Tsukiji Honganji Temple

Tsukiji Hongan-ji Temple

he first time I saw the Tsukiji Honganji Temple,  I had to research what kind of a temple it was. Though a Buddhist temple, its architecture is a fusion of different styles – now I’m no expert but at first glance there’s a hint of Hindu style in its facade too.

It’s a few minutes by foot from the Kabuki Theatre in Ginza, and where Tsukiji Market used to be at.

In my recent trips to Tokyo I always missed it during the day. I would go there after sunset to contemplate. It sure is lovely to behold at night.

Tsukiji Hongan-ji Temple
Tsukiji Hongan-ji Temple

 

 

Safe Travels!

Efficient Subway System

I got this souvenir from the AirBnB we stayed at in Hirayu Onsen in Japan. I like these sweet mementos we get from various places like hotels, museums, Tourist Information Centers – it adds a personal touch enhancing the cultural experience.

Honestly I don’t know what this simple gift is, or what it says. Google Translate says words like “travel safely…circle of life…shrine”. I reckon it’s a charm to keep one safe, as Hirayu  Onsen was, after all, our jumping point to Japan’s Alps, Kamikochi.

Speaking of traveling safely, I’ve put together this list of things I keep in mind whenever D and I are out for our adventures.

Research and Be Alert.

It’s worth checking out forums for Do’s and Don’ts; routes and paths to take; helpful phone numbers that may come in handy in case of an emergency; nearest convenience stores, ATM machines, bus stops or train stations.

I remember before smart phones, D and I almost got in trouble getting into the wrong side of town one night while we went out looking for a 711 so I could withdraw from an ATM. It’s a good thing a concerned local told us not to wander farther and head back to the hotel.

Pack up wisely.

One of my many lessons I learned is choosing comfort over fashion. I’ve had one too many instances of chucking my “stylish” shoes and buying comfortable sneakers because my feet were killing me.

If the trip will entail long walks, it’s best to pack comfortable shoes. If I’ll be out mostly under the sun, I would pack on the sunblock, a hat, sunglasses. Or a foldable umbrella, and refillable water bottle. A first aid kit in my  suitcase is something I won’t hopefully have to use, but good to have as it might come handy.

Stretch and Hydrate

Before and after long walks, I give these muscles a good stretch – they love it! When seated for a long time in the plane, I walk around to stretch my legs. Drinking up on water is also quite refreshing, that’s why I keep my water bottle in my bag all the time. I also look for sources of drinkable water for a potential refill. I know I’d thank myself later for this supply of water when I start hitting five thousand steps and up.

Don’t be Reckless

We always let someone else, usually family, know our whereabouts and our itinerary. We also register when we are trekking, and hire services of a local certified guide. When there is a spot that looks too tempting to have that ‘daredevil’ shot of, I’d most probably skip it. Aside from my fear of heights, I know that a small wrong step can bring me a long term pain, so call it boring but I’d rather be safe than sorry.

I hope you find my little list useful. If you have something planned to go to soon – I hope you have an awesome time. Safe travels!

Efficient Subway System
Efficient Subway System

 

 

Japan Cycling Guidelines

Free bike rental in Matsumoto

Traveling is such a bliss when I get to ride a bicycle. Much as I like to walk, cycling makes me get to explore faster, and I find it quite exhilarating feeling the wind blow on my face.

The first time I rented a bicycle while exploring a new place was in Munich, Germany, as we only had less than a full day to explore before hopping back on the train en route to Austria. There were too many things to do at the time, as it was also right smack in the middle of Oktoberfest. So I was quite relieved to discover the perks of cycling.

And then this trip to the Japan Alps happened. I prepared my feet for thousands of steps trekking, and so when we got to Takayama, I looked for the nearest bike rental place so I won’t have to walk too much yet. Afterwards when we got to Matsumoto, I was thrilled to find that there were free bike rentals all around the tourist destinations of the city. Oh, happy days!

Matsumoto City’s Sui Sui Town free rental bikes
Matsumoto City’s Sui Sui Town free rental bikes

When I am biking in a new place, the first thing I look for other than a map, is a quick guide on safety rules to follow. Let me share with you what I’ve read on the safety guidelines for cyclists in Japan:

1. Ride on the left side of the street.

In Japan, cyclists only use the left side of the street (same direction as to what cars and other vehicles use). In most places there are bike paths, and when there is none, then cyclists can use the sidewalks or roads. When the street is too narrow, cyclists can ride on the sidewalks.

