Friday, May 18, 2018

Banaue Bound Part 1 - Of Carinderia Hits and a ride on the Coda Bus

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.  In our case, a journey of 350 kilometres started with a casual invitation ... "I'm going to the Imbayah Festival in Banaue next month, why don't you come?" I don't remember hesitating for even a split second before I said yes.
I had never been to Banaue and all of a sudden,  now seemed like the perfect time to go. 
So, thank you Harvey for popping the question!

We took the night bus to Banaue, a 9 hour long ride.  A trip that long needed sustenance.  
Good thing the area around the bus terminal in Cubao had lots of carinderias -- we were attracted 
to the bright red ceiling and wall of this nameless one.


Since it was nearly 10 p.m there was not much food left on the eskaparate (display case).  
Just a few pieces of fish, the local sausage longganiza and vegetables.  It would have to do.

Our  "light" dinner consisted of chopped string beans cooked in a spicy gata or coconut cream and 
paksiw na galunggong wrapped in banana leaf.  The fish was fresh and the vegetables were tasty.  
A perfect meal combination -- this plain carinderia with its honest, homespun cooking could give more expensive Filipino restaurants a run for their money!

While there are a number of bus lines plying the Manila - Banaue - Sagada route, we decided to take Coda Bus which advertised "super deluxe" buses that came with its own toilet.  The buses were new although I wasn't so keen on the lavender and dark purple colour scheme. 

You can buy bus tickets online and choose your seats as well.  Time for a quick selfie before the bus pulled out of the terminal -- just a few minutes past the designated departure time.

Coda keeps its buses clean and well maintained, I was quite impressed.  I wondered if the toilet would be a bit smelly as it would be in use throughout the trip but I need not have worried at all. 

I slept fitfully,  waking up every so often.  The bus drove straight for about 6 hours until it pulled in to a rest stop in Aritao, Nueva Vizcaya.  This is the Pink Pantry -- with a convenience store, a cafeteria and the most important thing for travellers (at least those who did not ride a Coda Bus),  relatively clean pay toilets. 

The buses stop for about 20 minutes -- giving the drivers a quick rest and a chance to sit and eat.  
We spent our time checking out the convenience store where we were tempted by an array of regional delicacies like silvanas from Nueva Ecija, pastillas de leche from Bulacan even otap from Cebu!  Now that travelled quite a long way.  

I had planned to stay awake till the bus pulled into Banaue but I must have fallen asleep again.  
When I woke up, it was way past sunrise and we were navigating the twists and turns of the mountain road.   In a few minutes, I would finally see Banaue!  The adventure was about to begin. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Tokyo Tales Part 3 - A Haiku in the Park (Hotel)

According to an industry survey, Tokyo has about 100,000 hotel rooms. Thirty of the most interesting and unique ones are at The Park Hotel Tokyo, located in the quiet yet accessible business district of Shiodome.  It is also my favourite hotel -- a refuge in this huge, hectic mega-city.

What makes these rooms at the Park Hotel so special? They are called Artist Rooms,
each one designed and done by noted contemporary Japanese artists.  
The Artists Rooms used to be spread out in different floors but they are now all clustered on the
31st floor.
The project is not new and has been ongoing for several years now. It is a way for the hotel to bring art and hospitality together, creating unique and lovely spaces for its guests. 
On this last visit to Tokyo, I stayed at the Haiku Room by Rieko Fujinami

Each room is done in the featured artist's distinctive style and each artist chooses a theme to "play" with.  The theme of my room was "Haiku" with a poem by noted Japanese poet Basho written on a scroll on the wall.  In english, the haiku goes "The moon a sign / this way sir,  to enter / a traveller's inn".  Such an appropriate and elegant way to welcome the guest into the hotel. 

I had stayed in an Artist Room before (see previous post  but on 
this trip had opted for my regular room with a view of Tokyo Tower.  Perhaps because I am a 
member of the hotel's loyalty programme and perhaps because I have stayed so many times in the past,  I was upgraded to this single room.  
While it was a bit on the smallish side and I hardly had a view but I could sleep surrounded by art --  on the walls and the even on the ceiling.  

To add texture to her work, the artist Fujinami san had attached irregular shaped discs which symbolised the Milky Way.  It shimmered throughout the length of the black painted ceiling.  
I lay in bed and let my thoughts meander among the stars. 

Lotus pads and the occasional blossom encircled the room, painted on the walls around the bed and cascading down to the floor.   On the large blank wall koi in different colours floated lazily in the lotus pond, not in still life but swimming serenely, brought to life via the wonders of a video shown on an LCD projector.    I did not have to hie myself off to a Japanese garden,  the lotus pond had been brought right into my room.  

