Category: Travel, travels

It could have been declared the national bird of China but for its literal translation (from its Latin scientific name Grus Japonensis) of “Japanese Crane”. That red patch on its crown gave it its more popular, and shall we say non-controversial and more acceptable name — the red-crowned cranes. Among the rarest and heaviest species of cranes, many migratory cranes breed in spring and summer in Siberia and northeastern China before migrating in flocks to Korea and East-Central China to spend winter there. BUT Eastern Hokkaido — the Kushiro wetlands, in particular — is home to non-migratory red-crowned cranes. If at all, they move less than a hundred miles to their wintering grounds within Kushiro such as in Akan and in the village of Tsurui. Interestingly, Eastern Hokkaido is home to more than half of the world’s red-crowned cranes. Graceful big birds weighing as much as 20 pounds and as tall as 5 feet. We visited the Tsurui-ito Tancho Sanctuary in Kushiro to see these magnificent birds. The sanctuary was named after Yoshitaka Ito, a local farmer, who started feeding these cranes for many years. Such is Japanese farm life here.

The Courtship

So why do these species of elegant birds call Kushiro their home? Within Kushiro is Tsurui-ito where a sanctuary houses as many as 1,800 red-crowned cranes. Come feeding time, you’d see some 300 of them, eager for nourishment. In the sanctuaries, the cranes live as long as 40 years. In the wilds, they live only up to 20 years average. The wetlands in Kushiro are breeding grounds to these elegant, charming birds. Volunteers in the area help maintain their breeding grounds and even feed them dent corns. The Japanese have a strong bond with these cranes which they consider to bring good luck. They also think these lovely birds bring peace and happiness. Volunteers here even attend work camps to learn and join conservation activities like creating natural feeding grounds. No wonder these cranes are non-migratory. They are so loved by the people here.

Major establishments have used the crane as their corporate logo. Japan Air Lines and Kuok Group, to name a couple. It also appeared on the old 1,000 yen bills. This is because cranes symbolise strength, long life, fidelity, purity and peace. Cranes mate for life and it is quite a spectacle to see pairs honking together, in unison, as a prelude to their “dance”. They flap their wings and perform ballet-like, graceful moves, turning, twirling, fluttering their wings as they suspend in air for a few secs, all that time crowing. And all that crowing and honking comprise Kushiro’s soundscape. The same birds have likewise become iconic images of happy relationships because crane “couples” develop strong, loyal partnerships and mate for life. Now, humans can learn from that, right? So next time we find a Japanese origami of a crane, we can now appreciate this special bond between these birds and the Japanese people. 💕

check this video:

We came here with a few ideas in mind. From our hotel’s lake view room window, we found a frozen lake. Early morning, we watched some activities: people on snow mobiles circling the frozen Lake Akan along designated paths, a lone snow mobile dragging a banana boat filled with screaming people, and snow buggies! From a distance, it really looked like fun. I can hardly contain my childish excitement over breakfast as a mantle of snow fully covered the Lake near this Ainu Village. For good measure, I had to ask our guide Nobu-san if the ice is thick enough considering such a flurry of snow activities.

Riding through the snow 🕸🎼🎹

Ice Land Akan is one winter attraction not to be missed here in Kushiro. The lake surface gets thoroughly iced and both kids and adults can enjoy many snow rides and activities plus fireworks and an Ainu Festival Performance at night. The colourful banners and tents, the ice slide along with some snow sculptures of the much revered owls and bears dot the frozen surface that now serve as playground. The rides include a snow mobile-pulled banana ride, snow buggies and the snow mobiles. I think I also saw some paddle boards and small groups intent to do ice fishing. What to fish? I hear it’s lake smelt called wakasagi by locals. Yum.

The snow mobiles follow paths hemmed in by colourful banners depending on how long you’re riding. It’s a breeze sneaking into a tent to choose and fit a helmet , then choosing your ride. On a banana boat, I thought I tried taking a video — good for a few secs, then you hear only the screaming as the boat twisted and turned. And the snow buggies? The old boys got a high riding and racing them! Just like me getting a high on the snow mobile. ⛄️🥶🌨

What a high!

