Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Quezon's Specialties at Kamayan sa Palaisdaan in Tayabas

Kamayan sa Palaisdaan has been an institution in the Quezon food scene for almost twenty years. 
For someone who by virtue of affinity has roots in that province,  I am rather embarrassed to say
that I had never eaten there -- at least until last week.  

It was quite a surprise to walk in and see the restaurant's distinctive attractions --  dozens of native bamboo huts floating on top of an expansive  fish pond.   The water was green and a bit murky but there was no unpleasant  smell at all.   There are numerous trees and shrubbery which help bring in a few breezes, most welcome on this very warm day.

There are more than fifty huts laid out all over the property,  each with a long table and benches that can accommodate up to twelve diners.   Because it was a weekday,  there were lots of unoccupied huts but I was told that people have had to wait for almost an hour  during peak times on week-ends.

While you will see a few tilapia and some koi swimming in the pond,  those meant for the table are segregated off to one side, ready to be scooped and cooked and served.

Here is Jay and our friend Ross (also from Lucena) waiting for lunch in our bamboo kubo (hut).  For a place that is so popular and has been around for so long,  I was impressed that the huts were well maintained and kept very clean.  

Lunchtime!  Even on a slow week-day, it took a while for the food to be served.
I like to think that's because everything is cooked to order and nothing is heated and re-heated
in the microwave.
We all wanted to eat very local and traditional Tayabasin dishes so for starters,
we ordered a salad of pako or fiddlehead ferns with itlog na maalat or salted duck eggs, onions and tomatoes.  The salad was refreshing and went well with a cold bottle of San Mig light.  

Palaisdaan's specialty is fish and sea food -- we definitely wanted  the tilapia,  swimming
placidly all around us.  How much more fresh could our meal be?
The tilapia would be caught, cleaned, cooked and served to us within minutes.
Ross ordered a typical Quezon dish -- sinugno.  This is tilapia cooked in gata or fresh coconut cream with mustasa or mustard leaves.  A very tasty and creamy dish,  the coconut cream sauce was perfect, spooned over plain hot rice.
The sharp, slightly bitter bite of the mustasa leaves kept the dish from being too rich.  
I think the mustasa must be grown somewhere on the property because they tasted like they had just been picked a few minutes ago.

In Quezon where the key agricultural product is coconut, one staple ingredient is gata or
fresh coconut cream.  For someone who comes from Quezon, Jay strangely is not too fond of gata and thus opted for a more simple dish.
Pinaputok na tilapia  is tilapia that is slit, stuffed with onions and tomatoes, wrapped in banana leaves and charcoal grilled.  It's a simple way to enjoy the pure sweet freshness of the fish.

All these healthy dishes make for an unbalanced meal so porkintheroad had to bring in some of the good pig stuff.  I ordered inihaw or grilled pork chops which must have been marinated in some form of barbecue sauce, hence the faint reddish tinge.   While I would have preferred a more simple marinade or rub of just garlic and salt, the chops were tender and well cooked.

The food lived up to my expectations -- but it was this local delicacy that just blew me away.
This smiling young vendor is not an employee of the restaurant but he gets to peddle his bilao (basket) of native kakanin (rice cakes).  Regulars at Palaisdaan wait for him to come around their huts with his signature kakanin -- pilipit made with kalabasa and malagkit.

Pilipit is normally made with malagkit na bigas or glutinous rice.  This version of  pilipit incorporated grated kalabasa or squash which gave it a yellow-orange tint and more importantly, made it even more maligat (chewy) and oh so very delicious.
While it usually comes in a twisted shape (hence the name pilipit),  this variety sold at Palaisdaan looks like a compact doughnut, complete with the hole.
After frying, the pilipit is liberally dipped in what tastes like a coconut based caramel sauce.  Think of coconut jam and molasses getting married and you have an idea of just how ambrosial this topping is.  

Thank you Ross for suggesting Kamayan sa Palaisdaan for our lunch date.  I enjoyed the
typical Quezon dishes in the middle of a  charming, bucolic setting.  And I specially relished the unique and scrumptious pilipit!
I made sure to buy a dozen of these addictive little snacks to bring back to Jay's home in
Lucena.  We enjoyed it again for dessert that evening.

Full disclosure -- I skipped dinner but had three pieces of pilipit!

NB There are two Palaisdaan Restaurants along the road between Tayabas and Lucban.  Kamayan sa Palaisdaan is on the left side if you are coming from Lucena.  

