Thursday, October 28, 2010

Food for thought -- er, for pets



Yesterday was an uncharacteristically rainy day in Tokyo so off we went with our resident toddler to spend the day in a shopping mall that would take us in the car from the basement parking of my house to the basement parking of the shopping center.

As with all upscale shopping malls in Tokyo these days, a significant portion of retail space is devoted to pets and their accessories and services. It's all part of the overall trend in Japan towards more pets and less kids.

Rent-a-dog for a morning

When I reached the shopping mall, the first store I espied was a pet store, of course, and a rather fancy one. There was a big sign offering dogs for rent for 1000 yen for 30 minutes or 2000 yen for 60 minutes. You got a choice of a dog, a little care bag filled with doggie treats and the de riguer plastic bag and scoop shovel in case your darling dog poops while out with you.

What the heck? I thought. So I placed 1000 yen on the counter and went through the motions of acquiring a pet for half an hour. Trust is a big thing in Japan, as this is a Big Brother state that won't really allow you to get very far, so all I needed to rent a dog was my driver's license. They didn't even take this from me, they just photocopied it, and then I was ready.

Unfortunately, as it was first thing in the morning, there were only two dogs available -- I guess the others were still asleep? It was either a male dacshund or a female dacshund, and I happened to like to golden color of the male one so I chose him.

My new pet was a very lively dog who kept jumping around.

"You can put him in a pet stroller, if you want," suggested the man at the store. "We lend pet strollers out to those who've rented a pet from us."

So I tried his suggestion and placed the dog in one of the strollers. But as the dog was quite lively, I was asked to place a net over him and zip him up in the stroller. The end result was not a dog out for a walk anymore but a heavy stroller with something moving around inside. I couldn't even see the dog inside as the net was quite thick and heavy. Of course, I immediately saw there was no point in renting a dog if all I would be doing was pushing a heavy stroller around. So I took the dog out again and spent about ten minutes being pulled by it in all directions around the ground floor of the shopping mall.

A great-looking deli -- or not?


It was on one of our hurried forays that we stumbled on a very attractive deli counter selling delicious-looking sandwiches, beautiful cupcakes and cakes, and all kinds of treats. The prices were on the expensive side, but I figured it was catering to upscale consumers who are willing to pay up for quality. It was only when I took a closer look at one of the open-faced sandwiches that I realized that the toppings were raw!


It was a pet delicatessen!

If I told you this story without any photos, I'm sure you would think I was joking -- or at least exaggerating. How can anyone mistake pet food for upscale deli food, after all? Well, here are the photos to prove it. It's certainly a dog's (and cat's) life in Tokyo....


The menu at the pet deli -- quite extensive as far as we're concerned!



Luscious cupcakes -- unfortunately not for human but for canines



Doggy doughnuts, anyone?



Lovely birthday cakes for pets -- I really wonder what's inside

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Taiwan's Flower Expo : must-see for flower lovers




This November, Taiwan is hosting the International Flora Exposition (IFE), a major event for flower lovers all over the world. Since the first exposition in 1960 in Rotterdam, the IFE has traveled and been hosted all over the world, including by six Asian cities: Osaka, Japan (1990), Kunming, China (1999), Awaji, Japan (2000), Hamamatsu, Japan (2004), Shenyang, China (2006) and Chiang Mai, Thailand (2006). Taipei will be the seventh Asian city to host the IFE.

All the IFEs in various parts of the world have been very beautiful and enjoyable to visit -- especially if you are a flower lover. I've been to the ones in Japan (Osaka, Awaji and Hamamatsu) and they have indeed been very colorful events. If you love flowers, you must plan on visiting this exposition in Taipei -- Taipei is less than two hours away from Manila, and the exposition is right in the city center along the river banks, so it's very convenient for a visit. Taipei's great food and the relatively relaxed and charming atmosphere of this old-fashioned city are also extra pluses!

There will be four main expo areas and 14 theme halls and pavilions. Some of the most interesting pavilions, as far as I can see, are the Pavilion of New Fashion, which is being made out of over 1 million recycled PET bottles that makes it look like a beautiful crystal palace; the Pavilion of Culture, which will have a canopy roof made out of traditional Chinese paper cuttings, and the pavilion of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, which will showcase works of Impressionist painters featuring flowers.

