Monday, January 4, 2016

2015 -- My Year in Travel, Food and Friends

What a year it has been!  2015 has been absolutely transforming, in the best ways possible.
A year filled with awesome experiences,  friends old and new and so,  dear reader, beware --
this post will be very long.  It was so hard to edit and leave anything out of this
nearly perfect year!


I was happy to start the year visiting one of my favourite churches -- The Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo Ruiz in Binondo.  It's a church that's special to me as this was where my mother was baptised,  where my parents were married and where I used to hear mass often, when I was a young girl.

The reason for the Binondo visit was also to entertain a close college friend -- Po comes home from Canada every year to visit his amazing 86 year old mom.  The three of us enjoyed a ramble around Chinatown with Old Manila Walks before settling down to a comida china lunch at favourite Sincerity Restaurant along Nueva Street.


In February, it was off to my penultimate business trip to Tokyo.  I am sure though that this is not the last time I will see this stunning view from my room at the Park Hotel.

I had just two nights to spend in Tokyo before flying off but there was time to squeeze in an anago dinner with dear friend Abe san at Hirai, a one Michelin star restaurant in Ginza.  We had anago in various ways but ended with this donburi, the best part of the entire meal.

Then it was off to Sapporo for more work. It was my first time in Hokkaido, so far north from Tokyo. It was bone chilling cold and the streets were slick with ice and snow.  But Sapporo Tower looked so much like Tokyo Tower that I felt immediately at home.

My client, the Department of Tourism launched Visit Philippines Year 2015 at the Yuki Matsuri or Snow Festival, Sapporo's biggest annual event.  A glorious Manila Cathedral, carved in snow, was the festival's centrepiece.  Beautiful Filipino dancers in colourful costumes warmed everyone's hearts despite the  -3C temperature.

I met Filipinas living and working in Sapporo who came out to volunteer at the Philippine Tourism booth.  Filipinos wherever they are certainly have a knack for smiling, laughing and making you feel instantly welcome.

I came to Sapporo with a team of young colleagues from the Tokyo head office.  They had worked hard to help launch the event so I took them out for beer and the wonderful seafood that Sapporo is famous for.

One giant hairy crab was more than enough for the four of us.  

On another night, we had another  local specialty, jingisukan -- a Mongolian barbecue dish with lamb and mutton.  This is so delicious that you shouldn't miss it if you find yourself in Sapporo.  The best places to eat this dish are in the Susukino entertainment and restaurant district.

The streets of Sapporo are completely safe to walk in, even very late at night, just as long as you don't slip and fall on the snow covered and icy sidewalk.  The brightly lit Sapporo Tower was my guidepost to lead me back to my hotel.

Back home, I attended the Service Awards at the Ateneo de Manila where employees, staff and teachers are given recognition for their years of service to the university.

Amare et Servire.  Love and Serve.  Thank you Ateneo for my service award.  I have been teaching part time at the school since 2001 and to receive this pin was heartwarming and more rewarding than any other award I had ever received.


Because we had over achieved our targets for the year before, I was able to bring the office to Tokyo in March.  We had travelled to other places like Hong Kong and Beijing but I was happy that on this particular year, I could take them to the Dentsu Head Office, where the Philippine flag flew proud and tall as we entered the office building.

After the office visit, time to see more of Tokyo!  It was lucky that on the day I visited Asakusa, the Denboin Garden, normally closed to the public, was open for a special exhibition.  It was relaxing and peaceful to walk around and enjoy this traditional Japanese garden.

I got off the  beaten track and took a train ride to  Shibamata where the streets leading to the temple are a throwback to the 1960s.  Tokyo has many "hidden" faces  and if you look hard enough you will find these quaint towns where time has seemed to stop.

Sightseeing can make one thirsty so it's always good to stop for a pint or two.  Shhh, I'm drinking German beer, don't tell Asahi or Kirin san.

