Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Canadian Gem - Quebec City

Quebec City wasn't in my itinerary when I decided to go to Montreal. In fact, it wasn't even in my radar of places to visit. It wasn't until my host Benoit, mentioned it would make an excellent side trip. Upon his recommendation, I decided to go. So I immediately looked into day tours to Quebec online. Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot of information available regarding off-season tours. All the schedules listed online were for summer. By the time I gathered all the information I needed, it was too late to make a booking. The bus was scheduled to take off at 7am the next day. Which meant, I had to be up by 5:30am navigate the subway system, look for the tourist information office in downtown Montreal and hope to arrive in time. I didn't know if they were going to be open by seven or if I could even join the tour, last minute. But I decided to take the chance and go anyway. When I arrived at the tourist information center, it was still closed. I could see the bus, but without a ticket, I couldn't get on; nor do they sell them on board. Luckily, there was someone available from the bus company to accomodate me. Suffice to say, I made it by a hairline.

The Old Military Fort

The bus ride took 2 hours and it was comfortably warm. I was giving myself a nice pat on the back about making it on the tour. I didn't really know what to expect other than it was "nice." So I was pleasantly surprised when we got there. We were brought to a nice waterfall (in the summer - you could take the lifts up to the mountain that lead to the viewing decks offering spectacular views of the falls.) Despite the rain and cold winds, I was having a good time. I was in a great mood. I was happy to be there. After the quick waterfall stop, we were driven around Quebec City before being dropped off at the old Fort and Artist's Row.

It is here where Quebec's infamous charm can be seen and felt. I became infatuated with the place. One could really feel the Christmas spirit in this town (Sorry, this entry is 4 months overdue). Most of the public buildings, street lights, stores and hotels were decorated with cheerful decors. It has been a long time since I felt excited about the Christmas season. As I strolled down the cobbled stone streets of this very European town, I couldn't help but day dream what it must be like in the winter. With the streets covered in snow, with the scent of roasted chestnuts wafting through the air, the sound of children's laughter mingled with vendors' shouts selling their wares echoing in the wind, and the sight of kids sledding down gentle slopes covered in snow, while parents observed from a distance sipping hot ciders. I was unreasonably happy. I had a string tugging at my heart as I imagined this scene. In addition to its quaint beauty, it was filled with independent artisan shops. Most of the places sold local handicrafts by resident artists using local materials which made it even more special. I had an incredible and surprisingly great time touring this little jewel. I recommend it to anyone looking for a quick and quaint get-away.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Osaka Castle - 2010

One of the sights I went to visit in Osaka was Osaka Castle. I didn't get to appreciate all the historical displays within the building because everything was written and explained in Japanese (and I don't understand a word of it.). However I found the castle's grounds enchanting. The sights and sounds around the castle's compound was bursting with life. I had so much fun interacting with the locals, taking in the scenery and sampling the street foods.

The canopied walk in the park, leading to the Castle was a peaceful and soothing experience. As I walked through the beautiful park, I thought to myself, how lucky the Japanese are to have this at their doorstep. It served as a wonderful retreat from the heat. If I had more time, I would have spent an entire day there, meditating.

The views from the top of the castle show the Business District of Osaka very clearly. When I was there, I was blessed with a perfectly blue and clear, sunny sky.

As I strolled the grounds, I came across this man who had 3 very large and very colorful dragons. I had fun chatting with him and taking photos of his pets. Around the grounds, several food stalls can be found where delicious local fares are being sold.

The shaved ice were everywhere. And I finally got tempted into buying one. It served as a blessed relief from walking in the heat the whole day.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dressing Up as a Geisha

Before I left for my Japanese trip, I read up on the places I wanted to see. One of the must-see places in Japan is Kyoto City. As I flipped through the pages of my Lonely Planet book, I saw there are studios that specialize on dressing tourists up as Geishas. It also indicated that it was pricey. So I tethered between going for it or not. On my 2nd day in Kyoto, it was miserably grey and wet. My umbrella was too small. The rain drops dripped from my umbrella into the back of my shirt. My Fendi bag got wet (thank God it was canvas and not leather!) and I was just plain miserable walking with pained feet around Kyoto. But I wasn't ready to give up and go home. I trudged on until I stumbled upon this small sign that had Geisha photos on it. I didn't understand a word it said because it was written in Japanese. But the arrow that pointed toward a set of stairs that led down into a basement was filled with hundreds of "geisha" photographs. As I descended the stairs, I was still unsure of whether to push through with it or not. When I entered the studio, there were 4 women ahead of me. So I decided to simply sit, observe and contemplate if I really wanted to blow Y10,500 to put on some odd make-up and constricting clothes. But as I sat there, and truly thought about it, I decided that I was going to push through with it. And the reason behind it is because I wanted to have a unique and special experience to remember my trip to Japan. So I decided to throw my budget to the wind, and just do it!

Upon being ushered into the make-up room, we were asked to remove our clothes and were given a clean robe. We were instructed to wash our faces and necks before we were showed to our seats. I couldn't see much of what happened while they applied the white paste on my face and neck because we were told to keep our eyes shut while the paint dried. When I opened my eyes, I took a quick snapshot to document the experience.

