Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Happy New Year 2016

Happy New Year in advance to all!

Here is my special wish for you in 2016:

May you be happier.
Happiness is only a concept, it is in making someone smile that turns it into a reality. Strive to make more people happy.

Love more.
The more you love, the more you can love.

See beauty in everything, everywhere. There is beauty everywhere.  If you truly understand this, you can look at any ordinary object and find beauty in its existence.

Enjoy the small differences, and you will discover a great 2016.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The life of a volunteer

Melissa has decided to work as a volunteer for three weeks to help in the Typhoon Haiyan  recovery program in Tacloban, Philippines.

She gets free lodging, where she shares the room with one Spanish, one Danish, one British and a Scottish guy (2 guys). text-align: center;

This is where she sleeps at site.  It is not the Intercontinental, but it is privided with  a mosquito net and an electric fan.

and free food with most of the volunteers being University students.

Here is the entrance to the site

This is the area where she works, pouring cement and denailing.

This is the foundation for a school.

They start to work early but they get to see the sunset from their balcony.
They have occasional typhoons but not strong enough to stop them from working.  Work is tough, but very rewarding, Mel says.  She finds the positive in learning and practising Tagalog.  She said it rained a lot today, but nobody complained and everybody was happy to continue working.

On Sundays, the volunteers get a free day off. 

 On some days they get to enjoy the Salvation waterfalls near the site, 

Or have bbq by the beach and play games with local kids.

Before leaving the site for the Christmas holidays, the organizers invited the volunteers for a lechon festival with sweet potatoes, cassava, fish, pancit and  sweet corn for those who do not eat meat.

Recently,she went with nine volunteers to a nearby island called Sambawan, where they spent the night.  She had fun snorkeling in company of friends

Sambawan island is endowed with beautiful white sandy beach, rich marine life and coral gardens, which invite intrepid divers and snorkelers specially on summer season.  During high tide, Sambawan transforms into three beautiful islets. Source :  Biliran Tourism

She shared,  for 250 pesos each with another person,  the bungalow that is pictured in the middle 

Melissa and friends seemed to have had some fun in the Sambawan  island.

On the way to Tinago Falls, no fancy vehicle, but comfortable enough and surrounded by newly found friends.

Tinago Falls

It was a smooth boat ride.

Then  back to hard work.  But that does not keep Melissa from smiling...

Pouring cement.

Cutting metal bars

Tower where they take a nap.

Playing volleyball during lunch break!  They get one hour for lunch.

This is their lunch area.

Her last days of work were characterized  with hard work combined with fun.
This is what was published in her profile in ALL HANDS VOLUNTEERS.

Meet Our Volunteer‬ Melissa from Madrid, Spain!  Melissa has been on a bit of a mission. Her parents are both from the Philippines, and her father was actually from the island, Leyte, where we currently do most of our work. She was determined to find some of her family whom she'd never met. So in addition to working full-time at our Streetlight Relocation project - a campus and refuge for Tacloban's street children - Melissa studied Tagalog and then sought out and found around 50 new relatives! She was then invited back to spend Christmas with many of them and enjoyed a wonderful family reunion. Melissa's favorite moments on ProjectLeyte‬ have been working side by side with Filipinos on a daily basis, meeting so many people with "big hearts," and taking part in our "Little Dreams" where we go into a neighborhood and show a movie for children.

To show your support for Melissa and our work on Leyte and Samar, click here

Saturday, December 05, 2015

My impressions from my trip to Japan

My trip to Japan, with Mel, has excelled by far all of my expectations. It is not only from its trove of photogenic wonders from the autumn leaves, the modern architecture,  in contrast with the traditional, the temples, shrines and gardens, but more so from what I have learned  about their aesthetic values.

The one that hit me the most is the wabi-sabi, the art of imperfection.  Wabi-sabi is all that is authentic based on three simple realities: "nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect". A way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycles of growth and decay.

Broadly, wabi-sabi is everything that today's sleek, mass-produced, technology-saturated culture isn't. It's flea markets, not shopping malls; aged wood, not swank floor coverings; one single morning glory, not a dozen red roses, cherry blossoms that are  more beautiful because they do not last forever...