At my favourite  Park Hotel I was lucky enough to have booked an Artist Room.  The hotel has an ongoing program of displaying art, not just in the lobby but in the rooms as well.  This being March, the theme of my room was Sakura and the murals were done by the artist Hiroko Otake.

Another point of the March trip was to say my farewells at Dentsu HQ. I would be retiring in a couple of months and the only way to properly say thank you and good bye to my bosses would be to do it in person.  After all, we had known each other and worked together for all these years.

It was a happy occasion to catch up again with my bosses,  Dentsu's Senior Management Team.  Iwagami san  was  retiring at the same time and we had a lot of fun discussing the life we wanted after leaving the advertising industry.   It has been an honour to have worked with this very competent team.  I am truly grateful for both their professional and personal kindnesses towards me.

Before March ended, I was blessed to have attended a Lenten recollection for Ateneo alumni.

Specially because it allowed me to see a dear old friend once again -- Fr. Mon Bautista and I went to  college together.  Today he is a most sought after recollection and retreat master and has written several books on prayer, reflection and the Ignatian way to discernment.   It was great to reconnect after more than 35 years!


April is sakura season in Japan and travel and shopping buddy Cedoy and I packed our (almost) identical bags and headed off to Kyoto.

Sakura were all over but they were prettiest along the Shirakawa, the little stream that runs by Gion.

To soak in the authentic atmosphere of Kyoto, we participated in the very traditional ritual of tea with Camellia Tea Ceremony, located in a centuries old house just off Kiyomizudera.  These lovely tea masters showed us the proper way to make and drink matcha or green tea.

On this trip, I  scratched two more UNESCO World Heritage sites from my bucket list.  One was Nijo Castle where we enjoyed walking on the the nightingale floors and viewing the traditional gardens, not to mention the ooh-ing and aah-ing at the masses of shidare or weeping sakura that lined the paths.

The highlight of the trip was our dinner at Takuma Gion Shirakawa, one of the best restaurants in Kyoto. Thanks to good friend Meiko san who made the reservations for us, we were able to enjoy Kyoto kaiseki ryori at its best.

Past five o clock on April 30 and I am officially retired!  39 years in the advertising agency business is a long time but it was always fun and fruitful.   I will always be grateful but it's time to move on and see what else life has in store for me.

I have worked with thousands of people through the years but  I wanted my "despedida" party to be with just a few colleagues who have also become my good friends.  Thank you everyone for the many years we worked together.  Moving forward ... onward and upward!


 In May, we went to Lucena  where Jay and I walked under the blazing noon sun until we reached the old train station, vintage and beautiful but sadly in need of  restoration.

At the farm in Wakas, Martina  finally met her horse Elsa which Jay bought for her more than two years ago.  

On the way home, we stopped by the beautiful stone church of Tayabas, the Minor Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel.  It is the largest church in Quezon Province and is one of the National Cultural Treasures of the Philippines.

After the trip to Lucena, Jay and I were on the road again, this time all the way up North.
Typhoon Dodong caught up with us in Isabela but thankfully the winds and rain were not that severe.

Thank you to Our Lady of Piat who made sure we would be safe along the way so that we could visit her once again.

We had not been back to Pagudpud for the past two years and were dismayed to see all the new resorts and concrete buildings that had mushroomed along Blue Lagoon.  Thankfully, our favourite getaway, Kapuluan Vista Resort was still an oasis of calm amidst the unwanted "progress".

We walked and found new trails that led us farther away from the crowds along the beach.

On the way home, we stopped by Laoag to savour genuine Ilocano cuisine at La Preciosa.

And of course the perfect meal ender was their scrumptious carrot cake!

A trip to Laoag is not complete without stopping by and seeing Maan at the public market and of course loading up on her sinfully cholesterol-lific bagnet and longganisa.

This year's road trip included an overnight stop at Vigan where we discovered the small but excellent Hotel Veneto de Vigan.