With Megumi and Nobu-san. 👏👏👏

The evening program included a bonfire and some performance numbers by the Ainu tribe. Fire 🔥 is a significant element to this people as it provides warmth and light. The improvised stage was lighted in varying colours and the revered owl was the centerpiece. A bonfire was set at the end of the evening program. On this night, you don’t mind being squished by the crowd as temps hit the floor. You bet the fireworks capped the night!

The very first activity we had upon arrival in Memanbetsu in the Shiretoko Peninsula is a short walk towards the Oshinkoshin Waterfalls. Hard to miss as it’s right by the coastal road if you’re driving towards Utoro. Short climb but slippery, as the snow has started to melt and grown icy. Like an old lady, I held on to the railing as I gingerly climbed, and then slid down. 🙄 I can imagine the gushing waters during Spring but I certainly didn’t mind seeing my very first frozen waterfall.

Oshinkoshin Falls

The next day, we did the drift ice-walking (yass!) followed by snow walking in the nature park after a lunch where we shucked our own uni (sea urchin) and then some. We did away with the snow shoes and simply walked a good half hour towards a promontory where the frozen Furepe Waterfalls looks majestic even in its frozen form against an unusual panorama of ice slabs floating off the Sea of Okhotsk. These ice floes drifting from Siberia and Sakhalin Island look so surreal and the frozen Furepe Falls is a bonus after a half hour walk from the Center. The park is home to deer, foxes and other wildlife. Walking it is the best way to appreciate the stillness of the “white beauty” surrounding us. Just had to remind ourselves not to stray from the path as some areas are thick with snow as deep as 2 meters. Certainly deeper in other areas. Now, you wouldn’t want to sink your shoes, your lower limbs or worse, your entire body, in there!

Best to come here to walk off a hearty lunch. The time we visited, we skipped wearing the snow shoes since the weather improved (from negative temps to zero Celsius 😜) and the walkways looked manageable. Also, our guides reminded us to wrap up good to stay warm. The forest trees, snow-covered Mountains, the frozen waterfalls and if you’re in luck, a deer or two, are waiting for those who love Nature. The stillness makes you feel warm and fuzzy. Yes, even in the dead of winter. You can’t take it home, but this scenery sparks joy 😊 The image clings to your memory and claims a spot in your heart ❤️

Spring here must look so cheery! All green, lush trees and flowers abloom. In winter, it offers an entirely different landscape. Not exactly gloomy, but the “stillness” is what will hit you. All in a good way. Walking in the forest bathed in white powder while snow flurries gently hit your cheeks is not your everyday activity. Still and quiet, but for those snowflakes landing on your face and the birds crowing as if reminding you to mind your steps.

The ice floes drifting in the Sea of Okhotsk which spills out to the Pacific Ocean is just mesmerizing. There are no dry suits to protect us now from this harsh weather. Just our 4 layers of clothing, fur-lined boots and warm company to keep us dry and cozy. Unlike other vistas, we don’t have the privilege of lingering to enjoy the beauty around us. Spending an hour is enough without risking frostbite. I wonder how Nature makes it possible for deer and foxes to stay out here. Even my brain won’t function properly. A case of brain freeze? For obvious reasons, the park grounds look so Christmas-y to me, pine trees and all. Only thing lacking is Santa 🎅🏼 and a snowman ⛄️.

Among the adventures we’ve lined up here in Shiretoko Peninsula is a wildlife-watching cruise. We tried managing our expectations considering that it’s only an hour-long cruise and we weren’t that confident we can stay on the boat’s deck for most of the journey. The waters weren’t exactly calm, adding to the excitement as we reached the ice floes where eagles hovered over the floating ice. So many birds and I can only name the Steller eagle and the white-tailed eagle. Migratory birds who “shuttle” between Russia and Hokkaido. Consider them birds with dual citizenship. 😊 Frankly, we only learned all these trivia from our guide Nobu-san, who further explained that Russia’s Sakhalin Island is only 28 miles across the Sea of Okhotsk. Bird lovers would love it here. No chance for owl-sightings on this trip as such is a nocturnal activity and winter isn’t the best time to be outdoors at night. We weren’t lucky with spotted seals too but the bird scenes were enough to remind us of that movie by dear Alfred Hitchcock.