A clear example of wabi-sabi comes from a legend:

"According to Japanese legend, a young man named Sen no Rikyu sought to learn the elaborate set of customs known as the Way of Tea. He went to tea-master Takeeno Joo, who tested the younger man by asking him to tend the garden. Rikyu cleaned up debris and raked the ground until it was perfect, then scrutinized the immaculate garden. Before presenting his work to the master, he shook a cherry tree, causing a few flowers to spill randomly onto the ground".  Source:  Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Hereunder, are my observations on my 18 day trip to Japan, after visiting Tokyo, Osaka, Kamakura, Kyoto and Sapporo:

1)  Japan is clean -  I have not seen any graffiti nor litter in Japan. Litter in Japan is not common mainly because they do not eat nor drink in the streets.  Likewise, there are exclusive areas for smokers even in parks.  You hardly see garbage bins except in special places such as convenience stores or near vending machines (people are expected to finish their drinks near the machines to access to the bins).  Otherwise, they take their trash home to recycle and dispose of.   Another reason is staff working at stores often will clean the street in front of their shops everyday before they open their business.

Smoker areas are discreetly hidden.  Here it is inside the bush covered fence.

There are street signs where smoking is not allowed.

2) Most Japanese streets do not have names.
All Japanese communities, including parts of cities have always been like little villages where everyone knows everyone else and so there is no need to have street names or even house numbers in order.  It is for this reason that when giving directions to a location, most people will offer cross streets, visual landmarks and subway stations.

It is common to see long narrow alleys, since as I have read,  taxes are based on how much space of the street is occupied by the building  itself.

3) Toilets
Toilets, are an experience in themselves. In high-end hotels and museums, you'll often find fancy toilets with all sorts of buttons next to the seat. Most of the buttons are for clean-up, water spray adjustments, such as power and spread with options for man or woman. Some seats have dryers and others have built in seat warmers (great for the winter, not so great in the summer), some even opening up the cover as soon as it detects your presence. The flushing is often automatic or via a digital button, but even manual flush toilets have options for a small flush (after #1) or a large flush (after #2). Sensible.

And yet most of the modern ones, are not provided with seat covers.

On the other end of all this fanciness is the Japanese-style toilet. This is basically an oblong, ceramic toilet bowl recessed into the ground. You straddle it and squat to do your business. The idea is actually pretty good for hygiene, since you don't have to touch anything. But comfort is an issue (no lingering and reading the paper!) and it is hard on your knees as you get older (me!).  Both kinds of toilets are available in many bathrooms, for those with a preference. The stall door will say "Western" or "Japanese", as appropriate. And the stall doors go all the way to the ground for added privacy. Usually when not indicated, the first two doors are the Western type.  In more than one occasion,  I had to wait longer in the queue and had to allow several women to pass before me to avail of the Western type of toilet.

Some bathrooms incorporate the hand dryer in the same sink with the faucet.

Despite this, you sometimes find bathrooms with no soap - not just out of soap, but none that is provided (ew!). The lack of soap (uncommon, but not unheard of), seems out of place with the clean, super-hygiene oriented toilet technology.  Likewise, in toilets where soap is not provided usually there is no hand dryer either. I carried my own supply.

Overall, Japanese restrooms are very clean, even in  public places, like in subway stations.

4)  On dining
In Japan, it is customary to say itadakimasu. (lit. I humbly receive" before starting to eat a meal. When saying itadakimasu, both hands are put together in front of the chest or on the lap.  Another customary and important etiquette is to say go-chiso-sama deshita (lit. "it was a feast") to the host after the meal and the restaurant staff when leaving.

Hot towels 
Before eating, most dining places provide either a hot or cold towel or a plastic-wrapped wet napkin (o-shibori). This is for cleaning hands before eating (and not after). It is rude to use them to wash the face or any part of the body other than the hands though some Japanese men use their o-shibori to wipe their faces in less formal places. Accept o-shibori with both hands when a server hands you the towel. When finished, fold or roll up your oshibori and place it on the table. It is impolite to use o-shibori towels to wipe any spills on the table.  In the Karaoke bar where we have been to, hostess provides a rolled towel every time you come out from the toilet.

