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Monday, October 17, 2011

Autumn in South Korea with Rakso Travel

In times when you least expect, you'd get to places. South Korea is in my bucket list for years, however, every time I make plans, it just foils. In a totally unexpected time, I finally pulled it off. With little time to plan, we opted to gather quotations from different travel agencies. Going to South Korea on a private tour is expensive, a five day trip can ran upto $3000 per person. I bumped into Rakso Travel on the web, they offer package tours to South Korea at pre-arranged dates. With just two weeks before departure, they accommodated us and assisted us in our visa application.

We arrived NAIA3 close to midnight to meet Rakso Travel's representative. They assisted us with our check-in requirements and gave instructions where to meet the guide in South Korea. Our red hour flight with Asiana Air was scheduled to leave past midnight and will arrive at four in the morning. The flight is about 4 hours; which means, we will have a short sleep then we will be sightseeing upon arrival.

Asiana Air has wide seats with tight leg room and narrow aisle; and the food does not satisfy my palate.

Day 1

We arrived at Incheon Airport at sunrise. Since I'm not a morning person, seeing the sunrise was a treat. We were met by our guide at the airport.  The tour operator in Korea was Nancy Tour/Travel Alliance.  We were about 30 in the group; young and old.  The big bus was more than enough to accommodate us.

It was definitely chilly outside. From the airport, we were brought to a place, not quite populated (I don't know what it was called but it seems like catered to tourists, there is a grocery at the ground floor selling a korean products for pasalubong), where we had our breakfast of hot udong noodles (their version of the Japanese Udon) with rice crispies. A bowl of kimchi was served on the table and can be consumed to your heart's content. Kimchi is a fermented cabbage, a meal in Korea doesn't seem complete without it. I'm not fond of kimchi, but perhaps on this trip, I've eaten a servings enough for a lifetime, it was so crisp and great! Then a long day began...

Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

First stop was the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).  DMZ is a strip of vast land running across the Korean peninsula which serves as a buffer zone between the border of North and South Korea.

In the Armistice Agreement of July 27, 1953, the DMZ was created as each side agreed to move their troops back 2,000 m (2,200 yards) from the front line, creating a buffer zone 4 km (2.5 mi) wide. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) goes down the center of the DMZ and indicates exactly where the front was when the agreement was signed.
Since its demarcation, there have been several attempts of incursion by N. Korea; however, the latter denied direct responsibility.  At the DMZ, S. Korea intends to showcase to the world N. Korea's incursion by giving the public access to tunnels made by N. Korea in their attempt to cross the borders.  Four tunnels were discovered to invade South Korea; these are now blocked off with concrete.  Treachery continues upto this day, now I understand why these two countries remain at odds, while I was studying in Beijing, these young Koreans could not even share a classroom.

Inspite of these, South Korea (the more progressive country), invested in N. Korea's industrial zone (just by the border) to give livelihood to N. Koreans.  Dorosan Station gives access to and from Pyeongyang, North Korea; but not everyone is allowed to cross border.

Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace) Theme Park

Daejanggeum Theme Park is the first drama theme park to open in Korea.  It's a filming location within the MBC Yangjoo Culture Valley where a life size old Korean village was set with drama props, royal dishes and costumes.  The set is quite old and does not look impressive anymore.

It is accessible by subway + bus:

Yangju Station (Seoul Subway Line 1)
Take bus 2-4 or 108 (bound for golf course).
Get off at MBC Yangjoo Culture Valley (Travel time: 15 min).

Operating Hours
November-February: 09:30 - 17:00
March-October: 09:30-18:00
* Last admission : 1hr before closing
Note:  It will be permanently closed by December 2011

Downtown Seoul:

  • Sejong Road: Gyeongbok Palace - National Folklore Museum, Presidential Blue House

King Sejong's Status sits high and mighty along Sejong Road, at Gwanghamun Plaza.  Its a plaza right in the middle of the highway which leads to Gyeongbok Palace.  Since I missed the Gyeongbok Palace tour (included in the package)  on my own, from the Dong Wha Duty Free Shop, I walked along Sejong Road, walked passed Gwanghamun Plaza and had a quick stop at Gyeongbok Palace in time for the changing of guards.

