Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A bull market for Tokyo?

On my last night in Tokyo, I was invited by old friends to dinner at their home, right in central Tokyo, in a lovely apartment near the Hotel Okura. Their apartment is full of antiques and it's very nicely decorated, but the main selling point is probably its large terrace that's just lovely to use in the summer. In the middle of the living room is a small Persian carpet which I though all along was some kind of decorative accent.

But the husband said: "Nope. That's where my wife practices her putting." Yes, the wife is golf mad and tennis mad, while the husband is in finance.


When we walked in, George Michael was playing on the stereo, and it was all the mellow songs I liked rather than the Wham kind of songs he became famous for. Actually, "FastLove" was playing and I really like this song. This probably set the stage for us to think about the late 1980s and early 1990s.

That night we were a group of people who were all somehow related to Tokyo's financial industry, and all of us had been around Japan long enough to fondly reminisce about the bubble era, to talk about a couple of short-lived bull markets after that, and to think about the future of Japan from hereon, having seen its Golden Age and what happened to it afterwards.

Over champagne, we joked to ourselves: "Yes, there was actually a time when Japanese stocks went up. It's not a myth, although some people find it hard to believe it ever happened."

We'd all seen the best and worst of times of Japan and so we had the luxury of laughing about its currently never-ending recession. Yes, this isn't a never-ending Travelife unfortunately, but a never-ending recession.


Over the last 20 or 25 years, lots of people have fallen on the wayside because of this most unexpectedly long recession and bear market. When the markets started falling in Japan, no one imagined that the drop would last this long. I think I can say that we were all unanimously unprepared for the severity and length of this bear market.

Many people have had a rough ride although a couple have been spectacularly successful; while still some have survived comfortably enough to live well and carefree. But I think we all long for those days when we used to sprinkle gold flakes in our miso soup and not even glance at restaurant bills in fancy restaurants; but we're also sensible enough to know that times have sure changed since then, and those carefree days will probably never come again in Japan.


Everything is very different then and now. Foremost are the compensation packages for finance industry professionals in general, save for a few lucky ones. These days, the compensation for most people in Tokyo's finance industry is much lower, and it's a mixture of cash and shares in the company they work for, with the shares taking three to five years to vest -- meaning you can't actually access these shares during this period.

One of our friends was still sober and comfortable enough to laugh at himself, in spite of the champagne and wine. He's done okay and he heads a very well known firm, and he was talking about his own pay in company shares, which is not bad, I'm sure.


He said: "The trouble with getting paid in company shares is that this only works if you actually know your company has a competitive edge against the rest and so it's worth owning the shares or holding these for the long term. In my case, I actually know that my company has absolutely zero competitive edge against the rest. But I'm stuck with my shares. That's really sad."

We all laughed when he said this, and I think I laughed the hardest. I can't tell you which company he works for, unfortunately.


In spite of it all, some people we know have managed to reinvent themselves with great panache in spite of having little talent.

One guy in particular made a spectacular mess of heading several major companies, so we all couldn't believe that he was back in Tokyo with another game plan.

Tokyo in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a magnet for geniuses, gamblers, bounty hunters, the reckless, the mad, the hungry and ambitious -- just about everyone who wanted to conquer the world or who thought they could conquer the world was here.

Anyway, this guy who had made a mess of several big firms and who was now back in Tokyo with a different strategy was one of them. One of the guys at the table was his classmate at Harvard Business School, so we all asked him about this guy: "Is he really smart or is he smart because he went to B School?"

We all knew what he meant with this question. The guy at the table replied: "I have to think about this carefully, just in case it applies to me as well."

We all laughed.


Then we took turns giving our opinions about the future of Japan, as three of the guys are or were fund managers and the others were CEOs. Two of us -- I was one of the two -- were bearish on Japan but two guys had very strong feelings for a bull market in the making. This really interested me as I'll be happy to be wrong if it means another bull market for Japan.

"Why bull?" I asked. He replied: "Think of it purely in aggregate terms. There was a baby boom in the 1970s and the products of this are soon going to be the income-producing segment of society. This means that until around 2018, the working and tax-paying population of Japan will continue to increase. If you look solely at numbers, this has always meant a rise in the stock market."

But I was unconvinced. I'd seen so many people lose their jobs or have to downgrade to lesser-paying jobs if they were lucky enough to still be employed; and few people in Japan these days are being insensible enough to loosen their purses and spend.


But then we started to think about cyclicals. Someone said: "Well, the last bull market in Japan was about 2006-2007."