2. Helmets for children.

I know in some countries wearing helmets is required by law for people riding bicycles. In Japan, all children under the age of 13 must wear a bicycle helmet. Children under the age of 6 should also wear helmets if they are riding in the children’s seat of their parent’s or guardian’s bicycle.

3. Reduce speed on sidewalks and give pedestrians the right of way.

Pedestrians are given priority on sidewalks. Cyclists must not obstruct pedestrians if riding inside lines marking pedestrian paths, and if there is a risk of obstructing pedestrians on sidewalks, cyclists must stop riding and dismount their bicycles.

It is also discouraged to ringing bicycle bells at pedestrians on sidewalks.

4. Cycling Safety Rules

    Cyclists must obey traffic lights and intersections, like coming to a full stop on a stop sign.
    Just like driving a car, cyclists are prohibited to drinking and cycling – violators can either face fines or face up to several years in jail.
    Cyclists must use bicycle lights at night, or also at daytime when riding through tunnels or during foggy weather.
    Riding double or side by side is prohibited.
    Lastly, cyclists must also not use an umbrella or talk on their mobile phones while riding their bicycles. Personally, I think this last one’s a no-brainer. But then again, people can be creative. Thankfully there are these rules.

Monjayaki and Takoyaki Night

Monjayaki

Have you ever had takoyaki? It’s a ball of flour batter enveloping chopped pieces of octopus. It’s garnished with nori and bonito flakes, takoyaki sauce, and sometimes a dash of mayonnaise.

It’s one of my favorite snacks, something my grandma introduced to me when I was young, one Saturday when I accompanied her to Rustan’s Cubao. We bought it from this kiosk called Samurai. Nowadays I’m glad I don’t have to travel far whenever I crave for takoyaki, as it has become popular in Metro Manila.

Have you ever had monjayaki? First time I heard it I said “what-yaki?”. My Japanese companions had to spell it out for me, as they began preparing the ingredients on the grill. It’s a local Tokyo dish that resembles the okonimiyaki (Japanese pancake). It’s batter though is more watery.

Okonimayki and takoyaki
Okonimayki and takoyaki

See, on my last night in Tokyo a couple of weeks ago, we went to Dekunobou, an okonomiyaki restaurant near Tokyo’s Kanda station. It was a cookout – and our little group took turns grilling different yummy dishes. When it came to what was to be the highlight of the dinner, the making of the monjayaki, little spatulas were passed around for everyone in the group. A heap of chopped vegetables, fish roe, cheese and the batter were mixed together, and when they were almost cooked, the middle part was pushed outward, so the food became shaped like a donut. A new mix of batter was then incorporated into the “donut-hole”, making the dish more liquidy. I could smell the cheese as it melted, and as the monjayaki turned brown, that’s when I was told to cut a piece for myself using my little spatula. Wow, it was so good! I didn’t know there was such a thing as a monjayaki – I don’t recall ever seeing it in menus.

Monjayaki is best served and eaten with a group. The method of making it is also a good way to bond.

I’d say that moment was pretty special, as I learned something only locals are familiar with.

Monjayaki
Monjayaki

 

 

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.

Matsumoto Timepiece Museum

Largest pendulum clock in Japan

Matsumoto is a lovely city, and is the 2nd largest in the Nagano Prefecture in Japan. Coming from Hirayu Onsen, we arrived at Matsumoto through bus. It’s tourist destinations are pretty much walkable. We were off to the hotel when D spotted the Matsumoto Timepiece Museum on his Google Maps. Being a watch enthusiast that he is, I immediately agreed to check it out.

From the outside, we right away caught sight of a pendulum clock in Japan, which we later found is the biggest in Japan.

Largest pendulum clock in Japan
Largest pendulum clock in Japan

I was pretty touched when the lady at the reception gave me an origami souvenir. I honestly don’t know much about watches or clocks, so I came to the museum with an open mind.

On the first floor I saw how time was determined in ancient times like through sundials. There were also wall clocks stemming from medieval to modern times on display.

On the second floor, I saw several Japanese and Western timepieces, and mechanical and swinging clocks. I also saw a statue and photo of Mr. Chikazo Honda (1896-1985) who collected clocks since he was young and donated them to the city in 1974. Being an engineer, he fixed the clock collections and even produced a rolling ball clock.