The koi swam languidly.  Subtle sounds of water and soft music followed their gentle movements. 

I tried to capture the experience of almost being immersed in the lotus pond via this video.  A part of me wished that I could just stay in my room enjoying the solitude but I had places to go and people to see.  At some point, I had to turn off the projector and step out of the room.  But I knew this tranquility would be waiting for me ... later tonight.   
I would make sure that I would hurry back. 


I hope you indulge me (and a thousand apologies to the great Basho san for even daring to try)  
but I was encouraged to create my own haiku inspired by Fujinami san's lovely Artist Room at the 
Park Hotel. . . 

My mind drifts, wanders
Through koi noiselessly gliding
Weaving through my dreams. 


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Tokyo Tales Part 2 - Lining up for Luke's Lobster in Shibuya

Unless it's for my favourite ramen or tonkatsu place, I hardly ever line up for food in Japan.
If the restaurant/izakaya/yatai/coffee shop or even the convenience store is full,  the food in
the next less crowded spot will assuredly be just as good.
It's almost impossible to eat badly in Japan.
However, on this last trip to Tokyo I was herded to a popular sandwich shop by my
friend's young daughters.  And so that's how I found myself standing in line at New York based
Luke's Lobster in Shibuya.

Luke's Lobster is a popular US franchise.   You can find one of its Tokyo branches in a side street 
off youth-crowded Omotesando.  The little shop is very popular among young Japanese who enjoy 
the authentic Maine lobster rolls.  

While the lobsters used in the sandwiches are flown in from Maine, Luke's Lobster also offers 
locally sourced crustaceans which cost much less than their US cousins.  The lobster roll is 
the star of the show but if you are lobster-averse (as one of my friends was)  you can order shrimp 
or crab rolls or even a combination of both. 

It's hot and sunny but the crowds continue to line up.  See the guy in the blue t-shirt -- he's Luke's Lobster's maitre d and keeps the line from spilling into the street.  Having someone run over by a passing car would certainly be bad for business.

That day there was a special --  three rolls of your choice for a lower price.  Left to right is the shrimp roll, the lobster roll and the crab roll.

I thought the lobster rolls were the best of Luke's offerings -- the store isn't called Luke's Lobster  
for nothing.  
The  lobster meat was soft and piled generously on a toasted warm well- buttered bun.  
It was mixed with a light tangy, citrusy mayonnaise dressing. 
One six inch roll was just perfect for a quick lunch before heading back into the Shibuya shopping swarm.  

Tokyo Tales Part 1 -- Ginza Lion reunion with my BFBDs (best friends beyond D....)

The best perks of my career were the work friends that I made.
Work friends usually start off as casual relationships among people thrown together by time
(at least 8 hours a day) and tension (budgets, requirements, client demands etc etc) but over time,
(or yes, on overtime usually) these relationships deepen and true and lasting friendships are forged. 
Aside from all the friends I made in the office, those that I  "struggled" with and laughed hysterically
with every day, I also made very good friends  within our regional network.
I saw these people regularly but not that frequently  yet we managed to form close alliances that
soon turned into strong bonds of friendship. We were confidantes, "co-conspirators", comrades in arms.
Our merry little band of four had not seen each other since I retired a couple of years ago so I was happy when our plans for a reunion  finally fell through.

We all converged in Tokyo some months ago.  Booked in different hotels, we agreed to meet up in our old happy hunting grounds, Ginza.  
Tokyo's premier shopping, eating and entertainment district is a short stroll away from our head office -- the bright lights were always an irresistible lure particularly after a long and tiring day of meetings and presentations.
For tonight's reunion, we headed to one of Tokyo's landmarks, the 100+ year old Ginza Lion Beer Hall.  
Sumimasen, in my excitement to meet my old friends I completely forgot to take a photo of the restaurant facade ... take my word for it, it's that lit yellow sign on the left side of the street. 

Ginza Lion opened in 1899 and is the grand daddy of beer halls in Japan.  You can see from this 
glass encased figure how its waiters used to look like -- spiffied up in western attire and carrying 
huge german style beer steins.  
As you enter the ground floor, you feel transported to a European beer garden.  Even the menu 
is western in orientation and would not look out of place at the Oktoberfest. 

Kanpai!  Thankfully the beer now comes in regular mugs and not in gigantic steins.