Next step was choosing the Kimono and all the trappings that came with it. It was actually harder than I expected. There were so many factors that went into Kimono dressing. It was layer upon layer of beautifully designed cloths.

After being dressed in impressive Kimonos, I was showed into the studio where I sat and waited for a few minutes before being called in for the photo shoot. And below are the results.

Taking the Kimono and make-up off proved to be a lot easier than putting them on. But I was very happy I did it. As I look back, I don't regret blowing a chunk of my budget because I got to experience something unique.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sumiyoshi Taisha

The first stop in my Osaka highlight itinerary was the Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine. I wanted to pack as much as possible in one day since I was pressed for time. So I decided that the best thing to do was to hit the places that were close together in order to have a productive sightseeing day in Osaka. Getting to the Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine took several train transfers. From Shin Osaka Station, I took the JR train using my JR rail pass to Osaka Station then I transfered to the JR loop line to Shin Immamiya where I made another transfer through a private train line for Y200 to Sumiyoshi Station. From there it was a 5 minute walk to the shrine.

Sumiyoshi Taisha is an early 3rd century shrine commissioned by an empress during that era to wish sea faring voyagers to Korea a safe travel. It is dedicated to Shinto deities associated with the sea. Some of the buildings are faithful replicas of the original which predates Chinese Shinto Architectural influence. Some of the buildings go back to 1810, having escaped WWII bombings.

As you approach the shrine, the first thing that comes to sight is the stone Tori Gate that leads to a curved, red bridge. At first glance, the bridge appears to be a smooth curve line that leads to the other side of the lake. However as I approached to climb it, I saw that it was actually a hundred tiny little stair-like steps. They were so narrow, each step could only accommodate half of my foot. So I had to climb it sidewise.

A beautiful view of the pond can be seen from the middle of the bridge, where many local watercolorists can be seen painting the peaceful scenery around.

Upon reaching the other side, there was a purification well where most worshipers wash their hands and mouth before proceeding into the shrine to offer their prayers.

To the left of the entrance were prayers, messages and notes written on wood and aligned to grace the walls of the shrine. Upon entering the main shrine area, there were some interestingly-dressed gentlemen. I believe they were preparing for some kind of show for that evening. There were also traditionally dressed souvenir sales clerks seated, selling little trinkets in a shop near the exit, past the pond and the red bridge.

Eating Japanese Shabu Shabu the Right Way

During my recent trip to Japan, I decided beforehand to have at least one great dinner in a nice restaurant, to eat either authentic Japanese Sushi or dine in a real Japanese Shabu Shabu restaurant. When I was in Tokyo, a really nice Japanese girl named Yuka (whom I met on a previous excursion in Miyajima Island) offered to show me around town, and arranged for a Japanese Shabu Shabu dinner for us in Shibuya. I was looking forward to it since it was on my list of things to do. I didn't think it was any different than the ones I'm used to eating in the Phiippines or the US. However the process and method of eating it was indeed different than the one I was used to. The word "Shabu" signifies the motion of swimming. I thought this was a very interesting and valuable information. Yuka showed me how it was done properly. And she taught me the fine art of eating Shabu Shabu.

Step 1. Have some really good Cold Sake.

Step 2. Start the course with some chilled appetizer.

Step 3. Continue with a Japanese Salad while the broth is being heated and thickened.

Step 4. Once the broth has been seasoned and thickened by some gelatin-like substance, the meat is next. Yuka told me to make the meat "swim" in the broth and it must be immediately eaten. It is followed by cooking and eating the vegetables.

Step 5. The rice is served toward the end of the meal. Where a rice porridge is made from all the flavors and essences left by the meat and vegetables previously cooked in the broth. A fresh egg and some spices are then added to complete and thicken the porridge.

Step 6. Green Tea and Dessert concludes the dinner. In our case, we were served some green tea ice cream.

You might wonder, "What's the big deal? It sounds and looks the same, anyway."'re absolutely right! Except for the process. In the Philippines and some Shabu-Shabu restaurants I've been to in the US, they serve everything at the same time. No appetizer, no dessert and no rice porridge. The art of eating Shabu Shabu comes alive in the way you cook the meat and other ingredients. As I mentioned earlier, Shabu means the motion of "swimming." In this case, Once the meat is clamped between your chopsticks, you then make your meat "swim" in the broth. And then immediately eat it while the flavors are still fresh. Compared to the ones I've had before, the vegetables and meat are cooked at the same time, to be served in a small bowl then eaten alongside the rice. Another stark difference between authentic Japanese Shabu Shabu and commercial Shabu Shabu? Japanese Shabu Shabu is not eaten as a soup. But rather as a main course. While commercial Shabu Shabu is eaten as a soup and entree to accompany rice. Another major difference between the two is the way the rice is prepared and eaten. As I mentioned earlier, in Japan, they serve the rice toward the end of the course to make a porridge, served in a bowl with spring onions and other condiments before being eaten. Where as in commercial Shabu Shabu, it is eaten as an entree. I thought I'd share this somewhat redundant dining experience to those like me who love to eat and travel.

Much love,