Month: January 2016

Tokyo On The Cheap

Shibuya Crossing3

Shibuya Crossing

Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple and the Tokyo Skytree

Sensoji Temple and the Tokyo Skytree

There’s not a scrap of usable Japanese word in my pocket-sized notebook to help us explain our conundrum. After pointing on the map our planned destination, the gentle-faced policeman gives us a confusing instruction full of hand gestures. We nod pleasantly, trying to make sense of his floundering English. One thing is certain; we’d inadvertently gotten on the wrong train to Asakusa.

A Tokyo first-timer is bound to get lost. With intricate piles of overlapping routes, the map of the train stations looks like a bowl of tangled ramen noodles. “Check the color,” the policeman says, pertaining to the color-coded subway lines on the map. You see, there are at least three different companies that run the city’s train system, and each company has several lines. To add complexity, some trains even operate on the tracks of other companies. Perhaps doubtful that he made himself sufficiently clear, he beckons us to follow him all the way down to a long tunnel that leads to the next terminal station. “Wait for your train here,” he smiles with an unfeigned effort to catch his breath. After bombarding him with “arigatou”, we hop on the next train, eager to explore the world’s largest metropolis.

Day 1: Asakusa and Akihibara

“Coming through! Coming Through!” A young shafu (rickshaw driver) wearing a brown happi coat and zori sandals rushes past the crowd at the iconic Kaminarimon Gate, pulling a two-wheeled vehicle with high-perch seats called the jinrikisha (rickshaw). There are several shafu near the gate, sometimes yelling to attract prospective passengers. A popular method of transportation during the late 1800’s, the jinrikisha completes the old-world ambience of Asakusa, Tokyo’s leading entertainment district before World War II. Tourists flock to Asakusa to see ancient temples, shrines and other historic structures wedged between modern buildings and bustling streets.

Asakusa skyscrapers

Asakusa skyscrapers

Asakusa sidewalk

Asakusa sidewalk

at the Azuma Bridge over the Sumida River

Beyond the thousand-year old Kaminarimon Gate is the Nakamise-dori, a 250-meter shopping street that dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1868) of the Japanese history. Sauntering down the arcade’s narrow lanes, I am drawn to the traditional shops that sell Japanese souvenirs like paper fans, samurai figurines, trinkets and geisha wigs. The mouthwatering aromas of freshly cooked takoyaki and ningyo-yaki from the nearby stalls waft through the air.

the iconic Kaminarimon Gate

the iconic Kaminarimon Gate

Nakamise shopping district

Nakamise shopping district

Nakamise shopping center

Nakamise shopping center

the shopping arcade leading to Sensoji Temple

the shopping arcade leading to Sensoji Temple

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street food stall in Nakamise

streetfood

streetfood

Takoyaki vendor

at a Takoyaki stall

a Nakamise stall attendant dressed as a ninja

a Nakamise stall attendant dressed as a ninja

street food in Asakusa

Asakusa’s main tourist draw is the Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist Temple which was built in the 7th century to enshrine the statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, after it was found by two fishermen in the nearby Sumida River. Here, I see visitors fanning the smoke from the large incense burner toward their bodies with their hands. “It is for healing and for good fortune as well. Try it!” says the lady attendant of the stall that sells omamori or good luck charms. It doesn’t take me much convincing. What fool would resist good fortune?

Yours Truly at the Sensoji Temple

Yours Truly at the Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple

the pagoda beside Sensoji Temple

the pagoda beside Sensoji Temple

Towering above skyscrapers, the Tokyo Skytree is impossible to ignore from the temple or from anywhere in the district. This new famous attraction opened only in May 2012 and is considered the world’s tallest communications tower, standing 2,080 feet tall. It has observation decks at 1,148 and 1,476 feet where visitors can enjoy spectacular panoramic views of the vibrant city.

Tokyo Skytree

Tokyo Skytree

The Tokyo Skytree towering above skyscrapers

The Tokyo Skytree towering above skyscrapers

The Tokyo Skytree offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the city

The Tokyo Skytree offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the city

breathtaking view from the Tokyo Skytree

breathtaking view from the Tokyo Skytree

After gawking at the cityscape, we catch a train bound for Akihibara, a district whose bustling streets and massive neon lights and signboards evoke a rush of excitement. Also known as the “Electric Town”, it is a jungle of electronic shops that sell every technological gadget one can imagine at a reasonable price. Turn a corner and you’ll find a store devoted entirely to, say, cameras or computers. In the recent years, Akihibara has emerged as the center of the anime culture, with shops specializing in video games and anything anime sandwiched between electronic retailers. Walk further and you’ll find several maid cafes, where waitresses dress up and act like maids or anime characters.