Japan can boast of their excellent service.  Japanese service is (almost always) polite and diligent. The best thing is that staff aren't motivated by tips. No tippings in Japan, unless customer is overly impressed, he can give a tip (but inside an envelope before handing it).  Great service in Japan seems to be a purpose in itself  and a recognition that the customer is the one who maintains the  business, and therefore must be well served.

Plastic display of food
They make plastic food look like replicas of what would be an actual food to be served, and it is everywhere, both outside in an actual size display and in  a small scale in their menus inside.


Japanese cuisine
It is not only sushi, they have various types of food.  Although there are not plenty of international restaurants to choose from (only about 10%) compared with Japanese restaurants. Contrary to my belief that Japanese eat a lot of vegetables, we found it difficult to order a strictly veggie menu. Although specified as veggie menu, dishes usually contained meat stock.  Raw cabbage is their substitute to the European lettuce, even used as appetizer dipped in mayonnaise.

Sushi and Sashimi are their star dishes, and food presentation is an art by itself.  Fresh fish is not only commonly served in fish markets but also in some restaurants, where the owner catches the fish himself and serves it whole when it is a fresh catch.  Whatever is left of Sashimi is cooked over the grill.

In Yataiya in Nishoji, Kyoto
But equally popular are Udon, Soba, Ramen and Tempura.

Udon in Omen Kodaiji

Soba in Soba Yoshimura in Arashiyama
Also popular is the Teppanyaki, where they cook almost everything on the grill, from vegetables to sea foods. noodles and meat. The customers are given a small spatula to serve themselves directly from the grill.  Note the halve of Otomiyaki, a Japanese omelette.

Teppanyaki Franky in Nishoji, Kyoto

Bento is a meal, often consisting in rice, fish or meat and cooked vegetables, usually served in a specially divided box.

Bentos are sold  in supermarkets, convenience stores,and  subways.  They are sold at discount prices by the end of the day.  The only thing is it can be really chuggy since you don't know when they have been prepared.  But Mel had a few Bentos for take away and had no problem.  Of course, there is no comparison with the freshly made sushi even when they come from conveyor belts, since you can still ask for newly prepared ones.

5) Trains
Japan is a train lovers paradise.  The vast majority of Japanese people travel to work and school on trains.  For many urban people in Japan, cars are a hobby (something you only drive on weekends unless you live in the countryside).  I was amazed at how people could sleep in the train, and wake up before their stops.  Likewise surprising to me was to see a lady who could read with both hands a fully opened up newspaper  (almost a meter wide)  without changing position as the train speeded its way on track.  And how people were quiet on the train, no cell phone conversations, no ring tones of messages, and children always well behaved.  There are special seats indicated for women only, just as in some elevators where they are divided between men and women,  particularly in small elevators.

Signs are everywhere and maps are strategically located to guide you.  Information desks with English speaking agents are conveniently situated in big stations.   Train stops are flagged in both Japanese and English languages and with exact time of travel indicated from one stop to another.

There are usually barricades and open up only when train comes to take passengers.

Queues are properly respected before boarding the train.  (Mel used to carry a backpack all the time plus two bottles of water, one for her and one for me, while I only carried a small shoulder bag).  The privilege of a travelling elderly, accompanied by a caring daughter.  Note how the Japanese all look forward and positioned in a straight line, all for aesthetics and order.

Funny signs are indicated as to how to behave while taking escalators.  Since only a few Japanese can speak other languages, Japan is filled with pictures and character signs.

But sadly, not all stops have their escalators nor elevators and if they do have any,  there is only one in the station, so you must be ready to use the stairs constantly...  (If this is in subways, imagine temples and shrines how many steps there are to climb after going through a labyrinth of toriis).  No wonder Japanese are not prone to be fat!

On a side note, and in one of our train rides, we met a Filipino young billiard champion Jeffrey Ignacio, who is ranked 34th in the Azb 2015 year in review with a registered winning of of 28,775$ in 2015.  I have learned a few things on billiards as I conversed with him along the way.   For example: a Japanese amateur will be willing to pay an exorbitant amount of money to play with a pro like Jeffrey.  I am proud to know that a young Filipino is making a name in one of the favorite games of the Japanese.

