My Love Affair With Japan Part II: Studio Ghibli

Growing up, I definitely had the best memories of summer vacations. Two months of doing absolutely nothing but eat and play. Days blur and merge until I’ve forgotten how far gone I was and with some time away from school I would lose all ability to write anything on paper. But there was one specific summer I actually remember in more detail because it changed the course of my life forever.

I still remember channel hopping with my brother on the television in our parents’ room when I was 9 and he was 7. We came across an animé unlike any other. Our eyes were glued to the screen for what seemed like an eternity. Everything was in Japanese and frankly we couldn’t understand anything but we didn’t so much as blink. We were in a trance. We cried. We laughed. We didn’t know what was going on. When it ended, we were in complete and utter shock. That animé was none other than Spirited Away.

With the giant Laputan robot outside the museum (no pictures allowed inside) in Tokyo, Japan

Given how young (and unsupervised, might I add) we were at that time, we didn’t even learn what that movie’s title was until years later. We would, however, talk about the strange albeit exhilarating experience from time to time. Finally, at 22, more than a decade later, I got to visit the Studio Ghibli Museum on a side trip to Mitaka, Tokyo. Needless to say, I was instantly brought back to my childhood and had the time of my life.

I tried making a definitive personal ranking of all the Ghibli films but in all honesty I totally loved most of them that it was hard enough to choose just five for this post. Hopefully I’ll get around to doing that in the future, but for now, here is a list of my absolute favourite movies from arguably the best animation production company in the world.

SPOILER ALERT: Some descriptions may include spoilers so read at your own risk.

5. Princess Mononoke (1997)

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The titular character in Princess Mononoke just gets me. I empathize with both her utter disdain for mankind and her uncompromising love for nature. Not to mention, she’s a wolf-princess who has basically had it with all of society’s crap. She’s really me! All these aside, Princess Mononoke is definitely one of Ghibli’s smarter films. If there is one thing the studio has perfected throughout the years it’s definitely showing us that moral grey areas are real. To quote George R.R. Martin quoting someone else, “a villain is a hero of the other side”. There is no black and white. We all make mistakes, perhaps some graver than others. What matters is that we don’t let hatred get in the way of us living our own lives and living out our own truths.

4. Only Yesterday (1991)

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Only Yesterday came into my life at such an auspicious time. I was months from graduating from college and was transitioning from a pescatarian diet to a vegetarian one. It was, in simpler words, a very confusing period in my life. I was, however, in the best position at the best possible time for Only Yesterday to teach me lessons and to give me direction. Taeko’s struggles which include, but are not limited to her career choices, her love life, and her childhood dreams, mirrored my own. Watching her story unfold, I was presented an opportunity to truly question my sense of self and what I really want out of life. Her desire to live a more peaceful life in the country definitely fortified my aspiration to one day have an organic farm of my own away from the city.

3. The Cat Returns (2002)

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No other piece of art has cemented the way I feel about myself in relation with cats than Ghibli’s The Cat Returns. It is known that I am both a cat person and a human cat. All my life I have just observed people, cultures, events; oftentimes with a glum indifference and a false sense of superiority. All my life I have had an affinity for the feline species (and perhaps a suppressed ability to talk to them, who knows). Ten minutes or so into The Cat Returns I start bawling when a young Haru feeds a stray kitten (or young Yuki) a box of fish crackers. Ghibli has unquestionably mastered surprising its audience with these subtle yet tender moments. On top of that, it was great to see The Baron again, this time equipped with unforgettable lines that bring you home: “What I need you to do is to learn one thing: always believe in yourself. Do this and no matter where you are, you will have nothing to fear.”

2. Whisper of the Heart (1995)

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I honestly thought romance was dead up until I saw Whisper of the Heart this year. It’s not the first romantic animé I have seen but for me, it is the best. The relationship between Shizuku and Seiji, albeit new and blossoming, is already tested by time and distance and is a perfect encapsulation of the kind I wouldn’t mind nurturing in the future (maybe minus the let’s-get-married part given they were still high schoolers). I am still as lost and confused as 14-year-old Shizuku, but her grasp on writing as a passion is just as firm as mine. Her being positively inspired by Seiji’s relentless pursuit of his dream to become a master violin-maker is something that I have personally experienced. After all, this blog wouldn’t be around if it were not for a slightly bruised up heart and ego as a consequence of admiring someone so deeply. Yes, you read that right: just like how Shizuku started writing a book while Seiji was away, I fell in love abroad and started a blog, end of story.

1. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

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If there was a BuzzFeed quiz entitled “Which Studio Ghibli character are you?”, nine out of ten times I would get Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service as a result (the other time would probably be Princess Mononoke if I’m on a particularly misanthropic mood). Let me count the ways Kiki and I are the same person: Kiki is a badass young witch (1); her best friend is her cat Jiji (2); she is as courageously adventurous as she is fiercely independent (3); she leaves the nest at a young age (4); she is extremely dedicated to her work (5); she starts feeling like an outsider in her new home (6); she becomes anti-social (7); she basically loses her ability to fly due to burn out (8); but finally, she gains back her magical powers and proceeds to do what she loves most: flying (9). Her dedication to seeing her issues through, even if she has to face them alone, has inspired me on so many occasions to do the same. Kiki’s Delivery Service is the ultimate marriage between a coming-of-age plot and a tale of wanderlust, and in all honesty it is the most accurate representation of the story of my life.

Bitten by The Trabelle Bug: A Beginner’s Guide to Japan

Bitten by The Trabelle Bug: A Beginner's Guide to Japan
Unending torii in Fushimi-Inari shrine in Kyoto, Japan

For the longest time Japan was as geographically close as it was completely unexplored a territory to me. It remained so up until a spontaneous winter trip with friends wherein my love affair with the land of the rising sun truly blossomed, being deepened only by repeated visits and occasional trips down memory lane. Since then, Japan has become my go-to country for amazing travel experiences. Not entirely due to my obsession with salmon sashimi and Terrace House; nevertheless, both are big factors.

I have been asked by many friends and acquaintances time and again two entirely different questions about Japan: 1) how exactly I plan my trips and 2) why exactly should they bother. Seriously, at this point I might be one of their biggest (unpaid and unsolicited) travel ambassadors.

Why Japan Travel Is Worth It

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Exploring the colorful streets of Harajuku

Japan, for the most part, developed inside its own amazing bubble. And then one day the whole world was floored at how fast and independently the country grew in many different aspects. Culturally, Japan is one of the world’s richest, marrying influences from the past with innovations from the future. I don’t think many countries on this planet can boast such a feat: in Japan it is normal to ride a high speed bullet train while looking out the window at stunning views of ricepaddies.

Things To Consider When Planning Your Trip

1. The Basics: Visa Application, Budget, and Itinerary

Being kids again at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Osaka

For holders of Philippine passports like me, there is a fairly easy process to obtain a tourist visa to Japan. The first time I applied in 2015 I was granted a single-entry visa. But after my first trip, I was automatically given a multiple-entry visa with a five-year validity when I applied again. Determine first the type of visa you’d like to acquire and refer to the Japanese Embassy’s webpage for instructions. Both times I applied via Reli Tours and Travel Company.

Japan is by no means a cheap country for travel but that isn’t to say that budget travel is impossible. Here is a general sample breakdown of two of my most recent trips to Japan (some prices are rough and rounded-up approximations for good measure):

For less than 1000 USD each time, I got to venture out of the capital city of Tokyo and into even less touristic areas like Gifu and Takayama. I stayed in centrally-located Airbnbs with friends and families and availed of a JR Pass (a 7-day rail pass with access to JR trains) and a PASMO card (a smart card used in Tokyo) to save a few hundred dollars on public transportation. Most of my day-to-day expenses were allotted for food and drink, entrance fees to temples and theme parks, and shopping (mostly for onamori or amulets from temples visited, clothes from Uniqlo, random finds in Daiso, and make-up from Matsumoto Kiyoshi, a famed drugstore chain in Japan).

2. Language, Culture, Etiquette

The walk to Meiji Shrine in Tokyo is a personal favourite

In Japan, Nihongo is the language spoken while kanji and the two syllbabic scripts, hiragana and katagana, are used in their writing system. Fear not, a lot of signs in Japan also contain English translations. I personally have never had a problem communicating while traveling around the country.

As if Japan was not unique enough, one should also be wary of important dining customs such as slurping your soup and noodles loudly (to show that you are enjoying your meal) and not tipping (because doing so is considered rude). Likewise, if you haven’t already mastered the art of using chopsticks, better pick some up and learn on the way because you won’t see any other utensils elsewhere.

Keep in mind that Japan is more than just animé and cat cafés. It goes beyond sword-wielding samurai and tea-serving geisha. The Japanese are some of the most polite and most disciplined people I have ever encountered. I particularly love how they fall diligently in line when boarding trains and subways. As a result, I always feel so safe and so anonymous when I’m in Japan. And for someone as introverted as me, that is the equivalent of utopia.

3. When to Go, Where to Go, What to Eat, and What to Do

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Front row seats to a traditional performing arts show in the heart of Gion district

For first-time visitors, the cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka should not be missed. Daytrips are also possible depending on the length of stay. I have been to Japan in winter (small crowds but can get really cold) and fall (crowds getting smaller but humidity only starting to disappear) but they say spring is the most beautiful time to go (cherry blossom season).

