Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Day in Osaka

I was never one to think of Japan as a vacation destination. While an Asian neighbor, it is distant. I suppose it's because, the Japanese is a distinctive culture: it sets itself apart, but had a vision once - that there should be One Asia albeit through a Japanese way; whereas, my Filipino blood has ties with our Indonesian and Malaysian cousins.

Nevertheless, a plan, as far back as October of last year, has been hatched. This is the first part of our 3-city sojourn. And what an experience it has been.

The good things about planning a vacation months ahead are, first, one gets to buy cheaper airfare; second, you have extra time to save for that additional pocket money; and third, you have enough time to do a bit of research and plan your itinerary better. 

Thus, these are a few need to know:

- Japan is still new to its own tourism industry so they require most nationalities to enter the country with a visa. Check first if you need to apply for one.

- It is hard to be mobile within the country without a Japan Rail (JR) Pass. As a temporary visitor/tourist, it is required of you to buy it online beforehand. The ticket is delivered to your residence (so make sure you allot 5 working days at the latest before your flight out). Upon arrival at your first Japanese city, you will have to exchange your ticket for the JR Pass itself, which you can now use to travel via train, bullet train, the Tokyo monorail, bus or ship that carry the JR logo.

While the Pass does not apply to subway and taxi rides (unlike Hongkong's Octopus card), you will still save a ton on transportation expenses.

- Be sure to book your hotel/accommodations in advance, and have an itinerary in mind, especially if you will require a visa to travel. These are important facts to be supplied to the consulate.

Our ultimate destination was Tokyo, but dropping by Osaka even for just a day was a welcome introduction to Japan.

We arrived at Japan's second largest city (and among
the largest city in the world with 19 million residents) the night before our sight seeing. We settled ourselves in our accommodations located at the Namba-Shinsaibashi area, known as the restaurant bloc of Osaka.

(with Eric & Jaz of EricJazFoodies)

Although our hotel is in the more quiet part of the city, it was easy to find a place to have our dinner. Many all-nighters are open which offer home-style dishes such as beef gyudon with or without egg,

(gyudon with miso soup)

(gyudon with egg)

udon/soba noodles in salt or shoyu (pork) broth,

or you can go next door for curry rice meals.

(chicken curry)

(hamburg curry with egg)

(pork curry)

Most dining places are manned by just one person who prepares and serves the dishes to you. Payment is made via a vending machine where you get a ticket and present it to the dining staff. Not to worry, service is very efficient. You are served your meal in no time.

(vending payment machine with hammy daughter)

To start our visit the following day, Hotel Relief Namba, where we stayed, houses Hummingbird Cafe, which is very popular in Osaka for its pancake breakfast buffet, 

pancakes are cooked upon request, 

alongside with traditional Japanese breakfast of salad, cold noodles and bread (JPY1,000). 

But in case you are not in the mood for that, you are likely to be a regular at Family Mart, a very well-known convenience store and there's one every few meters or so in the city (also sprouting branches in Metro Manila actually). Sandwiches and onigiris are cheap breakfast alternatives for you.

(photo by I hunger on

A day in Osaka means we will only be able to experience two places. Thus, feeling very touristy, we proceeded to Osaka Castle.

What was once a monastery of the Joudoshinshu Buddhist sect, and later a castle built by Nobunada Oda who unified Japan, is now a museum that relates the history of Osaka from the Ishiyama Honganji Era (1496) to the Showa Period (1931). 

From the subway station, there is a long walk towards the castle as you pass through its gardens and park. Much of these areas are restorations since their destruction during the bombing raids of World War II. 

On the way to the castle, try out the street food scene. There's ice cream to cool you down.

A sampling of commercial takoyaki (JPY300), which are octopus balls that originated right here in Osaka.

Or try a Dango, glutinous rice balls, grilled and glazed with teriyaki sauce (JPY300). 

We especially liked the beef yakitori - big chunks of beef on skewers and plainly salted. The beef was very tender and melts in the mouth. 

Wow, the JPY700 price tag could give the best restaurants in the world a run for their money.

At the Castle, the museum entrance fee is JPY600. 

(brother and sister in law in character)

Aside from admiring the many well-preserved samurai armour and weapons, and documents crafted during Osaka's turbulent history, have a bit of fun in posing for pictures wearing the Kimono or different Samurai attires (cough up another JPY600/person/costume).

Most of our morning was spent well at this site. For lunch, Osaka's train/subway stations offer the ubiquitous soba/udon meal. Take your pick and eat at the bar standing (around JPY500). 

For a cool spring day, it is quite a pick'er-upper.

(soba noodles with chicken, beef & fishcake)

A stay in Osaka will not be complete without going to Dotonbori Street, and its surrounds which make up the bustling shopping district of the city. You'll know when you've reached it when you see the Glico Man, the big crab logo of Kani-Doraku, and the Shochiku-za Theatre, the only remaining clue of the active participation of the performing arts in the city.

Here we got a real taste of the Takoyaki,

a quiet interlude in a ramen bar,

(shoyu ramen with duck egg in salt broth)

and after all that walking that led us to the Dotombori canal, another pit stop at a watering hole for some beer, and edamame, as the boats of the Tombori River Cruise pass by.

