Saturday, April 30, 2016

Sashimi and tempura for lunch. And about a spur-of-the-moment trip to Russia, flying into Moscow and taking the train to St. Petersburg.

Over a sashimi and tempura lunch the other day, living a #Travelife, someone and I talked about traveling to Istanbul for a weekend, as well as an upcoming trip to Russia that involves flying into Moscow and then taking the high-speed train to St. Petersburg.

The idea to visit Russia and to include the Baltic states as well in one go came out of left field, but it was perfect timing so you might call it Fate. I'd quickly looked at my iPhone calendar and realised I was free for the two weeks in mind.


I'd actually set aside these two weeks for a possible trip to Africa, but suddenly Russia beckoned invitingly.

"Life's short," I said. "Let's go. Why not."

Have passport, will travel, after all.


And Russia holds a very special place in my heart as I've studied as much as I can about its history with great intensity.

In fact, on a two-week break in Tokyo last March, my bedside reading material was an excellent biography of the enigmatic Catherine the Great, one of the greatest rulers of Russia.

I've read much about Catherine the Great, of course, as well as of Potemkin, the young, brash and ambitious soldier she raised to greatness. There is a very good biography of Potemkin by the English historian Simon Sebag de Montefiore which I highly recommend.


Last March, reading about life in Imperial Russia and about the most amazing rise of Catherine the Great in a biography by Robert Massie made me yearn for Russia again.

Catherine the Great was the only daughter of a German prince of a minor duchy and a rather bland but ambitious woman slightly above him in the social hierarchy although half his age, and she'd had the most ordinary of royal upbringings in a quiet fortress town.

Against all these odds that destined obscurity, her mother had managed to somehow broker a marriage to the heir to the Russian throne, who was also German. So from commonplace minor royalty she embarked on her rather difficult destiny as tortured daughter-in-law of a fickle empress, to neglected wife of a weak and mentally unstable czar, before finally becoming a powerful empress in her own right. If anything, this story taught me a lot about personal discipline and self-control.

I even brought the biography of Catherine the Great by Robert Massie
on the bullet train to Osaka

Rereading the tumultuous life of Catherine the Great was so fascinating I could almost not bear to put the book down. Or leave Tokyo without finishing it. So I finished this 600+ page book in two weeks -- yes, even while hosting about a hundred friends in Tokyo for Easter break and living a #Travelife.


And that certainly put me in the mood to return to Russia.

On my last visit, we'd sailed straight into St. Petersburg for the Russian White Nights and anchored right off the Hermitage so I could see the Winter Palace and the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul while having coffee on the terrace of the boat.

One night, we even took a private tour of the Winter Palace after it had officially closed for the day and the crowds had gone home. There I was in a long gown with a flute of champagne in hand, strolling through the Hermitage and our group enjoying it all to ourselves. Then afterwards we sat down to listen to the St. Petersburg Philharmonic perform some Russian musical masterpieces in one of the rooms of the Hermitage itself, amidst some of the most precious art paintings in the world.


This time around, I'm still thinking of what to do on this rather extravagant mini-break to Russia -- I am flying way more than halfway around the world, after all, for a mini-break -- living a #Travelife.

There's a hotel I really want to stay in and a fancy restaurant I so want to try in Moscow. Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg, I want to return to Tsarksoe Seloe and to Gatchina. I'm quite excited, actually.

But this is still so many months and at least a dozen trips away in my never-ending, and never-endingly eventful #Travelife.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

White strawberries from Japan for dessert. And about political gossip at a cocktail party and a dinner tonight.

I was only away for a weekend in Tokyo this time around, but I realized I missed Manila a lot today, on my first day back in town, living a #Travelife.

It started with a very nice lunch, full of lively conversation and good food, that ended with some white strawberries from Tokyo for dessert. I'm not allowed to blog about this lunch, for some reason, so all I can say is that I had fun.


Then tonight, I went to two parties.

There I was at the Raffles Hotel early in the evening to attend a cocktail party hosted by the Ambassador of South Africa for the celebration of South Africa's Freedom Day. Attending this and seeing the giant videos on the walls of the ballroom with images of beautiful South Africa made me remember every single trip I have made there.


There have been many trips to South Africa now, but still the first one is etched most in my memory, ironically a trip with the same person I had lunch with today.