Akihibara, the Electric Town

Akihibara, the Electric Town

 

Day 2: Harajuku and Shibuya

A large jungle crow squawks and soars from its perch as we enter the torri gate of the Meiji Shrine, a shrinededicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Walking under the imposing torri, we are transported to a different world as the sounds of a bustling city are replaced with the rustle of the trees. The 70-hectare forest surrounding the shrine has over 100,000 trees, donated by people from all parts of Japan when the shrine was built in 1920. Emperor Meiji is highly revered for modernizing Japan without sacrificing its ancient traditions. He abolished the feudal system and the national seclusion policy and introduced the system of compulsory education.

the Torri gate of Meiji Shrine

the Torri gate of Meiji Shrine

the Torri gate at Meiji Shrine

the Torri gate at Meiji Shrine

one must wash his hands and mouth before entering the Meiji Shrine

one must wash his hands and mouth before entering the Meiji Shrine

the Meiji Shrine forest has over 120,000 trees

the Meiji Shrine forest has over 120,000 trees

Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine

a good luck charm stall just outside Meiji Shrine

a good luck charm stall just outside Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine entrance

Meiji Shrine entrance

an engaged couple at the Meiji Shrine

PHOTO BY TOPHER ASTRAQUILLO an engaged couple at the Meiji Shrine

Barrels of Sake offered to Meiji Shrine and Empress Shoken..

Barrels of Sake offered to Meiji Shrine and Empress Shoken..

barrels of wine to be consecrated at Meiji Shrine

barrels of wine to be consecrated at Meiji Shrine

Fortune-telling booth outside the Meiji Shrine

Fortune-telling booth outside the Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine Museum

Meiji Shrine Museum

Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken

Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken

Meiji Shrine Garden

Meiji Shrine Garden

Kiyomasa-Ido Well at the Meiji Shrine Garden

Kiyomasa-Ido Well at the Meiji Shrine Garden

Munching on a few sticks of butabara (skewered pork belly) and torinuku (skewered chicken), we cross to the concrete jungle called Harajuku, a district known as the center of Japanese youth culture and street fashion. We find ourselves walking in between teenage girls with heavy make up, pigtailed blonde hair and gingham miniskirts as we stroll along Takeshita Dori, a narrow street lined with fashion boutiques and quaint cafes. I later on find out that cosplayers usually gather at the Harajuku Station on weekends. Seeing women in traditional kimono, rockabillies with outlandish hairdos, trucks with anime designs blasting Japanese pop music, I am rather overwhelmed by the vibrant environment of the district.

yakitori

butabara

Japanese streetfood

in Harajuku

in Harajuku

an expensive doll house in Harajuku

an expensive doll house in Harajuku

Time seems to fly so fast in Shibuya, another colorful and busy district heavily decorated by neon advertisements and giant video screens. It is full to bursting with restaurants, nightclubs and shops that sell pretty much everything under the sun: apparel, car accessories, gadgets, furniture and even kinky sex toys, which are surprisingly sold in multi-floored specialty stores. It would be a shame not to walk across Shibuya Crossing, the famous intersection just outside Shibuya Station. Unabashedly armed with a selfie stick, I follow the surge of pedestrians as soon as the traffic lights turn red at the same time in every direction.

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

Yours Truly atbthe Shibuya Crossing

Yours Truly atbthe Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

Not far from the crossing is the statue of Hachiko, the Akita who waited for his late master at the Shibuya Station everyday from 1923 to 1935, eventually becoming famous for his loyalty.

he statue of HACHIKO, the loyal Akita

he statue of HACHIKO, the loyal Akita

the famous statue of HACHIKO, the loyal dog

the famous statue of HACHIKO, the loyal dog

For extremely cheap finds, we go to 109 Men’s and Don Quixote. These stores cost me more yen than I want to think about. Thank God for the small ramen joint with bright yellow Japanese signs near the Berksha building. One sip of its thick, smoky-flavored ramen broth alleviates my guilt for splurging on new shoes and gadgets.

Shibuya at night

Yours truly Shibuya at night

Shibuya at night..

Shops everywhere in Shibuya

Shibuya at night.....

Shibuya at night

authentic bowl of Ramen

authentic bowl of Ramen

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Shibuya at night

Shibuya at night

 

Day 3: Odaiba and Ginza

“Irashaimase!” A smiling woman greets us with a nod at the entrance hall of the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, simply known as Miraikan, on the reclaimed island of Odaiba in the middle of Tokyo Bay. We arrive quite early, excited to see a humanoid robot, which I hear is being programmed to give guided tours at the museum in the future. Here, robotics makes up a large portion of the exhibits. A robot on display that is usually swarmed by giggling children takes the form of a baby seal, which reacts to people’s touch. Another section talks about the dangers of plastic to the environment and the current research to make plant-based plastic. We are thrilled to see a full size model of a section of the International Space Station, where visitors can walk inside to have a glimpse of an astronaut’s life in outer space. The museum also has highly interactive, bizarre and fascinating exhibits about information technology, medicine and biology.

Miraikan Museum building

Miraikan Museum building

inside Miraikan Museum.

inside Miraikan Museum.

inside Miraikan Museum

inside Miraikan Museum

inside Miraikan Museum

inside Miraikan Museum

inside Miraikan

inside Miraikan

geek mode at Miraikan

geek mode at Miraikan

an interactive activity inside the Miraikan Museum

an interactive activity inside the Miraikan Museum

a robot on display at the Miraikan Museum:

a robot on display at the Miraikan Museum:

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Japan’s unforgiving cold this time of the year brings us to a hot spring theme park called Oedo Onsen Monogatari, just a short walk from Miraikan. Inside, a replica of an ancient street filled with bars, restaurants and game booths recreates the ambience of the Edo Period of the Japanese history. Guests, who are required to change to a yutaka (kimono) and obi (belt), can experience at least 14 bathing facilities using natural hot spring water coming from the underground. It is also important to note that tattooed guests are unwelcome at any onsen (hot spring baths). This disfavor dates back to the ancient times when criminals were forcibly branded with tattoos.

