Lucky Star

It’s that time of the century when Filipinos are finally paying to watch Filipino films!

Unprecedented.

Unbelievable.

I’m “triggered” (as the kids say these days) by all this runaway success from Filipino filmmakers because…well, I’m Filipino, and I love seeing fellow Filipinos succeed.

But what triggers me even more are Filipino filmmakers with huge hearts! Their creative intentions appear to be governed by more than just a desire for box office success.

One of the best things that happened to me this year was knowing Randolph Longjas from Batch 16 of the Ricky Lee Workshop. Not only was he my groupmate but as one of the more experienced members of the batch, ‘Tay (as some of us fondly call him) is very generous with his talent, knowledge of narrative and structure, and on nights when he’s feeling extra good, endless fistfuls of booze. He has an unusual exuberance about everything and everyone yet can still display command. For me, it’s a pretty unusual combination. He can look at you and see something that no one else has seen before, and tell you so in a gentle, almost singsong kind of voice.

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Tay Randolph, red-shirted, with Inna, Tops, and me. Behind us (L-R): Malaya, Ron, Zita, KC, Stanley, and Hernan.

Because he was one of the few in our batch who’d already directed a feature film, we’d sometimes pester him to screen his movies for us. One night, he finally acquiesced. He played Ang Turkey Man Ay Pabo Rin, his first movie and by his admission, a very raw debut film. I loved it. It was raw, all right, but it was honest and cute. As cute as his tousled boy-next-door looks! (One round of Stella Artois, super cold please!)

I was really delighted when I saw his second film and he asked me to give some feedback on camera to help promote the film. Honestly, it’s one of the best local films I’ve seen this year, which is bad news if you need me to say something intelligent and crafted, as I tend to gush my praise and love in a near-incomprehensible stream of what I hope will still pass as commentary.

Written by Allan Habon, Star Na Si Van Damme Stallone is about a mother raising a child with Down Syndrome. “Way back 2015, a cousin of mine who had DS died a week before her 18th birthday. I realized then that there is no Filipino film yet that features the lives of people with Down Syndrome. From then on, I took it as a challenge to create visual material for them. In a way, the film is a tribute to my cousin, Angel,” he explains. He also told us that he is proud of this film as he was able to apply so much of his lessons learned from his experiences mounting his debut film (which was so successful that it actually had a TV spin-off).

While watching Star Na Si Van Damme Stallone, I couldn’t help but think of the parents of DS kids, including one of my best friends whose daughter is my godchild. Having a child with DS in your life is like having an angel who, because she perceives reality differently, can really take you to another place, if you let her, and then you become much closer to who you really are. The film gives your muscles of compassion and empathy a good, solid, one and a half-hour workout, and believe me, you’ll be surprised at how life opens up for you when those muscles are finally fully developed (just like what it did for that Hollywood actor The Rock, but I’m going off on tangent again…)

Candy Pangilinan as the mother and Paolo Pingol as her son are getting so much acclaim for their portrayals and as of this writing, the film continues to do well at the box office. So much well-deserved goodness!

I won’t spoil it in any way for you, so I urge you to watch it between now and August 22 in cinemas nationwide!

Depressed? Go talk to your 10-year old.

sofie the bat
While at play, Sofie asked me to shoot her upside down with her favorite dolls. She loves being a bat.

If you are a mother going through an intense phase of self-doubt (like I am right now), try looking at your little girl (or boy) a little while longer if you can. Take in every angle of her face, her eyes, the soft slope of her nose. Smell her scalp and savor the pungent odor of fermented coconut. You’ll have an idea what you looked like before, when you were younger and more pure and you’ll instantly feel better.

This is definitely one of the most important benefits of having children: they bring you back to earth when you’d rather be in heaven singing with the angels.

I’d looked in the mirror a few times when I was 10 and physically saw myself. But I didn’t know how I’d really looked like in front of others. How did they see me? How did I make them feel?

