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Lakbayani History Tours: More Than A History Lesson.

Lakbayani History Tours: More Than A History Lesson.

They say you don’t have to re-invent the wheel, but no one ever said you can’t make it cool. Greg Mercado’s Lakbayani History Tours begs to differ from the typical walking tour experience that we’ve all been accustomed to. It has all the ingredients of a typical walking tour, but what Lakbayani brings new to the formula is the much added “Pzaz!” Greg, who’s also a rapper since his youth back in California, occasionally unleashes his hiphop beats and rapping skills at certain parts of the tour. He raps about Philippine history, relevant issues, even his life story, which is why he coins his tours “the walking history concert”.

Aside from a musical experience, the tour is also a transformative experience, as Greg shares his advocacy of spreading heroism among the people who joins his tour. Greg shares his vision of Lakbayani, which is rooted in the words “lakbay”, meaning journey, and “bayani”, extending to the Filipino concept of “bayanihan”, which in essence means heroism. “My vision is to be able to impart the spirit of bayanihan through my tours, and that every person would see themselves as heroes, contributing to the betterment of society”, says Greg.

I was privileged to have experienced his “Manila Bay-ani” walking tour. As both a music lover and history lover, I’d say it’s definitely by far the coolest walking tour that I’ve ever been to.

THE EXPERIENCE

Manila Bay

The tour begins with lunch at the Aristocrat restaurant in Roxas Boulevard. The highlight of the lunch is the Adobo Flying Saucer which is actually the jumping point of our journey through time. Greg explains how the classic Filipino dish Adobo connects us to our ancient roots. Before leaving the restaurant, Greg starts a brief activity, of which would be revisited at the later parts of the tour.

Right outside the Aristocrat is the first stop, by Rajah Sulayman’s monument. In the middle of his discussion, Greg pulls out his iPod and portable speaker. Beats started blasting, and the master rapper started busting out his rhymes with the Lakbayani theme song in full spirits. It was definitely an attraction as passers by stopped to watch, bobbing their heads with the beat. It’s not everyday you’d see a rap performance in the streets of Manila after all.

Right after the special number, we headed towards Manila Bay for the next part of the tour.

We stopped by certain points of interests along Manila Bay, and it was fascinating to see how much history can already be told right along this stretch.

Intramuros

After covering Manila Bay’s stretch, we hopped on to Greg’s van on the way to Intramuros for our next destination.

Points of interests covered in Intramuros included Fort Santiago, old churches such as the iconic San Agustin Church, several baluartes, and other historical sites and monuments.

In typical Lakbayani fashion, Greg inserts some rap numbers every now and then.

The activity that we started back in the Aristocrat also gets revisited at certain points.

Before leaving Intramuros, we took a rest at one of the shops there for some halo halo. This is a good break for participants as walking along Intamuros for hours can be very exhausting on a hot day, and what better way to rejuvenate from a tiring history tour than to have one of the Philippines’ most popular dessert.

Rizal Park

After capping off the Intramuros tour with dessert, we hopped back to Greg’s van once again to head to our last destination, Rizal Park.

image from Getty Images

Right after going through the points of interests in Rizal Park, it was time to conclude the tour. For the last part, we revisited the remaining activities that we started at the Aristocrat, and these activities were finally drawn to their conclusions. I would not want to reveal what happens in those activities so as not to ruin the element of surprise though. Right before we said our farewells, Greg whipped out his iPod and speaker for the last time and ended the tour with a grand finale.

What Lakbayani provides to its participants is a very unique and engaging experience. Greg’s raps are more than just gimmicks for entertainment, but rather, a personal and artistic take on showcasing history and relevant issues. It’s definitely a good break from the monotony of plain discussion. But the heart of what makes Lakyabani special is that while most history tours are focused on being informative, Lakyabani’s approach is geared more towards being transformative. Lakbayani’s objective, more than anything else, is really to be able to spread the value of heroism through the amazing stories of the heroes of this nation. The activities that are conducted in the tour are very effective in encouraging participants to reflect not only about relevant issues, but moreover, about themselves and their roles in society.

There are many history tours out there, but not all of them can leave a lasting impact on a person like Lakbayani does. I find it very significant that a simple history tour with a positive message can be an effective tool for change, and Lakbayani definitely hits this dead on the spot. You come in wanting to learn about history, and you come out wanting to impact society.

