Kagurazaka 神楽坂

Kagurazaka 神楽坂

When I mentioned to someone that we’d visited Kagurazaka, they merely asked me ‘why?’. True enough, it isn’t one of the most well-known areas of Tokyo to international tourists, and although located within Shinjuku City, there are more renowned areas to visit, explaining why most people overlook it. There aren’t any grand landmarks, fashion hubs, or world famous sights, and there are also far fewer guest houses or hostels in the area, meaning fewer tourists use it as a hub. But this latter point, for me, was one of the draws, and the small, nostalgic alleyways, plus its history as a Geisha district make it a wonderful place for a pleasant stroll away from the hustle and bustle of typical Tokyo life.

From Koishikawa Korakuen, Kagurazaka was only a fifteen minute walk, and as soon as we hit the main road we darted into the side streets and explore. Taking a step into these yokocho (back alleys) is like taking a step back in time to old Edo (1603 – 1857), with narrow, cobble-stoned streets and traditional, pre-war buildings housing restaurants, tea houses, and residential dwellings. Walking these yokocho, I’m always reminded of how well the Japanese incorporate nature into their lives in the city, with each house we walked past sporting an abundance of verdant plants outside the front facades, peeking through wooden fences, or over the edge of balconies.

We wandered the alleyways for nearly half an hour and barely saw a soul. At one point, we stumbled upon Atami-yu Kaidan, also known as Geisha Alley, due to being the location of geisha and shamisen practice hall, but at midday, it was highly unlikely that we’d spy one.

Kagurazaka was once a prominent entertainment hub located at the edge of Edo castle, with bars, ryotei (luxurious traditional Japanese restaurants), and geisha houses, some of which remain to this day. And while it is known for prolific culinary, its days as a Tokyo’s main entertainment hub are, like the cobbled streets, a thing of the past.

Ryotei would be way beyond our budget, so we decided to have simple lunch in an izakaya. The menu was entirely Japanese, and though we could read some of it, we were not adept at understanding kanji, and relied on the pictures to aid our ordering. Jen ordered a chirashii bowl, and I decided on a bowl of rice and various katsu and tempura, using as much Japanese as we could remember. The waitress seemed to understand.

The man behind the counter fired up the stoves for his first order of the day, and as sizzle of oil and smell of fried batter filled the air, relieved to give our feet a break. We were the only customers in the restaurant, and when our food arrived we ate leisurely, refuelling from all that morning’s walking.

Fifteen minutes later, the wave of Tokyo’s salarymen began to burst through the doors, and we found ourselves in a full restaurant, rubbing elbows with groups of besuited men, who shed their jackets in the humid restaurant, eager to grab a quick bite before returning to the office to fuel Japans well-oiled corporate engine. We stood out like a sore thumb, the only people not in suits, and Jen: the only women (other than the young waitress). When I asked for the bill, I think I asked too formally for the setting, and felt the eyes of the men at the next table on my left as settled the tab.

We returned to the main high street, and were swept along by the current down the gentle slope, stopping here and there to peek into the fashion boutiques and shops selling traditional Japanese cookware and cutlery. Half way down the hill, Jen noticed the flashing lights of an arcade, which drew her inside. Traditional arcades are rarer, and more expensive, back in England, but still thrive in Japan. During my last trip, I spent a fair amount of time (and money) on the game cabinets, excited by the novelty of playing Street Fighter in its most authentic form. Then, of course, their is the wide array of only-in-Japan gaming experiences, such as the mega popular rhythm games, of ones with sleek anime graphics. There are even gambling options, such as Sega-made horse racing sim called StarHorse, a common sight in the back of arcades. CG horse races are broadcast on giant screens that put most bookies to shame, and players sit in large chairs with screens in front of them, checking data and placing bets with digital medals paid for with real cash. It’s a little intimidating: sectioned off, with a darker, more serious atmosphere than the rest of room, which is full of vibrance and J-Pop. The few patrons here at this time sat low in their chairs, some wearing sickness-masks, the scent of smoke on their jackets.

Jen was drawn to the array of crane games – a low-stakes form of gambling – and slipped a few 100 yen coins into the machine with the biggest, cuddliest prizes.

“What will we do if you actually win one of those?”, I asked, reminding her that we’d only brought a couple of carry-on suitcase to Japan.

“We’ll deal with that if it happens. It’s just so cute!

She looked through the glass case with child-like hope and anticipation… which turned to frustration as the claw couldn’t contain the plushie’s rotund and fluffy body. Thank heavens – the thought of having to carry a toy bigger than our bags around with us as we changed cities and hostels would have been more trouble than it’s worth.