Tokyo: The Shibuya crossing, Hachiko’s statue, the Meiji shrine, Harajuku district, and Shinjuku garden are some of the highlights of this crazy city. I absolutely love eating chirashi bowls for breakfast in the Tsukiji Fish Market and ramen bowls for lunch in Tokyo Station. I also have very fond memories of visiting arcades scattered around the city; entering one feels as if you’re in a completely different world. For animé geeks and movie buffs like me, a trip to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo is a must.

Kyoto: Go temple hopping. My favourites in this city are definitely the Fushimi-Inari temple with unending rows of orange torii (as seen in Memoirs of a Geisha) and the Kiyomizu-dera love temple (where there are two love stones you have to cross with eyes closed in order to fulfill your heart’s greatest desire). The Arashiyama bamboo forest is also a beauty. For better photos, be sure to go to the hidden corners that lazy tourists don’t even reach. Don’t forget to watch a traditional Japanese performance in Gion Corner. This was truly an unforgettable experience, given how stealthy authentic geishas are in Japan – this is probably the closest to a geisha sighting a tourist on a budget can get!

Osaka: Dubbed as the gastronomic capital of the world, Osaka does not disappoint when it comes to the wide selection of delicious food across the city. For a more crowded, touristic experience, be sure to check out the street food in Dotonbori. Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes) and takoyaki (octopus balls) are typical of Osaka and they are everywhere you look. For a more relaxed, local experience, go to the Kuromon Ichiba market where you can buy fresh produce and sometimes discounted sushi and tempura. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, visit the Universal Studios. I actually am deathly afraid of roller coasters so I only went to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and to have some hot and cold Butterbeer. A daytrip to Nara to feed the deer is also highly recommended!

4. Tips & Tricks

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Going crazy and temple hopping in Kyoto

Get a JR Pass if you’re planning to cover long distances. The JR pass is a steal if you intend to go from one city to another, in style (read: via the Shinkansen bullet trains) while saving a ton of money. It is an experience in itself. Plus, you can use the JR pass on local JR trains in most cities, cutting down expenses on public transportation and making travel more convenient (you just show the pass at the entrance and you’re good to go). Note that the JR Pass can only be bought outside of Japan and is only sold to holders of foreign passports.

Always bring cash with you. Japan is, in all its modernity, still a cash-based society so especially when making small purchases like those yummy tuna rolls in Family Mart, local currency will come in handy. Also, I am a big fan of how the Japanese give you back your change. It is so artful, I often wonder if they have training for that.

The toilet is your friend. I hate to end this post on this note, but really, Japanese toilets are amazing. I will never get tired of figuring them all out and channeling my inner Dee Dee from Dexter’s Laboratory (read: what does this button do???). Seriously, the Japanese toilet is yet another reflection of the country’s tradition of appreciating cleanliness and beauty mixed with unprecedented technological innovation.

Travel Eats: Where In The World You Should Travel For Food

Travel Eats: Where in The World You Should Travel For Food

Even at a very young age I was already exposed to different types of cuisine, thanks to my late father who probably had one of the best palates and definitely had the most adventurous attitude when it came to food. Some of my fondest, most vivid memories of my dad include him eating tuna sashimi while enjoying his San Miguel Pale Pilsen in the afternoons, him taking us to Tagaytay to eat real corned beef with cabbage, him stocking up on pickled and fermented vegetables from kimchi, to sauerkraut, and atsara, him preparing marshmallows and cutting up fruits for our Toblerone Swiss fondue at home, and him serving up my favorite Spanish tortilla when we have nothing else to eat for dinner.

While most kids around me lived off the classic hotdog and white rice combination (literally the most Filipino thing, ever… not going to lie, I was a big fan), I was having salmon sashimi as my preferred merienda at home and making pastrami sandwiches when hunger would strike at midnight.

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The little one would grow up to have big food adventures

This kind of upbringing that I am very grateful for definitely influenced the kind of traveler that I would then become. Whenever I travel, food and drink always take precedence over just about anything. A trip would not be complete without having tried something new and something typical of the place I was visiting. And more often than not, if I end up liking a dish or a drink, no matter how strange it is or how hard it is to find, I would have it as many times as humanly possible before I have to unfortunately leave.

While Filipino cooking still holds a very special place in my heart (Tofu Kare Kare is life), I have decided to come up with a definitive list of places worth traveling to, if only for the culinary experience. Here I outline my favorite food and cuisine, out of those I have had the privilege of trying thus far while on the road, all of which I think everyone should experience at least once in their lives.

