Wednesday, November 29, 2017

If it's Monday, it must be Conti's at Blue Ridge

Early Monday morning is when I make the long trek from my home in Paranaque to the Ateneo de Manila in Katipunan, almost 20 kilometres away.  The once a week class that I teach does not start till 9 a.m but I leave very early so as to beat the rush hour traffic.  
I leave the house without taking breakfast and am always on the lookout for a place along the way that's open and that serves good coffee.
Starbucks used to be my usual stopover until I discovered Conti's in Blue Ridge.
Open at 7 a.m., it serves a variety of breakfast choices ... and coffee comes with free refills.
You can't get a better deal than that.
Since I've made it my weekly "almusalan" I have tried almost all their breakfast items .... and then some.

I can never pass up longganisa and Conti's Mom's Garlic Longganisa served with fried rice and egg  are bite sized but hearty morsels of deliciousness.  If you have aswang  (vampire) blood, don't be put off by the name -- the garlic is not so overpowering but balances well with the other spices.   The ubud atsara served on the side is an ideal counterpoint.

I come from Malabon where the best tinapang bangus comes from.  Conti's serves a very good version (I am sure it's from my hometown!), an entire tinapa, deboned and perfectly fried. The accompanying tomato and egg salad is a delicious alternative to the usual fried egg. 

If you do not like smoked fish, you can opt for the boneless daing na bangus.  It's a sizeable piece so you won't miss the fact that you are not eating the entire fish.

Before I ordered the beef tapa, I asked the waiter if it was sweet and he assured me that it was not.  The beef is shredded and fried till almost crisp.   I like the soy-vinegar-pepper mix that it must have been marinated in. 

One Monday, I tried the American breakfast -- bacon, two eggs, homemade mango jam and slices of their toasted brioche bread.  I regret not telling the kitchen that I like my bacon soft but if you like your bacon well done then you should order this.

How about Conti's version of Eggs Benedict?  These are two poached eggs on top of creamed spinach on a buttered and toasted brioche slice.  A creamy cheesy sauce completes the dish.  
This is more of a brunch item, I guess. I found it a bit too rich for an early morning meal.

When you visit Conti's at 7 a.m, you can only order the breakfast and sandwich items on the menu.  I did have their very filling Clubhouse sandwich where the bread was lightly buttered, dipped in egg then fried.  I couldn't finish this and had the rest of it for lunch making it a very economical choice -- two meals for the price of one!  
By the way, the shoestring potatoes were crisp,  hand cut and freshly fried -- better than any canned variety!

Since I was showing up every Monday like clockwork, the early morning crew knew me well enough.  The waitstaff would always have welcoming smiles when I walked through the door.  
One morning, the waiter asked me to try their new sandwich offering ... barbecued chicken with bacon on brioche bread.  
Conti's sandwiches are better for bigger appetites, I could only finish half.

It's back to rice meals for me!  The pork tocino is thankfully not a bright red or pink.  The pork slices were fork tender and the sweetish glaze reminded me of  teriyaki sauce.

Yes dear reader, this post is an (almost) complete list  of Conti's breakfast menu.  The only dish I have not  ordered is their Bangus Belly Adobo simply because I do not eat bangus belly.
The photo above shows Conti's Batangas pork adobo -- chunks of meltingly good pork belly cooked with atsuete, garlic and vinegar. My father used to make this but he called it adobong pula.  
Conti's version is almost as good as his. 

For a sweet ending to breakfast, you can order any of Conti's signature cakes.  My particular favourite is the mango torte -- light, not too sweet and fragrant with the scent of ripe golden mangoes. 
It puts a smile on my face and I'm ready to face Monday and the week ahead!

A solo saunter through Shosei-en Garden, Kyoto

A warm sunny day may not be the best time to visit a traditional Japanese garden -- it's certainly not going to be a shady walk through the woods.  On this trip,  I found myself in the Kyoto station area with about an hour to spare before lunch so I decided to visit the Shosei-en Garden.

The garden is about a fifteen minute walk from the station.  With Kyoto Tower looming behind me, 
I turned off into one of the side streets that would take me to Shosei-en.

The entrance to  Shosei-en is through the Nishi-mon or the western gate.  The garden is open from 
9 in the morning till 4 in the afternoon.  While entrance is free, you are subtly invited to make a "donation"  -- 500 yen will give you a  glossy full colour magazine with photos and articles about Shosei-en.  It is definitely worth more than 500 yen!