We both tried again for some smaller toys – I wanted a Slime from the Dragon Quest series – but we both came away with nothing.

That was perfectly fine. The memories of our pleasant stroll through Kagurazaka were enough.

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Koishikawa Kōrakuen and Rikugien Gardens.

Koishikawa Kōrakuen and Rikugien Gardens.

Koishikawa Kōrakuen 小石川後楽園

We arrived at Koishikawa Kōrakuen fifteen minutes before opening. When we eventually entered, it seemed we were also too early for the bright autumn colours this garden is famous for. The maples, though beginning to turn, with smatterings of fiery colour here and there, remained mostly verdant. Ah, well. Shouganai – can’t be helped. We were here, and the garden was still ridiculously beautiful.

Arriving so early also meant we had the garden mostly to ourselves. Other than a handful of sweet elderly Japanese couples up for an early morning sanpo (stroll), the garden was mainly inhabited by the khaki-clad, wellington-wearing gardeners, who began their early morning duties clearing the pond in front of the Tsuten-kyo bridge. This wooden bridge, coloured bright orange, is one of the scenic highlights of the garden. It stands in stark contrast to the lush greenery, until the peak of autumn when the leaves turn to match its tone. I wished I could have seen it during peak autumn colour.

Originally built in 1629, the early stages of the Edo period, it employs Kaiyu-style (circuit style), with ponds, stones, and manmade hills, along a network of walking routes to established viewpoints centring on the large central pond. It also employs elements of Japanese and Chinese tastes, examples of the latter being the name ‘Kōrakuen’, derived from the Chinese text ‘Gakuyo-ki’ by Fan Zhongyan, and features such as the Engetsu-kyo (Full Moon Bridge), a semi-circular bridge that appears whole when reflected in the water.

Despite being close to the Tokyo Dome, and surrounded by skyscrapers peeking over the canopy, Kōrakuen retains the sense of being a place of peace. It’s an oasis of well-tended nature within a sprawling urban jungle, and I’m always impressed, and a little envious, of how the Japanese manage to fit these islands of nature and tradition into an ever developing metropolis. Kōrakuen made it easy to ignore the outside world.

We enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the grounds, and as we wend our way, the clouds cleared, and the morning sunshine turned what had been a slightly grey and chilly day into one of warmth and colour. In the central island, a heron sat stock-still on a rock, sunning itself. We walked past a group of elderly photographers in fold-out chairs, long lenses aimed at the lone bird, patiently waiting for a shot. Other than a few tourist, most visitors were elderly Japanese enjoying their retirement years. Most everyone else at this time would be holed up at work.

Rikugien 六義園

We visited Rikugien on same day as Koishikawa Kōrakuen and here, too, we had timed our visit too early for the best of the autumn colours. Still, the leaves in Rikugien were a little further along, with a gentle smattering of warm orange amidst the foliage.

It was just past midday, and we found the garden well-populated with visitors; the warmth of the afternoon, and the season, luring people in. On the benches near the entrance, elderly couples sat nibbling on sandwiches and onigiri from their packed-lunch, taking a break from a lovely morning sanpo.

Rikugien is another typical example of an Edo period strolling garden, with a large central pond and a network of paths leading around the landscape, and up to viewing points on man-made hills. Stepping onto its grounds is a step back in time. Rikugien is largely unchanged from days it was founded, having survived disasters, such as the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, and World War II. It stands in the centre of bustling Tokyo as a serene time capsule of traditional beauty.

Photo by @jsevilla

Our tour of the garden took us an hour and a half, including little breaks at viewing points or wooden huts. It was a perfectly peaceful afternoon; I felt I could have happily fallen asleep had I sat in the shade of a tree, despite the garden’s visitors (though, that may have just been jet lag). We hit all the major viewing spots: Fukiage Chaya, where we saw friendly female staff members encouraging camera-wielding tourists in for a drink, Togetsukyo Bridge, an elegant bridge constructed with long stone slabs, and up Fujishiro-toge hill, where you get the premier view of the garden. Afterwards, we retreated to the tea house close to the entrance for matcha tea and a pleasant sit in the shade, amongst the oji-san and oba-san, who were also resting their legs.

I saw more young people out and about than I had at Korakuen earlier in the morning, the time of day and the sunlight bringing out students with free time, and tourists. Many were young couples, enjoying each others’ company in the sunny autumn tranquility. Japanese gardens are definitely romantic places, relaxed and idyllic, ideal for dates, and as we sat, we picked out pairs of lovers and observed them as they strolled along in a world of their own. One couple seemed shy and ill-at-ease, probably newly acquainted, barely getting close with awkward smiles on their faces. Meanwhile, a Chinese couple walked in front of us wearing matching camo-coloured coats, chatting loudly and comfortably, with their arms firmly around each others’ waists.

