Of Back Roads and Red Dirt | A Primer to the Cambodian Countryside

1st in a series on Siem Reap

It’s a sunny day. Judging by what the previous groups who have been here before have told us, we only expect the weather to get even hotter as the day drags on. That’s actually a better prospect than when it rains, right? So I guess no one’s really complaining.

Immediately I notice how red the soil is (something I’ve noticed to be characteristic of the landscape here).

We were asked to assemble for a briefing to discuss the do’s and don’ts, the basics in biking, which gear is for what, and stuff. It was impressed upon us that this is not an individual race. Hence, we need to help each other out in order for the whole team to finish fast. Any member of the team struggling should be helped out. Now that’s something worthy of emulation in real life, don’t you think?

We are to finish a 12-km stretch of rough/dirt roads, with pit stops along the way for when we need to recharge – drink to quench our thirst, eat, relax, take selfies/groupfies, or just be silly with one another.

Some thirst quencher this Aquarius is

Despite the heat and exhaustion, one can admire the scenic view of the Cambodian countryside, complemented by a soft breeze generated by one’s own motion against the tepid air. I can only appreciate the simplicity of life here. Time suddenly stood still.

Photo courtesy of Rohjean Alberto, with Erene Araojo on the bike.

At the finish line, we were treated to the sight of an elaborately decorated Buddhist structure known as pagoda. Pictured below is the Phreah (Preah) Dak pagoda. It’s also a functioning monastery for monks so it’s alternatively called the Wat Phreah Dak.

Wat Phreah (Preah) Dak or the Phreah (Preah) Dak pagoda

I notice a lot of these interesting, colorful structures with spires in the temple grounds. Wonder what these are?

Colorful stupas

As explained by our tour guide Sip, these are known as stupas. They basically are tombstones that houses cremated ashes of deceased Buddhists. The more elaborate and bigger in size the stupas are, the richer the person (or the family of the person) who died who affords it. The deep colors represent peace.

Cambodia is 97% Buddhist, who believes in reincarnation. Death is merely a phase, a doorway to another existence – a rebirth. The remaining percent are Hindus, Muslims and animists, and a sprinkling of some Christian denominations. It’s interesting that in some of the villages we passed by in our route, we notice houses built in the second storey but nothing on the ground. The reason being that people believe spirits occupy the ground level. Humans would do well not to disturb them, I guess. This belief in spirits both benevolent and malevolent are strongly-entrenched in some areas that it’s common to see small, deeply-colored spirit houses (for spirits of dead ancestors) and local version of scarecrows (to repel evil ones) posted in front of homes. (I’m literally having goosebumps writing this, so enough already 😐 )

Let’s move on.

Now all this activity is making us hungry. So, we next headed off for lunch. But wait. As the tradition goes nowadays, it seems, we first had to learn how to cook our own food. Chef Khan Van Chhay demonstrated how to create spring rolls! I’m not sure if Cambodians traditionally would have their spring rolls deep-fried, but we definitely thought of it as a welcome gesture that he had it cooked that way, as an homage to our Filipino culture.

We even had a contest of who finishes cooking first with the most number of rolls passing quality check, to be pitted against the other groups. It was a fun activity and, suffice it to say, we’ve made some pretty bomb spring rolls (holler! 😀 )

Afterwards, we were treated to a parade of Cambodian dishes, plus the spring rolls we just made.

I appreciate the fact that they are big on veggies and salads, although the taste doesn’t always sit well with a lot of my peers. It’s an acquired taste, I suppose. I am definitely sensing some cilantro, star anise, in most dishes. There are some I probably haven’t heard of and have been trying for the first time, or just something we are not used to eating. I’ve been tasting everything because I’m adventurous like that when it comes to food.

We headed off next to a small house that has some shack where traditional rice noodles are made. It seems like creating rice noodles is as tedious as planting rice itself – from the pounding to the mixing, to the cooking, to the washing. Maybe I will just skip to the eating part, yeah? 🙂

They’ve been using some curious contraptions where the noodle-makers literally had to ride on top in order to function, like when pounding the mixture, wherein someone literally has to step on the lever on the other end (much like how a see-saw would work), doing it repeatedly in a particular rhythm, so that the person on the other end could fold the mixture in sync with the steps. Otherwise, that person could get injured. It takes skill and a great deal of caution especially if you are on the receiving end of the pounding machine. Kung sa atin pa, “buwis-buhay”, “putol a-kamay” 🙂

Or, when pressing the goo out of the perforated container/thingamajig to be dropped on to the huge cauldron below with simmering water, where it has to be done gently but with much weight, such that the person doing it literally had to sit or ride over the lever using his full body weight but careful enough not to crush the precious cargo. The idea is to press slowly and gently in order to create long, continuous strands. It’s literally what you call, a “tough, balancing act” 😀

If anything however, it makes for good exercise since you partly might also need to lift your own body weight in order to strike that “balance”. There’s a bar or beam above which you can hold on to, to lift yourself up in case you need to relieve the pressure on the “soon-to-be” noodles.

Our jolly tour guide Sip, all smiles and looking all proud at the rice noodles 🙂

Remember Chef Khan Van Chhay? Well, he’s here again to demonstrate how to cook a traditional Cambodian rice noodle dish called somlor brorheur (pronounced somlor brahar). And to assist him is Mrs Team Hup. I couldn’t find any reference to her online but I’m guessing she is the owner of the house and maybe one of the few people who is keeping the tradition of rice noodle-making alive.

She was featured in the Cambodia Chefs magazine.


Chef Khan Van Chhay (left) and Mrs Team Hup (middle) at work. And Sip, well, being his usual self 🙂

Presenting, somlor brorheur.

Somlor brorheur is a curry-based rice noodle soup. If I’m not mistaken, I think it has water hyacinth and lotus flowers (?) as ingredients.

Next stop is a traditional Cambodian farming village. But in order to get there, we have quite an unusual ride waiting for us at the jump-off.

Water buffaloes! 🙂

Ain’t no Grab ride, but one can only appreciate their tenacity and subservience. Seeing them at work is a little heartbreaking, actually.

When we arrived at the village, we were welcomed by the local kids with a song and were given some neatly rolled cold towels so we could freshen up by wiping it on our face and hands. With the extreme tropical heat, nothing feels better than a nice cold towel! 😀

As you may have guessed, we are in a rice farming village for a reason. There’s a traditional Filipino song that goes: “Magtanim ay di biro. Maghapo’ng nakayuko”. It translates loosely to: “Planting (rice) is not easy. Everyday you are in a stooped position”, which basically signifies backbreaking work. This day wouldn’t go by without us having to experience this as this is pretty much the lifeline of all Asian cultures. Rice is such a ubiquity. One can say that the foundation of Asian civilizations stood on the back of this lowly member of the grass family, feeding millions, serving as catalyst for growth.

And so, plant rice we shall, barefooted and all 🙂 To the rice paddies we go!