Check out the video below for the Lakbayani teaser —>

For more information about  Lakbayani History Tours, click here for their official webpage, or here for their facebook page.

 

Gear Review: Strymon Mobius and Timeline

Gear Review: Strymon Mobius and Timeline

They say GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) never ends, and when it strikes, it strikes hard – deep in your pockets! The pedal board will never cease to evolve in search of the “perfect tone” as what satisfies the ears today might not be as satisfying tomorrow… Then again, it could just be GAS from watching too many gear videos on YouTube.

As a guitarist, I’m more of the Mike Einziger and John Fruciante type who leans more towards tone coloring effects and guitar textures rather than ala Paul Gilbert and Rhandy Rhodes who focus heavily on macho riffs and heavy shredding. Given my guitar influences, I’ve always relied heavily on delays and modulation effects in my playing. These effects are staples in how I think about writing music so much so that I could hardly think about making music over the naked guitar tone.

My pedal board has seen many changes and switch ups over the years since I’ve started using stomp boxes. I’ve always preferred the more simpler plug and play, set and go, analog pedals rather than the super sophisticated multi-effects with so many  knobs and buttons of what looks like something hung on Darth Vader’s chest. I just found the simplicity and sound of the analog effects much more appealing to me. Plus, I find satisfaction in looking at a board with differently colored little things, rather than just one big black machine with many buttons. I think that for stomp box fans such as myself, it’s also the art of collecting that’s part of the fun.

Hearing so much rave about Strymon pedals, I’ve recently developed a GAS for them. These digital pedals have been said to be at the top of the stomp box echelon in terms of both sound, performance, and of course, price. The first two are obviously what draws most guitarists, while the third makes a lot of them turn away. Their delay pedal, the Timeline, costs about $ 450 new. This is pretty steep considering it’s a digital pedal which only does delay sounds. You’ll have to shell out another $ 450 for the Mobius if you want modulation effects, and another $450 for the Big Sky for reverb. That would be about $ 1,350 getting all of them new. Compare that to just getting a top of the line multi effects such as the Line 6 Helix which already has distortion and amp simulations for almost the same amount of money.

But like any GAS inflicted guitarist, I just had to give in. As always, I lurked on eBay and Reverb for some good offers on used products, and was able to score a Mobius and Timeline for about $ 380 each. That’s still pretty hefty on the budget, so with fingers crossed, I decided to cash in on some of my rarely used beloved gear to cover for my recent purchases, hoping that it’s going to be a worthy tradeoff.

So they’ve arrived… The highly glorified Strymons! After carefully mapping out my board as to how and where to place them, it’s now time for the boy to play with his new toys! After a couple of times of using them both in a bedroom and band setting, I can finally share my thoughts and honest opinions about these pedals.

CONSTRUCTION AND AESTHETICS

Enclosed in a solid metal body, these pedals have the typical “built like a tank” construction. The controls, labels, and LED layouts look welcoming and un-intimidating. Colors and the beautiful matte finish does make these pedals aesthetically pleasing which is a plus. The only thing I’m not impressed with are the knobs which you press for toggling functions. Both these knobs on the Timeline and Mobius are already a bit wobbly when I got them, which should not be. This worries me as they may get wobblier in time due to constant use.

CONTROLS AND FUNCTIONS

One reason I stayed away from multi-effects is that I find them too sophisticated for simplicity. Having a lot of options and tweakability is great, but I’ve always found the control schemes for most multi-effects pedals a bit confusing and less user friendly. Some pedals require you to do advanced tweaking on the computer for best results, of which I certainly do not want to do at all.

Strymon’s interface is rather simple. Looking at its controls for the first time might be a little daunting, but it actually is very user friendly and has a very shallow learning curve. Everything is straightforward. The “type” knob lets you select the type of effect you want, or as they call, “machine”, while the other knobs are for general tweaking. Pressing the values knob lets you tweak even further, giving you more options and parameters to play around with. It’s very apparent that Strymon’s engineers have put a lot of thought to make sure all the features, flexibility, and customization, can be configured using such simple controls.

Notable Feature for the Mobius

One notable feature I like on the Mobius is the “pre/post” option. This function lets you change the position of the Mobius either before, or after the pedal you chose to pair it with, without having to physically reposition and rewire anything. I paired the Mobius with the Timeline. That way I can choose either to have the modulation go before the delay, or the delay go before the modulation. This is very useful for stacking effects like phasers and delays if you find it very significant having a choice between repeating sweeps versus sweeping repeats.

