Exploring Japan

The land of the rising sun..how can I begin to describe my fascination with this culture?  It started with enjoying the cuisine (honestly, who doesn’t love Japanese food..?), which is widely popular and just available all over the metro.  Then an opportunity came for me to study Nihonggo, the Japanese language, for a year while honing my I.T. skills, and this gave me more than a glimpse into the culture and traditions of this once ruthless conqueror of a nation.  While history was another story, a lot of what has become of Japan now is so very admirable, noteworthy and imitable, I just had to see more.  A week-long visit was barely enough time to explore but more than enough for me to gush.

The City That is Tokyo

Tokyo is the perfect blend of busy, dynamic and tranquil.  Everything is efficiently run, from the trains, roads, shops, yet the people, whether in a large crowd or in smaller numbers, are so orderly it is hard to distinguish a weekend from a weekday traffic.  Dining in popular restaurants, as seen from the long lines at the door, does not differ much from dining anywhere else since people are so considerate; they tend to eat fast and leave quietly, making the lines move quickly if ever there was one.

Staying most of the time in the city, in this case Tokyo, with the flurry of activities, albeit quietly, the beauty and cleanliness of the surrounding, the many manifestations of development, the politeness of the locals and the their deliberateness in doing almost anything (even food serving), is like an assault on the senses.  The energy, the buzz, the intentionality, all contribute to the sensation.  It is not unpleasant, but it feels larger than life, even to the point of overwhelming.  It is like quiet strength in a person, you don’t see it but you sense it is there.  Such is the impression of cool confidence and assurance I get when interacting with the locals.  It’s like the rich culture emanating from the daily, mundane things we can see, feel and taste.  I can hardly get enough of this vibe.

Instead of taking the usual tourist stops, we decided to explore Tokyo by foot or train, again with loose itinerary, check out the rural villages and, fingers crossed, take a hike to Mt. Fuji.  Luckily enough, we were able to secure slots at the last minute to tour Fujisan by bus with a local guide/translator.

Sidetrip to Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji was a sight to behold.  It is one of Japan’s sacred mountains, if not considered the most sacred, and the country’s tallest peak, with snow capping it almost five months within a year.  In good enough weather, the ascent takes 5 to 7 hours while it takes 3 to 5 hours to descend, if taking the most popular route from the 5th station via Yoshida trail.  The official Fuji hiking season is from July to September, when the climate is warm and safe and establishments like cafes and shops nearby are open, with some selling hiking supplies and/or souvenirs.  Many hikers prefer to climb the mountain at night in order to witness the sunrise at the summit.

In case of bad weather, don’t despair as the mere sight of the icy mountain from the Fujisan World Heritage Center, from its cafe or from a nearby rural village, is enough to elicit involuntary ooohhs and aahhs from you and your company, guaranteed.

Worth the Hype?

Yes, yes, yes and YES!  Japan is worth that trip of a lifetime, although I highly doubt going there once on a short trip will ever be enough.  Without setting it out to be so, the trip becomes a cultural one — from the big, bustling city to the sleepy rural villages, to food tripping, shopping or just simply sight-seeing — the country is so culturally rich, you’ll be left in awe and maybe start questioning your roots or chosen residence, or just the way you live, behave and look at things.  I’ve only been to a few places that had me feeling like I learned a lot more from the trip than in any number of other trips, and this one definitely tops the list.  From the kitschy, kawaii items sold in the shopping district, the purikura stops in trendy Harajuku, the excellent food in restaurants, michelin-starred or otherwise, to the oh, so polite and genteel people, Japan’s food and culture game is strong, and arguably without par.

It was no surprise to find out that Japan tops the countries with the most Michelin stars, with three of its cities making it to the list of the most starred cities in the world, even with some restaurants rejecting their stars.  What’s more exciting about this is that many of its Michelin-starred restaurants are not pricey at all, some even quite cheap.  And yet the food quality is top-notch, it is even hard to distinguish fine dining from diner types, except maybe if you look at the interior, dinnerware and location.  That being said, I’d go on and say that living in Japan is not that expensive, or at least not the way I heard it, if one knew where to go and eat.

Overall, Japan for me is a seemingly harmonious mix of old and new, ancient and futuristic, progress and tradition, along with all its ups and downs.  If you’ve heard of relationships for hire in Japan, the high occurrence of suicides, the ageing population and the depleting workforce, a seemingly perfect society still, after all, has its fair share of problems and crises.  Nevertheless, Japan is worth emulating in so many ways in its value-driven, character-building, trust-based societal norms and humane approach to advancement.  The way it has grown without abandoning its lessons, values and traditions and in heavy consideration of nature and the environment, is an outstanding achievement in and of itself.  Because of these and more, Japan is by far my most favourite country.  I might even live there for awhile, we’ll see 🙂

A Chill Trip to La Union

Lazing around in Urbiztondo beach

There is no better time to explore new places than long weekends.  And while La Union is already a well-known weekend destination for weekend warriors, foodies and people ‘blessed’ with itchy feet in general,  it was a first for this wanderlust, yours truly.  Needless to say, I was filled with excitement and looking forward to what this gem of a town has to offer.