2010 Taipei International Flora Exposition
November 6, 2010 - April 25, 2011

For more infomation, visit
www.2010taipeiexpo.tw



That's the wall of the pavilion made out of
1 million recycled PET bottles


And this is a sample of the PET bottles they used

This is how the pavilion made out of
1 million recycled PET bottles will look like later

Workers putting the finishing touches at main entrance of
Taiwan's International Flora Exposition --
a must-visit for flower lovers

Workers on-site getting last-minute instructions
-- the IFE is only a few weeks away!

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Joys of homemade ice cream


Tonight was an evening for the simple joys of life, and perhaps none can be simpler or sweeter than the satisfaction of making your own ice cream for dessert.

It all started with a trip to Tokyu Department Store in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward earlier today, where I spotted an ice cream maker in the bargain bin on the sixth floor. It was hot pink and no bigger than a large coffee mug, and the PR blurb on the outside of the box promised me I could have delicious ice cream in less than ten minutes.

How fantastic is that?

I then remembered an Italian chef telling me that the best ice creams he's ever had were the ones he made himself with the best ingredients he could find -- and that nothing elsewhere has ever compared. The only limitation is that you have to eat the ice cream fairly quickly as it doesn't have any of those additives or preservatives to make it keep, and it'll probably turn to mush or ice sooner rather than later.

Fresh cream, eggs and voila!

So immediately I had visions of being a mini Martha Stewart. Someone who would effortlessly whip up ice cream for guests who show up unannouced or for the neighbors you happen to suddenly invite over after bumping into them in the building lobby. All I had to do -- or at least that's what the box said -- was to basically put fresh cream and eggs into the ice cream maker and churn it until the mixture thickened. I could so do that, I thought to myself. By then I'd completely forgotten that the ice cream maker I was holding was about the size of a coffee cup. That would actually feed 1.5 neighbors if I only had a spoonful; and, yes, if it was a dinner party, I'd probably have to serve my homemade ice cream in spoonfuls and pass it off as nouvelle cuisine.

But without much further thought, I bought my coffee mug ice cream maker, incredibly priced at 1500 yen -- which is about PhP750. Not that cheap, but quite affordable for a bit of happiness.

No eggs in the fridge

Eager to try out my ice cream making process that very evening, I then headed down to Tokyu's basement which houses my neighborhood Kinokuniya supermarket. I was supposed to get fresh cream and eggs. I hardly eat at home whether I am in Manila or Tokyo, as I'm out about 350 days of the year, so I usually have neither fresh cream nor eggs on hand at any time. Of course, with my new ice cream maker, this was all going to change. In fact, my life was going to change.

Cream a dozen ways

Gosh -- at least in Japan, I never realized there were so many grades of fresh cream. Confronted with choices such as 35%, 45% and 47% fresh cream in different box sizes, I was sorely tempted to go for the full-on 47% version, imagining an incredibly creamy ice cream, but instead I opted for the more reasonably-priced 35%. A little box of 35% fresh cream was still about 400 yen (PhP 200), and this was barely enough for my coffee cup ice cream maker.

The cost of homemade ice cream

Then I started to make my hard calculations. 400 yen fresh cream and an egg at about 35 yen, plus whatever else you want to place in your ice cream, and it comes up to about 500 yen for the coffee cup serving alone without the equipment investment even factored in. But in this same supermarket, a small one-serving cup of a quality ice cream like Haagen Dazs sells for about 300 yen, and even that I found expensive. How do quality ice cream makers ever make money??

The recipe for a basic ice cream called for 90 cc of fresh cream and half an egg, plus a tablespoon of sugar. I decided to forego the sugar; but to add a little more pizzaz to my ice cream, I threw in three big tablespoons of Ghiradelli Hot Chocolate, my favorite hot chocolate brand from San Francisco.

Can making ice cream be as simple as this?

When I got home, I read through the box more thoroughly. Making ice cream seemed fairly simple with my little contraption, except I had to freeze my coffee mug canister for at least three hours prior to using. When I was ready to make ice cream, all I had to do was throw all my ingredients in and put the mixer handle in and just keep churning the handle for about ten minutes or until the mixture thickened to the consistency of ice cream.

I did everything as instructed and, to my surprise, I found myself with ice cream. Literally, simply by throwing all the ingredients into my ice cream maker and turning the handle round and round for ten minutes.

The ice cream was delicious and softer in texture and consistency compared to commercial ice creams which are laden with extenders. It was closer to gelato; and one of my happiest moments today was putting my spoon straight into that ice cream maker and taking out a spoonful of ice cream that actually looked like ice cream. Nothing could be sweeter.