Notable Feature for the Timeline

A notable feature for the Timeline is the feedback loop. Attaching another pedal to the Timeline and enabling the feedback loop option lets you add the attached pedals effect to the Timeline’s wet signal. This lets you stack a chain of pedals on the Timeline to expand the variety of tonal characteristics of your wet signal. I don’t really use this feature as of now, but I think this is a cool feature I might use in the future.

SOUND QUALITY

Good looks and great features would mean nothing unless the sound quality is superb. And in this area, the Strymon delivers, and it delivers so well! The usual apprehension that analog purists have towards going digital is that digitals pedals tend to sound inorganic. To illustrate, it’s like comparing a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade versus a juice concentrate. The concentrate can come close to tasting like the real thing, but it’s still not the real thing! Typical digital pedals sound processed, as compared to the pristine and natural sound that analog pedals deliver. But over the years, refinements and advances in technology have been bridging that sonic gap, and Strymon has secured itself well in this position. I’m certainly no tone connoisseur, but to my ears, I can confidently place my bet on the Strymons when it comes to tone.

I stack them together with my Jekyll & Hyde overdrive/distortion and my Neunaber Wet reverb. With proper mixing, notes are clearly defined and playing dynamics remain accentuated. Even under a thick band mix, my guitar tone can still cut through with every “swoosh” and “wuaoh” from the Mobius riding the repeats of the Timeline. It’s really just that good.

SAVING

Both the Timeline and the Mobius have one hundred banks which allow you to save up to two presets for each bank. That’s a total of two hundred customized presets which you can name using using a maximum of sixteen characters. That’s more than enough space anyone could ever need. However, you can only use one effect at a time for each pedal.

EXTERNAL CONTROLLERS

Scrolling through the banks is done by pressing two of the three foot switches simultaneously. While this is the best way to do it given the Strymon’s physical layout, it can be a bit of a nuance when you want to get to a preset that is banks away. Since I assign one bank per song syncing both pedals in my band, this means that I have to scroll on each pedal every time for every song change. Good thing the Timeline and Mobius are compatible with third party foot switches. There are programmable midi based ones which allows you to control bank switching and even give you more space to save presets such as the ones made by Disaster Area and American Loopers. There are also simpler TRS based foot switches for just bank scrolling. I got a TRS based one from Analog Endeavors which I had custom made to be able to scroll across bank simultaneously on both devices. Here’s a video review / demo of the Analog Endeavors auxiliary foot switch in case you want to check it out. —>

CONCLUSION

The Timeline and Mobius definitely live up to the hype. Strymon has maximized technological advances to deliver flexibility and incredible customizability that can only be done through digital pedals, while delivering clear and pristine tones sought after from analog pedals. The wide array of tweakability you can do per machine gives you almost endless customization allowing you to make your own unique personalized sound, while the intuitive and straightforward controls let anyone easily become their own boutique pedal builder. The ability to be able to adapt to third party manufacturers for expandability is also huge bonus. The price may be steep, but serious tone aficionados who constantly seek after the best tone money can buy will surely find the Timeline and the Mobius a worthy investment, and a staple in pedals boards for the long haul.

 

Guam: A Picture of the Philippines on American Soil.

Guam: A Picture of the Philippines on American Soil.

This will be my second post about Guam since my trip to the island last June. In my last post (click here for the article), I focused on my experiences with Guam as a tourist destination. Having stayed in Guam for eight days, I’ve noticed how much similar it is to the Philippines. For one, Filipinos comprise 26% of Guam’s total population, second only to the native Chamorros who make up 37%. In fact, Tagalog is officially Guam’s second most spoken language, next to English. Guam and the Philippines also have common culinary specialties such as: lumpia, eskabeche, pancit, and so much more. Philippine independence day is also officially celebrated in Guam. You also can’t tell whether a person is Chamorro or Filipino as both look alike sharing the same anthropological roots. They also have similar sounding names – a Spanish last name, and an English or Spanish first name. Guam’s geography is also similar to the Philippines – a tropical biome whose urban and rural areas are much like a scaled down and compressed version of Luzon. For a Filipino, Guam is a good mixture of the foreign and the very familiar. I found it very fascinating how a tiny island somewhere in the pacific seems but like the American extension of our Philippine archipelago. So I did some research and learned about how far Guam and the Philippines’ common roots go back with their shared and intertwined history. That said, I’m writing this article to share my learnings about the two countries, and my sentiments about how one has become fully American and the other just almost American.

