Sunday, November 30, 2008

Batanes: Undiscovered paradise up north

Batanes is uncharted territory to many. But this remote province can provide the most romantic of backdrops for any vacation. As the 32-seater SEAIR Dornier plane we were on broke through the clouds as we made our descent, the islands of Batanes beckoned. We were making our way to a land literally detached from the Philippines; but with distinct Filipino charm and hospitality.

It was unusually sunny after several days of rain. And Mt. Iraya was clearly visible when we touched down at the airport. We booked our hotel in advance to make sure we got picked-up at the airport.

As soon as we settled down, we arranged tours of Basco and the rest of Batan Island at the hotel counter. You can rent a van for yourself but we opted to share expenses with other guests of the hotel who wanted the same tour. It can save you a lot since there’s lots of room in the van anyway.

The itinerary for the morning was a tour of the provincial capital Basco which took us to places like Rolling Hills, the Naidi Hill Lighthouse, the town proper and Valugan Beach.

Rolling Hills was picturesque and the winds were strong and refreshing. You’d see cows grazing along the steep slopes, which is an iconic image of Batanes.

Many people actually think that the lighthouse in Naidi Hill and several others date back to the colonial period. But they are actually of recent construction, part of a project of former Batanes congressman Butch Abad. From the top of the lighthouse, we were afforded a bird’s-eye view of Basco and the fishing activities down at the coast.

In Basco town, we got to visit the cathedral and the colonial period provincial capitol building. Batanes churches actually have a distinct look which reminds me of colonial mission churches in the Americas.

We made one last stop at Valugan Beach, which is actually composed of large boulders and not sand, but with a breathtaking view nonetheless. Lunch was at the hotel before we proceeding to visit more of Batan Island.

Part 2: Marlboro Country, Mahatao Church and more from Batan Island
Part 3: Batanes stone houses in Savidug and Chavayan, Nakabuang Beach and more from Sabtang Island
Part 4: Batanes hotels and restaurants plus exploring Batanes by bike

Monday, November 17, 2008

Japan: Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, Japan

The Shinkansen, more popularly known as the bullet train, is a network of high-speed railway lines of Japan. It was quite exciting that we were taking the Shinkansen to Kyoto. We could have opted for the much cheaper and longer bus ride. But the group was after convenience and the experience. Sadly though, we didn't get to see Mt. Fuji and much of the scenery since it was dark by the time we passed by.

One can purchase Shinkansen tickets from most stations. In fact, we bought ours at the airport station. The ticket for a reserved seat from Tokyo to Kyoto was ¥13320. We had to rush to the Tokyo Station to catch our train since we didn't give much time for allowance. Don't do that in Japan since everything is on time all the time.

Navigating through the station was a bit complicated because of the massive network of trains which passes through it. And you sure can get lost! Just ask around for the Shinkansen and people can point you towards the right way. If you have communication problems, just show your ticket when asking for help.

We finally found the Shinkansen area, the right platform, and the boarding area for the particular cabin we had the board. Unless you are holding a non-reserved ticket (meaning you can board just any time), make sure to check the time of your train because you might board the wrong one. Trains are so efficient, they arrive at the station a minute or two before the scheduled departure and leave on the dot. Anyway, seats are very comfortable and we were in Kyoto in no time.

If you are taking more than one trip on the shinkansen, it might already be cheaper to get the 7-day pass even if you're not staying for seven days. The ordinary 7-day pass is ¥28,300. There is also a 14-day pass (¥45,100) and 21-day pass (¥57,700).

The multiple-day passes are actually cool since you just hop-on and hop-off the Shinkansen which depart from most stations so frequently, you need not worry if there are enough seats. And because of the speed of the trains (up to 300 kph), you get to various parts of Japan in no time. That would have been really fun if we had a longer stay.

Japan: Sensō-ji Temple in the Asakusa District (Taitō, Tokyo)

Asakusa, for most part of the 20th century, was the major entertainment district of Tokyo. Today however, other colorful districts such as Shinjuku have taken over. We trooped to Asakusa to visit the famous Sensoji Temple, said to be the oldest in Tokyo. We went straight there after we checked out from the youth hostel which was just a station or two away.

