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I’d like to think the question posed above to our guide by one of the Taal volcano island’s residents was in fact true. But in reality, it was because I fancied myself more physically fit than I actually was. As beads of sweat came pouring down my face, my runners and leggings lathered in dust and my drinking water getting hotter and hotter by the minute, I awed in admiration as our ostensibly unfit looking guide made the trek in his flip flops cool as a cucumber and unfazed by both the heat and the hike. As I approached the peak of the volcano’s island, I looked for our group who was now out of sight surely basking in the glory of reaching the top and relaxing under the shade of the palm trees.

If the thrill of hiking up an active volcano is your jam, then as the words of the tourism campaign go…it is indeed “More Fun In the Philippines”. But before embarking on our final journey of the year all we could think about was what in the world were we doing? With an airport bullet-planting scandal – living up to its reputation of one of the worst airports in the world – and general concerns, we could not believe we were returning to Manila.

Thirteen years is all it took for us to return, and it would have been longer if a personal invite for a wedding more than a year ago did not happen. So here we found ourselves in the place we once called home, familiar with the cultural idiosyncrasies of the place but also far removed from the fabric of its day-to-day life.

Luckily, in more than a decade of absence it seemed much had remained the same. Countless lights and decorations continued to illuminate the palm trees that lined the streets. Along with masses held in department stores, malls and any other place one could think of, there was no escaping the non-commercialised significance of the upcoming Christmas season.


Festive lights lined the streets in Makati

The pastime of “malling” too still seemed to be the activity of choice for many, except shopping malls were bigger and in more abundance than what we remembered. Traffic continued to be an issue. Except what was once somewhat tolerable had become all-consuming. Evident thirty minutes after leaving the airport when we found ourselves still beside the tarmac. Fortunately due to the glacial pace of travel, busses and jeepneys packed to the brim with commuters hanging off doors did not need to be worried about their passengers’s safety. Nor did the children begging for money on the same streets which was visually juxtaposed by children of the social elite tendered to by their nannies, drivers and bodyguards during trips to the mall.


Greenbelt 5 – one of the malls within a complex of malls that are also connected to a few other malls across our hotel

It is a social dichotomy that constantly surrounds those in the Metro Manila area. But after living here, one cannot help be desensitized to it. In spite of its social and economic circumstances however, it was surreal to once again be reacquainted with the people and places that formed a substantial part of our youth. Randomly bumping into former classmates, acquaintances and neighbours was a pleasant surprise but also predictable given the wedding and the small social circle that surrounded us during our time living in Manila in spite of its massive population.


A ride on a bangka brought us from the mainland to Taal’s volcano island

With limited time in the city however, dining adventures were decided on by the inclinations of our friends who still lived there and who filled us with local delicacies such as prawns drenched in aligue (crab fat), bangus (fried milkfish) and its belly, or kare kare (stew of crushed peanuts with various meats, offals and vegetables) generally served with a side of bagoong (a condiment made of fermented fish) to cut the richness of the peanut sauce. Not a day went by without a mango shake or buko (coconut) in our hands either. And we forgot how hearty (and heart-stopping) a sizzling plate of pork sisig (sliced up parts of a pig’s head) in the Philippines tasted like, specially with egg yolk dropped and cooked into the hot plate and then eaten alongside garlic rice.


A sizzling plate of pork sisig, with an egg yolk and calamnsi (the Philippines’s mini version of lime)

Hiking up the scorching Taal volcano with a few of our fellow wedding guests brought us to the home of a dish called bulalo, a soup composed of a variety of vegetables, beef shanks and marrow cooked and melted into a clear broth. Considering the enduring heat in this country, the substantial amount of stews and soups one can find here is amazing.


Crater lake at the top of Taal’s Volcano Island. The island in the middle of the crater is an island within a lake within a volcano island within a lake. The water in the middle is said to be extremely hot.