Oedo Onsen Monogatari, a hot spring bath house

Oedo Onsen Monogatari, a hot spring bath house

Topher at the Oedo Onsen Monogatari premises

Topher at the Oedo Onsen Monogatari premises

Odaiba has pretty much everything to keep us entertained the entire day. Here, we see some of Tokyo’s boldest architectural designs, like the Telecom Center and the Fuji TV building. One cannot miss the gigantic Gundam Robot statue standing head to head with Diver City Tokyo Plaza. At night, the robot’s eyes and body light up and change to different colors, making it seem like it has come to life. A short walk from the statue is another shopping and entertainment complex called Palette Town, where we see a 115 meter tall Ferris wheel, museum of vintage cars, showroom of Toyota’s latest car models and a huge gaming arcade. At the nearby Decks Tokyo Beach, also a shopping mall, we get a good view of the breathtaking cityscape and the brightly lit Rainbow Bridge, which connects Odaiba to the rest of Tokyo.

Diver City Plaza and the giant Gundam statue

Diver City Plaza and the giant Gundam statue

Gundam robot statue at night

Gundam robot statue at night

IMG_2882 IMG_2878 IMG_2846

Odaiba skyscrapers

Odaiba skyscrapers

Pallette Town in Odaiba

Pallette Town in Odaiba

Venus Fort, Odaiba

Venus Fort, Odaiba

vintage cars at the Venus Fort

vintage cars at the Venus Fort

the museum of vintage cars at Venus Fort, Odaiba

the museum of vintage cars at Venus Fort, Odaiba

vintage car exhibit at Venus Fort, Odaiba

vintage car exhibit at Venus Fort, Odaiba

Telecom Building in Odaiba

Telecom Building in Odaiba

Rainbow Bridge and the Tokyo skyline

Rainbow Bridge and the Tokyo skyline

Madam Tussaund's

Lady Gaga and I @Madam Tussaund’s

If unlike us you don’t watch every yen, head to the upscale Ginza district, where every leading international brand name in fashion and cosmetics has a presence. Time-constrained, we skip the fancy malls and head straight to the Kabukiza Theatre to catch the last Kabuki show for the evening. A Kabuki is a traditional Japanese drama performed with elaborate costumes and highly stylized singing and dancing. A full performance comprises of three or four acts and usually lasts more than four hours. Thankfully, we are allowed to buy tickets for just a single act. The performance we catch tells a story of a fugitive named Naozamurai who risks one last meeting with his lover, the courtesan Michitose. Accompanied by the Kiyomoto narrative music, the act ends with the lovers parting forever.

Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza

Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza

 

Day 4: Tokyo DisneySea

We keep a tight grip on the rail as our smoke-powered subterranean vehicle accelerates into a dark tunnel. Illuminated only by colorful glowing crystals, the car enters a mushroom forest, which is inhabited by giant strange-looking insects. Suddenly, the ground shakes, causing the cavern to crumble, forcing our car down another path filled with huge egg-like sacks. We are nearly struck by a lightning as we emerge on a shore. Before we could catch our breath, our vehicle plunges into the depth of an active volcano, where we come face-to-face with a monstrous centipede.

IMG_3004

We are breathless at the end of The Journey To The Center of the Earth. It is one of the highlights at the Tokyo DisneySea, a 70-hectare amusement park that is inspired by the myths and legends of the sea. Here, we experience our wildest childhood imagination through its seven themed ports: Mermaid Lagoon, Mediterranean Harbor, Mysterious Island, Arabian Coast, Lost River Delta, Port Discovery and American Waterfront. Centerpieced by Mt. Prometheus, an active volcano that spews out balls of fire every hour, the park is beautifully crafted and has magnificent architecture that takes us to different parts of the world. The entrance, for example, is styled after an Italian port town, complete with Venice style canals and gondolas. Though suitable for all ages, Tokyo DisneySea was designed to appeal to an older audience, with faster and scarier roller coaster rides.

Mermaid Lagoon at the Tokyo DisneySea

Mermaid Lagoon at the Tokyo DisneySea

Mermaid Lagoon.

Mermaid Lagoon.

IMG_3068

IMG_3060

Tokyo DisneySea:Tokyo DisneySea....

the Venice-like port at the Tokyo DisneySea

the Venice-like port at the Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo DisneySea...

Tokyo DisneySea…

Tokyo DisneySea::

Tokyo DisneySea::

Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo DisneySea,, Tokyo DisneySea,,, Tokyo DisneySea,,,,

Venice-style architecture, canal and gondola at the Tokyo DisneySea..

Venice-style architecture, canal and gondola at the Tokyo DisneySea..

