Monday, March 30, 2015

The best sukiyaki in Tokyo, and about Saga beef and the grading system for wagyu.

Over the weekend in Tokyo, living a #Travelife, I was at my neighbourhood supermarket, which also happens to have one of the best meat stores in the whole city. The meat here is pricey but it's worth it as the quality is really some of the best.

There was a commotion in the counter, and I decided to look in on it, just out of curiosity.

Driving back home from Aoyama last night,
and the sunset was beautiful


On the counter was slices of the best marbled beef from Saga Prefecture in Japan.

For about 30 minutes -- it's called a "Time Service Promotion" in Japan -- they were selling 200 grams for 1000 yen, and they only had 5 kilos to sell. I didn't even need to think twice about this as I could tell this was excellent beef at one glance.

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It's interesting how so many of my friends from overseas come to Japan intending to buy wagyu to bring home, and they're all talking about gradings of wagyu beef.

I think the ratings system was devised for foreigners because, in general, Japanese don't ever think about a ratings system for their beef. In Japan, we look at the provenance and the cut, and we can usually tell at a glance the quality of the beef as this is something very basic to food shopping in Japan.

No one ever talks about a grading system at a Japanese meat store.


So this was the same case over the weekend at the best meat store in Tokyo, where they were simply selling the remains of a huge cut of Saga beef for a song.

I was the last to buy and so I bought whatever remained.

I didn't even know what I would do with it or what I would make for dinner for some people coming over, but I certainly couldn't let great beef for a song pass me by.

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When I saw the cuts up close, I realised they were too thickly sliced for shabu-shabu -- at least for purists, as I'm sure they would do for shabu-shabu in a pinch.

So I said to the lady selling the beef: "This is better for sukiyaki, isn't it?" These were certainly to thin for a steak as well.

She nodded.


And after buying the meat, I went over the next store to buy the best tofu, the most delicious rice I could find at the store (it's called Milky Queen), and the best organic eggs in Japan.

The organic eggs literally cost a fortune, actually, but I figured that I should have the very best ingredients to go with this wonderful beef I'd managed to get my hands on. You should always get the best fresh eggs you can find, for sukiyaki, as you are eating the eggs raw and this is the last coating for the meat.

And what a feast we had that night, in Tokyo, living a never-ending, and never-endingly delicious #Travelife.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The best places for cherry blossoms in Tokyo

It's cherry blossom week from today onwards in Tokyo, living a #Travelife.

Actually, it's a bit early. But thankfully, after the cold spell a few days ago, it suddenly turned warm today and many of the trees were in full bloom when we took a walk tonight.

That's good news for everyone.

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Here are my personal favourite places for viewing the beautiful sakura, which will only be at their peak for about five days at most.

Not necessarily in order:

1) The Komaba campus of Tokyo University. This is the best kept-secret among locals as it has beautiful cherry trees and not too many people. If you can get in through a very discrete side gate, you'll find the place practically all to yourself.

2) Shoto Park, Shibuya. This is a small but beautiful park in one of Tokyo's best neighbourhoods. It's beautiful in all seasons, but especially in sakura season.

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3) Yoyogi Park and the park adjacent to NHK.

4) Meguro River walkway

5) The Imperial Palace moat/ Kudan Kaikan area

6) Inokashira Park in the suburbs of Tokyo


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Remembering a summer in Venice at the Danieli with two little girls who went shopping at Prada

An unforgettable adventure into ordinary Venetian life.

A recent piece on Venice in the New York Times Magazine prompted me to reminisce about the week I spent alone in this hauntingly beautiful lagoon city some years back.

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It was at the height of a European summer and a strong global economy, and Venice was full of prosperous and confident tourists – many of them Americans pursuing culture and other pleasurable diversions.

I had flown in from Rome on my own after a holiday on the Amalfi Coast with some friends; eager to rediscover a hauntingly beautiful city.