All photos were compiled and taken from my two Instagram accounts (defunct and current), for anyone who might be wondering.

1. Japan

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Black sesame ice cream in Arashiyama, Takoyaki in Nara, Udon in Kyoto, and Chirashi in Tsukiji

I don’t think it’s possible for me to stop gushing about how even the food you find in convenience stores and street stalls in Japan is so damn good. Get a couple of negitoro onigiri from Family Mart and you’re set. Try takoyaki and okonomiyaki from any of the stalls in Osaka, even the ones outside of Dotonbori, and see if you don’t fall in love. Eat at a random ramen stand or the vendo ones in Tokyo Station and you’re bound to have a good time either way. Don’t even get me started with the freshest chirashi bowls in Tsukiji Fish Market (with all the different types of tuna and salmon, my mouth is watering right now) and just Japanese beer in general. Kanpai!

2. Spain

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Pintxos in San Sebastián, Champis in Logroño, Chocolate con churros in Madrid, Paella in Sevilla

Why do you think I chose to live in the Basque Country? If my dad were still alive, I’m sure he would pat me on the back for choosing to live in the region that holds the record for most Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world. Imagine being surrounded by world-class pintxos wherever you go and relatively cheap but very good quality wine (shoutout to the Basque txakoli and all the good times we’ve had). We haven’t even reached the topic of paella yet which I believe deserves its own post. And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but really, we all have to admit it: 100 Montaditos is basically a god-send.

3. Hong Kong

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Roast goose in HKIA, Milk tea in Central, Shrimp wonton noodles in Victoria Peak

I cannot count how many times in my life I have paused, in times of distress and in times of lonesome (for fear of looking ridiculous), and tried to remember the distinct smell of roast duck that basically screams Hong Kong. From the street food down in Mong Kok to the noodles up in the Peak, Hong Kong offers an incredible culinary experience that is unlike any other. I will never forget the mismatched adventures of going all the way to Lan Kwai Fong in Central for classic milk tea and back to Yau Ma Tei in Kowloon for world-renowned dim sum and dumplings. Thank goodness Hong Kong is a mere 2-hour flight from Manila.

4. Italy

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Florentine steak and risotto in Florence, gelato in Rome, Italian panini in Florence

Whether it’s pizza in Rome, risotto in Venice, or steak in Florence, Italy does not seem to run out of timeless choices to offer. But my best memory would have to be that time I literally chased after my passion and rode my way across Italy by train to taste all the best gelato, also known as man’s greatest invention, that the country has to offer. I don’t even know how many times I ate ice cream in the span of one week, definitely several on some days, just so I could maximize my time there and the seemingly countless flavors that exist. I actually cannot wait to do it again.

5. Vietnam

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Vietnamese iced coffee in Ho Chi Minh, Phở in Bến Thành Market

I can still remember channeling my inner Anthony Bourdain and finding my way to The Lunch Lady by the Saigon river to try her world-famous phở like it was yesterday. Setting aside my pescatarian sensibilities for a moment, I wolfed down everything in that bowl of life because it was just so flavorful and so authentically Vietnamese. The rest of the time, if I wasn’t overdosing on Vietnamese coffee and bánh mì, I was desperately on the look out for gỏi cuốn and sugarcane juice. The best part was that my 23-year old self didn’t seem to be running out of money. What I would give to fly back there soon.

6. Belgium

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Strawberry banana waffles by the Manneken Pis, Belgian [French] fries in Bruges

My memories of Belgium are definitely hazy and I have pints of delicious Belgian Hoegaardeen beer to thank for that. But the culinary experience was so vivid that to this day I haven’t forgotten the richness of Belgian chocolate, the sinfulness of Belgian waffles, and the deceptiveness of Belgian fries. I went to Belgium knowing practically nothing about the country, on a short weekend trip to meet up with friends, and went home a Belgian cuisine convert and a completely changed person, with boxes and boxes of truffles, of course.

7. Thailand

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Coconut ice cream in Khao San Road, Thai pancakes in Taling Chan floating market

I used to just marvel at photos of colorful floating markets on magazines and websites but when I finally visited one in Bangkok, I was not disappointed at all. In sampling endless plates of Thai pancakes, drinking glasses of Thai iced tea one after the other, gobbling down hot bowls of tom yum and cold servings of mango sticky rice, one realizes that Thai cuisine is the most faithful reflection of how rich and vibrant the country’s culture is. Not to mention the coconut ice cream, fresh fruit shakes, and pad thai to-go scattered all over Khao San Road. I wouldn’t mind getting lost in dark alleys again if it meant having these food in my life.