Also on the second floor was an area where gramophones were displayed. A sign says they are scheduled to play three times a day.

I enjoyed browsing through the items exhibited in the Matsumoto Timepiece Museum. It’s amazing how most of the timepieces on display in the museum are still in good working condition up to this day!

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

 

 

Magnificent Mastumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle

I used to think all castles in Japan looked the same until I started paying attention to history, art, and traditions. So when I planned this recent trip to Japan, I decided to include Matsumoto City, the second largest city in Nagano Prefecture, in our itinerary. Originally, our trip was exclusively just within the mountainous Gifu Prefecture, but when I saw photos of the Matsumoto Castle, I figured it will be worth travelling another couple of hours from Hirayu Onsen.

Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto Castle

Mastsumoto Castle, locally referred to as “Matsumotojō“, is one of the top 3 most beautiful original castles in Japan, next to Kumamoto Castle and Himeji Castle. In contrast to the white Himeji Castle (known as the White Heron), Matsumoto Castle is black, and is also known as the Crow Castle. It is built on a plain instead of on a hill. It was built during the Sengoku period, or the “Warring State” period during Japan’s civil unrest. It started as a simple fort but was later on strengthened with defensive works in the late 1500s.

Matsumoto Castle, Japan
Matsumoto Castle, Japan

The castle grounds are enclosed by 3 original moats. The main keep, built between 1593-1594, was declared a national treasure in 1952.

Upon entering the castle, we took off our shoes. Climbing up the stairs was no easy feat as the steps were awkwardly high and narrow.

The tenshu (donjon tower) was used primarily for warfare. The second floor was where the armory was kept, and where the warriors assembled. It had distinctive warrior windows at the east, west and south walls.  I brooded over the openings used by archers and the ishiotoshi (stone drops). The openings were very strategic and gave a good vantage point on all angles surrounding the castle, and the ishiotoshis must have not given any chance for climbers of the castle to succeed.

The third floor was dark and had no windows and was considered to be the safest area as it was likewise a secret and could not be seen from the outside. The fourth floor was temporary private area where the lord stayed during emergencies. The fifth floor was where the tactical meetings took place.

The sixth floor lies 22.1 meters above the ground and is covered by tatami mats. This floor was designed as the warlord’s headquarters if the castle was under attack. On this floor is a shrine for the goddess of the 26th night of the month, Nijoruku-yashinLegend has it that on the 26th of January, on the year 1618, a young vassal on duty had a vision of a woman dressed in beautiful clothes handing him a bag. She told him that if the lord of the castle enshrines her with 500 kilos of rice on the 26th of each month, she would protect the castle against enemy and fire. It is believed that because of this bag, the castle was preserved and is now the oldest of its form.

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The view from the sixth floor was spectacular – I saw the distant mountain ranges surrounding Matsumoto. How lucky for the locals to be waking up to these mountains everyday! I’d imagine the views would be beautiful in every season.

My favorite part of the castle would be the Moon-Viewing Wing which is connected to the Main Tower’s west side. These days, there are only two castles in Japan with a moon-viewing room: this, and Okayama Castle. The room was built during an era of peace following the warring states period, and had vermilion balcony with openings to the east, north and south. It also has a vaulted ceiling. As I looked out from the room, I daydreamed it was a tranquil night, crickets softly chirping, and I was looking out from the balcony. Oh how beautiful the sight must be!

Moon-vieiwing wing in the Matsumoto Castle
Moon-vieiwing wing in the Matsumoto Castle

I wrap up this post with a mood that longs for the big bright moon. This is what I’m listening to as I write this.

 

 

Takayama: Old Town

Takayama Old Town

What comes to mind when you think of a trip to Japan?

With this trip, my friends asked me if I was revisiting the cities of Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka. When I replied that this time we were going to the more laid back places like Takayama and Kamikochi, almost all of them would give me a thoughtful look and ask where’s that?

Takayama, a quiet city in the the mountainous Gifu Prefecture of Japan, is famous for a lot of things like the hida beef, its museums and temples, the nearby tourist destinations like Kamikochi and Shinhotaka Rope-way, and the well preserved Old Town, Kami-Sannomachi, which serves as the commercial hub since way back during the Edo period. The Old Town is walking distance from the Takayama Train and Bus station (around ten minutes’ walk).

