The Philippines (2). Street Fiesta, the Joy of Local Food and the Mighty Pinatubo

After our adventure in Sagada, we headed to Mount Pinatubo, the active volcano that erupted in 1991 leaving behind a moon-like landscape.

We decided to stop on our way in Baguio, nicknamed “the summer capital of the Philippines”, at a halfway distance between Sagada and Santa Juliana, the last big village before the trek to the volcano.

Despite its promising nickname and being surrounded by mountains, Baguio is not what I‘d call a beautiful city. It’s busy and crowded, a sort of smaller Manila. I disliked it at the beginning, but then we discovered a nice place called the Garden in the Sky, in the Tam-awan Village. It is a small village of the original natives of Baguio, preserving a few of the Ifugao traditional houses. The huts are functional and can be rented out for the overnight stay.

Philippines, Pinatubo

In the evening we took a walk through the city and we found by chance a street festival, a sort of popular fiesta with lots of people swarming by the narrow streets. We ate some delicious local dish at a food stall and had the loveliest dessert ever: puto bumbong, a purple-colored sticky rice cake shaped in banana leaf and flavored with sugar, fresh grated coconuts and butter. Mmm, so yummy!

Philippines, Pinatubo

The next morning, we continued our way and after changing one bus and a crowded jeepney we arrived in Santa Juliana.  The village is the kick-off of the trek to the volcano’s crater. We spent the night at BS Farmhouse, a nice and cozy farm ran by a lovely family. It’s a bit difficult to find, you need to notice a faded board on the left side of the road, just at the entrance of Santa Juliana. We wouldn’t have spotted it ever if not for the people in the Tourism Office who were nice enough to show us the way.

The next day we got up at 5 a.m. and after a simple but delicious breakfast (mango’s, rice and eggs) we headed to the local Tourism Office to meet the jeep that would take us closer to Pinatubo’s crater.

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We skipped the local tours as we thought their offer was kind of expensive (about 3,400 php/person for a group of 2) and instead we booked the 4X4 jeep with the local Tourism Office.  We were lucky to find 3 more tourists willing to make the same trip and share the costs. We ended up paying about 1,500 php/person.

The trek to Pinatubo looks like a war zone. Driving through the Crow Valley, with its bumpy roads, ash fields, dead trees and rocky rivers is quite an experience. Everywhere you look, you can see the traces of the lava that came down to the valley and destroyed pretty everything on its way. Actually right after the eruption, the area was hit by a typhoon, which generated an enormous amount of a mudflow (water mixed with ash deposits and dust) that flooded through the valleys of the mountain. As a result, the mountains had some dramatic patterns, made by the merciless burning lava biting through the rock. Just like a pair of scissors cuts through the paper.

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The jeep takes you up to a certain point. From there, you need to walk up to the crater, under the scorching heat. On the way we stopped at an Aeta Village, inhabited by one of the oldest indigenous tribes in the Philippines. The Aetas had lived for hundreds of years in this area, but the eruption was devastating to them.

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The trek to the crater lake takes about 20 minutes and it’s pretty easy. Once you are there you get to enjoy a serene landscape, dominated by the blue waters of the lake. The complete silence and relaxing in the warm, clear waters make this experience unforgettable.

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The Philippines (1). Hanging Coffins, Cave Connection and Dreams of a Better Life

His name is  Novi. He greets us with a generous smile and welcomes us to this country. Sagada, The Philippines.

We had just arrived, after a whole night spent in a shabby bus driving us from Manila to Banaue. It was only our first day in the Philippines and we already started to feel the adventure, crammed in the back of an overloaded bus, among dozens of tourists and locals. In Banaue we took some time to admire the famous rice terraces in the crisp morning light. An almost otherworldly view.

