Slow Season In Sambal Country

An edited version was first published by GMA Online during this year’s Eid on June 15. Special thanks to editors Lou Albano and Bing Marchadesch for running the piece.

Indonesia is like a magical alternate Philippines. From the sky, it looks like my beloved country in every way: lights and highways and the sea on the peripheries, residential houses, skyscrapers and looming thunderclouds on the horizon. When you finally land at the airport, you feel all the more at home because the airport looks just as modern as our very own Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and even has three terminals, just like ours.

But once you get inside the airport, you become a bit disoriented by the sweet scent of cloves left by kretek smoke on people’s clothes, and by the strange yet familiar language coming out of the speakers. Bahasa Indonesia and Filipino share many words together: kanan, dua, sinta, dalamhati, mahal, which indicate a much deeper connection than Anggun and Gudang Garam. As far back as the Madjapahit Empire in precolonial Philippines, we’ve enjoyed a rich history with our Indonesian brothers, as ancient trade records in Butuan, Davao and other parts of Mindanao have borne out.

At 2 million square kilometers in size and with a population of more than 260 million, Indonesia is a much larger version of the Philippines. A sense of expanse is immediately palpable in its public spaces. For one, the Soekarno-Hatta Airport is HUGE, almost seven square miles in size, roughly equivalent to 300 football fields!

However, I was even more surprised to discover that, according to Wikipedia, the Philippines actually has more people per square kilometer (40,000) than Indonesia (only 144). Which was probably why I felt the country had a lot more breathing space, not just physically but psychologically. Being an hour behind Manila, Indonesia felt slower in many ways. People looked somewhat more relaxed and took their time with their activities, something that you’d typically associate with rural living, but was the case even in cosmopolitan Jakarta.

Perhaps it was also because I arrived on the third day of Ramadan, the slowest season in the Islamic world, when Muslims fasted, spent much of their days in prayer, read the Koran, and basically acknowledged that there is more to this world than just eating, drinking, being merry, and working to death.

Being a Muslim living in Quezon City, I’ve always wanted to experience Ramadan in a Muslim- majority nation, even for just a few days. Allah was merciful and finally granted my wish in the form of my best friend Ging, who agreed to sponsor my trip to Jakarta as a special token of our profound and amazing 34-year sisterhood. She’d been working in Jakarta for the last 2 years and already had an excellent command of conversational Bahasa, so I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect tour guide!

A small but awesome side note about my friend’s residence in Central Jakarta where I stayed for the next few days: Ging lives in a very modern building where a small village, complete with roads, trees and two-storey homes with garages, actually sits on top of its 10th floor!

 

JKT 10th flr screenshot
The future of urban living: mini-Forbes park on the 10th floor

Jaywalker’s Paradise

Many of my friends who’ve been to Jakarta only remember the wide stretch of highways, toll routes, and Dutch-influenced architecture lining these massive roads. Indeed, Jakarta will disappoint if you’re in a taxi or car the whole time. Jakarta is best when walked, slowly (as is any other city, in my opinion!)

On one edge of their massive highway in Central Jakarta, ojeks (motorcyclists) waited for passengers, and not a few offered me their services as I negotiated the roads. After all, I was the only tourist crazy enough to be walking along major thoroughfares – and even cross it without using a pedestrian lane (because there was no such thing for at least another mile around). I’m one of those idiots who will cross a road in Manila even when cars are coming at me at 60 kilometers per hour, but thankfully, Allah has kept me alive long enough to bring me to the jaywalker’s paradise that is Jakarta.

I was astounded by the patience displayed by Indonesian motorists as they slowed down to let me jaywalk on their busy roads. Even if I were walking with a cane, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference; they would’ve still waited for me to get to the other side of the road, when my fellow Filipinos back home would’ve simply run me over and boasted about it to their neighbors.

At one point, I came upon a railroad crossing, its gate closed. Even the train was slow to arrive, so I walked across the tracks while the motorists stared. My death-defying walk ironically took me to a cemetery, where for some bizarre reason, I quickly glimpsed from my peripheral vision, a familiar name on a tombstone: the name of my favorite Indonesian writer whose book made me ugly-cry inside an Ikot jeep in UP Diliman during my freshman year: Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who wrote an unforgettable epic love story called This Earth Of Mankind and turned it into 3 more books dubbed as The Buru Quartet.

Holy Grounds

It would’ve been difficult for me to appreciate the cavernous wonders of Istiqlal Mosque without Ging, who interviewed our non-English-speaking Muslim guide as he led us barefoot inside the mosque and told us about the place. I’d always entertained the conceit that I could easily connect to a fellow Muslim anywhere in the world by virtue of our shared religion, but this notion fell apart that day, as I could only smile and nod to our guide’s strained efforts at English (and inwardly, tear my hair for not knowing enough languages!)

Istiqlal Mosque was built for 17 years and completed in the 1970s to celebrate Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch. Non-Muslims are welcome to visit the holy grounds as long as they dress modestly. Aside from its pedigree as an important place visited by many heads of state from around the world, the mosque is a true sanctuary for the country’s downtrodden. Those with nowhere else to go or wanting to seek divine wisdom for their problems stay in Istiqlal for as long as three months, their food, shelter and toilet needs all covered during their stay.

Right in front of the mosque is the Jakarta Cathedral, whose parishioners use the mosque’s parking lot for overflow traffic on Sundays and other Catholic holidays. Peaceful coexistence is the norm, reminding me of a similarly amazing sight back home: that of the Golden Mosque, just across the street from Quiapo Church, whose parishioners buy DVDs, dusters and other wares from Muslim vendors in the area.