My colleagues getting ‘down and dirty’, quite literally 😛

After that one-of-a-kind experience (it’s not everyday you see a city-dweller planting rice, yes?), we were asked to go back to the village since it’s already starting to rain. We washed our feet in the communal wash area where water is still pumped from the ground, just like in the old days. We were then treated to some refreshments (my favorite is the “buko” or coconut juice) and some traditional Cambodian song and dance.

It really was an exhausting day – fun, but exhausting. I think most of us dozed off at the bus on the way back to the hotel. And just when you thought you could finally go to your room and indulge yourself in some nice, warm shower, drop to your bed and sleep to your heart’s content, lo and behold, Sip just had to burst your bubble by announcing another activity. And just like that, your anticipated R&R was thrown out the window 😀

We headed back to the hotel, the La Residence Blanc D’Angkor, to freshen up and change.

We had dinner at the Phare Cafe, where one of the items on the menu is the famous fish amok. As usual, there’s always the salad, and for dessert we had some (I think) caramelized banana with rum and grated coconut. There’s a Filipino dessert which is interestingly similar. We call it minatamis na saging.

We capped the night off with a spectacular performance from the Phare Cambodian Circus. No, not that kind of circus. No animal was harmed or even involved in any of its production. It’s all display of acrobatic skills – part-theater/part-acrobat. And it’s for a good cause, too. It’s helping Cambodian youths stay out of the streets, giving them better opportunity by making better use of their skills and talents. Should you ever go to Siem Reap, do watch their show. It’s amazing! 🙂

I’m leaving you with some of the photos of that night. Stay tuned for part 2 of this series on Siem Reap. Enjoy! 😀

Special thanks to Cambodia Cycling and Real World Adventure for arranging our cycling adventures of the countryside and our sampling of the local culture.

To La Residence Blanc D'Angkor for our accommodation. Their friendly, caring and attentive staff made our stay enjoyable.

Find them on Facebook:
@CambodiaCycling
@realwordadvanture
@residenceblancangkor

The “Flying Arts” of the Bangsamoro and Other Things Awesome

I’m capping off this series on the Bangsamoro by presenting this side of their cultural/artistic heritage that’s not very well known, I should say. Except for the sarimanok (pictured above), which has become an icon, thanks to its constant appearance on TV during the 90’s (it being the inspiration for this major TV network’s logo, in fact), most of the photos you’d be seeing here are pretty rare. I myself was pleasantly surprised to have found out about these.

We live in a world full of stereotypes and this couldn’t be more true in the case of the Bangsamoro people. The situation was only further exacerbated by the events of 9/11. After almost two decades, we are still reeling from the fallout of that event. Look only at what Marawi has become just recently – total devastation.

This series hopes to shatter some of the misconceptions and help us get a better understanding of our brothers and sisters in the South.

You can check previous articles of this series below:

Bangsamoro Art – Faith, Tradition & Place

Bangsamoro – Keeping the Faith

I saved these photos for last because I think these are the, sort of, “crown jewel” to their cultural and artistic heritage. If there’s anything worthy of shattering stereotypes, these would be it. I mean, who would have thought, for example, that the Bangsamoro peoples had something similar to a Pegasus they call burraq or borak – a hybrid animal of Islamic mythology that has a winged human head on a horse’s body.

According to the museum’s informational guide, the burraq/borak is “one of the common artistic elements that conveys a sense of flight. It is considered sacred in the Islamic world, as it was through flying the burraq that Prophet Muhammad journeyed and ascended to heaven, as told in the Isra’wal Mi’raj“.

It is interesting to note however, that while the concept of rising is part of the Islamic faith, focusing on spiritual lightness and the upward orientation towards unity with the Divine heavenly being, it is also a notion corresponding to the pre-Islamic indigenous concept of floating and flying as a means of connecting humans to the spiritual realm. Based on a study conducted by Abraham Sakili, this concept is widely-known throughout the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

Islam in the Philippines has been described as remarkably syncretic – a fusion of different influences both foreign and local. As mentioned in the previous article, some indigenous practices persisted. You would see many elements of the same in the different parts of the region. You’d be surprised how the iconic sarimanok has counterparts in other Southeast Asian countries and how the concept of birds as spiritual messengers are a common belief in these places too – the iban of Borneo and the garuda of Indonesia, for example. Learning about this fact makes me realize how, despite the seeming “differences”, there are a lot we share in common. Also, it’s interesting how something we don’t usually put much focus on suddenly had this new meaning upon second look. I mean, I’ve heard about the garuda from Garuda Indonesia, which is the flag carrier of Indonesia, but I have never really given much thought as to its symbolism and its connection to everything else. It’s just amazing like that, isn’t it? 

The iconic sarimanok

This chicken-like figure with a fish on its beak, the sarimanok, is a significant artistic element that conveys flying. According to the museum’s informational guide: “The Maranao considers the sarimanok to have evolved from its totem bird called itotoro. It is invoked in many rituals and included in their myths and epics.They are depicted as messengers of legendary heroes and royalty in the Maranao epic Darangen. The sarimanok is also considered as a medium to the spirit realm through its unseen twin spirit bird called inikadowa. Like the naga, the sarimanok appears in highly stylized forms in artistic works to adhere to Islamic beliefs. Other stylized bird-like figures are also used as designs,such as the manukmanuk of Sulu“.

Another element of floating or flying is the naga. It is “a Sanskrit term referring to a mythical dragon or serpent noted for its wisdom, agility, power and bravery”. The informational guide adds: “While the representation of nature – plants and animals – in art is counter to Islamic beliefs, the naga persisted in highly stylized forms that include the S-shaped and rope-like designs”. This design could be found in the panolong.

Flags also convey the idea of flying. The Maranao display ceremonial flags during special events such as weddings, coronations, and fluvial parades, among others. The display of flags was traditionally associated only with the ruling class, now these are used during various communal celebrations and events”, per the museum’s informational guide. Below is an example of a flag called Panji or Pandi.

Panji or Pandi

Are you ready to get your mind blown?

Presenting, the kokora 🙂

At first glance, this would’ve looked like some gigantic bug or winged lizard from the Jurassic period. One would have thought ‘what could our forebears have use for this?’

Well, the answer is actually more mundane and utilitarian than one could have possibly thought.

So, here’s the kicker. Notice the elongated tongue that kind of looked like an antenna above his head? 

Yes. It’s used to grate coconut. It couldn’t be more tropical and Filipino than that! 😀

The Bangsamoro culture is also replete with legends, the most famous of which is the Maranao Legend of Indarapatra.

Spectacular performances, displays of resplendent art, and lavish feasts thrive as they give visual expressions to the Islamic notion of the sacred power of sultans.

