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Friday, August 9, 2013

Osaka-Kyoto, Japan: A trip of firsts

It was an experience that is forever etched in my memory. It's because it was not just my first time to fly, but it was my first time to see a world outside the Philippines, made even more exciting because it's not just a country, but "the" country home to animes, ramen, cherry blossoms, and world-renowned heritage sites.

Friendly Japanese couples in native Japanese costume at the Kyoto terminal station

It's all because of inspiration

The whole experience happened out of the inspiration I got from Dr. Maria Milagros C. Laurel, my professor at the University of the Philippines-Diliman (UPD), who encouraged me to submit a paper to international conferences. She would tell stories about her awesome trips abroad in class which she said she would not have done had she not attempted to respond to a call for paper.

At first, I was hesistant because I was just starting my Master's and I was almost clueless of the topics we discuss for the most part. I didn't have the confidence to do so primarily because of my fear of rejection. One time, Dr. Laurel, in one of those after-class talks while I usher her to the faculty center, told me that I need not fear being rejected because for one, it would be just me who will know when I get rejected, and that there are many other conferences out there to which I can submit my paper.

True enough, when I was told by my mentor in Southern Luzon State University (SLSU), Prof. Carmelita C. Placino, that the university needs faculty international presentations and that it offers financial assistance, I took the courage to submit the edited version of a paper I submitted in one of my subjects in UP. Luckily, it was accepted. I received the acceptance letter on valentines day, February 14, 2012.

The first paragraph of the acceptance letter reads:

On behalf of the conference chair, Professor XXX XXX, and the Chairman of the IAFOR International Advisory Board, Professor XXX XXX, I am pleased to write that your proposal "XXX”, having met the accepted international academic standards of blind peer review, has been accepted for Oral Presentation at ACLL 2012.

What struck me the most was the phrase "having met international academic standards of blind peer review". It was 12 midnight that time, and yet I leaped for joy not just because of the fact that my paper was accepted, but because I will have the chance to board a plane, and see Japan with my own eyes.

The next day, the first thing I did was to inform my mentor about the great news, which she reported to every person she meets. I felt like I was the star that day because I learned that nobody from my home college yet has presented a paper abroad. I immediately furnished the necessary papers needed to request for financial assistance. Time went by... a lot of things happened, and at one point, I almost thought that I will not be able to go after all that happened.

My grueling search for funding support

My request letter for financial assistance was left idle for weeks in the office of the research director. A month after I submitted the papers, I felt that I had to boldly ask them what's happening with my request. Only then did I learn that I have to furnish them a copy of the full paper, which I did a day after that. Eventually, my request was forwarded to the University president and I was told to seek funding from the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd).

I volunteered to submit the request myself directly to CHEd because I feared that it might take a while before they could send the papers. With a letter of recommendation from the University President, I handed in the papers to the concerned department in CHEd with high hopes that they can decide on the matter in a week's time. It was the first week of March, and the deadline for payment and registration for the conference was set on the first of April. On my way back home, I prayed that everything will go well so that the money I need to register will be in hands before the registration deadline.

Two weeks passed and I didn't get answers from CHEd. On March 28, three days before the deadline, I took the courage to call them to ask about my request. By that time, I felt so hopeless. I already accepted the fact that I will not be able to go anymore.The person on the other line seemed aware that a person by my name has a request pending in their office. However, she eventually broke the news that they can't provide me financial support because I was not a regular faculty member.

I don't know but there was something inside me that told me I have to do something about this - that there is still hope. When I went back to the faculty room, I decided to write another letter to my University president to inform her about CHEd's decision. I also informed her that the deadline of registration is fast approaching. It was in the afternoon that I sent the letter to her office and before the end of the day, I was called to report to her office.

When I got there, one of the friendly clerks in the office smiled at me and said, "Sir, naapprove yung request mo." I wanted to cry for joy. I wanted to kiss and hug her to express how delighted I was. I was given Php 60, 000, enough to cover my airfare and registration. I told myself that it may not be the full amount I was requesting, but it's a blessing altogether since those two are the most expensive items in my request.

I went back to tell them the great news. I immediately contacted one of my colleagues who had a credit card to register and pay the dues. The confirmation came in, yet I realized I still have to find about P 30, 000 for accommodation, allowance, visa fees, and others.

I tried asking support from politicians in my place, but I only got Php 500 from the councilor of Lucena City who heads the education committee in the Sangguniang Bayan. This was where it became clear to me that everything was the will of God. My mother offered to give me my allowance. The graduate school faculty member who asks me to edit papers of her research advisees gave me an early payment, and a few of my friends offered to lend me money. Thankfully, the money that my mom gave me and the money I got from my editing work were enough to pay for everything else that I needed.