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pet Mania in Japan

Yesterday, we spent the day at Odaiba in Tokyo, a reclamed area that has been transformed into a modern amusement and shopping complex especially for people with young children and/or pets. When the Odaiba complex was first created about 15 to 20 years ago, it was a lonely no-man's land with a couple of buildings and an empty shopping center. We used to drive out here when we felt like getting away because once we crossed the Tokyo Bay Bridge, it was like a different country. At that time, there were few real restaurants and the only place worth mentioning was a simple restaurant that claimed to serve Italian food. It dished up edible pasta and cheap wine, and the best thing about it was that you could eat outside in the quiet, with no cars or pedestrians to mar the mood.

Well, lots of things have changed since then and Odaiba is now a completely different animal. It's bigger and livelier, and a major weekend destination. Don't come looking for character around here, though, as there's little evidence of local color or culture. But for a reasonable day out with the kids or the dog, it's certainly lots of fun. They have great shops for kids and pets, ample parking, and stroller-friendly walkways that lead to a beautiful clean beach with a good view of Tokyo on the opposite side of the bay.

Speaking of stores for kids, I went into the large Kids 'R Us store in Odaiba yesterday and it was quite surprising to find that not a few of the items for sale here were actually much cheaper in Tokyo than in Manila. This is probably one of the effects of Japan's crippling recession, which has forced many retailers to lower their prices or end up with zero sales. So many Japanese consumers are tightening their belts and only taking their wallets out for bargains -- such a difference compared to just a decade ago!

Pets over kids in Japan

Another interesting trend in recent years is the preference of increasingly more and more couples towards having pets rather than children -- and they're treating their pets as they would treat children. In this expensive First World country with almost no family network to speak of, having children is a major life change. It's a big change for couples all over the world, but perhaps it's biggest in Japan where houses are cramped, the cost of living expensive, and cheap childcare nonexistent. I remember my friend Keiko recently telling me of how she'd gone out to lunch with a group of girlfriends from her high school days. Two of her friends had young children, and they'd both confessed that it was the first time in something like 1.5 years that they'd been out on their own for lunch. So you can sort of imagine why not a few couples in Japan prefer having pets to kids.

Special pet strollers as plentiful as baby strollers

Well, this increasing preference for pets was nowhere more evident than yesterday in Odaiba. Almost every other couple walking around had a stroller, and inside wasn't a baby but a dog or a cat. Moreover, these specially-made pet strollers -- which are plentiful all over Tokyo and come in various designs, colors and, yes, designer brands -- are pretty expensive; in fact they're much more expensive than strollers for kids.

The pets themselves cost a small fortune. Yesterday we saw dogs being sold for a bargain price of about 300,000 yen (PhP 150,000) and cats going for an average of 200,000 yen (PhP 100,000).

Just some of the pet strollers on sale in one pet store


Pet accessories for pets who fancy being pretty in pink


In case you're worried about not being able to choose the right design for a pet leash, Tokyo is certainly the city for you.




This pet stroller costs "only" 43,000 yen (PhP 20,000)



Tokyo residents usually have really small apartments, but their cats certainly don't. I'm guessing this multi-storey cat kingdom is filling up someone's entire living room somewhere in the Tokyo burbs.


Anyone fancy a toy poodle for 358,000 yen (PhP 178,000)?


This black toy poodle is slightly cheaper at 328,000 yen (PhP 164,000).


Even pets in Japan celebrate Halloween.
Here are some of the Halloween goodies on sale for dogs and cats.



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What's in your Bucket List?


Hello from Tokyo, a dynamic city in the midst of a beautiful autumn and a crippling recession. On the way over to Narita from Manila, I happened to watch the new Tom Cruise movie called "Day and Knight." It's an overall entertaining film but one of the most interesting parts -- for me, at least -- was the scene shot of Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz talking in the airplane about their bucket lists. Cameron Diaz hadn't been anywhere but Tom Cruise's character in the movie was a James Bond-type man-of-the-world, and he had an interesting bucket list that included biking around the Amalfi Coast in Italy and kissing a stranger on the balcony of the Hotel du Cap in the south of France.

So, for the rest of the flight, I got to thinking about my own bucket list. With some luck, I've been able to strike a lot of things off my bucket list over the past ten years, but I certainly have a whole lot more on it.