Feasts are an integral part of the Bangsamoro culture. According to the museum’s informational guide: “Immersing in activities that sharpen senses and experiences, such as tasting special dishes and joining in performances with heightened theatrical and dramatic elements, lead to captivating the festival participants’ attention. It is through these that feasts provide spaces for encounters markedly distinct from their ordinary and daily lives. Singing, dancing, music and recitation of oral literature are among the most common types of performances, providing entertainment and infusing amplified auditory and visual engagements to participants”.

Nothing could be more striking in this musical ensemble than the kulintang “an ancient instrumental form of music composed on a row of small, horizontally laid gongs that function melodically, accompanied by larger, suspended gongs and drums” (wikipedia)

They even have a bad-a** kulintang on display at the museum. The design is so intricate and lavish it could pass for a throne fit for royalty.

I cannot stress enough how important a role museums play in educating people. Especially in this time and age where information can easily be accessed with the touch of a button (or a swipe of a finger), people easily get caught up with the use of technology. We use it for practically anything nowadays, even for social connections. However, despite technology’s myriads of practical uses, this should not take away the joy of learning things the traditional way.

It was a pleasant revelation to me, for example, to learn about the Bangsamoro culture and heritage – something I think I wouldn’t have realized or appreciated as much, had I not experienced from this perspective.

It’s funny because I’m sure this subject has been discussed in school in one form or another; in history books, wholly or partially – some maybe in passing, others probably having volumes dedicated to it. But having seen the actual pieces and the materials up close, and learning the story behind each and every piece, gave the learning experience a whole new dimension. I definitely walked away bringing with me a newfound appreciation for these things. And that’s something no amount of technology can ever really replace.

Bangsamoro – Keeping the Faith

Previously in this series:

Bangsamoro Art – Faith, Tradition & Place

Central to the Bangsamoro culture is Islam. It is the glue that binds them together. No matter the differences and difficulties, Muslims around the world follow a set of principles and practices that constitute the religion, creating a sense of belonging and unity called ummah. More than anything however, a Muslim aims to achieve unity with Allah, encapsulated in the concept of tawhid which emphasizes the following of Allah’s will.

The five essential duties of Muslims, also known as the five pillars of Islam, as revealed in the sacred book of Koran, or Qu’ran, are:

  1. shahadah – the profession of faith
  2. salat – praying five times daily facing Qibla/Qiblah (sacred mosque in Mecca) at designated periods
  3. saum or puasa – fasting between sunrise and sunset in the month of Ramadan
  4. haji – the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once if possible
  5. zakat – voluntary contribution of a portion of one’s income as alms for the poor

The Koran is considered sacred as it contains the teachings of Allah, and so is carefully handled and used. Pictured above is a copy of probably the country’s oldest, if not one of the oldest, translations of the sacred book known as The Qu’ran of Bayang (Lanao del Sur). Of significant historical and cultural value to Filipinos in general, and to the Filipino Muslims in particular, the Koran of Bayang will be declared by the National Museum as a “National Cultural Treasure”. It enjoyed a long and varied history – from being an heirloom, to being a loot of war (during the war with the Americans), to having to evade a typhoon by deferring its supposed return to Marawi.

During the height of the People Power Revolution of 1986 however, the Koran was reported missing, as it was previously requested by the then First Lady Imelda Marcos to be transferred to Malacañan from the National Museum. Fortunately, a complete copy was made prior to its transfer to the Palace, so its message is not lost to us today. It will remain for posterity.

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The museum’s model of a ranggar

There are two types of mosques in Southern Philippines. One is the ranggar or langgal, a small structure accommodating only few individuals for daily prayers in the rural areas. The prayer mats you see displayed above are from the Molbog tribe, Balabac, Southern Palawan. These are made of pandan leaves and synthetic dyes.

The other type of mosque is the masjid, a permanent structure facing Mecca, which adopted a more Western/Arabic-style architecture as evidenced by the use of minarets, mihrab, mimbar and places of ablution. Examples of the different types of mosques in the Philippines below, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Prior to the late 19th century however, mosques that were built in the country employs an indigenous form of architecture known as pagoda-style or hut-style, such as this Old Bangsa style mosque in Taraka, Lanao Del Sur (below). There have been proposals to put the Heritage Mosques of the Philippines into the Philippine tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage Site declaration in the future.

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Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Fasting is a widely known observance in Islam during the holy month of Ramadan, where the faithful abstain from the consumption of food and drink daily from the break of dawn until sunset. This is also a time for avoiding practices that are deemed ‘unspiritual’, if you will, or are in conflict with Islamic teachings – those that divert a person’s focus away from spiritual things, such as inappropriate speech, excessive recreational activities, or acting unkind towards the needy, for example. It is a time to perform zakat, or the giving of alms to the poor and more importantly, worship through prayers and recitation of verses from the Qu’ran.

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Photo courtesy of Getty Images

A lavish three-day feast is held at the end of Ramadan called Hari-raya, or Eid al-Fitr in Arabic. It starts with the sighting of the new moon on Shawwal – the first day of the tenth month of the Islamic calendar. People will pray in mosques and in open spaces, and would offer charity to the poor.

The most significant feast for Muslims however, is the Feast of Sacrifice or Hari-raya Hadji, or Eid al-Ahda in Arabic. This celebrates the completion of the pilgrimage to Mecca during the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar.

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Photo courtesy of The Great Courses Daily

Aside from these, there are other important Islamic occasions where Muslims celebrate by feasting and, according to the museum’s informational guide, all of these “involve communal prayers, recitation of passages from the Koran, communal consumption of special meals involving local delicacies and beverages, adornment of feasting spaces, and use of highly decorated prestige items and utilitarian goods during food preparation and consumption”.

Indigenous traditions become evident in these lavish feasts where local delicacies get to take center stage. In the olden days, these are usually prepared and served in highly decorated containers and utensils.

Below are examples of Tausug dishes often served during these occasions.

Clockwise from upper left: Tausug beef kurma, tiyula sug, beef kurma, a typical Eid spread, a collection of sweets called bang bang sug, and chicken piyanggang 

Muslims in the Southern Philippines also celebrate life cycles, such as birth, marriage, rites of passages, etc., with feasting. The communal experience of food and drink consumption establishes and fosters a sense of connection across cultures. Fasting and feasting are interconnected practices that  help connect a person to his spirituality – abstinence to food as an act of faith to a God who provides, and feasting as an expression of gratitude and acknowledgement of God’s generosity.

Banquets are thus part of Islamic rituals. These occasions provide opportunity to establish and renew social bonds.

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Photo courtesy of Ferdinandh Cabrera, ndbcnews.com.ph

And in the early days of Islam in the Philippines, especially, according to the museum’s informational guide: “Feasts provide arenas for displaying wealth, power and prestige through the abundant offering of food and drinks for communal consumption, and the use of prestige or exotic objects and technologies.  As a result, celebrations are closely tied to aspects of political economy which is guided by the ideology of the elite. This is often materialized in public ritual events where highly symbolic objects and ritualized practices are used to express and legitimize their political, economic and social prestige”.

