The Joy and Art of Eating at Makasuntra

There is an alarmingly low number of Malay restaurants in the country.

This is a horrible discovery I found one evening as I scoured Food Panda and Zomato for Indonesian restaurants that offer delivery. I was craving for Mie Goreng that time and while there is the ever reliable, instant version through Indomie, I wanted something authentic and real for once. But in my search, only one restaurant appeared to be within my vicinity.

I sincerely think that Malay cuisine is underrated and people need to stop sleeping on it. That is why I was so happy when I first learned that Megamall is opening Makansutrathe famed Singaporean hawker food court.

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It took me a long time to visit this place but when I finally did, oh my god..teh. It felt like walking into food paradise. I got so giddy looking at food stalls and seeing the names of dishes I recognize, partly because I already tried them before and partly because they were the dishes that my Indonesian and Malaysian friends have told me about. In fact, I made it a point to check out each and every one of the 11 stalls in the place. I did not want to miss anything.

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I did not take enough photos of the interior because I got too caught up in eating, but the place is adorned in an industrial/urban street design! There is even this corner in the wall that teaches you random Indonesian/Malaysian (?) words. Amazing.

Now onto the food. There were also Hong Kong food stalls in the place, but I solely wanted to focus on Malay food that day, so those are everything I ordered. Here is the first star of my Makasuntra lunch: Mie Goreng.

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The Mie Goreng (Php 200) is a little different from what I’m used to. It’s redder, less spicy, but still savory. The color reminded me a bit of our very own Pancit Palabok even though the taste is far from it. If you want a light snack to kickstart your appetite, I highly recommend this.

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My favorite: Chicken Satay from Alhambra Padang Satay and Muslim Food. This meal comes with six skewers and a soto soup for Php 250. The rice portion is a tad too small for my liking, but everything else is fine. The chicken meat is barbecued to perfection that it disintegrates well in your mouth on the first bite. The flavor reminds me of a fragrant chicken kebab, but with light notes of sweetness in between. It also comes with a chunky peanut sauce (not included in the picture) that makes the taste even better.

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Another favorite: Roti Cheese (Php 150) from Curry Flurry. I’ve had plain Roti Prata before that comes with Chicken Curry but this variation is just something else. This is great for snack and dessert because sandwiched in between the thin layers of roti are bits of melted cheese. Combine that with the sweetness of condensed milk when you dip it and it’s just snack nirvana. I think out of everything I ordered, this is the dish that got finished the fastest.

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For dessert, we had Chendol (Php 200) from Sips, Sweets, and Snacks, the snack and dessert stall situated in the center of the food court. Like Mie Goreng, this Chendol is different from the one I had at Melaka circa 2013, but it’s just as delicious. It’s shaved ice topped with rice jelly, red beans, coconut milk, and palm sugar syrup. After mixing all the ingredients together, the taste started to remind me of something — ginataang halo-halo. It literally tasted like the iced version of this local dish, but I loved it all the same and I can only imagine how rewarding a bowl of Chendol is during a hot summer day.

All in all, dining in Makasuntra made me soooo happy. I love Malay cuisine for all its amazing spices and colors — it’s more pungent, yes, but incorporated in one dish are so many flavors that can thrill your taste buds. If you want to try something different for once, dine at Makasuntra, sample Malay food, and discover the art of eating.

 

 

 

もう一人で歩くことはありませんよ.

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Lately, my dreams have been filled with images of my lola. I love to think it’s really her visiting me in my sleep because I’m sentimental like that, even though at the back of my mind I know it’s probably because of me thinking of her – clinging to my memories of her – in my subconscious. It’s been months since I started dreaming of her. It’s also been months since she’s passed away. I don’t think I’ll ever stop dreaming of her.

I had plenty in the past few months, but last night is probably my favorite. Unlike the ones I had before, the lola in this one is the lola I grew up to and love to remember: healthy, happy, and smiling. Not that she wasn’t happy in my other dreams, but she was already thin, frayed, and looking like her sick self in those. This time, she looked like her ‘normal’; she looked like how she was when I was 13.

In my dream, lola was shouting at the gate; her loud, booming voice letting us know she was already home. I came rushing to her, just like the old times when she would come home from the supermarket and I would help her carry the groceries.

But in this setting, my lola just got discharged from the hospital. Nonetheless, she looked healthy and good, like she hadn’t been sick at all. We instantly served her food she loved. Everyone was gathered around the dining table, laughing and eating, happy to finally have her back home. She was smiling when she pinched my arm and told me, “Pumayat ka yata.” I remember smiling back and wanting to tell her “Tumaba ka, lola.”

Yet even then, I remember thinking about what would happen next. I remember worrying that she’d be gone soon, that I should spend time with her more, that this is all too good to be true.

