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Anais Lee

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The first capsule hotels of Japan were originally targeted towards businessmen who burned the midnight oil and missed the last bus or train back home. Instead of staying in pricey hotels, or worse, sleeping out on the streets, capsule hotels offered these tired businessmen an affordable place to stay for the night. Although they are designed to be very compact, all the essentials of an overnight stay are provided.

Hotel front

For my recent trip to Kyoto, a friend and I managed to book capsules at 9h nine hours, a capsule hotel located at the historic and bustling district of Gion. Listed down below are four reasons why you shouldn’t shy away from this peculiar hotel during your next visit to Japan!

1. It’s affordable.

Japan is no cheap country to travel to. And if you’re there to sightsee rather than do a staycation, the last thing you want to spend money on is an expensive hotel that you’re just going to sleep in anyway. While capsule hotels are not as swanky as business hotels, it’s definitely a step-up from bed space hostels!

2. The beds are surprisingly comfortable.

The sleeping capsules were stacked in 2 levels. Small ladders are attached next to each “top bunk” to help guests up their capsules. If you think sleeping in a box would feel cramped and uncomfortable, think again! The capsule was unexpectedly spacious on the inside. (Of course, it helped that I’m a small, 5-foot girl). Each space was furnished with its own light fixtures, alarm clock, and charging station.

3. Lockers are provided for your belonging’s security.

Have you ever tripped on your roommate’s humongous suitcase that’s just scattered on the floor? I have. What’s great about staying in a capsule hotel is that everyone is required to stow away their luggage in their lockers. Aside from more walking space, the lockers give me a sense of inner peace knowing that my bags would be locked safe while I’m out and about exploring.

4. You don’t have to schedule with your friends who has to bathe first.

Finally, the last thing you want to do while on vacation is to wake up extra early to take a shower because there are four of you in one room who are all morning shower-takers. This capsule hotel has a dedicated floor for bathing (the lockers are located on the same floor). There are enough shower stalls, sinks, and blow dryers that you don’t really have to wait your turn. Huzzah for extra 30 minutes of sleep!

While these reasons are enough for me to try another capsule hotel again, there are downsides to this kind of unique housing. While most of your floor mates are generally good noodles and follow the no-talking rule in the sleeping area, there are some bad eggs who can’t resist gossiping in the middle of the night. It’s not that bad, though, since you ARE encased in your own little universe. Finally, you probably shouldn’t book a capsule hotel if your claustrophobic. I mean, this one is pretty obvious, you guys.

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Vermillion, ruby, scarlet, cerise, maroon, red—it’s everywhere. From the intricate floral hair ornaments and beautiful ornate robes of the passing geishas and maikos, to the pocket-sized omamori or lucky charms being sold inside the temples. Red is a recurring color in the old capital of Japan, Kyoto. Most notably, though, is the fiery red of Kyoto temples’ torii gates.

What are these “torii gates” anyway? Torii gates are markers that set the boundary from the profane everyday world, to the sacred world of the “kami” or Shinto gods. They mark the entrance into a sanctified space. They are usually made out of either wood or concrete, and are painted orangey-red to jet black.

In Chinese culture, red is a symbol for luck. In Japanese religion though, there is no clear explanation on why most torii gates are painted a bright, flaming red hue. One school of thought, however, says that the color acts as a sort of shield against evil entities or spirits. It serves as a protection against any calamities or disasters. Red is painted not just on the torii gates, but on the temples and surrounding fences as well.

All shrines and temples have torii gates; however, the most famous ones would have to be in Fushimi-Inari Shrine. What makes Fushimi-Inari Shrine stand out is the sheer number of torii gates, more than 10,000 torii gates in the temple grounds. These torii gates were donated by either individuals or companies, their names inscribed in their prospective torii.

I’ve seen photos of these world-famous gates all over the internet even before we booked a flight to Japan, but seeing them in real life just takes your breath away. It also takes your breath away in a literal sense since you have to climb a mountain to fully appreciate the vast number of these torii gates.

There is a 4 kilometer walk/hike up Mount Inari that are lined with these brilliant red gates. In some areas, the gates are assembled so close together that only a little bit of sunlight can squeeze through. There are rest stops along the way where they sell refreshments and Inari temple delicacies like the Inari sushi, which is rice wrapped in fried tofu.

