Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 -- My year in Travel and Food

2014 was quite a travel and food filled year.   I visited places and experienced tastes, both new and familiar.   Reminiscing through my posts this 2014, I hereby declare that it was a very good year!

I'm glad the year started with a business  trip to Ilocos Norte where I found myself working in the shadow of the magnificent Paoay Church, one of only four UNESCO World Heritage churches in the country.

I also discovered a melt-in-your-mouth carrot cake, perhaps one of the best I had ever tasted at La Preciosa in Laoag.  Mental note to self --  must come back for another taste!

February landed me in the Lion City.  I love this view from my balcony at Swissotel, certainly my favourite base when in Singapore.

I reacquainted myself with the first ever place in Singapore where I tried chicken rice --
at Sin Swee Kee along Seah Street.  While the place had been spruced up,  my chicken rice and prawn fritters tasted as delightful as when I first had them.

April was a busy month.  It started with a trip down memory lane -- back to Malabon where I had grown up and studied.  The drive through the crowded and dirty streets from Monumento through Sangandaan and Letre was so disheartening but my spirits lifted when I got to my destination.  
This little corner of paradise was the Malabon that I knew and loved.

Thanks to high school friend Chiki, who had preserved his childhood home in the best possible way.
The beers and freshly grilled bangus, straight from his fishpond, capped off a wonderful reunion with two of my oldest and dearest friends.

From Malabon to Tagaytay takes only a few hours but they seemed worlds away, particularly from this vantage spot at the garden of Antonio's.  I was happy that girl friends insisted on a holiday lunch at this place that I had not been to for many years. Antonio's is now much bigger and even more graciously elegant from when I first saw it.

We spent our Holy Week break trying to catch the sakura in Kyoto.
While it was no longer  peak season for cherry blossoms,  we managed to catch the late blooming trees at  Ninna-ji Temple.  It was our first time to see sakura and it was as gorgeous as they said it would be.

It was also at Ninna-ji where I first started on my shuin-cho or temple seal book.
Temple and shrine seals are wonderful ways to remember my travels around Japan.

We spent Good Friday in a spiritual if not catholic pilgrimage by going up Kyoto's tallest mountain,  Mt. Hiei and visiting the holy temples of Enryaku ji.

In May, the office flew to Bohol for our summer excursion and we were booked at superb and luxurious Amorita Resort, perhaps the best place in Panglao Island.

It was quite a gustatory experience to enjoy sea urchin or swaki, freshly plucked from the clear blue waters off Pungtod Island.  Uni has always reminded me of the ocean with its briny taste but to enjoy it in this freshest state was something else.
I always found the food cliche "a party in my mouth" to be so annoying until this time.
Freshly harvested uni tasted like both King Neptune and the Little Mermaid were partying in my mouth!

It wasn't all fun and sun in Bohol.  While there, I got to join my first ever yoga week-end and was able to do a headstand on just my second session.  Unbelievable, even to me except that I have this photo to remind me of this achievement.

I hied off to Hong Kong in June with Annie and Cedoy who shopped while I hiked part of the Macklehose Trail with Michael Hansen.  We walked through quiet and green Tai Lam Country Park.

We walked through uphill and downhill trails until they led us to this secret little spot called My Parents Farm where we took a beer break while contemplating this lotus filled pond.   A little spot of Monet's Giverny right here in Hong Kong.

To reward ourselves for finishing a 14.5 kilometre hike in 4.5 hours (inclusive of the 30 minutes spent drinking beer at the lily pond), we polished off a platter of freshly roasted goose in Sham Tseng.  
We ordered Skol beer  because Michael Hansen is Danish.

In July, it was off to Kuala Lumpur for a media meeting.  My hotel had a good view of the Petronas Twin Towers.

It was the middle of Ramadan so I was able to experience the nightly breaking of the fast at a famous local restaurant, Rebung where the local cuisine was stellar but the personal attention and hospitality from owner and chef Ismail even more so.

