Hanzaki Art Meguri in Yubara

I took the emergency flashlight from the hotel and I'm walking along a creek at 11:30 at night, shining it into the river.  I'm wearing a mask with a paper mask cover over it, but not because I'm worried about Covid.  I mean, I'm in a resort town in the middle of a pandemic, there's almost no one here!  Especially in the middle of the night!  But I am in a river valley amidst towering hills, which means it's frigid.  The mask keeps my face warm.

I know the Hanzaki (colloquial term for Giant Salamandar) are not going to be out this night unless they're starving.  They only have to eat one fish a week, and what's the chance that tonight's going to be the night for fishing.  But I'm doing this so I can't say I didn't try.

The mask with the paper mask cover was originally designed by a local artist named Hiroki.  I like this guy because he was born in this gorgeous, tiny town, went off to college and his first job in the big city, and then decided he liked his town better and moved back to become an artist.  That shows the kind of love and loyalty toward a place that I don't get from my young students who all pine for an exciting life in Tokyo.  The mask is supposed to be the snout of the paper mache Hanzaki that is paraded around town in the summer festival and it's folded to make the mouth part look three dimensional.  The thing was, a lot of people couldn't really understand exactly what it was.  Were those nostrils or eyes?  Was that crack a design feature or supposed to represent something?  Why is the lizard-like texture over a grid?  That's the problem of representing too many things at once, I think.  It's a representation of something made from paper and wire that's a representation of something real.  And it's just the snout.  It loses its context.  So when they didn't sell, I told him there might be a design flaw.

So immediately the manager of the Yubara Hanzaki Center took the designs and ran off with some Hanzaki abstract watercolor minis that I'd made.  He came back later that evening and now the mouth of the Hanzaki is black on the inside, and my artwork is inside the mouth.  So if you can't see it for a mouth, at least you get a cute, colorful salamander on your face.

We were all drinking until late, wearing our salamander masks, and celebrating Hanzaki.  It was the shop owner who I gave my large, Hanzaki masterpiece to, a man who makes traditional Japanese toys by hand, the man from the Hanzaki Center, and Hiroki.  We were talking and exchanging ideas until finally someone looked into the oden soup and saw a Hanzaki looking back at us.  (It was just a tofu ball, but the sesame in it looked like eyes, and the way it bobbed in the broth made it look alive.)  Then we decided that we'd had too much to drink and we all parted ways for the night.

My hotel is right behind the shop.  It's actually a sake brewery that was converted into a hot spring hotel when it started losing business.  The hotel rooms sit on the top floor, each with a little outdoor bathtub in case you'd like to take a hot bath in private while looking up at the clear sky.  The second floor has dining rooms corresponding to each hotel room.  So when you're ready to eat, you use your key for room 303 to open the door to dining room 203 and find your meal prepared and waiting.  Of course, local sake is served with each meal, and complimentary sake tasting is provided in the hotel lounge.  The first floor has the bathing rooms.  They're small but comfortable, with both inside and outside baths.

The hotel is called Tsuru, the Japanese Crane, and there are emblems and decorations of cranes all over in the most artistic places.  But actually, it should be called the Hanzaki Hotel because the whole gift shop is filled with Hanzaki merchandise and there are two Hanzaki living in a pool in the courtyard.

The gift shop also sells the mask covers with my art on them.

The Tsuru hotel is one of the points of interest on the Hanzaki Art Meguri event that's being held this month.  Another point is my own painting in the Saboten Cafe, and a third one is some art that Hiroki did for the event.  There's a map of all the place in town you can find art, and if you go to all of them and get the secret kanji character, you can unscramble them to make someone's name.  So now I can say, "My art is on the map!"

That's not too far from the truth, as apparently a TV show came to town to film the event and now my art is on TV.  Problem is, we don't know when they're going to broadcast it, and I don't have any sort of recording device.

But let's stop talking about my selfish "dreams come true" tale and talk about how I got here.  You see, Yossi was supposed to stay in the hotel with me and we'd have a romantic night together.  When I called to reserve a room, they told me that it had already been reserved for me, all expenses paid, with two meals included.  What??  But Yossi had a sudden business opportunity and had to take a trip for two days.  He managed to drop me off in Yubara, but I wasn't sure how I'd be able to get home.