Unfortunately, a fragile peace exists in other parts of Indonesia (as is also the case in the Philippines), with Surabaya province that time just having been wracked by three church bombings, disturbingly carried out by extremist couples and their very own children as young as 7 years old. The specter of extremism, a possible response to some perceived excess and slight from modern society, has begun to loom much larger all over the world and is needing a much more concerted effort from global players to contain.

Mall Culture

Walking around the vicinity of Thamrin City, I saw that the restaurants were open but most had their shades and curtains on the whole day. I was told that they do so out of consideration for passers-by who are observing puasa (fasting) on Ramadan.

I didn’t notice any other unusual sight for the day. That part of Central Jakarta looked like Ortigas Center. There was even a Shangri-La Hotel nearby. In front of our building was an Ascott and the Grand Indonesia Mall, a good place to go people-watching.

If conservatism is determined by the length of sleeve or hem, then Indonesians are quite conservative. But there is sophistication in their style, and a desire to heighten, not hide, their beauty, which is somewhat at odds with the much more severe sensibility of middle-eastern Islam. The women wear colorful hijabs (veils) loosely over tunic blouses, jeans, and pumps, heels or sneakers, though I was surprised to see one or two flaunting some skin now and then (most likely, non-Muslim). The men were typical jeans and shirt or hoodie-wearing blokes, just like ours back home. This made me realize that there are many other ways of being Muslim, and I’m liking the kikay Indonesian version a lot.

One other thing I noticed about the Indonesian women was how they loved their eyelash extensions and cream baths with a passion!

While Ging was at work, I decided to meet my long-time Indonesian friend, Amelia, at an office she shared with her half-Filipino husband Yosef. She had just come from a long commute while I’d gotten lost in the streets of East Kuningan looking for her address, so it didn’t take us too long to decide to just go to the mall and do the cream bath thing to destress.

What we had was basically a hair spa treatment that also offered a head and half-body massage, a hot trend in Jakarta. Seated side by side together inside the salon, Amelia and I caught up with each other’s lives while salon attendants gave us soothing head, arm and back rubs. What a pleasure that was!

A trip to any mall wouldn’t be complete without a detour to the grocery, and an Indonesian grocery is a food lover’s paradise. Shelves are stacked with so many products, mostly local. I would want to keep getting my kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), java arabica coffee (as we know, Indonesian coffee is world-class), soto betawi (instant noodle variant), salak (snake fruit), kripik (kropek – and my Allah, they have all types!) or sambal fix back home. While I was happy that the franchise for Alfamart (a popular Indonesian convenience store) had already been bought by SM, the store doesn’t actually carry Indonesian products as of this time. I hope this great injustice on my taste buds can be addressed soon!

Ramadan From A City Girl’s View

I’ve always had a bit of a struggle observing Ramadan in a predominantly non-Muslim nation, which is why it was such a pleasure to hear from Maya, my new Indonesian friend, about how Ramadan is observed in predominantly Muslim Jakarta.

She says that every morning she wakes up very early at 2:30 for the sahoor meal, which is the only meal she will have the whole day. “I’ll have some fried rice and chicken nugget or even Indomie instant noodles,” she says. “Before sahoor, children in my area will hit their kentongan (small bamboo drum) and bucket, and yell the word “sahoor” to wake us all up.”

After the morning prayer, Maya goes to work. During Ramadan, however, many companies have shorter office hours. Usually, work will end earlier than usual, by 4pm or so in the afternoon. By dusk, people will be spilling into the restaurants to wait for 6pm, when the iftar, the meal to break the fast, will be taken. This is signaled by an Arabic prayer that’s put on every loudspeaker in the city.

I will never forget one iftar moment at a Burger King joint. As early as 5pm, Muslims observing the fast, including a young boy, had already ordered their food. It waited on trays in front of them as they sat together in groups, or by their lonesome. But everyone, even the young boy, was able to contain their hunger and patiently wait for 6pm to arrive. It was so surreal to witness this collective manifestation of piety and compassion for the hungry and the poor in a most unlikely place – where food is supposed to be consumed right away. In a sense, it takes the word “fast food” to a whole new level!

Food trip

On one occasion, Ging brought me to a padang restaurant near her office. The padang concept comes from an Indonesian city of the same name in West Sumatra where they serve the dishes in two ways: pesang (order) where the viands are stacked on top of one another at a display window and a customer points to the dishes he wants to have, or hidang (serve), which is when people have a sit-down dinner and confronted by an array of mouth-watering dishes already set upon a table. You’re given a plate and a serving of rice, and you’re ready to go. You only pay for the viands you consume.

At around 6pm, the sound of the Arabic prayer broke through the restaurant loudspeakers, and everyone uttered their prayers, took a sip of water and prepared to have their dinner.

Ging and I ate practically everything that was there: ayam gulai (chicken curry); rendang daging (spicy beef), kikil sambal cabe hijau (green chili), gulai otak (ox brain), sayur daun singkong (cassava leaves), sambal pete (green beans), sambal kentang (potatoes), kripik kentang balado (spicy potato chips), sambal udang (shrimp paste), sate padang (grilled chicken), paru goring padang (lung), and cumi-cumi gulai (squid).

On one other occasion, Ging brought me to an iftar buffet at the Marriott hotel in Kuningan. There was no real difference from our hotel buffets back home, except for the unbelievable price. The eat-all-you-can buffet amounted to the equivalent of only about P300 per head!

A Weekend In Jogja

Almost 600 kilometers away from Jakarta is a city called Jogjakarta in Central Java. Fondly nicknamed Jogja, the city is famous for being a university town and academic hub, as well as being a take-off spot for those visiting the ancient sites of Borobudur and Prambanan located at the outskirts.