An early morning visit to the Vigan market yielded an abundance of local vegetables -- I was happy to find my favourite siling duwag, among other things.

At the end of May, childhood friend and neighbour Issa was going back to the US but not before
we made a quick day trip to Lucban where we enjoyed the remnants of Pahiyas without any of the crowds.


June marked the beginning of what would be the high point of this year.  Jay and I had talked about and planned doing the Camino de Santiago for many years and we finally got to do it.
Joined by friends both old and new,  we called our little band Amigos de Santiago and we walked  134 kilometres all the way from Triacastela to Santiago de Compostela.

Sometimes you walk with friends but most of the time, you walk alone.

It is really true -- the Camino is a life changing experience.  Walking for long distances gives you time for reflection and contemplation. You emerge from your walk a changed and hopefully better person.

But, it is not all quiet introspection along the Camino -- it is also a cultural and gastronomical experience. 

One of the best things I had along the walk was a plate of pulpo de Gallega or octopus.  Boiled and seasoned with a bit of salt and paprika it went well with the local beer. 

There are many local specialties that we tried but one of my favourites was chorizo al sidra or sausages cooked in tart cider vinegar.  I would gladly have traded all the bread for a cup of steaming hot rice!

We all made our goal -- Santiago de Compostela at last!  To reward ourselves, we stayed at the luxurious and historic Parador,  the  Hostal dos Reis Catolicos,  one of the best hotels in Spain.
It was certainly a deluxe experience after all the small inns we had stayed in along the way.

From Santiago,  seven of us Amigos hopped on a plane to Madrid where Jay and I stayed in an Airbnb apartment just a stones' throw away from the Royal Palace -- talk about a fancy address!

I skipped the Prado and opted for the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, which I had never been to.  The curated art was astonishing but I loved best  these terracotta figures called Adoring Angels from the Della Robbia workshop.

Using Madrid as our base, we explored the nearby towns.  We visited Alba de Tormes to see the church of Sta. Teresa de Avila, who celebrated her 5th centenary this 2015.

Sta Teresa must have been pleased to see us because she led us to discover this culinary treasure, Restaurante de la Santa, tucked away in a small corner off the main plaza.

Pardon the pun,  but the food was divine!  These were the best fried pork knuckles that I had ever tasted.

Alba de Tormes is very near Salamanca where we proceeded to after our visit to Sta. Teresa.
This is a university town which probably explains the graffiti splattered wooden door.

On another day, we visited Segovia, an enchanting place with a magnificent cathedral, a fairy tale castle and sweeping panoramic vistas.

A few kilometres away was the sleepy hamlet of Pedraza de la Sierra where the population of 500 swells to thousands because of a few choice restaurants that people drive all the way from Madrid

El Soportal  in Pedraza is famous for its cochinillo and  cordero al horno, cooked in a fire breathing stone oven.  Paired with (lots of) spanish wine, who could blame us if lunch took more than three hours?

To aid and abet us as we traipsed through the central part of Spain, one of the Amigos had found Boni, an enterprising and very helpful Pinoy entrepreneur who had lived in Madrid for more than two decades and thus, spoke Spanish like a native.   Boni operates his own cargo and transport service -- moving  tourists and / or  boxes all around Spain. He also sends balikbayan boxes from Spain to any part of the Philippines.   Boni  was a wonderful and hospitable guide who drove us around for all the days we were in Madrid.

After weeks and weeks of Spanish food, we were craving for rice and we did not mean paella.  Strolling through the side streets of Plaza Mayor in Madrid, we found this Thai restaurant and headed straight in.

Chicken curry, beef rice, pad thai, papaya salad  -- we ate it all and it was all good!  I did have a bottle of Spanish beer so it was not all Thai on the table.

From Madrid, we said goodbye to the other Amigos and three of us continued on our Spanish adventure. In Leon, we stayed at another Parador, the Hostal San Marcos.  Most Paradors are in historic centuries old buildings and the one in Leon was not an exception.  It was another two evenings of bliss at this landmark hotel.