From the train station, we walked across the Miyagawa River and came to see two bronze statues facing each other in the middle of the Kajibashi Bridge. These statues are called Ashi-naga and Tenaga. Ashi-naga is a long legged goblin, while Tenaga is a long armed goblin. According to folklore, the two work as a team, where Tenaga would climb over Ashi-naga’s back so they can harvest fish and catch small creatures.

A couple of blocks after crossing the bridge, we passed through stores and houses in the Old Town. They were quite remarkable. Even the 711 across the street had a similar rustic theme to it.

Rustic themed 711 across the old town
Rustic themed 711 across the old town

On our first day, we got to the Old Town a tad bit too late as the stores close at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. It was still quite surreal walking through the narrow picturesque streets – there were canals on both sides of the road flowing with clear water. I was amazed at this – I wish we had the same in my city.

The old town past business hours
The old town past business hours

On the next day, after kicking off the day with a breakfast and stroll through the Miyagawa Morning Market, we headed right to the Takayama Old Town. It was teeming with tourists, and there were already queues at the restaurants as it was around lunch time. Because it was warm and sunny that day, we took it as good timing to enter the stores and check them out.

Water chilled soda
Water chilled soda

There were several souvenir shops selling wooden crafts and trinkets, local snacks, and sarubobo dolls. There were also several shops selling the hida beef skewers, sake, and other local delicacies. We also saw a man pulling on a rickshaw for tourists.

Waiting at an intersection at the old town
Waiting at an intersection at the old town

One of the best finds that I had in the Takayama Old Town is Cafe Ao, a Japanese cafe quietly tucked in one of the wooden stores near the Old Town’s entrance. What caught my attention was the mat floor and the irori, the Japanese sunken hearth used as a fireplace and heater in the olden days. The first time I learned about the irori was during our trip to Hida Folk Village (Hida No Sato) on our first day in Takayama.

Irori at the entrance of Cafe Ao

All guests had to take off their shoes upon entering, and we made our way to the inner part of the building, where I was delighted to see a couple of zen gardens surrounding the cafe. There were lovely wooden furniture in the cafe, and some guests who opt to sit on the floor could do so. I got us green tea, coffee and a seasonal cake. The whole dining experience was very relaxing and precious. The seasonal cake was so yummy, and D liked the lovely touches of sweets included with his green tea.

If you are in Takayama, don’t forget to check out the Old Town. You’ll be amazed by the rustic simplicity of this place, a perfect getaway (and I’d say a 180 degree turn) from the hustle and bustle of the bigger cities of Japan like Tokyo. Be prepard to travel back in time as you walk through Takayama’s quaint streets and meeting its friendly locals.

Takayama Old Town

 

 

 

 

 

Curious About Cats

Cute kitty

For a long time I’ve always been a dog person. Lately, thanks to volunteering experiences for animals, I’ve been exposed to cats, and admittedly there is something about them that intrigues me.

I learned to appreciate cats – at a distance. I am a bit scared how they would react it I touch them, because as far as I know, unlike dogs, they would prefer to be left alone, and would come to me if and when they can be bothered.

Maybe it’s destiny – while we were walking home to our hotel in Nagoya the other day, the words cat cafe popped out of my Maps. And it was right along the way. So, despite how tired we were from walking (and finding away) around Nagoya, I asked D to wait for me so I can at least say hello to the cats of Cat Cafe Mocha Nagoya Sakae.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the cabin-designed cafe teeming with cuddly and fluffy cats of different colors (I am not at all familiar with any cat breed). Because I had just a few coins in my pocket, I only availed of the 10-minute pass. The other more expensive option was an all day pass with unlimited drinks.

Some of the rules in the cat cafe were taking off my shoes and leaving them and my bag in the locker; sanitizing my hands; no flash photography; and keeping quiet so as not to scare the cats. Guests were also asked not to grab and pick up the cats.

When I got in I headed to a lazily lounging gray cat. Gray cat had a very fluffy neighbor seated high above and was looking down at me with what seemed to me was bored curiosity. A few minutes later, Fluffy was fast asleep. I was so amazed by Fluffy’s paw – it was like a stuffed toy’s paw: pink and black. This is my first time to see a paw of this kind. Pardon me but I just had to take a photo of this rare spectacle.

I just have to take a photo of this cutie paw

I tried to take selfies with the cats, but I’m not really good at those. But one thing I was able to finally do was give a couple of the cuddly cats some light strokes on their heads. I’d like to think they liked it we no one scratched me.

