Hiccup Eyes and Purrs

As a dog person I’ve just admired cats at arms length. I’ve been terrified they might scratch me if they feel like it and I couldn’t undertand their body language. Until we adopted Meow who lived most of his life in the streets, I didn’t have a reason to study cats more closely. Now I read about them and watch YouTube videos of cat owners to understand them a bit more.

And then came Quebec, and I met Dandy, a big black cat which resembles Hiccup from How To Train Your Dragon. I first encountered his tail sticking out from the curtain, his back turned on me. And then when we made eye contact he quickly warmed up to me and for the first time a cat came curling at my feet and rubbing his head on my Delta slippers. That was the first of many head curls in the two nights I stayed at the AirBnB. He would walk away when D is nearby, and when I am alone he’d come running at my feet. He even climbed the bed where I tried to take a good selfie with him but he jumped right away as D entered the room.

Last night he actually purred while curled on my slippers. My friend who loves cats told me that a cat expresses happiness through purrs. Now I know what it sounds like in real life. And that purr melted my heart and will be one of the best memories of our visit to Quebec.

Now en route to Montreal I sure will miss Dandy – he’s a sweet and good boy.

Do we say good boy to cats? Dandy sure was and he didn’t mind me telling him so.

Jardin Jeanne-d’Arc

Located on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, the statue of Jeanne-d’Arc, the French martyr, can be seen in this quaint garden. This bronze statue erected on a limestone is a tribute to the fallen soldiers during the French and English war in 1759-1760. Jardin Jeanne-d’Arc was created in 1938 by Architect Louise Perron and officially opened on 1 September 1938.

“Patriotism and courage! In other words, through bronze and granite this monument stands through the glory of heroism incarnated in one of the greatest heroes in all human history.” — Sir Thomas Chapais

The garden is lovely, surrounded by flowers and perennials. I admired the beautiful houses fronting this place, and I thought how lucky the residents are with the Plains of Abraham and this garden at their doorstep.

I had to locate this garden as D and I were coming from the Battlefields Park. This is me panting my way up a steep slope, holding on to the short grass to preserve my dignity from a possible tumbling downhill. That short cardio workout was worth it!

Cat’s Meow

Our regular guest, Meow

Meet “Meow”, the male teenager cat that drops by our garage every weekend when we’re home. He’s one of the stray cats in our neighborhood, and I remember seeing him as a kitten with another sibling months ago. I’d like to think warms up to D more than me because with a single “meow” that D would call out, he comes running and meowing back. Recently he’s been having the courage to hang out at our backyard – unfazed by Pedro who’s lounging around at that area most of the time. Well, I’ll give it to Pedro because he’s a lazy friendly bulldog. But still…that’s a start.

We like Meow because he’s quite talkative for a cat, and he follows us around like a dog. He eats with gusto and has a big appetite – but now he’s so thin so we’re thinking of having him vaccinated and dewormed by Pet Mobile next week. I have also asked the vet about neutering him. And then hopefully he’ll get to stay with us longer. We’re still new to cats so we’ve got to research the best way to ease a wildcat indoors.

Any tips?

Meow
Meow
Meow
Newest member Meow

Philippine National Hero in Hibiya Park

“The youth is the hope of our future.”Jose Rizal

While walking along Hibiya Park at Tokyo last week, my heart leaped at the sight of the bronze bust of the Philippines’ National Hero, Dr. Jose Rizal (1861-1896). It was quietly tucked behind the pond near the park’s entrance.

Written below the bust:

” Stayed in 1888 at Tokyo Hotel located at this site. Unveiled June 19, 1961.”

Seeing it prompted me to read back on my country’s history and the role that Dr. Jose Rizal played for the Philippines’ independence from the Spanish colony. In honor of the Philippines’ National Heroes Day which is being celebratws today, I am writing this post.

I wonder what Rizal and the Filipino heroes will think if they see the generation of today, and what has become of the country that they fought and died for.

84ed605f-6a7b-4bf9-a07d-022c912d85e8

4c9427b4-7711-4b39-aff5-4422b808ab30

Hibiya Park, Revisited

Thanks to the longer days of summer I was able to revisit Hibiya Park after work last week, this time coming prepared as to what exactly I was going to check out. The last time I went was in spring, and made the wrong choice of just passing through it to get to the grounds of the Imperial Palace – where I did not even have the chance to stay longer as it was flocked with tourists. This time my intention was clear: get off at the Hibiya station, explore Hibiya Park, and walk all the way back to Ginza for dinner.

It was almost sunset when I got to Hibiya Park and it was not at all crowded. I read at the park’s entrance that the park was opened on June 1, 1903, as the first Western-styled park in Japan. During the Tokyo Earthquake of 1923 and the Pacific War, the park underwent renovations, but some remained as how they were back then: the areas around Shinji-ike Pond, Flower Garden #1, and Kumogata-ike Pond.

Near the entrance, I came across a German-style sunken garden surrounded by flowers of the season (roses at this time of the year). The fountain with two pelicans was a cute sight to behold. The big pond of the park gave a serene vibe, and the buildings viewed from the park’s exterior gave a contrast of modern and rustic. As I walked around the park, I hardly minded the humidity and my trickling sweat – I was too engrossed at the symphony of sounds – from the cicadas up the trees, to the sound of gleefully shrieking teenagers running to and from the Grand Fountain in the middle of the park, to the sound of speeding cars from the highways nearby. Next to the Grand Fountain was a small open air music hall – I read that regular concerts are held there on Wednesdays. Mental note to go back on a Wednesday night next time – to see the Grand Fountain lights and enjoy a concert. 