And after that, I woke up from my dream and soon bursted into tears.

No matter how my dreams about my lola went, I always woke up crying.

It is not so much of a bad dream as it is of wanting to never wake up from that reality. At the end of the day, I’d always choose the reality where my lola is alive and with me, laughing and smiling.

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My mother told she’s also been dreaming about my lola too. But her never dreams were always the same: my lola holding my hand, walking with me to somewhere she doesn’t know. Inaakay pa rin ako. Mom said it’s probably lola’s way of worrying about me, even in the afterlife.

I like to think it’s her picking me up from this reality and finally bringing me with her.

 

 

 

 

across the universe

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It’s a little crippling, you think, how you can have these hundred universes and characters in your head that are waiting to be written yet you can’t find the time to give them proper justice, to breathe life into them, as you struggle to find the proper place and time to transfer them onto paper. When all you just want to do is be at peace and write but you are hindered by time constraints, deadlines, and what feels like a hundred responsibilities on your shoulders. You want to get lost in their world – your world that you have created – but before anything else, you have to take care of things in the events unfolding in your own reality.

You think it’s funny and sad at how, even after spending nine hours of your day telling the stories of brands you aim to promote in the digital space, at the end of it, your tired fingers are still itching to write. There is just so much to tell about.

These days when you tuck yourself to sleep, you don’t think about the places you haven’t gone to yet, unlike before. These days before you close your eyes, all that haunts you is the thought of the 40,000 words you haven’t written yet. It’s a little frustrating and thrilling because it reminds you of the days when you were still 12, always itching to write new stories before you can even complete one.

 

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“I wanted to take a break from writing,” you remember telling one colleague when asked about why you chose to enter an industry completely different from the one you just came out from. But as fate would have it, your job title still ended up bearing the word writer and you begin to think that maybe, this is it, this is all I’m cut out for.

 

You secretly you wish you have more hobbies and interests. Photography, drawing, sports, even. If writing can only help burn calories, you would have probably reached your target weight long ago.

 

*

 

You’re far from being a best-selling author, that much you’re sure. In fact, at this point you’re not yet even sure if you can still achieve that childhood dream. But as long as there are stories to tell, as long as there are universes to get lost into – you know you’re not going to stop any time soon.

You still have a lifetime worth of stories waiting  to be written.

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I want to say 2016 has been one hell of a messy roller coaster ride – ugly tears and snot and all – but it feels more like a peaceful swim gone haywire. When you’re simply floating, ready to let the waves take you wherever it feels, and before you know it you’re drowning and gasping for air. Morbid? Hey, it wasn’t  that bad.

2016 is the year you finally saw him in the flesh.That guy you’ve been fawning over for a year, waiting for the latest updates on what appears to be his colorful ~celebrity~ life, you finally saw him perform in front of you. He’s real, he’s alive. Muntik ka na nga duguin ‘te sa kagwapuhan ni kuya.  When you’re grey and old, remember the genuine happiness you felt every time you saw him succeed in doing what he does. There’s no harm in basking in someone’s happiness. If anything, it only proves you’re capable of liking someone selflessly.

2016 is the year you experienced what it feels like to be a fansite master. You were in an out-of-town concert coverage with no more than $60 on hand and you were anxious the whole time, afraid you’ll run out of cash by the time you get home. Yet all your worries went away when you saw how beautiful he plays, and you’ve never clicked on that camera shutter so fast. Your memory card was probably full of a thousand of his solo shots that night. He was mesmerizing in his craft.

2016 is the year you rediscovered the wonders of dancing. Nothing compares to the adrenaline you felt, dancing to Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” with your people, uncoordinated limbs be damned. You’re not great, but you dance with all your might, especially when you know no one is watching because everyone is too busy having fun on their own. Who says you can’t turn up to Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You?”

2016 is the year you experienced a massive loss. You saw it coming, but nothing can really prepare you when the time comes for you to say goodbye. But remember to celebrate her life, not how she died. Remember the memories she gave you, the wisdom she passed on to you. You wouldn’t be the person you are now if not for her. You still feel her in everything you do, right? People always laugh in disbelief whenever you tell them how she used to make you drink a glass of warm water infused with white flower oil to ease your stomach pain. But it worked, and you’re alive. You wouldn’t be as well-versed as you are now with the wonder food that is ube if not for her. You always scoff at white people and famous restaurants who try to use this in their desserts, thinking to yourself that they never get the authentic taste right. You would know, because you grew up grating the crop for her whenever she cooked it for the family. You would know, because you learned from the best ube purveyor you knew. You would know, because you learned from the best – you learned from your lola.