We, too, were a young couple. Though, after a night of little sleep and a whole morning’s walking, we felt the elderly Japanese we were surrounded by had more get-up-and-go than us. Jen passed me the cup of matcha and asked me to finish it, then we took our leave.

Photo by @jsevilla

I greatly enjoyed visiting Koishikawa Kōrakuen and Rikugien, which are both stunningly beautiful, but I do regret that we visited them on the same day. Looking back, after a number of months have passed, it takes me a little while to mentally separate images and musings from each garden and place them correctly. While they each have their own unique, captivating landmarks, there are also numerous similarities. Both are Edo period gardens of similar size and design. Even their tourist leaflets have identical designs, due to them both being among the group of nine gardens overseen by the Tokyo Metropolitan Park Association. II’d happily visit these gardens again, but it would definitely be on different days, and later in November, for the best of the koyo (autumn colour).

Thankfully, the autumn leaves for the rest of the trip did not disappoint.

Senso-ji 金龍山浅草寺: 6 P.M vs 6 A.M

Senso-ji 金龍山浅草寺: 6 P.M vs 6 A.M

6 p.m

We arrived at twilight. Travelling the scenic route, we had strolled the river path alongside the Sumida, encountering only joggers and dog walkers, to the soundtrack of gentle waves sloshing against the banks. As we approached Senso-ji, the dull roar of traffic and tourist chatter began to swell. On either side of Kaminarimon street, rickshaw drivers wearing straw hats and winning smiles touted for business among throngs of jabbering visitors waiting for the light to change. They were largely ignored.

We crossed the road to Kaminarimon Gate, the traditional entrance to the temple grounds. This first gate of Senso-ji houses statues of Fujin-sama and Raijin-sama, the deities of wind and thunder, either side of a large red lantern. Sightseers crowded the pavement, half of them waiting to cross, the other half snap, snap, snapping away on phones and cameras. We ducked and weaved past the outstretched arms of the selfie-takers, under and around lenses, and slid through the crowd onto Nakamise dori, where we joined the current flowing towards the temple. Nakamise is a traditional shopping street that runs over two hundred metres, with smalls shops and stalls either side and down the centre, many open-face, with red paper lanterns hung outside. For centuries, the shops have sold street food, snacks and souvenirs to tourists, with many shops being run by the same family for generations. I can’t imagine thier ancestors could have predicted just how many tourists their descendents would end up catering for.

As we bustled along, I gave up any idea of having a closer look at their wares; though the alluring scents of freshly fried karaage, comforting oden, and sweet manju were enticing after nothing but airplane food all day, the shop fronts were packed with people, and the flow of pedestrian traffic would mean trying to move against the current, or attempting to burst through it.

Oh, well. It was our first day. There’d be plenty of time for shopping.

We reached the end of Nakamise and the road opened up in front of the Hozomon, Senso-ji’s huge sanmon gate, and for a few seconds, we stood to admire its eminance. The golden lights and vivid red paint gave it a welcoming warmth against the faded blue of dusk. Its form reminded me of the enormous sanmon gates of Chion-in and Nenzen-ji in Kyoto, which I had visited four years prior. These large wooden structures have two tiers, traditionally tiled roofs that tilt up at the corners, and are set on the grounds of buddhist temples. They remind me more of a small, stately house than a gate, grand and beautiful. However, while the Kyoto structures are centuries old, the Hozomon gate of Senso-ji is a recent reconstruction (many traditional buildings in Tokyo are, due to the destruction of original structures in WW2), and on closer inspection this becomes apparent: the paint and tiles look too clean. Still, it’s impressive nonetheless, and gazing upon it, I can’t help but imagine what life was like on this spot centuries ago.

It only lasted a second. A group of tourists brushed past me, and I was brought back to the present. Sightseers milled to and fro. In front of the gate, a European woman in a red cat-eared hat and purple dress, posed for portraits while holding flowers. Hoping to find somewhere more secluded, Jen and I decided to split up to take our own photos.

We reconvened inside the temple grounds. At the souvenir stands, a group of young women gathered to draw o-mikuji lots. Behind them, a group of elderly tourists, their interest clearly peaked by their colourful kimonos, began snapping a string of photos of them on their smartphones, not even trying to conceal the fact when the women turned to see cameras in their faces. In their traditional attire, they had become a tourist attraction within a tourist attraction, and clearly uneasy, shuffled off as quickly as they could, while the men checked their captures, smiles on their faces.