From the 8th floor of the Grand Quality Hotel where we stayed, Jogja reminded me so much of Cagayan De Oro, with its greenery and low-rise buildings cupped by a basin-shaped expanse. Unfortunately, our otherwise uninterrupted view of the sky was marred by haze due to volcanic ash from Mount Merapi, which was on Level 2 alert, effectively dashing our hopes of ever seeing Borobodur, which lay near the foot of the volcano.

The young vibe was very strong in this town, and it was only apt that my millennial Filipino-Indonesian niece Mitzi was to show us around. She brought us to the Jogja National Museum to attend a major international exhibit called Art Jog, where we excitedly spotted the works of three Filipino artists: my fellow musician friend Wawi Navarroza; Ronald Ventura; and Jigger Cruz.

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Art by Jigger Cruz

 I was especially moved by an interactive installation that involved shadows, another one with a room full of flowers painstakingly made from tissue paper, and another one that featured a huge breathing stone.

JKT jogja art shadow
Me and the ghost writer

 

On our second day at Jogja, we visited Prambanan temple, about a 15-minute drive from the hotel. The bas-reliefs on the stones, dating back all the way to the 9th century, told the story of Ramayana and the perpetual one-upmanship happening between gods and demons as they constantly tricked each other. Each temple housed one of the following gods and their incarnations: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and my favorite little god Nandi, a water buffalo that was the messenger of the gods. In Nandi’s low temple, I quietly made a wish as I ran my hand across its smooth body made of ancient volcanic stone, and felt a calm energy go through my body: perhaps the wish had been successfully sent, after all!

 

PHOTO 13 jogja prambanan ging me
At Prambanan Temple, a 9th-century wonder made of stones stacked like legos

After a quiet afternoon at the ancient ruins of Ratu Boko, a 15-minute drive from Prambanan, we decided to have an early dinner at a hole-in-the-wall back in Jogja that served the region’s most famous delicacy: gudeg, made from unripe jackfruit – yes, langka! – and slow-cooked in palm sugar and coconut milk. Variants may contain chicken, beef and hard-boiled egg, and look just like our adobo. This dish is sold in cans or clay pots wrapped in cloth.

JOGJA malioboro

At Malioboro Road, a bigger version of our very own Divisoria, with endless stalls selling batik clothes, bags, and other wares

The Other Philippines

There is still so much to explore in Indonesia, at prices that didn’t ruin you. The airfare to Jakarta from Manila is a little steep if you don’t avail of a promo flight, but once you get here, the prices of things seem to diminish without effect on quality or experience. In Malioboro Road at Jogja, I was able to buy quality printed t-shirts for less than P100, while back in Jakarta, my grocery items set me back by less than a thousand pesos.

Unfortunately, I met a terrible problem at the airport as I was checking into my flight back to Manila: Excess Baggage!

That unfortunate hitch notwithstanding (the only one I had throughout the whole trip, praise Allah), I still think my Ramadan holiday in Indonesia has been one of my most perfect vacations ever, and it could be for anybody else wanting to experience this country like never before.

So, terima kasih to my best friend Ging, my cousin Allan and his daughter Mitzi, my college friends Amelia and Yosef, my new Indonesian friends Maya, Dina and her crew, and of course, Indonesia itself, for ever giving way to this crazy jaywalking Filipino traveler!

 

***

Becoming The Mountain

I knew that at 2926 meters above sea level (the signage might no longer be accurate, says a senior ranger), Mount Pulag was the highest mountain in Northern Luzon. I also knew that a long time ago, she was the mountain that replaced me.

photo 1

It was at that point that I lost all desire to write. And I mean really write. Serious literature, not the hanapbuhay essays that I continue to do for a living to this day. Serious writing is about recording beauty all around us. But what was the point of doing this kind of writing when I was hating and being jealous of anything that was beautiful in any way, much more recording it for posterity with my fingers?

I’m telling you this in hindsight, because I didn’t know how deep the cut was until this year, when I got accepted to the Workshop.

I’d attended several writing workshops before, but this was the one that awakened all sorts of dormant memories. The sessions were intense. One in particular reduced us to tear-stained rags. Our mentor, Ricky Lee, calls the culprit “bubog.” Shards of glass inside ourselves, their sharp edges like arrows, giving direction to our character, our destiny.

And the arrow of destiny pointed me ever upwards, at 2926 above sea level, to a place where clouds were king. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll find out why this mountain was so paking special.

photo 2
Kat, Jef, Reg and me at Camp 1

Some of my climbing companions would later share that at the peak of their suffering, they started asking why they were climbing the goddamned mountain in the first place. For someone like me who’d just recovered from a major illness and wasn’t really in top physical shape, my negative “why” was a source of energy, pushing me forward, making me accomplish the impossible.

But really, the mountain could just as well be accomplished with a much lesser drama. My husband #Robert, our 16-year old son #Alon, and three more dear friends #Jeff #Kat and #Regina were all first-timers doing the climb purely for fun, and they all reached the summit anyway like I did, only I had more “baggage” – literally and metaphorically.

In my backpack I had a pair of sandals, a change of clothes, binoculars and even toll receipts (which I’d forgotten to transfer to my other bag). Later, when the climb was over and we weren’t snappy anymore from the absolute fatigue, we would all laugh about my bag, which Jef called “the refrigerator.”