As our visit in this colourful, vibrant city comes to an end, what better way to cap the day off than a stop at another watering hole, (keep your eyes open for small ones), that serves Osaka yakitori - which means the skewered morsels here are all breaded and deep-fried, from baby tomatoes, to mushrooms, to chicken and pork belly. (Note: Follow the one-time dip rule into the sauce)

Washes well with the local brew.

Osaka was given a famous saying from their counterparts in Tokyo "Osaka wa kuidaore" (or Osaka people eat 'til they drop), but when your adventure is food, this is one of the best places to be.

Next stop: Kyoto.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Day in Baguio

When the Philippines enters its summer months of April and May each year (or sometimes even as early as the latter part of March), by tradition, Filipinos do something about the heat, either by revelling in it at the many pristine beaches located around the country, or escaping it by going up the mountains of Baguio. 

Both locations are bound to be over populated by local and foreign tourists at this time.

In recent summers, my friends have been telling me that Baguio has become very different - more building, less trees; cool weather a matter of history; and more rude taxi drivers. But as luck would have it, my family had a good reason to visit - the husband had an invite to lecture. One pleasant surprise was the weather. The temperature ranged from 12-16 degrees Celsius. A blessing compared to 34-35 degrees in Metro Manila. Another pleasant surprise was that there are still a good many courteous taxi drivers, the ones who will give you change to the last centavo. A rarity in Metro Manila. Nevertheless, it was true about the trees and I lament the loss of them.

(photo by

Whether you, my reader, are a Filipino or not, let me introduce Baguio as concisely as I can: it was declared the "Summer Capital of the Philippines" by the Philippine Assembly in July 1, 1903 under the American colonial government headed by Governor-General William Taft. Thus, government operations were transferred from Manila to Baguio during the summer months, well, obviously to escape the heat. This practice was, however, stopped in 1913 when Francis B. Harrison became the next Governor-General. 

The effects of being the second seat of government are long-lasting, as many structures and the city planning itself were given priority (next to Manila during the Commonwealth period) and many are standing to this day in its original form. Hence, when one goes to Baguio, one witnesses Philippine history in person, especially during the American colonial period. 

(photo by

As a visitor here, one goes to ride horses at Wright Park, man the boats at Burnham Park, maybe have a picnic at Teachers' Village, peek at the Presidential Palace, say a prayer or two at the Baguio Cathedral, shop for fresh produce to bring home at the Public Market, or just trudge along the length downwards or upwards Session Road, the busiest street in the city. However, you need more than a day to get around all these notable landmarks.

So what indeed can you do if you only have a day in Baguio?

Of course, take your pick of the usual sights. You can make a list by just checking out Wikipedia or even a handbook on the city. But if you're like me who has done the usual places, here is what we did.

While we were forewarned about the overpopulation of Baguio, we were still astounded at the multitudes that were there. It seemed that everyone in Metro Manila had one destination in mind this year. Hotels were also mostly booked at this time. So the first thing you have to do is book a hotel in advance. Luckily, we were there upon an invitation and so that invite included a pre-arranged beautiful accommodations at the Baguio Country Club

Established in 1905, it has an 18-hole par 61 and 4,038-yard course (so if you're a golfer, this may be a serious consideration; the other one is Camp John Hay), a small boutique, a PNKY store (selling hand-crafted home deco items and some furniture), the famous Raisin Bread Cafe, the Garden Cafe, and an entertainment centre that houses a bowling alley, darts, billiards and computer gaming. It has been renovated a couple of years back which made us enjoy its spacious and airy rooms. Amenities include the usual that you find in a 5-star hotel. But not to worry, one does not need to be a member in order to be able to book a room here as long as the Php5,000-6,700 a room/night price tag is within your budget. 

But if you can, try to stay here. The club is situated in the few remaining areas of what makes Baguio so attractive - quiet roads, pine trees and good earthly views. The better to enjoy the fresh air.

For breakfast, we decided to stay away from the buffet and settled at the quiet and intimate ambiance of Raisin Bread Cafe. Named after the Club's very famous raisin bread. People pile up in the morning to ensure they get to bring dozens of these tasty loaves back to Metro Manila. Be sure to bring home a loaf or two of your own and get to enjoy a long-standing heritage recipe in your mouth.

To start the morning, there are the usual ala carte breakfast choices on the menu - American, Filipino and Continental-style breakfast plates. But since you're at the Club, we tried out the Golfer's Breakfast - Corned Beef Hash with Poached Eggs, Bread and Roasted Tomato. It truly hit the spot, and further complimented our coffee (with free refills). Yummy!

Next, instead of going where most people will go, we decided to get away from the crowd by visiting a museum housing the works of one of the Philippine's national artists, Ben Cabrera.  BenCab Museum is located along Asin Road, Tandiang, Benguet. It is an hour's ride from Baguio.