It takes around two to three hours to get to the top of the mountain. I would have very much wanted to climb to the peak of Mount Inari. Aside from being housed by the beautiful, red torii gates, the pathway to the top was also shrouded in trees and shrubs, making it a pleasant nature hike to the top. However, I was with my family during that trip to Fushimi-Inari Temple and they refused the extra exercise under the sweltering summer heat of Japan. Maybe next time then!

No trip to Kyoto would be complete without a visit to at least one of the many breathtaking temples around the area. You don’t have to be Shinto or Buddhist to appreciate the perfection of harmony between nature and architecture in these sacred spaces. Oh, and while you’re there, don’t forget to get yourself a little omamori to bring home some good luck!

I’ve never had a green thumb. The best I could do was to make mung bean sprouts (and even then that was just soaking them in a damp cotton ball). I wanted to have an adorable succulent so badly. But after killing off two innocent little cacti, I’ve decided to give it a rest. I didn’t want to take care of one anymore but I still liked looking at them, you see? So when I had the chance to go to Singapore a few months ago, I freed up some time to drop by Gardens by the Bay.

Singapore isn’t exactly the “greenest” destination when you’re looking for a nature getaway. The country is better known as a concrete jungle with its sleek and massive office buildings and housing structures. But what Singapore lacks in natural wonders, they make up for it with incredible ingenuity. As a part of the government’s strategy to turn Singapore into a “City in a Garden,” they launched an international competition to create what would be now known as Gardens by the Bay.

Created by WilkinsonEyre, the conservatories were designed to be as sustainable and energy-efficient as possible while providing an all-weather habitat for the flora within the domes. Singapore has a very hot and humid climate, and in order to keep the inside of the conservatories cooled, rainwater is collected from the surface of the conservatories and is circulated in the infrastructure as a cooling system connected to the alien-looking “Supertrees” which are used to vent hot air and to cool down the circulated water.

During our visit, they were holding a special tulip exhibition inside the Flower Dome. A sweet smell was wafting throughout the glass dome. There were tulips of every color—from dazzling whites, bright yellows, intense reds, and gentle mauves. Visitors were going crazy over the tulips! People were posing at odd angles in order to get the best possible selfie with the tulip display. Aside from flowers, this conservatory also had a cacti section. They had cacti that were bigger than me! So different from the miniscule succulents that are so popular in Manila.

The Flower Dome was nice, but my favorite was definitely the Cloud Forest which featured plant life from tropical mountainous regions. It’s like you’re trekking through an actual rainforest jungle (complete with the mist)! The best part of the Cloud Forest is “Cloud Mountain” which is a literal mountain with an actual waterfall. A waterfall! Tropical ferns, orchids, and mosses grow on the Mountain itself, making it a perfect background for touristy photos.

My mind cannot comprehend the science, technology, and effort that went and goes into the design and maintenance of the Gardens by the Bay. I can’t even make one little cacti live for a few months! How is it possible for literally thousands of plants that aren’t supposed to survive in Singapore’s climate thrive? Should I resurrect my dreams of growing my own succulents and herbs? What do you think?

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I still remember the first time I read the Little Prince. A few years back, I managed to borrow a copy of the novel from my cousin and read it in one sitting.  I loved it so much I even considered not giving the book back right after. It was a light read. The stories were simple, and yet infinitely profound. Not to mention the illustrations that accompanied the story were also quite delightful.

While I was doing my research on things to do and places to visit in Seoul, a small Little Prince themed village named “Petite France” popped up in some of the travel blogs that I was reading. Imagine my excitement when I found out that such a place existed! I immediately jotted the place down in my itinerary and a few months later, a friend and I were sitting in a bus, waiting to get dropped off at Petite France.

Petite France was a project of a CEO of a major construction company who also happens to have a love and passion for France and for Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s books. He loved the Little Prince in particular, and focused the little French village he created on Saint-Exupery’s world-renowned book.

True to French style architecture, the houses inside Petite France were constructed with vivid terracotta roof tiles, their walls painted with bright pastel colors, the dark wooden planks visible from the outside. They even had a village circle complete with a small water fountain and cobblestone steps!

Some of the buildings were turned into museums about French culture, like paintings, music, furniture, and so on. There was also a gallery dedicated to the life and works of Antoine de Saint-Exupery. The museum also contained copies of some of the original artworks used in the book. They even had a glass bookcase containing all of the translated version of the Little Prince!