Tokyo DisneySea

Lost River Delta port at Tokyo DisneySea

at the Arabian Coast at the Tokyo DisneySea

at the Arabian Coast at the Tokyo DisneySea

panoramic view of the Tokyo DisnyeSea at dusk

panoramic view of the Tokyo DisnyeSea at dusk

the Italian-style village at the Tokyo DisneySea

the Italian-style village at the Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo is chaotic yet orderly, modern yet traditional, crazy yet peaceful. Yes it is expensive but with careful planning, a shoestring budget can go a long way. And what’s not to love about the Japanese? They are amazingly well disciplined, big-city people with warm countryside attitude. Despite the language barrier, they take pleasure in helping an ignorant backpacker with directions. Full of contradictions and surprises, Tokyo is an exciting city to get lost in.

 

How To Get There:

Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific have direct flights to Tokyo (Narita Airport).

 

Expenses
Airfare 15,000 Yen
Accommodation (Azure Narita) 4 nights 15,900 Yen
Train fare 6,000 Yen
Food 8,000 Yen
Tokyo Skytree entrance 2,600 Yen
Kabuki ticket 1,200 Yen
DisneySea entrance 6,900 Yen
Meiji Shrine Museum and Garden entrance 1,000 Yen
Miraikan entrance 600 Yen
TOTAL 57,200 Yen (roughly Php 22,880)

 

Roadtrip To Ilocos Norte

 

I’m losing control! A steep slope pushes my steering wheel to a different direction. I scream in panic and excitement as the ATV gets stuck on the edge of a ridge, roaring and stirring sand as it digs itself deeper. Driving one on a seemingly infinite stretch of coastal sand dunes is a constant wrestle with the wheels. Illuminated by the sunset’s afterglow, some 4×4 trucks emerge from the dust and roar throughout the dunes as they race with each other. I arduously push the vehicle out towards a gentler trail and find my way to the middle of the desert.

at the Paoay Sand Dunes

at the Paoay Sand Dunes

at the Paoay Sand Dunes

at the Paoay Sand Dunes

I am at the Paoay Sand Dunes, an 88-hectare expanse of wild thirsty sand that is remarkably gaining popularity among tourists and thrill seekers travelling to Ilocos Norte, a province located at the northwest corner of Luzon Island. With its endless hills and valleys, the landscape resembles the waves of the adjacent West Philippine Sea. Here, one can either traverse the silky dunes through 4×4 Rough Riding vehicles or try sand boarding, a sport that requires its players to ride a plank of wood and slide over sand folds.

Iconic

The Ilocos region is home to some of the country’s oldest colonial-era churches. I find myself gawking with wonder at a UNESCO World Heritage Site the following morning. One doesn’t have to be religious to appreciate St. Augustine Church’s bold and magnificent Baroque architecture. Also known as the Paoay Church, it was built in 1694 by Augustinian Friar Antonio Estavillo. To prevent possible destruction due to earthquakes, enormous buttresses of about 1.67 meters thick were built to support the sides and back of the massive edifice. While its façade displays few Gothic features such as the use of finials, its triangular pediment shows Chinese and Oriental influence. Just like other Spanish-era churches in the country, the Paoay Church is made of large coral stones on the lower part and bricks at the upper levels. A three-storey bell tower, which was constructed separately to prevent it from toppling over the church during earthquakes, stands a few meters away. A survivor to bloody rebellions and countless catastrophes, the belfry was used as an observation post by the katipuneros during the Philippine Revolution against Spain in 1898 and again, by the Filipino guerillas during the World War II.

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

Pinakbet and Dinuguan Pizza at Herencia Restaurant

Pinakbet and Dinuguan Pizza at Herencia Restaurant

Pinakbet and Dinuguan Pizza at Herencia Restaurant

Pinakbet and Dinuguan Pizza at Herencia Restaurant

Fueled by a peculiar yet delicious brunch of Pinakbet and Dinuguan Pizza at Herencia Restaurant just across the church, we drive to Malacanang ti Amianan(Malacanang of the North) in the municipality of Suba. Built as a gift of Imelda Marcos to former President Ferdinand Marcos on his 60th birthday, the two-storey mansion with a traditional “bahay na bato” design stands on a scenic 5-hectare property. It has large rooms and a grand sala with antique furniture and fixtures, a well-tended garden, balcony and capiz-shell windows that open to a breathtaking view of the Paoay Lake. The Philippine Government sequestered this property when the president was overthrown from power in 1986. After more than 20 years, the mansion was handed over to the Provincial Government of Ilocos Norte. It was renovated, restored and later on, converted into a museum, where mementoes of the former President and his family are reposited.

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

A young girl selling souvenir items and snacks calls out to us as we exit the mansion’s gate. The mouthwatering aroma of a freshly cooked Empanada wafts through the air. How can I resist an authentic Ilocos Empanada? The orange-crusted half-moon shaped delicacy is cooked as ordered to ensure crunchiness and it only takes seconds for the girl to make one. She skillfully rolls out the dough, fills it with shredded young papaya, cracks an egg over the center, seals it edges and drops it in boiling oil. She says it tastes even better when dipped in Sukang Iloko (sugarcane vinegar). I finish three large servings.