Monday, March 14, 2016

My (practical) Japan Travel Tips

Perhaps because I have been to Japan so often these past 17 years, friends usually ask me for tips -- where to go, how to get there, what to eat, etc. etc.  While I am far from being an expert on Japan,  I am always happy to share what I know.
My particular interests are temples, shrines and quaint, off-the-beaten-tourist-track places where the only gaijin face is usually my own.  I realise that these are not what many of you are looking for (after a couple of temples,  friends have screamed "enough!") so I will share  the most practical recommendations I can think of which may help you enjoy your Japan vacation.

1. Should you buy a JR Pass?

The JR Pass, sold abroad and only to foreign tourists, costs about 29,000 yen for a 7 day pass.
Unless you are going from Tokyo to Osaka and back on the shinkansen or bullet train (which costs 28,000 yen for a round trip reserved seat), or will be travelling frequently using the shinkansen between major cities,  it will not be worth it.
The JR Pass is valid only on JR Lines,  both regular trains and shinkansen.  If you're staying in one place like Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka, you'll be going around the city via subway, private trains and even buses where you cannot use the JR Pass.   Spare yourself the expense and instead ...

2. Get a pre-paid subway pass.

A pre-paid subway card is indispensable when you travel to Japan.  PASMO can be used in TokyoKansai, Hokkaido while the ICOCA card is for Kansai use only.  You can also get the SUICA card which is likewise used in Tokyo.
Unlike  subways in major cities like New York and Paris where you pay a flat fare to travel within the city zone,  fares in Japan are calculated by distance and it can be confusing and time consuming to keep checking the fares and buying single tickets every time you ride the subway or train. With the subway card, you zip right through the turnstile.
Buy the pre-paid cards from vending machines in almost any subway station and top
it up from the same machines when your balance dips low.  These cards can be used for buses,
to pay for purchases in convenience stores or even pay your taxi fare.  Any balance left over can be refunded when you leave Japan or you can keep it for your next trip.
If you are landing in Kansai International Airport en route to Kyoto, get the special ICOCA card shown above which gives you a good discount on Haruka, the airport express train that will take you from KIX to Kyoto Station.

3. Download a Tokyo Subway App.

Tokyo is a huge city with more than 200 subway stations.  Plus there are 13 subway lines.  Which line do you use?  Where do you get off?  How do you get from one station to the other?
I'd recommend that you download a Tokyo Subway app, available for both IOS and android devices.  These apps allow you to trace your route from one station to the next so you always know where to get on and off.   Extremely useful and will help you from getting "lost in translation".

4. Stay Connected with Pocket Wi-Fi.

Always be connected while in Japan, not just so that you can post your awesome photos
and  get all your friends green with envy -- but also to be able to find your way around.
Addresses are confusing and buildings are not numbered sequentially.  Even Tokyo natives
get lost!  Didn't I say how enormous the city is?
With your pocket wi-fi, you can google-map your way around and lessen the chances of not finding that highly recommended but hidden ramen restaurant.
Rent a pocket wi-fi ahead of your trip and it will be delivered to your hotel, waiting for you when you arrive.  It comes with a self addressed envelope which you use to mail the device back before you leave.
The photo above is a sample from http://www.globaladvancedcomm.com.  I have been renting from them for many years and they're very reliable.
Just another tip -- if you're traveling to Japan during peak season (spring or autumn) make sure you order your pocket wi-fi weeks ahead as they may just run out of the devices.

5. Plan your itinerary.

This is just one small part the Tokyo skyline, as seen from the Tokyo Sky Tree -- as you can see, it's a vast metropolis where it's easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the city.
Osaka and Kyoto are smaller but definitely not lacking for places to see and things to do.
I suggest that before you leave,  make an itinerary that lists down your priorities -- 
your must-go-to and must-see places. 
Like any big city, it's impossible to see and do everything on your first visit but with a well planned itinerary, you will at least hit the spots you most want to see.
I personally would recommend that specially for first time visitors,  whether you're headed to TokyoOsaka, Kyoto,  Sapporo or any other place in Japan --  you should stay a minimum of five whole days so that at the very least, you can get a sense of the place.

And p.s. try and learn a few key Japanese phrases.