Don't look for typical izakaya fare in Ginza Lion.  We passed on the wide selection of charcuterie since two of my friends do not eat pork.  The beef stew was a good alternative.  The thick, slightly sweet sauce reminded me of japanese style curry.

We also ordered a  tender veal schnitzel, grilled tuna and tenderloin, medium rare.  
And yes, I'll have a  large fries with that please!

The food was incidental -- the company was the main thing.  Here is our little group of four.  
I call them my BFBDs ... best friends beyond Dentsu (where all of us met). 
We are the Asean bunch ... left to right, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia and the distaff side, 
the crazy Pinay from Manila.
Long may our fellowship continue to thrive!


Through more than fifteen years, our friendship has extended to include  wives, husband (although Jay was not able to join this trip) and children.  
There is a worn out saying that says you can't choose your relatives but you can choose your friends. 
My  BFBDs are people I have chosen to think of as family.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Exploring Cavite City -- The Advocates for Heritage Preservation Tour

Cavite City is just 35 kilometres from my doorstep and yet  it was not exactly on my radar until two years ago when I joined Clang Garcia's Food Holidays Tour of Cavite (  
Clang's whirlwind tour of some of Cavite's well known sites showed me there was a lot to see and discover.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to learn more about Cavite -- albeit just Cavite City when we joined the AHP (Advocates for Heritage Preservation) tour.

The AHP is an interesting group of diverse yet like-minded individuals enthusiastic about local culture and heritage.  Seeing that maintenance and preservation of heritage sites like churches,  houses, public buildings, monuments, etc are not exactly high up on the list of the government's
(nor the citizenry's) priorities, the AHP does what it can to open up more eyes to the need to
conserve these irreplaceable parts of our past and patrimony.

The tour's first stop was St. Peter the Apostle Church, tucked away on one of Cavite City's  side streets.    Thank goodness for waze or we might not have found it. 
The original church built in the late 1500s was completely destroyed in the massive bombing of Cavite City in 1941.   This structure built in the 1980s is in a new location along P. Justo street.

St Peter's Church was constructed almost completely using repurposed old bricks, stones and wood
giving it that unmistakeable patina of Spanish churches of bygone years. The interiors have been 
kept simple and unadorned, save for the stained glass windows depicting the Stations of the Cross. These glass windows are in predominantly yellow and gold tones infusing the church in a soft warm light. 

The AHP always conducts its tours in coordination with members who are also native to the area.
The knowledge and perspective of these local "guides" are invaluable, giving guests  a deeper and richer sense of place.  
This tour was curated by true blue Caviteños,  Bhel Esquierdo and Ige Ramos.  
At the start, Ige gave a short talk about  the history of St. Peter's church plus a briefing on the day's activities.

Since we had  left Manila at the break of dawn (okay, 6:00 a.m. but on a week-end!) I was particularly looking forward to the complimentary breakfast that the organisers had set up at the  church's patio.  Local businesses had their specialties for sale but also generously provided free samples of their products.  
The local bakery Roadside Breads and Burgers brought a giant basket of hot pan de sal -- each roll baked to brown crusty perfection.

The pan de sal went perfectly well with Big Ben's Imus Longganisa.   The owner, Gene Gutierrez 
had two bilao-fuls of the fat sausages which unfortunately ran out before I could snap a photo.  
Mr Gutierrez makes the longganisa from an old family recipe -- they are garlicky, slightly sweet and made with much less fat than other regional variants.

My hopes and prayers were answered!  On one table were trays upon trays of my favourite ensaimadas, bar none.  Baloy's Ensaimadas are the best on the entire planet but sadly, can only 
be bought from Baloy's Bakeshop in Cavite City.  
Mr Baloy had brought along boxes of ensaimadas which were completely sold out in minutes.  

The next stop  was just a few hundred meters away from the church.  This is the monument and shrine of Ladislao Diwa -- a familiar name from elementary history books.   This shrine also 
serves as a mausoleum as his bones have been laid to rest here.

The shrine is located in front of the  Diwa family compound.   Just behind it is the house where Ladislao Diwa lived  and which continues to be used by his descendants.    Thanks to the efforts of AHP's  local coordinators, we were allowed inside the gate and in some portions of the house. 

I was probably not paying attention during my Philippine history classes  as I did not recall knowing that Ladislao Diwa was one of the original founders of the Katipunan. This illustration hanging in the anteroom of the old house shows the original KKK triumvirate -- Bonifacio, Diwa and Teodoro Plata

Local food and culinary traditions are part of our heritage so after the visit to the Diwa Shrine, we headed off to the Cavite City Public Market -- to see, smell and yes,  taste  the many local delicacies.  While breakfast had just been served (and relished) an hour ago, we were more than ready to dive into what the palengke had to offer.