I had been to Venice twice as a child, and never again since then. Suddenly the idea of exploring Venice’s maze of canals and alleys called out.

So instead of returning to Asia after my holiday, I decided to fly to Venice. Within a day, and with the help of the concierge at the Hotel Hassler in Rome, I had booked flights and lodgings and was at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport waiting for the hotel's private boat to take me to the Danieli Hotel.

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From the start, my Venetian adventure was full of vignettes of the wealthy American abroad.

Upon arrival in Venice, I spent about 30 minutes waiting for the Danieli's hotel boat when an unhappy couple dragged their suitcases next to me. I watched slightly fascinated as the couple exchanged furiously angry glances at each other, and then finally the man kicked one of the bags so hard it fell into the water and had to be retrieved with a stick.

We then spent a wordless 10 minutes together in the heat, until I finally lost my patience and asked one of the boat porters in my best travel Italian:

"Where is the hotel boat?"

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Of course, this being Italy, he didn't know.

"What time is it arriving?" I continued, already feeling this was going to be a useless conversation. This was very uncharacteristic of me because, if you know me, you'll know that I never indulge in anything useless. Life's too short.

The man gave a shrug.

"Isn't there a schedule for the boat?" The male half of the sullen couple piped in, in English. I realized then that they were Americans. The Italian boat porter again gave a predictable shrug.

I then turned to the couple and said, "We can share a taxi if you want. They're notorious rip-offs for tourists, but if we split the bill, it will be better than waiting around here."

I could think of better ways of reaching Venice than sharing a vaporetto (water taxi) with a feuding couple, but I was tired and eager for an aperitif and dinner.


After so long, my first view of Venice from afar, with its palace roofs and church spires rising dramatically out of the water, filled me with wonder. I could not imagine why I had stayed away for years.


And the historic and ancient Danieli Hotel, at the mouth of the Grand Canal and next to the Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs, was magical.

The Danieli Hotel is a lovely place with a Moorish-inspired lobby straight out of a fairy tale. Even now, I never fail to walk through the lobby and catch my breath at the gorgeous spectacle in front of me.

That first time at the Danieli, I got a suite in the main building with French windows and a little terrace that overlooked a canal. I flung the windows open just in time to hear the peals of the nearby church bells and a gondolier’s lyrical shouts from below.

It was at this moment that I felt my Venice adventure had begun.


That same evening, I booked a terrace table for a solo dinner at the Danieli’s rooftop restaurant. I could’ve just as easily ordered pasta from room service and stayed in with a book, but I figured Venice alone had to be done in style.

I sat down to dine just as the summer sun was setting and ordered a plate of linguine with Venice clams in a white wine sauce and a bottle of wine.

It was the perfect place to enjoy views of the city as it settled into its evening routine.

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Next to me was a long table of East Coast debutante-types being chaperoned by an elderly matron, who also took it upon herself to educate the young ladies on the charms of Italy.

She read aloud poetry on Venice and a chapter on the history of St. Mark’s Basilica and the surrounding areas, before starting a discussion on fine dining deportment and good manners.

It was very good entertainment to eavesdrop on this dinnertime lecture.


Over the next days, I observed a leisurely routine that made me feel more like a temporary resident than a tourist always on the rush.

After exhausting the sightseeing route of churches and museums, I left my guidebooks and maps at the hotel and meandered around aimlessly. In the process, I stumbled upon real local neighborhoods and encountered vignettes of ordinary Venetian life.

Venice may be a labyrinth but interestingly, with the Grand Canal as a guide, I never got lost.


One afternoon, I took the hotel shuttle to the Lido, an 18-kilometer sandbar with great cafes and a wide beach that’s about a 15-minute ride from Venice proper. The boat was shared by the Danieli Hotel’s guests and that of its sister hotel, the Gritti Palace.

Just as we were leaving, two little girls in identical yellow sundresses clambered aboard with their grandmother. We all thought they were adorable.

“What have you been doing in Venice?” One of the passengers asked the girls.