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We arrived in Sagada after a two hour ride on the roof of a colorful jeepney, the whole journey trying to find a sweet spot between backpacks, building materials, sacks of rice and other adventurous tourists and locals.

cave connection sagada

We meet Novi in front of the Tourism Office. He is our guide for what will soon be our greatest adventure in the Philippines: a 2,500 feet and three hour long underground journey between Lumiang and Sumaguing Caves.

At the cave entrance we linger for a while to look at the wooden coffins that are hanging on the walls. It is an ancient funeral custom seen in different parts of Southeast Asia. During this time, Novi gets ready for the descent, lighting the kerosene lamp that will guide us through the blackness.

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At the beginning it’s not that bad. We get used to the slippery rocks quite quickly and we advance with confidence. But very soon the whole picture changes completely: to go futher, we need to squeeze through narrow passages, us ropes to rappel downwards, slide on rock and even use Novi as a ladder in order to get down.

But our guide is calm and keeps joking. He makes sure that the light from his kerosene lamp always points towards us, making us feel a bit safer through the overwhelming darkness. Novi knows his way well and he is sure of every move he makes. He shows us the way down impossibly tiny passages, which we hardly believe we can squeeze through (but actually pull it off) and he double checks the rappel ropes.

By now we became less and less tense, we laugh more at Novi’s jokes and we start telling stories from back home. He lives in a small village near Sagada, but he comes here whenever the Tourism Office needs him as a guide. The money he gains is enough to cover his family’s basic needs, but he dreams of a better life. He asks us about Romania, he wants to know if he could get a job there. I’m a bit surprised by his question. I never considered my country to be a place where people come searching for a better life. Actually a lot of Romanians are leaving their country precisely for that reason. Novi says that in the Philippines there aren’t too many job opportunities, so he’ll go anywhere he can find better employment. He’s determined to try no matter what. Maybe going to Hong Kong or richer countries near the Philippines could be a better idea.

As we talk, we continue sliding further down into the cave and admiring the strange rock formation around us. Novi leads us to a small pool and asks us if we want to swim in it. He places the lamp in front of us, so that we can see the rocks surrounding the underground water. After a moment’s hesitation, we jump in and instanly feel the icy water trying to swallow us. It is not too deep but it’s freezing cold.

Surprisingly, when we get out of the water, we feel warm. We put our clothes on quickly and continue exploring.  Shortly after, we hear other voices and see more kerosene lights flickering up on the rocks. We just reached at the end of the cave, a more touristy part of the circuit. We look around to see the different formations Novi is pointing out to us: a stone frog, a chocolate cake, a queen and a king, lions, huge curtains.

As we climb out of the cave, we feel a bit sad that it’s over. What felt like a great adventure will now become only a memory. We are finally out and exchange a few more words with Novi, thanking him for this wonderful experience. He invites us to his village, 4 km away. But it’s a long way and we are tired. It’s been a tough day, but loads of fun and good memories.

cave connection sagada

Not to miss in Sagada:

  • Eat dinner @ Salt&Pepper, they have a delicious food and cozy atmosphere
  • Grab a delicious pie @Lemon Pie, once you finished the exhausting cave connection; it’s a wonderful little coffee-shop ran by a family. We enjoyed mostly the egg pie, though the lemon one is pretty ok as well. When we got there, it seemed like all the family gathered together to serve us with a slice of their delicious pie :);
  • Start your morning with an amazing breakfast @ Yoghurt House, and try the fruit&yoghurt mix, it’s made with fresh seasonal fruit and the mango is a.m.a.z.i.n.g!

Cuteness Overload at Owl Cafe

As the cat cafes are aready passé in Japan :)) there’s this new thing in town : the owl cafe. Actually, it’s not even that new as the owl trend has started to pick up last year.

It sounds a bit unsane, I know. So today I went to Owl Family cafe in Osaka, and it was unbelievably cute. People don’t usually hang out with owls, so that makes the whole experience so unique, I guess.

It was pretty simple: I stopped by the cafe and registered on a list (I had to wait for one and a half hour, as places were already booked). There’s a maximum of 12-15 people entering every hour (from 11-22:00). Too many people would scare the owls.