I can still feel that mixture of wonder, excitement and happiness as I opened the French doors of my hotel room and stepped out onto the balcony at the lovely Westcliff in Johannesburg on my very first morning in Africa, checking in quickly after an overnight flight to Joburg from Hong Kong.

I remember this feeling as if it was only yesterday. I can still smell the crisp air and I can still recall everything I saw from the balcony as lions roared in the distance.

Scroll down to read more about the Philippine presidential elections... 


Of course, there was lots of talk about the upcoming Philippine presidential elections tonight.

Not a few ambassadors at this cocktail party told me that they had just filed their reports on the elections to their respective governments. Hearing about the information they sent to their respective countries actually surprised me because it seemed as skewed as the biased coverage of some media outlets.

I almost said to them, at this cocktail party: "Looks like you've been watching a lot of television and reading the biased newspapers, instead of putting your ear to the ground."


Then I hurried over back into the villages to attend a sit-down dinner hosted by a well-liked ambassador for his good friends. 

The dinner included three very clued-in and well-known political observers, so of course we talked politics with gusto.

For these three locals, none of them Duterte supporters in particulars, the Duterte win is almost a shoo-in because his lead is just too big -- they feel that the massive machineries of two of the other four candidates will still not be able to generate a win against this big lead.

"The anti-Mar sentiment is so strong," said one gentleman. "I hear the same thing everywhere - people are voting 'anyone but Mar.'"

He also likened Duterte's popularity to the popularity of former President Joseph Estrada. "Except that this time, Duterte has support across the board from all classes, including the A and B classes."

Another one said: "The Roxas camp is campaigning on continuity. They just don't get it. It's exactly more of the same that people don't want. So much of the Duterte vote is about wanting change, and so much of it is also a protest vote against the status quo."


This is when I heard the very interesting news that many of the FVR men are behind presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte's campaign, and that some of Manila's top businessmen are actually quiet Duterte supporters.

And the best news I heard tonight came from someone who knows everyone in Manila. He said: "At the Makati Business Club lunch today, someone whispered to me that if Duterte wins, he will ask Gilbert Teodoro to join his cabinet."

I almost jumped up from my seat when he said this, as I think Gilbert Teodoro would be a great asset to any cabinet.

And with that very nice thought, I happily ended just another interesting evening in my never-endingly eventful #Travelife.

Simple and delicious sushi in Shibuya. And about the financial crises of the last 30 years.

Quite appropriately, my last evening in Tokyo for this trip, living a #Travelife, was a sushi dinner at one of my favourite neighbourhood joints with some of my favourite people.

In our table on Monday night were three owners of very successful companies and two others were the CEOs of some of the largest financial firms in Japan.

As this is the First World, too, everyone mostly made it on their own with lots of hard work, smart strategizing and good luck.

It's not like in the Third World where so many people get to call themselves CEO by inheriting Daddy's company and then attending board meetings and signing checks.


Work aside, we have lots in common so it's very comfortable to be around them, and the conversations are always incredibly fascinating.

Interestingly, we all eat at pretty fancy restaurants with other people most of the time -- and we're all dressing up and dining out practically every night of the year.

But when we get together, it's always a dressed down dinner at a rather anonymous little restaurant serving simple but good food.

In fact, I was the last one to arrive on Monday night and they'd teased me that I'd dressed up for the occasion although I'd really just put on my favourite coat dress from the fashionable Rue Majorelle indie designer boutique in Marrakech over a Gap flannel shirt and some slim black pants.

Scroll down to read more about good sushi in Shibuya... 


But our dinners together are always around the neighbourhood in restaurants bordering on nondescript. One time recently it was to a crowded little bistro in Shibuya and still another time it was to an equally crowded tiny restaurant that served Japanese home-cooking.

Both not my first choices, but then I'm never there for the food anyway, when I'm with them.


This sushi place we went to last night is quiet but very good. It's frequented mostly by regulars -- no walk-in strangers carrying the Michelin Guide around here -- and the taste is very understated, the prices reasonable.

Monday night's conversation focused on a top Japanese haute couture designer who tells the fortune of his clients, ghosts in hotels around the world, cutting-edge companies in Taiwan, a weekend in New Orleans, a building someone should have bought in the commercial district of Niseko, and why it's so much better these days to just stay in hotels than to maintain weekend homes.