The elusive Japanese Visa

I had my receipt of registration from the conference organizers. I already booked a flight to and from Kansai International Airport in Osaka. Everything was set except for my visa. After booking a flight on the first week of April, I then realized that I had to apply for a visa. I checked on the requirements for visa application and I thought back then that it's another big thing that might keep me from leaving despite all the money I spent for the trip.

I can't remember what happened after I booked a flight on the first week but all I know is that there were very good reasons why I still could not go to Manila to apply for a visa. I remember that I was only able to go to a travel agency which processes visa applications at SM Megamall on the 13th of April. The conference was set two weeks after that.

Inside the office of the travel agency, I heard stories of applicants not being granted of a visa because of several reasons. My problem then was that I didn't have the official letter of the sponsoring organization (written in Japanese). (It arrived while I was in Japan). All I had was the official acceptance letter and other documents stated in the travel agency's website.

When it was my turn, I was asked where the official letter of the sponsoring organization is, and I told them that it's only the acceptance letter that I had. She spoke to a Japanese who looked like the boss and when she went back to her post, she said she will try her best to convince the embassy for my visa since I already have the tickets and all. I left the office praying that everything will go well. My fear that time was what if they refuse to give me a visa, how will I give back the money I spent to the school? Where will I get P 60, 000?

That was one of the longest weeks of my life. The agent said that I have to wait for answers in seven days. She said that she will call me when there is something important that I needed to know. Three days, four days, five days passed and I never got any call from her, until the Saturday of that week, I was making myself busy and trying to forget about the visa. A delivery boy stopped by the gate of our neighbor. I went out to see whether it's not for me. He mentioned my name and I excitedly called on him to say that I was the person he was looking for. And boy, he was holding a small package, enough to fit my passport there.

The sender was the travel agency. I carefully yet nervously opened the package. It was my passport, and in one of the pages, my photo, which was superimposed on the beautifully-crafted Japanese visa, was beaming back at me as if rejoicing that it had finally reached its owner.

It was a time of ultimate joy. I told myself that nothing can stop me now from being on that plane, on that conference, and in Osaka and Kyoto, Japan on those days. I know that it was all God's will.

My first plane ride

A view of other planes from my window at NAIA Terminal 2

If I would reflect on how I reacted on the idea of riding a plane for the first on my flight to Osaka, I would see myself as if I was a kid on my first ride to a carousel. I asked the check in counter officer that I be seated near the window. I wanted to see the clouds in the four-hour flight. I wanted to see how people and houses get smaller and smaller from above. I wanted to calculate the speed of the airplane just by looking at the ground. But when we were high above the clouds, the only that that I had was the majestic view of the clouds.

Boulders of clouds made my first ride bumpy and scary, yet exciting altogether.

I took several pictures of it. My mom's story about airplanes being rocky when it crosses the area with boulders of clouds was true. At one point, I feared for a plane crash because it felt like a bus ride on a really bumpy road.

Sign at Kansai International Airport

After four hours, the flight crew announced both in English and Nihonggo that we were about to land at Kansai International Airport, Osaka, Japan. Kansai IA is the only airport in the world that sits on the largest man-made island in the world. The island was large enough that it is visible to satellite cameras. Ever since I learned this in a documentary in Discovery channel, I wanted to see and feel what it's like to step on a man-made island. To tell you the truth, it was ecstatic!

Kansai International Airport, Osaka, Japan

It was almost 9PM, Japan time when we got through the immigration and baggage collection station. Japan is an hour ahead with the Philippine standard time. I expected that my family was already waiting for my skype call by then.

Train ticket booths at Kansai Airport

We (I was with a classmate in MA) headed to the part of the airport where we can buy tickets and ride the Shinkansen (high-speed train). I hoped that the Philippines would one day make a connection with the airport and the MRT/LRT stations because the way it was in Kansai was really tourist-friendly. After buying the tickets and confirming to the train attendant that the train on one side of the platform is bound to Shin-Imamiya, the district where I booked a hotel, I comfortably sat on one of the seats.

It was like I own the train. I think it was the ast train to depart Kansai.

I was really tired by then, but I tried not to fall asleep because I had to take a look at the name of the station everytime on every stop just to make sure I don't miss my destination. After about an hour and a half, the announcer said in Nihonggo that the next station is Shin-Imamiya.

At one of the train stations