8. Germany

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Wurst, bier, sauerkraut, potato wedges in Munich

Imagine wandering aimlessly in Munich hoping to find a place where you could eat after a rather tiring train ride and then at the perfect moment of hunger stumbling upon the actual beer garden of your dreams. Such was my experience in Germany. To this day, I still question whether or not that experience was real because it turned out to be the best 20-euro meal I have ever had in Europe, if not just simply the best. Period. A wide selection of wurst and bier, sauerkraut, pretzels, and good vibes from amazing German people: this is the stuff dreams are made of.

My Love Affair With Japan Part I: Haruki Murakami

How much I love Japan is no secret. As a self-diagnosed grey-romantic, I would actually marry Japan right here, right now if only I could. But what most people don’t know is how exactly this love affair of mine, with a country I have visited multiple times, even began. In this n-part series of posts, n being a number as close to infinity as possible, I will try to put into words the reasons that cultivated the kind of love (and sometimes unexplained nostalgia) I feel for a country I probably lived in in my past life or thrive in in a parallel universe. Let me begin with one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists: Haruki Murakami.

I became a big fan of Mr. Murakami at the tender age of 13 when I first read the best coming-of-age novel I had yet encountered since The Catcher in the Rye, and it was none other than Norwegian Wood. While the nostalgic tone of the novel resonated with me, I found a lot of the book’s content to be unsettling and downright confusing (read: sex stuff and people leaving), justified by my naivety and youth. Still, I was surprisingly entranced in this intense state of familiarity and intimacy, with the written work of a Japanese author, of all people. I knew at an early age that Murakami was my person.

Admiring the beautiful rows of torii in Fushimi-Inari in Kyoto, Japan

I have since read a great bulk of his work, from his short stories to the Rat trilogy, and the connection has remained unbroken. While I am excited to finish reading them all, I am also hesitant in so far as there is only so much of his real magic and sheer artistry to absorb and I would probably need a dose of Murakami’s brand of wisdom in my life every now and then. As my way of paying homage to a person who has managed to successfully entertain and simultaneously educate me over the years, I have come up with a list of my favorite Murakami quotations, taken from some of my favorite Murakami books, and the timeless nuggets of wisdom they have each brought forth in my life.

1. “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” – Nagasawa, Norwegian Wood

I don’t know about you but I have claimed ownership over Murakami many times in the past (read: h!pst3r alert). Just in this post if you remember, I called him my person. While I get incredibly excited when people I know finally discover the wonder that is Murakami’s writing, I also feel a little less special, and even betrayed to an extent. I’m admittedly weird and Murakami is a weird writer. While it is arguable that everyone is weird, it is more correct to say that everyone is weird in different ways – Murakami and I just happen to be on the exact same wavelength of peculiarity.

Nothing like the Shibuya Crossing on a summer night in Tokyo, Japan

2. “Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.” – Miss Saeki, Kafka on the Shore

I write mainly for the sake of posterity, and in this case, writing becomes a double-edged sword. The memories that I choose to document through my words are powerful in two opposing manners. Being perpetually in a state of nostalgia doesn’t help because memories for me do not form long after they are made. While it may sound absurd I often already miss and cherish the things that are still happening. This trait has cultivated within me a sense of gratitude for the little joys just as much as it has allowed me to mourn over the fleeting nature of moments.

3. “As time goes on, you’ll understand. What lasts, lasts; what doesn’t, doesn’t. Time solves most things. And what time can’t solve, you have to solve yourself.” – Unnamed narrator, Dance Dance Dance

I have always been a firm believer in letting go of things I clearly have no control over. In my honest opinion, being able to surrender important matters to the Universe is more a sign of strength than it is of weakness. While doing so is a direct admission of my limitations, it is also an overt appreciation for what exactly I can do for myself, sans the help of time healing certain wounds. As I get older, I become more introspective and I grow more confident in myself. I start to make better decisions and failures hurt a little less. It is just a matter of accepting what is meant for me, knowing how to let go of what isn’t, and trying to mend what can still be fixed.

Enjoying the lights in Dotonbori in Osaka, Japan

4. “In this world, there are things you can only do alone, and things you can only do with somebody else. It’s important to combine the two in just the right amount.” – Korogi, After Dark

I have read extensively about relationships but nothing I have ever come across quite comes close to the accuracy of this quotation. I have always had an appreciation for my independence; in fact, I celebrate it. However, I never lost my desire to find people to experience the things I can’t quite do for myself. Just like anything that requires a lot of work, finding this balance is a struggle but I’ve always felt that it is most important to learn how to be alone first. While life wasn’t ever meant to be experienced in lonesome, especially for us sentient beings, there is a lot to be said about someone who also yearns and makes an effort to connect with one’s self.

