Monday, July 25, 2016

Celebrating Amigo Santiago's Feast day in Santiago de Compostela, Pasuquin, Ibaan and Iguig

I am typing this post today, July 25 on the feast day of St. James the Apostle also known as St. James the Greater. The patron saint of Spain, St. James is called Santiago and is at the centre of the ancient pilgrimage route known as the Camino de Santiago.  
Last year, my friends and I walked the Camino, 134 kilometres from Triacastela to Santiago de Compostela. Since finishing the pilgrimage, I have come to think of St. James in more familiar terms --  in my mind, he's my Amigo Santiago.  

While there are many images of Santiago along the Camino, this statue in the churchyard of Portomarin is my favourite.  Clad in simple pilgrim's garb, he points the way for us peregrinos as 
we continue on our Camino.

The Camino ends in Santiago de Compostela at the steps of the magnificent Baroque cathedral.
This photo is of the western or main entrance situated in the equally imposing square called the 
Praza do Obradoiro
The Cathedral  built in the 12th century  is undergoing renovations but even with the scaffolding hiding the major parts, it is still an awe inspiring sight.   I still cannot find the words to describe how 
I felt, as I rounded the corner and came upon the Cathedral, at the end of my Camino.

The Cathedral interiors are rich and grand yet exude a profound spiritual and almost mystical air.  
At the centre altar is the famous statue of Santiago  that for centuries,  countless  pilgrims have ardently and yes, even tearfully embraced to give thanks and praise at the end of 
their Camino.  Hanging in front of the statue is the giant incense burner, the Botafumeiro which  
swings impressively overheard during special pilgrim masses.

Since the time we came back from the Camino, I have tried to see as many of the local churches dedicated to Amigo Santiago.  Last year on a visit to Northern Luzon, I discovered that the town of Pasuquin, Ilocos Norte where I had regularly stopped many times before to load up on their unique "biscocho" ,  had a parish church dedicated to St. James.

Unlike many of the churches in Ilocos, the  parish church of Pasuquin is quite new.   The 
town dates back to the 1700s but  a much older church had previously succumbed to an earthquake. 
It was unfortunate that I was not able to see if any of the ruins were left.

The statue of the pilgrim Santiago stands to the side of the main altar.  I miss his pilgrim's hat but 
he carries a staff and a small pouch.

Santiago was both pilgrim saint and moor slayer.  It is said that he appeared in the battlefield and 
held off the moors, thus keeping Spain staunchly Catholic.  As warrior saint, he is shown astride 
his horse, holding his sword.

On one of our frequent trips to Lucena, I noticed a familiar figure along the road.  Sure enough, it was 
Amigo Santiago, on top of his faithful steed in front of the St. James the Greater Parish Church 
of Ibaan, Batangas.  

Ibaan's towering church has been around since the 1870s.   It was originally established by the Augustinians but is now under the Oblates of St. Joseph.  From what I have read, it has also undergone renovations which have strayed from its original appearance.  

The altar is beautiful and quite opulent, gilded in gold.  Santiago as Apostle  stands in the centre flanked by Our Lady and the Sacred Heart.  

I go looking for Santiago the Moor Slayer and find him relegated to a side chapel in his classic warrior pose.

I left the best for last .... 
This is a church that Jay and I have been regularly visiting  long before I did the Camino.  Ever since we first came here in the 1990s, we have tried to visit every year -- it is our own little pilgrimage of sorts.  This is the St. James the Apostle Parish Church in Iguig, Cagayan Valley  a few kilometres away from Tuguegarao.  Can you just make out Santiago's statue  on top of the church portico? 
I wonder if he doesn't feel just a bit confined inside his glass case.  

A marker on the red brick facade attests that the church was built in the 1600s.  

White paint covers the thick and heavy walls inside the church.  The main altar is quite simple and has a statue of St. James garbed in pilgrim attire.   I wish I had a closer shot so that you could see the scallop shells decorating his cape. The scallop shell is the symbol of the Camino de Santiago.  

And surprise, surprise -- Santiago as Moor Slayer is not hidden in a side chapel but stands prominently on the side, flanking the main altar. 

You will only appreciate the grandeur and majesty of the church when you go around the 
side and see the entire monumental structure, framed by nothing but the wide expanse of sky.
 I enjoy taking friends here and bringing them around to see their gasps of surprise, awe and delight. 
The massive buttresses at the back have helped hold up this church for centuries.  
It is a splendid example of early Spanish church architecture in the Philippines  -- in my mind it is one of the best.  
I am sure Amigo Santiago is enjoying his spectacular church in this windswept perch on top of the hills of Iguig.  
I shall continue to look for him in other corners of this country!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Fukuoka in Five - Cooking Lessons in Atsuko san's Kitchen

When traveling, Jay and I are always on the look-out for  new and unique experiences that will 
allow us to know more about the place,  the people and the culture.  On this trip I decided to
take the Fukuoka Home Cooking Class which would be held right in the home of the teacher --
now how interesting and different would that be!