Fans of the book will also rejoice in knowing that they had also built little monuments and statues of the various characters from the Little Prince around Petite France. Some of my favorite ones from my visit were the sculpture of the Little Prince tending to his volcanoes and the one where he flies away from his home planet using a flock of birds.

Aside from the sculptures, there were also several murals about the Little Prince around the village. Inside Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s gallery was a huge mural dedicated to the Little Prince’s warning about the baobab trees. The whole wall was painted a vivid cerulean blue, making the pastel yellow of the stars and the baby green color of the baobab stand out more.

I’m putting it down on my life bucket list to get a Little Prince mural. With just a few buckets of architectural paint and a whole lot of drawing practice, maybe I can also recreate the same kind of effect. It’s the perfect accent wall and inspiration to keep on reading!

Of all the countries that I’ve been to thus far, I think Seoul tops the list for most Instagram-worthy city. There’s just always something to photograph—the sleek and shiny office buildings in Gangnam, the beautiful architecture of its universities, the tree-laden parks which dot every district of this megacity, the quirky shops and cafes, the weird but captivating street art along deserted alleyways, and the list goes on.

Not to be overlooked, though, is the Seoul Trick Eye Museum. What makes this museum so unique is that instead of being a typical art gallery where one merely looks at the paintings, one can be a part of the painting themselves. The paintings housed in the museum are created using a technique called trompe-l’œil, which is French for “deceives the eye.” This particular art style gives each 2D masterpiece the illusion of being in 3D.

Trompe-l’œil is not a new concept, it’s been around since the ancient Romans (as archeological expeditions have discovered). This art style has been used for architectural paintings to create the illusion of higher ceilings through mural artworks. It was also used to depict doors or windows, making the room look larger than it actually is.

Ancient painters have used this style for grand projects like cathedrals and the like, but they also used it for fun and mischief. An example is from the book Lives of Artists (1550) which contained the story of Giotto’s fly where a Florentine painter named Giotto decided to paint a tiny fly onto the mural that his master Cimabue was working on. Unaware that it was actually just a true-to-life painting, Cimabue almost went crazy in trying to shoo the fly away!

The Seoul Trick Eye Museum pays homage to stories like these. There’s a section inside the museum where you can include yourself in classical paintings and another which was solely dedicated to water related artworks (think: mermaids, sharks, fishes, etc.). While some of the artworks were fun and classy, some were downright naughty. Proceed with caution in posing with these mildly indecent paintings!

Before we headed out, we went to the Ice Museum which was located in the same building. Did you ever wish your house was made entirely out of ice especially now in the sweltering Manila heat? If you did, then this place is just for you. It even has a slide (made entirely out of ice!) that you can slide down on. Unfortunately, I was wearing a skirt so I had to pass on that one.

Get there as early as possible so you don’t have to wait in line to have your photos taken. Having less people around also means less embarrassment as you make awkward poses with the paintings. Also, wear shorts or pants, I can’t stress enough how difficult it was to pose in a skirt, especially when you had to lie down on the ground. And with that, go ahead and fill your camera roll with enough Instagram photos to last you a lifetime!

Last year, I took part in a pilgrimage to Mount Putuo, one of China’s five major Buddhist religious mountains. Hauled along by an energetic tour guide who explained everything in either Mandarin or Fukien (ergo I didn’t really understand much), we snaked around the busy streets of Shanghai and paid our respects to a multitude of ancient Chinese temples in the nearby provinces.

Now when you think of the word “pilgrimage,” you think of a quiet, spiritual experience through a billowing cloud of incense smoke, of monks draped in bright orange robes, and of fellow pilgrims offering a small prayer to the assembly of Buddhist gods before them. All of these things were there, but multiply the pilgrims exponentially. We literally had to make our way through a sea of humanity just to get to the different temples within Mount Putuo.

The weather was hot and humid as we navigated through the crowd, trying to avoid getting burnt by the hundreds of smoldering incense sticks that were being wielded around like weapons. Finally, after a tiring day of climbing up and down stairs (and after a lifetime’s worth of breathing in incense smoke) in Mount Putuo, we were finally whisked away to the secluded village of Wuzhen Water Town.