5. “No matter what they wish for, no matter how far they go, people can never be anything but themselves. That’s all.” – Birthday Girl, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

I have always cited my ultimate goal in life to be ‘the achievement of a successful self-actualization’. We all just want to be the best versions of ourselves. No matter how much we deny it, it has been psychologically proven that we all share this common goal. In the past, I would refer to myself as ‘untapped potential’. I have always claimed that I can be anything that I want. In the end, however, no matter what I become, no matter where I find myself years down the line, no matter what profession I end up with, I am still me – perpetually introspective and forever a student of life. There are just as many things we can achieve as things about ourselves that will remain unchanged.

Budget Travel 101: Tips From The Most Frugal Traveler Ever a.k.a. Me

Would you honestly believe me if I told you I spent a total of PHP 25000 (around 500 USD as of writing) during a two-week trip from Vietnam through Cambodia to Thailand? How about how I recently spent less than PHP 25000 during a week-long stay in Croatia (with Dubrovnik as my home base to be precise), during which I also got to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro? Would you believe me if I told you I slept, ate, and lived like a modern-day princess regardless? The last part probably not, but amazing times were definitely had without having to break the bank nor sell my soul to the devil. Fulfilling budget travel is so possible; and I am living proof.

The key to a successful attempt at this godsend millennials refer to as budget travel a.k.a. being able to go out there without sacrificing the little things we need to distract ourselves when we’re not out there (read: “I want to travel because it sets my soul on fire… but I also want to have money for things that dull the pains of daily life such as bottles of cheap wine and cute things I don’t need but keep popping up on my Instagram feed. I guess whatever little amount of money I have isn’t going to spend itself”) is striking a balance between having rigid boundaries and going a little crazy. When you master getting the right mix, you’re in for a good time, every time.

Here are some travel hacks and tips that I, as a self-proclaimed seasoned budget traveler, would like to share with you, another soul who should be convinced that broadening one’s horizon does not have to come at such a great price, literally. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you how exactly you can earn the money to travel but I can help you spend it. Heh. I mean, teach you ways to spend it. Or in the case of the last one, NOT spend it.

1. Plan ahead

My brother and I smiling wide and enjoying Coron, Philippines knowing we paid less than 200 USD for everything

I know, I know. Where’s the spontaneity in that? Well, guess what: if you know when exactly to be spontaneous and when exactly to plan ahead, you’re basically doing yourself a huge favour. One should learn how to at least think about the basics of a trip. I know it’s so tempting to just “yolo” (putting those in quotation marks makes me feel old), book a flight at the last minute, and play everything by ear. But hey guess what 2.0, you’re on a budget! You literally cannot afford to do that because of a financial constraint. Boo reality, always getting in the way of things.

Always remember that in budget travel, one must be flexible with the journey but stubborn about the destination. You are certain you want to go to Boracay during the Labor Day weekend? Well, maybe the best thing you can do is book your ticket and accommodation as far in advance as possible, and then go walwal (read: funny Filipino word for crazy) when you’re there. This will save you a lot of money and non-hangover induced headaches in the process.

2. Know your needs

Thai Iced Tea is just really a necessity whether or not you’re in Bangkok, Thailand

We are all built differently. We are all built with different capacities with regards to tolerating different things. For instance, are you the type who prioritizes comfort over anything? Then maybe you should spend the bulk of your budget on accommodations that are not only conveniently and centrally-located but also don’t make you dread using the bathroom. Are you the type who places a lot of importance on privacy? Then maybe you should avoid hostels and shared spaces at all costs, especially if even just the thought of having any unnecessary interaction with other travelers is literally making you want to slit your own throat.

Or are you the type who doesn’t care about any of those mentioned above? Then great! Congratulations! You can literally stay anywhere which is very good news for your wallet because every penny counts. Let me rephrase that. Good news for your tummy because every extra penny saved should count towards your food and drink budget! The gist is this: know what you absolutely need out of and during a trip and don’t be cheap at all when it comes to that. In budget travel, everything else can suffer, relatively. Just don’t die. That’s not how millennials do it! Instead, just think about all the extra pints of Radlers you can have.