At the empanadahan across Malacanang Ti Amianan

At the empanadahan across Malacanang Ti Amianan

At the empanadahan across Malacanang Ti Amianan

At the empanadahan across Malacanang Ti Amianan

We drive further to see the rock formations in the town of Burgos, located on the northwestern tip of Ilocos Norte. Beautifully sculpted over the years by the roaring waves of Bangui Bay, the Kapurpurawan Rock Formation is a sight to behold especially under the blazing sunlight, when its chalk-like and creamy white surface gleams brightly. Kapurpurawan comes from the Ilokano word “puraw”, which means white. One needs to trek along a craggy trail or go horseback riding to see the stunning limestone formations up close.

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

horseback riding at the Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Here, it is impossible to miss the enormous windmills towering over the surrounding hills, their blades constantly swirling in the wind. There are hundreds of them, says the driver, and to see some of them up close, we head to the nearby Bangui Wind Farm, which was built by the Northwind Power Development Corporation to reduce the emission of harmful greenhouse gases and to generate clean and renewable energy for the province. The nine-kilometer windswept shoreline of Bangui Bay has 20 units of 70-meter wind turbines, each capable of producing electricity up to a maximum capacity of 1.65 MW. Amazingly, the windmills of Bangui alone support forty percent of Ilocos Norte’s electricity.

IMG_7234

Bangui Wind Farm

Bangui Windmill

Bangui Wind Farm

Another iconic landmark one shouldn’t miss in Burgos is the Cape Bojeador Lighthouse. The 66-feet cultural heritage structure was one of the many lighthouses built during the Spanish period and was first lit on March 30, 1892. Perched on top of the Vigia de Nagpartian Hill overlooking the scenic Cape Bojeador, it still functions today as a guiding light for ships that sail the northwestern part of the Philippine archipelago.

Cape Bojeador

Cape Bojeador

Not-So-Secret Paradise

“Ako po’y pagod na pagod at ang sapatos ko’y pudpod!” (I’m extremely tired and my shoes are worn-out!)

This famous line by the Batangueno peddler who once came to the village of Tongotong resonates to this day. It became popular among bystanders that Tongotong was renamed as Pagud-pudpod and later shortened to Pagudpud.

At the northern tip of Pagudpud, we find a beautiful cove named Maira-ira Point, more popularly known as Blue Lagoon, tucked behind the verdant rolling hills. A glance at the long strip of white sand and the clear aquamarine waters delivers a rush of excitement. We find a good spot to watch surfers ride the big swirling waves. One side of the beach is strewn with picnickers playing volleyball and frisbee.

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

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With the influx of beachgoers, the Blue Lagoon is hardly a secret these days. There are newly built resorts, restaurants and cottages near the beach for the convenience of those who traveled long hours to see this paradise.

After romping in the churning surf, we head straight to Kabigan Falls in the village of Balaoi to wash off the salt on our skin. A thirty-minute trek along a scenic trail lined up with Narra and Bagobo trees takes us to the foot of the waterfalls. We watch the mesmerizing cascade in silence as it rushes 112 feet down into a concaved basin. Squinting through the haze of the large spray, our guide says the falls is an important water source for the rice fields nearby. Unmindful of the punishing cold, we jump into the rocky pool and swim to our hearts’ content.

Kabigan Falls

Kabigan Falls

Kabigan Falls

Kabigan Falls

The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” plays in my head when we reach the Patapat Viaduct, the last stop of our sightseeing tour. It is located at the foot of the cliff of the North Cordillera Mountain Range, which snakes throughout Northern Luzon. The 1.3-kilometer coastal bridge, which hangs 31 meters above sea level, was built during the Marcos regime to connect Ilocos Norte to the Cagayan Valley Region. Just imagine the convenience this brings to motorists and travelers.

the Patapat Viaduct

the Patapat Viaduct

the Patapat Viaduct

the Patapat Viaduct

Culinary Gems

Besides the Pinakbet Pizza and Empanada, the poqui-poqui and warek-warek shouldn’t be skipped when you are in Ilocos. Don’t be deceived by their funny names because they are pretty much pleasing to the palate. To cook poqui-poqui, the eggplants are first grilled then sautéed with onion, garlic, tomato and eggs. It is usually eaten for breakfast or served as a side dish. The warek-warek is a famous delicacy you’ll find in almost every occasion up north. Comparable to the sisig, it is made of grilled pork’s face, tongue, brain and liver. Those with sweet tooth can enjoy the vibrant pink dragon fruit ice cream, which is available from the streets to the finest Ilocano restaurants.

warek-warek

warek-warek

Poqui-poqui

Poqui-poqui

The Ilocos Region is crowded with tourists these days, but it’s all for the right reasons. Rich history and culture, breathtaking views, magnificent architecture, delightful local cuisine and thrilling adventures can all be enjoyed here, putting it on top of the must-visit places in the country.

 

Getting There:

By Plane: Cebu Pacific and Philippines Airlines have regular flights to Laoag City in Ilocos Norte

By Bus: Go to the Cubao Bus Terminal and ride a sleeper bus bound for Laoag City, Ilocos Norte. Several bus companies like GV Florida, Partas and Farinas Transit have regular trips to Laoag City. Travel time is 10-12 hours.