Cute kitty

Ten minutes went by so quickly. A cheeky little fellow tried to squeeze in through the door as I exited. I envied the staff who gently picked the cat up. I wish I could feel that relaxed with cats. I’d really want to adopt one someday soon.

Sarubobo Doll

Beer kegs and Hida’s Sarubobo doll

Beer kegs and Hida’s Sarubobo doll

A sarubobo doll is a mascot of Japan’s Hida region. Hida is located at the northern part of the Gifu Prefecture known for its hot springs and serene looking mountains.

Sarubobo literally translates to ‘monkey baby’. It is shaped like a human but with no facial features. Mothers and grandmothers used to make these dolls for children, and is believed to bring blessings and good fortune.

Majority of the sarubobo dolls I saw in Takayama were colored red. I learned that different colors signify different meanings: like red is for marriage and family; gold is for money; blue is for good fortune at work or in school; black wards off evil; pink is for love; green is for peace and health; and purple is for longevity.

In Takayama, sarubobo dolls were everywhere. They were in shops’ entrance doors, and hung as offerings at the Kokubunji Temple. When we reached Hirayu Onsen en route to Kamikochi for a closer look at the Japan alps, we saw what is claimed to be Hida’s largest sarubobo doll at the bus station.

I personally think that while it’s a cute souvenir, what struck me about the sarubobo dolls is how sweet it must have been for children in the past to have received a handmade doll from their moms or grandmothers. It’s the labor of love and the personal touch that the elders put in to bring happiness to their children – it was just precious. We gazed on these dolls I came to remember times my mom would help me with my school projects when I was younger. D recalled the time his mom made a volcano for him when he was a child.

There’s so much simple but thoughtful crafts and activities that I am learning more about in this trip to Japan. I’ll write about these other touches of art soon.

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.

Takayama’s Hida Kokubunji Temple

Hida Kokubunji Temple

After a long day walking and biking the streets of Hida Takayama, it was a toss between getting an early snooze or grabbing a bite first. Grudgingly I agreed to eat out, as I am sure that as soon as I hit the sack I couldn’t be bothered to go out later on for late night snack.

Off we walked from the hotel to the bus terminal, as most of the restaurants at the Old Town were closed after 5 o’clock. And then we heard a couple of deep loud barks – an all-too familiar sound that shook my sleepiness off in an instant. About fifty yards ahead of us was a yellow labrador tied to the wooden gate of Hida Kokubunji Temple.

Hida Kokubunji Temple

I admit it was the first time I realized there was a temple at this side of the road, and so near to the hotel where we were staying. It is an old Buddhist temple with a triple layer pagoda, a bell tower and a huge gingko tree. Inspecting the tree up close, I read that it is a natural national monument, with an age approximately 1200 years old. It was believed in the past that when the leaves of the gingko tree fall off, it would snow in Takayama. Now the people of Takayama cherish the tree as a symbol of changing seasons.

The Great Gingko of Kokubun-jiThe pagoda is about 500 years old, and the main temple is the oldest structure in Takayama, built in year 757. The wooden gate, where we met our new found friend, was inherited by the temple when the Takayama Castle was destroyed in 1695.

Hida Kokubunji Temple bellI guess finding this historical gem is icing on the cake. The highlight of this discovery, really, is this good boy who gamely greeted everyone who entered the gates and warmed up to those who stroked his fur. He reminds me of Rex, who I miss terribly. If he could only be with us in this trip, he would have loved to splash around the cool waters of the Miyagawa River.

Sweet labrador who called us to check out the temple

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.

Hida Takayama’s Morning Market

Local products at the Miyagawa Morning Market

On this pleasantly cool spring day of May, we woke up refreshed after a long night’s rest on our tatami beds. It’s our second day in the quaint town of Hida Takayama, a rustic gem more than three hours away by bus from Nagoya City. This was to be our kickoff point to the Japan Alps over the next couple of days. Yesterday was tiring but well worth the effort of cycling uphill to explore the well preserved houses and viewing the snow capped mountains in the distance from Hida No Sato (Hida Folk Village).