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“Shopping,” replied one of them. “We love the Prada boutique.” She must have been barely six or seven, but she was obviously going on twenty-one. Her sister was probably slightly younger.

The grandmother was a willing accomplice. “Show them what you bought,” she encouraged them. The little girls dutifully paraded matching Prada appointment books and pencil cases in colorful colors.

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None of us spoke. We all didn’t know whether to be charmed or shocked. Finally, someone asked them, “Where are you girls from?”

“New York,” they chimed together. “We’re just here for the summer.” And one of them added. “We live on Park Avenue.”

Somehow we were not surprised.


Later on in the Lido, however, I spied them playing happily in a public sandbox exactly the way two little girls their age should be doing. The grandmother had dozed off in a nearby lounge chair, and their expensive appointment book sets had been cast aside in favor of plastic pails and shovels.

Thankfully, the joys of a long stretch of beach on a late summer afternoon in Venice had turned them back into children again.


The Philippines returns to the Venice Biennale 2015

What a quandary.

I just got my official invitation to the opening of the 2015 Venice Biennale which I'd committed to attend as early as several months ago. In fact, I'd already looked at the possible hotels to book and had narrowed down my choice to the Aman Venice or the Gritti Palace.

It would have been so nice to be back in Venice, living a #Travelife.


But now, with a change of plans, it seems that I'll just be landing on the ground somewhere in the world, living a #Travelife, as the ribbons to open the Biennale are being cut.

This year's Venice Biennale is particularly special because the Philippines is returning as a participant.

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Fifty-one years after its 1964 participation in the Venice Art Biennale, the Philippines finally returns to one of the world’s biggest and most prestigious exhibitions of contemporary art, with the support of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Office of Senator Loren Legarda.



Patrick Flores’ curatorial proposal entitled Tie A String Around the World was chosen by a panel of distinguished experts from among 16 submissions as the Philippine representative to the 56th International Art Exhibition organized by La Biennale di Venezia.

This will run from May 9 to November 22, 2015 in Venice, Italy.

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Flores’ work moves around Manuel Conde’s 1950 classic Genghis Khan, co-written and designed by Carlos Francisco and screened at the Museum of Modern Art at the Venice Film Festival in 1952, where it competed with the films of Chaplin, Clement, Fellini, Bergman, and Mizoguchi

“Being the most lucid mirrors of sensibility, harnessing the arts in this Philippine entry can be a most effective and peaceful way of enabling other people to see the world as Filipinos perceive it,” said NCCA Chairman Felipe M. de Leon, Jr. who also serves as Commissioner for the Philippine Pavilion.

The newly-restored film will be exhibited at the Philippine pavilion, which will occupy three rooms at the European Cultural Centre-Palazzo Mora, and will be positioned in conversation with the contemporary art projects of intermedia artist Jose Tence Ruiz and filmmaker Mariano Montelibano III.

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DFA Secretary Albert F. del Rosario stressed, “Culture, viewed as a tool of statecraft, is a compelling element in projecting a country’s status or power. As art lovers and culture watchers the world over converge in Venice this year, and with nearly 100 other countries expected to take part in the Biennale, the Philippines’ participation provides an invaluable opportunity to foster greater mutual understanding and more active people-to-people exchanges through culture.“

Senator Legarda, principal advocate of the project, also expressed jubilation over the country’s participation to the Biennale after five long decades of absence. She said: “It has been 50 years since we last joined this prestigious contemporary art exhibition. We have many talented Filipino artists worthy to be given the chance to showcase their talent in this event."

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Established in 1895, the Venice Biennale is considered by many as the “Olympics of contemporary art” that exhibits global trends and engages in critical discourse.

For the past century, it has become the breeding ground for world-renowned artists and has played a pivotal role in shaping the canon of art history. In 2013, it attracted over 475,000 visitors which made it the most visited art exhibition in Italy.