A QUICK HISTORY LESSON

Peopling

About 4,000 years ago, people from mainland Asia travelled east, migrating to Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Certain groups that went further beyond the Philippines were able to settle in other pacific islands which include Micronesia, the Marianas, and Guam. Having common ancestry, these people had a common language and culture, which were then eventually diversified by geography and time.

The Spanish Colonization

The name Magellan is as common to Filipinos as it is with the Chamorros. Ferdinand Magellan’s travels to the South Pacific in 1521 has led to Spain’s colonization of both the Philippines and Guam. Both colonies were then converted to Catholicism, and both were considered important Spanish trading and military outposts. Being situated between Mexico and the Philippines, Guam became a stopover for the galleon trades. Spain sent many Filipinos to Guam, among whom were priests, professionals, laborers, and even political exiles. Many Filipinos deployed to Guam have stayed there ever since, along with other nationalities involved in the galleon trade. Some of the Filipinos who stayed in Guam started intermarrying with the Chamorros, creating a next generation of mixed descent.

The American Occupation and Post World War II

Spanish rule on both Guam and the Philippines ended when the two colonies were sold to the US under the Treaty of Paris in 1898. Both Guam and the Philippines then became US territories, with the Philippines still addressed as “The Philippine Islands”. Many Filipinos still continued moving to Guam at the turn of the century. Some ventured on their own, while others were deployed by the US as workers. After World War II, the Philippines proclaimed independence from the US in 1946, eventually being recognized as the “Republic of the Philippines”, while Guam officially received status of “Unincorporated and Organized US Territory”, of which Guamanians received US citizenship. More Filipinos kept being sent to Guam as contract workers for rebuilding Guam’s infrastructure that were destroyed during the war. Many of these Filipinos have opted to settle and live in Guam after finishing their contracts, eventually becoming naturalized US citizens.

MY THOUGHTS

I’ve felt so much at home in Guam during the eight days that I’ve spent there. With the strong Filipino presence, familiarity of the people, food, place, and weather, it’s literally like the Philippines, but on American soil. Of course it would not do justice to the native Chamorros labelling Guam as such, as they too have their own identity and take pride on their own unique heritage as the people of Guam. But speaking for the many Filipinos who call Guam as home, it is not so farfetched to view Guam as what would be the Americanized version of the Philippines.

Centuries of colonial occupation has left the Filipinos with lots of colonial mindset. The Spanish paints most of our known history, while American influence deeply permeates into our modern culture. There has always been mixed sentiments with regards to the Philippine-American relationship. Unlike Guam, the more established government of the Philippines back then have always pushed for total independence from the US. This eventually led to Philippine independence, making the Philippines a sovereign nation ruled only by the Filipino people. Conversely, Guam’s non-resistance and annexation with the US has made itself officially American.

Having conversed with many Filipinos in Guam, including those who were born there and those who have recently just moved, I can’t help but to compare and contrast in terms of what life is like for fellow Filipinos in both places. In my observation, the Filipinos who have just recently moved to Guam for work are very much happy with their jobs and their status. For them, Guam is the greener pasture and a dream come true. Some of them still have families in the Philippines which they are able to support beyond necessity, while others have already moved their entire families to Guam. Guam’s familiarity also does a good job of allowing them to settle with the least adjustment. Filipino-Guamanians, or those whose roots in Guam traces far back many generations, though still acknowledging their Filipino descent, are much more American than they are Filipino. As locals in Guam, much like their Chamorro counterparts, many of them aspire to move to the mainland US to work and settle. But what’s really interesting to see are the blue collar workers, such as those in construction, drivers, and fast food crew. These people are actually living comfortably with their families, and all within reasonable working hours. Plus, they get substantial benefits from the US government for healthcare and social welfare, including rights and privileges that come with being a US citizen (with certain limitations). All of the Filipinos I’ve talked to said that they can’t imagine doing the same type of jobs, or even just having a job in the Philippines, and keep the same living comforts they have in Guam.