The wildlife we were looking for are the Steller sea eagles, which the Japanese call “owashi”. These aggressive eagles visit the island of Hokkaido, specifically the ice floes found in Rausu, every winter. Looking powerful and haughty, it was a big thrill seeing them on the ice floes while our boat’s skipper allowed one of his crew to throw out fish for these migrant birds to feed on. Another type of eagle found here are the white-tailed eagles. Both types of eagles competed for the fish throw. It would have been exciting to capture these birds of prey catch and clutch their fish with their talons but my fingers weren’t that quick and my simple iPhone camera no good for some otherwise NatGeo shots.

Some trivia: the owashi eagles feed on salmon in their breeding grounds in Sakhalin and Siberia. In Japan, they feed on cod. But we learned they also feed on squid, shellfish, crabs, and also ducks and other small animals. With a wingspan reaching up to 8 feet, one can imagine these birds being Kings of the wide, open sea. 🦅

In Russia, it’s called Okhotsk Sea. In Japan, it is called the Ohōtsuku- Kai. Among the many adventures in Shiretoko Peninsula is “drift-ice walking” where you’re suited into this swimming gear that feels like a mini-sauna but absolutely keeps you dry while you are flailing about off this marginal sea of the Pacific Ocean. Best time is from January to March but peak season for drift ice is February. The week before we arrive, temps were hovering around double-digit negatives but this group of adventurous foodies from the Tropics brought sunshine with them. Temp was at zero Celsius which the locals compare to “spring weather” and “too warm” for winter. Luckily too, it wasn’t windy at all! How’s that for an auspicious morning for water adventure?

Ready to Rumble!!!

Those ice floes! No, we didn’t do the ice walk here. 😜

Before we set out to do “the walk”, we struggled putting on these suits. Oh, how we struggled! I had to go on my back, lift my legs to get our guide pull the suit up my legs and thighs. It doesn’t stop there. Getting my head through the “hole” and finally zipping me up was another struggle. And just when I was getting the hang of walking in this suit out in the open, frozen sea, I slipped! But slipping in and out of water in between drift-ice walking was really this morning’s activity. The guides made us walk towards a certain area off the frozen Sea, by the breakwater I think, then challenged us to jump while saying “I love Japan”. Jumping together on what our hindsight tells us must be thin ice was all it took to break the ice. We floated for a while, then some of us climbed over the floating ice slab. Then there were those who quickly gained the confidence, jumping here and there, breaking more ice! At some point, one of the boys jumped in and went down body limbs, head and all!

Getting into it is an adventure by itself!

We’ve met others who went ice diving. I cannot imagine how they put on their more complicated gear and what nerves of steel they must have. What we did was nothing compared with their adventure. But I’m sure we drew more laughs as we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves lying down on the icy sea and floating among the ice floes. Some of the pictures and videos are simply too funny to be posted. For sure, we’d talk about this adventure for many years to come. 🥶😜🙄😊

Check this out:

Late last year, this same group trooped to Vienna and Bologna and braved winter for the love of food. You bet we’re at it again. This time to Hokkaido for a taste of its “cruel winter”. Call us insane but we have very specific reasons for being here. Beyond the freezing temps and snow flakes, we’re here to spot some very rare species of birds like the red-crowned cranes, Blakiston’s Fish Owl, some whooper swans, the rare Steller’s sea eagles and white-tailed eagles. Many of these birds have chosen Hokkaido as their home and hopefully, we can spot them as we walk on the drift ice. Yes, that’s what we plan to do. Walk on drift ice! Yup, that’s the plan. So go ahead. Call us insane 🙄.

Packing for this trip was a real struggle. I pack my stuff on a day by day basis. This way, I need not have to decide which shirt to pair with which pants or skirt. With previous trips, one packing cube is typically good for 3-4 days of clothing. Not this time. One day’s wardrobe fills an entire packing cube! An inner/thermal shirt, a wool shirt, a fleece vest, a winter jacket. Four layers. Paired with winter pants and fleece leggings. Warm enough? Throw in those mufflers, beanie and gloves. And an extra pair of socks for good measure. Phew! And don’t start asking me for my nighttime wardrobe. You bet I feel like a grandma in wools and a bonnet.