Shosei-en was built in the 17th century for  the Abbot of Higashi Hongan-ji, a major Buddhist temple.  Designed by Ishikawa Jozan, it was intended not just as a residence but as a stroll garden as well.  It isn't a very big garden, as shown by the map above but it has many of the elements of the traditional Japanese garden.

Since I had barely an hour to spare, I thought I would breeze in and out of the garden.  
Take a few photos and leave.   But as I was walking in I was stopped dead in my tracks by this small green turtle crossing my path.  If I hadn't looked down at the right moment,  he would have been crushed underfoot.
I took it as a sign and decided that perhaps he was sent to tell me to relax,  slow down and enjoy 
the beauty of Shosei-en.

My first glimpse inside the garden was this serene pond, filled with koi and bordered by two wooden viewing pavilions called Rinchi-tei and Tekisui-ken.   The still shallow waters are a vivid green, reflecting all the shrubbery and trees around the pond. 
Can you see the stone lantern partially covered by the trees? There is a waterfall beside it that just completes this lovely scene.  I can imagine just how peaceful it must have been to sit on these decks and contemplate all this beauty.

A short walk away is this unusual two story building.  There are two wooden staircases on each side, leading up to the second floor.   This is the Boka-kaku which was built as a ceremonial gate.  
Cherry trees surround it making it a popular sakura viewing spot during spring.
Boka-kaku and the other buildings in Shosei-en were painstakingly reconstructed in the late 19th century as the original structures were destroyed by fire and wars.  

The biggest and perhaps the major feature of the garden is this large pond. 
Called Ingetsu-chi,  it covers more than 20% of the grounds.  The booklet given at the entrance states that this is an ideal spot to view the full moon, which on a clear cloudless night is reflected perfectly on the water.  
Unfortunately, a couple of tall buildings, electric wires and even a tall crane mar the daytime view.  

Because it is summer, lotus pads have proliferated on the pond's surface.  At the very end is Sochinkyo,  where tea ceremonies were held during the Abbot's day.  

As I lingered by the pond's edge, I saw this exquisite lotus flower.  Kobo Daishi's teaching 
came quickly to mind -- even in the mud, beauty can bloom. 

Taking the cue from my friend, the turtle, I walked quietly and slowly through Shosei-en, seeking out shaded cool paths that offered some relief from the bright noonday sun. I crossed  a  small stone bridge that connects two areas of the garden -- the west and north side.

In this lush sylvan setting, I forget that I am in the middle of Kyoto.  There was no one else around, no busloads of tourists -- I have Shosei-en all to myself on this splendid summer day.

On the north side of the garden is Kaitoro, a covered wooden bridge that spans part of Ingetsu-chi pond. 

I trod gingerly and carefully on the bridge's wooden boards.  At the very end are stone steps leading to Shukuen-tei, another small tea ceremony house.  I sat for quite some time here in Kaitoro, thinking of nothing but just being completely present in this moment. 

The sun was high above the sky as I headed back to the exit -- back to the bustle and crowds of Kyoto.  I felt almost reluctant to take the next steps that would lead me out of the garden.

I looked for my friend the turtle and found him cooling off in the shade.   I just knew he would be waiting for me.  I whispered a quick thank you for his priceless gift of a tranquil solitary hour,
all by myself in Shosei-en

N.B Details about Shosei-en were taken from the booklet that you are given when you make a 500 yen donation.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A Summer afternoon at Kyoto's Kitano Tenmangu Flea Market

The flea market at the Kitano Tenmangu shrine in Kyoto is held every 25th of the month, spring thru winter, rain or shine.  It's one of my favourite places to shop and I usually try to schedule my trips to include a visit to the market. 

On this trip, we opted to go after lunch avoiding the normally thick morning crowd.  
While the early shoppers would have snagged good buys, there are so many vendors and a variety 
of merchandise that you will not run out of unique and interesting finds.  And of course, as it gets nearer to closing time, most of the vendors are willing to give bigger discounts.

The huge stone lanterns lining the path are almost obscured by the many stalls.  At the very end, you can see the second torii that stands just before the impressive romon, the wooden two storey gate built in the 16th century.