Spent an hour walking around, and I’d say it’s one of the best places I’ve visited in Tokyo last week. It’s big green oases like this that I wish we can have more in my city back home. I’d gladly skip the malls for a walk around these parks.

Map of Hibiya Park
Map of Hibiya Park
The place of death of Date Masamune
The place of death of Date Masamune

f15c67a3-1967-4bd3-877a-156d957a70a1

f45b5cea-40d1-4d42-9611-d419f5dacac7

c5e2841d-a9b6-436e-8723-27ef845ee9b9

6da38353-6abf-4b07-a583-b23e9d7e2d18

a8b60f1b-daa7-454d-a493-a91d62ed1ae1

4c9427b4-7711-4b39-aff5-4422b808ab30

Solar Clock at Hibiya Park
Solar Clock at Hibiya Park
Ancient Scandinavian Epitaph
This monument was given by Europe in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the air route coming from Japan to Europe via North Pole. The motif used was the ancient Nordic epitaph of the Scandinavian Vikings.

Growing Lettuce from a Makeshift Pot

I’m not much of a Starbucks drinker, but whenever I go to the local branch here in our city, I make it a point to ask for coffee grounds and used milk containers. I explained to them the first time that we use them for our composting and backyard farming, and whenever D and I would grab our Sunday breakfast there, the baristas remember us and provide them with a smile.

I got the idea of recycling the milk containers from a zero waste group from FaceBook. I’ve asked some cafes for used milk containers, and so far it was Starbucks that readily provide them with no questions asked.

What we do with the coffee grounds is mix small portions of them to the compost. This makes the soil richer, and afterwards we use the soil for planting our organic crops such as lettuce. It takes about 2 weeks for the lettuce seeds to sprout, and approximately a month for us to be able to harvest them. Check out our latest baby, with the recycled pot compliments of our local Starbucks.

17e077a1-ec95-4652-ae72-be161485337b

I am glad to see more people doing composting as a way to leave a green footprint for our planet. I am still hopeful that in my lifetime the single-use plastic will be reduced or eliminated – the earth and its inhabitants badly needs to breathe again, and plastic clogging our oceans and being ingested by animals need to be urgently addressed

Dragonfruit Heaven in Bulacan

Have you ever tasted a dragonfruit?

First time I was asked this was the when I was in Sydney for a business trip. I said “dragon what?” I thought it was a metaphorical question, but then the person who asked me was my boss who was definitely not into Game of Thrones. I watched him eat the unique-looking spikey colorful fruit for breakfast as I settled for kiwi.

Fast forward three years later and I read that the Three Lucky Mountains Dragonfruit Farm was walking distance away from the Numana Farm where we were staying for the weekend. And because we were already in the area, I pedalled away to the dragonfruit farm that fine Saturday afternoon.

We got there half past four, and the farm was not something to miss. At the entrance we saw rowa of dragonfruit plants, a huge warehouse where flags of different countries were posted. Luckily the farm manager, Nel, was able to accommodate our last minute visit. He gave us a quick tour and answered all our questions, which was very nice of him as we truly learned a lot that afternoon.

The Three Lucky Mountains Dragonfruit Farm started operations in 2015. It started when his uncle transplanted a dragonfruit cutting that he got from the northern province of Ilocos. To date, this farm boasts of having the most number of dragonfruit varieties in the world – 156 varieties to be exact. And it has become the go to farm of different countries who import varieties of cuttings from Three Lucky Mountains. Thus the world flags posted on the facade of their warehouse.

There are several colors of the dragonfruit in the farm: like violet, pink and orange. The most marketable dragonfruit are the red ones, and the high end ones are the yellow ones. We bought a kilo each of the red and yellow dragonfruits. Dragonfruit is loaded with fiber and is good to the gut, a rich source of magnesium, boosts the immune system, and helps prevent chronic diseases. I asked Nel why some people describe the taste as bland, and he said the trick is to make sure to pluck the fruit when it is ripe. The bland taste happens when the fruit is harvested semi-ripe and the ripening happens while it is stored.

There are two ways that the farm plants the dragonfruit. The first is Vietnames style where there are four plants per post. Then there is the Israel trellis type which is easier to maintain and manage as there are 20 plants per post. The Three Lucky Mountains is an organic farm, so they take extra care so that the fruits do not get infested with fungi and virus (notice the fruits are enclosed in plastic).

Fun facts:

  1. The flower of the dragonfruit opens at 8PM and closes at 3AM.
  1. The dragonfruit plants need luminence, and the lean months for harvest are the Ber months where sunlight tends to be shortest.
  2. They need little water as they are like cactus. Hence the sloping terrain in the farm helps wash out the water quickly during rainy season.
  3. Like the cactus they also have thorns. I cut my finger twice while opening a couple of fruit. They can be opened by slicing them in the middle, or peeling them like a banana. But carefully do it or end up with cuts like me.

So here’s the verdict on how we found the first dragonfruits we have eaten from this farm: we loved it! It tasted like a hint of kiwi, but not too sweet. D liked it so much he almost ate them all. Would we buy this again? Definitely!

