(subject was on the back of someone's jacket)
Up north in the mountains, a river meanders down toward a small town built on its very edge. From the hills, boiling spring water flows in to the river. The town is there is to catch that interaction and make money from it. There are various foot baths in the city and there's an outdoor full natural bath at the river's shore. But if you don't want to be seen in your birthday suit, there are a range of hot springs where you can enjoy a pleasant bath, a traditional Japanese meal, and a wonderful night's stay. Other activities include fishing or shopping in the small craft stores and galleries. This place is called Yubara.
When I tell people I went to Yubara, they ask how the hot springs were.
What I say to my students is that they were great! It's a bit of a white lie, though. Actually, I didn't step one foot in a spring. There were other things on my mind when I went there. Namely, giant salamanders.
I'm not really sure if this all started when a student of mine was researching salamanders and needed to know English so she could go study in Borneo in hopes of discovering a new type of salamander. I think she was the person who first told me about these Giant Salamanders.
Or it might have started when I watched a TV program about a team of researchers who are trying to save the endangered Giant Salamanders in a small village in Hiroshima. I remember the show showing how they choose mates, and how they live in natural holes under riverbanks. So if there aren't natural riverbanks, then they won't make nests. And if the riverbanks don't have holes, then they won't make nests either. No nests, no eggs, no continuation of the species. When was the last time you saw a natural riverbank in Japan? That's how rare these salamanders are.
Whichever it was, I ended up having a few facts about the amphibians running around in my head so when I went with my hiking group to the Akame Gorge of 48 Waterfalls, and the guy at the trailhead said he'd seen one that morning, my interest was piqued. I kept my eyes peeled for it, but saw nothing. I mean hey, they are nocturnal, and they look like the slime at the bottom of the river anyway, so there wasn't really any way I was going to see one....
I wanted to go back there and try again another time.
When I told one of my friends in Okayama about the escapade, she informed me that actually Okayama boasts a Giant Salamander center. There's no need to travel out of the prefecture. So the next time Yossi had a free weekend, I said, "Take me to your Giant Salamanders." And he did!!
The Okayama species are called "Hanzaki" which means "Split in two."
Apparently there is a rumor that if you cut a salamander in two, it can regenerate as one again. A bit of a gruesome image, huh.. There is also a local legend of a Hanzaki that terrorized the villagers, ate their livestock, and generally wrecked havoc until some hero came and got rid of it. Because of this legend, there is now a Hanzaki festival and parade in the summer. When I went to Yubara, I got to see the giant Hanzaki floats. They have a male and a female one! In the center you can find assorted species of Giant Salamander and copies of the local legend. Behind the center, there's a shrine full of disposible chopsticks. Because what do you do when you use chopsticks? You "hanzaki" them so you can use them.
Next, there are some foot baths with Hanzaki sculpures overseeing. I really wanted to take a picture, but I didn't want to bother the other people using the bath.
We got our hands on a map that showed where the salamander's make their nests. One of them was fairly close, so we headed up toward a higher stream. Along the way we passed some quaint galleries, shops, a cafe, and a nice Japanese-style hotel. We arrived at a river which had been cemented over, but a man-made bank was made so that the Hanzaki can nest under it. That was the closest I got to a natural one. Knowing it was there in the nest below.
There was a tiny museum and library of local materials. It also housed a gift shop selling salamander merchandise. I wanted to buy some salamander-shaped chocolate that came in a variety of fun flavors, but the staff had disappeared somewhere. A man came in, and I thought he was the staff because he walked in to the library's research room without asking anyone's permission. But he was sorta dressed more like a tourist, and he didn't speak with us at all. When he left the place, he saw the staff outside, and told her that there were some customers in the shop. Who was this man, then, who can wander around the facilities, but isn't the staff. . . ?
After that we were hungry. I know Yossi doesn't really like cafes, but there was such a pleasant looking facility that boasted, "Hanzaki Zenzai." Zenzai is a kind of sweet bean soup with mochi in it. It's so sweet that they often serve it to you with some salty, bitter seaweed on the side, or a salty pickled sour plum, in case you need a sugar break. Somehow I convinced my husband to go. The owner was a spunky older man who was excited to have some customers. We asked him about the area, and I told him about how I'm recently interested in Giant Salamanders. I took the opportunity to order the Hanzaki Zenzai.
What came out in front of me was your regular bean soup, but the bit of mochi was being devoured by a yellowish mouth. This was made from a persimmon that was cut in to the shape of the head of a salamander. That was fun so I complimented the owner on the good idea. He said to me....
"Actually I didn't come up with that. It's this other guy who's kind of a researcher. He comes here quite a lot. Oh wait, I think he's here today..."
After a minute, a car was driving by the cafe. The owner jumped up. "There he is!" The car paused to turn the corner and the cafe owner goes running out after it waving a hand. "Hey! There's someone here you should meet!! She's an American! She likes salamanders!!"
Of course, the guy who came out of the car was the dude from the museum library.
We were so excited to talk to each other. He sat down at our table and started gushing about salamanders. He told me that there are Giant Salamanders in many parts of the world, including the USA where the live along the Mississippi river. Those ones are called Hellbenders.
He told me that in August every year they have a Salamander Census where they catch and weight animals at night to see how the population is thriving. He invited me to come next year and be a part of it! I showed him my drawings of animals and bugs, and then got invited to the firefly viewing festival as well! But you can't go to night events without a place to stay. The owner and the Salamander guy introduced me to a hotel down the street. It looks like just a nice Japanese-style inn from the front, but upon walking in to the lobby you can find a pile of giant Giant Salamander stuffed toys. The hotel staff let me go in to their garden. Usually such a traditional garden will have brightly colored koi swimming in the ponds. This one, however, has (you guessed it!) Giant Salamanders!
Before I left town, I showed the two men my bug art. They asked me to make a big Hanzaki picture for the cafe. I'm working on it now! I can't wait to go back next year!
On the way back to the car, I stopped by the Salamander Center again and offered up the chopsticks I'd been given to eat the Zenzai with, to the Hanzaki shrine. I poked my head in the center again to sign their guest book with a nice picture using my new calligraphy pen.
Now I need to hurry and finish my painting so I can go back again!