When going there without your own car, better to strike a deal with your taxi driver to wait for you while you tour the galleries. The going rate is Php350/hour of waiting but this does not include the fare rate going there and coming back to Baguio City. It will be worth it since it will be difficult to get a ride back from Tandiang, and even jeepney rides that ply to Baguio are few and far between.

Entrance fee at this time is Php100/person (Php80 for students and senior citizens so please have your IDs on hand). Be a witness to Ben Cab's diverse works of art, from his sketches to his metal and wood sculptures, and collection of Bulol (Ibaloi God of harvest) carvings.

Get to enjoy his private collection of Filipino masters such as Amorsolo, Edades and Joya,

and some time for reflection and quiet in the gardens and samples of Igorot housing.

At the foot of the galleries, there is a cafe where you can continue admiring works of art while sipping coffee or hot chocolate. Good antidotes for most anything that occupies your mind.

Nevertheless, we did not eat there and decided to go back to the city for lunch at another Baguio icon - the Cafe By the Ruins. It is arguably the first restaurant in the Philippines to consistently serve vegetarian and Asian fusion dishes. They have been doing so for so many years, it has become as old and gracious as the city itself.

It is named so because it is located in what used to be the Governor-General's residence, and the cafe was built around the ruins left by the devastation of either the Philippine American war or the last world war, or a big fire that happened many years ago (There seemed to be different accounts on how the original building was destroyed).

They have made some changes to the menu by adding more meat dishes to the mix. However, I missed the pasta they served with an alfredo sauce and doused with different mushrooms (I already forgot the name). This was replaced by the Carbonara. It is a laudable rendition, but my daughter and I had better elsewhere.

And against my usual ritual to get their vegetarian dishes when there, I decided to try out the supposedly famous Bagnet (Ilocos-style crispy pork belly) served with mountain-grown rice, thus the purple hue in the grains, a sauce of fermented fish, and a bowl of sinigang (Filipino sour broth usually from tamarind).  Again, sad to say, I've had better bagnet, it was just pork belly fried to a deep crisp, and none of that indistinguishable flavour rush I got from other bagnets I have encountered. The sinigang was also not delivered to my table. Must be the crowds that harassed the wait staff into forgetfulness. 

So the lesson learned here is that next time I will get to visit the Ruins, I'll stick to their specialty vegetarian dishes. But do take the opportunity to dine here, it is still one of the best places to spend time in. Also try sampling their breads - the Kamote (sweet potato) bread, the cinnamon rolls and their croissants. 

After lunch, we proceeded to Casa Vallejo, up Session Road, just around the corner from the SM mall. It currently houses Mt. Cloud Bookshop, Hill Station Cafe and the Cinematique (managed by the Film Development Council of the Philippines). It also operates as a hotel, by the way. So you may want to consider this place when you visit. You may want to check out their website here or through their Facebook page here.

(Photo by

Casa Vallejo is itself history standing. Aside from the Baguio Cathedral, it is the only remaining building that survived the Japanese carpet bombing of World War II, and the only government structure standing that was built between the years 1908-09 of the Commonwealth period. Thus, its unwitting reputation of being a haunted place (are you now cancelling your booking at this time? ;-) )

For our visit, we browsed at the Mt. Cloud Bookshop and got to revel in hard-to-find Filipiniana books, and some foreign prints. 

After our purchases, we headed for coffee (for myself) and a chocolate milkshake (for my daughter) at the Hill Station Cafe. The cafe area boasts peaceful views of foliage and hills and a good selection of European and Filipino inspired dishes. They also sell bottled products like pasta sauces, salsa monja and atsara. Tablea chocolates, coffee from the Mountain Province and biscuits.

Our stay in Baguio will not be complete if we don't get our own bottles of Ube Jam from the Good Shepherd Convent. Thus, our relentless travel to Gibraltar Road, quite near Mines View Park (another landmark to visit). It is a must for every traveller to the city. Not only will you enjoy good-quality homegrown food products, you get to support the Convent's apostolate activities like sending poor or indigent youths to school. 

(photo by

The convent grounds were very crowded but over the years the Sisters have organised the queues to a tee. Quite easy now to purchase their products. Aside from their much sought after Ube (purple yam) Jam (php200/bottle), there are the jars of Strawberry Preserves, Peanut Brittle, peanuts, Russian Tea Cookies and so much more. All hand-crafted and all still preserving the same recipes that they have been using through the decades. It's a marvel. To this, I suggest you try out their Chicken Empanadas (Php50/piece) which they sell at the Snack Bar, separate from the major stall. And bring some home, if you please.

(photo by

So after having assured that we have bought gifts to bring to family and friends back home, dinner is in order. Everytime we are here, we always make sure to have a meal at Sizzling Plate located right in the middle of Session Road. Maybe we can call it a tradition. My father took us here when I was 10 years old, and I remember him saying that whenever his job takes him to Baguio, he eats here too. So now, I have passed on this visitation as a tradition to my own family.

They serve cheap steaks. Your choice on whether you like the local or angus beef. Both are cut thin for the Filipino capacity. 

It is simple and rustic and always, always, crowded. 

Simply put, no matter how many times we've been to Baguio, there is always something new in these old places.