2016 is the year you found yourself in an industry you never thought you’d enter. You thought you’d be stuck in publishing your whole life, but guess what? It was never easy at the start, but you couldn’t be any more grateful, especially once you knew you’re in the company of the best people. The Buddha statue at the stairwell was the first sign but when they started calling you beshie? It’s like you hit jackpot. It’s important to get to do what you love, but I think it’s even more important to be surrounded with good people who do not only know how to do a good job, but can also offer you the gift of friendship. You’re lucky to have found people who get your humor. Cherish them.

There were many times in the past year where you felt like drowning – choking, even – without water nor a hand to suffocate you. But in the end, you managed to raise your head and rise above the water and look where you are now – swimming back to the shore. There’s no guarantee 2017 will be any better but always remember you’re not in this alone; you’re surrounded with good people who know how to swim. Learn from your mistakes and value the people around you. Embrace the new waves, wherever they take you. 

On fighting acne

It’s been months now since I started my medication for my current nemesis: acne. I’ve also been putting off writing my concurrent acne story for months now. I kept telling myself that I shouldn’t publish it unless my skin had completely cleared already so I would have a sufficient before and after photo for proof.

So why this post? My skin is still a far cry from being clear – my acne had gotten a lot better, sure, but I’m left with acne spots all over my chin. After stumbling upon this article though, I thought I shouldn’t wait any longer to share my own story in order to (hopefully) help people and prevent them from going through the same experience.

Before anything else, let me give a short background about my skin. I’ve always had an “average” oily skin type. “Average” in the sense that I get acne breakouts every now and then, but it has always just been little pimples that would go away after a week or two. Nothing too serious, although some have left nasty acne spots on my face, particularly on my left cheek. Still, they were nothing that a concealer couldn’t cover.

I began having really bad acne breakouts this year, sometime around July. My left cheek and chin were covered with red, painful acne and so was my right cheek as well – which, mind you – had never had pimples before.  Due to the nature of my profession, I know I always have to look my best and so for the first time in my life, I finally decided to visit a dermatologist and get proper treatment for my acne.

I was prescribed with anti-acne soap, oral antibiotics (tetracycline), acne solution, acne lotion, and a topical antibiotic which I had to use day and night, doing spot treatment on the affected areas on my face. All of these were exclusively available on the clinic of my dermatologist. I used this medication for almost a month and a half. My acne, particularly the ones on my chin, were finally beginning to heal when a week later, I noticed new ones growing on the same area again.

My horror story officially began from thereon. It was really frustrating to be on acne medication and see your acne begin to heal, only to have a new batch grow on your face again. Thinking it was the same kind of acne I had been experiencing for weeks, I continued to treat it with the same medication I had been using at the time. Little did I know that it was so much more than what I thought it was.

I began to suspect there was something wrong when the acne on my chin began to hurt. I had itchy acne before, but I never had painful acne, and I was sure it wasn’t supposed to hurt the same way mine did. It was so painful that I couldn’t sleep at night. Thinking it would heal faster, I tried to put warm compress on the affected area to make it pop. When I woke up the next day, my entire chin became more red and inflamed while having multiple pimples that are filled with blood and pus.

It was one of the worst work weeks of my life. I had to go to work with an acne-inflamed face and I was so ashamed that I began wearing face masks as well. I took comfort in the idea that some of my office mates initially thought that I’m simply sick, thus my mask. I continued my treatment along with the warm compress every night, hoping it would get better. However, things only seem to have gone for the worse when my chin started to throb painfully. It was too painful that it began bothering me at work – there were days where all I could utter was “My face hurts too much” to my office mates. I couldn’t bear it any longer so I decided to pay an overdue visit to the doctor. And boy, was I glad I did.

I went to a different dermatologist this time (my former derma was from the province, I currently live in Makati) and she told me that what I had back then was already infected acne. It was similar to impetigo contagiosa (mamaso  in Filipino), a bacterial skin infection that can be caused by  Streptococcus pyogenes or Staphylococcus aureus. I say similar because in retrospect, my derma didn’t warn me about the risk of infecting other people even though impetigo is highly contagious in nature. She also told me that it was a good thing that I decided to have a consultation right away because the infection that I had is dangerous and could spread to my bloodstream and affect my other organs.

For three weeks, I was prescribed to drink antibiotics 4x a day, cleanse my face with Cetaphil, put a sodium chloride solution to my chin (the same solution that hospitals use for wound irrigation) for 20 minutes, and apply Bactroban cream on the affected area afterwards. The treatment process was long, and I continued coming to work with a mask on, sometimes with only a gauze to cover my entire chin. It was so hard to eat, but what was even harder for me was having to face people and answering the inevitable question of “What happened to your face?”. I know they were only concerned about me, but I still felt really bad that it’s the first thing people notice and there was no other way for me to hide it. If only I could, I would’ve completely shut myself in our apartment and not go out AT ALL so people won’t have to deal with my nasty face and I won’t have to deal with curious stares from strangers on the street. But you know how the old saying goes: shit happens and life goes on. I can’t afford to lose my job, especially during the time where I needed it most to pay for my medical bills, so I continued coming to work, face mask and all with my tail between my legs.