We all knew what he meant by this. If you think about the cyclicals, Tokyo is due for another bull market sometime sooner rather than later, even if it's a short-lived one.

We all became lost in thought. Finally someone said: "It sure would be nice to have one last nice run."

Yes, it certainly would. One for the road, as they say. And just another evening in our never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.


Monday, July 30, 2012

A hundred and Juan things to do in Osaka

Even with just two days in Osaka, there are countless things to do -- especially if you know exactly where to look.

Among the liveliest tourist spots, Osaka is a historical yet trendsetting city that doesn’t sleep. It's easily a welcoming, scenic haven for tourists who wish to unwind, have fun and explore.


Also a thriving entertainment and arts hub, Osaka is an ideal destination for arts and culture aficionados, foodies, and adventure-seekers who want exciting, round-the-clock options. For Filipino travelers, it’s easy enough to get there with Cebu Pacific offering direct flights from Manila to Osaka for as low as PhP 5,999.

You can take the Cebu Pacific afternoon flight to Osaka, and head straight to the city’s most happening night spots directly from the airport. Hop from one izakaya or pub to another and indulge in smooth-tasting Japanese beer.

Establishments like Club Karma and Grand Café—both excellent places for dancing—plus the neon-colorful Dotonbori area, can be enjoyed until the wee hours of the morning. Karaoke bars, spas and game arcades also beckon at night, a perfect way to jumpstart an unforgettable Osaka trip.

 During the day, you can go to Universal Studios Japan and enjoy its awesome attractions. The theme park offers pure fun for children-at-heart with famed movie-inspired attractions like the Jaws, Space Fantasy and Terminator 2 3D rides.


Osaka’s limitless dining options will surely thrill the palate. There are basement food halls, street stalls and also popular restaurants; as well as reasonably-priced sushi, udon noodles and nabe dishes that can be enjoyed with various tea brews.

For fun, deep-fry your meal yourselves at the Osaka branch of Kushiya Monogatari, a popular chain of restaurants where diners choose among meat and vegetable skewers and cook them at their own tables.


Come sundown, cool off at Osaka Bay where one of the world’s largest ferris wheels, the Tempozan Giant Ferris Wheel, can be found. The 112-meter high attraction offers magnificent views of Kobe, Osaka and Osaka Bay from 10 AM to 10 PM for 700 yen (roughly P370) per person.

(Photo courtesy of the Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau) 

There are also plenty of shopping, dining and sightseeing activities to be enjoyed by just hanging around the bay. Next day, drop by the Osaka Maritime Museum or Bird Sanctuary or one of Osaka’s highlights, the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan in Tempozan Harbor Village, before heading to the Osaka International Airport for your flight home.

(Photo courtesy of the Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau) 

Known as the biggest aquarium in the world, this marine attraction is home to whale sharks, penguins, manta rays and dolphins, among others. For 2,000 yen (P1,050) for adults and 900 yen (P475) for children, you can catch a glimpse of underwater life -- and you can even see creatures living in the lower depths of the ocean.

Much fun is to be had and these are just some of Osaka’s many interesting attractions.

 (Photo courtesy of the Osaka Convention and Tourism Bureau) 


With Cebu Pacific’s affordable airfare and timely thrice weekly schedule, Filipino travelers can include fantastic Osaka in their top places to visit. The Philippines’ leading low-cost carrier, Cebu Pacific flies to 16 international destinations: Bangkok, Beijing, Brunei, Busan, Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Kota Kinabalu, Kuala Lumpur, Macau, Osaka, Seoul (Incheon), Shanghai, Singapore and Taipei.

Cebu Pacific also flies to 33 domestic destinations. www.cebupacificair.com


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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Beating the heat in Tokyo

The other day in Tokyo, it was so oppressively hot that I had a hard time deciding which I liked or disliked more: the fierce winds and rains of Manila or the unbearable heat of Tokyo.

The day I arrived in Tokyo last week from the relatively cool comfort of Hokkaido (up in northern Japan) was just about the hottest day on record so far this year in Japan. Tokyo was literally sweltering and it was a pain just to walk a few meters from the exit of the airport terminal to a waiting vehicle to get to my hotel.

Later on, via Japanese news programs on TV, I learned that on that day alone, over 1200 people had to be brought to the hospital because they were suffering from some form of heat stroke. Most unfortunately, too, a handful of people died as well on that day from the heat. So yes, the heat is serious business in Japan.


If I look at the temperatures themselves, these are not really too bad -- especially if I think about summer in the Philippines where temperatures can near 40 degrees sometime. It was about 33 degrees in Tokyo and 34 degrees in places like Gunma Prefecture throughout the latter part of last week.