Today was meant to explore the town by foot. So D and I started off looking fot breakfast. Luckily, Rickshaw Inn where we are staying at was only a few hundred meters away from the Miyagawa Morning Market ( or coming from the Takayama train station, it’s about 10 minutes’ walk). You won’t miss it as it’s right past the Kajibashi Bridge which crosses over the Miyagawa River. We spotted the stalls easily, as the flock of locals and tourists checking out the merchandise was an instant giveaway.Mochi

Mochi

At the market we saw local products like crafts, souvenirs, fresh harvest (like mushrooms, fruit and greens) and food (takoyaki, pickles, Japanese chips). As soon as we got to the market we were greeted by a friendly seller of chick designed mochi, a sweet Japanese delicacy made of rice cake and some fillings. Next to the mochi stall I found the place where I was to have breakfast (toast, salad, fruit and coffee). Local products at the Miyagawa Morning Market

D found his newly found favorite hida beef skewers. I think he’s indulged in too much hida beef in this trip. He describes it as soft, juicy and quite tasty. I don’t think hida beef is widely sold in the Philippines. I hear about Kobe beef all the time, but nothing about hida beef until now. Well, that and I don’t eat meat. According to the locals, hida beef is from black-haired cattle raised in the Gifu prefecture for at least fourteen months. Hida Beef skewer

There is another market further upstream called Jinya mae Morning Market. I read from reviews that most of the locals choose to go there over the more touristy Miyagawa Morning Market.

I liked our trip to the market because we got to interact with the locals, appreciate the cleanliness of the surroundings, took in fresh air and enjoyed the view of the river. It was also close to the historical places and the Takayama Old Town. True enough, after my hearty breakfast, we made our way to the river, every once in a while stopping to say hello and pat dogs being walked by their furparents (because the morning market was pet friendly!). The river was clean, and I was able to feed fish with feed I bought from the market. Several types of colorful birds also frolicked on the riverbanks, and as I gazed at them flying around us, I knew then and there that today was going to be awesome.

Window Seat

Sunset and the horizon

When was the last time you felt differently, looking at the same things you see all the time?

One of the things I’ve been accustomed to over the years of traveling is to get myself an aisle seat. This way I won’t have to excuse myself with the folks who have to stand up so I can scoot my way over to the bathroom when I feel like it, and I’d also have easy access to the door when it’s time to deplane.

Today is The Wayfarers’ first trip together to Nagoya. For the first time I didn’t fuss about securing an aisle seat. This trip was meant for us to unwind and let loose, and it begins with letting the check-in counter decide which seats we are to take. And as destiny would arrange for it, I got the window seat.

When we boarded the plane, I figured to take in this trip with a fresh perspective, imagining it was my first time to fly. I listened as I watched the flight attendant demostrate the safety features. When the airplane zoomed up from the runway, I gaped at the window, wide eyed as I quickly scanned the houses and streets as they got smaller and farther. Truimphant at having spotted them, I pointed to D what I believed were the malls outside our subdivision. And as the plane got higher, I saw from a distance the dramatic landscape of the mountains, dominated by Mt. Makiling at the south.

Now as I write this, my view shows me a sea of clouds, and every now and then some tiny specks of what seem like bodies of water as we head up north of Luzon. It’ll still be a little more than three hours for us to get to Japan. Until then, I’ll close the window shades first. I’m at the sunnier side of the plane after all.

Clouds

Japan, Always

Hachiko

Every year since 2010, D and I go at least annually to The Land of the Rising Sun. A little over four hours away by flight from Manila, Japan is the number one travel destination in my list at any given time. It is where I can walk around without a solid itinerary on hand, as I am sure I would manage to get lost, stumble upon interesting finds and learn a few things. D and I are also always amazed at this country’s cleanliness, the order and discipline of the Japanese people, the way we feel safe walking its streets, and the people’s overall respectful nature. Our favorite seasons are spring (cherry blossoms!) and autumn.

Tokyo, day and night
Tokyo, day and night

During our first few visits, D and I had our share of tourist boo-boos. We’ve missed a couple of trains and platforms because of the complexity of the subway system. It was something easily rectified later on as we figured the different trains are color coded, and each station has their respective “codes”. In Tokyo, there is a massive underground network connecting the subway stations – and admittedly this is something that we have yet be familiar on. For now, we still just wing it every single time.

In the trains and buses, I always get overwhelmed by the silence – in a good way. It’s something that I only see in Japan – people do not talk on their phones. I was told that they do not make calls or keep their phones on silent when in transit out of consideration and respect to the people around them. I wish we can have that in my city.