Sensoji Temple is dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon, more popularly known Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. The entrance to the temple is called the Kaminarimon or "Thunder Gate." On the gate is a massive paper lantern painted in vivid red-and-black tones suggesting thunderclouds and lightning. It's a very popular and important temple obviously gauging from the crowds we saw there.

After the gate is a long row of souvenir shops. The street is called the Nakamise-dori where one can find a great selection of souvenir items and food. I enjoyed the many snack items on sale and bought some for tasting. These shops themselves are part of the heritage of the area having sold to pilgrims who walked to Senso-ji since the 18th century. The street is about 250 meters and has close to 90 shops.

After walking around the temple grounds, we had a late lunch at one of those vendo restaurants. You selected and paid for your food through a vendo machine and gave the printed out ticket to the staff who serve as both cooks and waiters. It's efficient really and it keeps costs down since minimal manpower is needed to run the place.

Anyway, after lunch, we proceeded back to the youth hostel to get our luggage. Several of us were going back to Manila. While others were taking the 4 p.m. Shinkansen to Kyoto.

Part 1: Konichiwa from Tokyo, Japan!
Part 2: Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan
Part 3: Tokyo is a candidate city for the 2016 Olympics

Japan: Tokyo is a candidate city for the 2016 Olympics

Who could imagine that I'd get to visit three of the four candidate cities of the 2016 Summer Olympics this year? I was in Madrid, Spain in April and May. In June, I got to visit Chicago, USA. Now I'm in Tokyo, Japan. If Tokyo wins, it will be the second time the city will host the Summer Olympics.

The selling point of Tokyo is that it will be "the most compact and efficient Olympic Games ever." And I wouldn't be surprised, if given the chance, that they'll pull it off! So the countdown to October 2009 begins when the IOC will announce the winning bid!

Part 1: Konichiwa from Tokyo, Japan!
Part 2: Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan
Part 4: Sensō-ji Temple in the Asakusa District (Taitō, Tokyo)

Japan: Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan

Talk about waking up early to see a fish market! The Tsukuji Fish Market is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. So don't be surprised if this fish market has become a big tourist attraction. We had wanted to see the world-famous Tsukiji fish auctions but we learned they stopped allowing tourists at the auctions early this year due to health concerns and to avoid any disruptions in operations and other trading activities.

Besides, we could not leave the youth hostel we were staying at before 6 a.m. since they had a curfew. Doors were locked from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. After the conference, we vacated our five star hotel (sigh!) and transferred to the Sumidagawa Youth Hostel on the opposite side of town. A bed here was ¥3600 a night. But members of Hostelling International get a ¥600 discount.

Anyway, we were out of the hostel a little past 6 a.m. If you're going around Tokyo for a day, it would be convenient to get the one day subway ticket which is ¥710. If you want to include the JR Line in your day pass, you'll have to shell out a little bit more. From the Asakusabashi Station, we were at the Tsukiji Station in no time.

The main market of Tsukiji is about a kilometer from the subway station. On the way to the inner market, you'll pass by Tsukiji's outer market filled with wholesale and retail shops that sell seafood and other food items, kitchen tools, and restaurant supplies, and restaurants that sell sushi and other Japanese delights. You'll have to come early since shops in the outer market are closed by the afternoon, and those in the inner market even earlier!

At Tsukiji, the first thing that greeted us was the constant traffic of forklifts and small vehicles moving about. The scene looked like it was pulled out of a Star Wars movie! We walked about enjoying the different seafood on sale. The fish market is said to handle more than 400 different types of seafood from tiny sardines to 300-kilogram tuna, from cheap seaweed to the most expensive caviar!

After exploring a good part of Tsukiji, we heard our stomachs rumble and it was time for breakfast. On the menu was sushi of course! We got ourselves some breakfast sushi boats which range from ¥1000 to ¥2000 each. After that sumptuous seafood feast, we made our way back to the youth hostel to catch up on sleep before our 10 a.m. checkout.

Part 1: Konichiwa from Tokyo, Japan!
Part 3: Tokyo is a candidate city for the 2016 Olympics
Part 4: Sensō-ji Temple in the Asakusa District (Taitō, Tokyo)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Japan: Konichiwa from Tokyo, Japan!

