Metro Manila was due for a storm visit that night, but the foreboding weather didn’t stop a few longtime friends from stepping out to a special dinner in the residence of Japan’s ambassador to the Philippines. What they had in common? Japan holds a special place in their hearts.
Industrialist Manolo Lopez was the Philippine ambassador to Japan for six years until 2016, a sojourn made significant by giant strides, which included the growth in Japan’s investments in the country, the visits of then President Benigno Aquino III to Tokyo and dinner with Emperor Akihito, and the reciprocal visits of His Majesty to Manila.
It was also during the posting of Ambassador Lopez that a coffee-table book was published on the historic Philippine ambassador’s residence in Tokyo, the Kudan. The book’s launch in Tokyo was attended by Yoko Ono herself, who took the event as an opportunity to revisit Kudan, her family’s ancestral home where she spent her childhood.
With Lopez at the dinner was his wife Maritess, looking relaxed and blooming. Ambassador Koji Haneda and his wife Ihoko hosted the dinner in honor of National Artist BenCab, who came with longtime partner Annie Sarthou.
The other special guests, few enough to sit around the dining table, were Virgie Ramos, Ambeth Ocampo, Dr. Joven Cuanang, Rene Guatlo, Dr. Nestor Pagulayan and this writer.
BenCab and Annie first met Ms Haneda in August during the opening of the Arboretum at Cuanang’s Pinto Museum in Antipolo. BenCab loves Japan—not only Japanese food but most especially, the sakura season. He has taken beautiful photographs of the cherry blossoms. And he is a bonsai collector.
That night, the Lopezes gifted the Hanedas with “BenCab,” the collectible coffee-table book the Lopezes had published on the life and works of the National Artist. Now the Haneda couple, who love art, are looking forward to visiting the BenCab Museum off the city of Baguio.
Inquirer columnist and popular historian Ocampo has spent years of studies in Tokyo and visits Japan occasionally for lectures.
Cuanang has just had art shows in Japan and enjoyed a wellness visit there.
Not known to many, Ramos spent a good part of her growing-up years in Japan, and at the cusp of her entrepreneurship, brought Hello Kitty to the Philippines, where it perked up the lives of generations of Filipino women. She remains a lover of Yayoi Kusama.
Guatlo, fluent in Japanese, is a translator here and in Japan.
The kitchen of the ambassador’s residence prepared a refreshing and sumptuous autumnal feast, with the ingredients flown in from Japan that week, like they are regularly.
The Japanese ambassador introduced every dish and how an ingredient could be special to autumn, for it is not available other times of the year.
Haneda, who’s had postings in the Middle East and New York, is fairly new to the country, having moved here only during the holidays last year, so that the couple’s first experience of the Philippines was our Christmas, said to be the longest yuletide celebration in the world.
In less than a year, the Hanedas, though fairly new to the scene, have become the familiar acquaintances of government, business and even the arts and culture communities.
It helps that their genuine interest in Filipino culture and lifestyle is conveyed with easy amiability.
Chef Daisuke Suzuki, whose kitchen is known to Filipino guests of the ambassador for its Guava Sinigang, prepared a seven-course dinner, all appropriately small servings but obviously with the choice ingredients, relished with Dassai Junmai Daiginjo (Yamaguchi) sake. (The red and white wine bottles: Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 Spottswoode Lyndenhurst, Staglin Estate Chardonnay 2015.)
The dinner started with Deep-fried Tofu, Hairy Crab with Vinegar Jelly, Salmon Sushi Wrapped in Bamboo Leaf and the signature Guava Sinigang.
This paved the way for a Saga-Beef “Chateaubriand” Steak. Then came the Tuna, Japanese Sea Bream and Angel Shrimp—the kitchen’s autumnal harvest—followed by the Kagoshima-Beef Shabu-shabu. That was exactly what our table needed on a night of dreary weather.
This prepared us for the Rice Mixed with Grilled Eel and the Soup in Teapot “Dobin-mushi.”
It was while appreciating the eel that Haneda shared with us the interesting information that the Japanese unagi, a popular fare among Filipino diners, is harvested in Butuan and exported to Japan. It’s an enterprise put up in the south by a Japanese businessman.
Lopez remembered that venture, and looked back, in his typical paternal tone, on his memorable years in Japan—
how he started out focused on bringing in Japanese investors but in time realized that his foreign service there was being enriched not only by the business side, but more so, by his immersion in the lives of Filipinos in Japan, especially by their touching success stories.
The food was as relaxing and stimulating as the company in the Japanese ambassador’s residence. Even the weather was in synergy with the evening vibe. The storm didn’t come.