Our mountain guide, Angie, was a dusky, freckled, rosy-cheeked 15-year old who couldn’t have been more than four feet tall. She was an excellent navigator but not so much a motivator. When the going got very tough several times along the way, all she could do was stop and watch with a kind of bemused concern as we all struggled to catch our breaths in the ever-thinning air. We missed our expert mountaineer friend #Neil at these crucial times. As Robert remarked: climbing a mountain at this level of difficulty is not just about physical stamina; it’s also about the mental conditioning. We remembered how Neil had confidently directed and set the pace for our previous climbs in Batulao and Pico De Loro.

photo 3
With our teenage mountain guide Angie

Mount Pulag (the Ambangeg trail we were on, at least) was a Level 3 in terms of difficulty. What made it really challenging, however, was the altitude. You had to provide a medical certificate at the Ranger Station to prove your fitness.

You can read all the available literature online about the mountain, about high-altitude climbing, about temperatures dropping down to eight degrees or lower even in the summer, about the rains that muddied the trails and ruined rubber shoes, to help prepare yourself. You can do 42-kilometer marathons or 300-kilometer Audax bike rides to get yourself in tip-top shape. You can jog or swim everyday. But all of that wouldn’t be enough to prepare you for Mount Pulag.

She was stormy, feisty, difficult. She was four seasons in one day. Everyone wanted to be with her.

Her wedding trail was long and beaded with many footsteps.

Now, it had mine.

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It was cold and foggy when we started our ascent from Ranger Station in Babalak, Benguet Province at one in the morning of May 14, fueled by cinnamon bread, noodles and instant coffee bought at a sari-sari store a few minutes down from our homestay at Baban’s.

Hundreds of other people were also doing the hike, racing against time to catch the famed sunrise with sea of clouds at the summit. We all had to make the 8 kilometers in four hours. There were many foreigners. Some parties were really loud, which was both an annoyance and a relief all at once, as one could actually fall asleep while hiking. We found this all too true with Jef, who, on our way down the mountain later, was constantly asking if we were on the right path as he couldn’t remember anymore.

It was amazing how, despite having to wear three layers of tops (dry-fit, fleece and waterproof), two layers of leggings, and two layers of socks due to the intense cold, I was in fact sweating. I had to concentrate as I had poor balance and feared twisting my ankle on some rock. Only the path in front of me was illuminated by my dim headlamp – everything else was dark. I could barely look up the sky as I was so focused on the path ahead: stony one moment, muddy and slippery the next; gently sloping one moment, spiking at 45 degrees the next. As the night wore away and light creeped in, I could see outlines of mountains and trees in the distance. Three or so hours into the climb, I could also see the path narrowing until it was only the mountain face on your right and the valley of death on your left. Everybody tugged for dear life at the cogon grass on their right. I had already worn my gloves at this point and glanced back at the view. It was magnificent. A beeline of headlamps was making its way up the mountain as the fog and light rain swirled all around us.

But even more marvelous was the sight of Alon in front of me, carrying his heavy backpack. He’s always had allergies and respiratory ailments but there he was, climbing strongly in the thin air, never losing his footing. Occasionally he would let out a grunt to express his frustration, but that was it. He stopped walking only when we did. He was so slim but so strong and flexible as bamboo. Also, he looked like a very handsome llama with his long neck, nose, curly hair, and ability to carry a heavy load. What a beauty he was turning out to be.

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With our six-footer llama Alon on the right

The sky was a curtain of dirty white when we neared the summit. In the beginning, only Reg and I bothered to walk the rest of the way to where the signage was. Photos or it didn’t happen, says the Instagram generation. Everybody else had the same thought as they patiently waited for their turn to do the requisite hallelujah-I-survived-Mount-Pulag jumpshots at the signage. Eventually, the rest of our party came to their senses and moved our rest spot further up at the summit and also had their photos taken at the signage.


pulag sign
I didn’t survive Mount Pulag; I conquered it, said Kat. Yes, you did, my love!

The summit is always cold

The warmth is had in the trying

You climb and reach the sky

Because it is there

And then, like magic, the curtain of dirty white fog and cloud parted to reveal the sun. People gasped in awe and furiously whipped out their cameras. Then the sun hid again.

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I had an inner knowing that the view would come back; I only had to wait. True enough, it came back. The fog disappeared, the sun showed up and the clouds rolled underneath the sun like massive waterfalls without sound.

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After the furious picture-taking, we hunkered down to our military-grade, ready-to-eat meals. I quickly made heat by pouring a bit of water into a plastic bag of gunpowder solution. It boiled quickly and I warmed my frozen hands on the fumes. Actually, we were all too tired and cold to eat and raring to get down the mountain already. Also, it was getting quite windy at the top.

Without another word, we started our descent. And in the daylight, we finally saw how breathtaking our path had been. Rolling hills everywhere, winding paths of broken stone, flowers that looked like moths, great tree trunks stretching out onto the valley like arms, mossy trees straight out of Little Red Riding Hood.

restop2001

Two things about the mountain in particular made me stop and live in the moment for a while. First was the spring water gushing from a black plastic tube. I cupped the water on my palm and drank. It was clean but not sweet. Second was the edible berry from the shrubs. I remember being so focused on looking for the blue ones and not the red. I remember eating a few and relishing the sourness.

Then the light bulb moment came.

The mountain is generous. The mountain is kind.

I have felt something happening over the years in my own life. As I matured, I became more needed and as I became more needed, I felt more compelled to give. And as I gave more of myself, I found myself wanting to stay more often at home to be with my loved ones. I traveled rarely, and even then, it was always with the people I loved. For the most part, I simply became more and more rooted, irreplaceable…

Just like the very mountain that once replaced me.

May 20, 2017
UP Village

From Tokyo to Kochi: an unforgettable adventure around Japan’s amazing railways (last of three parts)

 

okayama station

 

art shot trash station

Kochi Prefecture in Shikoku Island is almost 800 kilometers away from Tokyo. That’s like traveling from Manila to Benguet and back, THEN up again!  But since we were coming from Osaka, it took only about an hour of travel by bullet train.