In the centre of the courtyard, a giant earthenware basin, a jokoro, stood smouldering from sticks of sweetly-bitter incense left by worshippers. This smoke is said to purify the body and relieve pain, and many worshippers waft it over their heads, hoping to heal mind and body. Unused to incense, I found the smell over powering, which got me wondering: if the incense gave me a headache, would wafting the smoke over me take it away?

The next stage is to cleanse your hands in the chozuyai – purification area – an ornamental fountain of a samurai, with ladles used to wash hands, a ritual which follows it’s own particular process: right hand, left hand, right again, but bringing it to your mouth, then finally tipping the ladle back and washing the handle with the remaining water. It had been years since I’d gone through these motions, and Jen had never practiced it before, so we both washed our hands slowly and deliberately, checking on those around us to see whether we were doing it correctly. Many others around the fountain were also international visitors with as much, or less, of an idea of what to do as we did, and it was one of the few cases where I’m happier to be surrounded by tourists: you stand out less if you do something wrong if other people are doing it wrong as well.

We lined up, threw some spare yen into the wooden offering box, bowed our heads and brought our hands together in prayer, then decided head off, our stomachs empty, and jet lag dragging us down.

6 a.m

There is a positive side to Jet lag. Jen and I found ourselves awaking around 5:30 a.m, and with falling back to sleep a distant possibility, we dragged ourselves out of bed and ventured to Senso-ji once more.

And what a difference an early morning makes!

We arrived at around 6:30 a.m to find Nakamise all but deserted, the early morning autumn weather as crisp as the leaves were turning. Each shop was shuttered, and they didn’t look like they’d be lifted any time soon. Here and there, a salaryman, rushing to work with briefcase in hand, would pass through. Everything seemed serene compared to the night before, the oppressive air of swarming visitors chill and cleansed. Blessed with space and peace, we ambled along, casually inspecting the beautiful street art on the shops’ shutters, the dull roar of tourists from the previous evening replaced by birdsong or the ticking of bicycle wheels pushed along by an oji-san out for early morning exercise.

Through the Hozomon Gate, a few fellow early-risers leisurely milled around, snapping a photo here and there, and admiring the architecture. We did the same. A European man wearing athletic garb, and no shirt, for some reason, seemed to be filming a vlog. He consulted with the man recording him about the previous take, then retreated to his mark and running from the incense burner to the camera began addressing it: “Hello, guys. Today we are at the Senso-ji…”

I wasn’t interested enough to listen beyond that (put a shirt on!).

Inside the Hondo (main temple), a chorus of monks had begun chanting their early morning sutras to the beat of a drum inside a golden chamber. Though their words seemed to make no sense, they brought me peace. Religon in a nutshell. Through the large windows we could see them, bald and draped in brown robes, sat cross-legged on the floor. Sporadically, more monks entered and joined in, adding their voices to the deep, relaxing chorus.

It was nearly 7 a.m, and the first trickles of Tokyo’s wave of commuting salary men began appear. Plastic briefcase in hand, they marched in with purpose up to the offering box to pray, probably for the success of their companies in the days ahead, then turned on their heel and left out of the opposite doorway, back to beating the pavement to work. At one point, space around the offering box was tight, but people continued to approach, with some casually tossing their coins in from five feet away, over people’s shoulders, or from the side; true Senso-ji locals. Inspired, I followed suit, like I’d been doing this for years, and fortunately my yen found its way into the box. Jen decided to go closer to carefully drop hers in. We bowed and prayed. Not much of a religious person, I kept mine simple: wishing for a good journey in Japan and a safe flight home (I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of flying, as such, I just don’t completely trust airplanes).

With space and daylight, we had time to step back, look up, and appreciate the traditional artwork on the ceiling depicting women and dragons, rendered with beautiful curves and colours. I also draw 0-mikuji to see what our future might have in store for me. Shaking a cylindrical tin until a stick bearing a number emerges, you then find the corresponding drawer to obtain your fortune. I drew number 13, which ironically turned out to be ‘BEST FORTUNE’ – Western superstitions need not apply here. It declared:

“Your wishes will be realised.”
“A sick person will recover.”
“The lost article will be found.”
“The person you are waiting for will come.”
“Building a new house and removal are good.”
“It is good to make a trip in spring and summer.”
“Marriage and employment are all good.”

Good to know.