3. Go for free and authentic experiences

Making friends and hiking mountains make for great memories in Dubrovnik, Croatia

As a budget traveler, I know first-hand how tempting it is to go to those places you never thought actually existed outside of Instagram. I know first-hand how much you want your feed to look p e r f – gotta have that amazing photo with the torii in Fushimi-Inari or that display picture worthy snapshot with Nhyvan – but really, they’re hardly ever the best part about travel. The best part is food/alcohol. But we’re here to talk about budget travel a.k.a. not spending money so…

The best memories actually come in the form of being able to enter the Mezquita in Cordoba just to hear the afternoon mass (and cry in a corner), couchsurfing for the first time in a hip neighbourhood in Amsterdam to save a little cash (and spend it on some hash, okay just kidding, the joke was waiting to happen), getting randomly lost in a dark alley in Bangkok with your two best friends (this one was scary as hell but super funny), and spending one whole day around Dubrovnik with a friend you made at the hostel the night before (cue Taylor Swift’s Enchanted). These are the unforgettable experiences that don’t make it to your feed (or get linked to on your blog post) and that no amount of money can buy, figuratively because they are priceless and literally because they are free, which is especially important when you don’t necessarily have the money to spend in the first place.

How Travel Changed My Life

In the last quarter of 2014, I unwittingly found myself in the most decisive crossroad in my life yet: I was 21, in my third year in university, and eager to go on a term abroad in Spain while my dad was 52, still young and healthy, when he suddenly passed away due to a heart attack.

Anyone who has experienced this particular kind of loss knows there are no words to adequately express the intensity of what follows. I was enveloped in guilt, anger, sadness, and just about any negative feeling in the full spectrum of human emotion. Somehow I was expected to stay strong through it all; to fake it until I made it.

Accepting and appreciating life’s own pace in Kyoto, Japan

But how could I even begin to feel excited about what I had dubbed “the trip of of a lifetime” when one of the few people I was eager to tell all about it was no longer? Not only had I lost one of the most important figures in my life, a person who loved me unconditionally and vice versa, but I had also lost myself in the process.

On the surface, moving to Europe for six months was the perfect excuse to heal and to find myself. How could grieving in winter and blossoming in spring be unattractive to anyone? Life, being the epitome of irony that it is, had granted me the opportunity to wallow in distractions and to run away from reality, so to speak. Nothing could have prepared me better for all that was to come than hopping on that plane to Barcelona.

Lifting all up in Montserrat, Catalonia, Spain

What took place as I stepped foot on European soil was a kind of rebirth. I drowned in the darkness of my own sorrows and in the depths rediscovered the vitality of life. I was surrounded by scenery that was unlike anything I was used to back home. I was immersed in experiences I would have never in my life imagined finding myself in. I was even adding a fourth language to my arsenal. Every weekend I found myself in a different place. In half a year I had traveled to tens of countries around Europe and it didn’t matter one bit that I did most of it by myself.

For the first time, I was bitten by the travel bug. And I haven’t stopped traveling since.

Going broke in pricey Copenhagen, Denmark

When I got back to the Philippines,  I was a completely different person. From going on familiar beach trips with friends from high school to backpacking through unfamiliar Indochina with friends from university: I seized every opportunity to pack my bags and just go. That burning desire to travel has also led me back here to Spain shortly after graduating: no longer as a student of Spanish, but this time as a teacher of English.

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Falling in love with breath-taking Prague, Czech Republic

Despite all the difficult challenges and tragic events that I have had to weather thus far, I have never looked to travel as a mere outlet to escape life but rather as an earnest way for life not to escape me. I travel to all these places, both old and new, to live in the triviality of my worries and in the profundity of my adventures.

Tank top and short shorts in Singapore, Singapore

Instead of warranting me answers in life, travel has generated even more questions. At the time of writing, I find myself in yet another crossroad, perhaps a lot less rocky than the one I have just finished passing through but difficult to traverse just the same. Whether or not I stay in Spain for another year is up in the air. The past winter has shown me that home calls every three months or every time the temperature dropping below zero makes this island girl appreciate the humidity coupled with torrential rains back in the tropics, whichever comes sooner.

Hiking up for majestic views in Dubrovnik, Croatia

While travel is essentially about being in the present, it is also about being in a constant state of departure. This type of travel has made me appreciate home, realizing that it is also possible to have one in a corner of the world that is the complete opposite of where you come from. I have learned the hard way that missing what you are used to does not equal being miserable where you currently are. It just means you are striking the right balance between staying true to yourself and welcoming any change that may arise for the sake of your growth as a person.

Home is where the heart is in El Nido, Philippines

Similarly, in spending the past couple of years living in and traveling between Europe and Asia I have accumulated memories to last a lifetime. From experiencing the joy of having the freshest fish in Tsukiji in both summer and winter to the bliss in enjoying chocolate con churros in Sol in fall and spring: these memories may be years and seasons apart but they are never the same experience. I may travel to the same places but I am a different person each time.