It goes on to say: “… lavish feasts (together with spectacular performances and displays of resplendent art) thrive as they give visual expressions to the Islamic notion of the sacred power of sultans“.

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Photo credits:

Dishes – Yummy.ph/Knorr.com/Pepper.ph/umnoha.blogspot.com/angsarap.net

Coronation of Sultan of Sulu – retrato.com.ph

The Masjid Dimaukom or “Pink Mosque” – Tasnim News Agency

Taluksangay Mosque – Wowzamboangacity

Tulay Central Mosque – Al Jacinto 

A Day at the Museum | The National Museum of Anthropology – Part 2

Bangsamoro Art – Faith, Tradition & Place

Having lived in Manila my whole life,  I never really experienced what life is like anywhere else in the country except those I had the chance visiting for a few days. But even that wouldn’t really suffice for one to really get to know or understand the local culture. I think one really has to immerse himself in it. That might require some time spending with the locals and experiencing things they usually do on a day-to-day basis. Now, being a busy person with lots of commitments, that prospect may not really work out for me. It’s almost next to impossible. Good thing there are museums, right?

Ok. You are probably thinking: “Here he goes again selling this museum thing to the hilt”. But really, this has proven indispensable for the city creature like me. It’s funny because both my (biological) parents were from the provinces. My surrogate dad was from the province, too. But I never really had the chance being on those places for a long time. The everyday man on the street may not realize it, but it’s staggering how culturally diverse our country is – more than 175 ethnolinguistic nations or groups. An average working person may not be able to meet, let alone visit each ethnic group in his lifetime, unless he spends most of his time traveling around the country, like some blogger I’ve read about. It is doable, yes, but may not always be practical. So, to each his own. And yes, this brings me back to the topic of museums and how it fills the void to satisfy that curiosity. You may not be able to meet or visit each of those ethnic groups, but you can learn about some of them through museums and visual arts. It doesn’t replace the actual experience, of course, but it’s the next best thing.

So, on with the topic. Now, what could be more interesting than the Bangsamoro, right? Bangsamoro, of course, is that hotly-contested autonomous region in the South populated by Muslims. There are other non-Muslim ethnic groups who are indigenous to Mindanao called the Lumads, but that’s for another article.

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photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Bangsamoro is the “largest non-Catholic group in the Philippines and, as of the year 2012, comprises 11% of the total population” – Wikipedia. Its defining and official religion, Islam, is the second largest and the fastest-growing in the world.

The spotlight is turned every time we hear news of war in this troubled region and when there are developments in the efforts made to achieve that seemingly elusive peace, as when peace talks and deals are made.

If you come to think of it, if we weren’t colonized by the Spaniards, we probably are Muslims today. Now, all the reason to be interested in the Bangsamoro’s history and culture.

Bangsamoro from the Filipino term bangsa, meaning nation and Moro, from the Moors (of Southern Spain) – a designation used by the Spanish to all Muslims.

Three indigenous tribal men from the Sulu Archipelago in the 1900s.
Three indigenous tribal men from the Sulu Archipelago in the 1900s. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

What’s interesting to note is that Bangsamoro (as one nation of Muslims) is actually composed of different ethnic groups who happened to share a similar faith, and maybe certain aspects of their cultures, history and traditions. But there are certain things that are unique to each group. The brand of Islam itself as how it is practiced here, or manifestations thereof, may differ widely from say, those in the Middle East or even other Southeast Asian neighbors. The basic tenets of the faith are adhered to but there are certain embellishments that are quite unique to this specific group. Think of it as Islam in Bangsamoro garb. Some indigenous practices and beliefs persisted and made its way to the new religion.

Feast for the eyes

What really struck me immediately upon entering the exhibit is the ornate artistry of the works. Apparently, the peoples of this region have developed a highly-stylized form of geometric patterns that are combined together to form these visually stunning imagery. This is in no less thanks to a Qu’ranic prohibition of creating artistic depictions of human, animal and plant forms in any medium.

This particular style is called okir which, aside from referring to carving or engraving, is also referring to a particular curvilinear design pattern predominantly and distinctly used by the Muslim groups in Southern Philippines. This type of design could be seen in their architecture and in the day-to-day implements and fashion.

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Tabo or Dabu-dabu, of the Maranao tribe, Lanao del Sur. A signalling instrument horizontally suspended in front of Mosques. A standard rhythm calls people to prayer on Friday, while a more intricate tempo is played during Ramadan.

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Boras, Tausug tribe, Jolo, Sulu. A window screen which doubles as a floor mat during ceremonies. Interesting to note that Tausug culture gives specific division of labor for the sexes in the creation of the boras – men for the rattan mat itself and women for the painting and design.

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Enjoying the visual treat, yet? This is just a prelude to more exciting things to come, so watch out for it 😉 Till next time! 🙂

Lantaka – of War & Peace

This is the first time I’ve heard of the word “lantaka”. I bet most of us aren’t familiar with it, yeah? Well, fret no more as you are about to get enlightened 🙂

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I didn’t realize our ancestors had such sophisticated weapon in their arsenal. However, not only as an implement of war but also during times of peace are these lantakas proven useful, like during celebratory events, and as a form of warning signal when there is impending danger, much like a siren does in modern times. There’s this one article I read that says during those times, the number of lantakas (aside from the number of wives) a man has, are considered status symbols.

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This is just another proof of a vibrant, thriving culture during pre-Hispanic times. And proof positive of our predecessors’ knowledge of metallurgy.

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I can go on and on babbling about this subject but I should really stop myself because I realized I took a photo of the museum’s informational guide (for obvious reasons) – it should do the talking, right? I thought so.

Well, enjoy reading 🙂

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A Day at the Museum | The National Museum of Anthropology – Part 1

Treasures of the San Diego

You’d be glad that our museums are free of charge, would you not? At least those under the auspices of the National Museum, that is. One could kill time away and explore new knowledge for practically nothing, at no cost.

The story of the San Diego should interest every Filipino because not only does it shed light into the kind of world our forebears lived in, but because it’s teaching us some important life lessons too, if we are only to look closer and really listen.

I know nothing much about the San Diego myself, so I’m sharing this so we could learn together. I’m kind of curious too if this has already been part of school text books. It should be. Children, especially, with their impressible minds, should visit the gallery because nothing beats seeing the artifacts with one’s own eyes. I was kind of happy seeing groups of school children touring the museum. There is this one group in the lobby being briefed by the guide before the tour started. Although most seemed excited, you can see in some of the children’s faces that they are getting bored, what with their short attention span – some looking spaced-out, others forcing a somewhat interested/engaged look, perfunctorily nodding to every thing the guide says, but that you know their mind is wandering some place else. Sorry kids, you need to learn these stuff 🙂

Just a disclaimer, though. The article you will be seeing below were taken purely from museum references and informational guides. It does not reflect the author’s words or opinions.