Since I flew to KL via my favourite airline, Cathay Pacific -- I arranged for a short week-end in Hong Kong where I met up with Jay. We were supposed to hike with Michael Hansen but a typhoon got in the way of our plans.

So we ended up in our go-to roast meat place for suckling pig and roast pork -- Guangdong Barbecue. The branch we knew along Hankow Road had closed and we considered ourselves lucky (and fated) to find one while walking around in Sham Shui Po.

August brought a sad interlude and a quick trip to Bacolod to bid a very good friend goodbye.
My friendship with Bambi Borromeo had spanned almost forty years.
He was the reason why I had been to Bacolod often these past years -- enjoying the culinary, culture and church tours that I always took with him.

While it was heartbreaking to have lost Bambi so suddenly, I was still able to squeeze in a delicious Ilonggo meal with Abe Florendo, another one of Bambi's dear friends.  We had kadyos, baboy at langka and laswa plus a sugar  laden sweet for dessert.
Bambi would have approved!

September brought me back to Kansai for the annual Kobayashi group meeting.  I always enjoy waking up to this view of the city from my room at ANA Crowne Plaza Hotel in the Kita area.

After a long day of meetings,  it was a treat to savour the cheesecake at Pablo's at its new coffee shop in the Dotonbori area.

I stayed an extra day so I could take the Kintetsu Limited Express from Namba Station to Ise Jingu -- the most important Shinto Shrine in Japan.  I felt like a modern day henro, albeit one who took the train and the bus.

This is the entrance to Geku, the outer shrine of Ise Jingu.  It is said to be one of the strong power spots of Japan.

Okage-yokocho Arcade is just outside the entrance to  Naiku or the Inner Shrine at Ise.
This short street recreated in Edo Period style is full of restaurants and souvenir stores and is part of the old pilgrimage road between Geku and Naiku.

Meals at the restaurants along Okage yokocho are simple and meant for hungry pilgrims.
Since September was the end of summer and still quite hot,  I cooled down with  cold udon paired with a bowl of gyudon.  Basic and simple but very satisfying.

Good friend Meiko san and I bonded over dinner at Hon Tonkatsu -- and afterwards, got ourselves gigglingly lost in the maze that is the Osaka and Umeda stations.

A trip to Chinatown in Binondo is my idea of a Saturday well spent.  I brought Jay and Martina to one of the best panciterias in the area, Sincerity Restaurant.  My father and I enjoyed many meals in Sincerity when I was growing up.  It was from him that I got my love of and knowledge of Chinatown, the oldest Chinatown in Asia.

 The chami and kiampong rice were just as good as I remembered them.

We also ordered  Sincerity's excellent kekiam --  made with real chunks of pork and ham -- no mystery meat here!  It brought back memories of all the chinese panciterias I used to frequent with my father, right here in Chinatown.

After lunch, time to burn off those calories with a slow trot in an old fashioned calesa through the old streets of Binondo and Chinatown.

In October, I went to Lucban with Jay who had to attend a family meeting.  The gorgeous stone church of San Luis Obispo anchors the town with its majestic and impressive presence.

Walking through the sleepy streets of Lucban is thirsty work. A cold bottle of San Miguel light paired with a small dish of fried longganisang Lucban was just the thing -- never mind if it was  3 in the afternoon.

I also paid a visit to Pavino's Bakery -- source of all the apas that I give away every Christmas.

In November, as the year was winding down, it was time to attend the yearly Dream Meeting in Tokyo.  Since I am retiring early next year, I knew this would be my last official trip to Headquarters.

I took the opportunity to set up a Dream Reunion with  three of my four ex-expat directors who were now back at Headquarters -- they had all become my friends.
Niikura san and Kondo san had been very supportive and had seen us grow these past years.

Abe san set up the agency along with us and is now retired but still very genki.  
Throughout his three years in the Philippines, he also became Jay's tennis buddy and good friend.