We exited from the left door into the small, traditional Japanese garden: something I hadn’t even realised existed in the darkness and commotion of the evening before. In the morning light, despite the clouded sky, it looked verdant and serene. In the pond, under a sprinkling of fallen yellow gingko leaves, dozens of colourful Koi swam lazily, mouths agape, looking for food. The gentle splashes of the ornamental waterfall gradually replaced the chorus of monks, who were winding down their morning ritual. When they had finished, small groups of monks, chatting happily, retreated to the small wooden buildings in the temple grounds. On a bridge, the temple groundsman picked his weapon of choice from a tin cart and began sweeping.

I stood on the bridge, and as I savoured the crisp morning air, I once again mentally thanked jet lag for forcing us out of bed and allowing us to see Senso-ji, both literally and figuratively, in a new light. In the course of twelve hours, we saw both distinct facets of life at the temple: one of congestion, but also revelry, where one can delight in the tastes and smells, and also one of calm meditation and serenity, where we witnessed locals going about their day, the temple a place of worship, not a tourist destination. Which is the ‘real’ Senso-ji? Both. Though, I know which we preferred.

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Second Time in Japan, First Time in Tokyo. 東京は初めてです、日本は2回目です。

Second Time in Japan, First Time in Tokyo. 東京は初めてです、日本は2回目です。

I half-expected Tokyo to hit me like a tsunami. I stared sleepily from the coach window and imagined myself engulfed by a wall of sky-high glass buildings as soon as we hit city limits, with armies of besuited salarymen and women cascading over hectic cross-walks, under bright neon lights, with Tokyo Skytree in the background, or even an ancient shrine or giant robot for good measure. These were the images drilled into me by movies and social media. In reality, the city trickled into view, with the small, rural homes streaming past the window increasing in size and frequency, before transforming into boxy factories and apartment blocks on the city outskirts. The sky, a seamless, muted grey, threatened drizzle, but as we left Chiba prefecture and reached the bay, the sun pierced through the clouds and my jet-lagged musings faded as Tokyo swelled before me. 

In the seat in front of me, my partner napped. We were two of only five passengers on a coach from Narita airport bound for JR Osaki Station, and, blessed with space, I took the seat behind her so we could both gaze out the window. It seemed like her jet lag had got the better of her, however, and she dozed peacefully until I awoke her as we entered Odaiba.

Image by @jsevilla

It was her first time in Japan, but my second. Four years prior, I had taken a three week trip during the spring, flying first into Fukuoka, then visiting Kyoto and Kitakyushu, before returning to Fukuoka to head home. Traveling largely on my own, and in cities (other than Kyoto) that are less frequently visited by tourists, I felt closer to day-to-day Japanese life, away from the fast pace of the country’s capital and hordes of tourists. At the time, I felt I couldn’t afford Tokyo; I knew a few people in Kitakyushu, and with someone to put me up, I opted to spend half of my stay there. Some people questioned my plans, but looking back, I don’t regret it. Unburdened by my lack of local knowledge, and with far fewer known tourist spots, I made discoveries of my own, and at my own slow pace. I enjoyed the views out of the monorail, walked under sakura (cherry blossoms) along the river, found interesting shops, and wasted money playing on gachapon machines and games in the arcades. I had nothing but time. 

Prior to that trip I’d learned Japanese for six months. I mainly used it when in shops and restaurants, and at times tried my best, but overall, I shied away from speaking to anyone for fear stumbling over my words and revealing myself a foreigner ignorant to the language, as I did, to giggles, in a Kitakyushu KFC. That’s the thing with language, you need to use it or lose it. In the end, the most Japanese I spoke was on the plane back to England, sitting next to an elderly couple who made small talk, gave me boiled sweets, and were extremely gracious when I had to shuffle out from the window seat to use the bathroom. I regret not trying harder…

This time would be different. Prior to this trip, together with my partner, Jen, I’d learned Japanese again for six months, and the basics I’d learned for my last trip provided the building blocks for real progress. I was confident I could get by without making a fool of myself, and even if I did, it wouldn’t matter because I’d try. It’s more than most visitors do.

As our coach rolled over Rainbow bridge, I opened my jisho (dictionary), and began some last minute revision.

Image by @jsevilla

It wasn’t until I spied the red and white of Tokyo Tower that it truly hit home that we were in Tokyo. It materialised like a mirage, from between blocks of silver skyscrapers, before retreating behind the buildings. But I’d seen it. This symbol of the city was like a pin a map confirming our destination. We’re here.

I had my eyes trained out the window; it peeked out again. And as our coach descended from Rainbow Bridge into the city, this waypoint grew in closer and closer until it really towered over us, despite being a few blocks away.

I nudged Jen. Look, there it is. She’d finally woken up.