From Okayama Station, we boarded the Nanpu train heading into the hinterlands of Kochi at around 3pm. We almost missed it because we were waiting for the 3.05pm train to arrive. Take note: the times indicated on the schedule are the departure times! So board a train at least five minutes before the indicated time on the schedule!

train2

We were in for quite a pleasant shock, as the Nanpu traveled an extremely scenic route that took our breaths away. The train whizzed along on a great bridge over an inland sea, going into tunnels, overlooking pretty little towns at the foot of mountains dotted with sakura trees in bloom. Several stops along the way gave us a stationary view of these quaint little towns. As we got nearer and nearer to Kochi, a clear river came up alongside us, as though in greeting. Mika would later tell us that Kochi was home to two of the cleanest rivers in all of Japan, the Shimanto and Niyodo.

oboke from nanpu

 

sofie making face in nanpu
Sofie clowns around inside the Nanpu.

train to kochi

At around 5.30 in the afternoon, the Nanpu pulled up at Kochi Station in Shikoku Island.

Kochi city was quiet. The buildings were all low – no skyscraper anywhere. The great expanse of sky was the first thing you noticed, and the Kochi Station was built as though to greet that sky for all time.

kochi train station

My friend Mika collected us at a little past 6. We gave each other warm hugs.

We had come a very loooong way from home!

We then piled into Mika’s car and set out for the first event of the night: the cultural night at Kochi Castle, one of several in Japan still in their centuries-old original state.

On the way, we searched for some parking space, avoiding the already-packed castle grounds. We ended up parking some 10 minutes away, at a mechanized parking tower along the main road. It amazed me no end. Thanks to some superior mechanical engineering, your car was hauled up to the tower, and then brought down when needed. Mika was amused by my amazement.

Yes, I’m that kind of person. I never take any kind of marvelous for granted.

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High-tech parking, with Alon checking out the vendo.

 

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More of Kochi City!
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A view of sakura at night, at the Kochi Castle grounds

 

We witnessed many families picnicking under the sakura trees. The practice was called “hanami,” and it would go on all over Japan as long as the revered trees were in bloom.

hanami in kochi
Hanami at Kochi Castle grounds

Then we went to a place called Habotan to have our dinner. It was packed with locals and didn’t seem very tourist-friendly – no English language posters in sight. We felt very privileged to have Mika with us to translate all exchanges she was having in English. The highlight of the dinner was the serving of whale. Yes, in Kochi, whale hunting is allowed. It is part of the culture.

whale meat

 

mika and us at first resto stop
With Mika, a dear friend I’d met some twenty years earlier in Tokyo. She does private tours for people visiting Kochi.

 

big blazer in kochi mall
The Japanese concept of a clothing ad! At Obiya-Machi, a strip that sees many bazaars and artsy events on Sunday mornings.

Then after a quick stop to a drugstore, we set out for Mika’s home. We had no idea where she was taking us. From the city, she went on a winding road going up the mountains. It was pretty dark along the way.

After about half an hour of travel, we reached a hilly village with very narrow paths. Houses lined either side of the roads. You’d think they were all unoccupied because of the deep quiet.

Then, we pulled up in front of what looked like a traditional house. It was dark and drizzling and cold, and there was fog all over, so I could only glean the outlines of her home. You could hear the sound of a river flowing at the foot of the hill. It felt magical.

With the aid of a cellphone torch, we found our way towards the front door. We removed our shoes and wore house slippers that Mika had readied by the door.

Finally, we had arrived at Mika’s home.

mika crib
Mika’s crib in Tosayama, a village of less than a thousand residents.

 

Tosayama1
Spectacular view from Mika’s house.
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The road going down to Kochi City from Tosayama.
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Members of the Tosayama community meet at least once a month to discuss the replanting of trees, construction of common facilities, waste management concerns, etc. It’s a closely-knit community, says Mika.
breathtaking mountain view from car window tosayama
With Mika’s student, looking out across the mountains of Tosayama.

 

sakura lined
I asked Mika why the Sakura is so important to the Japanese. It’s because its flowers bloom and then, after a week or so at most, they’re gone -and then back again after a year. Beauty, impermanence and then, renewal: these are what the Sakura trees stand for.

 

Mika enlisted the help of her friend and neighbor Masa, a professional photographer, to take some shots of the trip. The ones he shot are watermarked “mk.”

 

weather in kochi ino signage
Dramatic weather on our way to Ino, another district in Kochi about fifteen minutes away.
registering for washi making ino
Registering for the papermaking class at QRAUD in Ino.

 

 

sofie makes paper
Sofie and I make some first-class Tosa washi. The fibers of the washi come from a plant unique to Kochi…upon which an extraordinary amount of hard manual labor had already been applied, long before we came in.
sofie washi 5
Sofie presses some fresh flower petals onto her washi.
mika ayumi washi 4
Batik-designed washi.

ayumi solo 4

sof and me washi

sof me holding washi
Loving Sofie’s washi. She was going to write on one to give to her best friend back home!
ayumi mika sof and me holding our washi 3
Holding up our beautiful washi, underneath amazingly lifelike wooden bird carvings, in gorgeous rainy weather. Heartburst.
alon sof playing with cat
Crazy about cats…
signage of second resto stop in kochi
The name of the ramen house where we had lunch!
me at ramen resto in kochi
Ramen, to be eaten with fried rice, was the specialty. Not for the calorie-minded!

