of cherry blossoms (beautiful yet, alas!, so short-lived) as the bus slendered its way to the center of Nagoya. (In all my years of traveling to Japan, it’s the first time I’ve actually seen them up-close.)

During the two-week window when these flowers are in full bloom, it’s celebration time in Japan. Hotels and restaurants even hold sakura-viewing (hanami) parties. Tourists will swear how breathtaking those hundred or so varieties of cherry blossoms are.

“Kirei, kawaii,” exclaimed Yoshi as she — as if on cue — sang Naotaro Moriyama’s Sakura song. 

“Wow!,” said two or three of our companions in unison, snapping away with their iPhones, faces pressed to the bus window. “Oh my God!”

Yoshi smiled. “Oh my Buddha! Oh my eight million Shinto gods!”

Oh, the lovely cloud of white flowers. How ephemeral life is, love also. Will make you want to write a haiku, Mr. Shadow of My Former Shadow.

Or break into song.

* * *

For bookings and inquiries, guests can go to http://www.cebupacificair.com/, or call the reservation hotlines 7020-888 or (032)230-8888. Follow @CebuPacificAir on Twitter and get the lowdown on seat sales.











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