We both snapped photos out of the window, our first photos of the trip, and as Tokyo Tower disappeared from view for the final time, and our coach turned in the direction of JR OSaki, I made a mental promise to see the tower properly at some point on our trip.

It’s a promise I’d end up breaking, though. There was just too much to do…

 

 

The Travelogue: Albay ATV Adventure

The Travelogue: Albay ATV Adventure

My cousin suggested that Jen and I should quad-bike around Mount Mayon, and I, for one, thought this was a bloody brilliant idea. I was appreciating how much effort she was putting in to take us on adventures. Normally, when traveling with my family, the days can be a little monotonous, with my mother, who is no longer used to the Filipino heat, preferring to retreat to the comfort of an air-conditioned room or shopping mall. I’ve spent the vast majority of my life in England, so I often find her lack of adventure frustrating when we return to the land we were born in. This time, though, she seemed intrigued by my cousin’s suggestion.

The road that leads to Cagsawa Ruins is lined on one side by local companies offering ATV experiences. We scanned the row, and came to one that seemed reasonably priced, not that it mattered much, as as soon as we sat down in the lobby, my relatives began negotiating a ‘tawad‘ (discount).  

Negotiations went on for a good five minutes, my mother and Tita putting on their most amiable, friendly voices, determined to lower the price of 600 pesos per person. “Please, Kuyaaaa”, they pleaded, flashing a smile.

The young man taking the brunt of their bargaining held out for as long as he could, but in the end let the Titas have they’re way: it was agreed that four of our group ride out for 400 pesos (£6) per person, rather than just Jen and I paying the asking price of 600. 

Our two guides, one with curly hair tied back in a ponytail (who reminded me a little of Jireh Lim), the other shorter and wearing a black rash vest, went over the safety procedures with us and showed us how to operate our machines. Tita L, who wouldn’t be venturing out, put on a helmet and borrowed my mother’s quad-bike to take some quick photos ‘sa Pacebook‘, as per usual. 

“They won’t know I didn’t go’, she joked. 

Both the weather and time of day were perfect, with the grass tinged gold by the descending sun and the only cloud in the sky emanating from the crater of Mayon. We descended onto a well-travelled dirt trail, passing a wooden shelter here and a carabao there, solitary signs of life in a wide-open plain of fields and palms. I hadn’t been on a quad-bike since I was a child, and the gentle breeze as we drove refreshed me on what had been a tiring and humid day, as did the sense of adventure that comes with being in control of a vehicle. All of us were enjoying ourselves, including and especially my mother.

The two guides borrowed our phones. As one lead, the other zoomed ahead, waiting in key spots to capture photos of us as we passed in front of Mayon or forded the river and small streams. 

They were experts on the trail, and knew which angles looked good, so I was impressed with the photos they snapped (all photos used in this post, besides the title image, were taken by them). At points, we would stop to take group shots, but while they took pictures of the other three posing in front of Mayon, I grabbed my camera from my bag to take a few shots of my own. We were well into golden hour, and I couldn’t miss the chance to photograph this landscape on the rare occasion I was able to be part of it.

As the sun began to set, the guides took us along a stream. The large, jagged rocks underneath the current bounced us around and required more concentration to manoeuvre than the relatively smooth path we’d been taking. At times, one of us would get stuck, wheels flailing, and require the guides’ help to get moving again. 

When we reached an area with two diggers, they signalled it was time to turn around and head back to base. I was surprised to find the construction machines all the way out there, given that we’d seen sparse evidence of any human activity for the last few kilometres, barring traditionally made kubo, thatched-roof shelters used by farmers when out in the fields, and a trike. All were unmanned. On a nearby mound of dirt, a pack of dogs lay lazily, eyeing us as our noisy procession passed by.

Overall,  the ATV adventure was a wonderful experience. I loved being able to venture out into the countryside with the ever impressive silhouette of Mayon dominating the horizon. Even my unadventurous mother was exhilarated by the ride. Having recently passed her driving test back in the U.K, she had seemed eager to get behind the wheel, and this experience seemed to scratch that itch.

The two guides were very helpful, friendly, and energetic the entire time. And after we had parked up and thanked them, I commented to Jen that I felt a little guilty my relatives had manage to get a tawad,  as “they were worth the full amount.” 

“If your friends or relatives visit Legaspi, remember to recommend us”, one of the guides told us. Both Jen and I agreed we would.

So, if you’re in Legaspi, I would wholeheartedly recommend checking these guys out.
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(Disclaimer: This post is being written a year and a half late (I reeeally need to catch up with this travelogue). 