All packed and ready for snow adventures? Temps have risen but are still in the negatives. Early this morning of our arrival, I can almost feel those ice crystals landing on my cheeks and forehead as the wind blows. Yay, can we actually walk on drift ice tomorrow? It’s our first activity on this trip and my nerves are going haywire. Hmmm…. go ahead. Call us insane. 🥶

The self-proclaimed 7-star Empire Hotel and Country Club looks palatial off a stretch of shore overlooking the South China Sea. The experience maybe closer to 5 stars but hey, those are still 5*. It makes for a great convention and holiday/spa resort for sure, and yes, “very instagrammable”. It is, after all, Brunei’s only beach hotel, within some 160 hectares of paradise. Also, it was originally intended as a royal guesthouse when it was built under Prince Jefri’s watch. This same complex houses the air conditioned stables for the Sultan’s prized polo ponies. There’s more. I’ve never seen picture windows this size. Imagine yourself stargazing while slouched inside the Atrium lobby with a million dollar chandelier hanging from a ceiling that rises so way up there. Such glitz.

The lush gardens, beach and pool are visible from the Atrium lobby on the 5th floor that looks more like a royal court – an almost sublime experience. This hotel is huge! And for avid golfers, here’s the good news: Empire Hotel has its own golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus no less. There’s also a cinema, bowling alley, polo grounds and a shopping arcade. There are swimming pools facing the South China Sea and we noticed there were not too many guests. Many tables were unoccupied in the Lounge yet the meticulously-uniformed but seemingly confused service staff are all over to cater to the guests’ whims. We are concerned the hotel isn’t making money but judging by how well-maintained it is, money doesn’t seem to be a problem. Perhaps we are simply overthinking, in a place reeking of opulence and pomp, and where guests should expect only to be pampered. After all, this grand, luxurious hotel opened in 2000 is owned by the Sultan. For sure, financial issues are the least of their concerns.

From these opulent surroundings we moved to the Kianggeh Market by the riverside and a Mall to buy local fruits and for some souvenir shopping. The Mall was quite underwhelming and we could have skipped it to go directly to the Gadong Night Market where we soaked in the vibrant local scene. I like the vibe here more than in Kianggeh and the Mall. We quickly claimed a table here to eat some of the local food bought off the food stalls — grilled salmon, various noodle soups, barbecued meats and the ubiquitous chicken and rice. We also found some sticky rice with either meat or prawn fillings, and some fried rolls and banana fritters. More local fruits like Durian but that was “settled” in Kianggeh. One can have very, very cheap meals here and as we found out, dining here isn’t exactly the exclusive turf of the locals as we found some tourists checking out the food stalls too. I had my cheapest meal of beef noodle soup (good for 2) and 4 sticks of sticky rice with prawn fillings wrapped in (not banana) leaves. How much? All that for B$5. That is about US$4. Can you beat that?

What To Do In Brunei?

Brunei never made it to my bucket list. Nor any of my friends’. But here we are, spending 4 days, 3 nights in its capital, Banda Seri Begawan. I knew absolutely nothing where we are booked, which hotel we are staying in and who’s coming. It was a case of a couple of friends going with a few more at a time free of any travel and personal plans. Swell! I joined on the solitary reason that I’d be in good company. These fun trips with friends never fail!

When I think Brunei, I think gas, oil and Bolkiah. It’s a tiny but very wealthy nation off Borneo ruled by one of the world’s oldest reigning monarchies. As in the last 600 years! Sultan Bolkiah’s fame is rooted on his wealth and extravagance. Think 9,000 cars, 17 planes including a custom-designed 747, a private zoo, his own golf course, and an air conditioned stable for his 200 polo ponies. This man and his family lives in the world’s largest royal residence — even bigger than London’s Buckingham Palace. And guess who was the architect of this royal abode. No less than our own Arch. Leandro Locsin whose iconic masterpieces in the country include the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Folk Arts Theatre, PICC, Sofitel, Intercontinental Hotel (now demolished), Hyatt (now Midas), Mandarin Oriental (likewise demolished), Saint Andrews Church in Makati, Philamlife and Filipinas Life Insurance Buildings, to name a few. I’m a big fan of this National Artist and would always be enthusiastic to find more of his masterpieces. Especially this royal residence built in 1984 which established his masterful international calibre.