Whenever I’m with my little girl Sofie, I get remarks from people about her natural beauty. Little girls are so unaware of how beautiful they truly are, not just physically, but in every way. Each movement is graceful, unaffected, free of burdens. I don’t need to go to some distant mountain forest to see a beautiful bird; every day at home, I’m bird-watching my little girl.

There is a spark of life in Sofie that hasn’t been dimmed by large-scale disappointment and failure. Her only tampo right now is that I still don’t know her favorite Alan Walker songs by heart the way she does.

sofie drawings

Sofie is overflowing with talent, creativity and smarts. Her illustrations of her favorite people and animated characters are still quite simple and crude, but she gets the facial expressions down very well. She once told us that she was supposed to be class president but settled on being vice-president instead so she could “relax a little.” She is funny like this.

While she’s quiet when she’s with strangers, she talks non-stop whenever she’s with me. She’s especially smitten with my impression of Lily Cruz in the local TV show Wildflower and thinks I’m really funny (she’s probably the only person in the world who thinks I’m funny). Everything I do, everything I look at on the computer is a big deal for her. Her adoration makes me want to believe in myself again. She is an angel, and because she is, I guess I am too. All I need to do now is to believe I am.

Letter To An Absent Mother

nikka

School of the Holy Spirit

Quezon City, Philippines

January 1989

 

Dearest Mama,

My classmates were very excited to go to the field trip today. We went to the Coke plant in Laguna and saw how they manufacture the softdrinks. It was pretty cool. Then we had lunch and stayed at a hot spring resort and some of my classmates took a dip in the swimming pool. It was the first time most of us in class rode a school bus together, all 52 of us girls together in First Year Buhay, so just imagine the riot we made. Fiona and Tinee danced to Paula Abdul, doing their moves in the narrow middle lane while all of us cheered them on.

I almost didn’t go because Aba forgot to sign the permission slip again, like he always does. He’s good at driving cars and talking politics and business to people, but just doesn’t relate well to other mothers. I mean, he can talk to them, sure, but not in the way you do. If you were here, you would’ve called up my classmates’ mothers and talked about this trip days before to make sure all the girls are safe and the trip is well documented. I would’ve been a little embarrassed because you’re more outspoken than the others. I really wish no one would talk about me or even bring me up in a conversation, but with a mother like you, how can I not be a topic of conversation?

The mothers of some of my classmates were there this morning at the send-off. Some of them didn’t bother to take a bath as it was too early in the day, but I guess you would have been different. Not only would you have taken a bath, but dried your hair, put on freshly ironed clothes and even put makeup on. As you know, I’m really very shy, but when I see you so pretty, so calm and confident with the rest, I get so proud inside.

I miss you so much.

It’s nice to have some of my classmates for company today. I’m not yet friends with all of them. Most of them attended grade school together so they already know each other from way back. At English class one time, the most popular girl in class got so annoyed with me when I corrected her grammar. She was trying to write “You feel welcomed here” while I was saying to remove the “d” in welcome as it’s not a verb. Because of that, her friends got annoyed with me as well, and that’s already half of the girls in our section.

So here I am, sticking to the few who didn’t get annoyed with me. On the left, with the striped shirt and teased hair, is Katsy. On my right is Claire. And above us, the one standing is Nikka. She’s like the bridge to everyone here as she’s been here in school for a long time. Also, she’s always on the honor roll. She sings very beautifully too (she’s a soprano one).

Last October, there was a Marian songwriting contest in school, and I joined (because writing is the only thing I know how to do in this world, right?). I know I’m not Catholic, and everybody in class knows, but it doesn’t matter. All I have to do is write a song about Mama Mary.