But something in the weather in Japan -- the humidity, I suppose -- really makes it unbearably hot. You're standing in the shade doing nothing, and it still feels like a sauna.

That same evening I arrived in Tokyo last week, I had dinner with Philippine Ambassador to Japan Manolo Lopez, DOT attache Val Cabansag and some executives of a top Japanese corporation. We spoke about the summer heat in Tokyo and we all agreed that it's pretty fierce compared to what we know in Manila even if the actual numbers say otherwise.


The Japanese take their heat very seriously as well. Japanese TV is full of shows that tell people how to beat the heat.

There are all kinds of anti-heat food and drinks now on sale in supermarkets and grocery stores. Some clothing manufacturers are even selling jackets and shirts with built-in mini electric fans attached to them.

UV protective clothing are also experiencing brisk sales: from UV umbrellas and caps to long gloves for driving and special UV long-sleeved shirts. You name it, the Japanese have probably already invented it.


Talk show hosts are also talking themselves hoarse to remind people to take salt and liquids to avoid dehydration, and people on the streets are being interviewed one after the other about the heat and they're all saying the same thing: "We've lost our appetite in the heat," or "We don't really feel like doing much in the heat."

Apparently, many restaurants are getting into the picture as well, and coming up with menus to beat the heat. You're supposed to eat food with less oil and avoid meat -- which is exactly what I didn't do at all during my stay.

When I wasn't eating pasta -- having discovered almost by accident a small but excellent restaurant that serves some of the best simple pasta I've ever tasted -- I was doing justice to plates upon plates of wagyu at every opportunity.

And now that we're back in Manila, it's time to get onto that anti-typhoon kare-kare regimen again...


55 Days in Peking

I usually never have time to watch an entire movie, but since watching "Notting Hill" on the plane on the way to Tokyo from Manila last week, I've been in a movie mood. And today I spent the afternoon watching a very old movie called "55 Days in Peking."

Since I sailed to China from Japan last April on a 12-night cruise that took me to some pretty interesting port cities along the Chinese coast on board the cruise line Silversea's mid-sized boat, the Silver Shadow, my interest in China has been re-ignited.

It also helped, perhaps, that the international newspapers and news magazines have been full for months of the fascinating story of the fall of the ambitious Chinese warlord Bo Xilai and his family. Bo's political career, full of ups and downs, was jumpstarted by a stint as governor of China's coastal city of Dalian; and Dalian happened to be one the places I visited on this cruise.

I remember being very impressed by the order, construction activity, general prosperity and overall prettiness of Dalian, a city I had almost no expectations about. And I just happened to land in Dalian exactly as the saga of Bo Xilai was unfolding, so it was like seeing everything in real-time and understanding how his success as the local power in Dalian had helped catapult him to greater prominence.


Then last month, I found myself at an intimate dinner for about 14 persons, and at one end of the table was the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines. I would've liked to ask her more about the political upheaval in China as a result of the Bo Xilai scandal, that everyone of consequence in China has been talking -- or rather whispering -- about privately.

But, realizing how inappropriate a dinner topic this might be, I restricted my comments instead to the amazing prosperity and business activity I saw wherever I went in China.

It's pretty natural to see impressive prosperity in showcase cities like Shanghai or Guangzhou, of course; but what convinced me of the future place of China in the world's pecking order was the prosperity and confidence I saw in second- and even third-tier cities like Dalian or Tianjin. Even in places like these, I could literally hear China roaring.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visits to these places, by the way. And as I write this, I'm thinking of reasons to go back for a quick visit, perhaps to more second-tier or third-tier cities that are under the typical tourist radar. I wouldn't mind going on the spur-of-the-moment, even for a long weekend.


And today, I watched 55 Days in Peking again as I'd recently finished a book on the life of China's dragon lady, the Empress Dowager Cixi, who was of relatively modest birth but who clambered her way to the top and basically ruled China for 47 years through sheer will and chutzpah.

It was during her reign that the famous Boxer uprising came about against the foreign legations stationed in Beijing. The foreign legations banded together and then held out admirably for approximately 55 days until reinforcements came by sea and then over land. This was the inspiration for this classic movie, and thus the title "55 Days in Peking."


Interestingly, this movie is quite beautifully done in terms of cinematography, but it was shot thousands of miles away from Beijing. They'd built the sets and filmed in Spain, of all places; and the casting agents apparently searched all over Europe for as many Asians as possible to fill the roles of extras. Thousands of extras were certainly needed for this film of war and violence.