Picadillo, chorizos en su tinto, alcachofa con jamon -- we trained ourselves to eat Spanish style,
at  9 every night although it was hard to think of this as dinner, with the sun still up in the sky.

Thank you Leon -- I have fond memories of you!

Burgos was our next stop where our room in Meson el Cid had windows that opened up to this incredible view.  The Burgos Cathedral is a UNESCO world heritage site and its stupendous Gothic architecture and size make it one of the top three cathedrals in Spain.

It was the feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul and in Burgos we were able to enjoy the colours and flavours of a typical Spanish fiesta.

Standing on the hills above Burgos, it was nice to know that Sapporo was a mere 14,660 kilometres away.


As we moved upward towards Northern Spain, I also realised our trip would soon come to an end. Our penultimate stop was Donostia also known as San Sebastian.

Azpeitia, birthplace of San Ignacio de Loyola is less than an hour away from San Sebastian.  It had been our dream to visit and now, we were here.

A good guide can spell the big difference between just seeing a place and really experiencing it.
Iker, our  Tours by Locals guide drove us to Azpeitia and to the various Basque coastal towns.

Thanks to Iker, we saw the flysch in Zumaia -- 50 million year old rocks formed by the wind and the sea.

In Madrid they call them tapas but the Basques call them pintxos.  No matter what they are called, they are all delectable little morsels that you can't stop eating.

 Iker introduced us to txakoli, a light and fruity wine that comes from the vineyards along the Basque coast.  By the time we finally left, I had developed quite a fondness for it but sadly, it is hardly available outside of Spain.  If you know where I can find a bottle, please let me know.  Please!

Lourdes, France is just a two hour drive from San Sebastian so we were able to visit on a bright,  sunny and yes, crowds-less day.

Last stop before heading home was Bilbao where I wished I had allowed for an extra day's stay.  Our hotel was right across the Nervion River and just a fifteen minute walk to the centre of town.

I was happy to visit the Basilica of Begoña in the hills above Bilbao.  This church is on the site of an apparition of Our Lady of Begoña who occupies the centre altar.  She is the patroness of Biscaye.

What was our last meal before we flew home?  So we would leave with the tastes of Spain on our palates, we had  tender carrilleras de ternera or beef cheeks slow cooked in gravy and chipirones en su tinta.  Muchas gracias and hasta la vista, España!

Flying home with a stop over at  Hong Kong airport, I couldn't resist a bowl of roast pork and roast duck over rice.  


I detoxed my system from all the rich food and drink in August but come September,  one of the Amigos invited us to lunch at  Balay Dako, one of Tagaytay's most popular restaurants.

With Chef Tony Boy Escalante bringing his cooking chops to the table, we enjoyed all the traditional favourites -- kare kare, adobo,  lechon kawali, tawilis ...  such a feast!


In October, I hied off to Marikina to meet up with niece Mags who invited me to lunch at Krung Thai, easily one of the best Thai restaurants I have ever been to.  Marikina is one of the latest food destinations in Metro Manila.

Mags and her husband Harry introduced me to Rocha's Puto and yes, there is truth in advertising, this is the best puto in town -- maybe in the whole of Metro Manila!


In November, I persuaded the Amigos to go on a Northern Camino, visiting churches in both Cagayan and Ilocos.  This time though, we didn't walk, we rode around in a spacious, comfortable, brand new Toyota Coaster.  

Riding does not work off any calories but that didn't stop us from sampling all the delicious  Ilocano dishes -- of which pinakbet was probably the healthiest one.

We also paid a visit to our amigo Santiago at his parish church in Pasuquin, Ilocos Norte.

The empanadas in Batac were no match for our appetites -- more sukang iloko please and how about some longganisa on a stick?