While I  don't expect you to learn kanji for a one week vacation (I certainly can't) I would suggest that you memorise a few important words and phrases.  My Japanese friends know 
my favourite phrase is "biru o kudasai"  or "beer please" and they assure me that is all I need to know.
But seriously speaking,  the Japanese are polite and hospitable people and like any host, they 
are appreciative when you try and speak their language.  
Everyone knows "arigato" (thanks)  but try saying "domo arigato gozaimashita" (thank you for what you did) particularly at the end of a service like a meal or a transaction and you will come across as polite and respectful.
"Ohayo gozaimasu" is "good morning" and "konbanwa" means "good evening".  
You can say "konichiwa" or "hello" for the hours after lunch till late afternoon.  
To call someone's attention, say "sumimasen" or excuse me.  You can also say it when you're crushed in the middle of the subway during rush hour. If you unintentionally step on toes as you exit the train, say "gomen nasai" or "I'm sorry."
Everyone knows how to say "oishii" which means "delicious".  If you're dining with Japanese friends, say "itadakimasu" before you dig in  ("I will receive this food")  and they will certainly be impressed.
And to gain a smile from your waiter or the cashier as you pay your bill , say "gochisousama deshita" or "it was a feast"! 

Yoi tabi o kudasai!
Have a good trip please. 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Who, What, Where, Why and How of the Camino de Santiago in 2015

In June 2015,  Jay and I checked off the Camino from our (short) bucket list.  We walked a
portion of the Camino Frances together with our friends, the Amigos de Santiago.  
Since that time, I have tried to keep up with Camino news and continue to be interested in what's happening along the way.  Who knows, we may just do the Camino again.

A very good source of information on the Camino is the official website of the Pilgrims' Office in Santiago de Compostela .   The photo above shows their old office in 2015,  they have since moved to a much bigger and better space. 
The Pilgrims' Office regularly releases statistics about the Camino through their website at 
The figures stated below are taken from their 2015 annual report. 
And because we did our Camino in 2015,  the Amigos de Santiago are part of the official statistics. 
I hope that after reading this post, you'll be encouraged to walk the way of St. James. 

1. How many pilgrims walked the Camino in 2015

According to the website  262,459 pilgrims walked the Camino de Santiago in 2015.  This is 
up from the 2014 figures of 237,886.   It's nice to see pilgrim numbers growing.  Of this total,
236, 716 or 90% did the Camino the old fashioned way -- they walked.

Bicigrinos or bicycle riding pilgrims numbered 25, 346 or just 9%.  

2.  The Gender Split

Women were slightly outnumbered by men on the Camino in 2015 --  123,530 women versus  138,929 men (47% versus 53%).

3. Age doesn't matter on the Camino

Our little group of peregrinos spanned the age ranges tracked by statistics.  While we did not have any one below 30,  the Amigos were in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s.  
Pilgrims in the below 30 age range numbered 74,691 or 29%.  
Pilgrims from 30 to 60 comprised the largest group at 144,031 or 55%.  
And just to show that age shouldn't deter you from doing the Camino, the 60+ age group numbered 43,737 or 16% of the total number.   I saw many senior citizens walking the Camino, as a matter of fact, most of them walked much faster than me!
I would say that the Amigos hewed to the demographic split as most of us were also in the 30 to 60 age group.

4. Top Three Pilgrim Groups

As can be expected, 122,387 or 47% of the pilgrims came from Spain.  
Next are the Italians - 22,148 or 16% followed by the Germans at 18,869 or 13%.
The Americans are in fourth place with 13,669 pilgrims.  

While we did meet Filipinos and other Asians along the way -- like this Japanese couple who had done the Camino twice -- Asians are not on the top 10 list of pilgrims as of 2015. 

5. Young people on the Camino

We frequently ran into school groups with student pilgrims walking along the Camino.  
They were often noisy and full of energy (as young people normally are), but it was gratifying 
to see so many teen-agers doing a centuries old pilgrimage.   
Statistics show that 50,479 or 19% of total pilgrims in 2015 were students.

6. Point of Origin

Sarria, 112 km from Santiago de Compostela was where 67,406 or 25% of the pilgrims started their Camino from.  Sarria is ideal for those who do not have the time to walk the entire distance of more than 700 kilometres. If you are a strong and fast walker,  you can walk the 112 km in just 4 or 5 days. 
On the other hand, 31,053 pilgrims (12%) who had more time and resources to complete the entire walk started off from the French town of St. Jean Pied-de-Port, across the Pyrenees.
St. Jean Pied-de-Port is the official starting point of the Camino Frances.

As for the Amigos, we walked 130 kilometres from Triacastela to Santiago de Compostela.  
We were part of the 2,213 pilgrims who started from this small Galician village.