These are two things I struck off my bucket list this year:

Ballooning over Cappadocia, Turkey

I finally bit my lip and took the hot-air balloon ride over Capadoccia in Turkey last June. Until the very last minute I was quite anxious about the very idea of it, and it took quite a bit of courage to hoist myself into that basket. But once I was up in the air, I was almost too entranced to speak. The ride was short of an hour, but this has got to be among the most amazing things I have ever done travel-wise. (Caution: Thousands of tourists take this ride every year in Cappadocia. However, there are risks involved in riding a hot-air balloon so anyone planning to do so should be fully aware of the possible dangers.)


A trip on the Orient-Express

The three-night trip from Bangkok to Singapore on the beautiful Orient-Express train is one of the most luxurious travel experiences in the world. The distance between these two cities is about one hour by plane and nowadays, you can get a discount ticket from BKK to SNG for just a little more than the price of a nice lunch. So the idea of spending three days on an incredibly luxurious antique train having five-course dinners in dinner jackets and long gowns, watching Southeast Asia go by as you are wined and dines, is just indescribable. If you can do this even once in your life, go for it.

Checked off my bucket list!

Both of these were amazing experiences I would certainly recommend to anyone still looking for stuff to add to their own lists. Some other things I've had on my bucket list which I've been fortunate enough to experience already include renting a villa for the summer in Italy, sailing into Venice on a fabulous cruise ship (that view of the Grand Canal from up on high is just breathtaking compared to any other view of Venice), experiencing the White Nights of St. Petersburg, dinners at Fat Duck in England and Per Se in New York, visit the Romanov villa in Yalta, staying at Cliveden in England, swimming in the Dead Sea, walking the Old Course at St. Andrew's in Scotland, sailing the Bosphorus, and a couple of other fantastic travel experiences.

Almost did the Harbour Bridge

I almost struck off climbing the Harbour Bridge in Sydney off my list as well, one visit to Australia, but I woke up too late to do so and got a bit of cold feet. I was staying at the Park Hyatt Sydney then and the Harbour Bridge was literally outside my bedroom window. One day, a couple of friends who were traveling with me made up their minds to join the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb -- labeled The Climb of Your Life, and certainly not one for the fainthearted since it involves literally climbing to the very top of the bridge for the most amazing view of Sydney -- and I was supposed to join them. It's quite a scary but it's also supposed to be an exhilarating experience. I'd already made up my mind to do it the night before. However, the next morning, the thought of being chained to someone else -- you're chained to each other for safety -- and not being able to exit if you suddenly decide not to do the climb after all -- once you start walking up, there's no way else but forwards and up -- just gave me butterflies in the stomach, and I opted to head for the sumptuous breakfast buffet instead of the meeting point for the climb.

Other items on my bucket list

And here's a (partial) list of some other things I would love to do:

Ride the luxurious Blue Train from Joburg
to Capetown in South Africa


Sail down the Nile in Egypt


Take the Road to Mandalay in Myanmar


Drive around Tasmania


Swim in Iceland's Blue Lagoon


Trace the Silk Road


Visit Damascus, Syria


Stay at the Lake Palace in India.
I actually was on the way to doing this two years ago, 
but I ended up in a hospital in Delhi, which made me miss this part of the itinerary!


See the Iguasu Falls in Brazil


Take the Royal Scotsman Train around Scotland



Visit Petra, Jordan

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A deconstructed empanada and dreams of England


Last night I spent a very enjoyable evening at the Dusit Thani as a guest of general manager Prateek Kumar at a gourmet dinner cooked by Stephanie Zubiri and paired with very good Chilean wines from Casillero del Diablo, interesting art provided by Jonathan Sy of Gallery Big, and saxophone music by Michael Young.

Scallops and beans in an appetizer

Dinner began with a very stimulating combination of a very fresh and lightly seared -- almost raw actually -- scallop ceviche drizzled with a bean and corn salad in a lemon chili dressing. It sounds terribly complicated, I know, but it worked. Who would have thought that scallops and beans with a hint of chili would go together? This was served with a Chardonnay 2008.

Then came a ravioli dish stuffed with parmesan and portobello mushrooms, swimming in a demiglace sauce and topped with bitter chocolate shavings. Everyone in my table loved this dish, with someone -- who it was, haha, my lips are sealed -- even proposing to mop up the sauce with bread. The chocolate shavings on top were certainly an interesting touch.