Coffee Grounds and Flowers From My Childhood

Gumamela flower

I love lazy sunny weekends! I guess my body clock’s used to waking up early that I’m up and about at 7AM after ‘sleeping in’.

With no plans til after lunch, D and I figured we could go out for coffee and pick up the boys’ dogfood on the way. We headed to the neighborhood starbucks for a Java Chip frap, and I kindly asked the friendly barista if she could spare me some coffee grounds for our compost. She smiled at me and said “Sure!” I was more excited about this than my cold drink.

Free coffee grounds from Starbucks

Reusing coffee grounds for the backyard garden helps reduce landfill waste – my own way of saving the earth. As the coffee’s acidity is lost during the brewing process, what it leaves behind in the material of the coffee grounds helps promote plant growth, repels slugs and ants and entices earthworms which help the soil become richer. At home, we mix the coffee grounds with brown compost (dried leaves and twigs, or brown paper bag cuttings) for balance.

Oh, and to add to the excitement, we happened to pass by these flowers on our way to the car. They remind me of my gradeschool days, when I would make bubbles from the gumamela flowers. I saw that done in Batibot, the Philippines’ version of Sesame Street.

Gumamela flower

And the lovely bougainvillea which remind me of the colorful flowers that grew on my lola’s garden wall. Bougainvillea flower

Oh happy days!

Farmstay at Numana

Kubo at Numana Farm

I have always been keen on spending a weekend in a farm, so when I found the opportunity for a farmstay through Numana Farm in Facebook, I reached out to them right away. The farm is in Angat, Bulacan – close to where I grew up when I was a kid. It’s the Angat Dam and about an half an hour away (with traffic) from La Mesa Dam – so it’s pretty much located in a place filled with trees. Coordination with the owners of the farm was smooth and fast, and they even helped me reach out to the manager of the Hound Haven Philippines, a non-government organization whose advocacy is caring for and looking for forever homes for retired K9 dogs from the Philippine Army. Hound Haven is located in the same compound as Numana Farm.

After a bit of an impromptu adventure (in other words, we got lost), we finally found the farm. I got all excited as soon as I saw the kubo we were going to stay at for the weekend. Kubo is the traditional Filipino hut mostly made of bamboo and cogon, a tall tropical grass which is dried to create the kubo’s roof. You see, when I was young, my dad had a kubo built next to our house, and I have a lot of good fun momories of playing with my siblings and friends in our kubo.

Numana Farm’s Kubo experience
Numana Farm’s Kubo experience

img_5399

Here’s our room in the kubo – check out the kulambo, the net enclosing the bed. The kulambo used to be widely used especially in the province, as it protects people in the bed from mosquitos and bugs. I remember when I was a child, I felt suffocated sleeping in the kulambo when we visited relatives in the province. Now I find it dream-like to sleep in a kulambo, as if I am in a princess’ bed.

Numana Farm, home for the weekend
Numana Farm, home for the weekend

A rustic retreat a couple hours away from the city
A rustic retreat a couple hours away from the city

And here’s the view from the kubo’s balcony, overlooking the farm. In the farm there are various animals like hens and chicks walking around, rabbits, turtles and fish in the koi.

Weekend farm feels
Weekend farm feels

View from the kubo porchKubo stairsWhat I like most about Numana is the relaxing vibe, being close to nature, and the childhood memories it brought me. I was able to use one of their bicycles which I drove to get to the nearby Three Lucky Mountains Dragonfruit Farm. I also enjoyed the swing and the duyan. I remember back in my hometown, my lola had a playground built for me and my cousins, and everyday we would ride the swing.Farm directionsThis bunny at Numana reminds me of little OliveKoi at Numana Farm

At night, I heard the sound of geckos and crickets. In the morning, I woke up to not just the sound of chirping, but literally a symphony of birds. My attention was also caught by the hoard of butterflies flying from one flower to another of a tree – it was mesmerizing!

And that, my dear friends, is a recap of a restful, laidback weekend at Numana Farm. It’s truly a hidden gem, a breath of fresh air, a couple of hours away from Makati City. I’d do this again in a heartbeat.

Numana Farm is located at Pulang Yatok, 3012 Angat Bulacan. To book a stay with Numana, you can send them a message in Facebook, or you can find them in AirBnB to book a casita or a kubo room.

 

 

 

Lemongrass Faves

Tanglad

When I was a child my cousin from the US sent me a shower set gift – I still vividly remember it was a light yellow loofah with two bottles of wonderfully scented bath gel. The smell was quite refreshing and I looked forward to going to the shower all the time so I can breathe in the fragrance.

And then through the years I’ve looked everywhere for a scent that’s similar – from candles to bath soaps to room sprays, but failed to find something close.

Until I discovered the perks of incense sticks and started trying out different kinds, and came across lemongrass. Bingo! I giddily hoarded all lemongrass scented sticks after that discovery and it became a morning routine for some time. It’ scent is calming, relaxing yet refreshing.Tanglad

When I started making my own face wash and body soap, one of my favorite ingredients was the lemongrass essential oil. When I do not have the time to make my own soap, I make a trip to some of my go to organic shops like Ritual PH to get my lemongrass soap and shampoo. I read that some of the lemongrass benefits included toning the skin and minimizing pores and skin redness.