Banda Seri Begawan is easy to navigate. Most landmarks are located in the City Center, and I suspect every interesting site is only 2 hours or so away by car. Aside from the royal palace, I am curious of the 2 mosques here: the Sultan Omar Ali Saiffudin Mosque, more famously called the Brunei Mosque, and the Jame Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque or simply, Bolkiah Mosque but likewise called Kiarong Mosque owing to its location. The 2 mosques were built by the current Sultan and the one before him. Brunei has Malay traditions and deeply rooted in its Islamic faith. Its people are principally Malays, with a small minority of Chinese and Indians. Its cuisine is largely influenced by neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia — heavily spiced!

So, what to do after hitting a royal palace and 2 mosques? Well, there is the Royal Regalia Museum housing many of the Sultan’s memorabilia including the chariot he used in his coronation ceremony in 1967. The chariot was held and supported by 24 men in front and 24 more at the back weaving through the capital for a good 2 hours! Quite interesting to know more of this man who now rules this tiny wealthy kingdom.

We also checked out the Water Village or “Venice of the East”. If you ask me, I think the village is nothing more than stilt houses lining the river that spills out to the South China Sea. Some cost Bn$10,000, others maybe more. I can give this a skip and instead enjoy tea or coffee in Empire Hotel And Country Club instead. Or maybe a better experience can be had in either Gadong Market or Kianggeh Market. Wherever, so long as the group enjoys. 👍

All That in 2018

The year 2018 is about to end and I promised my family I’d stay put over the New Year. Well, it was actually tempting to join my travel buddies in Hanoi after Christmas but no, I’m home and will be home for the holidays ⛄️ . Around the same time last year, I was with my Nieta (“apo” or grandniece) spending Christmas and New Year in Spain. As was the custom, the Cabalgata or 3 Kings Parade was held on a very rainy January 6. Many still waited and watched the parade despite the cold and the rain. Including us. That capped my nearly month-long Travels With My Nieta.

Cabalgata 2018. Madrid.

Travels With My Nieta. Dec 2017-January 2018.

By March, my travel buddies were all set to explore underrated Sri Lanka. The highlight of this trip was the mini-Safari we had where we watched herds of elephants in their natural habitat. By the time we left Sri Lanka, we agreed the state was quite a revelation and that we won’t mind visiting other parts of Sri Lanka in the future.

Mini Safari in Sri Lanka

Travels With Nieto. Vietnam. 2018.

Pretty soon, I took off to visit that part of Vietnam I’ve missed in previous trips. Danang, Hoi An, Hue. All in Central Vietnam. Only problem was my travel buddies had this flash idea to do Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava too. So I did the next best thing. From Vietnam, I flew back to Manila, said goodbye to my nieto and a couple of friends, then flew out the same day for Vienna. I caught up with the troop in time for a 9am beer in Karlsplatz. Voila! From Vienna, we proceeded to Budapest and then Bratislava . I decided to stay an extra day in Bratislava while them boys flew back to Manila. For sure, these adventures beyond Vienna made good memories.

Vienna Boys +1.

Day Trip from Bratislava

By the time I got back in Manila, I was ready to pack again. In less than 3 weeks, I’m having my dream holiday. My 2nd African Safari. This time, timed with the Great Migration. We moved from Kenya to Tanzania and even managed a hot air balloon ride over the Maasai Mara. It was just magical! The thing with safaris is that you don’t know what to expect nor what to see. And there lies the excitement, and at times, the disappointments. There is no telling which animals will show up, more so how they’d behave.

Ngorongoro Crater. Tanzania. 2018.

The animal adventures comprise many memories that’d last a lifetime. One yearns for more and that’s where Safari addictions begin. In my case, budget will always be an issue. So those precious Safari memories are good. For now. Besides, there’s a golden wedding anniversary in Sydney that I’m attending some 2 weeks from my Manila arrival. Some friends from USA are attending too and we have a week to bond and travel in and around Sydney before the grand event. Oh, what fun! I stayed in a hotel in the city to be with them so we maxed out our time, especially with sunsets at 9pm. It was great bonding time with my family too.