The Travelogue: Kawa-Kawa Hill

The Travelogue: Kawa-Kawa Hill

It had only been ten minutes since alighting from the Jeepney, and I was already soaked with sweat. Tita L joked that this was our ‘penitensya‘, as we trekked under the baking, unrelenting sun up the long uphill path through the forest to the peak of Kawa-Kawa Hill.

Penitensya, or feeling regret or sorrow for sins or offenses, often includes self-inflicted suffering to mimic Christ’s experience in his last days. It is a known practice in certain, mostly rural,  parts of the Philippines during Holy Week, and for those who participate, it is a sign of their deep devotion to God. These devotees will be voluntarily flogged in the street, their backs covered in welts and blood, bound and bagged, and some, who want the most authentic Jesus Christ experience, are crucified, nails and all (though this is far rarer). This ritual is even visited by tourists.

Tita L’s off-hand joke seemed to gain unexpected relevance as we ascended. Upon turning a corner I found a life-size statue of Christ, kneeling in prayer. Ten minutes later, a statue of Christ and his desciples. I had known nothing of Kawa-Kawa before we came here, but now I was starting to get the gist: situated along the hill and in the park proper stood life-size statues depicting scenes from story of Easter (the statue of the Last Supper at the base of the hill should have tipped me off). In all, there are fourteen Stations of the Cross, and the trail encourages visitors to see them all.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter what felt like a mini-pilgrimage in near 40-degree heat, we finally reached the top and collapsed onto the wooden benches in the shade. We’d made it to a rest stop. To our left, a woman sat at a refreshment stand, fanning herself while checking her phone. The Titas bought us some cold drinks to help us recuperate, while a hen and its chicks pecked around near our feet. In front of us, a large, pink heart had been erected for couple photo-ops, or possibly for wedding photos for those who tie the knot in the church that was to open in the near future.

Kawa-kawa is a hill without a hilltop. As I looked down into the valley, I felt as if I were looking into a volcanic crater, its concave shape and the circularity of its rim reminding me a bowl. Indeed, Kawa means ‘cauldron’ in the local dialect. Down in the valley, a grove of sunflowers were in bloom. Moving specs in the distance hinted that other people were out there, but from where we sat, everything was perfectly serene, and our group sat in solitude, chatting away, while Tita L and one of my relatives took photos of themselves ‘sa Pacebook‘. This was my first time I had expereinced such rolling greenery while in the Philippines. I knew it was out there, of course, but it had just appeared as an image flashing past a bus window, and despite the stifling humidity, the air sure tasted fresher and sweeter here.

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There were eight more Stations of the Cross to find. While the Titas stayed put under the shade, Jen, my cousins, and I, ventured along the path that ran around the valley’s rim. The palms along the edge of the path provided us with a little shade, but I can’t blame the Titas for staying put in the cool. We came to what appeared to be an indoor viewing platform, which provided us with the sundrenched vistas beyond Kawa-Kawa Hill, looking further into the countryside towards Mt. Masaraga, which I mistook for Mayon, as it was the only natural local landmark I was aware of.

The final station, at the hill’s highest point, across the valley from where we entered, depicts Christ on the Cross, and can be approached from three directions, depending on which path you choose. For me, approaching from the steep steps leading to the peak, rather than circling around on the path, provides the most powerful image of the trail, with the viewer looking up at the emotional scene through the frame of the palms.

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Admittedly, I am not a religious person. Whenever I return to the Philippines, I feel slightly out of place in ‘the most Christian country in Asia’, where over eighty percent of the population considers themselves Catholic, and over ninety are Christian in some form. Still, I can appreciate the comfort it brings people, and as I noticed my cousin’s gaze linger on the statues at each station a while longer than mine, I could see how the trail at Kawa-Kawa could be a spiritual journey for those who made the trip here, especially at the time of our visit, just a few days removed from Holy Week.

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The Travelogue: Returning to Legaspi, Bigg’s Diner, & Cagsawa Ruins

The Travelogue: Returning to Legaspi, Bigg’s Diner, & Cagsawa Ruins

After twelve hours of bumpy roads and sporadic sleep, we were nearly, finally, in Legaspi. I awoke at around 8 a.m to see the eminence of Mayon volcano out of the left-side window, the tip of its perfect cone breaking through low clouds like an arrow to the sky, giving me the true scale of it’s grandeur. I had been years since I’d seen this sight.

We were met at the bus station by my cousin, before eating breakfast at Jollibee and retiring to my tita’s house for a siesta. After trying to catch up on sleep the bus journey had stolen from us, we head out.