After three weeks on intensive oral antibiotics and anti-bacterial cream, I went back to the derma and my medication shifted to complete anti-acne medication. My derma told me that she had to make sure the infection had completely gone away first before she could prescribe me anti-acne meds, which she noted are a lot more painful than my previous meds for impetigo. This time, I was prescribed to be on Doxicycline (oral antibiotics) for six weeks (which I have to drink twice a day), and to apply Benzoyl Peroxide (5%) cream during the day  and Tetrinoin Retin-A during the night. I was also advised to put on sunscreen with a SPF 30 during the day when I go out.

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It’s been two weeks since I began this anti-acne medication and so far it has been super effective. In comparison to the first acne medication that I tried from my first dermatologist, I can say this one is a lot more effective, considering my acne have completely dried up in a span of only a week or so. However, as I mentioned earlier in this post, my skin is still a far cry from being completely clear: I still have acne spots on my entire chin area. They’re like a battle scar that I have to wear everyday, but the mere fact that my acne had already healed is comforting enough. It’s enough reassurance that while this is a long battle that I’m fighting, I’m not losing.

The whole experience was as painful as it is emotionally exhausting (I wrote about it here). I know I’m not pretty, but I don’t think I looked that bad either until I had my acne infection. I did not bother to put on makeup anymore because aside from not being allowed to, I just began to feel apathetic with my overall appearance at the time. Why bother putting on lipstick if I’m ugly anyway, right? It just felt wrong in all sense of the word. I knew putting down myself was not going to help  but I couldn’t help it at the time – my self-esteem was being torn apart.

Fast-forward to where I am now, I’m still on my way to conquering acne. I’ve yet to get rid of all of my acne spots but I’m getting there – I will be there. Plus, I can finally put makeup again – I can now hide my acne spots with concealer – and it’s enough to help me pick up my torn self-esteem and fix it again. But before I end this blog post, I also just want to share some of the lessons that I got from this entire experience. Some of these are tips you’ve already heard from known beauty experts but I just want to reiterate them, for my own reference as well.

1. See a dermatologist (or a doctor) as soon as you can.

Experience taught me that of the several things that you can put off, paying a visit to the doctor should not be one of them. In my case, what I initially thought was just a terrible breakout on my chin turned out to be a potentially harmful infection. Another reason why you should go straight to a dermatologist if you want to cure your acne as soon as possible is because sometimes generic topical treatments just won’t work.

Acne affects a lot of people but remember that acne treatment can still be a case-case basis as we all have different skin types. The facial cleanser that worked for a friend might not work for you simply because the cleanser is meant for dry skin (which she has) while you, on the other hand, have oily skin. When I told my first dermatologist of my skincare routine (cleanse, tone, and moisturize) at the time, I was surprised to be told that it’s not yet advisable for me to moisturize on a daily basis as my oil glands are still active at my age and are therefore enough to replenish moisture on my face. So taking into consideration that I already have oily skin, applying moisturizer to my face was a little too much and clogged my pores, which then resulted to acne. It’s always better to have an expert look at your skin and prescribe what works best for you rather than for you to play a guessing game.

2. Use gentle and non-comodegenic products.

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If for some reason you can’t see a dermatologist when you’re having a breakout, don’t jump to the first anti-acne soap that you see right away. Instead, opt for gentle cleansers like Cetaphil. When it comes to your skin, remember that less is more. The less products that you apply to your skin, the more room you’re giving it to breathe. Again, all of us have different skin types and while anti-acne soaps/cleansers all have the same claim, a particular product might be too harsh for your skin type.

3. Hands off!

Keep your hands off your face as much as possible. Acne is caused by bacteria – and with our hands doing so much of our work for us – just imagine the amount of bacteria that thrives on your hands which you could be transferring to your face when you rub or scratch at your cheek. If you can’t help it, try to dab the itching area with a clean tissue instead or use the back of your hands/fingers as they are cleaner than your palms. Always wash your hands with an anti-bacterial soap, too.

4. Keep your hair away from your face.

You may not notice it but a lot of dirt also collects on your hair especially when you go out. Keep your hair away from your face to prevent additional bacteria from landing on your skin. When you go to sleep, tie it in a braid. Aside from doing your skin a favor, it will also help prevent you from having tangled, messy hair when you wake up.

5. Practice proper hygiene. 

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Change your sheets and pillow cases on a weekly basis. Another culprit that might be contributing to your breakouts is the dirt that collected on your sheets, which you have to lie on when you sleep. If you can, put a clean towel on top of your pillow every night. This way, you can be assured that your face only comes in contact with clean material.