In contrast, back in the Philippines, blue collar workers aspire to be able to work abroad just to be able to provide for their families or live a comfortable life. Some in the middle class pursue moving to greener pastures such as Canada, New Zealand, or the US. It is an undeniable fact that the Philippines has been gaining economic traction for the past decades, and it would not be unthinkable to see this country rise within this century. But just out of fascination and curiosity, it’s but natural to wonder – what if we had taken a different turn? What would the Philippines be like today if we had continued to be part of the US instead? This controversial issue has always had mixed, emotional, and contrasting opinions, but I think my trip to Guam may have painted a vague picture. Two places with intertwined history took different turns in the middle of the century, taking with them the destinies of their people. One now benefits from the status and economy of a first world country, and the other takes pride in sovereignty.

I look forward to the day when the Philippines becomes a first world country. Perhaps in the next generation, or the generations after. Only in those days can we be able to claim that choosing sovereignty was worth it, and that we as Filipinos have made it happen for ourselves. But while those days have not yet come, we can only be proud of our independence.

 

 

Gear Review: ZT Club

Gear Review: ZT Club

Bringing an amplifier to gigs is a great way to be able to get a consistent sound wherever you play. But the hassles of lugging them around from room, to car, to bar, isn’t half as enjoyable as hearing them sound. I’ve been using a  50 watt tube amp which is already relatively light, but still considerably hefty.  While I really dig the way it sounds, I find the back breaking lifts quite a nuance.

So I thought that I needed something lighter and smaller, but at the same time, can give an uncompromised roar during live performance. Searching the web for some leads, I found out about the ZT Club. It’s a small solid state amp, 14″ x 15″ x 9.25″ in dimensions, and weighs only 22 lbs. ZT claims this little guy to be really loud, as concurred with by the few reviews I’ve read online. It got my interest. However, despite gaining a handful of following, the amp has been discontinued by ZT in favor of their smaller Lunchbox model.

I’ve searched around local distributors, but since it’s a discontinued model, availability has been a problem. Determined to get the amp, I turned to the used market via eBay and Reverb.com, lurking regularly for the chance that something might just pop up. Persistency paid off when I was able to score a Club for about $ 400. The cosmetics were far from top notch, but the function was superb. Besides, amps are made to rock; a treat for the ears rather than the eyes.

So it arrived, and it was time to test it out. I live in a 36 sqm flat, and with the volume and gain knobs at just about 8 ‘o clock, it was enough to be loudly and clearly heard in every corner of my condo unit. I couldn’t pump it more than that so as to not disturb the neighbors. I had to wait for band rehearsals in a studio to be able to gauge the true potential of this amp.

Come band rehearsals, bringing it along was a breeze. The size and weight was so convenient for transport, saving my now grateful vertebrae. I plugged it in with my pedal board and my PRS Paul’s Guitar. The drummer and bassist played to their usual levels as I dialed in the knobs to get the sound I wanted. First thing I adjusted were the volume and gain controls. I was able to match the levels of the band with the volume knob at 9, and the gain knob at 10.

The volume and gain knobs work just like with any other amps with this type of feature, but the application here is rather different. With the Club, the gain knob gives the amp more of a tubelike push, rather than a real distortion. Turning the gain knob past 9 is where the convincing “tubey” character begins. It’s got the distinct voice, push, and density we look for in tube amps, and it is seriously convincing. Pushing it past 12 is like using a tube screamer for a clean boost. Going past 2 and maxing it to 5 gives it a little over driven grit. I’ve found my perfect mix to have the gain at 10, just enough for a tubelike character, and the volume at 9, just enough to level with the rest of the band.

The rest of the mixing is for the tone controls. The Club only has knobs for treble and bass. Dialing the tone knobs is very responsive and super excellent for tone shaping. With both knobs at 12, the Club sounds very fat and beefy on the low and midrange.  I set my treble to 3 and bass to 11, giving me a brighter sound, while still maintaining some of the fat. The amp also responds well to stomp boxes. I got the perfect crunch I wanted from the Jekyll & Hyde, and the delays and modulation effects sounded crystal clear. Turning the volume knob a little more further pushes my levels beyond the rest of the band even with the drummer not holding back. Going past 12 would probably be enough to shatter glass. This thing is really loud! It also has reverb, but I didn’t find any use for it since all of my reverb comes from my pedals.