To go to Pagudpud from Laoag City:

Option A: Ride a jeepney from the Terminal. Travel time is 2 hours

Option B: Ride a tricycle to Claveria Tours, then ride a bus bound for Claveria. Tell the  conductor to drop you off at Pagudpud’s Baduang Market. Travel time is 1-2 hours

To go to Paoay from Laoag City:

Ride a tricycle to the jeepney terminal, then look for one that is bound for Paoay. Travel time is about an hour.

Saramsam Cafe Pasta

Saramsam Cafe Pasta

dinengdeng

dinengdeng

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

Vigan: A Blast From The Past

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

the mouthwatering emapanada on Calle Crisologo

the mouthwatering emapanada on Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Warek-warek

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

The cobbled street glistens from the early morning drizzle. Streetlamps cast a golden glow on the Spanish ancestral houses, which loom hazily on either side, their arched wooden doors and dilapidated capiz window panels in full display. Colorful Christmas lanterns sway in the breeze, dangling from the lamppost along the sidewalk. Calle Crisologo is eerily quiet before dawn. I walk around, peering at cafes and souvenir shops now yawning in the inky darkness, running my fingers on vintage signs and decors that hang on whitewashed brick walls. The clatter of horses’ hooves on the cobblestones occasionally echoes in the silence. Who could be riding the calesa at this ungodly hour? Bygone abaniko-carrying ladies in ternos on their way to the misa di gallo at the nearby cathedral? A prayle, perhaps? One’s imagination runs wild in an ancient city.

Vigan City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the capital of Ilocos Sur, is steeped in history. It has witnessed not only the opulence of ancient commerce in Northern Luzon but also generations of bloody rebellion against the foreign colonizers. Chinese traders once occupied the 500-meter Calle Crisologo, which was already a bustling commercial settlement when the Spanish explorers, led by Juan de Salcedo, came in 1572. He named the town “Villa Fernandina De Vigan” in honor of King Philip II’s son, Prince Ferdinand. During the Galleon Trade from the 15th to the early 18th century, goods from western and mid-eastern countries also found their way to the streets of Vigan.

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Have you ever wondered how it felt to be an illustrado during the Spanish Era? As the golden streetlights dissolve into the white and gray background, I find myself in Hotel Felicidad, a hotel that promises a glimpse of the old life. The century-old building was once home to spouses Dr. Filadelfo Rosario de Leon and Dona Primitiva Encarnacion Donato. It is within Vigan’s Heritage Village and is just a stone’s throw away from St. Paul’s Cathedral, Plaza Burgos, Plaza Salcedo and several museums. Imagine waking up each morning to the resounding clang of the bell from the cathedral. “It was a status symbol back then. The homes of the rich and prominent were located near the church and plaza,” says Lian, my guide. The couple’s grandchildren subsequently inherited the ancestral house, until a private corporation acquired it a few years ago. It was then meticulously restored and refurbished to become Hotel Felicidad.

Hote Felicidad

Hote Felicidad

The hotel’s Hispanic colonial character evokes a sense of nostalgia. Going up to the second floor, I travel a few centuries back as I am welcomed by a wide balustraded staircase, polished Narra plank floors, full height wooden frames and capiz windows and a Grand Sala with antique art pieces and fixtures. Owner Bonito Singson says the house’s original features were preserved and faithfully adopted during the restoration process.

The hotel has 34 spacious rooms, which are classified into standard, superior, deluxe, dormitory and Grand Suites. The latter is further categorized into Ninos Suite, La Casa Rosa, La Casa Verde, Maestro Suite and Maestra Suite. The last two are the most elegant, inarguably befitting the don and the donya, and are even furnished with genuine antique aparador, baul and Tres Lunas dressers to complete the old-world ambience. Most rooms boast of 18th century four-poster beds made of solid Kamagong and Molave and accessorized with Vigan Abel mosquito nets and bed runners. Despite the traditional setup though, each room is equipped with modern amenities such as air-conditioning system, flat screen LED television sets with satellite programs, Wi-Fi access, safety deposit box, and hot and cold shower system.

Hotel Felicidad lobby

Hotel Felicidad lobby

Hotel Felicidad 2nd floor

Hotel Felicidad 2nd floor

Hotel Felicidad 2nd floor

Hotel Felicidad 2nd floor

the Grand Sala in Hotel Felicidad

the Grand Sala in Hotel Felicidad

 

Hotel Felicidad

Hotel Felicidad

Hotel Felicidad

dining area in Hotel Felicidad

the Reading Area inside Hotel Felicidad

the Reading Area inside Hotel Felicidad

Doe=rm-type rooms in Hotel Felicidad

Dorm-type rooms in Hotel Felicidad

Hotel Felicidad

Hotel Felicidad

Deluxe Suite in Hotel Felicidad

Deluxe Suite in Hotel Felicidad

antique fixtures in Hotel Felicidad

antique fixtures in Hotel Felicidad

Maestra Suite in Hotel Felicidad

Maestra Suite in Hotel Felicidad

Maestra Suite in Hotel Felicidad

Maestra Suite in Hotel Felicidad

Hotel Felicidad also offers tour assistance and bike rental. “Vigan is practically a museum of a city. We encourage our guests to go out and enjoy a blast from the past experience,” says Mia, the hotel’s general manager.