The Fukuoka Home Cooking Class is offered by a local tour company called Trip Insight.   We were told the teacher would meet us at  Befu Subway Station, just a 20 minute ride from our hotel.

After we all met up, our first stop was a neighbourhood supermarket where we shopped for 
some of the ingredients we would use for the class.

This very charming and pretty lady is Atsuko Kuga, our  teacher  who would share her personal recipes and teach us how to cook some basic Japanese dishes this afternoon. 

As we walked through the supermarket Atsuko san pointed out some of the various
ingredients normally used in Japanese cooking.  I never realised there were so many varieties
of  soy sauce available,  a whole shelf of them!

We bought some boneless chicken -- both breast and thigh fillets.   Atsuko san mentioned that 
Japanese prefer dark meat so breast meat is quite inexpensive.  We also got some watermelon
for dessert,  plus tofu, spinach and  carrots.

Atsuko san  lives just five minutes away from the supermarket.  Once inside her lovely and comfortable home, she invited us to relax  and served us green tea and senbei or Japanese rice crackers. 

Before any cooking could be done, Atsuko san had us wear these aprons.   I thought Jay would put
up a fight but he wore his blue floral apron with much aplomb. 

Time to get cooking!  This is Atsuko san's very complete and spacious kitchen,  fitted out for 
her students.  She had two small stoves ready,  one for Jay and one for me.   The first recipe we learned was tamagoyaki, the Japanese rolled omelet. It was intimidating  to see how deftly
Atsuko san spread the egg around in her special tamagoyaki pan.   
I told her I was getting so shinpai desu or stressed.

It may just be an omelet but it requires skill and nimble chopsticks.  Jay definitely got the hang
of it before I did.

To keep a nice shape, Atsuko san taught us how to gently wrap the finished tamagoyaki in 
bamboo mats.  No squeezing please!

Next up was chicken teriyaki.  Jay chose to work with breast fillet while I had boneless thigh 
fillets. Atsuko san asked us to butterfly the chicken then pierce it all over with the knife to 
keep the meat from shrinking and curling up.

Jay being the health minded person that he is removed the skin from his chicken breasts 
while I, the gluttonous gourmand that I am, opted to keep the skin on.  I actually think
that the skin keeps the fillets from drying out.  You can always opt not to eat them once they are cooked.

Atsuko san taught us a trick that she said all Japanese moms do every single day in the kitchen -- 
chop up tofu in equal sized squares without using a chopping board at all,  just the palm of 
your hand.  This definitely requires a soft touch or you could end up losing a few digits.  
The tofu would be used for our miso soup.  
Atsuko san being the remarkable cook that she is, makes her own miso from scratch using 
fresh soybeans.  Her miso tasted deep and sweet,  so much better than store bought.

Part of the afternoon's course included vegetable tempura.  Atsuko san showed us the proper 
way to cut the fresh shitake mushroom so that it would cook faster, and look better too.  
Jay's knife skills were so good his shitakes looked  much better than my mangled ones. 

Here is Jay dipping the vegetables in batter for the tempura.

To make sure the different vegetables were cooked just right, Atsuko san shared a valuable tip --
fry leafy vegetables in hot oil,  count to five and remove,  for onion rings count to ten, count to  fifteen for mushrooms and twenty five for sweet potatoes and carrots.  
Ichi, ni, san, yon, go .... I was really glad we still knew how to count in Japanese!

Time to plate the food!  With a few sprigs of maple leaves from the tree in her front yard as
garnish, Atsuko san showed us how to slice the omelet and set it on the plate.    It was so
simple but looked very appetising,  like a tamagoyaki tree!  Really,  the Japanese are the best
at food presentation.

And here are the two plates of chicken teriyaki that we cooked, set amidst fresh greens and 
sliced tomatoes.  Can you guess which is mine and which is Jay's?

Et voila!  We managed to cook all these -- the tamagoyaki, miso soup (simmering on top of another stove),  chicken teriyaki and vegetable tempura.  It took us two hours to prep and cook but it was such an interesting and entertaining two hours.  We learned a lot and we also laughed a lot.
We must have been Atsuko san's noisiest students ever.  She is a wonderful teacher who made cooking fun and put us completely at ease.

We brought the dishes out to the tatami dining room and Atsuko san showed us how to set the table, Japanese style. 

Doesn't it look so inviting?  I still cannot believe that Jay and I actually cooked all that.   
Atsuko san is not just an amazing teacher, she is a miracle worker as well!

As we were getting ready to try the dishes on the table, one of Atsuko san's sons arrived from 
Tokyo where he lives and works.  I am sure he is used to seeing strangers and foreigners messing
up his mother's kitchen.  Earlier on, we also met Atsuko san's youngest  daughter who spoke very good english and was friendly and just as gracious as her mom. 

Time for a "we-fie" with the best Japanese cooking class teacher ever!