But more than giving me all these precious memories to look back on in the future and allowing me to meet all sorts of people along the way, travel has made me realize that my life in itself is a journey that continues to unfold with each delayed flight and each scenic train ride. Whether the story is set against the backdrop of the Basque mountain ranges or the busy streets of Manila, life continues to be an adventure.

And through it all, I never felt alone for I know my dad continues to keep a watchful eye on and is with me every step of the way.

This is an entry to the How Travel Changed My Life contest by Traveloka: 

Traveling Alone: If You’re Looking For A Sign, This Is It

When people commend me for being so ‘brave’ and ‘fearless’ for traveling solo to the most random cities imaginable, I usually just nod politely, fake a smile, and wonder to myself why what I am doing is a grand feat in everyone’s eyes. And then I go back to that same truth that plagues my daily existence: I look like I’m 12.

Here’s the thing: if a perpetually baby-faced, petite 24-year-old Asian girl, standing at almost five feet tall (I say almost because in my heart and in some official grown-up records I AM 5 feet tall despite what you might say) can travel solo from Manila to Barcelona (and back) with two maletas bigger than her and then eventually to countless cities in the European and Asian continents (thus far), then I don’t see why anyone else can’t.

Don’t be fooled, however. I have obviously had my fair share of stranger danger incidents (funny at times, but more often horrific) and travel anxiety/burnout episodes (more on the last two issues much later – yes, they exist, and no, they aren’t as elitist as they sound) but they obviously did not stop me from conquering some of the most fascinating and culturally-diverse continents in the world, with no other hand to hold but my own (#bitter – I never actually held hands with myself, that’s just weird).

While I absolutely love traveling with family and groups, I have developed a soft spot for going out there alone given that I have experienced some of my most unforgettable memories while doing so. Here are just SOME of the reasons why solo travel is ultimately worth it:

1. You get to do everything at your own pace.

Just chilling by the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain

You don’t have to wake up at 8 am to catch the winter sunrise in Pamplona if you would much rather sleep in and catch a later bus to the city. You don’t have to eat at that fancy hamburger restaurant in Lisbon if you would much rather share a hearty meal with your new friends at the hostel. The beauty in solo travel is that you can do whatever the bleep you want.

You are/should be the best company there ever is. You see, traveling is a lot like falling in love: you can’t expect someone to love you if you don’t love yourself (boom I be dropping some truth bombs like they’re Ecstasy tablets, omg what a distasteful joke, I’m sorry) in the same manner that you can’t expect to be the best travel buddy if you can’t even spend time traveling on your own.

2. You will always make new friends.

Squad Goals in Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Here’s an unwritten rule in the world of solo travel: no one is actually completely alone. I can’t count how many new friends I have made on the road just by being in my lonesome. Ironic, isn’t it? When we meet people, no matter where they are from, whether or not a language barrier exists, regardless of it all, the world suddenly feels a little smaller. And that’s a great feeling – something that not all kinds of travel can warrant.

Whether it’s the American college student who took my photo in Segovia, the Korean high schooler who was lost in the same street as me in Seville, the Taiwanese backpacker who helped me buy metro tickets in Cologne, the Swiss lady who gave me two francs so I can use the toilet in Zurich, the French guy who talked to me in French the whole time I was in Lisbon, the Ecuadorian abuelo who told me to always respect myself and to never be in a hurry in life as he sat next to me on the bus to Madrid, or the Spanish tourist who said “Por fin, hemos llegado señorita” when he recognised me as the only twenty-something at the end of our 10-hour train ride to Santiago de Compostela – you will always make a new friend and will never feel alone.

3. You realise how interesting and unique you actually are.

Making friends with the deer in Nara, Japan

How often are you really going to meet a Filipina who left the comforts of her own warm home to teach English in the Basque Country and to immerse herself in Spanish culture, who finished her degree in Economics because she wants to become a diplomat and/or a social entrepreneur to focus on education in the Philippines one day, and who considers travel (read: going to new places, picking up the language, immersing self in culture) as the ultimate, if not the only way of life there is. Not very often. Probably once in your life. If you’re lucky. No, it’s not being obnoxious – it’s realising that in solo travel, as in every other aspect of life, you are both your greatest investment and your greatest capital.

Don’t get me wrong – I am absolutely NOT an extrovert who loves making friends. I usually hate people. I am an INFJ (emphasis on the Introvert and also, we make up around 1% of the human population – you can’t possibly be RARER than that). But when you’re on the road meeting new people, your quirky and unique traits will inevitably shine through. After all, we’re all interesting because we’re all different. They say you can be whoever you want to be when you’re traveling (even more so when you’re traveling alone) but why be anyone else when you can simply be yourself. This is the good part. Embrace it. Wallow in it, even.