6. Use a clean paper towel to dry off your face.

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Don’t use on your face the same bath towel that you use to dry off the other parts of your body with. After cleansing, pat dry your face with a clean paper towel instead.

7. Use a sunscreen!

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As someone who lives in a tropical country, I think one thing that most of my people take for granted is the effect of UV rays. Just because you have enough melanin on your skin, it doesn’t mean that you’re completely safe from getting skin cancer. Skin cancer aside, another reason why you should put sunscreen when you go out especially if you’re currently suffering from acne is because it can trigger hyperpigmentation, which causes acne spots. I currently use Dermplus Moisturizing Sunblock with SPF 35. It’s highly recommended that you use a sunscreen with SPF 30 and up because it blocks 97% of the sun’s UV rays. After applying the sunblock on my face, I usually wait 30 minutes before I go out because that’s how long it takes for the skin to absorb the product and for it to fully take effect.

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I’ll let you in on another tip. Most beauty websites advise you to only do spot treatment when you’re using Benzac or any other anti-acne product. That’s what I initially thought too but this is what my dermatologist advised me: apply it on your whole face.

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The reason? You can’t predict where your acne will grow next so it’s always better to take preventive measures. What I do right now is I squeeze a pea-sized amount of Benzac (and Tretinoin during the night) onto my palm and apply that onto my entire face. I make sure to avoid the sides of my nose and my lips because those areas are extra sensitive and easily burns. During the first few days, both Benzac and Tretinoin REALLY stung for me (Benzac feels cold and nice to the touch but it starts to hurt when your skin absorbs it). But I learned that’s normal because my skin was still learning to adjust to the product. The pain eventually subsided on the following days. My derma also told me that if I thought the pain was really too much, I could alternate the application of the products and use them every other day.

So far, I haven’t grown a new, single pimple since the day I started this regimen. However, please take this with a grain of salt because your skin type might be entirely different than mine; I’m only sharing what works best for me at the moment. Acne is literally a long battle – the head of Philippine Dermatological Society (PDS), Ms. Blossom Chan once told us that acne treatment can take 1-4 months before you really start to get results. On that note, be patient, be brave, and remember that you’re not alone in this fight.

Japan: Lost in a Dream

A  few months ago I flew to Japan to spend my Christmas vacation with my family in Tokyo. The trip had long been dreamed of, with my mother expressing her ambition to take me there for the past 18 years or so, but the dream did not fully materialize until the year 2014. Despite being only two weeks long, it was a trip that meant so much to me and my family, and I want to remember it as much as I can before it completely falls into the void of my (declining) memory stash, so here we are.

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December 23

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Day 1 was a morning of anxious nerves. The trip being my first time to fly out of the country alone was a factor, but it was mainly due to excitement to see my dream country. Much of it was spent trying to find definitive ways to kill time while being 38,000 feet off the ground and sour-graping that if I could handle four hours worth of travel time from my workplace to home – thanks to EDSA’s world-class traffic – then I could definitely handle another four hours of being in a plane. They were the most torturous and yet the most thrilling; time suddenly seemed to have gone by so fast when the captain finally announced that we had already entered Japan’s airspace and Fuji-san came into view.

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I was greeted by a snowflake on my window, a cold yet pleasant welcome that was preemptive to the many pleasant surprises that were still waiting for me.

I landed at Narita by 12:05 pm, five minutes shy of my supposed landing time. By the time I reached the arrival lobby, I was literally freezing my ass off, but the cold was temporarily forgotten when I started to see the warm smiles of my family, huddled together and eagerly waiting for me.

I started tearing up out of joy the moment I hugged my mom and so did she. My stepdad hugged us along with my two sisters. We probably looked ridiculous in the near-empty Narita arrival lobby at the time but we couldn’t care less. Other people who were present in the area probably thought we were a family finally united after several years (and it was partly true) because I remember seeing a woman smile at us when mom asked me and my sisters to pose for a picture, the first memorabilia of my trip taken at land.

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I spent the next hour admiring the view of the streets we passed by, the kanji on the signage of the nearby buildings were the constant reminder that yes, I am finally in Japan, as I found myself sometimes staring in disbelief. It took 20 years in the making  – what was only yesterday’s dream was now happening in real life.

Our first stop was at Asakusa Shrine, a Shinto shrine in Tokyo and a common place for locales and tourists. The place first reminded me of Singapore’s Chinatown, but this one is more colorful and is busier, with several stalls lined up along the path to offer various Japanese souvenirs for tourists. The cold was no hindrance to the continuous bustling of activity in the area; tourists continue to flock the shrine while locales went with their business as usual.