I’m really shy with everyone else, except with Nikka, for some reason. She’s very warm and accepting, and I’ve never seen her frown or look sad, ever. Someday if I write a play or a movie about an angel, she’d definitely be in it, she’s just so perfect for the part. I mean, just look at her. She’s so approachable so I just went ahead and asked her if she would sing my song because I’ve heard her sing during Homeroom and during first Friday mass. She said yes right away and then suggested we sing it with harmonies. Then she invited a few others to do the soprano 2 and alto parts. I invited Katsy and Claire but they quickly said no because they say the frogs would quickly multiply in the swampy area near the auditorium if they start singing.

Anyway, we ended up winning second place and that’s why Nikka and I are friends now. Well, she’s friends with everyone, but I like to believe we share a special bond with music. The fact that she uses her heart and soul to make my words come alive is really, really special. She really loved that song about Mama Mary. Here are the lyrics:

The gentle hands that prepared Jesus’ food

She shone like an angel when no one was good

She cried like a woman but her tears were for God

She understood every sin of man no matter how bad

Mama Mary, pray for us

And set us free for all eternity

Our Mother, Our Queen

Oh I don’t know where I’ve been

I don’t really know so much about Mama Mary, so when I wrote this, I tried to think about you, Mama. I thought of the pinakbet and alugbati, the experimental seafood pasta, the sinabawang sardinas with lettuce that you used to cook for us. When I wrote the song, I thought about the many times you got frustrated with me for my laziness in doing housework. I also tried to remember the few times that you did cry because of a very serious problem you wouldn’t share with us. You kept all the bad feelings to yourself and shared only the good feelings with us. And I guess that’s why I was able to write the song about Mama Mary.

I miss you so much.

I’m only 12 years old now, and even if I only live up to 40 years old (which they say is when life truly begins) that’s still 28 years of you not being around for me. There are so many milestones I would’ve wanted to share with you, not counting my graduation in four years, my going to college, my first job, and if I get lucky, my 3-day Muslim wedding before I turn 30. Little things like this, new friendships, new songs, new beginnings on ordinary days, are just as important as the popular milestones, and I wish I can talk to you about it while we’re eating beef noodles at Joe Kuan or shopping for clothes at Isetan. It’s not easy being the new girl in school and an old girl like you, so to say, would’ve been able to teach me so much about learning to belong.

Okay, I gotta go. I still have class early tomorrow so I must turn in now. Will write again soon. I love you so much, Mama.

xoxo

Peach

From Hakone With Sardines

 

Peach Abubakar-Quebral
QC, Philippines

July 11, 2017

Dear Peach,

I’m so glad you can take time out from work to make it here today. Here, take my hand. I want to show you #Hakone, in Japan. If you like Pirates of The Caribbean, you’ll love this boat that me and Robert (my boyfie for life) are on. The crew’s dressed up as buccaneers and one of them has been going around saying Konnichi wa to everybody. I was looking for Jacku Isuparru among them, but I guess it’s not his shift yet.

DCIM101GOPROGOPR0255.
Hello, glad you can make it here today!

I don’t really know much about Hakone, except that it used to be a popular brand of sardines back home in Manila. So while the boat’s running through the emerald-green lake, I try looking for sardines, hoping they would be merrily swimming by. Unfortunately, that’s not happening, as there are no sardines. There’s actually no life in the water. It appears to be a man-made body of water. Or maybe it’s too deep that we can’t see the life inside. It’s really deep and scary! Yeah, that’s one lake you wouldn’t want to fall into, because you’ll have to be retrieved from Uranus if you do. (It’s called #LakeAshi by the way).

Since we’re on the subject of falling, please stop thinking about it. Stop falling into that abyss of worry. There are no sardines there. No one will travel to Uranus and back to get you. Elon Musk may try, but you got to become a French astrophysicist first. You can’t eat your worry or your doubt. Your credit card debt will be paid off, just remember to pay the minimum every month and add a little extra if you can. The projects you lost will be replaced by better ones. The friends and family who left… will still be gone. Now what? Let’s enjoy the light here now. Look at those clouds! They look like cutouts, don’t you think? And look at the shadows they cast on the verdant hills! Do you see that lone white house on top of that hill? Who do you think is living there? Some dude who’s into omorashi, bukkake or some strange form of hentai perhaps? Or maybe some housewife like you, also worrying about her future? Well, life simply goes on so let’s just enjoy the ride, shall we?