Sydney Opera House. 2018

My Sister’s (Golden) Wedding (Anniversary). Sydney. 2018

I barely had time to “recover” from the month-long holiday and I was off again. In between trips, I managed to do my medical and dental checkups, parlour appointments, some business meetings, and a few meet-ups with dear friends. My last trip for the year was scheduled late November. This time to Bologna Via Vienna. We made several day trips out of Bologna, and while we were prepared to “get bored” in Vienna (we visited only last July, remember?), we were so thrilled with Vienna’s Christmas Markets. Not just one, but I think there were 10 if not more. We managed only 4 because it was so freaking COLD. The grounds were carpeted in snow so yes, we had an early White Christmas. Only in our dreams, yeah!

More importantly, Bologna (and the day trips) didn’t disappoint in the “dining options” department. We had jolly bellies up until we reached Vienna in freezing temps. And Vienna’s pastries didn’t disappoint either. Happy bunch!

Dinner at Ristorante Donatello. Bologna.

Pastries with Hot Choc. Aida Cafe. Vienna.

So here I am, waiting till 2018 wears itself out. Staying put, as Sydney-based nephews and their families plus a niece are a-visiting during this holiday period. So from my family to yours, have a good Christmas and New Year celebration! 🍾☃️🍷🥂🎊

Rathausplatz In Winter

Christmas Markets of Vienna

Let it snow 🎶 let it snow 🎵 let it snow 🎼 We didn’t bargain for a White (early) Christmas but we sure got it. Along with frozen fingers and backs stiff from the cold. I should have worn my boots but there’s no saying it won’t rain which means melted snow that could turn icy. So, back to my rubber shoes for better traction. Better safe than sorry. And for good measure, 4 layers on mah’ self! Too cold for my bones at minus 4 Celsius. I know, some of you would say it’s nothing, but do remember we’re babes from the Tropics 🙄

Rathausplatz by Gizelle Jose

Rathausplatz. 📸 Gizelle José


Of the 4 Christmas Markets we have visited, I like the Christmas Market in Rathausplatz the best. Having said that, it attracts the most tourists and the crowd even goes thicker after sundown at 4pm. Yes, Virginia. Sunset at 4pm. It turns magical after dusk with the majestic town hall building as backdrop in all its illumination. The market stalls selling lanterns, toys, Christmas balls and charms look even lovelier as one sips mulled wine or punch while watching all that revelry. In front of the Town Hall is the ice skating lane that weaves around a giant Christmas Tree and another tree adorned with red heart-shaped bulbs. So pretty especially at night!

Rathausplatz 📸 Gizelle José

Rathausplatz. 📸 Gizelle José

The Christmas Markets seem to sell identical items (some say Made from China ⁉️), including food. But I noticed the lone Italian booth in Stephanplatz selling salume, prosciutto, pecorino and parmeggiano reggiano. We also found a stall selling raclette with pane from Rathausplatz which we didn’t find in the other markets. Gluhwein we found almost everywhere. And many, many candied nuts and fruits, muffins, as well as souvenir items. Hand mittens, winter coats, wraps and mufflers in Christmas-sy designs? Trinkets? They’ve got them!




A giant Christmas Tree, chestnuts roasting, the aroma of spiced mulled wine and punch wafting in the air. But Karlsplatz seems to cater more to children. I spotted a Ferris wheel from a distance and there’s also a Merry-go-round spinning on the strength of a lone man pedalling a bike. It isn’t too big but the size of this Christmas Market is manageable for young parents bringing in their kids. I am amused that the gluhwein stalls stand right beside the merry-go-round. I saw many parents enjoying their warm, spiced vino 🍷 there while watching their kids spinning around.



There are many more but we only managed 4 Markets. The last one, but certainly not the least, is the one in Schönbrunn. The Parade Ground where the market booths are are completely blanketed in snow. So pretty especially with the Palace in its imperial yellow hue dominating the background. There was a choir singing when we visited and the stalls are farther apart so that one doesn’t feel crowded in. There were also stand-up kiosks with tables where groups can chat over their gluhwein and langos or grilled sausages. Frankly, I felt the Christmas spirit more here. It must be the effect of all that space, all that snow and the singing of Christmas carols. So, do I love Christmas Markets? You bet I do, even in this freaking cold weather! Will I do it again? Why ever not? There’s more gluhwein to drink, and more raclette to partake. Frohe Weihnacten.

Ho Ho Ho! ☃️⛄️⛄️


Schönbrunn 📸Gizelle José

Merry Christmas!