In other words, just another wonderful evening in my never-ending #Travelife.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Sukiyaki and home-made ice-cream for dinner in Tokyo. And about a new Maine Lobster Roll stand called Luke's Lobster and a United Arrows pop-up store in Omotesando.

Last night in Tokyo, living a #Travelife, I had friends over for a sukiyaki dinner.

Someone was visiting from Singapore and I thought it would be nice to have him over for dinner at home instead of going out to some fancy restaurant -- especially since all of us are aways eating out anyway.

In Omotesando yesterday, living a #Travelife...

So it was a rather busy day yesterday that began with 15,000 steps around the back neighbourhoods of Harajuku.

These streets around Harajuku are constantly changing with new restaurants and shops, making for a very interesting walk on a perfect spring day like yesterday.

In Omotesando yesterday, living a #Travelife...


Two interesting discoveries yesterday were the pop-up clothing store of the Japanese retailer United Arrows, where I picked up two pretty blouses, and a new take-out stand for Maine Lobster Rolls.

I know Maine lobster rolls are good, but I was unprepared for the very long line of hungry young people patiently waiting for their turn to buy a lobster roll at Luke's Lobster, the Tokyo outpost of a Boston joint.

Maine Lobster Rolls in Omotesando


On the way back home, we stopped to buy the things I needed for a good sukiyaki for a table of serious foodies. These included very good Hida beef cut sukiyaki style, tofu and onions from Kyoto, and other vegetables.

And as my housekeeper didn't come in yesterday, I actually did most of the prep work on my own. 

The United Arrows pop-up store in Omotesando


And ever so masochistic of me, I decided to make my own ice cream to serve for dessert as well. I could've bought any lovely cake or ice cream for dessert, but I wanted to make my own because I had in my mind the taste of lavender honey for this ice cream -- a flavour not easy to get anywhere in the world.

Of course I didn't have time to make ice cream in advance, between my walking, shopping and eating.

Luke's Lobster in Omotesando

In fact, I was lucky the sukiyaki was even on the table when the doorbell rang that evening as we'd taken our sweet time walking back home.

I'd even bought one of these high-tech Japanese LED vegetable growers to bring to my home in Manila so I can grow my own vegetables, in addition to making my own bread and ice cream. 

All very nice things to do, but these certainly added to an already busy day yesterday.

In Omotesando yesterday, living a #Travelife...


So at the end of dinner, there I was sitting at one end of the table churning out my ice cream with my handheld device while everyone was having the last of the sukiyaki and recalling the various financial crises in the last 25 to 30 years and comparing notes about what they'd done with it.

Chef Narisawa of the famous Narisawa restaurant in Tokyo, considered one of the world's best restaurants, has the bread baked for his guests right at their table so I thought I might make my ice cream at the dinner table too. And all this while I was putting in my two cents' worth about the crises of 1998 and 2008.

I also recalled the sudden drop in the Nikkei, the Japanese stock market, as well as in markets around the world over the summer last year. I remember that I was in Iceland, spending the summer happily living a #Travelife. And when the markets dropped like a stone in water, I simply closed my laptop up for a few weeks and went for long walks by the beach in Iceland.

In Omotesando yesterday, living a #Travelife...


But back to my homemade ice cream. All the hard work was worth it.

I served the ice cream without any fuss at the end of dinner so that the conversation never even changed pace or topic. But when the guys each took a spoonful of ice cream, they actually stopped their almost incessant talking to look at me in surprise. Then one of them asked: "What kind of ice cream is this? It's really good."

The others asked for seconds.

"Just made it now while I was sitting here turning that contraption around," I replied, pointing to my pretty exhausted manual ice cream maker. And, at that point, I almost added: " a #Travelife."

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A flashy new sports car and about the best restaurant in Tokyo, if not in Japan

I have a total of four nights in Tokyo before flying out of Japan, three of which have already been spent having wonderful dinners with friends, living a #Travelife.

On Friday night, Mr. Y took me to dinner.

He was very busy that day so all he'd said was "I'm taking you somewhere fancy you like," and that he'd pick me up at 7. I honestly thought he was taking me to the Michelin three-star Chateau Restaurant Joel Robuchon for dinner, which he knows I love and, by the way, which I think is the best Joel Robuchon restaurant in the world.