These days, we grow lemongrass, or what we call “tanglad” in our backyard. It’s quite low maintenance and easy to grow. Every weekend my aunt brews home-made lemongrass tea, which I mix with honey and load up with ice. Because One can never go wrong with iced tea on a hot, humid day.

Cold lemongrass tea

Spectacular, Spectacular!

Conjoined Sunflowers

Rainy days are here again, and as much as I’m missing the sun, something special bloomed in my backyard this week. Well, two of them – or is it one? Ladies and gents, I present to you my conjoined sunflowers. Aren’t they a beauty?

Together
Together

Short post, just wanted to really share this/these spectacular babies. And while we’re at it, let’s play Post Malone and Swae Lee’s Sunflower

“Unless I’m stuck by ya, You’re the sunflower.” — Post Malone, Swae Lee

A Daytour at Masungi Georeserve

Masungi Georeserve bridge

Masungi GeoreseveYesterday we were finally able to trek the Masungi Georeserve, a conservation protected area in Baras, Rizal. Situated in the southern part of the Sierra Madre mountain range, the Masungi Georeserve project aims to heal the forest and serve as a wildlife sanctuary. The drive to Masungi takes about a couple of hours from Makati City, and the highlights of the trip includes communing with nature, walking through caves and limestone trails, rope courses and hanging bridges, while learning about the different tropical trees, potentially encountering tropical wildlife, and learning about how to contribute to the conservation of the environment. It took us a long time to book a trip to Masungi, as they require reservation and a minimum number of participants per trip. Slots were easily filled especially on weekends, so we had to book three weeks in advance through Klook, paying PhP2,600 per person. My friend from previous work joined D and me in this adventure as she was likewise keen on seeing the place up close.

Tanlines RoofdeckTanlines menuAt 7AM we headed off to Tanlines PH’s roofdeck meeting place along Makati Avenue. Tanlines offered breakfast (choice of Filipino and Continental) for a fee of 150 pesos. We skipped that as we already had a hearty breakfast, but we were able to enjoy their free coffee and ice cold water. Tanlines limits the group from 7 to up to 14 people only. We were only 10 people yesterday, which I think is a good enough size for the trek. After a briefing at the Tanlines roofdeck we loaded the minibus and drove off to Baras, Rizal. Luckily traffic was not bad, and we arrived at Masungi about half past nine.

En route to the Masungi GeoreserveLeaf imprintBeautiful landscaped gardenAt the onset I was already impressed by the colorful flowers, the mountain backdrop, and the sound of chirping birds. We were welcomed by the Masungi staff who gave an introduction and history of Masungi and their efforts, as well as what to expect for the day. Masungi was derived from the Filipino word “masungki” which is a word used to describe crooked, spikey teeth — because that’s how the limestones of Masungi look like. The limestone formations of the Masungi Georeserve are estimated to be 60 million years old, when they emerged from the ocean following movements of the earth’s crust post the dinosaur age. It was in 1996 when the conservation efforts were started for the area, and today, the payments made by each visitor goes into planting trees. The Masungi staff told us that at the end of the trek we were to be given a certificate and hopefully in ten years we can get an invitation to see the trees that have been planted as a result of our visit.

Our guide, JackieGreenery - a feast to the eyesWe were reminded to always wear our helmets as there would be instances of walking through caves and climbing ropes; the leave no trace policy; sticking close to the group at all times and not wandering far; not petting or feeding any wildlife we encounter; and maintaining silence so as not to disturb other visitors and the nocturnal animals who are sleeping during the daytime. There were to be 9 destinations for the trail, and we were to walk around the conservation area, not going back to where we would pass through. Before heading off, our guide, Jackie, reminded us to load up on water and use the restrooms if we had to, as there were no sources of drinking water nor restrooms along the way. The trek was to take 3 to 4 hours.

As we walked through the trail, Jackie showed us different trees and their uses. I remember she showed us the 4 different species of bamboo in Masungi, as well as the morning glory, tibig, baletetangisang bayawak trees. Boy was it hot and humid that day, and I was thankful for the canopy provided by the trees, and welcomed every breeze of the wind. And then we had the “practice” climb on a sapot (a rope-woven spider web). I felt like I was a kid once again, climbing my way up a playground. And then we made it to the first stop – Rick’s Sapot I think is what it’s called. It’s like a big spiderweb overlooking the Sierra Madre range to the left, and the Laguna Bay to the right. Spent about 15 minutes here to take in the view, and of course to wait for everyone to take their selfies.

Group phot at Sapot
Group phot at Sapot

The first way downWe had several rest stops (thank goodness for that). One that struck me was this old logger’s saw that was left behind by illegal loggers, and then beside it was the remnants of a tree that they cut. It was heartbreaking, but I got a sense of hope as I saw a seedling of a baby tree that was growing halfway between the old saw and the cut down tree – it was planted in 2016 as part of the conservation. As I gazed at the seedling, I thought of how fast it is for man to just cut down a tree that takes years, maybe decades, to grow, and how long it is for one to be able to repair that damage driven by need for money.

Remains of an illegal logger’s sawThe one stop that I liked the most was the Yungib ni Ruben because the moment we got to its mouth, I smelled the fragrant scent of Ylang Ylang oil. Jackie said they diffused the fragrant oil to mask the smell of bat urine. I liked the dramatic shadows and their effect in the cave. At first it was so dark I had to grope my way around, but then the staff placed candles to illuminate the corners of the cave and it was magical.