 

Our next stop was the Yokogurayama Natural Forest Museum, hidden away in the mountains of Ochi. We were the only visitors that day. The rain didn’t let up, perhaps for good reason. The weather showcased the fine points of Tadao Ando’s world-class minimalist architecture. Infinity pools outside the building collected the rain and we could see this phenomenon from the inside via a great floor-to-ceiling glass window. We could see the droplets on the window, and feel the beautiful, fragile sadness all around us. There were trees all around – it was a natural museum after all. I remembered all the Murakami and Mishima novels I’d ever read – not the specific storylines, but the strange, sad way they made me feel. An exiled, outcast, edge-of-the-world kind of emotion. Much like the way the museum itself probably felt, tucked away in these quiet mountains.

sof and me at natural museum

yokugorohama natural museum

meteorite
Alien rocks: the museum is home to several pieces of rare meteorite.

ayumi and alon natural museum

 

After dropping off Masa at his home, Mika was back again on the wheel. We dropped by a supermarket downtown to purchase ingredients for dinner. Robert had volunteered to cook some sinigang and chicken adobo. Everyone was excited to sit down and eat!

dole bananas in kochi grocery
A much more hardcore traveler than us: Philippine bananas all the way from Davao!

 

ryoma on eggs
Sakamoto Ryoma, one of Japan’s national heroes, was born in Kochi…and is ready to be eaten anytime!

Back in Tosayama, Mika and Robert got to work in the kitchen. Robert was impressed with Mika’s cookware. Her knife had a vein on it, a sign of excellent high-grade steel. Kochi has a fine tradition of making knives and cutlery, said Mika. Schedule permitting, she would try to bring us to a traditional smith.

 

sinigang
Sinigang na Hipon. Look at how pretty the radish and shrimps look – not to mention yummy as well!

 

On the third day, the Kochi sun finally came out! Yehey!

Mika put some upbeat Japanese music on as we drove on the highway and up Mt. Godaisan, where an observatory and a temple were located. I looked all around. The countryside was planted to many cedar, maple and bamboo trees, with the ever-present sakura trees here and there. A creek flowed beneath the road, clear and blue-green. Mika sang on the wheel. It was going to be an awesome day.

bridge in kochi

warehouses kochi

kochi observatory view
A view of Kochi from the Mt. Godaisan observatory. Kochi is actually the sister city of our very own Benguet.
kochi city overlook from door
Kochi has been immortalized in the Studio Ghibli film Ocean Waves.
sofie talks to japanese
Sofie with her tita Mika and a friendly Japanese couple.
mika sof me kochi observatory
We’ve all come a long way from home!
me mika and pilgrims on stairs chikurin
On our way up Chikurin Temple.
alon with statue chikurin
Alon keeps a god company.

 

bonsai park godaisan
Bonsai garden.
strange tree at godaisan
What a tree!
grave markers
Grave markers.

By the time we were done touring Godaisan, it was already past 12 noon and we were going hungry. After getting some tawid-gutom ice cream at a souvenir shop near the parking lot, Mika decided to bring us to her favorite clam and meat restaurant for lunch.

Along the way, we passed by a small cemetery located beside…a grocery. WTF. Mika explained that in Japanese cosmology, the living and the dead co-existed side by side – in most cases, quite literally.

Then, we found ourselves on a hairpin turn, a steep elbow that led to Usa (pronounced Woo-sa) beach. The view was breathtaking.

hairpin USA beach

biking along USA beach
Bikers enjoying the view of Usa beach.

 

We pulled up at a restaurant near this beach. It was called Hagi No Chaya. We were greeted by all types of sea creatures in an area at the entrance.

lobster

alon grilling squid

 

closeup seafood grill

sofie selfie with mika alon at katsurahama lunch
Sofie takes a selfie!

group photo hagi no chaya

 

Then we were on the road again, to yet another temple called the Seiryu-ji or Blue Dragon Temple. Once in a while, we would see a pilgrim or two walking along the road, in requisite white garb, cane and backpack on hand. The whole of Shikoku Island is an important pilgrimage site, home to 88 temples that draw thousands of tourists every year.

alon blue dragon
Alon, looking very tiny below the steps of Blue Dragon Temple.
us with pilgrim blue dragon or chikurin
Talking to a pilgrim.
sof usa beach closeup
Sofie at Usa beach.

 

Again, we hopped on the car and traveled up another mountain to spend the sunset at a whale sighting viewdeck located along the Yokonami Kuro-Shio Skyline road. Two feral cats kept Alon and Sofie entertained, while low-flying kites kept Robert furiously clicking on his camera. Meanwhile, Mika and I took selfies by the windswept sea and soaked in the peaceful sights.

me and mika backs sea viewdeck

whale sighting signage

robert sea viewdeck kochi
Everywhere I point, I see nothing but beauty, remarked the husband, whose love of photography was instantly rekindled during this trip.

feral cat with view kochi

kite 5

kochi sea view 3

Mika then got a text from Masa inviting all of us to come over to his home. We agreed, but not before doing a most important stopover: a bath at a traditional onsen (natural hot spring).

We couldn’t take a decent photo of the place due to the low-light, so do check out the name Auberge Tosayama online instead! This is actually a hotel. According to Mika, the onsen in the hotel was built by hand by members of the Tosayama community. It’s an amazing, warmly-lit place designed in a log cabin style.

Refreshed and feeling a little sleepy from the bath, we all got on the car and made for home. Masa lived just a few minutes away from Mika. He and his wife Tomoko owned two houses; the one he received us in was actually an airbnb, the only airbnb in the whole of Tosayama (Masa calls it the Sakura House – your guess why will be a correct one!) They had three beautiful sons, one of whom was intently working on his science assignment when we arrived.

family pic with mika at masas

 

singing again at masas
Me singing Yuki No Hana in acapella. My Japanese friends were quite impressed. Even Masa’s son had to do a double take. My enunciation was spot on, they remarked. Woohoo! Success! Arigato!