Convinced of its tonal prowess, I was confident enough to take it to its first gig, so I unleashed it at a local bar. The place was about 60 sqm in size with full band set up and acoustics for ear bleeding rock and roll. I didn’t mic the Club as to have all my sound be heard from the amp itself. I found myself adjusting the volume knob between 9 and 10, depending on how pronounced I had to be. With gain fixed at 10, I never went past 11 for volume as it would be too loud for the audience already. The size of the Club’s speaker was also enough to push air giving a good sonic distribution allover the place. It clearly stood up at par, if not better, against the in-house tube amps there. Given my first gigging experience, I’m confident that the club can definitely handle much bigger venues without a problem.

There are limitations to consider though. Its reverb is just on the mediocre side, and those who prefer built-in amp distortions should definitely look elsewhere. But for guitarists like me who get all those from pedals, the Club’s limitations are non-issues.

All in all, I am very pleased with the ZT Club. Its size is perfect for transport without compromising tone and output power. The bass and treble controls’ responsiveness allows for flexible tone shaping, making it very adaptable to various musical situations. And its tubelike sound is highly convincing despite being a solid state. It is not without question that there are so much better sounding, real tube amps out there. But considering the Club’s portability, price, and overall great sound, this thing can definitely be a serious go-to amp for both the bedroom and the gigging musician.

 

Food Tripping in Kyoto’s Nishiki Market.

Food Tripping in Kyoto’s Nishiki Market.

If you’re looking for other must see places in Kyoto that isn’t a temple, a shrine, or a castle, then head downtown and check out the Nishiki Market. A good walking distance from the Karasuma train station, the market is a long straight stretch of food stalls selling traditional street foods and ingredients.

Items here can be bought either raw or ready to eat. There are seated eateries here but I think that the best way to maximize the market experience is to stroll the entire stretch and try bits and pieces of different stuff from the wide array of vendors.

One of my favorites here is the Takoyaki. The lines can be a bit long for these goody balls though, but the wait is definitely rewarding.

If you want something quick and ready to eat, the Yakitoris and other on-stick snacks are instant gratifications.

You can have them reheated first…

Or eat them outright.

They come in different shapes and sizes from meats, seafoods, and vegetables. As long as it’s small enough to be skewered, you can probably find it there.

One of the oddest things I’ve eaten so far are those small octopus with quail eggs. The quail eggs are stuffed inside giving them their voluptuous figure.

Some stalls allow you to sample a few pieces first before you buy. This is one way of knowing what you’re getting into before you decide to dive in.

One of my personal favorite Japanese desserts here is the Matcha. These are green tea powder extracts, usually infused on drinks, pastries, rice cakes, or anything edible that they can make of. I love it when Matcha is infused on ice cream. There’s a stall here that lets you choose the intensity of the infused Matcha to your liking.

If you pick the highest matcha level, you will notice that the ice cream is much darker has a bit of a powdery consistency from all the infused matcha. This is something not for everybody as the matcha taste can become too strong and bitter, which I personally prefer. Note though that matcha comes from green tea, so those with caffeine issues should beware as too much can leave you jittery.

If you just want to buy something you’d want to prepare yourself, there is also plenty of fresh selections and raw ingredients to choose from.

You can also find other souvenir items such as trinkets and refrigerator magnets here.

Nishiki Market offers a fun food tripping experience. It’s the best way to experience the diversity of Kyoto’s street foods & snacks all in one place.

It’s open from 9AM to 5PM. Admission is free.

 

 

A Taste of a Legend. Kobe Beef in Kobe, Japan.

A Taste of a Legend. Kobe Beef in Kobe, Japan.

Steaks are some of the rare foods you just can’t go wrong with. Just season with salt and pepper, grill over open flame, or fry with a little butter. It doesn’t take a five star chef to turn the simple choice cut meat into a gastronomic delight. It’s safe to say that all steaks are delicious, but not all are equal. Beef comes in many choices and most of them I’ve already been acquainted with. But there’s one beef that’s said to sit high up on the echelons of prime steaks that I’ve been wanting to try for so long: the Kobe beef. It’s a meat that’s so praiseworthy as it is controversial. It’s a legend that keeps being told by those who have tasted its glory.