Jeffrey Ignacio, famous Filipino billiard player

6) Onsens 
Onsen (Japanese hot spring baths) are one of Japan's greatest passions.  Onsen water is believed to have healing powers derived from its mineral content, and a means of relaxation and socializing for many.  They are offered included in the prices of some hotels or can be accessed in public baths, at an affordable price.  We lodged in Arts hotel with onsen water believed to have hot spring type with high-content sodium chloride.  Temperature:  41-42 ÂșC.  Mel enjoyed the onsen water.  I did not dare to be exposed to nudity (necessary) while in onsen bath.  People with tattoos are not allowed to use the onsen bath, due to tattoos being associated with the Yacuza.

Picture from Arts Hotel Gallery
7)  Karaoke
Karaoke originated in Japan and has spread throughout the world.  Japanese karaoke still retains a unique character. In Japan, karaoke usually happens in a private room with your friends or colleagues.  Employees sometimes  sing in karaoke during lunch breaks to destress themselves. We were invited to one and Mel had a fun night singing, when she has never been singing before.  I think that Japanese microphones are magical in karaoke bars, jejeje.

8) Small, narrow bathtubs and low mirrors in guesthouses.  In the picture  below, note the stool which is supposedly to be used to sit down while you put your make up on with the use of the mirror.

Bathtubs are narrow and small,  but slightly deeper than the Western bathtub.  And you can watch tv while you are in the bath, that is if you can stay in an awkward position for long.  There is another tv in the room, luckily.

9) Love hotels are pretty common in Japan.  Japanese homes and apartments are small.  Couples need some personal space and love hotels offer a solution.  It is not uncommon for married couples to stay at one.  Sometimes these are used by budget-travelers sharing accommodation. But mainly, businessmen kind of use them to take their mistresses for hours or for overnight stays.  It is common to see two prices for love hotels, one for "rest" and another for "stay".  No wonder there are too many hotels wherever we have been.

10) Wifi and internet
It is strange that in Japan, wifi is not so common and if available, you are required to sign in all the time.  In Starbucks, you are given the password good for one hour of free wifi. after buying any of their products.  Many Japanese carry their own pocket wifi.

Internet cafes are filled with smokers who can stay for hours, paying at least 300 yens per hour (about 2,50 euros).  Japanese watch movies and play games in internet cafes.  We had to use an internet cafe, in our district for about an hour, and my did I fill my lungs with smoke!

11) Patchinko is a gambling arcade game that is unique to Japan.  There are thousands of Pachinko parlors in Japan.  Patchinko is a type of mechanical game originating in Japan and is used as both a form of recreational arcade game and much more frequently as a gambling device, comparable to the pinball slot machine in Western gaming.

12) Masks
People in Japan wear a mask at any indication of illness or allergies.  It is basically rude not to wear a mask when you are sick.  A mask is also a used as a protection against the cold weather.

But the theatrical Noh masks are different, they are expensive because they are handmade. In Asakusa, Tokyo's most famous traditional streets store, you can find full scale replicas, made of wood or ceramics.

13) Kimonos and yukatas
They are worn by women, children and men on special occasions such as weddings or presentations at the temples.  They are also worn by certain professions such as Geisha and staff at Japanese inns (Ryokan).  According to what I was told, most Japanese women do not own kimonos but rent them upon occasions.

I took picture of the girls with permission from father

A yukata is a casual kimono-like garment worn during the summer.  It is unlined and usually made of cotton to make the fabric more transpirable, are simpler to wear and much less expensive.  As such, yukatas are popular for dressing up for summer events like firework festivals.

14)  Catholic churches in Japan

Japanese Madonna

The Roman Catholic Church in Japan is part of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, under the spiritual leadership of the Pope in Rome.  There are approximately 509,000 Catholics in Japan ---just under 0,5% of the total population.  There are 16 diosceses, including three archdioceses with 1589 priests and 848 parishes in the country.  The bishops of the dioceses form the Catholic Bishops' conference of Japan, the episcopal conference of the nation.