The Presidential Blue House is at the back of this palace, entry is not allowed, on the bus, we just passed by it.  It's nothing but a house with blue roof, it's not really a must see.
lovely Gingko trees outside the presidential blue house

Directions:  get off at Gwanghwamun Station (Seoul Subway Line 5).

Rainbow Fountain - Banpo Bridge crossing the Han River
  • Cheong Gye Cheon

After Dae Jang Geum, we were headed to Seoul.  We went around the city by bus before finally getting off along Sejong Road for walk by Cheong Gye Cheon.  It is a stream running through central Seoul from west to east restored for aesthetic value and the mayor's aim to have an ecological-friendly urban area.  They spent U$210 million to restore this.  Its architecture was impressive, a stream running in the middle of the city is definitely an eye candy.
seoul city hall under renovation

love the burst of colors of autumn
Nami Island

Next day... Not included in the tour, my group headed for Nami Island early in the morning.  We took the taxi, train and subway.  Publick transport in South Korea is affordable.  A trip to Korea isn't complete without us going to Nami Island, popularized by my all time fave koreanovela Winter Sonata.  I loved the place so much, I had to write about it in a separate post.  Click on these link and read about our experience here and how we got to nami island here.
 While we were in Nami Island, the rest of the tour group went to the English Village, Gyeongbokgung Palace,

English Village

The English Village became a popular tourist attraction after the Korean TV Drama Boys Over Flowers was filmed here, the name Gu Jun Pyo, rings a bell right?

The Gyeonggi English Villages was set up to improve the local's english language skills.  It offers an environment where students, families, and teachers might experience in a foreign country.  The architecture looks very... English.

N Seoul Tower Cable Ride and Teddy Bear Museum

For more information how to get to N Seoul Tower, check out

Located at Mt. Namsam, N Seoul Tower offers a view of the city.  We took the cable card ride up, but it doesn't necessarily take you to the tower's entrance, one has to walk a hundred flights of stairs to get to the main entrance, an elevator ride to the observatory.
view from the top of seoul tower
Something unique here was theTeddy Bear Museum.  Teddy Bears in Korea does not have any significance in its history.  It just depicted Korean history and culture with Teddy Bears, and it was soooo cute (some are animated).

teddy bear museum in seoul tower
love. love, love!  lovers come up to Mt. Namsan and tie podlocks on trees

Lotte World

Talk about Disneyland of Korea,  that is Lotte World.  After having to Disneyland and Disney World, I thought I'd be disappointed with Lotte World but I was proven wrong.  Lotte World is both an indoor and outdoor theme park.  The indoor theme park must be perfect for winter, has a huge skating rink in the middle and a number of rides mostly for smaller children.  A castle much like that of Disney stands at the outdoor theme park, it's very pretty as well.  The outdoor theme park is packed, and i mean literally.  Lotte World is situated close to the city, with limited space, it is packed with people and loads of thrilling rides.  Since we only have two hours to spare and lines were long, we got to try a few rides.  I yelled at the top of my lungs with the 38 meter drop on the Bungee Drop, got coward with the 70 meter Gyro Drop (oh boy, I'm getting old!), the waikiki wave got me twisted (that wasn't a big challenge), while the horizontal and vertical revolution of the Gyro Swing spinned my world and put me into deep laughter and tears.  I left Lotte World as a happy kid. :D

For more information, visit:

If you're in for more theme park, visit Everland.

Aiins World

Our last stop before heading to the supermarket then airport is a visit in Aiins World.  It is a miniature recreation of world famous landmarks.  Just like the xiao ren guo (small man's world) in China, although in a much better state.  If you've been to any miniature world, this place isn't really a must see.  I entertained myself, checking my list and checking it twice where I've been and where I'm off to next. *wide smile* After that trip, I've checked out the Angkor Wat, Petronas Tower, Tower of London and looking forward to St. Basil Cathedral soon.  I guess I've been half way around the world. :D

Admission fees is pegged at 10,000 won.  For more information check out

Songnae Station (Seoul Subway Line 1), Exit 2. Take bus 5-2 and get off at Aiins World (15 min ride).
Or take bus 7-2 from Songnae Station to back gate of Aiins World.
Taxi takes 5-10 min from Songnae Station to Aiins World

a typical korean meal comes with lots of side dishes from veggies to eggs

eat all you can kimchi

silk worms (at DMZ) anyone?  I don't know what got me, i got adventurous and it was eww, eww, EWW!