You will never go hungry at the flea market.  There are numerous stalls selling all kinds of food and snacks.  Like these giant sweet potato fries that look so crisp and inviting.

The tantalising smells of this yakisoba stall waft through the market practically seizing you by the nose and inviting you to dig in. 

Want to eat as you walk?  While munching while walking is not really done in Japan, you could probably be forgiven if you could not resist this roasted sweet corn on the cob.  

These farmers were selling their homegrown yuzu and were even giving passers by free sips of fresh squeezed juice.  

I made a beeline for my favourite stall at the market. Since I can't read Japanese, I like to call him Bacon Man.   This guy sells rice wrapped in bacon, roasted with a teriyaki style sauce then slathered with your choice of topping.  It's chock full of umami deliciousness not to mention, fat and some cholesterol too. 

There are an assortment of stuff -- one man's junk could be your treasure.  Those hand sewn bags made of old obi are good buys.  Or how about some english style tea cups?  

I much prefer the Japanese style ceramics.  There are many sellers that have both brand new and previously used wares.  I find that the vintage used bowls and cups are more to my liking.

I am always happy to see these pre-loved obi and coats.   Some can be had for as low as 500 yen.  The more elaborate and luxurious ones can sell for so much more.  But Jay reminds me that I have bins full of these at home so I have to regretfully walk away.

This is the intricately carved, beautiful wooden gate, the romon.  The Kitano Tenmangu is popular with students who visit to pray for success in their exams and studies so it's not surprising to see young people in their school uniforms at the shrine. 

The flea market is so big, with hundreds of vendors, that the stalls spill out on the side streets surrounding the shrine.  Don't forget to explore and walk around or you might miss that one thing you were meant to buy.

I thought these wooden black boxes were so interesting, particularly the lacquer one in the foreground.  

There are more pre-loved yukatas or casual kimonos which are perfect for summer wear.  
Can you believe that these sell for just 500 yen each?

If you thought that 500 yen was a good deal, this stall offers everything you can pack in a big plastic bag for 3,000 yen (or in a small bag for 1,500 yen).  And yes, shoppers were stuffing their bags to overflowing.  It was an amazing bargain but Jay was making strangling noises behind me so I had to tear myself away.  

How about some antique cameras?  I am sure they don't work but would make nice souvenirs for a photography buff. 

Every time I go to a flea market, there is always an item or two that I like to call "the one/s that got away".  This time it was these old wooden lamps, on the top right of this photo.    
They were so unique and obviously handmade but so big and quite heavy.  They would never have fit in my suitcase or in my carry-on.

It was late afternoon and  most of the vendors had started to put their wares  away -- to be kept and stored until the next month.  
If you're planning a trip to Kyoto ....  try to be here on the 25th so you can delight in the many pleasures and treasures of the Kitano Tenmangu flea market. 



Jay and I didn't walk out empty handed.  Our favourite purchases were these light woven hats ... just perfect for walking around sunny, summery Kyoto!


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

I died and went to Whisky Heaven : The Yamazaki Distillery Tour

Friends know my predilection for beer but few know that whisky is my secret sin.
Both drinks share  basic ingredients and are even distilled in a similar fashion.
I can drink any kind of beer but for whisky,  I prefer blended whisky which better suits my
proletarian tastes and budgets.
My favourite used to be Johnnie Walker Black (unsophisticated and uncool as that may be) but a
few years ago, I discovered the pleasurable taste of Japanese whisky, specifically Suntory's Hibiki Japanese Harmony.
While I love it a little bit more than old Johnnie,  Hibiki costs more than three times as much ... reason enough to drink it sparingly.
On my trips to Kyoto, I noticed that our train would pass by Suntory's Yamazaki Distillery.
A bit of research yielded the information that the whisky distillery was open to the public through regularly conducted plant tours.  

It took me many trips back to Kyoto  before I finally got around to reserving a spot on the Yamazaki Distillery Plant tour .  Reservations are done online and are essential, you cannot just show up.  
It's easy to get to the distillery, you can take the JR line from Kyoto station or the Hankyu Express Line from Kawaramachi station.

From Kawaramachi station, it's a 30 minute ride to Oyamazaki, the town nearest to the distillery.  Oyamazaki is almost at the centre between Osaka and Kyoto and therefore convenient from either destination.

A large poster greets us as we exit  -- don't worry about getting lost, the 15  minute walk to the distillery is pretty much a straight path from the station.