Museum City

“So who are the Crisologos anyway?” I ask obliviously as I wander inside the Crisologo ancestral house, now a museum that exhibits mementoes and original furnishings. My question is met by an old lady’s raised eyebrow. The portraits and old photographs on the wall set things straight: the Crisologos are one of the most influential political families in the province. Don Mena Pecson Crisologo was an eminent Ilokano writer and the first provincial governor of Ilocos Sur in 1901. The world-famous street in Vigan, Calle Crislologo, is named after him. Another Crisologo also caught the entire country’s attention during the 70s. Floro Crisologo, a brilliant lawyer and congressman who authored bills that created the Social Security System and the Virginia Tobacco Law, was assassinated inside St. Paul’s Cathedral. The clothes that he died in and his family’s antique collection such as rebultos, glass chandeliers, kitchenware, carruaje and a vintage car are just some of the things that can be seen inside the museum.

Crisologo Museum

Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

IMG_1285 IMG_1275

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

IMG_1264 IMG_1263

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

Just a short calesa ride away from the Crisologo Museum is the Syquia Mansion. It has maintained its original Bahay na Bato design; thick brick walls on the ground floor and hardwood on the second. Dona Alicia Syquia Quirino, wife of the country’s sixth president Elpidio Quirino, owned this grand ancestral house, now also a museum. “You break a mirror, you suffer seven years of bad luck,” jests the caretaker. It is impossible to ignore the life-size Venetian mirrors that decorate almost every corner of the second floor. “Mirrors were very expensive back then since they were imported from Murano Island in Italy. Accidentally breaking one means you’d have to work for years to pay for it,” he continues. He then leads us to more high-ceilinged rooms filled with antique vases, giant rebultos, chinaware and art pieces from countries all over the world. Huge oil portraits of the family done by national artist Fernando Amorsolo and a replica of the Spolarium hang on the living room. The dining hall is just as grand, and the huge drapes, called punkah, that hang from the ceiling are hard to miss. The punkahs were used as fans to drive away flies and were manually operated by servants for the diners.

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion. the punkah hangs over the dining table

inside Syquia Mansion. the punkah hangs over the dining table

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

Artifacts that portray the Ilocano culture, livelihoods and traditions are reposited inside the 300-year old provincial jail, which was recently converted into a national museum. This is also the birthplace of President Elpidio Quirino in 1890, whose father was then the jail warden. Here, I see traditional clay jars, musical instruments, weapons, utensils, basketry, costumes and dioramas showing historical events in Ilocos Sur. One of the rooms exhibits the Basi Revolt Paintings of Don Esteban Villanueva, a businessman and painter who recorded the 1821 bloody rebellion of the Ilokanos against the Spanish government, which implemented the Basi (sugarcane wine) and Tobacco monopoly to increase its revenue for the campaigns to take possession of Mindanao.

The New National Museum

The New National Museum

inside Syquia Mansion

inside the New National Museum

The Basi Revolt Paintings inside the New National Museum

The Basi Revolt Paintings inside the New National Museum

The Basi Revolt Paintings inside the New National Museum

The Basi Revolt Paintings inside the New National Museum

artifacts inside the New National Museum

artifacts inside the New National Museum

artifacts inside the New National Museum

artifacts inside the New National Museum

artifacts inside the New National Museum

artifacts inside the New National Museum

artifacts inside the New National Museum

artifacts inside the New National Museum

Elpidio Quirino's portrait by  Fernando Amorsolo

Elpidio Quirino’s portrait by Fernando Amorsolo

Elpidio Quirino's bed, inside the New National Museum

Elpidio Quirino’s bed, inside the New National Museum

inside the New National Museum

inside the New National Museum

Testament to a glorious past, beautifully preserved colonial era churches stand stalwartly around the city. One of them is St. Paul’s Cathedral, built in Earthquake Baroque architectural design (with bell tower built separately to prevent it from toppling over the church) and completed in 1800. The original structure, made of wood and thatch, was built in 1574 upon the command of the Spanish founder of Vigan, Juan de Salcedo.

St.Paul's Cathedral

St.Paul’s Cathedral

St.Paul's Cathedral

St.Paul’s Cathedral

St.Paul's Cathedral

St.Paul’s Cathedral

The majestic St. Augustine Parish Church (Bantay Church), in the municipality of Bantay, is a silent witness to many bloody rebellions and atrocities in the past. Its surroundings were where Diego Silang and his troops fought the Spaniards in 1763. Built with a neo-gothic design in 1590, the church has deep-brown façade made of bricks and mud, and also has a separate belfry that sits on top of a hill. The bell tower was part of the town’s defense against the Moro pirates during the 16th century. Visitors can climb up a rickety staircase to the top of the tower, where five enormous World War II bells hang and a breathtaking panoramic view of Vigan and the West Philippine Sea awaits.