Kokoro kara sou omotta, Kochi!

Me and my family will never forget you! Arigato gozaimashita for everything.

 


For your very own custom Kochi Experience in Japan, please contact Mika Mukai via KOCHI ENCOUNTERS: JAPAN on Facebook or Twitter.


 

Dear Reader,

WOW. You’ve made it THIS far. Congratulations! You are amazing!

If you’re just like us and still can’t get over Japan’s amazing railway system, here’s some more reading for you:

http://www.japanpolicyforum.jp/archives/discussions/pt20100930163209.html

 

 

From Tokyo to Kochi: an unforgettable adventure around Japan’s amazing railways (second of three parts)

Osaka

 

at tammys doorstep osaka
At our next airbnb in Osaka.
robert osaka station 3
The husband at the JR station.

 

 

sof in futon
Sofie relaxing on the futon.

 

alon at morishoji station toilet
Alon and the surveillance camera at Morishoji station.

 

yodobashi osaka
The Yodobashi building, a massive shopping mall where we spent yet another hour or so marveling at gadgets and whatnot.

osaka station at dusk

Osaka was massive. Personally, I found it typical of a bustling Japanese city. It was all lit up and busy. The comfort rooms were always of special interest to me and my little girl. There were two kinds of toilets, the sit or the squat. My little girl didn’t like the squat toilet too much.

After having dinner at a mall there, we promptly took the train back to our airbnb at Morishoji. We were disoriented for a while since it appeared to be going the opposite direction, but another friendly Japanese commuter assured us that we were on the right track.

Let me churn on this some more, to testify to the awesomeness of the Japanese railway system: we were disoriented because the train was going in one direction when some hours before, another train had gone in the opposite direction… ON THE SAME TRACK.

WTFFFFF.

Back in my country, we couldn’t even properly connect one MRT station to another, let alone plan for bi-directional trains that use the same track!

We were back at our airbnb around 10pm. We let ourselves into the house with a key that our host had casually left in the mailbox. Not exactly akyat-bahay proof, but hey, this was Japan, where crime was a rarity.

most wanted men in japan poster osaka
Japan’s Most Wanted Men. I guess they meant fugitives?

After taking a quick bath the next day and then checking out, we headed for the Keisei station (which, lego-like, was conveniently connected to a JR station) and deposited our luggage inside a coin locker. We still had half a day to slay so we took a taxi to Osaka Castle.

The taxi was a really spacious sedan that looked like a Benz. The driver was uniformed, clean, and very helpful. He looked even better than a restaurant manager back home. He came rushing out of the taxi to help the hubby lug our hard case into the trunk.

Along the way, we had seen a station aptly named Sakuranomiya, and indeed there was a park with many sakura trees, lining the river. If we had only had more time, we would have alighted from the train and taken a detour. But we had to keep moving or we would miss the train going to Kochi, which was departing before 2pm.

The park grounds at Osaka Castle were full of people celebrating the sakura trees in bloom. We promptly took a family photo underneath a sakura tree. The sun was out and the people were happily taking photos of the sakura blooms. But they kept a respectable distance from the trees while doing so.

sakura blooms in osaka

The queue going to Osaka Castle was too long. Striking it off our list of to-dos, we decided to just hang out at the grounds for a while before going back to the station and taking the train that would deliver us to Kochi, and to my dear Mika.

osaka castle 2
Hello and goodbye, Osaka Castle!

(UP NEXT: OUR MARVELOUS KOCHI ADVENTURE!)

From Tokyo to Kochi: An Unforgettable Adventure Around Japan’s Amazing Railways (first of three parts)

 

To build an epic vacation around train rides?

And to have your whole family in tow?

Why not!

Me, my husband and our two kids, aged 14 and 8, were going to crisscross Japan via a series of train rides, to take advantage of one of the most advanced and efficient railway systems in the whole world.

From Tokyo we would go southward on an epic trip that would culminate in Kochi, one of the most remote places in the Land of the Rising Sun.

The trip would coincide with the blooming of the sakura or cherry blossoms in the springtime, so that we could experience this uniquely Japanese event country-wide.

Upon the recommendation of my friend Mika (our host in Kochi), we decided to purchase the so-called JR pass, a ride-all-you-can ticket from Japan Railways available only to foreign tourists to Japan. The only requirement prior to purchase was our passports stamped with the Japanese visa. It’s the cheapest way to travel, because a bullet train ride typically costs around 4000 to 8000 yen, one way (that’s between 2000 to 4000 pesos already).

A seven-day JR pass costs 29,000++ yen, and you can ride out to ANYWHERE in Japan within that period. Anywhere with a JR train station, that is. But no need to worry – the JR company operates all over Japan!

 

Kochi Map
Tokyo to Kochi AND BACK: more than 1,400 kilometers of travel!

TOKYO

We arrived at Narita Airport on March 30, 2016 at around 8.30 in the evening.

Our first airbnb host who lived in Edogawa told us to take the Keisei train to her place. Keisei is one of several train companies in Japan. So we took the first train that we saw. We didn’t realize that there were two kinds of trains in Japan: the local and the express. Express meant fast; Local meant…well, slower than Express.

What should have taken about an hour of travel took us almost two hours.

3 me at funabashi 2016
On our way to our first airbnb

But Ei Kimura proved to be an exceptionally patient host. Her place was awesome. It was ultra modern, complete with the ultra high-tech toilet (which even played a recording of whooshing water at the press of a button, ostensibly to help you relieve yourself). Since Ei knew I had kids, she even had kiddie slippers and toys ready. There were snacks on the tabletop, and beer in the fridge. There were even sailor-moon type uniforms, yucatas and kimonos in the closet, and towels in the bathroom. I didn’t have to take out any clothes from my bag. We were staying for only two nights. We wished we were staying for a couple more.

well stocked at ei apt
The wooden owl has a smaller owl inside it!