It was like being transported back in time. Lining the sides of the canals were small, traditional houses with their mossy roof tiles, weather-beaten walls, and ornate wooden windows. Constructed with a mix of rough concrete, exposed bricks, and dark wooden panels, the village gave off a feeling of an unpolished hidden gem, something that has remained untouched for centuries. It would really seem like you were back in ancient China if it weren’t for the occasional air conditioning system that popped out of some of the houses.

In the mornings, the sun cast a soft glow onto the picturesque village of Wuzhen. The mix of neutral grays, innocuous whites, and deep browns of the houses’ walls and rooftops were accented with bursts of green from the trees and shrubs that grew along the riverside. With the morning fog and its palette being so close to nature, the scene looked like something straight out of an ancient Chinese landscape painting.

As the sun set, however, the streets and houses were lit up, mantling the village in a mystical, almost eerie glow. Red and yellow paper lanterns lent their otherworldly light in dim alleyways. The morning’s calm and cool undertones of Wuzhen melted away into a tinge of warm amber. Ruby and gold-colored reflections danced along the dark waters of the canals, disturbed only by passing wooden boats.

It’s amazing how a difference in lighting can change a place so dramatically! Wuzhen Water Town was the perfect destination after such a tiring day at the temples. Its quiet, provincial atmosphere was peaceful, warm, and welcoming.

Though separated from the hustle and bustle of the big cities, the village pulsated with its own unique kind of energy—you just need to wait until the sun sets.

Imagine this— a soft sea breeze, the warmth of the mid-afternoon sun slowly ebbing way, a glass of crisp Alsatian white wine in your hand, and a basket of flaky, freshly-baked croissants on the table in front of you. Looking up from the book that you’re reading, you see the sun leisurely making its descent into the deep, crystalline blue waters of the sea, casting soft, golden sunbeams on the small fishing boats making their way back to the village.

Sounds infinitely better than your stuffy office cubicle, am I right?

Just a 20-minute plane ride from Manila lies Balesin Island Club, an exclusive 500-hectare tropical paradise with its own private beaches located off the coast of Quezon Province. Balesin has a total of seven themed villages: Balesin, Bali, Phuket, Mykonos, Costa del Sol, Toscana, and finally, St. Tropez, where my family and I managed to book a room after a two-year wait.

Balesin’s St. Tropez Village was fashioned after the famous Hôtel Byblos located along the French Riviera.

During the late sixties, Lebanese billionaire Jean-Prosper Gay-Para confessed his deep admiration for the French actress Brigitte Bardot, and with this infatuation came the strong desire to build “a palace worthy of the Thousand and One Nights, unique in its kind, from one side of the Mediterranean to the other.” And thus came Hôtel Byblos, which will already celebrate its 50th anniversary on May 2017.

Thanks to the inspiration from this iconic hotel, the villas of St. Tropez indeed whisk its visitors away to a quaint seaside village in France. True to the original architecture, the buildings in the French village of Balesin are constructed in very close proximity with each other. Their weather-beaten exteriors were painted with earthy reds and yellows, and dotting the sides of the villas are small square windows that give an unobstructed view of the sea.

The lobby and hallways were painted with cheery yellows and pastel blues, emphasizing the spacious interiors and lofty ceilings. Tiny colored glass windows were scattered at the top of the stairwell, flooding the space with multi-colored beams of light during the late afternoon. The villas’ décor, some of which were even acquired from France, were carefully curated to suit the tropezienne theme.

As with the rest of the villa, our room did not disappoint. Reminiscent of a tiny seaside cottage, it was predominantly blue, with lush cobalt bedspreads flowing onto the wooden bedframe, a carved cerulean storage chest at the base, and a bedside study table complete with the quintessential pitcher-turned-vase.

Each room came with a balcony overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Leave the balcony doors open to let the cool sea breeze in. Imagine having your morning coffee with this view!

Activities in the island are not limited to lounging around in cushy beach chairs (not that there’s anything wrong with that). You could go fishing, maybe try your hand at archery, or just go around the other villages in Balesin. It’s like going around the world…via a tiny golf cart. Once you’ve tired yourself out, retreat back to your beautiful French paradise, and let the crashing waves be your lullaby as you drift off to dreamland.

If you can’t spare the time to travel to the French Riviera for a quick vacation, then make your way to Balesin Island’s St. Tropez Village. If not for the fact that everyone around you was speaking in Filipino, you would really think you’re exploring the cobblestone streets of a little French village.

Oh, and don’t forget to order some buttered croissants and chilled white wine once you get there. Bon voyage!