I had a bit of an (unfair) advantage.  I had visited the palengke before on the Food Holidays tour 
and knew that the place to go for delicious local fare was Aling Ika's Carinderia.  
Aling Ika has moved on to that glorious carinderia in the sky but  her daughter continues to cook and serve the dishes that her mother was known for.  Today, it is the oldest running carinderia in the market, dating back to the 1940s
While we were in the van on the way to the palengke, I told my van mates about Aling Ika so we all made a beeline for the carinderia the minute we arrived.  A smattering of other AHP members came much later on, only to find out that our motley group had wiped out all of Aling Ika's famous specialties.

The food at Aling Ika's is always consistently amazing but my two favourites are the unique,  slightly tart pancit puso and the crab torta filled with an unbelievably abundant amount of fresh crabmeat.  
If you want to taste these specialties,  you'll have to be at the market well before mid morning as these two dishes are the first they run out of.  

Yes we did -- we had the last two plates of pancit puso!  Better luck next time!

Another previous discovery at the market was the quesillo or kesong puti.  Aling Miriam who sits by the market entrance should be your quesillo suki.  Because they are cooked with vinegar, the cheese can survive more than a few hours of travel -- I should know as the 10 packs that I bought were none the  worse for wear when I finally arrived home.

Just a quick ride from the market is San Roque Church.  This is a relatively new structure and is  quite massive -- you can actually see the dome and tower as you drive along Cavitex, the coastal highway connecting Metro Manila to Cavite.  

The church houses the miraculous, centuries-old image of the Virgen de la Soledad de Porta Vaga.  She is venerated on the small altar you see on the left side of this photo.  San Roque's statue, also centuries old and also attributed to be miraculous, is on the main altar on the bottom right hand side. 

I found this silver carroza in the shape of a seafaring vessel --  a nod perhaps to the local legend of  how the statue of the church's patron, San Roque came to Cavite.
 It is said that the statue originally came on a boat (possibly a galleon) and was unloaded while the boat was being repaired.  When they were ready to load him back on board, the statue became so heavy that they could not lift it up. And so San Roque stayed behind -- and continues to serve as protector and intercessor of the people of Cavite City.

One of the many things that  I liked about the AHP tour was the proximity of the various sites we visited.  A short drive away from San Roque church was the Monument to the 13 Martyrs or Trece Martires as they are more commonly known. 

A simple marker lists down  the names of the thirteen heroes.   Not all of them were Caviteños 
but all of them were executed in Plaza de Armas in Cavite by the Spanish authorities on September 12, 1896.  Their crime --  they were sympathisers of the  Katipunan.  Their execution happened just 
a few weeks after the start of the Philippine revolution. 

Right across the monument is a promenade facing the relatively clean waters of Bacoor Bay. 
Only a few fish pens mar the serenity of the view.

It was a good spot to gather everyone in our van -- all 11 of us, for a group photo.  The three of us who joined the tour together had never met any one in this group who obviously had been on quite a few AHP jaunts together.  Yet they were so friendly,  making us feel welcome and right at home. 

Nearby  is a spacious swath of greenery called Samonte Park.  The noonday heat was a bit too much to handle but I can imagine how popular this place is with local residents in the early morning and late afternoon hours. 

Situated in Samonte Park is this model of the church of the Virgen de la Soledad de Porta Vaga which originally stood on this piece of land.  Built in the late 1600s, it withstood damage from fires and earthquake but could not withstand the Japanese bombs that landed on the city on December 8, 1941 -- just a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Cavite historian Ige Ramos said that eight Spanish era churches in Cavite City were completely destroyed on that day.  After the bombing,  only the bell tower of Santa Monica church remained standing -- you can find it on a side street, a few hundred meters from Samonte Park.  
It was interesting to see that an entire congested residential neighbourhood now surrounded 
the tower,  I had thought that such an important landmark would merit more judicious care.

The belfry of Santa Monica  Church survived the war and despite the less than ideal environment it now finds itself in, I have no doubt the bell tower will survive all these too.

We were so busy discovering all these heretofore unknown places that I did not notice that it was 
lunchtime.  Our convoy of vans and cars headed to  Tita A's Food Choices, where a proper and traditional Caviteño lunch was waiting for us. 