7.  The road most travelled 

In 2015 the Amigos, along with 172,206 or 66% of total pilgrims walked along the UNESCO World Heritage route, the Camino Frances.   This was followed by the  Camino Portugues which had 43,137 pilgrims or 16%.  The third most travelled way with 15,826 pilgrims or 6% was the Northern Camino, which passes through San Sebastian, Bilbao and the Basque coastline.  

8.  Reasons for doing the Camino

When I went to get my compostela at the Pilgrims' Office, they asked me (as they do with all peregrinos),   what was my reason for walking the way.  
 Of the total for 2015,  38% or  99,681 cited religious reasons for doing the Camino.

However,  141,969 pilgrims or or 54%  cited religious / cultural reasons for doing the Camino.  If you add that to the figure above,  241,650 or a whopping 92% did attach some spiritual significance to walking the way.

And 20,809 or the remaining 8% cited purely cultural reasons for doing the Camino
Of course, I had my own "cultural" moments every so often,  the Camino after all is about 
the joy and not the suffering of pilgrimage.

9.  Some more facts about the walk 

When you do the Camino, you'll walk on all sorts of surfaces,  from tree lined, leafy paths...

through sunny country back roads ...

over narrow dirt trails  ....

sometimes, even by the national highways. 

And when you get tired from walking -- not to worry, there's always some place quiet
to sit down and rest for a while. 

10. Why 2016 is the year to do your Camino

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela celebrates the Holy Year of Mercy this 2016 and the Holy Door or the Porto Santa has been opened for pilgrims.  It is the perfect time to plan and finally walk the way of St. James. 

This year, stand at the Plaza do Obradoiro after you finish your Camino.  
I assure you it is a life enhancing experience.

NB Thank you to my fellow peregrino and husband Jay, for photos #7 and 19 that I used in this post.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Temple Hopping by Taxi in Kyoto : to Ryoan-ji, Shogunzuka and Chion-in

December 30 was our last whole day in Kyoto and I felt that I had not yet reached my temple quota.  So, while everyone else did their last minute shopping,  I hied off to go temple hopping.
As I was standing at the hotel entrance contemplating whether I would be frugal and take a bus or extravagant and splurge for a taxi -- a cab stopped right in front of me and the driver opened the door.  I took it as a sign and hopped right in.
And so this is how I met Kido san, Buddha's gift to me that day.

Kido san retired from an automotive parts company and has been driving his cab in Kyoto for less than five years. 
We started our conversation in Nihongo but I soon realised that he could speak pretty good english.  He was truly sent to me by Buddha!
I asked him to take me to my first stop,  Ryoan-ji and as we continued to talk,  I mentioned that 
I  also planned  to visit Chion-in, which is quite a bit of distance away. 
Kido san offered to wait for me at Ryoan-ji,  and recommended a stop at Shogunzuka to visit the Seiryuden before finally taking me to Chion-in
Taxi fares are expensive in Japan but since I just had a few hours to spare,  I agreed to 
Kido san's time saving suggestion. 

My first stop was Ryoan-ji,  my favourite temple in Kyoto.  I had never been to Ryoan-ji so early in the morning and today, it was a pleasant surprise to find hardly anyone around.

I took my time by Ryoan-ji's beautiful pond Oshidori-ike, basking in the lovely tranquil scene.

The heart of Ryoan-ji is the rock garden where 15 stones await the visitor who will never ever get to see all of them at one glance.  Aside from the temple employees walking quietly around, I was the only one at the viewing balcony and relished this rare solitude -- surely this moment was another gift from Buddha.

It was hard to leave Ryoan-ji but when the first tour group clattered noisily in,  I knew it was time to go.
From Ryoan-ji, Kido san drove to Higashiyama, to a sub-temple of Shoren-in  on Shogunzuka Mound.  He highly recommended that I visit this place because of the view from the observation deck which he said was much better than the view from the balcony of Kiyomizu-dera.
To get to Shogunzuka, we drove up a winding road where no city buses go.  So unless you have
a car or are willing to walk uphill for an hour, a taxi is the only way to get to the top.

This is the Seiryuden Temple Hall on Shogunzuka which is used for religious services 
and ceremonies.

Inside, Seiryuden is cavernous and almost completely empty.  There is a small room at the very end where a large painting of Fudo Myoo in all his fierce and fearsome glory is displayed.

While Kido san did tell me about the observation deck behind Seiryuden,  I was still surprised when I  rounded the corner and came upon this vast wooden balcony that seemed to stretch out into the horizon.