Through cavewaysYungib ni RubenBalancing on the hanging bridgeAn encounter with a bubuliClimbing downOther stops we passed through were the Tatay (highest peak of the limestone rock formation), the Nanay which was the second highest peak. There was also a meditation trail where Jackie asked us to hide away our gadgets and listen to the sounds and look around us for about ten minutes. And then we walked through hanging bridges and climbed down the Bayawak which was actually kind of scary because I literally had to hang on for dear life.

Climbing down the Bayawak
Climbing down the Bayawak

The carrot on the stick was knowing as I reach the bottom of the climb down the snacks prepared for by the Masungi staff was going to be just a few meters away. And boy, did I quite enjoy the snacks – boiled banana, tuna sandwich, calamansi juice and ice cold water. The staff also handed out frozen towels. And then as we got back to the bus, Tanlines rewarded us with free fresh coconut juice. Yum!

Fresh coconut juice
Fresh coconut juice

As we drove back to Makati, I reflected on how great it was to do this type of walk – good for the body, the mind and the heart. My heart went out to the earth, as I saw mountains eroded and converted to subdivisions. We do not have much of these nature trails, let alone parks, in Metro Manila – something good to do also with family and friends. We need more of these protected areas, where trees grow abundantly serving as homes for birds and wildlife.

 Masungi Georeserve bridge

 

 

 

Sunday Strolls

Car-free Sunday mornings, Filinvest Alabang

We were planning to spend Sunday morning walking, a much needed break from our pretty much sedentary lifestyle during the week. I had a bit of a hard time thinking of a good place to do so, really. First thing to consider, and perhaps the most important of all: is to go walk where it won’t be too hot and humid. Summer’s supposed to be over but the humidity and the heat have not gone away despite the scattered rain showers everyday. Secondly: our city has no park big enough to make our walk worthwhile. The places that I could think of are a bit far from where were are, and so probably with Metro Manila traffic (yes, even on Sundays), we would get there when the sun is already high and it would be a pain to even make it to a hundred steps.

Filinvest, Alabang
Filinvest, Alabang

Luckily, thanks to Google, I found that the Car-less Sundays that Filinvest in Muntinlupa, the next door city, is still in effect. It’s when most parts of the area is blocked off from cars, allowing for just walkers, runners, and cyclists to be able to use one or a couple of lanes. I’ve read about this a couple of years ago but didn’t really have the time to go check it out until yesterday.

Car-free Sunday mornings, Filinvest Alabang
Car-free Sunday mornings, Filinvest Alabang

And because it was my first time to actually walk the streets of Filinvest, I discovered these round seats that they call Community – because the shapes represent social interactions.

We walked under the canopy of the trees, listened to birds chirping. There was a bike trail nearby, and further down the road the sound of lively music beckoned us to come join in on the free zumba. I tried to do a couple of steps until I saw D attempting to take a photo of me. That was my queue to go (I’d continue my zumba at home, in the confines of my room).

Zumba morning, Sunday at Filinvest Alabang
Zumba morning, Sunday at Filinvest Alabang

I was impressed (and relieved) that Filinvest and the city of Muntinlupa continues to do the Car-less Sundays.  I read that some cities in Europe also hold their Car Free Sundays promoting walking cycling. I hope all cities in the Philippines would do the same. It would truly be good for the body and the mind, and most especially for the environment.

Do you know of any good well-shaded parks or paths near the Metro Manila south area that I could check out next?

 

 

A Blast from the Past

Sunset view from the b&b

Summer has ended and before the full force of the monsoon season kicks in, my family went out of town over the weekend – a couple of hours’ drive- to Cavite, south of Metro Manila. For the first time D was the one who booked the place we were staying at AirBnB. When he said it was within the area of Puerto Azul, I readied myself to going back to memory lane.Entrance to Puerto Azul

You see, Puerto Azul used to be well known back in the 80s. Before Boracay, El Nido, Coron even became popular, this place was THE beach to go to. The last time I went to Puerto Azul was about 35 years ago – one summer weekend with my lola and the whole extended family from my mom’s side. Every year, when I was a child, lola would bring the whole gang out for a trip to the beach. I don’t know why Puerto Azul eventually lost its fame. I didn’t realize it still existed, until D brought it up.

Anyway, I was surprised the way to Puerto Azul was not at all congested. We drove uphill through a valley and for some minutes we were the only cars in a long stretch of a drive.

When we got there, security was tight. The guards had to call the owner of the b&b we were staying at to confirm our booking. As we drove to the villas, I noticed some patches of the road that needed repair, surrounded by overgrown grass. It was a bit charming, actually. Very natural, non-commercialized. And then we saw the rows of villas, and I thought they looked pretty.Home for the weekend

Our b&b was quite a spacious place. Three floors, a terrace overlooking the sea. Birds of different breeds were chirping (almost screaming) happily. My eyes feasted on the variety of  colors and sizes of the birds.Sunset view from the b&b

And because school had already started and the rains were becoming more frequent, we had the beach all to ourselves. The beach was not white sand, and not as fine as the sands of Boracay, but the waters were clear and that was enough. As I floated on my back and steadied my breathing, my eyes gazed at the moon (yes, it was there even though the sun had not even set yet), and I tried to make a connection with the present moment. The water felt so good, and for the brief moment I felt at peace. “When was the last time I swam in the ocean”, I recalled. “Shocking how time flies, was it really almost a year ago in El Nido? I should do this more often… I told myself last year I’d do it more often – why did I hold off?Rain, in the distancePlaying on the beach