Walkway
Picturesque path outside the office

Lastly, what I admire about the Japanese is the way they take pride in their work and craft. It’s always a treat to eat at the restaurants, or buy Japanese-made souvenirs because of the way they are carefully prepared. During my last visit a couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of having a couple of multi-course Japanese dinners. Several small plate meals were served one at a time: a variety of colors, textures, and tastes. I thought I’ve already had a taste of all kinds of Japanese food, and boy that was an eye opener – Japanese cuisine is so vast. This makes me excited to discover more in our upcoming visit – that, and the fact that we go off the beaten track for a change.

Various Japanese dishes
Various Japanese dishes

Have you been to Japan? What do you like most about it?

 

 

Bicol Beaches, in a Heartbeat

Roadtrip

“If you were taking a road trip tomorrow, where would you go?”

I came across this question in my A Sentence A Day diary that a good friend gave me for my birthday a couple of years ago. The diary has different questions I get to respond to with a one-liner, and these questions repeat on the same date for three years. Reading through my answers for the previous year, not only do I get to appreciate how time flies, but more importantly I get to reflect how my thoughts and feelings evolve and change on these different points in time.

Today’s question is different: after writing my response, I took read through my entry for last year and realized my thoughts remained the same. In a heartbeat I wrote beaches in Bicol, Luzon’s southernmost province. I’ve only been to Bicol once, when D and I spent a weekend exploring the surrounding areas of the majestic (and notoriously shy) Mayon Volcano. Because we were there for only a couple of days, we were not able to go to the beautiful beaches nearby.

First on my list (which I wrote this same day last year) is Caramoan Islands. It’s an isolated, and undeveloped rugged paradise composed of a cluster of islands in Bicol’s Camarines Sur. Tourists of Caramoan compare this beautiful place with El Nido in Palawan.

This year, I’ve written down Calaguas Islands as my road trip dream destination. It’s about 325 kilometers (one way) drive from Manila to the province of Camarines Norte in Bicol. Some dub this group of islands as “the next Boracay” because of its fine white sand.

Same thoughts for the same question, for two years in a row. I’m still trying to convince D to drive to any of these destinations – he said not this summer as the beaches are already packed (The heat is ON!), and he said I might want to consider flying to Bicol instead.

However which way, I intend to go to Bicol, to either (or both) Caramoan or Calaguas. Definitely this year, first chance I get. I have faith. It’ll be awesome!

boat
an almost empty white sand beach

 

A Forest Trek to Remember

Forest

A couple of weeks ago, we got up at 4AM on a Sunday morning and drove 188 kilometers (a little over 3 hours) to Subic, Zambales. We have enlisted in MadTravel‘s trek at the Bataan forest of Subic Bay – one of the last thriving rain forests in the Philippines. It was their first official trek with guests on this route and we were quite excited being part of this adventure.

After a quick Jollibee breakfast (we didn’t want to miss the call time), we drove from the Lighthouse Resort Hotel to El Kabayo, where we were welcomed by the elders of the Aetas of Pastolan with homemade Bataan coffee and sweet bananaQ. The aetas, the indigenous people who were the first race who inhabited the Philippines, were awarded ancestral land in Zambales. Five percent of the income of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) goes to the aetas. They use this funding for education, health, and providing allowances for their seniors.

As we began to walk through the forest trail, the aeta elders showed us the different trees and plants they use for medicinal and housekeeping purposes. The trees that stood out for me most were the cupang, tangisang bayawak and the lauan trees. These native tropical trees stood tallest among the rest of the trees and filled the path with their shade – hiding birds of different species and beautiful sounds in their canopies.Bamboo forest

We were told that the cupang tree’s parts had medicinal properties: from its bark, seeds and fruit. The leaves are small and clustered, and when they fall off the trees are quick to decompose, fertilizing the soil around the trees easily.

The tangisang bayawak (Ficus variegata Blume), is called such because of its bark’s smooth texture that lizards are unable to climb the trees at all. The base of the tree are huge, and they remind me of the trees that grew in the temples of Siem Reap.