Atsuko san was so thoughtful, she  prepared these certificates attesting to our  newly learned
Japanese cooking skills.  We even had a mini graduation ceremony of sorts.   It was such an enjoyable experience.   I am sure that there are other Japanese cooking lessons available but
probably none as personal and delightful as the one we had in Atsuko Kuga's home, 
in her very own kitchen.
If you are ever in Fukuoka, this is something you will want to include in your itinerary!

Otsukare sama deshita, Atsuko san!  Domo arigato gozaimashita!


After coming home from Fukuoka, Jay continues to practice his newly discovered cooking skills. 
Yes, he still wears an apron, though not as flamboyantly floral.  And yes, we did buy a special pan 
so we can have a Japanese rolled omelet anytime we want.  Jay has practically perfected the 
art of a good tamagoyaki.
Thank you for bringing out Jay's hidden talents, Atsuko san!

Thank you to Atsuko san too for her photos used in this post! Photos 9, 10, 12, 13 and 14.


Monday, July 4, 2016

Fukuoka in Five - A Million Milflores at the Ajisai (Hydrangea) Garden of Hakozaki-gu

While spring brings plum blossoms and sakura in Japan, summer is also prime time for
flowers.  In Fukuoka as in other places, irises and hydrangeas or ajisai as the Japanese
call them, bloom during June.

I was completely unaware that something special was happening when I visited the
Hakozaki Shrine.  There were not too many people around on that hot Friday morning.

As I walked around the shrine grounds, I saw  this little gate with pots of hydrangeas
in front.  A sign in Japanese was unintelligible except for the part that said 300 yen.
I figured that was the entrance fee so I paid, got my ticket and walked in.

I did not realise that I had just entered the famed Ajisai or Hydrangea garden of Hakozaki-gu.
Hakozaki-gu's garden is one of the best, if not the best, viewing spot for hydrangeas in Fukuoka.

The shrine shares its flowers with guests.  There were potted plants for sale at the entrance.

The hydrangeas were astonishing in their size and colours. 

I wondered, was this a hydrangea plant too?  I thought they were clusters of green grapes.

So many hydrangeas!  A lot of them were variants I had never seen.

White blooms tinged with green and lilac -- just so pretty!

The garden itself has over 3,500 hydrangea plants with more than 100 varieties which bloom at their peak during June.   Follow the gently winding path that will take you all around the garden.  

On week-ends, there are  flute and violin ensembles playing classical favourites,  perhaps they play from this charming little pavilion right in the centre of the garden.  I can imagine what a delightful time that must be. 

It's a riot of hydrangeas -- these photos hardly do justice to the beauty that was all around me.

While there were signs identifying the various blooms, they were all in Japanese.
So dear reader,  I googled so you don't have to.  The cone-shaped variety above is called the "oak leaf"  hydrangea, so called because of their leaves which resemble ... what else, oak leaves!

These unusual and attractive green hydrangeas may be of the variety called  "pee gees" but as
I am far from an expert,  I could be wrong.

It was my first time to see this type of hydrangea called "lacecaps", with small blooms in the middle and larger florets around it.

Here is another "lacecap" in white and pink. 

The following hydrangeas are called "mopheads" -- big, full and  round, they do look like
giant mops, don't they?

Blue, pink and purple are the most common colours of "mopheads".

Here is one in a subtle blue violet tint.

And here is another "mophead",  in bright pink with hints of purple in the middle.

A pink and green blossom -- such vivid and vibrant colours!

These blushing pink hydrangeas were slightly hidden in a shaded area of the garden.

"Lacecaps" are dainty and grow in this pattern with the blooms spread apart from each other ...

While "mopheads" grow in clusters, with the flowers closer to each other.

To add to the enchanting scenery were these two ladies in kimono,  with their parasols,
walking around slowly and enjoying the flowers.  I felt like a stalker with my camera.

 Old, moss covered trees made a good backdrop for the flowers.

The hydrangeas or ajisai  line the narrow path, I had to will myself not to stop at each 
and every bush. 

A small tent with benches had been laid out on this little clearing.   People sat quietly, enjoying the floral views. No one was on the phone, conversations were muted.  And most importantly,
no one was taking any selfies at all -- thank goodness! 

Except for me -- I surreptitiously took a "foot-fie" when I passed by a small pot of cut blossoms.

My visit to the garden was about to end.  The path was winding closer and closer back to the gate.  I tried to walk as slowly as I could -- to lengthen my stay amidst the hydrangeas.  

This cluster of pure white flowers are called "annabelles".  They are also known as
"snowballs" , "bounty" or "incrediballs".  I guess you can see why they are called that.
This was the last showstopper you would see before you stepped off the garden path.

I threw all shame to the winds and asked a lady to take my photo in front of these "annabelles".  Hydrangeas or ajisai  (or milflores as we call them here at home) were my mother's favourite
flowers.  I am sure that my stumbling on this million milflores was her special gift to me,
on  this beautiful June day in Fukuoka.