My usual motto is, "Nantoka naru," somehow it'll work out.

I tried contacting all my friends, but everyone either had work the day before or after.  In desperation I asked Yossi's mom if she had any ideas, and she decided it would be a good idea for her husband to stay in the hotel with me.

Sharing a hotel with an old man who's dialect is too heavy for me to understand???

I declined, but the day we went up to see my art, Yossi's family decided to tail along.  While we were eating lunch, they showed up and we took them on a short tour of the gorgeous ravine and entertained the kids.  After some coaxing, I decided to let Yossi's dad come pick me up the next day and crossed my fingers it wouldn't be awkward.  We arranged for him to come at noon.

The next morning, after a comfortable dip in the hot spring, I checked my watch and at 6am I had so much amazing adventure time on my hands before Oto-san came to pick me up.  I walked the whole length of the ravine and back.  I had my delicious meal, and then I stopped by the Saboten cafe where I found the Hanzaki Center manager having a huge cup of hot cocoa.  I asked him if there were any mountains around to climb and he told me to hop in his car and he'd take me there.  Before going to the mountains, he brought me to the oldest structure in the city.  It was once a temple that faces a sacred mountain across the valley.  On such a lovely autumn day with the hills turning orange, the mountain in the distance really did feel sacred.  I asked so many questions that instead of hiking, he took me to the next historical point - a 700 year old tree considered sacred by locals.  Then we walked through a flair of falling red and yellow leaves until we got to a sacred stone that's about the same size as my apartment.  Finally, he took me to a waterfall where a god has been carved into the rock above.  This pilgrimage was so much more enlightening than any hike would have been.



This man also volunteers at the dam so he snuck me in the back and gave me a dam collector's card.  On top of the dam, leaves were rising up like dust devils.  I ran through them, letting them swirl around me while holding on tightly to my hat.

Finally, Oto-san came to pick me up.  I was so nervous, and so afraid to even admit that to myself.  I go on so many adventures with random old men, why is Oto-san different?  We had a drink in the Saboten cafe first, and one of the other customers started chatting to him, relieving me of the awkwardness.  As they talked, the owner told me about how sweet Oto-san is, and he can tell he's a great grandpa.  With that in mind, we got up to leave and found that the other customer in the shop had enjoyed talking to Oto-san so much, he'd paid for all of us before we left!!

On the way home, Oto-san first started talking about how bad the traffic had been up here.  I could understand him through his thick accent and muttering!  Next I told him the praise that the owner had bestowed and Oto-san said none of it's true.  He said when he was a father to Yossi, he was super strict and did not put up with any nonsense from kids.  That made sense, as Yossi has almost no happy memories with his father.  Now he's making up for it by being the perfect grandpa.  Then Oto-san pointed across a river.  "Over there's an old brewery and a traditional street.  Do you want to check it out?"


We did a bit of sightseeing together, (again, pandemic, absolutely no one there) including him showing me how to use an old well, and explaining some of the history.  We walked quite a ways and I noticed he had a limp.

"I had a stroke when I was in my forties," he said.  "I tell my leg to move but it just doesn't get the signal anymore."  Didn't know that.  Wow.

After that, he took me back to Okayama via small side-streets so we could see all the fall colors.  I tried explaining my own dad's usage of the word, "scenic route" which to a kid means, "the really slow way home."  Then Oto-san launched into a discussion of politics.  I lost the conversation then.  I wasn't sure if he was asking me questions, or telling me the way it is.  I wasn't sure which party he was talking about, or if he was talking about Japan or the US.  I kinda gave up then.  But overall, the journey was pleasant and I feel better about spending time with him now.

I printed out a large photo of us together for him.  I'll start trying to get closer to my Daddy-In-Law.

Back at home, I checked my email for the first time in 2 days and found that my own Dad had broken his leg and was in the hospital!!!  It's so painful not being able to go back to the US to take care of him.  My mom is doing her best to put up with the strain.  He was in the hospital for 10 days and now he's home with a wheelchair and walker.  The US postal service won't let me send anything still, so even get-well cards have to be over the computer....


I'm a bit homesick, despite all the fun I'm having on Okayama's art scene.  If anyone wants to give me a call, I'm free in US evenings.

Have a great Thanksgiving everyone.



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