Thursday, June 3, 2010

Five Countries in Two Weeks

TOKYO - Good evening from Tokyo after a pleasant 3.5 hour flight from Manila on Japan Airlines. After all the news about JAL's financial difficulties and cutbacks, we were happily surprised to observe the positive changes in service based on today's flight. Last year, JAL changed its planes for the Tokyo-Manila route as part of cost-cutting, and the result was smaller planes that were always difficult to book in any class because there were much fewer seats. Business class travelers, too, used to get a great deal on the old planes because the layouts, particularly for the first section rows #1 to 5, were incredibly spacious. Sometimes they even assigned one of their old long-haul jets with a First Class section, so if you happened to book one of the first 5 rows, you'd get a First Class lie-flat seat and private compartments for the 3.5 hour flight. Now, that was a treat because it meant a proper afternoon nap after lunch onboard!

After flying JAL several times this year, I've gotten used to the new configuration which is more cramped in business. The seats recline less and, because the plane is old, the settings are low-tech compared to JAL's newer planes -- there are a bunch of levers to adjust your seat but it takes lots of effort to operate any of them properly. The good news for economy class passengers is that everyone gets a private video monitor -- unlike last year's planes, where only business class passengers got their own monitors.

Meanwhile, the food on today's flight, at least in business class, was better than usual. We like to get the Japanese menu when flying out of Tokyo, and the Western menu when flying out of Manila as it makes sense that Japanese and Filipino caterers would cook their own foods better, And I noticed the movie selection had improved as well. We used to scratch our heads wondering who on earth was choosing the movies for JAL's inflight movie library, as the options were just strange and almost torture for the long-haul flights. I'd have to bring my own DVDs to watch on my Mac as there was usually only one good movie and the rest was stuff that couldn't interest us even on a 14-hour flight with nothing else to do. This time around, the movies all sounded interesting, although we settled for a cheesy movie (Valentine's Day, with a stellar cast) to try and unwind from the hectic schedule of the past eight to ten days.

Five countries in two weeks

Another plane, another trip. It was Malaysia last week and Tokyo this evening, and quite a busy schedule in Manila in between. And next week it's back to Manila to literally pack our bags and attend a dinner at Dusit and a barbecue at the residence of the new US Ambassador -- and then we're catching a flight to Hong Kong and then on to Turkey. Our constant packing for different climates, cities and events looks like one big neverending production line, actually. When we pack for one place, we're also picking out stuff for future trips so that packing for these later is slightly easier.

Like this morning, I was quickly packing for Tokyo (spring pastels, clean lines) when I saw several clothes I thought I should bring to Hong Kong (mostly dark colored business-type attire that won't scream "tourist" in Central) and also some others for Istanbul (colorful exotic and floral prints!). So some stuff went into the Japan-bound luggage, but others were neatly folded into separate piles on my massage bed for Hong Kong and Turkey respectively. There were also third and fourth piles in progress for Tokyo again in July and possibly New York (no prints, casual clothing) as well. I knew there was a reason for getting a massage bed -- and it certainly wasn't for relaxation.

Fortunately we're editing a travel magazine so we're used to living in airports and on airplanes and we rather like it. The check-in staff and lounge staff of airlines I often use all know me by now, so it's like saying hello to friends whenever I go on a trip. We have our routine down to pat, as well, so we know which lounge is good for what (MIASCOR in Manila has pretty good food; and don't miss the curry and massage in the JAL lounge in Tokyo, and the spicy noodles in the CX lounge in Hong Kong), which airports have free WiFi (Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, for example), and which rows we should book on the airplane.

In fact, I had a rather funny epiphany about my neverending Travelife (yes, every pun intended) this evening on the way to Tokyo. I was reading a travel article in the inflight magazine and it was so well-written that I said to myself: "I should really try and get away some time. Just get on a plane and go." I only remembered a couple of seconds later that I was already on a plane headed for Japan.

Malaysia Truly Asia, still on our minds

The Travelife editorial team had a wonderful and productive trip to Malaysia -- so much so that my managing editor keeps suggesting (only half-jokingly) that Travelife Magazine should open a Malaysia bureau and that he should head it. Yes, apart from all the interesting tourist attractions, we liked how green Kuala Lumpur was, and how everything seemed to work much more efficiently than back home.