This lovely and very charming lady is the aforementioned Tita A.  We invaded their 
breezy and spacious 60's style home where tables had been set up all over the driveway and front yard. 

Despite the ensaimadas, the pan de sal and Imus longganisa that I had wolfed down for breakfast, not to mention Aling Ika's pancit puso and tortang alimango,  I found myself ravenous when Tita A's efficient and friendly servers laid these out on the table.  
Earlier Ige Ramos had said that lunch would feature the "tres marias" of a typical Cavite Sunday lunch ... adobong pula (cooked with atsuete),  kare kare and kilawing papaya.  
While you can no doubt identify the other two, the brown coloured dish in the foreground is the kilawing papaya -- easily my favourite (and new discovery) among the three.
Kilawing papaya is not atsara as you would easily think.  It is unripe papaya shredded and cooked in vinegar along with cow lungs and thinly sliced tripe.  While tripe is normally chewy, the pieces in this dish have been sliced paper thin so they just about melt in your mouth. 

To cool down, we had chinchao or chinchaw -- the Caviteño version of gulaman at sago.
What makes it different are the pieces of boiled glutinous rice cut into pellet shaped bits.  The pellets look like pasta noodles cut into small pieces but when you bite into them, the unmistakeable texture and taste of galapong comes through.

We tarried over lunch until we were all herded back into the vans for the next stop -- Fort San Felipe.
This is one place in Cavite where you can still see the remains of the walls built by the Spaniards in the 1600s.  
Does Fort San Felipe remind you of Intramuros?  Both were built for the same purpose -- to protect the strategically located Spanish forts from invaders and marauders. 

This part of the wall in the foreground forms part of Plaza de Armas where the Trece Martires were executed by musketry.  
Today, you can climb to the top of the wall and walk through stones that sentries of that era trod on.  And yes perhaps they also witnessed the execution from this vantage point. 
When you reach the top, there is a small building, not part of the original structure,  that functions as a mini museum of Philippine naval history.

The view from the top is of Cañacao Bay, a small inlet within Manila Bay.  You can also catch a glimpse of Sangley Point right across the waters.

Seeing and walking through these remains of the Spanish fort was certainly the highlight of today's tour. 

After walking around the walls on a scorching sunny afternoon, we saw this mamang sorbetero.
He gladly gave up his bell to me and  I was able to attract a good number of AHP members 
to come and buy his ice cream.    I have found my new calling, pun intended.

Our penultimate  stop was Sangley Point  currently jointly used by the various branches of the Philippine Armed Forces.  

To keep us from wandering all over the base, we were shepherded into a hall and shown a video presentation that traced the history of Sangley -- during colonial times, it was a trading post for Chinese merchants who were initially restricted entry into Manila.   Later on, it would become a 
base for American forces and would also be occupied by the Japanese during the war. 

This is the articulate  and knowledgeable lady lieutenant who gave us the briefing and is part of Sangley's communication team.  

There were a number of different aircraft on display.  The personnel assigned to our group were kind enough to assist those who wanted to get on board this military helicopter for a photo op.  
Instead of clambering on board, I decided to ask this Technical Sergeant to pose -- which he smilingly did. 

Sangley Point is where you can find the Danilo Atienza Air Base.  The end of the runway 
offers a panoramic view of Manila's skyline which is just on the other side of the bay.  

The last stop for the AHP Cavite City tour was this unobtrusive memorial to Julian Felipe.  
Born in Cavite City,  Mr Felipe was a "musikero" and is most famous for having composed 
"Lupang Hinirang", the Philippine National Anthem.  
As a final activity and to pay homage to Julian Felipe and all the heroes born out of the fertile, revolutionary soil of Cavite,  indefatigable patriot Ige Ramos requested us to stand and sing the National Anthem, right here at this monument.  
Was it the singing of  "Lupang Hinirang" that caused a lump in my throat?  Perhaps it was the late afternoon sun that shone in my eyes and caused them to tear up.  
It was definitely a most fitting way to bring the AHP Cavite City tour to a close.


I was told that this tour yielded a record number of 120 participants!  
Thank you to the AHP for a well organised and entertaining tour.  Thanks to their president, 
Tito Encarnacion who declared us members on the spot.  Thank you too to Johnson Bernardo who arranged for us to join this tour.
This photo of most of the tour participants was taken by Jonathan Hernandez and posted on the 
AHP Facebook page.  
If you want to know more about the AHP and their activities, you can find them on Facebook.  

NB  If there are any inaccuracies in this post, I must not have been paying attention again.  The fault is all mine!