I found myself out of the country again. This time I was back in Tokyo, Japan to attend the Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit 2008 at the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Chinzan-So. According to the Asia Society, "The Summit brings together some 200 of the most dynamic next generation leaders from the Asia-Pacific and the US to explore imaginative ways to address the most critical issues facing the Asia-Pacific community today, develop common approaches to addressing these shared challenges, and cultivate the long-term relationships necessary for developing responses." Every year, ten young Filipino leaders from various sectors get to participate in the program.

Our schedule was really hectic. In fact, we only had an hour or two to rest the day we arrived before the Welcome Dinner in the evening. Of course, we had a sake toast to open the summit! Before calling it a day, I joined the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

The next day was the summit proper. So we were in the hotel most of the time. Even breakfast and lunch were working meals! The highlight of the day was a dinner reception at the 52nd floor of the Mori Tower hosted by Mrs. Yoshiko Mori. The 52nd floor is home to the Tokyo City View and the Mori Art Museum. We were afforded great views of Tokyo at night!

After the reception, we were treated to karaoke and drinks at L Garden. We didn't stay up too late since we still had an other summit day.

Here are photos from the trip:
2008-11-14/15 Tokyo, Japan
2008-11-16/17 Tokyo, Japan
2008-11-18 Kyoto, Japan
2008-11-19 Nara, Japan
2008-11-20 Nagoya, Japan

Part 2: Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan
Part 3: Tokyo is a candidate city for the 2016 Olympics
Part 4: Sensō-ji Temple in the Asakusa District (Taitō, Tokyo)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Zamboanga: Zamboanga City's colorful heritage

One thing I get to enjoy attending all these out-of-town conferences is that I get to explore the place after. So before flying back to Manila, we made sure to visit (revisit in some cases) the different cultural attractions of Zamboanga City. The cultural fabric of Asia's Latin City is evindently intact and one call definitely feel Zambaonga's spirit of place as we went around the city.

After visiting a Gabaldon school building restored by the City Government of Zamboanga, we visited the Western Mindanao State University where an outstanding example of a building designed by Juan Arellano stands. It is arguably one of the best Arellano buildings in the country. And it's silently stands in the heart of Zamboanga City!

As Archt. Toti Villalon mentions in his column, "More outstanding than anything I saw in Zamboanga is the main building of Western Mindanao State University. An undiscovered gem of American colonial architecture from the early 20th century, it is a wonderful example of Beaux Arts favored by the American colonial government, which was adapted to tropical conditions with large window openings, high ceilings with floor-through interior ventilation and excellent architectural craftsmanship in its moldings, doors and wrought-iron grillwork."

We also dropped by the local hospital which was of the hospital pavilion layout that was popular during the American colonial period, the PGH design that became the standard for American hospitals in tropical areas.

From there, we proceeded to Plaza Pershing. We requested Mayor Lobregat to keep the grass and avoid placing pavers since the park is a fine example of public parks during the American colonial period.

From there we walked to Zamboanga City Hall. Our guide, at the request of the mayor, treated us to his rendition of Rizal's El Ultimo Adios right in front of the Rizal Monument.

After a tour of city hall, our group proceeded to Fort Pilar, which is a national cultural treasure, before proceeding to the Barter Market to do some shopping.

The Barter Market is a great place to get textiles both local and imported. It's a good place to buy batik and Arafat scarves (if you bargain well, you can get one for PHP75 or even lower). In fact, you'll see a good number of Malaysian and Indonesian products such as instant noodles, candies and other items.

Our last stop for the morning was the Yakan Weaving Village where one could purchase fine examples of Yakan woven products. Also available there are banig from Sulu and other woven items from the nearby Muslim provinces. If you're lucky, you can watch the women weave cloth.

For lunch, we proceeded to a Malaysian mamak in Zamboanga! It was among my favorite eating places the last time I was in Zamboanga and I made sure we stopped at Tini's before going home. As always, I ordered roti telur and murtabak. But I think the curry sauce in Malaysia is still best.