Then we returned to Manila, the city that never sleeps. On Friday last week, there were three wine-related events going on -- or at least three that we knew of! We decided to join Jerome Philippon's (Sommelier Selection) wine event, which featured about 100 wines at the Ayala Museum, paired with some nice cheeses and a very tasty risotto, roast beef burgers and French pastries. We like Jerome's wine selections because they're often good value for money. Not crazy prices or too fancy stuff, but wines you can actually buy and drink without worrying too much about cost. It was nice to have a couple of glasses, too, as afterwards we joined some friends for the last showing of a horror movie in Makati after the wine event -- which is something I would never have done sans alcohol!

Incredible India, and its wonderful ambassador

On Monday, our editors enjoyed tea with Indian Ambassador Yogendra Kumar and his charming wife Indira at their lovely, sprawling home in North Forbes, filled with beautiful antiques from India and crafts that are souvenirs from their different postings in places as diverse as Brussels and Tajikistan. We had wonderful samosas served with a spicy tamarind sauce that I could not stop eating, a delicious chocolate cake, and all kinds of Indian treats.

On the way out, Madame Kumar proudly showed me her new addition, which was not there the last time I visited for a dinner: a handcarved carabao from Baguio. "I wanted to buy a pair," she said, "but the other carabao had some damage so I only bought one. I'd like to get another one on my next trip."

The next evening, we were again the guests of the ambassador on board an Indian naval ship docked at Pier 13 in Manila Harbour. The ship was quite magnificent from a distance; and at each gate of the pier, smartly dressed Indian naval officers were stationed to check invitations and give directions to the ship. When we got to the ship, we had to walk up a very long gangplank up the ship. I could manage well enough going up, but I dreaded the thought of going down but decided to set this worry aside for the return. When we finally made it on board, ship officers greeted us with salutes and flags -- all very impressive. At the very top deck, a lavish buffet spread was laid out for the embassy and ship officers and guests, who were then treated to a colorful performance by a Bengal dance troup that was coincidentally stopping over in Manila on their way from India to the Shanghai Expo.

Italy celebrates its National Day with music

Last night, on the other hand, was the celebration for Italy's national day. At the kind invitation of Ambassador and Madame Luca Fornari, we were treated to a most enjoyable concert at the CCP performed by world-class Italian violinist Uto Ughi, accompanied by Alessandro Specchi on the piano. Mr Ughi is considered one of the finest violinists in the world today, and he plays on two of the rarest violins in existence. He owns a Guarnieri del Gesu violin made in 1744, and a Stradivarius violin made in 1701 that is known as "Kreutzer" because it once belonged to a violinist named Kreutzer to whom Beethoven dedicated his famous sonata. Of course he played this famous sonata, as well as a wonderful piece by Paganini called "La Campanella" and a rather dramatic piece by Saint-Saens called "Introduzione e Rondo capricciosa."

We were lucky enough to be seated in the very center of the second row of the theater, just behind Ambassador and Madame Fornari. Music lovers will tell you that the middle rows are better than the front rows to truly appreciate any musical performance; but this time we were very happy in our front seat, as we got a rare close-up of Mr Ughi and his amazing and ancient violins in action. After the concert, I could not contain my delight, so I told Madame Fornari: "This must be one of the most enjoyable National Day celebrations in recent memory."

Madame Fornari smiled. She also said: "Mr. Ughi has been in Manila for two days. And based on his impressions and experiences here so far, he revised today's program and included music he thought would best be enjoyed here."

And now here I am in Tokyo, having just arrived at my apartment in Shibuya Ward, and enjoying the almost perfect weather at 19 degrees. Japan has been my home for exactly half of my life so far, so it's very easy and comfortable to be back here amongst a people and a culture I know almost as well as my own. Each country and set of people have their own good and bad points; but for the Japanese, I love their politeness, reliability, sense of community, and concern for others. It is indeed very nice to sometimes return to the First World.

Earlier at the immigration counter, the immigration clerk who stamped my passport handed it back to me and said in Japanese: "Your visa's expiring on the 7th. Better take care about that."

"I know," I replied. "That's why I'm back here. I'm renewing it tomorrow."

"Gokuro-sama desu," he replied, which is a phrase often heard in Japan. People say it all the time in lieu of a pat on the back. In this context means: "I recognize your good efforts."

That simple phrase certainly made for a great welcome back to Japan.


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