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It was a series of firsts. A first visit to a Japanese temple, a first immersion to the culture. A first try at amazake, a Japanese sweet drink made from fermented rice – a delightful treat in the freezing weather. A first attempt at calling my stepfather ‘Papa’ after several years of separation, offering him my own cup of amazake after noticing he only bought cups for me and my sisters. The relief of knowing that he welcomes the title entirely. It was long overdue anyway and he was probably waiting for it more than I was practicing to say it.

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The day ended with my first proper Japanese meal for the trip: yakiniku, a personal favorite since I was a child. Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe it was the result of the same blood flowing in our veins, but Papa happily recalled that it was also yakiniku that mom first asked to eat when she started residing in Japan, remarking that there’s really no denying that mom and I are related.

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December 25

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 Christmas was simply celebrated by decorating and eating cake, feasting on yakitori and salad, and exchanging toasts of pretend-wine. To any Japanese household, the Santa-adorned strawberry-cake is usually the highlight of the noche buena. However, in my case, what truly captured my heart was this baby below:

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Prior to cooking this, Papa told me, “I’m going to serve you high-quality beef,” and he wasn’t lying. Wagyu beef is a term that I often see in food articles, and the mere mention of the name is usually equivalent to a rave review of the dish and now I know why. It was the show-stealer of the night; the soft meat almost melting in my mouth, the yakiniku sauce seeping through the meat generously, the richness of the flavor enveloping my taste buds all at once. Every bite was like a one-way ticket to food nirvana. The instant I took my first bite, I thought to myself, “This is the kind of meat that food writers rave about.” And here I am. I don’t even eat cooked fat, but the meat was too delicious and cooked really well that this meal had to be an exception.

Christmas in Japan was quieter and much simple than the extravagant and colorful celebration of Christmas in the PH, but definitely livelier than the dull celebration that I’m used to at home.

December 28 

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The day was spent taking in the beauty of a white blanket covering the mountain range of Hida, a short trip to Shirakawa-go, a small village famous for its traditional farmhouses built 200 years ago. It was my first time to see snow in the flesh, but it was my mom and sisters who were probably even more excited for the experience than I was. We were stuck on traffic when my mom went out to grab a handful of snow from nearby and placed some on my hand to let me feel it for the first time. My sisters, on the other hand, immediately took turns on throwing snow balls at me the moment we stepped out of the car and entered the village.

December 31-January 1

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Takahatafudo, a place I used to only read about in history books due to my fascination with Hijikata Toshizo and Shinsengumi – now viewed from my own eyes. As 2014 gave way to the new year, the temperature drastically dropped, the first onset of snow in Tokyo heavily hovering in the air.

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We were on our way to Takahatafudo when the snow really started to fall. The entire street leading to the complex was packed, but I was too busy being amazed by my first snowfall to pay any mind. Plus, crowds during winter were not much of an issue when all of us were seeking for more warmth anyway.

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My mom dubbed it as a blessing since the weather did cooperate and let me experience snow during the remaining days of my stay. Here she is in the corner of the frame, frantically trying to take a video of me as commemoration for my first snowfall experience. An extremely cold yet fascinating welcome for 2015. 
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Japanese festivals are something that I’ve always been fond of, especially from glimpses that I’ve seen on anime. Characterized by a bustling crowd, numerous food stalls, and various forms of entertainment – it was something I’ve always wanted to experience first-hand. My mom warned me of the cold and the crowd, asked me several times if I really wanted to go, but I answered ‘yes’ every time. Our schedule for the day was initially limited to shopping, but I insisted on going to Takahatafudo again because I simply cannot miss out the core of the Japanese new year celebration – the Hatsumode, the first visit to a Shinto/Buddhist temple. It was extremely cold indeed but every second I spent out in the below zero weather was utterly worth it.

January 4

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As my vacation came to its end, I spent my remaining hours in Japan admiring the country’s sunrise, the sky a beautiful gradient of dark blue transitioning into a rich orange. As the city continues to sleep, the backdrop of the city begins to show the signs of life for the day. Yet the dark does not fully give way to the day yet, but the beginning of the day continues to edge its way in. This tension gives way to the middle ground – to the transition of dark to light and vice-versa – and it perfectly defines that time frame when it is too early to get up yet but already too late to sleep, to that feeling when it is time for you to go but you still don’t want to leave.

Japan was a lot different from what I expected. Although not entirely, there was a great gap from the image I had formed in my head due to the representations I’ve watched from what I personally experienced, but the difference was not unpleasant at all. It’s just that Japan is more peaceful, more reserved, and definitely more beautiful.

Also, this trip, if anything, solidified my relationship with my loved ones and showed me the definition of a family that I may have always been secretly looking for. As Papa and mom accompanied me to the airport with Papa carrying my luggage, I felt like a kid all over again being sent to school by her parents. Except that I no longer was a kid and instead of going to school and going home to the company of my parents by the end of the day, I was leaving for another country – to my home country – and the next time that I would come back to the comfort of my parents is left uncertain. It may take years, months if I’m lucky.