Not as surprising as the influences of hundreds of years of Spanish colonization. Which could be found in dishes such as callos (stew of tripe, peas, sausage and peppers) or lechon (slow roasted pig). The latter generally served during special occasions or the holidays. There are few pork dishes that can rival the juicy slices of crispy pork skin and its meat dipped in a sweet liversauce. And the multiple lechons served during the wedding reception were so flavourful on its own, it did not need any sauce at all.


Lechon at the wedding reception

They say the lechon from the island of Cebu is the best out there, but we have yet to to try it. When it comes to Filipino cuisine, regionalised dishes are what remains to be explored for us. If we ever return, it would be for the empanadas of Ilocos or the spicy food of Bicol in addition to the lechon of Cebu. But it may not be any time soon as there is so much of the world we want to explore.

Sans rival taken from the French words meaning “unrivaled”. It is a dessert composed of layers of buttercream, meringue and nuts

Yet in spite of the statement above, we continue to find ourselves returning to the other city of our youth, Tokyo, including the most recent visit – a four-day stop before heading out to Manila. For no reason in particular (aside from good food, good shopping, good hospitality and the aromatic kabosu drink of All Nippon Airways of course), we cater to our whims when it comes to Tokyo.

With each visit there are less sights to see and more places to eat, and similar to our returns to this city, we repeatedly find ourselves back in the sushi restaurant Sawada. The series of unfortunate events that plagued our previous visits to this restaurant seemed to disappear on this last return. Instead, every aspect was an improvement from before, from the hospitality to the company to the food. Most notably the shari which was on another level with a greater vinegar punch.


The ginko leaves that fall from the trees mark the season on Sawada’s napkins. Before every season, Mrs Sawada works with an artist on the design

Which was a very different experience to Sushi Ya. Perhaps it was an off day for the man at the helm but what lay before us that afternoon was a disjointed progression and a lack of attention to detail. The subtle shari was not our favourite either and at the end of the meal, he forgot to give us a tamago (egg omelette) – a treat we always look forward to and a major disappointment. That is not to say it was all negative. In fact there were many positives, such as the flavours emulating from the otsumami as well as the fantastic diversity and quality of the neta.

Aji (horse Mackerel) at Sushi Ya

But it is not only about sushi in Tokyo. On this short trip we once again explored the skill (specially the knife work), technique and balance of a kaiseki meal. First through the three Michelin starred Aoyama Esaki with its western size portioning, heavy dishes and strength in fish. The opposite to the kaiseki a few nights later at the two Michelin starred Seizan Mita where two courses of overcooked fish marred what would otherwise have been a very strong kaiseki. In time and through experience, we continue to learn about kasiseki meals. Perhaps with a few more visits, we will be able to provide a full blog post of a meal in its entirety.


Crab dumplings at Seizan Mita

Tokyo isn’t all about the high end restaurants either though. And the cold rainy days that always seem to follow us from #Raincouver are comforted by hearty broths of ramen – such as the yuzu-based broth of AFURI or the always solid Ippudo chain of ramen restaurants we went to on this visit.


Yuzuratan ramen at AFURI

And with American establishments popping up in every corner – creating line-ups of extensive proportions – we could not help ourselves when it came to the over-rated cronut of Dominique Ansel and the medium rare burgers of Shake Shack. After enduring a two-hour rain-soaked selfie-loving peace sign-making line-up at Shake Shack however, we could not help but feel a little jolted by the flavours and aromas of karaage, teriyaki and more wafting from a food fair nearby.


Shake Shack staffers giving #ShakeShackTokyo signs to customers so that they can take pictures with it before they entered

A minor if almost negligible regret to an otherwise fleeting yet significant trip of 2015. The latter half reminding us significantly of the fortunes of living within the comforts of the developed world. What’s in store for us in 2016 is still yet to be determined, but hopefully it will be even better than the year before.

To view pictures of our trip and meals in their entirety, please visit our photo sets.

Thanks for reading and happy eating,
Carla and Sonny