The current Apostolic Nuncio to Japan is Italian Archbishop Alberto Bottari de Castello, who is the Holy See's ambassador to Japan as well as its delegate to the local church.
Catholicism, as well as Christianity in general, was introduced to Japan by Portuguese explorers and missionaries, particularly by the Jesuits, such as the Spaniard St. Francis Xavier and the Italian Alessandro Valignano.

Nowadays, a large number of Japanese Catholics are ethnic Japanese from Brazil.  Source: Wikipedia

15)  Fruits
Fruits are quite expensive in Japan.  They are considered like luxury products.  There is a lot of demand, but not enough nearby supply.  Japan has less land to farm on.  Also, it is a highly populated island nation, meaning each plot of land needs to feed more people.  Added to that is the fact that Japan is not very close to many fruit producing countries.  Being ocean away, shipping costs would be much greater, leading to higher costs at the supermarket.  And Japanese are obsessed with the perfect fruits.  They would not tend to buy fruits with bumps, bruises and blemishes.

Persimmons One piece for almost 2Euros
The Yuzu tree - We first saw this tree in Kamakura, but not until I tried it for a drink in Kyoto did I know what it is.  It makes a refreshing drink, and has a very pleasant taste, more like a cross between grapefruit and  mandarin.  There is a sweet variety of yuzu, known as the yuku, said to be only present in Japan.

By the Toshugu Shrine, Ueno, Tokyo
Here is a closer view of the yuzu compared with a mandarin orange.

Source:  Wikipedia

16)  Ikebanas and bonsais.
In some temples, we enjoyed some ikebana arrangements and beautiful bonsais.

In one of the halls of Ninnaji temple, Kyoto

17) Kawaii
Kawaii "lovable", "cute" , or "adorable", is the quality of cuteness in the context of Japanese culture. It has become a prominent aspect of Japanese popular culture, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance, behaviour and mannerisms.  Source:  Wikipedia

A sociology professor at Musashi University in Tokyo has stated that "cute" is a "magic term" that encompasses everything that is acceptable and desirable in Japan.

These totally Hello Kitty faced construction pilon pretty much sum up how dedicated Japan is to being the cutest country in existence.

Japan's beautiful temples, castles, shrines with zen gardens, parks, traditional houses, museums (including the neon lights of Tokyo)  combined with its low crime rate, those for me made our visit to Japan  unique  from what we have seen so far.

Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion) Kyoto

Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion) Kyoto.  Photo by Antoine taken from Wikipedia  

Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion) Kyoto

Kinkakuji Temple (Golden  Pavilion) Kyoto

Kinkakuji Temple - Golden Pavilion, Kyoto

Kiyumizu-dera Temple, Kyoto (internet)

Sensoji Temple - Asakusa , Tokyo

600 year old pine tree 2 meters tall x 40 meters long in Yoshiminidera Temple, Kyoto

The first public modern museum in Japan.  The Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura is located in the precincts of the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in the city of Kamakura. Built next to Heike Pond as if extending out over the water, the buildings light and airy form seems to float on the surface of the pond. The Museum also affords visitors a view of the luxuriant nature surrounding the building, which undergoes a rainbow of changes with the seasons.

At the terrace of Modern Art Museum. Kamakura

Ueno Park, Tokyo

Yoyogi Park, Tokyo

Nakajima Park, Sapporo

Osaka Castle Park

Toshogu Shrine, Tokyo

Hokkaido Shrine, Sapporo

Osaka Castle

Neon lights in Akihabara, Tokyo

Views from Lumine Dept. Store, Tokyo
Mel and I were amazed not only by the beautiful country which despite not having natural resources,  people are able to make the most of what they have,   They enjoy the little time of leisure  and spend it in what satisfy them most even if it  means only hugging their futons.  

We hardly saw any homeless nor beggars, and if ever there were a few that asked, it was to give something in exchange. 

Most of the time in our trip to Japan, we have been accompanied by Mel's friends, who took some days off just to be able to show us around, to show us what to them are the best places that we should not miss,  variety of food that we should try.  Best of all, it was the  laughter in groups, the unison in whatever was proposed in doing, the pleasant camaraderie, the hospitality and generosity of the Japanese that we have known,  that will linger in our minds through the ages.

Sayonara, to our Japanese new friends, until we meet again....