Scroll down to read more about the best restaurant in Tokyo... 


He picked me up at 7 PM sharp in his pretty snazzy new sports car, although he let his driver take the wheels while he sat in the passenger side on the way over so he could use the phone and answer emails in the car.

Then when I appeared, he let his driver go and drove us himself to, indeed, my favourite restaurant -- a restaurant so secret that it doesn't even have a name or a phone number save for the owner's mobile.

So we didn't end up in Chateau Restaurant Joel Robuchon, after all, but we went somewhere I really like anyway -- and only a couple of people can take me to this restaurant as it's not really open to the public. Joel Robuchon is nice, but I can eat there anytime.

I got these beautiful flowers on the weekend, too,
in Tokyo, living a #Travelife...


And this restaurant in Tokyo doesn't even have a sign, a menu, or a cash register.

This restaurant is only for select regulars who come in and eat whatever is set in front of them by a chef who wants to stay under the radar of the Michelin Guide.

It's always excellent food and wine but no one talks about prices or even sees anything with a price tag. Instead the bill for whatever was accumulated over one month is sent to everyone's secretaries to deal with.


All phones are also left at the door so it goes without saying that I could take no photos of the food for Instagram.

I'm not even supposed to write about it in detail, except to say that Friday night's dinner was a superb ten-course meal and this restaurant without a name -- just a number on a gate -- truly deserves to be called one of the best restaurants in Japan.

As for the opening photo for this blog, I'll just have to content myself with a photo of Mr. Y's car, which is pretty okay too, because when I was riding it, it sure felt like I was living a #Travelife... 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Exploring the bohemian neighbourhoods of Shibuya and finding some really interesting bars and restaurants in Tokyo

We started out with coffee and tea in Shibuya...

This morning, the spring weather was so fine in Tokyo that we decided to try and outdo our daily 10,000 steps on the FitBit and explore a neighbourhood of Tokyo that we don't really get to usually do. 

It's not so far from my home, but in a way it's a world away, and I was happy to find so many interesting and unique shops and restaurants, along with a couple of quirky ones in this off-the-beaten track neighbourhood of Shibuya.

We found a makeshift beer garden created from a tiny garage...

This is the more bohemian side of a pretty upscale part of Tokyo, nearer the train station. In a previous lifetime it was a gaijin hangout -- and perhaps it still is.

It's about a half hour's walk from my home, which is a really quiet residential neighbourhood in central Tokyo, and then suddenly -- boom -- you're in the middle of narrow winding streets full of color, noise and themes.


I found a very intriguing restaurant with a slogan written right across its entrance that made me decide to come back to this area and try it one day.

Who can resist a meal with unforgettable emotions, after all? Whatever that actually means.


There was also a very cool barber shop -- the kind of barber shop from another era that you might see featured in Wallpaper or Monocle Magazine. Monocle Magazine, incidentally, has its Tokyo store near my neighborhood, in the other side of Shibuya.

It reminded me of the old barber shop at the old Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, although with a more hip design.

When I pointed this barber shop out to Mr. Y, he said, "I think I've seen this featured somewhere."


But perhaps the most interesting places in this neighbourhood were the ancient gaijin hangouts from the days of Japan's bubble economy over two decades ago. 

In those days, gaijin in the financial industry were raking in fortunes for the amount of effort and talent they put in, and so many spent the weekends of the bubble economy getting blasted in charmingly decrepit places like this.

But this was the period of excess in Japan, and everyone was sprinkling gold on miso soup and waving 10,000 yen notes in the air to hail a taxi.

A motorbike in a shop window...

These bars and restaurants didn't seem like Tokyo at all, and most of them were plastered with stickers and signs so that almost the entire walls were covered with graffiti-like art.

Some, though, had quirky designs like vintage motorbikes in their windows, or very tasteful designs like walls sculptured to look like book shelves.

These was a fake bookshelf in a wall sculpture...

And by that time we were ready for lunch.

"Let's get out of here and do a nice French restaurant for lunch," Mr. Y said, paging for his driver to come around and get us in his new sports car that literally stopped traffic, in this charming but pretty uncharacteristic neighborhood for us to be walking around in.

The snazzy new sports car is best as a two-seater although there's space enough at the back for something like a a picnic basket or a Goyard overnight case -- and that's all. So the moment the car rolled up, he let the driver take the day off and took over the wheels himself.