 

After spending the first night in Edogawa, we set out early morning for the JR ticket office in Shinjuku to have our JR Pass vouchers exchanged for actual train tickets.  Not all JR ticket offices offer this service, so do some research beforehand.

Also: keep your phones loaded with a data plan or a pocket wifi connection so that you can go online anytime to check the train timetables and which stations you need to be in to catch a particular train (unless you can afford lots of time to get lost -we certainly couldn’t!)

Aside from the JR trains, there is also the Tokyo Metro, an independent subway line. Much of Roppongi, for instance, is serviced by the Metro. Knowing little facts like this can go a long way in saving you precious time and money on your trip!

This site contains a comprehensive timetable of trains operating in all of Japan at any given time.

 

japan railway map
A sample of Japan’s complex railway system

 

DCIM100GOPROG0089969.
On the famous crossing in Shibuya

 

sofie tired in train
Our tired little girl Sofie

 

alon holds up eis note
Our son Alon holds up a welcome card from our first host

 

robert alon koiwa
On our way to JR Shinagawa Station to catch the bullet train

 

a japanese talks to robert in tagalog
Meeting a Tagalog-speaking Japanese on the train

We were blown away by the Shinagawa station, a major transportation hub. It was huge and imposing. There was a special section for the bullet trains (called “shinkansen” in Japanese). The human traffic and the Japanese walking briskly left a solid impression on us. My kids learned how to walk fast too, and to always move to the right side of the escalator so that the Japanese could run or brisk-walk over to the left side. They were quickly learning great traveler etiquette all around.

shinagawa
JR Station in Shinagawa

An important note about the shinkansen: they are not available at all the JR stations. They have a very particular route. For instance, the one we took had stops at Shin-Osaka, Osaka, Nagoya, Kyoto…and terminated in Okayama.

waiting to ride shinkansen to kyoto
About to board the Hikari bullet train to Kyoto

 

first glimpse of mt fuji
A glimpse of majestic Mt. Fuji an hour into the ride. Too bad someone else got the window seat. This photo doesn’t do justice to what it actually looked and felt like. It was snow-capped and otherworldly and left one’s mouth open in awe. It looked like some great stone from outer space, said my husband.

 

The weather seemed fine early in the day – but as we moved from Tokyo towards Kyoto, the weather started to turn. By the time we reached Kyoto Station (after around three hours’ travel), the whole world, including the Japanese, was drained of color, dressed in nothing but shades of black and white. Jackets, umbrellas, boots. It was so cold and so gloomy…

Next time, Kyoto. Next time!

(PART TWO: Osaka)

Save Anawangin Cove, Zambales!

Photos by Robert Quebral

Anawangin Cove is a 25-minute boat ride from Pundaquit beach in Zambales, a province some 4 hours’ car drive from Manila. It is naturally protected from rough waters by gently-sloping hills on both sides. Because of this, the waters are warm and relatively gentle; the salt does not sting as much here. It is a kid-friendly beach in that it is not biglang-lalim. Go for an early morning swim with your toddler before the tide comes in.

anawangin cove

The shoreline is in my estimation about one and a half kilometers long from end to end; there are lanky pine trees close to the shore. One wonders how the pine trees got here. According to our bangkero, the area started teeming with pine trees after nearby Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991. Prior to that time, the beach was just sand all the way.

So – a naturally-protected beach; with naturally-occurring pine trees along its shores. Amazing isn’t it? A fascinating Natural Wonder that needs to be protected for all time.

anawangin pine trees

Anawangin Cove is still relatively clean and peaceful. Thankfully there are no karaokes in sight, and no cemented monstrosities like malls and resorts there as of yet. If one wishes to stay in Anawangin, one only need bring a tent and set up camp among the pine trees. There is a public toilet in the area, and nipa huts selling food, beverage and camping essentials like portable stoves and lights. There are sundry fees to be paid by daytrippers and overnighters alike, so do check online before heading out here. Boat ride fare right now is at P200 per head.

We hope that the local government in Zambales and its citizens will continue to protect this beach. My husband and I are proposing that the beach be off limits to everyone for a certain period every year, to give it time to heal and renew itself. During our visit here, we saw some litter along the beach, but I am guessing this is flotsam from commercial beaches nearby. Still, we hope that Zambales will save this beautiful place from all types of garbage, human or otherwise.

 

ANAWANGIN COVE, ZAMBALES (as of May 2016)

Affordability: √ √ √ √ √ √ √ √ (8/10 checks)

Convenience: √ √ √ √ √ √ (6/10 checks)

Cleanliness: √ √ √ √ √ √ (6/10 checks)

Kid-friendliness: √ √ √ √ √ √ (6/10 checks)

Peacefulness: √ √ √ √ √ √ √ (7/10 checks)

AI Child Labor, Pinoy Style?

Photo taken at SM Marikina during happier climes (heard Ondoy didn’t spare the mall), of this bizarre-looking robot attached to a rickshaw – one of the new kiddie attractions in the malls.

The robot is not very intelligent.  A kuya charges it with a key to turn it on, like a bump car, and it needs assistance in steering away from walls, other rickshaws, and oncoming human traffic.

Que horror, if you ask me.

Maybe in the future, there’ll be a labor law protecting kid robots. Or maybe not. Still a scary thought.

Will kid robots have rights in the future?
Will kid robots have rights in the future?