Hearing so much rave about the legendary beef, it’s been on my bucket list for such a long time. It was only until last year during our trip to Japan that I was able to tick it off. Traveling across Japan’s Kansai area, I made a quick side trip to the home of Kobe beef: Kobe. There are plenty of restaurants in Kobe offering their famous delicacy so I searched online for some recommendations. Since it was only a quick side trip, I’ve narrowed my search down to the ones that topped reviews but close to the train stations.

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The searching led me to Ishida. It’s about a five minute walk from the Kobe-Sannomiya station. I was lucky to get accommodated as a walk-in customer as reviews warned that reservations are a must as they get really packed most of the time. So with mouth watering and stomach grumbling, I went in with high expectations.

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Steaks in Ishida are cooked right in front of you. As they present the meat, the beautiful marbling is clearly seen spread evenly across. Once the teppan grill is heated, the meat is then cooked over animal fat. The best doneness to steaks is always around rare to medium, so I had mine rare like I always prefer.

The steaks are cooked in batches and served in cutlets. This means that you get just enough at once, then wait to enjoy the next serving. This also means that you always get your steak fresh from the grill. Nothing gets cold in your plate. You can opt to eat the steak as is, or dip it in their sauce and sprinkle with a little salt. Whichever way you wanna enjoy your steak, you just can’t go wrong with either.

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Initially, I thought that the cutlets were a bit too small, but upon first bite, I discovered that it’s the perfect food to mouth ratio. Every bite lets the meat secrete its juicy goodness. That juice joyfully plays around your tastebuds as it fills up every corner of your mouth while you chew. The meat is so ridiculously tender, it makes chewing such a pleasure.

The flavor? It is simply out of this world! The tiny cutlets are succulent and densely filled with flavor. It’s like an entire slab of steak has been juiced down into every one of these little cutlets. It’s packed with all the beefy goodness we all know and love, but with a slight uniqueness that’s just hard to describe. It is just that good! In fact, it is phenomenal! I tried it with their sauce and a little salt, and the flavor oozed out even more. Adding seasoning actually draws out and highlights more of the natural flavor instead of masking it. The perfect combination. Finished with my first batch, I moved on to enjoy the next succeeding batches. The taste doesn’t seem to get mundane at all.

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I went inside Ishida with expectations set high, and came out having them exceeded. The legend about Kobe beef is true, and now I’m one of the few who get to tell about it. Having Kobe beef in Kobe was definitely the perfect Kobe experience.

Ishida serves complete course meals. Average price is around 2,500 JPY for lunch and 8,000 JPY for dinner. 

 

My Deer Nara. A Side Trip to Nara, Japan.

My Deer Nara. A Side Trip to Nara, Japan.

Nara is one of the prefectures in Japan’s Kansai area. We were able to make a quick side trip here during our Japan visit last August. Coming from touring Kyoto’s historical shrines & temples and Osaka’s cosmopolitan sites, we were in search for something else— something different that the Kansai area had to offer. This lead us to go to Nara to see the famous Nara Deer Park.

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The Nara Deer Park isn’t your typical park. What makes this different from any other parks are the deer that are native to the place.

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Allover the park are plenty of them— herds upon herds of adorable furry creatures. They roam freely around the park and are actually protected by law as national treasures.

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From the Nara train station, going to the park is just about a five minute bus ride. There are special roundtrip bus tickets for tourists visiting the park that can be purchased from the station.

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As the bus nears the park, you can already start spotting deer scattered in the streets. You’d be mystified at first, but after a while, they pretty much become a common sight.

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The deer are used to mingling with people and you can even touch them. It’s ok to pet the deer, but it’s best to not be over confident with them as there are some rare occasions when they try to nab from your stuff thinking it has food.

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Or if you’re eating, make sure to keep your food away from their reach as you would not want to tempt them. Check the warning signs posted allover.

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But generally, these guys are a really friendly bunch and so fun to be around.

Another attraction to see in the park is the Todai-ji Temple. There are other temples in Nara, but for just a quick side trip, we were only able to visit the Todai-ji.

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The Todai-ji Temple houses the great giant Buddha. We weren’t able to get inside the temple itself since we got there a bit just in time for closing, but we were able to enjoy the entrance and temple grounds.

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What’s amazing about this temple is that everything here is really huge. The pillars that make up the entrance gates are massive columns of logs.

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The entrance gates have two giant statues of Kongō Rikishi (Nio protectors of Japan according to ancient Buddhist beliefs). They’re also made of wood, painted for color.