Exploring La Union

La Union, LU or Elyu in millennial speak, is a go-to spot for surfing in Northern Luzon long before better routes were in place a couple of years back.  Now with the Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway (TPLEX), what used to be a five to six hour-trip from Manila is down to about four.  We left Manila at dawn and reached our destination in 3 hours.  If you have more days or energy to spare, you can go on side trips to Baguio or Tarlac for roughly an hour each stop.  But since this was a chill trip by design, we ate, drank and slept Elyu for three days.

Eat, Drink, Surf and More

Elyu slowly became known also as a foodie destination in recent years, making it all the more popular and a must-visit in Luzon.  Among the number of good options, some of our top picks are:

  1. Olas Banditos – For those unforgettable burritos with a twist, this is a must.  Their drink concoctions are not bad either.
  2. The Coffee Library – overall good quality coffee and some place to quiet down or cool down from the afternoon heat.
  3. Great Gamble Seafood Shack – Their crab and scallop rolls are so good.  This favorite may no longer be on the menu but can still be ordered as a special request.
  4. Tagpuan – For affordable post-surf grub, their beef tapa and lugaw are two thumbs up.
  5. Coast Call Kitchen and Bar – Their breakfast offerings are the best.  We tried the s’mores pancakes and a few breakfast dishes i.e. Kuya Jun’s favorite (pictured below) and left with happy tummies.  They serve not just Filipino faves but also international dishes.
  6. Last but not the least, the newly opened Seafoodobo.  For those who can’t resist a seafood boodle fight, this cozy outdoor foodstop is just wow.

I’ve lined up a few more for my next trip, more on this in another post.

We decided to have a very loose itinerary on this trip, and so aside from visiting friends and family in the area, we only checked out a few places.  For random picks, I’d say these are worth the time.

  1. Luna Pebble Beach – The pebble-lined shore of this stretch of beach is quite a surprise.  At the time of visit, the waves were too strong for swimming but the landscape was enough to keep us there.  Enjoy the unique ambient sound made by the waves crashing on the pebbles.  Lingering for the calming sound for a while was so worth it.  Added attractions in the area are the stone art gallery called Kamay na Bato and a rest house/mansion by the beach called Bahay na Bato.
  2. Ma-Cho Temple – Situated on a hilly side and overlooking the city of San Fernando is this Taoist temple.  It is open to all visitors who want to take a peek inside the temple or soak in the view, all for free.  Trying out the rituals and wood wishing is allowed and there are even staff available to teach you how.
  3. If there’s only one thing you can do in Elyu, it’s this — Don’t leave Elyu without at least frolicking in or lounging by the beach and enjoying the lovely sunset, drinks on hand.  For this simple pleasure, we hung around at the Sunset Bay Beach Resort in Canaoay in San Fernando, La Union.  The calmer beach here is perfect for families or friends who want to while away the time watching the lovely sunset.  Ahhh, bliss.

    Best way to stroll along the beach: barefoot
  4. If you do find yourself with at least an hour or two to spare, spend time learning how to surf.  The waves are beginner-friendly in good weather but challenging enough to forge or test your skill.  San Juan Surf Resort along Urbiztondo beach in San Juan has a surf school if you want to be guided by a pro for just about $8 to 9$ an hour or just rent out a surfboard for $4 to $5 an hour.  How cool is that?!

Gentrification Done Right

What I love about La Union is the relaxed vibe despite throngs of visitors arriving year-round.  There is more than enough establishments for dining on every budget, as well as a wide selection of accommodation types– from hostels to hotels, rental houses or rooms– and yet the development has been gradual and unhurried, not unlike the pace and culture Elyu has come to be known for.  One can imagine island living without completely giving up on things creatures of comfort can’t do without.  Local businesses are aplenty and thriving, with a spattering of big businesses just enough to not resemble busy city streets.  A city girl or guy looking to slow down and who does not always crave luxury living can definitely live here.

Another noteworthy thing in Elyu is that the prices are kept low or reasonable despite its obviously booming tourism economy.  Local products of good quality are highlighted and celebrated in the restaurant menus, in the small stores lined up on otherwise empty highways and in shops located near the populous areas, whether or not owned by a local.  I love the mix of local and imported goods sold in some shops owned by expats.  It shows a love and respect for the hard work of local makers and producers in the land, and not just a boost to the local economy.

It was also a surprise to find a handful of local farms growing grapes.  While I did not expect grapes to grow in tropical or temperate countries like the Philippines,  I was even more surprised that it grows in lands very near the seaside.  Is it possible for tropical countries or islands with lands abundant enough to have successful wineries and vineyards?  How rich and fruity and exotic can those wines be…?  Food (or drinks) for thought.