Rumor was that so many Asians in Europe heeded the casting calls for this film that almost all the Chinese restaurants in Europe were closed for that particular summer -- the cooks and waiters were all busy filming 55 Days in Peking.

As for me, today was just another Sunday in a never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.


Saturday, July 28, 2012

South Africa, here we come...

It's really a TRAVELIFE when you've just flown in from Hokkaido for a breather in Tokyo on the way to Manila, and you're reserving a hotel in Amman, booking a spa massage in Kota Kinabalu, coordinating arrival times for a trip to Tel Aviv, checking connecting flights from Capetown to Johannesburg to make it for a flight back to Singapore, and looking at menus for a dinner in Franschoek. All in one morning, for travel in the next three months or so.


No one travels like us at TRAVELIFE. We really put ourselves on a plane practically every week to be able to bring you some of the most interesting stories in the world -- and, frankly, we'd be doing this whether we were running a travel magazine or not. That's why we're different and way ahead of the pack of travel magazines in the country. We're travelers first before we're writers, but fortunately we do both pretty well.

If you haven't picked up a copy of the June-July issue of TRAVELIFE Magazine, please do so this weekend. We come out on the 15th of every other month, and we stay on the stands for 60 days. So the current issue on sale at the bookstore will be selling until August 15. Then we switch over to our Aug-Sep 2012 issue, which is incidentally our fifth anniversary issue as well.


The current Jun-July issue is truly a fantastic adventure issue with Sri Lanka on the cover. I had such fun shooting this cover with the two guys who traveled with me from Manila to what seemed like the ends of the earth.

When we weren't working hard at bringing you the best coverage of Sri Lanka possible, we were just having fun exploring Sri Lanka and indulging in great conversations over very long meals.

Incidentally, Sri Lanka just got its tourism act together after decades of unrest and war. But Sri Lanka has got amazing scenery and some pretty beautiful hotels; and soon there are going to be at least 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites in this small island full of culture and ancient attractions.

I can tell you it's going to be the next "IT" destination for discerning travelers -- and please remember that you read all about Sri Lanka first in TRAVELIFE Magazine.

We're also organizing a tour of Sri Lanka for the first week of February next year. If you're at all interested, please call Meg at 8138400/ 8922620 and get yourselves on our mailing list. We'll be releasing details soon. Come TRAVELIFE with us. No one knows Sri Lanka the way we know it.


And speaking of ends of the earth, I'm headed for South Africa in a few months and so far the trip is looking simply amazing.

A friend of mine is joining the trip, but he's basically leaving all the choices to me; so I'm having a pretty good time picking out all the hotels I've ever wanted to stay in and all the restaurants I've been wanting to eat in, in South Africa. They do have some of the most interesting and dramatic hotels and resorts on the planet, as well as some pretty fantastic restaurants.

I'm also setting up private visits with two of South Africa's top wineries -- truly beautiful, grand and interesting wine estates producing some of the best wines out of this part of the world. Talk about a dream trip, and how lucky he is to be getting a bespoke Travelife trip and, of course, excellent company.

I don't even remember how we ended up deciding to do a trip together. But one day in June, there we were in two very exotic countries respectively -- I was in Turkey and then in the Czech Republic and he was somewhere equally interesting -- and by BBM we were talking about where we could go, shortlisting places and researching how to get there.


We'd both decided on the dates and agreed on the basic parameter: as far as the place to visit was concerned, it could basically be anywhere in this wonderful world but it had to be a destination neither of us had been to yet.

He travels as much as I do -- well, okay, perhaps a little less -- so between both of us, the world is really a bit too small. In fact, he'd literally messaged me exactly this statement once, not too long ago. We'd been talking about something and he'd said: "The world's not big enough for you and me."

Yeah. Whenever a country came up in our discussion, it was either he'd already been or I had. This really narrowed down our choices considerably.

But we did single out Peru, Kenya and South Africa as some of the countries we'd never been to and wanted to see. Maybe for next year if we end up enjoying South Africa. The North Pole got mentioned too, but I'm so not interested in this, especially when I found out how difficult it is to get there. You'll need to ride a Russian submarine or naval ship -- can you imagine that? That's so not a luxury trip.


Peru was our first choice, actually, until we started researching routes from Manila to that part of the world. We expended quite a bit of energy looking at airline schedules and world maps; especially as he didn't want to have to fly via the States, which is incidentally the shortest route, and I certainly didn't want to go on some unknown carrier with so-so service and no flat beds on a long-haul flight. That would've been the case if we'd flown via Oceania.