That weekend trip was so refreshing, it was a good reminder to myself to stop and focus on what’s more important: family, nature, peace of mind. I made a deal with my cousin last weekend as we wrapped up our trip over lunch – We have to go to Caramoan, or Calaguas – any of the beaches in Bicol, that’s been in my bucket list forever. He smiled as he said Yes. It was fantastic.Almost sunset

 

 

Kamikochi: Japan Alps

Clear waters of the Japan Alps

“Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience. ” — Paulo Coelho

The month of May went by so quickly, was travelling back and forth to my top country of destination, Japan.  There were times I would wake up in the middle of the night wondering where I was. I know it’s strange, but I kind of like that feeling:  the gradual realization of knowing where I am, followed by the relief that I still have a few hours to go until my alarm sets off in the morning.

Where do I even begin describing to you the best part of my trips to Japan this month? Before I ramble on, let me just put it out there: Kamikochi is by far the most beautiful place I have been to in Japan as of yet. I tried to capture it with my phone camera, but the pics don’t do it justice.

Clear waters of the Japan Alps
Clear waters of the Azusa River at the Northern Japan Alps

I wanted to spend more time at the off beaten places of Japan in our recent trip. So for the first time we flew to Nagoya and rode off for a couple of nights at Takayama.

Afterwards we took the bus to Hirayu Onsen, where we stayed for a night. From Hirayu Onsen we took another bus for a 25 minute drive to Kamikochi.

As the bus neared Kamikochi, my eyes started to feast on trees and snow capped mountains. The bus’ first stop was at the Taisho Pond, where I had a glimpse of lovely serene lake surrounded by mountains. This pond was formed when Mt. Yakedake erupted in 1915. We would have gotten off here and walked all the way up to the last stop, but since it was already afternoon, we were pressed for time (and we were told that the last bus back to Hirayu Onsen leaves at 5 o’clock). So I just admired Taisho Pond from a distance.

When we got off at the bus terminal at Kamikochi, I was even more impressed. The air was cool and fresh, the mountains were astounding, and the sound of birds chirping was icing on the cake. At the bus terminal was an information center where we got a walking map for 100 yen. We were showed different routes to take, and we decided to take the route from Kappa Bridge to Myojin-bashi Bridge which takes about two hours to complete.

I saw this sign showing the different birds that can be seen in Kamikochi and was determined to see several of them up close.

Birds of Kamikochi
A sign showing birds of Kamikochi. As soon as I saw this, I was pumped with excitement!

Kappa Bridge was just a few minutes’ walk from the bus terminal. We were greeted by the clear waters of the Azusa River. There was a lot of people on the Kappa Bridge, but as we started trekking our route, we lost the flock of tourists.

The path that we we took was pretty much next to the river. We passed through a campsite, and as we stopped there briefly, I imagined how surreal it must be to wake up to this scenery. I made a mental note to check out the accommodations in Kamikochi as I intend to go back.

Campsite in Kamikochi, the Japan Alps as a backdrop
Campsite in Kamikochi, with the Japan Alps as a backdrop

As we walked, we greeted people we met with “konnichiwa”. This is what I like about trekking: people actually greeting one another.

We stopped several times along the way to just take in the beauty of the surroundings. The two hours we had planned clearly was not enough! All my previous trips to Japan were mostly in the big cities, and this time I thought I have been missing out. Just as Japan’s cities are awesome and memorable, the countryside and its outdoors have more to offer to one’s senses. I realized I have more to explore in Japan. And this trip was a grand way to start wandering the unbeaten path. As these thoughts went through my mind, the birds seemed to agree as I heard a beautiful melody of chirps of different kinds (and got to record them too!).

Myojin-bashi Bridge, Kamikochi
Myojin-bashi Bridge, Kamikochi, about a couple of hours’ away from Kappa Bridge

When we neared the Myojin-bashi Bridge, we had a few close encounters with the furry Japan Macaques, or the Japan monkeys. They just freely walked about, minding their own business as did we (with a few stolen photo shots of course). I was glad that the tourists were all respectful of the monkeys’ privacy, and no one fed them or called out to them.

Monkey, deep in thought
A monkey, deep in thought. Probably thinking “who are these people in my backyard?”

Walking back, I whispered prayers of thanks for letting me see this amazing place. I looked at D and felt a joy in my heart for having embarked this this wonderful trip with him. I thought of my loved ones and hope I could share the beauty of Kamikochi to them. So for now, I am doing it through this blog. I know it’s not as close as to the real deal, but hopefully, one way or another, they could see.

A walk through the woods of Kamikochi
A walk through the woods of Kamikochi

 

Kamikochi is open from mid-April through November. For more information about this beautiful place in the Nagano Prefecture, visit their website at www.kamikochi.org.

Miyagawa River, Takayama

Miyagawa River, Takayama

I’m still trying to rank the things I liked most about my recent trip to the city of Takayama in Japan’s mountainous Gifu Prefecture, and until now I am not able to complete my list. Is it the quaintness of the place or the overall peace I felt as I walked its streets marveling the wooden houses? Or interacting with the friendly and warm locals? Or is it the sound of the birds and the flowing waters of the Miyagawa river? Or the simple lifestyle of the locals where there seemed to be trust and respect to everyone or everything?