The lauan, my new favorite tropical tree, produces flowers that are so fragrant. It was a breeze walking under the lauan trees as the scent was very good – it reminds of me potpourri that are sold in shopping malls.Forest

After about an hour, we reached the river and a small falls. Some of the folks in the group took the time to dip into the cool, clear waters. My small group walked up the stream and met some locals and their friendly dog, Lasing. Doggie

Sitting on the rocks on the stream and gazing up to the green foliage, I saw different colorful birds fly above us. It was at this moment that I said a little prayer of thanks for having been able to see this little piece of heave on earth, and being given the chance to be one with nature.NatureWater

Later on, the elders told stories under mahogany trees that were planted by the army. Mahogany trees are not really friendly to the tropical rain-forest as they consume the nutrients of the soil around them. Notice how there are no plants growing directly under the mahogany trees. I think this is one of the things that environmental organizations like Haribon have been communicating more on during tree-planting volunteering activities to increase the public’s awareness, as most of the trees in Metro Manila urban areas are not native tropical trees and do not really help in propagating rain-forests.Hearing stories from an Elder

The aetas make their own honey, and D and I had a taste of different sweet varieties: mango, lauan, and pamulaklakin. Because the latter two were so new to us, and to support the local livelihood, we got bottles of lauan and pamulaklakin. Now we are able to enjoy our tea with these sweet varieties of honey.

As we got back to where we started, I reflected on what our generation now can do to be able to preserve these rain forests.  I remember when I was a child, whenever I go to our backyard, I can see the mountains of Sierra Madre from afar, and I used to think that if i was able to cross those mountains, at the other side I will get to see my family in the United States (well, that was my then perspective on distance). Now, I am told that the mountains can hardly be seen because of the houses and concrete that block the view.

When we got back to the parking site, we spent another hour planting seeds of tropical trees like rambutan, marang, durian. When these seeds turn into seedlings, the aetas will replant them into the rain-forest so that the biodiversity can be enriched. To date, there is only two percent of rain forests left in the Philippines. The number is shocking, but I believe there is hope – if people become more aware and appreciate the importance of saving our earth – not just for ourselves but for the generations, of different creatures, yet to come.

 

 

 

 

Taal Travels: The Marino-Agoncillo Home

Flag

A day tour in the town of Taal, Batangas, always feel like traveling back in time. Gazing up the vintage houses, I realize these are ancestral homes of families whose roots date back to the Spanish colonization era.

Batangas is one of the eight provinces condemned and oppressed by the Spanish government. The other provinces were Manila, Nueva Ecija, Tarlac, Laguna, Bulacan, Cavite and Pampanga. Together, these eight provinces would take the lead in fighting for the Philippine independence. As I walk along the streets lined with vintage homes, I cannot help but feel a sense of Filipino patriotism and pride.

Last week I wrote about Galleria Taal, a vintage camera and photograph museum located along Taal’s main road. A few meters away from Galleria Taal is another beautifully preserved heritage house: The Marino-Agoncillo Home.

Dona Marcela Marino-Agoncillo is known as the Mother of the Philippine Flag. She and her husband Felipe Agoncillo, were both born in Taal and studied in Manila. When they returned to Taal, Felipe became known for his legal services to the poor. In 1896, Felipe escaped to Hong Kong after he was accused of being a filibusteroan opponent to the Spanish regime. His family followed suit and lived with him in exile in Hong Kong. To help earn a bit of income, Marcela made sweets and delicacies that they sold in Hong Kong. When General Emilio Aguinaldo was also exiled to Hong Kong, he asked the help of Marcela to make the Philippine flag. Marcela, together with her daughter, Lorenza, and Delfina Herbosa Natividad, carefully sewed the first Philippine flag on silk, and completed it within five days. This flag was shown in Cavite City on 28 May 1898 during the celebration of the revolutionary army’s victory over the Spanish forces.

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As we entered the house, we ascended its wooden staircase which led to the receiving area, living room and dining hall. The walls and the furniture were mostly made of wood. Rooms were interconnected, and it was amazing to see old trinkets like the sungka (today’s version of a gameboard). There was also an old sewing machine that caught my eye – as I remember we had something similar back home when I was a little girl.

Sungka
Sungka

What I like about old houses in the Philippines is the airy feeling from the spacious rooms whose ceilings were also high. They had little to no electricity back then but the houses were well ventilated because the wind could freely blow through the windows, and the trees in their gardens provide shade. A walk in heritage houses also brings me to imagine how it must have felt like living in the olden days. I imagine several decades from now, when the future generations walk through our homes now, they would likewise bring themselves to imagine how simple our lives now must have been.

What comes to your mind when you see or enter vintage houses?