In the afternoon, we visited the Gabaldon school in the Mercedes District and the Taluksangay Mosque. The school is intact but the mosque is not. In just two years, the historical fabric of the mosque had been destroyed by unguided renovations. There was a really nice view of the mosque from the river. But that image is now gone with the roof they placed to cover the entire grounds of the mosque. Sad to say, the mosque had a marker of the NHI. I wonder how it got renovated.

Part 1: Another Zamboanga City adventure
Part 2: Seafood in Zamboanga City at Alavar's Restaurant

Related posts
Hola Zamboanga!

Sta. Cruz Island and its pink sand

Off the beaten track in Basilan

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Zamboanga: Seafood in Zamboanga City at Alavar's Restaurant

I'm not a seafood person but I know for a fact that Zamboanga City takes pride in its seafood restaurants. I've always heard about Alavar's Restaurant and it was great that Mayor Celso Lobregat decided to host dinner for us there.

They served us so much! One of their best sellers would be the curacha with Alavar's sauce (curacha con salsa Alavar's). Curacha is a species of crab abundant in Zamboanga waters.

I particularly enjoyed the grilled imbao with garlic and butter and the seafood paella. But since I am not a seafood person, I was content with the crispy pata and found myself stuffed to the brim.

Alavar's Restaurant
Don Alfaro Street, Tetuan, Zamboanga City

Part 1: Another Zamboanga City adventure
Part 3: Zamboanga City's colorful heritage

Related posts
Hola Zamboanga!

Sta. Cruz Island and its pink sand

Off the beaten track in Basilan

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Zamboanga: Another Zamboanga City adventure

I was in Zamboanga City again to attend the 3rd Philippine Towns & Cities Conference organized by the Heritage Conservation Society. I had actually arrived two days before but decided to make a side trip to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi since SEAIR conveniently flies there (the fast craft would take several hours). The conference was at the Garden Orchid Hotel which was quite close to the airport. Tired from the trip, I decided to rest the whole afternoon.

The program began in the evening with a Welcome Reception hosted by the City Government of Zamboanga. Indeed, it was a fitting welcome to Asia's Latin City. A choir serenaded us with songs in Spanish and the local Chavacano reminding us that Zamboanga City is a living manifestation of Spanish cultural influences in the Philippines.

After the reception, our gracious host, Mayor Celso Lobregat, took us the the Fort Pilar Shrine since he said it was nice there in the evening. The Fort Pilar Shrine is an open-air church on one side of the fort. There were still a good number of devotees there lighting candles by one of the walls of the fort.

Mayor Lobregat was very generous and he bought us several candles from the vendors. After going around the shrine, we chanced upon a vendor selling the local crispy wafers and he bought everything and gave one to anyone and everyone he saw there, our group included.

We made one last stop in Climaco corner Lim Avenue since Mayor Lobregat wanted to show us an unusual phenomenon that happens in the area in the evening. Perched on the electric wires covering several blocks were thousands of birds nearly equidistant from each other. He said it happens every night. They arrive at a certain time when the sun sets and leave at the same time during the sunrise.

I was the first to wake up the next morning since I wanted to get myself a serving of Zamboanga City's morning dish, satti! Similar to the traditional Malay satay, satti is native to the Moro people of Mindanao. In Zamboanga, these are small pieces of beef roasted in a skewer. The sticks of satti are served submerged in a bowl of sweet and spicy sauce with puso or ta'mu also in a bowl of the same sauce. Puso is basically the Malay ketupat, rice that is cooked inside a palm leaf pouch.

Anyway, after that hearty breakfast, I had to rush back to the hotel to get ready for the conference since I was the master of ceremonies today.

Part 2: Seafood in Zamboanga City at Alavar's Restaurant
Part 3: Zamboanga City's colorful heritage

Related posts
Hola Zamboanga!

Sta. Cruz Island and its pink sand

Off the beaten track in Basilan

Friday, November 07, 2008

Tawi-Tawi: Overnight in Bongao

Tawi-Tawi is the southernmost province of the Philippines. Although the impression is that it is unsafe, that is far from the truth since Tawi-Tawi is a relatively peaceful place. I was told that it has wonderful white sand beaches and rich cultural communities. So I decided to check it out even just for two days.