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Jen and I were to check into a hotel, Third and Sean’s Place, as my mother did not think my tita’s house could accomodate so many guests. It was an ancestral home that the owners had refurbished into guest house, and the renovation seemed to still be ongoing as construction workers greeted us when we alighted from our trikes. There was no one at reception, but we found the owner in the dining room.

“You must be Jen,” she said, upon our entrance.

She seemed a well-organised lola, and invited Jen, myself, and my relatives to sit at a large dining table made of wood and glass, expansive enough to seat twelve people, which stood steadfast in the centre of the spacious room. Around the room were sets of hardwood tables and chairs, and large vases on plinths; I made sure to not to go too near them, incase I turned around and my backpack knocked one to the ground. Above us hung a chandelier of gold and glass, and behind the bannister on the first floor landing, the woman’s wedding dress hung on a faceless mannequin, observing the surroundings below. A portrait of Christ hung in the atrium to our room.

She served us drinks, while asking about our travel plans and telling us the story of her mansion: her husband’s family had owned it for over sixty years, which surprised me, as I expected it to be older, given what I assumed was a colonial appearance. It had only been a hotel for two years, but she seemed very happy with how things had been going.

“The ratings on the website [Booking.com] are always so high”, she confessed to us with a smile. “We’re rated higher than the luxury hotels. It makes me very happy, and I hope it will last.”

It was a ‘humble-brag’ if ever there was one, but what she said was true; I had chosen this place for it’s high rating and very reasonable price. Plus, it was lovely to be greeted so personally by a genuine human being, and not be bombarded with robotic voices calling out ‘Hi, sir, hi ma’am!’ by insincere hotel clerks, like when we stayed at a hotel in Iloilo.

When learning that one of my titas lived in Legaspi, she asked my relatives her surname, and upon hearing it determined that it sounded very familiar.

We briefly left the conversation to unpack in our room, and when we returned it had been decided by our host that she was indeed distantly related to us via a cousin’s marriage to someone on my tita’s husband’s side, or something or other…

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After we’d all joined my cousin, P, in Ayala Mall, who had been waiting patiently without a phone to contact him on, I took Jen in search of Bigg’s Diner. Bigg’s is a chain exclusive to Bicol, and one of my favourite things about the region (or it was, when I used to eat meat). Their locations take inspiration from 1950’s American diners – though, the styling of the Ayala Mall branch seemed distinctly modern – with a menu consisting of classic burger-and-fries offerings, as well as some typical Filipino fare and Bicol specialities, at a quality far exceeding the usual fast food joints, and for a resonable price. We’d end up eating here every day we were in Legaspi, and I would definitely recommend it to those who are visiting Legaspi and the Bicol region. As I look back now, even as a vegetarian, I can’t help but slightly miss those succulent, juciy cheese burgers and golden-coated slabs of fried chicken, just a little…

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As we alighted from a taxi at Cagsawa Ruins, I was struck by how busy it was. I had seen images of it before, from post cards and Youtube videos, and must admit I had been fooled by them, as I’d assumed the ruins would be quiet and void of people. How foolish I had been, to think that there would be no tourists at this tourist spot.

The church ruins are all that remain of the former town of Cagsawa, as on 1st February 1814, the violent eruption of Mayon Volcano, it’s strongest to this day, destroyed the town in deadly lahars and pyroclastic clouds, killing thousands of inhabitants. Today, Mayon is still very much active, and erupts regularly. Despite knowing this, I can’t help but gaze at Mayon with wide-eyed wonder. As a child in school, I enjoyed studying volcanos in geography class; learning about immense destructive power and decimated landscapes will always add some spice to lessons mainly focussing on tectonic formations and igneous rock, so whenever Mayon is visible, my eyes are drawn to it. On clear days, white smoke bellows out, and the slopes of it’s perfect cone are verdant, almost inviting. It is a symbol of the Philippines, appearing on the 100 peso bill, and I am proud my family has roots in region it stands.

“She’s hiding,” said my cousin, as we regarded the immense mountain in the distance sitting behind a silk-like evening haze. “Hopefully you will get to see her on a clear day.”

We wandered around the ruins. The belfry is all that stands of the former church where people, unsuccessfully, took shelter from the volcano in 1814. In the succeeding years, the church’s facade fell apart or succumbed to vegetation, leaving the belfry to stand alone. Like Mayon, it transcends  the landscape, and viewing them together, you get a sense of their kinship, of their tragic shared history.

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We left as evening drew in. I turned back to view the site one last time. At a statue of Jesus, a woman stood stock still, one arm outstretched, possibly in prayer. This vigil seemed to foreshadow the trail of thirteen statues I would witness the following day…
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