Galbi (grilled meat) at Fragrance Restaurant at Nami Island (across UNICEF)

food courts use these hi tech gadgets.  It took quite some time before we figured it out.
There is a monitor displaying what number is being served, the best part,
this gadget beeps when your food is ready to be served

Bibimbap: korean rice meal in hot pot
Ginseng Chicken Soup


You can go for budget, mid to high-end shopping in Korea.  More popular shopping areas include: Namdaemun, Dongdaemun and Myeongdong.   For more detailed information, click on this link.

One thing I don't like about package tours are the mandatory factory stop.  This tour was no exception, knowing that we will skip a day to go to Nami Island on our own, the guide swapped the itinerary for us not miss the mandatory factory stop.  Of course she didn't tell us that, but it was just too obvious.  Amongst the mandatory stop, was a ginseng factory and amethyst factory.   Although it was such a waste of time, it wasn't all too useless,  I was able to get some training chopsticks for my niece.  She loves it so much, she packs it by herself almost every time we go out for a meal.

It also included more interesting stops at:

  • Dong Wha Duty Free Shop located near Sejong Road, has quite a good selection of high end brands.  When shopping for duty free in the city, luxury items cannot be handcarried, they are to be claimed at designated counters in the airport upon your departure.
  • Face Shop is a Korean brand of cosmetics and it is selling at almost half its retail price in the Philippines.   I got a stick of mascara, lipstick, tweezers, lash curlers... I don't know when I'll ever make use of them. hehe
  • Doota (Doosan Tower) is a popular fashion mall in central Seoul. With over 600 stores across eight floors, Doota never runs short of trendy fashion items and miscellaneous goods including souvenir, Korean celebrity memorabilia, etc. Our travel mates got some good winter boots, jackets and lots of souvenirs.  Moreover, the building has a food court on one floor, and a roof garden on the top floor.  Directions:  Dongdaemun Station (Subway Line 4) Exit 8
  • Korean Food and Souvenir Supermarket near the Incheon Airport was our last stop before heading to the airport.  They have a good selection of boxed goodies (cookies, candies & more) of Lotte and others manufactured in Korea, bottled kimchi, clothes and more. I must be in shopping mood here and bought pricey two kyocera ceramic knives, winter stocking and loads of Lotte Pepero almond cookie sticks that totaled 200,000 won.  They pack your stuff in boxes ready for check-in.
all packed and ready to go

19-3 Banpo-dong Seocho-gu · Seoul, 137-040 South Korea

As part of the package, we were checked-in JW Marriott Hotel Seoul, a five star hotel.  According to our guide,  we were lucky that we were checked-in here, it's definitely an upgrade to their usual 3 star accommodation included in the package.

One thing about Korea is the absence of bell boys,  according to our guide, guests carry their own luggage to their rooms in Korea - even in five star hotels.

It was not located near anything interesting, except that it leads to a shopping center behind with a row of restaurants and a subway station.  Service was good, the staff can speak English and we normally ask them to write in their alphabet where we are heading to show to the taxi driver.  The complimentary buffet breakfast was great, facilities are at its best as well. It was definitely a good night sleep every night.
    Tourist Trap:
    As mentioned above, mandatory factory stops in Ginseng Factory and Amethyst Factory is included in the tour.  Unlike in other countries, they are not too pushy.  But there's another tourist trap which is the Tourist Photo Service.  A photographer joins the group everyday, although our photographer was very nice and help us out in our needs.  The guide reiterated too many times, saying just think of paying for his services and not necessarily the pictures; we felt obligated to pay for his services.  For  a group of 6, we got two albums, our bill was about 150,000 won.  Good thing we weren't much of a cam whore.  Another family of three had to pay 200,000 won.  Too much for an obligatory tip, don't you think?