You don’t have to go back there right away. After this boat ride, we’ll take the bus going back to Mishima  first so you can see the amazing fare system they implement inside the bus. They have a TV inside that shows you how much you have to pay when you get off a particular stop. I still like the way Filipinos do it, though, when the driver simply shouts the correct amount back to you. And then you can rest for a while in my small apartment in Numazu-shi. It’s very quiet and it’s one of the more depressed areas in Japan, but I like this other face of Japan that’s not so well-known. Everyone who’s successful has a poor side, and Numazu-shi is one of Japan’s darker realities. I’ll tell you all about it another time, if you want to stay longer.

You can come here as often as you want, to take a break from your life. I know you’re happy there, but I also know you’re really tired of working your ass off and saying PA-Q to everybody who gives you a hard time. Today, let’s just sit back, enjoy the clouds, and wait for Jacku Isuparru to arrive soon, okay? The world is really a beautiful place, if you don’t think too much about it.

 

Love,

Peach Abubakar-Quebral
Hakone, Japan
March 4, 2016

7 Reasons Why I Bike Commute In The Philippines

PAQ paying the bill
Photo by Manong Guard at Meralco, Edsa.

Deadly, bike-commuting is. Bad cars, badder drivers Philippines have. Roads cratered like face of that long-hair Mexican actor. Is DPWH and Manila Water looking for Yamashita gold still? Da PA-Q! So many diggings. Roads really bad now where I live.

Some maybe think me is soshal because my bike look good so some truck drivers they tail me with their truck. I stick up middle finger them to.

PA-Q!

Laugh they do, and pass me by.

But me is not soshal. Never was, never will be. Bike is only borrowed from husband, who will be pissed when this he reads.

I love bike commutes. Let me give reasons.

1. Pay no fare. Yey! Save up to 16 pesoses on jeepney fare. Or 100 pesos if you take cab. Can buy 12 eggs plus one plastic kamatis with 100, you know.

2. Exercise. Good cardio workout going up slope on roads here and there. Don’t mind usok though.

3. Kariton man smiled. On way home, kariton man had cart full of metal stuff going up road. Really heavy cart. But when he saw me, he STOPPED PUSHING KARITON so I can pass. And SMILED. AT ME. No front teeth anymore. Does this happen to drivers of cars?

4. Cure for “near yet far” syndrome. Do you live maybe 5-10 minute walk away from a sister or a cousin? Yet can’t find time to chat because nagkakatamaran? If you bike-commute, you’ll be forced to pass by because drink water you must. And see niece and nephews. And also get gifts unclaimed from last Christmas when Tita from US brought pasalubong. Yey, Soya Milk!

5. No emission. Bike commuter gentle to Mother Earth. No pollutions. Unless Bike Commuter eat lots of camote cue.

6. You feel more alive. Bike-commuters are more alert, look to the left to the left, to the right, to the right, but very fast!  You have to balance yourself on bike, make sure your grip is good so you don’t slip on road, and remember you can’t pump just one break or you’ll endo and die, you have to pump both brakes at once for smooth stop. You really feel your mind and whole body working. In fact, me decided to write this essay while riding today. See?

7. Boost self-confidence. Yes, you win one point because you swerved just in time when car door was opening! Yes, two points because you predicted the tricycle driver will make 360-degree turn! Yes, you’re alive and not yet roadkill!

Bike-commuting in Philippines not as easy as in first-world countries. But I don’t like it when things are too easy. I love Philippines and bike-commuting here for these reasons. Try it and live a little. I thank you!

 

 

 

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.

photo4

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.

photo5
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.

photo6

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.

cloudgroup2001

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.

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

 

kochi grocery
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.
way to kochi
The road going down to Kochi City from Tosayama.
Tosayama2
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)