The San Diego – a 16th Century Galleon

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A model of the San Diego

The San Diego was a 3-masted trading ship built in 1590 in Cebu by Basque, Chinese and Filipino shipbuilders. It used different kinds of Asian woods and was about 35-40 meters long, about 12 meters wide and 8 meters high. It had at least 4 decks and could hold about 700 tons of cargo.

The discovery of the San Diego has significantly expanded knowledge of Renaissance shipbuilding techniques. On the basis of the finds and the positioning of the wreck, the construction of the ship had been studied.

Detailed investigations were only conducted on selected planks because of conservation problems. A large part of the wood remains were left under-water and covered with sand for future researches.

The Sinking of the San Diego

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photo courtesy of Wikipedia

On December 14, 1600, about 50 kilometers southwest of Manila, the Spanish battleship San Diego under the command of Morga clashed with the Dutch ship Mauritius. All odds were in favor of the Spanish. The San Diego was four times larger than the Mauritius. It had a crew of 450 rested men and massive fire power with 14 cannons taken from the fortress in Manila.

It sank “like a stone”

Unfortunately, this was also the weakness of the San Diego. Morga had the ship full of people, weapons and munitions but too little ballast to weigh the ship down for easier maneuverability.  While the gun ports had been widened for more firing range, not one cannon could be fired because water entered through the enlarged holes.

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The San Diego sprung a leak beneath the water line either from the first cannonball fired by the Mauritius or from the impact of ramming the Dutch at full speed. Because of inexperience, Morga failed to issue orders to save the San Diego. It sank “like a stone” when he ordered his men to cast off from the burning Mauritius.

The events were recorded in Morga’s book, Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas. The book portrayed Morga as a hero of the battle. Olivier van Noort also wrote about the battle.

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photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Antonio de Morga (1559 – 1636)

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photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Morga came from a family of bankers in Seville but decided to have an administrative career. He was appointed as Advisor and Lieutenant General to the Governor of the Philippines in 1593 by the Spanish King. This did not make him happy being posted “at the ends of the earth”. He saw his chance to change his fortune when he heard the news of a Dutch pirate ship entering Philippine waters.

Through political maneuvering, he was promoted to admiral and later commissioned the San Diego, a merchant vessel anchored in Manila, to be a battleship. Morga thought that a swift victory over the exhausted intruders would put him in a favorable stead with the King.

Morga’s ignorance as a captain was proven during the sea battle with the Dutch. He gave wrong commands that led to the sinking of the San Diego, but as one of the few survivors, he successfully depicted himself as a hero of the battle and even got promoted. He was sent to Mexico in 1603 and to Peru in 1615.

Olivier van Noort (1558/59 – 1627)

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photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Olivier van Noort was a tavern owner in Rotterdam. He was described as a humorous, courageous, stubborn, but enterprising man. In 1598, he was entrusted to command a small fleet financed by some merchants and the Dutch stockholder, Maurice of Nassau. His mission was to ascertain the trade route to the Spice Islands and, along the way, plunder any vessel he could find.

In the latter part of 1600, van Noort, reached the Philippines with two ships. On December 14, the battle between his flagship Mauritius and Morga’s San Diego took place in front of Manila Bay. Although far outnumbered, 59 to 450, his men fought bravely. Van Noort tricked the Spanish into fleeing by setting fire to his own sails. Through his nautical skills and tactical cunning, he was able to escape the Spaniards.

One year later, van Noort returned to Rotterdam broke. The expedition was a failure. But his knowledge of the trade route, allowed Dutch participation in the spice trade in the Moluccas. Belatedly acknowledged, he finally took a post as garrison commander until 1626 when he retired.

The Wreck of the San Diego

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The hold of the San Diego contained food and water supplies. Stoneware jars doubling as containers and ballast were placed in the hold. About 800 of these were found in the wreck. These jars came mostly from Burma and dated from the 16th century.

Antonio de Morga sailed into battle with the Mauritius, commanded by Olivier van Noort. Early in the morning, Morga neglected to inform his Vice Admiral Juan de Alcega. Morga at first seemed to gain the upper hand, and his soldiers even captured the standard of the Mauritius. The Spanish galleon was under full sail when it violently rammed the Dutch ship. The seasick Spanish admiral, however, failed to follow up on his advantage despite pleas from his officers and crew and soon lost control of the situation.

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The Admiral’s table

A major leak was discovered in the hold, obviously a result of the violent impact. Morga gave the fatal order to cast off the lines holding the ships together. The astonished Dutch could not believe their eyes. When the lines had finally been cut, the San Diego sailed 330-660 feet (100-200m), nosed over and went straight to the bottom. The time was approximately 3:00 pm, on Thursday, December 14, 1600. Three hundred people are thought to have drowned. Another hundred apparently survived by swimming to nearby Fortune Island. Morga himself was rescued by his secretary.

Turning lemons into… whatever

Some curve ball can throw you off easily from your goals but on the one hand, gives you the chance to reflect and contemplate on things (not to mention some free time to catch up on your reading or favorite series). I’m supposed to have a trip this month planned out early on, but unfortunately, this had to be scrapped as things have gotten a turn for the worse a few months back when I was admitted to the hospital. I’m dealing with the setback the best way I can. And since I won’t be writing anything remotely close to travel anytime soon, I might as well look back at the experience and share how I got enlightened by it. Some realizations and things learnt along the way. It’s a long list. Here it goes.

  • If you have lingering cough, about a week-old or so already, have yourself checked right away. This could be symptom of a more serious, lethal nature.
  • Make every effort to strengthen your immune system, especially if you work the graveyard shift. Take vitamins.
  • Try not to stress yourself out too much. Have fun. Don’t be too uptight. Remember, stress kills. I remember the story of “Lolong”, one of the largest crocodiles ever discovered, who died because of stress (see related article here).
  • MMC, where I was admitted, is just freakin’ modern and cutting-edge. Save for some issues with the food, this is easily one of the best medical care one can get.
  • Nothing really much to expect if required diet is bland, or at least none of the sugary, high-sodium stuff. I commend the fact that they tried to incorporate as much balance in the food they serve, with tiny bits of health information written on the placemat to boot. The food isn’t all bad but there were hits and misses. There are times food is left untouched. I just wish there is some kind of innovation being worked out somewhere in the world, that makes food palatable even without seasoning, coaxing the brain to believe that it is, haha!

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  • MediCard doesn’t cover doctor’s fees. Good thing Philhealth does (at least in this case). Might be a case-to-case basis, though, subject to certain conditions like up to how much they can cover, or depending on the type of procedure done, etc. Not really sure.