After the Northern Camino, time for a Chinatown camino.  I invited the Amigos to go on a pre-birthday eating tour with Ivan Man Dy and his Old Manila Walks.  I asked Ivan for a noodle and vintage panciteria theme for this birthday celebration.

My favourite stop was for mami and siomai at Masuki,  where the tastes and yes, the aromas of
meriendas past came rushing back in a flood of memories. 


December was such a busy month.   It started off on a high note with dinner hosted by amigo Jefe at the cozy culinary jewel that is Maria Luisa's Garden.

The seafood cioppino was almost as good as the crusty and chewy fresh baked bread.

They say that the new term for foodporn is foodgasm -- a perfect word to describe this entrecôte with haricot vert and frites.

Going home to Orani, Bataan to meet up with my cousins is an occasion I always set time aside for.   Through the years though,  our annual reunions have gotten smaller ...

But somehow the quantity of food served remains the same!   This year, I definitely believe we had more food than people.   But I'm not complaining as everything on the table was my favourite, cooked in a way as only my cousins can.

In all my years, I had never attended a full  retreat.  In the middle of December,  thanks to the efforts of dear friend Fr. Mon Bautista, SJ,  I was off the grid for three days for a silent retreat at
the Sacred Heart Novitiate in Novaliches.  Hidden behind ancient mahogany trees, at the end of a winding driveway,  I felt as if the world was very far away.

I spent hours in prayer and meditation -- sometimes in the various chapels but more often outdoors, where being in the midst of all this greenery was the best setting for personal reflection.

Refreshed and renewed after the retreat, I was ready for the annual family vacation.
As in previous years, we spent our Christmas holidays in Japan.  But this year, we decided to
include Tokyo in our itinerary.  We landed in Narita on the afternoon of the 21st.
Konichiwa, Tokyo!

Martina had never been to Tokyo before and she has happy to meet a new friend, Hachiko in Shibuya.

Jay pretended to ride a prize winning race horse...

And I found the temple dedicated to cats, specifically the arm waving kitty called Maneki Neko.  Gotokuji Temple in Setagaya was a revelation and a pleasant discovery -- and I loved it because it was off the beaten tourist track.

We spent Christmas morning at the Tokyo Sky Tree -- a place that I had assiduously avoided all these years, thinking it was nothing but a tall tourist trap.  Surprisingly, we enjoyed ourselves. There are lots of shops, restaurants and at 350 meters up, you get a marvellous 360 degree view of this vast metropolis.

On Christmas evening, fried chicken, specifically Kentucky fried chicken is the dinner of choice for the Japanese -- don't ask me why.  For Christmas dinner with ex-colleague and good friend from Singapore Anthony, his wife Rina and son Johann we chose to order fried chicken but a more upscale version than the Colonel Sanders'.

We enjoyed the chicken and the izakaya atmosphere of Sennen-no-Utage in Shimbashi, a short walk from the train station.

Good night and Merry Christmas Tokyo!  Tomorrow we would board the shinkansen for Kyoto.

In Kyoto, we took the direct bus to Osaka to meet up with Minako san of All Star Osaka walks who had planned a food tour for us, starting with the famous local Tsuruhashi Market also known as Korean Town.

Minako san and the friendly market vendors made us try different kinds of Japanese side dishes, freshly cut tuna sashimi and a very rare whitefish sashimi, so fresh I could swear some were still moving. These slithered deliciously down my throat and hardly needed any soy sauce or wasabi at all.

Our main course for the food tour was prime grade Matsusaka Beef at Yakiniku M along Dotonbori street.  I finally got a chance to sample one of the best wagyu brands -- Matsusaka beef comes from Japanese black cows and is highly regarded for its taste and meat-to-fat ratio.  We grilled our own beef slices and each one literally just melted in an umami puddle in my mouth.  

After feeding the stomach, time to feed the soul.  Next day we hied off to Kozanji Temple in the area of Takao Mountain in Kyoto.  It was quite a climb to get there but well worth the effort.  There was hardly any one else on the mountain that morning and I enjoyed the solitude and serenity.