Along the way, we were surprised to see a sign for the Asahi Beer Museum of Art.  It would have been a good  place to visit but we were afraid we would miss our 11 a.m. reservation for the distillery plant tour.  
The museum is a good reason to visit Oyamazaki again on the next trip to Kyoto.

There are a number of temples in the area but most of them are in the mountainside surrounding the town.  We did get to pass by and visit the Rikyu Hachiman-gu, a shrine along the way to the distillery.

A plain stone torii stands in front of the hondo or main hall.   The shrine was established by the Emperor in 859 but the original buildings have since been destroyed.  The shrine has also lost most of its land area due to the development of the town around it and today it stands on a much smaller property.

In the grounds is a statue of this shrine priest  who discovered how to make egoma oil from the perilla leaf. 

The priest invented this device made of wood and bamboo which could press oil from the leaves.   The oil was then used to light lamps.  For quite a time, the shrine had an "exclusive" right to sell the egoma oil.

From the shrine, we followed the narrow two lane street lined with houses, small stores and cafes. Oyamazaki seems to be primarily a residential area.  Pretty soon, we could see the distillery up ahead framed by mists that partially obscured  the mountain behind it, Mt. Ten-no.

To get to the Yamazaki Distillery, you need to cross the wide train tracks.  As long as you are not inebriated, you will definitely not get run over by a speeding train!

This large pot distiller is the first thing that greets you as you enter the distillery.

The reception area is conveniently located just by the gate.  If you have booked a tour, you pay the (extremely reasonable) 1,000 yen fee here.  If you have not booked a tour, you can just visit their museum and cozy up the the excellent tasting bar where you can imbibe the whisky of your choice -- for a fee of course.

Visitors and tour participants enter through the Museum, which is housed in a building that probably dates back to when the distillery was founded, in 1923. 

You enter through the left of the stairs where you can watch an audio visual presentation showcasing the history of Yamazaki Distillery and the whisky that it produces.

I did not know that Yamazaki is the oldest distillery in Japan.  This is where Japanese malt whisky started and where its story continues today. 

This is Shinjiro Torii, founder of Yamazaki Distillery.  He started out producing and selling western types of wine to suit Japanese palates but in 1923 he made the bold move to create a malt whisky using the local spring waters found here, in Yamazaki Gorge.  

The area around the distillery is mountainous and cool -- Shinjiro Torii thought it was the ideal environment for the creation of fine whisky.  Aside from the ingredients,  air and water quality are essential in producing top quality malt whisky.

After the walking around the museum, we ended up staring at rows and rows of Suntory's many whisky blends.  The display seemed to go on forever and all I could do was just walk through in fascination.  Yes, I had died and gone to whisky heaven!  

An open "barrel" stands in the middle of the room where you can see the bottles of the best whiskies in  the world, not just Suntory's.

Our guided tour was about to start so we headed for the second floor.   In the middle is a display showing the entire process of whisky distillation -- from the raw ingredients to the finished product. 

The tour is conducted in Nihongo but for the few non Japanese like Jay and myself,  we were each given audio guides for english translations of the tour.  

The Yamazaki Distillery Tour is the visitor's chance to enter areas that would normally be closed to the public.
The tour takes you through the actual working distillery,  it is not just a demonstration or lecture in a small room.  We walked through the various areas involved in the distillery's day to day operations.
This room is where the grains are mashed with hot water in this huge vessel called a mash tun. 

Mashing extracts the wort which is what goes into fermentation.  Yeast is added to the wort which will produce alcohol.  These huge wooden barrels are where fermentation takes place.

An employee goes about his daily task, taking no mind of the tour that passes through.  He is in the distillation area and these large copper vessels are called pot distillers.
The wash, which is the result of fermentation, goes into these copper distillers for the final process. The shape of these copper vessels are actually essential to adding taste and refinement to the whisky.

After the wash has been distilled, there is another vital process -- ageing.   Whiskies  are matured in oak barrels for at least three years. Our guide ushers us into the cool dark depths of the Yamazaki warehouse where the ageing takes place.

The cavernous warehouse is dimly lit, it takes my eyes a while to adjust to the gloom.  When I do get my bearings, I see rows and rows of barrels stacked on racks -- these are Yamazaki's various whisky blends and single malts, all being aged and matured to perfection.