By then we had done 14,000 steps on our pedometers, which meant we could enjoy a full course French meal with a bottle of wine at a nearby Michelin-starred French restaurant, practically guilt-free, living as always a never-endingly delicious #Travelife. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

"Kyoto Study Program: From Anime to Zen." Study Japanese culture for two weeks in Kyoto

From Anime to Zen, the universities of Kyoto are now offering students a crash course in all things Japanese.

In response to the success of the first programme in January this year, the City of Kyoto and the Consortium of Universities in Kyoto will continue to offer the “Kyoto Study Programme : from Anime to Zen.

This non-degree 2-week Kyoto residential programme offers students an excellent introduction to Japanese society and culture with a well balanced curriculum covering a diverse range of aspects of Japanese society and culture.

Scroll down to read more about the Kyoto Study Programme... 


All classes are taught in English by renowned subject specialists from among the dozens of universities and colleges in Kyoto. In addition to the courses offered, there are a number of field trips and special events, including interaction with local students.

Kyoto is recognised not only as a touristic city but also as a major student hub in Japan. The 50 universities and colleges in and around Kyoto have enrollments of 147,000 students accounting for 10% of the city's total population.

This Kyoto Study Programme encourages intermational students to sample the atmosphere in Kyoto, a city rich in cultural heritage, whilst learning about what they experience. 

Programme Dates:

Summer Programme: 24 July – 6 August 2016
Accepting applications until 31 May 2016 

Winter Programme: 15 -28 January 2017
Accepting applications from 1 September - 30 November 2016 

Who is eligible: 
Undergraduates / Graduate level university students

No. of Participants: 25 students will be accepted for the programme

Programme Fees 

JPY 130,000 per person

What's included: 
Tuition and class materials
Accommodation* for 2 weeks
Kyoto City public transport fees
Scheduled excursions and activities
Administration fees

What's not included: 
Transportation to and from Kyoto
The cost of passports and visas
Living expenses and meals
International insurance
And other daily expenses 

*Accommodations at Karasuma Kyoto Hotel in a single room with breakfast and free Wifi included

Malta offers the world's most scenic airport landing. And about the 10 best scenic airport landings in the world.

The city of Valleta in Malta
Malta Tops List Of 
World's Best 10 Scenic Airport Landings 

Malta International Airport has topped a global poll of the world's most scenic landings*, conducted by the private jet booking service PrivateFly.

The company asked a panel of international travel experts and travel fans for their most scenic airport approaches in its annual survey, with the most votes this year going to the small European island airport.

Scroll down to read more about this most scenic airport landings in the world... 


One voter commented about the experience of landing at Malta Airport: “Landing on this gem in the Mediterranean sea is not to be missed! The islands of Malta and Gozo fit into your window...the sea, the blue skies, the landscape, the greenery, the cities, the temples, and all the colours that this beautiful island has to offer. Beats any landing by far!”

A panel of major names in the travel industry formed the shortlist for the public vote, including former New York Times travel writer Joe Sharkey. About landing at Malta Airport, he commented: "Approached from a churning blue sea; the tiny, isolated rocky island nation suddenly appears and you immediately understand Malta's strategic geo-political importance for literally millennia by sea and later air in the middle of the Mediterranean."


Queenstown, New Zealand

Previous winners of the annual poll include:


Nice Cote D'Azur 

St Maarten in the Caribbean 

Barra in Scotland's Outer Hebrides 

Adam Twidell, CEO of PrivateFly and an experienced pilot, comments: “PrivateFly's poll has become an annual checklist for the well-travelled, and this year's voting was the most competitive yet."

FOR 2016

The other 2016 most scenic airport landings in the world are:

Los Angeles 

London City


The tiny island airstrip of Saba in the Caribbean 
(the world's shortest commercial runway)

The unique beach landing at Barra 
in Scotland's Outer Hebrides

The remote and rugged Donegal 
in north west Ireland 


Adam Twiddle, CEO of PrivateFly added: “Flying into Malta is a truly special experience - it's a tiny island landing that packs a big punch. There is so much to take in. Without being hectic, the landscape changes from coast, to farmland to the historic city of Valletta. It's like flying into a Picasso painting.”