From Kozanji,  Chieko san, our favourite Tours by Locals guide brought us to Saihoji Temple, also known as Kokedera.  This has probably the most famous and largest moss garden in Japan. 
Like Kozanji, it is a UNESCO world heritage site.

The next day was spent  in the company of good friend Meiko san.  Also a tour guide, she has become a dear friend and is always generous with her time whenever we meet up with her in Kyoto.  

We spent the day exploring Uji famous for its green tea and the fact that it hosts two UNESCO 
world heritage sites.  I had gone to Byodo-in the year before and this year, I came back to visit 
Ujigami-jinja.  And with that visit, I was able to finally complete my bucket list. I have now seen 
all 17 UNESCO world heritage sites in Kyoto.

Sometimes it's nice to eat in.  We were still dreaming of Matsusaka beef so one evening, I bought bento boxes from Yakiniku Hiro,  a popular Kyoto restaurant offering different cuts of high grade wagyu.  Oishii desu yo!

On our last full day in Kyoto,  I declared a free day for every one -- Jay took Martina to the aquarium while Carlo and Maica went on a last minute shopping spree.  
As for myself, I stepped out of the hotel and flagged the first cab I saw.  
I am sure Buddha sent it my way because cab driver  Kido san spoke excellent english.  
He agreed to take me to the temples I wanted to go to and waited for me while I went inside.  
A cab definitely saved me more time than if I took the bus or the train.

I hied off to revisit my favourite place in all of Kyoto -- Ryoanji with its famous zen rock garden.  Since it was early morning, there were not too many people to keep me from fully enjoying the stillness and peacefulness of this beautiful place.  Thank you Buddha for bringing me here again.

Kido san asked me if I had ever visited Shoren-in from where he said I could see all of Kyoto.   
The temple sits at the foothills of Mt Higashiyama but Kido san drove me further up to the observatory, which is also part of the temple grounds.  This is the large main hall of the 
Shogunzuka Dainichi do Temple, part of Shoren-in.

True enough,  the views from the wooden deck behind the temple were stupendous.  Kyoto stretched out before me and on this very clear day, I could even recognise various places from this vantage point.  Few people take the time to come up here and it's a shame because I think it has the best views of Kyoto.

I had always wanted to visit Chion-in but never made the trip because this vast temple estate has been under reconstruction for the past three years. A lot of the main structures are still hidden behind scaffolding but I decided to make it my last temple stop for the day.  Kido san took this photo before he left me on the steps of the Sanmon, the massive gate to Chion-in.

It's quite a climb over steep stone stairs all the way to the top of Chion-in and then there are more stone steps to reach the temple's massive brass bell.  On New Year's eve, the monks would ring this bell 108 times to signify purification and cleansing of sins.

It was way past lunchtime when I finished my temple crawl.  Time for a glass of cold beer and some traditional and healthy Kyoto osozai or side dishes to go with it.

I came back to the the hotel to see Jay and Martina enjoying their last view of a Kyoto sunset from our balcony at the Sakura Terrace hotel. 

The next morning, we were up early to catch the first train to the airport.  Haruka Express service from Kyoto to KIX is the fastest and most convenient way to travel to and from the airport.

And we're home again!  Travel is enriching and enhancing but home is always the best place to be.  Specially when you have your best friend waiting for you.

If you thought that this post would never end -- well, here is the ending at last.
I don't think I have ever had such a full and busy year.   I look forward with excitement at what the new year will bring but whatever comes,   I will remember and take to heart the words that pilgrims all encouraged each other with along the Camino de Santiago ...
"Ultreia"  "Et Suseia". 
Onward and further! (or onward and upward, as I always like to say).

Happy new year everyone!

NB Thanks to Amigo Mike Cleveland for the photo of the Amigos de Santiago.

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