    Everything could have been perfect except for these tourist traps.  Nevertheless, South Korea's finally off my wishlist but I'm coming back for more, not on a package tour perhaps, in winter time.

    63 days to go before Christmas and I'm already dreaming of a white Christmas.

    Post Trip Accounting:

    1 peso = .04 won 

    $1031 all inclusive of:
    - Fall In-Love in Korea Group Package 4D/3N
    - Roundtrip Airfare via Asiana Airline and travel tax
    - Roundtrip transfers as per itinerary
    3 Nights Hotel Accommodation
    - Daily Buffet Breakfast inside Hotel
    - Full Board Meals
    - Tours & Admissions Fees
    - English Speaking Guide
    - 1 Group Photo per Person
    - Tour Insurance for 60 years old and below.

    Rakso Air Travel & Tours, Inc.
    3rd Floor Rico Bldg. 112 Aguirre St.
    Legaspi Village, Makati City Philippines
    Tel.: (+632) 812-9667 (loc. 307)
    Fax: (+632) 840-2484 or 893-6084

    Given the chance to go back to Seoul, I'd do this itinerary:

    Day 1 Downtown Seoul: Geyongbok Palace, Nat'l folk Museum, Blue House (not a must), Sejong Road, Cheongyecheon Stream, Duty Free Shopping, Han River - Moonlight Rainbow Fountain (Banpo Bridge) at night

    Day 2 Nami Island in the morning, Dongdaemun Shopping at night

    Day 3 Lotte World, cable car ride up to N Seoul Tower, Teddy Bear Museum, Namdaemun Market

    Day 4 When travelling with kids, go to Everland.  Adults can opt to go skiing during winter season.

    Day 5 Day tour to English Village or DMZ, then shopping at Myeondong

    Saturday, October 15, 2011

    How to Travel on a Budget Around Japan

    It has been a year since my backpacking trip to Japan.  I was lucky to have visited this lovely country and would have love to back six months later, however, due to unfortunate events, I had to cancel my trip to Japan a week before our scheduled departure when the Tsunami - Nuclear Crisis that hit Japan remained uncertain.  Nevertheless, I just wanted to relive the journey, here's my story:

    Traveling around Japan is almost always equated to being expensive.  Generally speaking, yes it is.  But there are ways to cut down your costs, and we did just that when I joined a budget tour operator.  Transportation, food and accommodation comprise the bulk of any travelers' cost.  

    Ten hectic days of backpacking Japan can be exhausting, nevertheless, we found ourselves enjoying the experience, roughing it at least once in our lives.  I'm sharing my thoughts and some tips, join Tokidoki in his  journey:

    • If you have time to spare, take the bus and/or subway; instead of bullet trains and taxis.  Plan your trip, plot your stops and make reservations when necessary.   Check out unlimited day passes.
    • While going around in public transport, avoid the rush hour.  It can be so crowded, the locals walk fast in flocks!  Rush hour is between 730 to 900am, 530 to 700pm.
    • Settle in hostels, they are generally clean and wifi is free.
    • Eat to your heart's desire.  Dine in fancy restaurants but you can never go wrong with the many casual diners (go where the locals go) or even the convenience stores or grocery.  Per meal budget: at least 2,500 in a fancy restaurant; 1,000 to 1,500 yen for casual dining; 500 yen for ramen; 110 yen for bottled water.
    • Avoid touring at the height of summer, July to August.  Best time to party under the cherry blossom trees at the end of March to April  or see the burst of colors during autumn from October to early December.
    • Exchange enough yen at the airport, money changers are not readily accessible in the city.
    • Learn a handful of Japanese words ( I hope I got everything right):
      1. wakarimasen - i don't understand
      2. sumimasen - excuse me
      3. toi-le wa - where's the toilet?
      4. iie - no
      5. hai - yes
      6. sakana - fish
      7. buta-niku - pork
      8. gyuu-niku - beef
      9. ebi - shrimp
      10. tori-niku - chicken
      11. gohan - rice
      12. mizu - cold water
      13. oyu - hot water
      14. sha-ke - salmon
      15. "shio" (salt) "shouyu" (soy sauce) or "miso"- for different ramen soup base 
    While finishing up my travel journal for Japan, I just got hold of another round trip ticket to Narita courtesy of Mabuhay Miles.  I'll be back in Tokyo, sooner than I thought!  Can't wait to party under those cherry blossom trees :D

      Visa Application to Japan from the Philippines

      How to Apply for Visa to Japan from the Philippines:
      Effective 30 th of July, 2007, visa applications at the Consulate-General of Japan at Manila must be made through agencies accredited by the Consulate-General. Applications through these accredited agencies will be processed at the Consulate-General of Japan at Manila.  