Tips for those visiting Thailand for the Songkran festival in Bangkok and Ayutthaya

Songkran, the much-loved and much-anticipated yearly event in Thailand, is more than about water-fights and fun in the sun.

The Thai New Year traditions stretch back hundreds of years, and in a country as large and diverse as Thailand, how the festival is celebrated differs from province to province – each community having their own unique centuries-old traditions.

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Here are some tips on how to get the most out of Songkran, if you are visiting Thailand:

- In the morning, make merit and listen to temple sermons to understand and benefit from the spiritual side of the festival. Remember that during the New Year festival, the temple activities are the most important aspects of the celebration.

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- To purify or bathe the Buddha or other statues, water should not be poured directly onto the head of the relic. Rather, water should be poured on other parts of the statue’s torso.

- The custom of pouring water onto the hand of elders’ (people above 60 years old), is to show respect and seek their New Year blessings. This custom is called the Rod Nam Dum Hua ritual.

- Water that is used to splash on others should be clean or mixed with Thai traditional fragrances.

- Avoid throwing water aggressively or using high-pressure water guns or hoses.

- Avoid throwing water with ice.

- Women should be wary of wearing tight clothes or ones that are light in colour and/or made of thin fabric. When wet, such garments can become quite revealing, raising the risk of sexual harassment.


Here are some of the locations to celebrate Songkran where ancient traditions are still being observed.

Central Region Bangkok
12-15 April 

The Phra Buddha Sihing image from the National Museum will be taken on a parade around the Bangkok Municipal Administration for the public to bathe and pray to. Visitors are suggested to wear Thai traditional clothes.

For more urban ways of celebrating Songkran, go to the streets of Khao San and Silom, where revellers will swarm the area in search for a riotous good time.

13-15 April 

Join locals in celebrating Songkran in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya with a merit-making ceremony at Viharn Phra Mongkolborpit as well as the procession of Miss Songkran and elaborately-decorated floats, and a bathing Buddha image.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

First Kitchen of Japan launches the world's first Kitkat sandwich

So in Tokyo today, living a #Travelife, I'm finally trying the world's first kitkat sandwich.

Yes, you read right. First Kitchen, a fast-food chain in Japan, has created a kitkat sandwich which it is selling for 220 yen.

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As you may imagine, this is probably not going to be anyone's main course for lunch.

First Kitchen envisions the Kitkat sandwich more like a dessert or a snack, especially as it's put in lots of whipped cream and added some orange peel for accent.

And then everything is placed in between two slices of white bread.


Separately, they're also selling a special Kitkat chocolate called Kitkat for Cafe.

This is the same chocolate they're placing in that Kitkat sandwich, and if you don't fancy it with white bread, you can have the chocolate alone for 50 yen.

I'm not quite a sandwich person myself, but I thought I should try it today, to add just a little bit more sweetness to my never-ending, and never-endingly eventful #Travelife.

The artworks in the presidential suite of the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo include works by Isamu Noguchi and Toko Shinoda

Most luxury hotels these days have very contemporary-looking presidential suites, so it was quite a nice surprise to enjoy something of a time warp at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo, living a #Travelife.

Their presidential suite, you see, has deliberately been kept as it has always been for the past 30 years or so, because it was designed by one of the top designers of that time.

And all around this presidential suite are artworks and objects created by some of Japan's foremost artists and creatives.

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In the private living room of the suite, which is actually called the Imperial Suite, is a lithograph by Japanese master artist Toko Shinoda.

I have a Toko Shinoda artwork in the foyer of my Tokyo home as well, so it was a familiar piece to me.


There was also a very intriguing wooden tabletop sculpture on a sideboard in the public living room. Apparently, this was created by the same artist who designed the famous Tokyo Sky Tree.

Beside it was a lamp designed by the famous sculptor Isamu Noguchi -- and again, this was also a recognisable piece for me because I really like Noguchi's pieces and have some in my home.

How nice it was to experience this special suite in Tokyo, living a never-ending, and never-endingly eventful #Travelife.