New tastes I discovered on this ultimate Tokyo trip included the utterly luscious, to-die-for pastry, the appropriately named Mont Blanc. To my mind, it is the peak of delicate deliciousness.

It was autumn in Tokyo, and even this kaisen hitsumabushi don we enjoyed for breakfast at the Tsukiji Market mimicked the colours of the autumn leaves.

To maximise our autumn experience,  we headed to Komagome to the famous Rikugi-en Garden, acclaimed as one of the best koyo viewing spots in Tokyo.  The garden was disorderly gorgeous, displaying the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi in the best possible way.

Autumn leaves fallen on a rock remind me of the transient beauty of life.
More than sakura season, autumn holds more appeal for me.

In December, we flew to Cebu and stayed at the best hotel in the islands -- Mactan Shangri la.
The golden sunrise over Mactan Bay is just the best way to start the day.

And the sweet golden slices of Cebu mangoes at the breakfast buffet may just be the second best way to start the day.

In December, on our way to Bataan, we made a stop  at Ping Ping Lechon in La Loma to choose the pig that would grace our family reunion table.

While I never lived in Orani, my father was born and grew up in this town so I have many happy memories of his hometown.

We are all quite at a certain age now my cousins and I, but we try and make time twice a year for a reunion -- one on Good Friday and another around the Christmas season.
As usual, the table is full of everything that my father and aunts used to cook -- camaron rebosado, kare kare, lumpiang sariwa, inihaw na bangus plus the fat laden crabs Orani is known for.

The lechon has been chopped and is ready to be served!  Here is Jay with my cousins,
Ate Nene and Fe who did all the cooking for today's feast.

As in 2013, we decided to spend Christmas in Kyoto.  But this time, we spent two nights at Osaka at the start of the trip.  A last minute booking with suki All Star Osaka Walks resulted in a visit to the very interesting Housing and Living Museum of Osaka where we got all dressed up in traditional Japanese dress and posed for this family picture.

We enjoyed Dotonbori and its many delights most specially this unusual micro greens topped okonomiyaki at Warai.  Okonomiyaki is one of Osaka's top 3 specialties or "soul foods".

All Star Osaka Walks brought us to Shinsekai, one of the most interesting places in Osaka and we had  Ohmiya's yummy kushi katsu, another of Osaka's top 3 things to eat (the last is takoyaki).

From Osaka, we moved to Kyoto and did a day tour to Nara with Chieko san.  We had very close encounters with Nara's famous sacred deer who vacillated from being shy and docile or frighteningly aggressive, particularly if you were carrying any kind of paper bag.  For the deer, that meant that you were carrying food and thus you were considered an easy mark.

I specially enjoyed my visit to the Big Buddha at Todai-ji, it brought back memories of my first time in Nara with my mother, many many years ago when I was just barely in my teens.

On this trip, we saw a lot of temples and shrines we had not been to -- and chalked up a few more UNESCO world heritage sites under our belt (not to mention, quite a number of seals for my shuin cho).  This is the entrance to the Kamigamo Shrine.

We were again able to hear mass on Christmas day at the Kawaramachi Cathedral, officiated by Bishop Paul Otsuka, bishop of the diocese of Kyoto, who was very nice and chatted with us after the services.

I was very fortunate to have seen Byodo-in in Uji, thirty minutes out of Kyoto Station. I loved the breathtaking beauty of the Phoenix Hall at Byodo-in and I think that it beats out Kinkakuji by a mile.

Jay and I also "climbed" the only mountain inside Kyoto, Yoshida Yama.  At just 100 meters, it is also the site of the Yoshida jinja shrine, again not a typical tourist destination.

Our last lunch in Kyoto was at one of the pontocho restaurants by the side of the Kamogawa.  The view stoked our appetites for the very tasty Kyo-ryori meal that was served.

What a happy, travel and food filled year 2014 was!  I am more than grateful for all the experiences -- both good and sad that I had this year.  Here's to another glorious year of living, loving, eating and traveling in 2015!
Travel on!