      Here's a list of accredited agencies:

      A. For ANY visa application  
      PHONE # 
      Manila Branch
      Ground Flr., Shopping Arcade, Century Park Hotel
       P. Ocampo Sr. St., Malate, Manila
      Makati Branch
      Mezzanine Flr., Dusit Thani Hotel,
      EDSA cor. Arnaiz Ave. Ayala Center, Makati City
      02-859-3811 to 15
      Cebu Branch
      2nd level, JY Square Mall, 1 Salinas Dr.,
      Lahug, Cebu City
      Manila Branch
      Ground Flr., GLC Bldg., A. Mabini cor.
      T.M. Kalaw St. Ermita, Manila
      02-523-8801 to 07
      SM Mall of Asia Branch
      SM Department Store South Building,
      SM Mall of Asia, Bay City, Pasay City
      02-556-1445 to 47 02-556-0546
      SM Megamall Branch
      5th Flr., Bridge way, SM MEGAMALL, Bridge way,
      EDSA Mandaluyong City
      02-637-4694 to 96 02-637-5020
      SM Southmall Branch
      SM SOUTHMALL, Las Pinas City
      02-800-4948 to 50 02-805-3588


      Traders Hotel Branch
      (For inquiries/ Direct Receiving Documents/ Releasing)
      Ground Floor, Traders Hotel Manila, 3001 Roxas Blvd., Pasay City 1305
      Roxas Blvd. Manila Office
      (Receiving documents through Courier only)
      Unit 203 Coko Bldg. 1, Patio Madrigal Compound, 2550 Roxas Blvd., Pasay City 1302
      02-556-6301 to 6305
      Cebu Office
      Lobby, Waterfront Airport Hotel 1, Airport Road, Lapu-lapu City, Mactan Island Cebu
      Main Office
      3rd Flr., Dusit Thani Manila, Ayala Center, Makati City
      Cebu Branch
      Unit 101 Bldg.1, Oakridge Business Park,
      880 A.S. Fortuna St., Banilad, Mandaue City
      PHONE #
      Main Office
      353 E.T. Yuchengco St., Binondo, Manila
      Ermita Branch
      Space A, Ground Flr. & 2nd Flr., Pacific Pace Apartelle suite, 539 Arquiza St., Ermita, Manila
      02-521-3141 to 46
      Makati Branch
      LG01, Herrera Tower Condo, 98 V.A. Rufino St. (Herrera St.) cor. Valero St.,  Salcedo Village, Makati City
      02-810-8551 to 56
      Cebu Branch
      Diplomat Hotel, 90 F. Ramos St. Cebu City
      0345/ 0347/ 0349
      If you apply through non-accredited travel agencies, the latter is still required to go through these accredited agencies.  Personal appearance is not required however, in certain instances, the applicant may be required to appear in person for interview.

      Exceptions for application through accredited agencies:

      Direct applications may be accepted at the Consulate-General at Manila, Consular Offices in Cebu and Davao for the following specific cases: 

      (1) Diplomatic or Official visas
      (2) Visas for invitees by the Japanese government organization/ institution, independent administrative agencies of Japan
      (3) Visas for invitees of Japan local governments or national/municipal educational institutions of Japan to participate in educational/cultural exchange programs and youth exchange programs
      (4) Visas for scholarship awardees sponsored by the government of Japan
      (5) Visas for commercial purpose of employees of a joint venture company or a branch office of a Japanese enterprise listed in the Japanese Stocks Exchange or a member of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in the Philippines
      (6) For cases requiring humanitarian consideration such as serious illness of relative in Japan ( This include cases wherein the applicant has custody of the biological child of a Japanese national and the purpose is to raise that child in Japan by himself/ herself. )
      (note) The existing registered agencies of the Consulate Office in Manila for entertainer visas and Nikkeijin applications will retain their accreditation. For Nikkeijin (Japanese descendants born before the end of World War II) who have a Certificate of Eligibility, the Consulate-General at Manila, Consular Offices in Cebu and Davao will continue to accept applications filed directly by these applicants.