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It’s really amazing looking up the scale of these two giant statues. What’s incredible is that the entire temple complex and everything in here have been constructed during Japan’s ancient times, thousands of years before machines have been employed in building construction.

Another thing to see around the temple is a boat by the lake.

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Not sure though if the boat is actually functional or just for display, but it does look majestic.

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And of course…

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More deer.

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The side trip to Nara was definitely a worthy quick-stop destination. The deer were a uniquely fun experience, and the Todai-ji Temple was something that had its own “massive” charm, different from any other temples we’ve seen in Japan so far.

A Night at Azumi Boutique Hotel.

A Night at Azumi Boutique Hotel.

It’s everyone’s favorite holiday season again, and this year, my wife and I decided that we will be spending our Christmas somewhere else aside from our house. We thought about going out of town but didn’t want the hassle of the long drive. What we wanted was a quick and convenient getaway, somewhere not too far, yet not too familiar. The solution was obviously a staycation.

Living on the North side of Metro Manila, going South was already conveniently foreign enough for a quick getaway. So I searched Good Ol’ Google for a place and stumbled upon Azumi Boutique Hotel. It’s small hotel in Alabang by the Filinvest district. The booking site offered a queen sized room for just about Php 3,+++ a night which included breakfast so we went ahead and booked a stay for Christmas eve.

THE LOBBY

Since it’s a boutique hotel, there’s no huge lobby with a grand staircase. The lobby is small, just enough for a reception desk and a lounge with a few couches. The lobby is design is modern.

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The black walls are adorned with mementos reflecting different places and landmarks from allover the world. The theme gives a more casual and cozy atmosphere rather than being stiff and intimidating.

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THE ROOMS

The room has a very pronounced rectangular dimension. From the door, looking straight is a complete full view of the edge to edge glass doors and windows to the balcony.

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I like how the wood motif makes the room so cozy and homely.

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The Queen room comes with a Queen sized bed and a mini bed that also doubles as a couch. TV and refrigerator are pretty standard, along with the sink and microwave.

The bathroom is just a little awkward though. It has a window by the shower area so you can clearly and openly see, (or watch) whoever is taking a shower, or even doing business. There’s a roll down blind which can cover the glass part of the wall, but it’s controlled from outside the bathroom.

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This is particularly awkward since privacy controls are usually inside the bathrooms instead of outside. Also, when closed, there’s a tiny gap between the blinds and the walls. This tiny open spot may not be too bothersome as one can only see through this if done intentionally. But still, no one likes a “peek-able” bathroom. These would not be an issue to couples, but for friends and colleagues staying, this might just be seriously awkward.

The prices of the minibar are fair. This is swell as typical hotels would usually jack up the prices, but Azumi kept their prices just about convenience store levels.

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This means guests can enjoy the minibar items and not have to walk outside just to avoid paying for an overpriced soda.

THE POOL AREA

The pool area is located by the roof deck. The pool is narrowly stretched, spanning end to end of the building’s edges.

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The greens are courtesy of the fake grass which is a good idea. Beside the pool are futon-like cushions good for lying around and sun bathing. Since the pool sits is by the edge, this gives a great infinity effect. There are no tall buildings close by so you could get a wide clear view of the Alabang cityscape.

THE BREAKFAST

The breakfast is nothing fantastic, but isn’t bad either.

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It’s a really just a simple no-frills buffet just right to get you going for the morning. Nothing to complain or rave about here. Besides, breakfast always tastes good.

OTHER MENTIONS

The Hallways & Elevators

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I like how there are parts of the hallways that are open. The hallways can be a little tight but the openings create a sense of space. Also, it’s always good to have natural light and ventilation. Just to note though, the elevators are really slow as there are only two elevators that service the entire hotel.

Pocket Gardens

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There are pockets gardens by the lower floors. These are open balconies with more of the fake grass. Just like in the pool, the grass may be fake, but it just works.

Parking Area

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I’d also like to make a special mention about their parking area. Unlike most hotels I’ve been to where their parking spaces are normally shoved deep down in the basement, Azumi allots for podium parking. I’ve always hated going down deep basements which are usually poorly lit, hot, claustrophobic, and under-ventilated. Azumi’s podium parking is just none of that.

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My wife and I really appreciated Azumi Boutique Hotel.  It’s reasonably priced, cozy, and convenient. Definitely enjoyed our Christmas here!