Nakabashi Bridge, Hida Takayama

I say that last bit as when D and I rented bicycles for our first day’s trip to Hida No Sato (also known as the Hida Folk Village), the guy at the rental place just got our names and contact numbers and off we went. While I was puffing away on my bike during an incline, the car behind me slowed down and waited patiently until I made it to the top. Also, on our first day while we sat in front of a fruit store happily slurping our shakes, we saw two elderly women who were walking around with baskets and tongs, picking up garbage to maintain the city’s cleanliness.

Miyagawa River, Takayama

So instead of finalizing a “rank” list, I’m writing this blog about the Miyagawa River, one of the places where I spent a longer time in compared to the Miyagawa Morning Market or the Takayama Old Town. It was this river that called to me the first time I saw it – with its clean clear waters, colorful big fish swimming about, and birds of different kinds flying over or going near me, hoping to get bits of treats. It was at this moment, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, where I realized that the peace and happiness of being one with nature, regardless of where in the world I am feeling it from, is universal.

Fish and duck, Miyagawa River

 

 

First Onsen Ever

View of Mt Yarigatake from Hirayu Onsen bus station

When was the last time you did something for the first time?

I’ve thought about this for some time before I made a conscious decision to do one thing I have never done before. And this recent trip to Japan was my window of opportunity: try out an onsen.

Onsen is a natural hot spring bath. Japan has lots of these. Dipping into an onsen is said to relax the body and has benefits for the skin. It had never beem something that appealed to me though, as what’s daunting for me is that most onsens that I know of are communal, and one has to totally strip naked to be able to take a dip. In these public onsens, males and females are separated – but I don’t think I can still do an all naked stint in front of total strangers, even for the purpose of relaxation.

Until I booked our trip to the Japan alps. I intentionally included in our itinerary an overnight stay at one of the onsen towns, Hirayu Onsen because it is located halfway across Takayama and our ultimate hiking destination, Kamikochi. I figured D and I would need an onsen bath after a tiring day of trekking.

Hirayu Onsen is the oldest of five onsen towns on Okuhida valley. It was discovered in the 1560s, and is now basically the hub to Kamikochi and Shinhotaka (where the famous double decker gondola, the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway, leading up to the highest point where tourists can view the mountains is found).

I honestly did not know what to expect – from what I showed in the map it’s a little speck compared to Takayama. I was also a bit nervous as I only had a few thousand yens on hand, so I made a mental note to look for the ATM as soon as we got off the bus.Hirayu Onsen: our BnB’s backyard

When we arrived at the bus station I was awestruck by the surrounding mountains and the view of the alps at a distance. The climate was cooler compared to the first cities we visited, and there were still several cherry blossom trees that added color to the already picturesque town. True to its onsen name, there is a footbath at the waiting area of the bus station. On the second floor is a window view of the peaks of the Japan Alps, and Hida’s largest sarubobo doll is displayed.

View of Mt Yarigatake from Hirayu Onsen bus station

Our B&B, Tsuyukusa, was a 3 minute walk from the station. On the way to the B&B we could hear the constant flow of water. There were several establishments that we passed by that had steaming water fountains in front of their property.

Tsuyukusa BnB, Hirayu Onsen

The Tsuyukusa staff were very warm, and they gave us a simple welcome gift. Our room was Japanese-style, with tatami mats, wooden floor and sliding doors. There were 3 private onsen baths in the B&B: 2 indoor and 1 outdoor. Guess which one D and I used?

Private outdoor bath, Hirayu Onsen

What we learned from using the onsen is that we had to take a shower first before dipping in. There were small stools and basins next to the tub. The towels had to be left at the lounge, and there were reminders not to run around and make loud noises in the onsen area.

The outdoor onsen gave us a view of the mountains, and the hot water was indeed relaxing. We enjoyed the hot spring bath for only for about ten minutes as hot baths tend to increase blood pressure. Later as we went to bed and all througout our stay, the constant sound of gushing water could be heard – it’s almost like sleeping on the beach where the sound of the waves is nonstop.

There was no ATM at Hirayu Onsen, and there were no restaurants that accepted credit cards. Luckily the souvenir shop at the train station accepted credit card payments. Other than this hiccup, I’d say our overnight stay in Hirayu Onsen was a unique, surreal experience, and will definitely be something I’d always remember Japan for.

And since this blog is all about my first time doing something I haven’t done before, this is a perfect song to cap it off.

Hida Folk Village, Takayama

Japan Alps in the distance, view from Hida No Sato

When we hopped on the Meitetsu bus at Nagoya en route to Takayama, I didn’t really know what to expect. All I had planned in my to-do list were: visit the Hida No Sato (aka Hida Folk Village), get to see snow capped mountains, ride the bicycle and breathe in the fresh air. Takayama was, after all, our jumping point to exploring the Japan alps in the next days to come.

When we drove past the hustling city and into the countryside, my eyes feasted on the sights of clear streams and rivers, rice paddies, rolling hills of green. We passed through tunnels beneath mountains, and there were several sceneries that reminded me of the way to Sagada in Luzon. But this was hardly two hours away from Nagoya – what a treat for the city folks! In a few hours’ time they can reach these beautiful towns.