      Visa Fees and application:
      There is no visa fees.  However, a handling fee will be collected by the agents in accordance with the fees set by each agent. The Embassy does not meddle with the handling fees being charged by the accredited agencies.   Accredited agencies normally collect P1,200 per person.  Non accredited agencies normally collect P2,500 per person inclusive of the P1,200 the accredited agencies collect.

      On separate occasions, I've personally dealt with Universal Holidays in Cebu and Reli Tours & Travel in SM Megamall.  Since I live in Cebu, I personally handcarried my documentary requirements to Universal Holidays in Cebu.  For Reli Tour & Travel, I called them and they gave me their account number where I will pay for the fees and gave mailing instructions.  I mailed through LBC (their preferred courier) my documents (one mail for several applicants), including the original passport and enclosed a prepaid return envelope also with LBC.  They will call you once approved.  In both agencies, I received my approved visa in less than a week.

      Additional documents may be requested where necessary. Applicants are given three (3) months to submit additional requirements. Otherwise application will be terminated. Documents submitted for application will not be returned. Applicants can get information from accredited agencies when his/her application is pending.
      When visa is granted, VISA FEE is gratis for this category. (Philippine passport holder) When visa is not granted, the reasons of denial will not be disclosed. Applicants may apply again after six (6) month with the same purpose, unless there are emergency / humanitarian reasons, or application for different purpose.

      For Inquiries:      
      ( 02 ) 834-7514         JAPANESE
      (+ 63-2 ) 834-7508      
          (+ 63-32 ) 231-7321 / 7322      
          (+ 63-82 ) 221-3100 / 3200      
      FAX service by Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo

      E-mail Inquiries 

      Documentary Requirements:
      1.  Philippine Passport    
      •   Broken lamination of the photo part is not accepted.     •   Must have at least two (2) blank pages.          
          •   Also available at the entrance of Embassy.          
      3.   Photo
          •   Specs: 4.5cm x 4.5cm with white background     •    Photo must be pasted on the application form.       
      4.  Birth Certificate of applicant     
          •   Must be from NSO Main Office / Serbilis Outlet Center (Nationwide) issued within one (1) year.     •   In case of non-record, you must submit certificate of non-record together with the one from Local Civil Registrar.               

      If the applicant is visiting friend/distant relative and has his/her passport (old or valid) with a used Japanese Visa
      If Birth Certificate from NSO is unreadable, or
      If there is no record in NSO, (in addition to "Certificate of Non-Record" from NSO Headquarter)
      SUBMIT:  Birth certificate from Local Civil Registrar

      If Birth Certificate (NSO) is "Late Registration"

      SUBMIT:  Birth certificate
      School Record (From 137)
      School Yearbook (If applicable)

      Please indicate complete address and landline number (if applicable)
      of the church in the baptismal certificate, and of the school in school record.
      5. Marriage Contract (if the applicant is married)       Must be form NSO Main Office/Serbilis Outlet center (Nationwide) issued with one (1) year.      
      6. Daily Schedule in Japan    
              •   It shall contain detailed itinerary, as to inclusive dates, day to day itinerary, hotel reservation and contact numbers.  Please refer to their sample format.
      7. Bank Certificate       
      8. Certificate of Reservation issued from Airline Company     •   One issued from Travel Agency is not accepted.           9. Valid Visa of the Country of Final Destination        
      Note: It is the applicant's responsibility to ensure that he/she meets all the requirements for the grant of a visa. Submission of any supporting documents not listed above is encouraged (e.g. applicant's economic or social ties with the Philippines).
      Submission of requirements does not guarantee issuance of visa.
      Validity of Documents is three (3) month from the date of issue unless otherwise stated.