This is the North Observation deck of Shogunzuka.  Amidst the expanse of the unvarnished wooden floor stands an ultra modern version of a classic tea house.  It is made entirely of clear glass with very little metal support.  There are glass benches around it which on this cold winter morning are covered by a thin dusting of last night's frost.  

This tea house is designed by Japanese artist Yoshioka Tokujin was done to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the sister city relationship between Kyoto and Florence, Italy. This tea house will be on exhibit here until April 2016.

The North Observation Deck is practically empty save for a few visitors -- and almost all are Japanese.  We are all in awe of the view that is laid out in front of us. And what a surprise --
not a single person took a selfie.
I breathed a silent thanks to Buddha for keeping this place free from the tour bus hordes.  But honestly I don't know why this is off Kyoto's tourist track.

It's a gorgeous, nearly unobstructed view of  Kyoto on a bright, clear and cold day.  I wonder if  that mountain on the second to the right is Mt.  Hiei, it sort of looks like it and if my bearings are correct, I could be right.   I felt like I was suspended up in the air,  floating above the city.

This is a scale model of the structure of the North Observation Deck.  Standing more than 200 meters above,   it is certainly the best spot to look out over Kyoto.   And yes, Kido san was right, the view is much better than that of Kiyomizu-dera's.

From Shogunzuka, it took less than ten minutes to reach Chion-in, also known as the "Vatican" of Jodo or Pure Land Buddhism in Japan.  This massive and impressive wooden gate is the temple's official entrance, the Sanmon.  Built in the 1600s, the Sanmon is one of the biggest wooden gates in Japan and is a National Treasure.

It may look like an easy way up but this stone staircase leading up to the temple's main buildings is a challenging climb.  From the photo, it looks like it is neither steep nor high  but I can assure you it is both.  Each stone step is also higher than normal so my thigh muscles were practically screaming when I finally reached the top.  

Once you get to the top, head towards the information booth where you can get a map of the temple grounds. Chion-in has over 100 buildings so it's good to know what to see and where to go. The information booth is also where I got a temple seal for my shuin-cho.

Just past the information booth is a red two story pagoda and beside it is the Amida-do, the hall where visitors can find the statue of the Amida Buddha, who promises compassion and salvation.  I bow and quietly recite the nembutsu, Namu Amida Butsu before I continue on my way.

The Miei-do,  Chion-in's main hall is the most important building in the temple grounds.  This is where you can find a statue of the founder of Jodo Buddhism, the monk Honen.  The Miei-do has been under renovation for the past four years and is not expected to be finished until 2019.
I look forward to seeing its full grandeur when renovation is finally completed.

I walk through the grounds to the back of the Miei-do and place an incense stick on the burner that guards the entrance to the Kyozo or the sutra repository.

To the side of the Miei-do is the Hobutsuden where some services are held.

One of the attractions of Chion-in is its gigantic bronze bell, one of the most famous bells in  Japan.  My thigh muscles and hamstrings cringe when they see the stone steps leading up to the bell tower but thankfully this is not as high nor as steep as the staircase at the entrance of the temple.

This is the giant bell called the Ogane housed inside the Daishoro or bell tower.  This bell is rung 108 times  at midnight on New Year's eve, to signify the 108 human sins.  I hope that one day, I can be here on New Year's eve to hear it rung.

Time to leave the centre of Pure Land Buddhism. 
Experience has taught me that for hillside or mountain attractions in Japan,  if there is a steep or difficult way up, there is almost always a gradual and sedate option to go down.
Tucked away on one side near the main entrance is this wide and broad staircase that leads back down to street level.
This will also take you by the Yuzen-en Garden which is open to the public but sadly I did not have time for a visit today.

 Kido san and I said our farewells here at Chion-in.  From the temple,  it is just a 2-minute walk to Maruyama Park and from there a short and lovely stroll to Gion where I caught a bus back to the hotel.
It was a morning well and efficiently spent.  Thanks to Kido san and his recommended route,
I was able to visit not just two temples as I had originally planned but I discovered a third one, with an amazing view of Kyoto.
It was the perfect way to wind down this year-end trip. 
Domo arigato gozaimashita, Kido san! Hona mata!


This is Kido san's meishi or business card.  Next time you travel to Kyoto, you may want to call him to take you around the city.  He knows the temples and shrines of Kyoto very well.
And unless you are using a local phone, don't forget to add +81-75, the country code for Japan and the area code for Kyoto.