After a little more than three hours we finally reached the Takayama train station. Our hotel was just about ten minutes’ walk from the station, so as soon as we dropped off our luggage, we went to a nearby bike rental to check off one thing on my to-do list. I wiggled on my balance quite a few times as I tried to get used to my bicycle – it’s been a long time since I’ve ridden a Japanese bike – the last time was almost a decade ago in Kyoto. The guy told us it would take about 15 minutes to get to Hida No Sato (if we were to take the bus it’ll be about 10 minutes; and if we walked it would be about 40 minutes). He didn’t tell us it was uphill.

I’m not as fit like how I used to be when I travelled and biked. The uphill was quite a challenge, and several times D helped push my bike up. Although the temperature was only 24 degrees celsius, it didn’t help as I was sweating profusely (and sometimes imagining I was comfortably tucked in bed or soaking in a bath at the hotel). D must have been annoyed as he pretended he didn’t hear me when I called out “Are we there yet?” a couple of times.

And then we got there. Woohoo!! Parking fee was free for bikes. The entrance to Hida No Sato was 700¥ per adult. I found that it’s an open air musuem, and the houses that were displayed show the original houses of different parts of Hida. There was a lake and an outlook view of the peaks of the Japan Alps at the distance. Japan Alps in the distance, view from Hida No Sato

There were several interactive activities near the lake and the entrance like origami, stamps, wooden cube puzzles, wooden stilts (which I saw no one succeed at), and a wooden water gun. Japanese-styled parasols were free to be used, as well as boots (maybe when it’s raining?).Nakayabu’s House

Like the hotel we stayed at in Takayama, we took off our shoes as we entered the preserved homes. Because the Hida region is know for woodwork, the houses were wooden floors, tools and furniture. The homes have sunken hearths called irori which kept the surroundings warm.Panoramic view of a house’s interior

There were also artisans who were demonstrating arts and crafts like Hida quilting, wood carving, and painting. If you walk in the Takayama town’s center, you will find a lot of wooden and hand crafted souvenirs.

Doll painting in the Tomita’s HouseThere were structures for different livelihoods. There was also a hall where the elders held meetings, and a shrine with a giant bell. There was a woodcutter’s hut, aand a logger’s hut. I also saw how the irrigation system used to be, and how rice fields were designed. The last stop that I went to was the resting area where vending machines for drinks were clustered together in. On the way there was a canopy of sweet smelling flowers – and the remarkable sound of bees.One of the Hida houses kept in its original condition

As I walked around the town I cannot help imagine how it was living in the past when there was no electricity. How did it feel during winter? I was fascinated at how the structures were built, the materials that were used. Life was indeed simpler back then, and how lucky the folks were as they woke up to the beautiful nature-filled surroundings, with the snow capped mountains a common sight in their backyards.

All the Chickens in the Yard

dog and hens

We’be been raising hens for about seven years now. I got inspired after watching the movie “Flipped” where the main character was taught by her dad that hens do not necessarily need roosters to lay eggs. I wanted to have an organic source of fresh eggs, and so after building a coop at the yard, I headed to the market one afternoon after work, and bought our first hen, Henny from the market. A couple of days later, my dad came over to give us a companion for Henny, Henna. At first they did not get along, and kept us awake all night with their bantering. But eventually they became best friends and were quite inseparable. In fact, a few years later, when Henny passed away, Henna followed suit shortly after. Since then, we did not have to buy our hens – dad managed to raise a few of his own and shared with us four.

We now have 2 coops – each one housing a pair. They’re all good girls, and they make me giggle with their antics every once in a while.

I am no expert, so what I wanted to share with you today are what I’ve learned from raising our hens. These are based purely from observation and personal experience:

  1. They lay eggs around noon or when the sun is high – and we could easily tell they’re laying eggs because they’re quite vocal and announce it. Sometimes they go to the same spot in their coop, or at times, when they’re out frolicking in the backyard, we find the eggs neatly tucked within the shrubs.
  2. They do not lay eggs daily. There’s a certain period when they molt (or lose their feathers) – they do not lay eggs during this time.
  3. There are times the hens would peck on the eggs. My dad said it indicates they are low on calcium. So what we do is we include crushed egg shells in the hens’ food.
  4. Speaking of food – we give them kitchen scraps like peelings from fruit and vegetables. One of the antics that our hens have been proudly showing me is whenever I give treats to our dogs, they would also line up for theirs. I’m amazed at how peaceful our animal companions are because even though my boys are so focused on getting treats, when they see that I am sending some to the hens, they wouldn’t bully them into getting the hens’ shares. The hens, though, at times try to sneak some treats off Pedro (the bulldog) who is a slower in catching them. But good old Pedro doesn’t seem to mind.
  5. So we send them out of their coops daily so they have an excursion around the backyard. They do not fly out nor go to the garage – it’s like they know which area they’re should stay in. One time when strong rain came out of nowhere, I rushed to let Pedro in from the yard. I realized the hens were also out because I saw them lined up outside their own coops’ doors (which closed because of the wind). They love to drink lots of water, but clearly they did not want rain on their feathers. As soon as I opened their coops’ doors, in they hopped.
  6. We use the hens’ poop to add on to our compost.

These four ladies have been with us for a couple of years now, and I have to admit I still couldn’t tell them apart. Do you know if chickens respond to names?

I think my hens are quite smart, and I’m glad they are quite comfortable with me, D and the boys. We are, after all, one small happy family.