As this dream eventually gets crossed off my bucket list, I find myself wondering, what now? Where to? When I told Papa how happy I was because Japan has always been my dream, he told me, “Dream bigger.” And this trip taught me just that – sometimes life just gives you the things you’ve been longing for, regardless of the wait, sometimes they do come. I would be waiting until the time I can finally come back, but until then I will be dreaming of bigger things until these bigger things also materialized for my next trip.

Japan 2014: Traveling to the Kansai Region (II)

After spending the night at Osaka, we went back to Kyoto first thing in the morning to visit more temples. Kyoto is not called the “City of Ten Thousand Shrines” for nothing. As a former capital of Japan, one could only expect the great number of temples, shrines, and palaces that can be found in this city. Japan’s culture and history is truly reflected in this city; during World War II, the palaces and shrines at Kyoto were especially removed from enemies’ target so as to preserve them. And I’m really glad they did. After seeing for myself at how beautiful Kyoto is, I cannot begin to imagine how Japanese citizens would have felt if their cultural and historical treasures that were intricately built and preserved by their past leaders and ancestors were to only be destroyed by foreign enemies.

Our first stop for the day was at Kinkaku-ji or The Golden Pavillion, another Buddhist temple in Kyoto that is famous for its garden design and golden architecture. Upon entering the complex, tourists have the chance to strike a bonsho or a Buddhist bell. Bells in Buddhist temples are usually struck with a suspended rope beam, as it was with the bonsho  at Kinkaku-ji. It is believed that striking a bonsho would help you achieve your wish. The practice is done in three steps: 1) toss a coin at a saisen box (100 JPY is usually enough), 2) strike the bonsho, 3) clap your hands twice or simply put your hands together as you would in a prayer and bow humbly and make your wish.

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In Kinkaku-ji, your coin donation would be collected by a temple worker who would also assist you to strike the bonsho. After striking the bell and making your wish, the temple worker would give you a post card of Kinkaku-ji. It was winter by the time we visited so what we got were post cards of the temple during the season.

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One thing I learned from striking the bell for the very first time: hold onto the suspender beam until it strikes the bell! I made the grave mistake of letting it go earlier than I was supposed to. Thankfully, the temple worker understood that it was purely a mistake. You can see from the photo above that he was the one who held onto the rope after I let it go >_<

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The actual golden temple. The top two stories of this Buddhist temple were made from gold leaf and houses the shariden or the Buddha’s ashes. Among the temples that I visited in Kyoto so far, this one is definitely the prettiest! My pictures do not give it much justice, but the garden that contains this temple was also extremely beautiful and only shows how sophisticated and intricate Japanese architecture is.

As it can be seen from the first photo above, the temple is surrounded by bonsai trees while being strategically placed near a pond, making it a picture perfect sight. The still water from the pond makes the whole thing even more beautiful as it also reflects its surroundings, including the temple and the trees. It was like a picture taken straight out of a post card, except that it was real, and I had to remind myself for a brief second that what I was seeing was the actual thing with my own eyes, in person. But that’s the thing: the entire garden complex of The Golden Pavillion was too beautiful that you’d begin to wonder if it is real.

The path that surrounds the garden complex is also decorated by several maple trees that I felt like I was in a Korean drama (hello Autumn in My heart and Winter Sonata). I cannot stress it enough, IT WAS TOO BEAUTIFUL.

As it was with other temples we visited, the outer area of the actual garden complex also have several stalls that sells a variety of souvenirs and food, such as mochi and lucky charms. The complex also has a sign that the temple employs bilingual workers (I guess it was due to the great number of tourists who visit the temple everyday). I expected the workers to only know English so I was totally surprised when one of the workers from a sake stand greeted me with a “Kumusta, kumusta? Salamat, salamat! (How are you, how are you? Thank you, thank you!)” when I passed by. I immediately told my mom and she laughed it off then asked me, “How could he know you’re a Filipino(-jin)?” It was nice seeing you, multilingual-san.

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We were starting to get really cold from walking outside, so we decided to take a short break before proceeding to our next stop. We bought green tea and mochi from a nearby snack stand. The warm, bitter and herbal taste of the green tea perfectly complements the sweet taste of the azuki or red bean paste inside the green tea mochi, making it a perfect snack combination for the weather. Having warm tea during winter is definitely one of the greatest delights one could have.

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Our next stop was at Ryoan-jia Zen temple. This temple is included in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. It is famous for its zen garden design, which is created to facilitate meditation. The garden currently has 14 distinctive rocks, but it is said that there was another one in “hiding”. The 15th rock is said to only appear to those who have already achieved enlightenment.