At the scheduled time, I entered the cafe and sat down together with the other customers. I had to order something (there’s a minimum order: soda for 1,000 yen or alcohol for 1,200 yen). While we sipped our drinks, a worker explained some things about the owls and how to behave with them. It was  in Japanese, so I didn’t understand much, but there was also an English leaflet telling you the basics: you musn’t touch the owls on the belly, legs, neck. You can pat them on the head with the back of your fingers, and put them on your arm, head and shoulders. Oh, and if they fall from your arm and turn with their head upside down, don’t freak out, call the staff :).

Once the explanations finished, you have 50 minutes of great time with the cute owls.

Below, the unusual meeting, in pictures:

This fluffy one was the first one I got to put on my arm and pat. Sooooo flufffy!

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These ladies were kind of sleepy:

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And she was one of my favorites (that’s quite a personality you got there!)

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The white one, when not asleep turned out to be quite a performer.

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And more playing and patting, please :).

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It was fun, it was strange and lovely and really OSSUM! :). Would do it again, for sure.

PS: I know there might be some concerns regarding the animals, of how well treated are they, etc. I’m not an expert, I know, but the owls seemed pretty well taken care of, and tamed and happy.

One of Japan’s Three Most Beautiful Gardens

There are still a lot of things still clinging on my must-see list in Japan. The three most famous gardens in Japan, Kenroku-en (Kanzawa), Koraku-en (Okayama) and Kairaku-en (Mito), are some of them.

We visited the garden in Okayama during the cherry blossom and it was indeed beautiful. We were impressed by its open space, the perfect alignment of plants, trees, hills, streams and ponds.

One of Japan's Three Most Beautiful Gardens

Koraku-en garden in Okayama

So, this weekend Kenroku-en in Kanazwa was the next victim on the list. Kenroku-en means “the garden combining six characteristics for an ideal garden: spaciousness, serenity, venerability, scenic views, subtle design, and coolness”. It’s kind of difficult for a garden to have all these six attributes altogether, but somehow Kanazawa has all of them.

With clear ponds, beautiful flowers (I adore irises), hills and bridges dotting the green space, Kenroku-en looks indeed like a fairy tale, something not to be missed if you are in Japan. It’s a bit far and expensive to get there (3 hours train ride from Kyoto ~about $70 one way; or the cheaper option is the bus for half the price, 4 hours ride), but it’s worth the effort.

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One of Japan's Three Most Beautiful Gardens, Koraku-en garden, must see gardens Japan, best gardens Japan

Kotoji lantern, the symbol of Kanazawa

Besides the beautiful garden, Kanazawa has other interesting spots as well:

  • The city’s personalized manhole cover – I was very happy to find it! Since I found out about the existence of such art pieces in Japan, I’ve been a bit obsessed with spotting them :).

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  • Cute houses next to some interesting Gaudi style buildings

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  • Some modern art pieces

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  • One of the most beautiful train stations I’ve seen

One of Japan's Three Most Beautiful Gard

  • Delicious orange juice, straight from the orange itself :) ( found at the Omicho market, Kanazawa’s largest fresh fruit market)

One of Japan's Three Most Beautiful Gard

  • Traditional houses in the Samurai district and the Geisha district, and of course traditional weddings in the temples;

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  • And the most delicious udon I ate so far in Japan, with home made noodles, small mushrooms and….edible gold leafs sprinkled on top. Amazing taste, I’m sure the tiny gold leafs played their role in that :).  (These gold leafs are an important part of Kanazawa’s arts and crafts, the city being the main producer. The gold that covers Kinkakuji temple in Kyoto comes from Kanazawa. People usethe gold flakes in food because of their belief that is good for health and vitality). 

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Me on a Sunny Day

I leave

My coat

My books

My lipstick

My reading glasses

Out on the clothes line,

And I take my bike out for a date.

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