Less than 24 hours in Baler

First of all, I don’t recommend it: spending less than 24 hours in Baler. Unless, you’ve been stuck in the city for months, have been salivating over beach photos in your Instagram feed, have a company outing, or all of the above. Then, it’s a welcome escape.

Baler, a coastal town in Aurora province, is known as one of the top surfing spots in the country. Pounded by the waves of the Pacific Ocean, Baler is reportedly where surfing was born in the country after the film crew from Apocalypse Now surfed and left their boards back in 1979. These days there are several surfing schools and resorts that dot the stretch of Sabang Beach in Baler. One of them is Costa Pacifica.

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Having only opened last year, Costa Pacifica has earned a reputation of being one of the more comfortable accommodations you can book in Baler, where backpacker inns also abound. I wasn’t really keen to learn how to surf, especially when there was a typhoon heading in the area–oh, who am I kidding? That weekend, my idea of being adventurous at the beach was drinking cocktails by the pool, even as it was raining.

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Good Food Sundays

It started last Sunday. Bookshop and bar Uno Morato and Good Food Community, which supports small organic farmers through community-shared agriculture, launched Good Food Sundays.

Good Food Sundays is a small weekend market for fresh organic produce and local food products. There are only a handful of stalls, a far cry from the other weekend markets, which I also love (hello, Salcedo!) but sometimes find a bit overwhelming in terms of choices and scale.

This Sunday market is more of an intimate affair. Feel free to chat up the folks behind the stalls and there are only six: get organic vegetables from small farms in Tarlac that Good Food supports; sample (and buy!) Philippine specialty coffee from Kalsada; fill your bag with different types of  bread from Manila Bake; pick up some of a Ritual’s butter, sea salts, different types of local vinegar, Malagos chocolates and cheese, and homemade kimchi by The Wandering Chew (I’m looking forward to their caramelized onions next Sunday!); another stall sells rice, beans and other sorts of grains, honey, and pickled goodies; and if you haven’t had your breakfast yet, there’s a table where you can buy hot Malagos chocolate and pan de sal with kesong puti to start your Sunday morning. (Updated the photos below with a few new items from the market)

Find fresh organic veggies

Find fresh organic veggies in the Good Food Community stall

The latest crop of vegetables

The latest crop of organic vegetables from Good Food Community: shiny plump eggplants, baskets of greens, and on the middle plate–a handful of cherry tomatoes with the smallest cucumbers I’ve ever seen

Kalsada Coffee

Kalsada Coffee

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Get your grains!

Get your grains!

Taste test!

Sample some good bread and butter

Love this bread from Manila Bake

Love the Brown Rice, Shallot and Rosemary Boules from Manila Bake

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Can you tell I gravitated toward the stall with all the baked goodies?

The Wandering Chew

Bottled goodness from The Wandering Chew: Onion jam, calamansi curd, and dulce de leche

Good Food Sundays happens just outside Uno Morato, at the back of Sabroso Lechon, corner of E. Rodriguez Avenue and Tomas Morato. Stalls are open from 7 am to 1 pm, every Sunday (updated) until December. There are a few parking spaces in front of the bookshop for customers. 

Top 10 things to do in Osaka

When we were planning our trip to Osaka, I tried not to go overboard with the itinerary the way I did it for our 2010 Tokyo-Kyoto trip. (When I jammed so many things to do in a span of a single day without taking into account the fact that we were going to be in a new city where we don’t speak the language or know our way around its public transport system. Brilliant.) We had three whole days to spend in Osaka after arriving late in the evening (the rest of the trip was spent in Kyoto and Nara) and thankfully managed to see some sights, gorge on the local food, and not get blinded by the wild neon lights.

1. Eat! If there’s one thing the folks from Osaka are supposed to be good at it’s food. The country’s third largest city was known during the Edo period as “Japan’s kitchen” and it seems they’re still living up to it in some way as they keep serving great food. And some of them won’t break the bank, too. Have takoyaki while you’re walking around (there are lots of places to get it–from train stations to Dotonbori), teppanyaki for a proper dinner, and drinks with okonomiyaki (Mizuno in Dotonbori gets a pretty long queue), or kushiage (Kushikatsu Daruma has several restos in Dotonbori and Kita-ku).

Osaka's famous street food: takoyaki

Osaka’s famous street food: takoyaki

Or look for a branch of Ichiran and line up for some of their comforting bowls of ramen

Hankering for ramen? Look for a branch of Ichiran and line up for some solo session (you get your own booth) with ramen

2. Visit the castle and the grove. Osaka Castle is probably the city’s most recognizable landmark. It’s been destroyed and rebuilt through time, so the one standing there now where all of us tourists get our pictures taken is not a faithful replica (entrance fee, JPY600).

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If you don’t find that impressive, the grounds around the castle still make it worth the visit, particularly during spring when the Plum Grove turns into this dreamy cloud of pink blooms lining several paths or when the Nishinomaru Garden overlooking the castle is covered by a cloud of pink cherry blossoms from its 600 trees.

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What to love about Osaka and Kyoto trains and stations

With Osaka as our base all throughout our trip to Japan last March, we spent an ample amount of time in trains and train stations, going to Kyoto, and around Kyoto and Nara. Aside from the Japanese railways’ efficiency, these are some of the things that made my train-loving heart geek out: some cool-looking trains, delicious station eats, and abundant opportunities to people watch.

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Osaka Loop Line. In Tokyo, there’s the Yamanote Line. Osaka also has its own loop line, which has stops in major stations Umeda/Osaka and Tennoji. The line also stops in Osakajokoen, which is the closest JR station to Osaka Castle; and Bentencho, which is two stops away from Osakako (Osaka Aquarium) on the Chuo line.

Hankyu Kyoto Line to Arashiyama. We decided to take the Hankyu Kyoto Line from Umeda (Hankyu) station in Osaka to Arashiyama just because it was the most direct route from where we were staying (in Kita-ku). And the minute I saw the train, I was happy with our decision. It was an old maroon four-car beauty. A Hankyu 6300 series, I found out later on, that has been around since the 1970s and was supposedly refurbished five years ago. Continue reading

How to get to Osaka from Kansai International Airport

So there we were with our one large luggage, between platforms 4 and 5, wondering whether we should jump in the train at platform 5 when the JR person informed us a few minutes earlier that the Kansai Rapid Service was going to be in platform 4. My husband pointed out that the train had  Rapid Service blinking across it. Being it our first time to land in KIX and to ride the Kansai Rapid Service, we were not sure if it was the one going straight to JR Osaka Station in Kita-ku or if there were other types of rapid services. It was on a different platform. What if it was the right train? The next train would be another thirty minutes and it was already getting late. We jumped inside with only a few seconds to spare before the door closed.

As we pulled out of the airport station, I was still not sure if it was the right train until the monitor showed station names that I could see in the Osaka Railway and Subway map I got from one of the airport information counters. I could now stop gripping my husband’s hand.

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If you’re heading to Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe and other parts of the Kansai region from outside Japan, then you’ll most likely be flying into the Kansai International Airport (KIX). From KIX, you have several ways to get to your destination.

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