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  • Medicard doesn’t cover medical supplies or miscellaneous expenses, so it’s best to always have extra cash/credit with you, or to always make room for it in your budget, for such emergencies. Trust me, I’ve learned it the hard way. Mine was about P5,000 upon discharge. May not sound much to some but for someone working on a tight budget, this could really be a pain in the you-know-what. Good thing there are still angels in this world 🙂 And this coming from someone who is not even religious.
  • If your doctor requires you to go on leave for an extended period like I did, chances are you’d be using up all of your leave credits, both SL and VL. Any absences you incur beyond this is already considered LWOP (without pay). Now don’t fret. Next thing you can do is apply for a sickness claim from social security or SSS. You can download the form from their website. Just look for Sickness Notification Form, under Forms.
  • I appreciate how people in our human resources/admin are considerate enough to defer application of the remaining no-pay days into two different cut-off periods instead of one. It’s a relief knowing you do not have to lose your shirt.
  • Print extra copies of those forms because you’ll never know when they could come in handy. In my experience, the ineptitude of the doctor’s assistant has led to several amendments of those forms. Having extra copies can save you time and energy.
  • Take note of the timeline of all the important events such as your confinement and discharge dates, the succeeding outpatient visits, and the days the doctor rendered you not yet fit to work. In my experience, the staff at the doctor’s office can sometimes have a way of confusing things, having all these dates messed up, and worse – putting the blame squarely on the patient for it. And this despite them supposedly having everything on record.
  • The doctor, aside from having a not so legible handwriting (which they have gained notoriety for), can also outright commit typographical errors. In this case, on the medical certificate. This of course has ripple effect. Eventually this has cost time amending the forms whose information were based from the certificate itself.
  • Not only typo errors but major errors at that, can be committed by even the smartest people like physicians. The first doctor I went to misread my X-ray results. She gave me a clean bill of health when she shouldn’t. This sets me back two more weeks from recovery. Imagine going about your daily life without proper medication, oblivious of the danger that lies within?
  • The doctor’s assistant, on the other hand, although carrying a sweet demeanor, is obviously fairly new to the job and has given incorrect information by saying no need for patient to get medical abstract from the Medical Records, as they (the doctor’s office) are the ones who will take care of it. A week later, she apologized and said it is actually the patient who should request it directly from Medical Records. I thought to myself: ‘Oh boy, here we go’. I had a strange feeling this is going down this nasty route. I mean, I don’t mind getting it from the Medical Records myself, I just wish she had told me earlier so that I could start the ball rolling. Now it would take additional weeks more to process.
  • Now just when you hoped there wouldn’t be any more bottlenecks in the process, they start popping up. They just wouldn’t go away, would they? The staff at the Medical Records said that the release of the documents took a while longer, because they’ve been waiting for the doctor in-charge (during my confinement) to sign the form. They couldn’t get hold of the doctor much earlier because the doctor is busy. Ay, yay, yay… What can a man do? The waiting game just went on and on, and every time, the frustration builds up. Life really has a way of pushing your buttons, huh?
  • Every time a procedure, a test, or a consult needs to be done, you first need to get an order form from Medicard. See their MMC office hours below.

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  • Should there be a need for you to submit certain specimen such as sputum, it’s best to have it done on the testing site so that the specimen remains fresh. If, for some reason, that that would not be possible, you can do the procedure at home, on an empty stomach before breakfast, and have it transported via a sealed container with ice. Test results are released 3 business days from the last test date. For these types of tests, it’s usually 2 days of consecutive specimen extraction. You can get specimen containers from the test site beforehand. I’m sharing this so that you don’t have to go back and forth picking up bits and pieces of information every time, instead of getting it in one go.
  • Take note as well that the doctor’s assistant (whom paperwork such as claims are delegated) might have a different perspective on matters which might leave everyone confused. For example, the SSS form indicates “Confinement Date” as one of the information that need to be filled-in. I think we can all agree that confinement date is the date you were admitted to the hospital, right? No need to elaborate on that. Understandably, one would be curious to know why the assistant would have the doctor put in the date of the visit at their office after being discharged (ergo, as outpatient), instead of the actual “Confinement Date” (in-patient)? To this she replied (non-verbatim): “Sir, ano ba talaga yung gusto nyong ipagawa sa amin? Kasi hindi naman namin covered yung confinement nyo eh. Ang sa amin lang is yung pang outpatient”, or something to that effect.
  • See, this is absurd on so many levels. First, she asks me what it is exactly I was asking for her to do. I mean, really? In my mind I was like: ‘In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been in and out of your office several times for weeks now because every time, there is something wrong with the information you put on those forms, and it’s not like the doctor is always available to amend it. And now you’re asking me this? Seriously? After all I’ve been through? How about you do your job well and fill-out this form accurately so that I don’t have to waste my time, huh? Or is it too difficult for you to do?’ See, the last thing I need is for social security to tell me that the dates are wrong and that I had to go back to their office repeatedly for this simple mistake. Good for her I was restraining myself. Other days, she may not be lucky. I think I just felt my claws come out.
  • Second, she’s telling me they do not process requests covering those days I was in confinement and can only process those that fall under outpatient procedures. I get that. But that’s not really answering the question now, is it? Why does the form say “Confinement Date” instead of otherwise? Either it’s the wrong form, or there is something they’re not telling me. She says that it is understood in this case, that the “confinement date” refers to outpatient “dates” (or whatever), since the request is being done via their office who does outpatient procedures. Some kind of logic, huh? I’m not really buying it 100%. I feel like she’s just trying to wing it. Anyways, we’ll see. Maybe she’s right. She better be. Also, how could they assume a first-timer would know this right off the bat? I couldn’t have known for sure unless someone explains it to me. This actually led me to another question of who now do I ask should the claim cover the actual confinement dates, but because of the cumbersome experience I had, decided to just drop it. I’m raising my white flag here.
  • Truly, this underscores the importance of proper verbiage. If you come to think of it, they probably receive these types of requests almost every week, if not daily. So frequent, in fact, one would think they should have perfected the process by now. Apparently not. And apparently, they have not figured out a way to explain this to their patients clearly. Had she learned how to effectively send her point across, it would’ve spelt a world of difference.
  • As of this writing, the request is still on process. All things considered, I say it’s best to have the form submitted early, preferably having them filled-out by the doctor during actual visit/s or consults (meaning with confirmed appointment), and make sure all the dates they put in are correct so that any amendment/s could be done right away while the doctor is present. Any other day it’s done might have one end up waiting longer than should be, because they would say “you don’t have an appointment”, “the doctor is not available”, blah-blah-blah. Better save yourself the hassle.

Update (as of 13 October 2017)

Finally received the check from social security. Bad news though, is that the second part of the claim was declined due to late submission. My understanding is that the two claims shouldn’t have been submitted more than 5 days apart. What a shame, given what I had to go through to make sure this doesn’t happen, as attested to by the rather exhaustive detailing of my ordeal above. This more than anything proves that in life, major roadblocks (oftentimes beyond our control) can hamper progress, even with the best efforts and intentions. Granted, there’s probably a thing or two I could have done more to improve the chances, but, I think overall, the inefficiency and the cumbersome way things were handled by the other characters in this narrative, and the amount of time wasted waiting for something that is supposedly simple and uncomplicated, contributed largely to this disappointing result. This is causing some unnecessary frustration.