I was in Zamboanga City to attend a conference so I decided to fly over and found myself on a SEAIR flight to Bongao. The flight took a little over an hour and I was in Bongao in no time. As soon as I arrived, I went to my brod's place to get some rest first. I hadn't had any sleep the night before so I decided to start exploring after lunch.

There are a lot of places to stay in Bongao but one of the better lodges is Beachside Inn where I decided to have lunch. Accomodations start at PHP900 for air-conditioned rooms. There's nothing much to see in Bongao and you could easily cover it in a day.

A friend took me around to the different areas of interest including some beaches, the Tawi-Tawi Provincial Capitol which is on top of a hill, offering a great panoramic view of Bongao and beyond, and the market area where you'll see a lot of seaweed being dried up (seaweed is a major product of Tawi-Tawi).

I wish I had an extra day so that I could have taken a ferry boat to Simunul, the neighboring island, which hosts the oldest mosque in the country, the Sheik Karimal Makdum Mosque, and some of the best beaches of Tawi-Tawi. You'll have to stay overnight at least though so you'll need some friends there if you want to visit the place. But you haven't been to Tawi-Tawi if you haven't visited Simunul!

Sitangkai, called the Venice of the Orient, is another option but that would take a longer ferry ride. And I heard the waves are rough. So be ready for a real adventure!

The next day, I had to catch my SEAIR flight back to Zamboanga City. On the way to Bongao Airport in Sanga-Sanga are great views of Bud Bongao. If you're into climbing mountains, trekking up Bud Bongao is a great option. Just don't forget to bring bananas for the monkeys.

At the airport, I had some local food at the nearby carinderia which included pastil, a fried empanada filled with bihon noodles, and sindol, which is the local ginataan (warm coconut milk dessert). It was really cheap! Anyway, the stay was too short to experience Tawi-Tawi. So I'm definitely going back to explore some more!

Beachside Inn & Restaurant
(068) 2681446

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Imang Salud ensaimadas are perfect Christmas presents!

Imang Salud ensaimadas and plantanillas (sweet egg crepes with latik filling) were recently featured in the November 2008 issue of Food Magazine as gift ideas for Christmas. The six-inch traditional Kapampangan ensaimadas are P165/box of 1, P320/box of 2, P480/box of 3 and P640/box of 4. While the plantanillas are P180/box of 12. They are available every Sunday at the Legazpi Sunday Market. Just look for the Imang Salud stall. Text (0920) 9478819 for orders or more information.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Laguna: Enchanted Kingdom celebrates Halloween too!

It's been years since I last visited Enchanted Kingdom. I remember our high school batch went there shortly after it opened on a science field trip to do physics experiments. It was funny seeing us with all those measuring instruments while on the rides. What I could not forget is the Jungle Log Jam since everyone splashed water at each other while on the logs (there was a joke circulating that everyone had to bring extra clothes) and we'd exit the ride literally drenched with water. During my freshman year in college, we brought our entire dorm there in UP's first official dorm field trip. Those were the days!

So when I found out about the extended Halloween activities, I made sure to bring my niece over to join in the fun. There was a costume parade late in the afternoon which she participated in. But before that, we went for the rides.

The first ride you see when you enter is the Grand Carousel. I could not remember the last time I rode a carousel. But it sure was fun. Haha! The place brought back a lot of memories since the rides we used to frequent were still there! It's a really great place to bring kids and kids at heart since who wouldn't enjoy the rides? I'm highly-recommending it for a family day trip every once in a while, perfect bonding with kids. Looks like we'll be in Enchanted Kingdom more often. It's closer to home than Hong Kong Disneyland. Here's their website for more information.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Boracay: Halloween in Boracay

I didn't realize Boracay was a really cool place to celebrate Halloween. The entire island was so into the celebration with hotels, restaurants and bars churning up the spookiest and coolest of decor and great Halloween events to boot. Many partygoers also came in the craziest costumes. There were really funny groups too like the "101 Dalmatians" hoping around the sands of Boracay.

I was with my cousins and I took them party-hopping tonight. SEAIR sponsored really cool parties including a concert at Pearl of the Pacific, a party at Hey Jude, and an event with Cinema One at Summer Place.
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