Bantay Church

Bantay Church

inside Bantay Church

inside Bantay Church

Bantay Bell Tower

Bantay Bell Tower

Bantay Bell Tower

Bantay Bell Tower

Bantay Bell Tower

Bantay Bell Tower

World War II bells

World War II bells

Foodie Haven

The grumble in my stomach tells me to give my taste buds a thrill they’ll never forget. Riding a calesa, I ask the kutsero (driver) to take me to the best empanadahan in the city. “It depends on your taste,” he says, but recommends Irene’s, right along Calle Crisologo. It is unforgivable to skip the delectable half-moon shaped empanada when you are in Vigan. Attendants usually make it as ordered to ensure crunchiness, skillfully rolling out dough as thinly as possible, filling it with shredded papaya and cabbage, cracking an egg over the center, sprinkling it with longganisa bits, folding the dough over and finally sealing its edges together before deep-frying until crispy. This version of empanada tastes best when dipped in Sukang Iloko (sugarcane vinegar). Most empanada stalls also serve okoy, a crunchy shrimp fritter made of tiny shrimps and glutinous rice batter.

the mouthwatering emapanada on Calle Crisologo

the mouthwatering emapanada on Calle Crisologo

the mouthwatering emapanada and okoy on Calle Crisologo

the mouthwatering emapanada and okoy on Calle Crisologo

Okoy

Okoy

The cluster of stalls near Plaza Burgos offers more culinary gems such as the sinanglaw and Vigan longganisa. The former is a savory soup dish made of beef and beef innards and flavored with onion, garlic, ginger and kamias. “We Ilokanos aren’t wasteful. Sometimes, we even include latteg (cow testicles) in the sinanglaw,” says the attendant. The latter is staple on the Ilokano breakfast table and is a favorite pasalubong among visitors. It is distinctly garlicky and doesn’t have the sweet taste of a typical longganisa. It is said to be an influence of the Mexican salami and has existed since the period of the Galleon trade, when Spanish goods reached the province.

Sinanglaw

Sinanglaw

Latteg, cow's testicles

Latteg, cow’s testicles

Shortly after I finish a serving of longganisa, I sink my teeth into a chunk of deep-fried pork with crackling and blistered skin, dipped in vinegar with garlic, onion and hot chili. It is sinfully good I eat it with abandon. One should never leave Vigan without trying the bagnet, a slab of pork belly that is boiled until tender, seasoned with salt and pepper and deep-fried twice to attain its extra crispy texture. The bagnet also makes a perfect topping for the pinakbet, another Ilokano dish I sample at the Pinakbet Farm, a restaurant in a farm setting. The pinakbet is a vegetable dish made of small bitter gourd, eggplant, okra, string beans and chili and flavored with bagoong (fermented fish). In Pinakbet Farm, the vegetables are grown organically in a garden just beside the restaurant.

Vigan Longganisa

Vigan Longganisa

Bagnet

Bagnet

Pinakbet at Pinakbet Farm

Pinakbet at Pinakbet Farm

Don’t forget to try the tinubong as well. The name comes from “tubong”, the internode of a bamboo. This sweet and filling snack is made of glutinous rice, coconut milk, coconut strips and sugar cooked inside the tubong over charcoal.

Tinubong

Tinubong

Souvenir Hunt

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

In Vigan, the much sought-after souvenir is an earthenware called burnay. The making of burnay dates back to the pre-colonial times when migratory traders from China settled in the province. They practiced the craft of making earthenware using clay that can be found in the Western area of Vigan. These jars are traditionally used as containers for locally made vinegar, basi and bagoong. Locals swear that these products taste even better when stored inside the burnay. Thankfully, the continuous demand for these wares has sustained the burnay factories and preserved the ancient industry. Today, at the Pagburnayan, a village at the southwestern end of Liberation Boulevard, visitors can see factories making these jars using pre-historic methods of production.

Pagburnayan

Pagburnayan

Pagburnayan

Pagburnayan

The abel cloth, a traditional woven product in Vigan, also has its own story to tell. The craft dates back to the early years of the Spanish occupation and were said to be a major export during the galleon trade. The process of weaving abel cloths, which are made of locally-grown sagut (cotton), is intricate and labor-intensive. However, they are durable and beautifully designed that some families even have them as heirlooms. Today, there are still few who practice the age-old craft and they can be found in the village of Camangaan, Mindoro and San Pedro.

Abel cloth

Abel cloth

Abel cloth weaver

Abel cloth weaver

Abel cloth weaver

Abel cloth weaver

As twilight descends, I sit in one of the caritela benches that line Calle Crisologo. An approaching calesa click-clacks along the street to complete a breathtaking portrait of antiquity. I savor the scenery. The next day will find me back to the real world. If only I could freeze time, just like this ancient city.

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

How to Get There:

From Manila, ride a bus bound for Vigan at the Cubao Bus Terminal. Fare is Php 600

Where to Stay:

Hotel Felicidad
#9 V. delos Reyes cor Florentino St.
Vigan city, Ilocos Sur
09178568309/09328912468/09399252402
+63 77 722 0008
www.hotelfelicidadvigan.com

the dancing fountain in Plaza Salcedo

the dancing fountains, a nightly attraction in Plaza Salcedo

the dancing fountains, a nightly attraction in  Plaza Salcedo

the dancing fountains, a nightly attraction in Plaza Salcedo

Hidden Garden restaurant

Hidden Garden restaurant

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

You can buy all sorts of ornamental plants at the Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

at the Hidden Garden

at the Hidden Garden

at the Baluarte of Chavit Singzon

at the Baluarte of Chavit Singzon

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