The other option waas via Dubai, although this was a longer route. But I figured we could get some shopping done at the Dubai Mall so a stopover here wouldn't be too bad.

I said to him: "Hey, we can go to our favorite carpet store if we go to Dubai." He and I happen to have the same favorite carpet store in Dubai. What are the odds of that happening? Zero, I can almost imagine him saying, when he reads this blog entry.


But after a couple of days of thinking about 30-hour+ flights to Peru and the fact that we've only blocked off about 12 days for a door-to-door trip, South Africa started to look terribly attractive to us both, especially when we began thinking about the convenience of getting there and about all the things there are to do in that beautiful country.

He wants to do a safari and see the Big 5, while I liked the idea of dramatic luxury hotels and driving through the Cape area wine country. And both of us want to spend time in Cape Town and see the new hype of Jo'burg. With luck we'll be able to do everything we both wanted in the time we've set aside for this trip, in our busy Travelife.

So that's how we ended up with South Africa. I've been doing the basic planning in between all my trips simply because no one else can really plan a trip better than Travelife. Truly. So why outsource this to someone else?


But I did already warn him that he'll have homework to do once I'm through with the basics. I plan to turn the itinerary over to him when I'm fairly satisfied with it, and then he can do the rest of the legwork and fill in the blanks.

There are a couple of free evenings where he'll have to find very nice restaurants for us to have dinner in -- I've already booked the best in Cape Town and Jo'burg as part of the basics, so he'll be under pressure to pick equally good choices -- and to figure out how to get us from point A to point B, among many other things.

Point A is Johannesburg and Point B is a safari destination; and, as far as I can see, the transport choices are a five-hour drive, a chartered flight or a private helicopter straight to the camp.

I'm not telling him what to do, but I hope he books the helicopter so we can literally go door-to-door. Or else he'll have to drive five hours, but this won't be too bad either as the roads are supposedly good and the scenery's fantastic. It'll be a nice adventure either way.

Just another day in our truly never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.


Friday, July 27, 2012

Cheap Italian food in Tokyo

Tonight we went to a new and basically unknown Italian restaurant that has received very good ratings from the Japanese-language food blogs. Everyone knows all the famous restaurants in Tokyo, and we like going to these ourselves as well; but it's also fun to go outside the radar and try the unknowns.

In Tokyo, particularly, it's quite easy to find lots of very good restaurants that are not really known outside their own neighborhoods, because there are so many people passionate about being chefs here.

Oftentimes, there are only two people manning the place -- the chef and someone to help serve the dishes and clear up. I've even been to several very good one-man restaurants, where the chef does the cooking, serving, washing up and accounting all in one.

Dinner began with incredibly fresh and crunchy veggies
for a bagna cauda


While these one-man outfits are quite admirable -- talk about sheer hard work -- I don't really count them among my favorites as the food just takes too long to serve. Imagine if you were the 15th in line for a rack of lamb or something. You would be waiting for your food for a couple of hours.

This was the open kitchen, bar, office
and storage all in one

Tonight was supposed to be sushi night but my favorite sushi restaurant was full. Who said there's a recession in Tokyo?

I thought about all my standard favorites, but I'd just had a couple of days of very good eating on a trip to Hokkaido and Tokyo with friends from Manila, so I didn't really feel like another big and pricey meal. So instead we started surfing the Japanese food blogs and we came upon this small and pretty reasonable-sounding place that rated very highly.

Starter of tender slices of kurobuta
and beef tongue in a salad

I called to reserve, and luckily they weren't full. So off we went. It was a two-person operation with modern but quirky decor and a six-course meal for a very good price.


A mountain of truffles on fresh handmade egg pasta

Well, we were the only customers the whole evening, which was rather hard to imagine, considering the food was so good and the prices were cheap by Tokyo standards. And what if we hadn't chosen this particular restaurant out of the food blogs?

The chef and his waitress would be doing nothing else but looking at each other the whole night. Of course that's how some people fall in love and end up together. But that's another story...

The best beef cheeksI've had  in a very long time
We had a very good meal, especially if I think about the price. Everything was wonderful but the best dishes were a perfectly, perfectly done handmade fresh egg pasta served piping hot and heaping with freshly shaven white truffles; and beef cheeks in a red wine sauce. Both were among the best I've had in a very long time, and the beef cheeks were especially tender.

Dinner was so delicious that I made up my mind to come again. I want to give them more business so that they actually don't fold up. I don't know how many nights they can hold up without any customers the entire night.

Hopefully I'll be back sooner rather than later. For another wonderful meal in a never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.

Osteria Arco
Tel (03) 5790-9904