Now, I don’t really consider myself fatalistic, like believing that things happen for a reason as if by some divine providence. I believe things happen as a matter of consequence. In fact, sometimes things just happen for no reason at all. It just is. Other times however, I feel that regardless of the efforts we put forth in life, they end up being like defeated purposes. This is true especially if you are up against things and situations that are bigger than you, or that are beyond you, like maybe bureaucracy, politics, or even just another person’s incompetence, as the above experience shows. I know. It’s funny how something some people might consider petty, almost insignificant, as another person’s incompetence, can give one a hard time wrapping his head around. I myself would often just shrug this thing off, chalking it up to inexperience or some person’s propensity to crack under pressure. I can be forgiving like that especially if I feel that the person is innately good inside. It really depends on the situation and the attitude of the person I’m dealing with. You throw in some smug in the mix and that’s a different story. Now, in the case of bureaucracy, it’s been described as “the art of making the possible impossible”. Couldn’t agree more.

Shibuya | The Pulse to an Amazing City’s Beat

Last in a series

Previously in this series:

Yuzawa – The Little Snow Country to the North

Japan | A Gastronomical Experience that Satiates

Leaving our Hearts in the Snow

Oh, boy. Need I say more? This place is electric.

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Nowhere is this feeling more pronounced than at the center of it all – the Shibuya Crossing (also known as the Shibuya Scramble), arguably the world’s busiest intersection. People from all walks of life, coming from and going to different directions, converge and cross at once but still able to dodge each other, albeit in a cool manner 😉

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Just like a human heartbeat, this place literally pulsates with life. I can only imagine how beautiful this place is at night.

It’s a shopping mecca and a popular haunt for everything from fashion to electronics, to souvenirs and gift items.

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Shibuya is electric

Its streets and alleyways, filled with all sorts of houses of commerce – from imposing modern skyscrapers to shops, cafes, restaurants, ramen houses, etc., are made for instagram-pretty snapshots like these 🙂

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I notice crows in this particular area near the Shibuya 109. They squawk quite loudly, too. See that one flying over the tree in the upper left?

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And of course, the go-to place of every Filipino I know who wants to buy that “pasalubong”Don Quijote.

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This discount store is godsend. Here you will find a wide selection of items you can bring back home – all the chocolates, all the different-flavoured kit-kat‘s, all the Nissin ramen seafood and cheese curry flavor, and yakisoba (in the pack) you can get; lotion and soap (for your sister), kewpie mayo and dressing, etc.

Our guide wonders in amazement why Filipinos hoard these stuff. Well, it’s cheaper, for one. And in the case of the Nissin noodles, the ones here do not scrimp on the ingredients like the meat and seafood that comes with the packaging.

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So there, our short but well-worthy stay in Shibuya, in Tokyo. It is a nice ending to our Japan experience. Really, something that will forever be treasured 🙂 Thank you Japan for an awesome time!

Leaving our Hearts in the Snow

3rd in a series

Previously in this series:

Yuzawa – The Little Snow Country to the North

Japan | A Gastronomical Experience that Satiates

“Time flies when you are having fun”. So goes the saying. Couldn’t be truer than now, our last day in Yuzawa. The past two days have been a whirlwind. It’s been nothing but a plethora of different new things to the senses – from the weather, to the food, to the culture. It really is one for the books.

But wait, the fun isn’t over yet. We cannot leave Snow Country without having to experience winter activities it’s famous for, right?

So, as is the usual routine, we wake up early to have breakfast at GaiA (that cute, little cabin at the edge of the woods).

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Today however, we woke up a bit earlier than usual so we could maximize time.

Props to Yuki for cooking all of our delicious meals during our stay at the inn – the soup that was served upon our arrival (which I call the welcome soup), two of the breakfasts we had at gaiA, and the packed breakfast we had at the bus on the way back to Tokyo. She is such a sweet and nice gal, who had been nothing but patient and understanding to us 🙂 She probably find some of our customs weird but has managed to accommodate us still. For example, I don’t think it’s common for Japanese to put sugar in coffee (if they even drink coffee regularly at all). Doesn’t seem like it. So when I asked for sugar for the group, she was kind of surprised that one small pack is not enough. It had to be a small bowl for everyone 🙂

These are the meals she made for us for our breakfast for the past two days. All of these are organic, by the way.

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Today’s breakfast – eggs, sausage, salad and pumpkin soup

I particularly liked the set with the baked salmon. Delicious! Proof that going organic doesn’t mean taste had to be sacrificed.

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Country-style breakfast of baked-salmon, Japanese-style eggroll, fried veggies with dashi soup , and miso soup. All organic. Yum! 🙂

I also like the ‘hippie-dippie/new age/people-of-the-earth’ vibe of the place and the kind of lifestyle espoused by Yuki herself. Not something I expected.

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I guess it would be nice also to put the spotlight on The Vintage Backcountry Inn Arimaya – our accommodation for the past three days.

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It’s a traditional ryokan, so everything you see here are antique, save for some modern amenities like TV & WiFi.

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“Built in 1908 without a single nail, the original structure is a(n) exemplar of the exquisite traditional Japanese kominka construction”

There were just some modifications done with the heating, plumbing and lavatories to keep up with modern standards. But you get to sleep on a traditional Japanese futon and tatami mats. Also, please take time to read the house’s history and how it was built in the about section of its page on Airbnb. You’d appreciate it more.

Now we proceed to our first destination – ski!

We went to the ski rental first to get some boots. The boots had to be clipped tight. So tight in fact one could get sore feet and legs afterwards. We then proceeded to the ski area which is really just around the corner – the Yuzawa Kogen Ski Resort.

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Since none of us have any experience with ski, or any of the winter sports for that matter, we were first taught just the basics – the essential gears needed and how to put them on; some warm-up exercises; the basic techniques of sliding and stopping, and how to get up after falling. Also, how to move your way to the top of the hill and how to, sort of, put on the “breaks” while sliding down.

Me saying it like this makes it sound easy, right? Wait till you try it, haha!

I’ve fallen a couple of times and it was really hard for me to get up without having to resort to the “shortcut” – that of releasing the locks from the boots 🙂 The proper techniques (there are two of them) both require that you carry your weight through the use of the poles. Good luck with that, really 😉

I was also challenged going up the hill. Gravity always win pulling me down. Ski blades are extremely slippery, you know. Anyhow, it was an experience.

By this time we are feeling hungry already. We went to this beautiful place with the mountains as backdrop and had grilled meat, or what is called yakiniku, under a covered or roofed space outdoors, much like a gazebo, if not one already.

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It’s like having your typical picnic, only it’s in the snow. There’s lots of meat to be cooked and they are so delicious. I don’t know how we managed to devour all of them up. Hungry much, I guess? 😛

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After that wonderful lunch, next activity is riding a snowmobile from ski-doo.