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Our next stop was at Toei Kyoto Studio Park, a theme park that features the filming sites of most period dramas. The actual filming site portrays the street from the Edo Period and also features other attractions such as a Haunted House, a Ninja Mystery House, and a 3D Theater. The studio also has an anime museum that can be found at the lobby. Inside, you can see posters of films and animes that were shot/produced by Toei Studios, some of them including Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and Kamen Rider (as shown in the photo above).

kansai_24One thing that I really liked about this place was their display of the dolls of prominent figures during the Edo period, such as the Shinsengumi and the Oniwabanshu.

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The famous Shinsengumi trio. From left to right: Hijikata Toshizo (vice commander), Kondo Isami (commander), Okita Soji (first unit captain). Shinsengumi was Kyoto’s special police force formed during Japan’s Bakumatsu period. It was formed to particularly protect the Shogunate.

We were supposed to watch in the 3D theater, but the show does not start until 3 pm on that day so we opted to have a tour in the filming site instead. I’m really glad we did because that’s when my inner fan girl feelings started to explode.

kansai_25 kansai_27The whole site was really BEAUTIFUL. I was secretly dying inside because I really felt like I was transported to the Edo period. The houses, the shops, everything! The inner Gintama fan in me was also celebrating.

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A lovely, lovely place.

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A portrayal of the Yoshiwara street during the Edo period, Japan’s red-light district. Like in the photo above, courtesans were put behind bars on brothels for potential customers to look at. My primary knowledge about this district comes from Gintama so you can only imagine how happy I was when I spotted this street.

One of the highlights of our visit in this park was the Haunted House. I haven’t been to a lot of haunted houses but I could say that this one was quite haunting, but not exactly scary. Visitors who decide to brave this attraction would have to wait in line as customers were instructed to enter the haunted house by each pair (an opposite to the norm I was used to back home, where customers can enter the haunted house simultaneously and huddle in groups). Once you enter, you would be instructed to watch a short clip on a television placed inside where a woman reminds you of the few things that you should and should not do inside the haunted house (English translation included). The clip was eerie and sets the mood, a primer for the experience that you are about to have. Once the clip is done, the doors to the actual haunted area automatically opens for customers to enter.

The haunted house was frightening but not extremely scary. In retrospect, the interior was not filled with scary designs everywhere in comparison to the haunted house I once saw in a Korean reality show. However, the sound effects were surprising and had me screaming. My mindset was to finish the course as fast as I can so I sprinted my way through the entire haunted house, with my sister in tow. I even heard a real ghost actor make creepy noises behind us but I did not bother to look back and just encouraged my sister to run. In fact, we were so fast that we managed to reach two Japanese teenagers who entered the attraction before us. There was a scary female mannequin ghost on the corner where we met them and at first, the four of us were reluctant to proceed, afraid that it was actually a real person who would start running after us once we pass by. I decided to take the lead by of course, running, everything be damned.

By the time we were back outside, my sister was laughing at me for running too fast. I blame Xiumin for this newly acquired technique for handling haunted houses.

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Another highlight of our visit was this encounter with samurais. These actors were readily available for a photo op; there was another worker who takes your pictures, and there were baskets near the photo op area where you could place your belongings for the mean time. They were kind and hospitable too and patronizes the customers with much delight.

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One of the must-try attractions in this park is the Ninja Mystery House. This attraction features a demonstration of how ninjas move and how their houses work, including how to discover and go through false doors and pull-out staircases. Once the demonstration is done, customers would be given the option to stay and watch a ninja clip or proceed to the fun part: the ninja maze. The ninja maze would test the information you have acquired from the demonstration earlier, you would have to work out your way outside by going through false doors and walls.

I went to this attraction with Papa and my two sisters, and Papa opted that we proceed to the maze right away. As a result, we were the ones who first made it outside among our group. The workers from the Ninja Mystery House would greet you a welcome back and a congratulations once you make it back outside.

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This entire place really gave me strong Gintama and Ruroken feels, you don’t even know.

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Aside from the photo op area with samurais, the park also features other interesting places to take pictures at including this cut-board area where you can insert your head to the body of samurais and ninjas, and the small roof where children can pretend to be bad-ass ninjas.

The studio park also has shops inside where you can choose from a great array of souvenirs, particularly ones that pay tribute to the rich history of Kyoto. I was delighted to find a couple of Shinsengumi goods in the shop inside the studio, and much to my amusement, there were even some items which proudly has Kondo Isami’s and Hijikata Toshizo’s pictures printed on them respectively. It was then when I came to the conclusion that Japan really love their Shinsengumi heroes.

In summary, Toei Kyoto Studio Park successfully manages to merge a cultural and historical experience with a fun leisure time, something that the neighboring sacred temples do not entirely permit. If you’re traveling with children to Kyoto, this is a great and a must-try place.