Deconstructing an empanada

When it came to the main course, we all looked with great curiosity at our menu cards which read Deconstructed gourmet empanada, and wondered what exactly that meant? "In fashion, deconstructed would mean without the structures that hold up the dress," someone said, while I opined, "Or it could mean starting from the end and working your way to the beginning. If I had to imagine this, it would come out as ground beef splattered on a plate."

The end-result came out looking like a flying saucer made out of dough. And underneath this flying saucer, when I finally broke the mold, there was a delicious beef stew that was slightly sweet because of the raisins added to it. This was served with the Carmenere 2008.

Stephanie Zubiri later explained: "This meal is in honor of the Chilean ambassador, who is with us tonight. Chileans love empanadas so I thought I would make a main course inspired by this favorite food of theirs." Vicky Zubiri was beaming with pride all evening at the wonderful dinner her daughter had made.

The very interesting Mr. X

Equally enjoyable was the company, as I sat at a very lively table next to someone I met for the first time, who I shall call Mr. X. From the outset, Mr. X seemed a keen connoisseur of good food and wine with very definite views on everything, including life and politics. "I believe that if someone knows he isn't capable of a job, he shouldn't run for elections -- no matter what anyone says," he said.

Frankly speaking, when I met him, I thought it was going to be just another typical conversation about who-said-this and who-did-what. But then, Johnny Litton across the table from us suddenly asked him: "Tell me, where did you go to school?"

"I went to Sorbonne for college," Mr. X replied, and that was it. My interest was piqued as I tried to think what kind of guy would go to Sorbonne for college (especially as I had always dreamt of going to Sorbonne as a child. Sorbonne had always figured in the basic French language books that I had had to repeat and memorize as a child -- as in "Sophie rentre a la Sorbonne a midi" (Sophie will return from Sorbonne at noon) -- and since then it had always been my dream to go and study at the Sorbonne.) and what life as a guy studying in one of the most beautiful cities in the world was like.

"Did you like living in Paris?" I asked. He answered, "I was there for six years. It was wonderful. And eventually I came to understand the French."

Sorbonne in lieu of Oxbridge

It turned out that Mr. X had wanted to get into Oxbridge but didn't get in, so he went to Sorbonne instead, managing to survive the first few semesters of schooling in French on childhood French lessons from his aunt and a summer of intensive language schooling -- something like nine hours a day -- just prior to university. I'd just met him, but he seemed pretty fabulously wealthy; but as a student in Paris, he said he'd lived on a very modest budget in small hotels all over Paris, including in a little hotel along the quay just behind the Notre Dame, about two blocks from La Tour D'Argent (see a previous entry in this blog on La Tour D'Argent.) "What about you? Do you speak French?" He asked.

"Just enough to order properly in restaurants and shop in the weekend markets," I answered. Then I couldn't help adding: "And enough to buy bags at Hermes." I was still curious about him, though, so I started interviewing him again. "Why didn't you stay in Paris after college?"

He shrugged. "Something happened. But the next time I visit Paris, I'll live there. I'll sell everything I own and move there." Then he added, leaning over as if to share a really delicious secret, "But if you really must know -- the one place I would really love to live in is England. When I first arrived there, I had this feeling I'd come home. I can't explain it but I really love it in London."

That was another point in common. I love London as well, and mainly because of the theater and the bookshops. In fact, I'll go to the theater everyday in London, whether I have companions or not. And on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, I'll even go twice if possible, if there are good shows on the matinee schedule.

One for the road

So I had a very enjoyable time discussing life in Europe all evening with Mr. X -- apart from a fondness for France, we both loved London and going to the theater there -- and when I looked at my watch it was past 10 pm and some people had already quietly said goodbye. I'd better go home and catch up on emails, I thought to myself. And just as I was going to say goodbye to Dusit's GM, Prateek, and his wife, Prateek spoke up before I could say a word and said: "A couple of us are having a nightcap back at my apartment. Come join us."

I couldn't resist another hour or so of good company. So off I went, up to the very top of the Dusit, to a beautiful apartment with a big balcony and a fantastic view of the city, to join the Kumars and their friends from Singapore and India. The guys smoked in the balcony while the ladies -- all of them very cosmopolitan Singaporeans except for myself -- sat in the living room discussing life in Manila, great holiday destinations and, of course, traveling. Most of them had lived in Manila over a year and they were really enjoying their lives in our city.

Before I knew it, it was way past midnight and I was definitely ready to finally go home and get some shut-eye.

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