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This one’s easy. Anyone who wants to satisfy their need for speed can try it here. Everyone gets to try one round with instructor and one round by himself. Lucky if you get picked to drive for the race afterwards.

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It was an activity-filled afternoon. What we’ve learned and what we’ve been practicing for would be put to the test later with the mini-“Winter Olympics”, of sorts.

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I wouldn’t be delving too much though, with the nitty-gritty of the games and of the other activities, so as to keep the element of surprise for the other groups who are yet to experience it 🙂 All I can say is be ready with your wit and brawn. You will need them. Good luck! 😀

As you can imagine, we were all exhausted by the end of the day. Nothing could be more joyful and nourishing than a nice meal like this below.

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The main entrée to the left, which are thin slices of pork with some type of (what I understand) is a miso mixture at the bottom, and was cooked right in front of us, on our tables, with some special leaf for aroma, is super! It tastes really good. As we say in the vernacular, we were all “galit-galit” 😀

Not sure where we had the meal exactly, although below is the signage at the entrance. My online references direct me to the Yuzawa New Otani. I couldn’t be sure, though. The itinerary says closing dinner at a typical izakaya, or watering hole.

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But of course, this being our last day in Yuzawa, I wouldn’t miss the opportunity getting pampered in what I think is the most quintessential of our Japanese experience – the onsen. People can go to Japan but they may not always experience this, let alone the Snow Country.

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And that pretty much sums up my Yuzawa experience. Delightful! 🙂

Japan | A Gastronomical Experience that Satiates

2nd in a series

Previously in this  series:

Yuzawa – The Little Snow Country to the North

The words umami and oishi found their way in our vocabulary thanks to the Japanese who seem to have an acute sense of taste for good food. They have a way of elevating everything that is already good to even better – from presentation, to taste, to the whole experience of living well. It is also a study in contrast. Strongly-held traditions of the past sit side-by-side with modernity. Japan is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, yet unlike others, it has managed to preserve, nay, live its traditions to this day. Its cultural past is alive and well.

Interesting cultural differences abound. For example, slurping and burping, considered bad manners in the West, are acceptable here. No, in fact, not just accepted, it’s actually seen as a form of compliment to the host, especially if you finish your plate clean because that means you have enjoyed the food. As I would always say to myself: ‘If only by that standard, I could fit in Japan nicely 🙂 I can live here’. I could well be in my element, haha!

The culinary adventure started from even before we landed in Japan. Coming from the house with no breakfast, I was kind of feeling famished already during the flight. The smell of food wafting from the cabin crew station excites me. And when the food was finally served, I was sated like I was never sated before – or maybe I’m just really hungry, I don’t know 🙂

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Look at this spread and be the judge.

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They even have cute, little Haagen-Dazs ice cream served afterwards. How cool is that?

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One would be extremely amazed with the country’s obsession with vending machines. They are practically everywhere – at the airport, pit stops, train stations, convenience stores, even ramen houses! The ubiquity of these machines astounds me. I wish we have something similar back home. Oh, I’m missing the hot VanHouten chocolate drink already. Yes, they not only offer cold but hot drinks as well, and all other curious stuff, too 🙂

In one of the convenience stores we stopped by, I saw this cute robot. I think his name is Pepper, I’m not sure. I will call him Pepper. Judging by this bot’s more intuitive responses and smoother, more fluid movements, Pepper belongs to a newer, smarter generation of AIs. Another evidence of Japanese innovation at work. Aaawww, isn’t he adorable?

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We also had the chance visiting a strawberry farm. Yes, you heard me right. You might be wondering, ‘how in the world are they able to produce strawberries in the dead of winter?’ Well, not a problem if you have a greenhouse.

We were asked to get five of the juiciest, most red, most plump strawberry we could lay our hands on. Look at these beauties 🙂

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Then off we went tasting different types of sake at the Shirataki Sake Brewery – a more than hundred or so year-old institution of this town which was established back in 1855. It is interesting to note that the Niigata Prefecture is the largest producer of sake and is long celebrated for the fine quality of the products.

We were briefed first on the process of making sake and then a tour of some of their facilities. And then the much-awaited sake tasting 🙂 It is no wonder the Japanese love their sake. After a few drinks, one would immediately feel his/her body temperature rise. It would then begin to feel warm inside – perfect in combating the cold.

Below are some of the types of sake we have tried.

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The orb you see hanging in front of the entrance is made of cedar. This serves a practical purpose in that it indicates the passing of time. The wood originally is green-colored. When it turns brown, like it is now in the picture, it means that the sake is ready.

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It’s a walking distance from the brewery to the train station. If you are interested in buying local delicacies, you will find a lot here. One of the specialties of the place is a type of rice called Koshihikari, which they say has the highest quality (I take that to be the most delicious, too) in the whole of Japan. There’s also lots of ramen houses here.

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I’m smelling something good cooking on the grill in that corner. Ah yes, street food! In all shapes and sizes, and in more variations, I suppose.

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Is that “baticolon” (gizzard) I see over there? Oh, look at those intestines. They are huge! For that size, they couldn’t possibly be your typical “isaw” (chicken intestine), could they? Pig’s, perhaps?

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It seems like in this aspect, the Japanese are like Filipinos – neither are keen on leaving any animal parts to waste as long as they are edible, yeah?

I tried the yakitori or grilled chicken on skewers. Oh man, this one is on a different level. It didn’t take long to cook, actually. Reason why meat is probably so tender. It is tasty but not overpowering. Yum!

Also, noticeably not as charred as it would normally be back home.

I also couldn’t resist trying this fish-shaped waffle filled with custard or red beans. I tried the one with custard. To a Filipino, this looks really unusual and interesting. I mean, why fish? Koreans also use this as cone for their ice cream. Is there something auspicious about it? Oh, well, doesn’t matter. As long as it tastes good, haha!

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These are just appetizers and desserts, and already we are feeling full 🙂

However, one still has to eat dinner, right? We were whisked to the Toei Hotel afterwards for some luxurious meal and some karaoke after, to those who want to belt their hearts out. Filipinos love to sing. It is interesting to note that although the karaoke was invented by the Japanese, it was a Filipino who patented it. Nothing spells entertainment more to a Filipino than karaoke 🙂

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The highlight of my day however, is the relaxing onsen bath. First time I’m trying this and it’s not without some first-time jitters I would say, what with local custom requiring you to strip down to nothing but your birthday suit, and this in front of strangers. Major intimidation, haha! Oh, but really, once you’re there, all inhibitions get thrown out the window. No room for body issues here. Important thing is to be able to enjoy the relaxing and the medicinal benefits of the onsen. You know what they say: “When in Rome”…, or more accurately in this case, “When in Japan” 😉

One has to make sure however, to familiarize himself first with the do’s and don’t’s in an onsen before taking that dip so as not to offend locals. Resource materials should be available at the hotel or from your travel agent. Google, even.

Yup, here’s to another item off my bucket list. Kanpai! 🙂