The barrels are all properly marked  -- these pure malt whiskies from 2009 may still be considered "young", after all they are only eight years old.
Our guide mentioned that while all the barrels look alike the wood used is not always the same.  Different types of oak are used which affects the taste of the whisky.  There is European, American and Japanese oak.  Some barrels have been previously used to store wine and again, that would add a different note to the whisky's taste. 

Our guide points out the original barrel from the first batch produced in 1923.  There is no whisky inside but it does serve as a reminder that Yamazaki is the pioneer and still the leader in the Japanese whisky industry. 

The barrels seem to go on endlessly -- row after long row of the finest whiskies all waiting for the right time to be bottled and enjoyed.  Larcenous thoughts go through my brain, could I roll one out of the place and how many days would I have to spend in jail if I did so?

From the shadowy interiors of the warehouse, we stepped outside into this sylvan setting -- a bubbling spring, trees, plants, moss and fresh clean mountain air.  
This natural environment is why Shinjiro Torii, chose Yamazaki as the place where he would create Japan's first whisky. 
Torii san knew that the most important ingredients of a fine whisky are the water, the grain and the yeast.  
The natural spring of Yamazaki Gorge is what makes Yamazaki whisky one of the best whiskies in the world.

One does not enjoy the bounty of Nature's goodness without giving thanks.  A plain torii adorned with shimenawa marks the entrance to a shrine within Yamazaki's grounds, carefully tended and cared for by the distillery but visited and used by the people in the community.

It is almost the end of the tour and our guide smilingly says that we are about to enjoy the best part of the afternoon.  She leads us into a modern hall where we are to sample the various blends produced in Yamazaki.  The proof of the distilling is in the drinking!

Everyone in the group is over 21, the legal age for drinking in Japan.  We have also signed forms that state that we are not driving back after the tour.  The distillery is very careful about the safety of its guests.
Tables for two and four people are neatly arranged and each one of us has a tray with several glasses of different whiskies for us to try.

It's all I can do to just dive in!  But first, we have to listen to our guide who schools us on the proper ways of enjoying Suntory whisky. 

Each glass contains a shot of a different whisky.  The glasses have been carefully covered so that the aroma does not escape.  On the leftmost is whisky that has been aged in a white oak barrel, the second glass from the left is whisky that has been aged in a wine cask.  The third and fourth contain single malt whiskies but the last glass has a note that says "to be enjoyed the way you like".  
I can't wait to start tasting!

The first step to enjoying your fine single malt is to look at the amber colour and appreciate the rich golden hue.

Next, bring the glass closer to your nose and sniff the wonderful aroma that only a fine single malt whisky can deliver.

I enjoyed the three glasses neat -- just as we were instructed.  They were all refined, with variations in the tasting notes.  I particularly enjoyed the whisky aged in vintage wine casks as it had a hint of fruity and sweet flavours.
For our last glass, we were taught the fine points on how to prepare the quintessential Japanese highball, a cocktail made of whisky and soda water.  Yamazaki also bottles a premium soda which is the perfect pair to their fine single malt whiskies.
The highball was refreshing and so easy to drink.  I could have sat there and had another one and perhaps another one ....

Jay is a teetotaller as he is allergic to alcohol but even he could not resist a few sips of the excellent whiskies.  He enjoyed it just as much as I did.

After the tasting session (where I reluctantly pried myself away from the table)  it was time to visit the small but excellent gift shop.   You can buy all sorts of whisky paraphernalia and souvenirs and if you wish,  take home a bottle or two of Yamazaki's different brands. 

I wanted to buy a bottle of Hibiki, Yamazaki's blended whisky and my favourite. However, it only came in the very large size so I ended up with a smaller bottle of single malt whisky. I guess I will have to learn to love drinking single malt.

Thank you to the wonderful folks at Yamazaki Distillery for an interesting and informative tour.
This is one experience well worth doing -- don't miss it the next time you are in Kyoto or Osaka
You can reserve your slot online but do so weeks in advance as the tours are small and fill up easily.
You can do that on their web page


Back home, I put my highball skills to the test with my new bottle of Suntory's Hakushu Single Malt.  Here's the recipe ... 1 part whisky to 3 parts soda water.  Fill up your glass with ice before you pour the whisky and then add the soda water.   Stir once and enjoy.