Grand Ol' Man

Think grand and your wish will be granted. Well, as long as you work your bones for it. In my journey as a photographer, a teacher, a scriptwriter, a television director, a media strategist, as sequential art publisher, a graphic designer, and a dilletante painter, I learned that lesson hard and probably well. But I am still seeking.

Location: Tagaytay, Philippines

Hugo3 lives in Tagaytay, a town 2,200 feet above sea level. It has an all-year round cool climate, with occasional showers and thick fog. This is also where he runs his businesses, Yonzon Associates, a media consultancy firm, and YES!, a media content generator, owner of Mango Comics. Yonzon graduated from the U.P. College of Fine Arts where he also taught for 14 years and championed experiential learning. His personal mission: “to lighten and enlighten the lives of people through entertainment and education”. Yonzon runs the Tagaytay Film, Broadcast and Creative Workshops that cater to professionals and serious students. Boboy holds a Masters In Management degree from the Asian Institute of Management. He also took up special courses at Cornell University and at the International Film School in Rockport, Maine. Yonzon has won awards in painting, editorial cartooning, and scriptwriting. He also makes a living through writing, directing, and multimedia consultancy. He has also served in and out of government. He looks forward to easing the pace, run his own jazz bar, paint, and play the drums.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


“Their painted faces transmuted them into shamanesses who could transport men into another world, a world of dreams.” – Lesley Downer, “Women of Pleasure Quarters”

I was so intrigued by the geisha I promised myself that next time I had the chance to travel to Japan, I would make sure to go to Kyoto, its ancient capital where the geisha culture evolved, and get a glimpse of these women of “the flower and willow world.”
“Gei-sha” literally means arts people. But some may be shocked to read writer Liza Dalby’s summation of a geisha: “Geisha do not marry; but they often have children. They live in organized professional communities of women. They have affairs with married men, and can form liaisons at their own discretion. They derive livelihood from singing, dancing, and chatting with men at banquets.
“They devote their time to learning and performing traditional forms of music and dance. And they always dress in kimono. In various ways they may be like mistresses, waitresses, hostesses, dancers, or performers.”
But are they courtesans or prostitutes? That would make for spirited (pun intended) discussion over sake.
A deluge of books on geisha came out at the start of 2000s. I snapped up a couple of them at Fully Booked, including Downer’s “The Secret History of the Geisha: Women of the Pleasure Quarters” (2001); Mineko Iwasaki’s autobiography “Geisha, A Life” (2002); and Eleanor Underwood’s coffee-table book, “The Life of a Geisha” (2000); This one has a foreword by Dalby, touted to be the only foreigner who has ever trained to become a geisha.
A latecomer to geisha-gazing, I have yet to read Dalby’s own book “Geisha” (1983), which has been made into a TV-movie, and Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of A Geisha” (1997), which is now a much-hyped film (Author’s note: This first appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Nov. 27, 2005).
Going to Japan, for me, is always a great aesthetic event. I am fascinated by Japanese logos and signage, manga (comics), and the way they package everything from chocolates to vegetables. Almost everybody extols how neat and orderly their streets are, and how young Japanese women are outré fashionable.


So, it became almost a personal obsession for me to have a titillating visual experience of the geisha (or geiko in Kyoto) or maiko (apprentice geisha) flitting from one ochaya (teahouse) to another – as the books romantically describe them. Capturing them in photos would be a bonus.
Ochaya is where geishas and maikos work. Says Downer: “It is where there is music, dancing, partying, sometimes food and always plenty of alcohol; tea is the last thing you would expect to find there.”
I was full of anticipation when we – my wife, two of my sisters, and I – got on the shinkansen (bullet train) that would take us west of Kyoto from the super-busy Tokyo station. Traveling at a top speed of 300km/hr, the trip took two hours and 40 minutes, including the quick stops. I had my Nikon F3 and a Canon Ixy ready.
Lonely Planet has advised us against trying to see all of Kyoto in just a few days. Well taken. Our budget was only for two days and all I wanted to visit was Gion, the karyukai or special district in Kyoto where most of the exclusive teahouses are.
Of course, Kyoto offers more than ochaya. It is a small storied city of 1.4 million people with 1,600 temples and shrines, shops for ceramics, hand-painted textiles, kimonos, antiques, handicrafts, and most all, fine cakes.
Japanese high school students from all over the country are required to take field trips to Kyoto to discover their heritage, their Japanese-ness. They say any Japanese will understand who they are as a race only after visiting Kyoto.
Since my geisha hunt would be at nightfall, we decided to spend the daytime seeing some main tourist attractions. A bus ticket costing Y500 (around Php250) allows a person, for one day, limitless bus rides at any route to take him to different spots in the city.
The first place the beaten path led us to was Nijo Castle, a Unesco World heritage site, originally built in 1603 by the Tokugawa Shogunate. Its pride are the exquisite paintings on sliding panels and walls, now being restored with their full gold applications.
The famous “nightingale floors” in the palace are constructed in such a way that they give melodious squeaks when you walk on them. They say this was a security measure against intruders. I wonder if they work against stealthy ninjas.
We also went to the Kyoto Imperial Palace, the original residence of Japan’s Imperial Family until 1868, when the capital was transferred to Tokyo. There was nothing there but a wide expanse, serenity, and audacious crows. To tour the interior palace requires a prior appointment through the imperial household office.
We also saw Kinkakuji, or the golden Pavilion, a three-story Zen temple topped by a Chinese phoenix, its two tiers wrapped in gold leaf. It was formerly a residence of a shogun.


But still the top of my itinerary was geisha-hunting. We were in Gion as the blue sky was turning black. I was expecting quiet, dim-lit streets, but was instead greeted by riotous, if not busy, brushstrokes of tourist buses, delivery vans, motorcycles, and Toyota Crown taxis squeezing into the small streets crisscrossing the area. Yet there were interludes of stillness.
Tourists, mostly gaijins like me, were walking back and forth the neat row of teahouses and shops. I suspected, like me, they were wishing to bump into a geisha or maiko going to and coming from work. No such luck.
Our tropa thought of having dinner first and checked on the menus of a couple of steakhouses in Gion, but the prices said, “Bug off!” So we decided to resume our geisha-hunting.
This time we followed our instinct and staked out an unmarked ochaya (a lot of them are) that seemed to be very busy. A taxi disgorged a few distinguished-looking men in suits into it.
A harassed young man was carrying food containers in and out of it. And through the wooden slats of the gate, we could see figures in kimonos going from one room to another. We started to play a game of bantay-pare (waiting).
It was autumn and the air was nippy. We were getting cold and hungry. Then suddenly from another street emerged a beautiful maiko. There was a ripple of gasp and excitement among the tourists.
But nobody among us amateur paparazzi was quick enough to draw his camera. She quickly melted into the ochaya we were staking.
Throughout the night, maikos or geishas, striking with their aura, white faces and resplendent kimonos, appeared like shooting stars. Like apparitions teasing. Behind us. On the right of us. Down the lane. Some were painfully camera-shy and some camera-friendly.
Eerily, our cameras at first wouldn’t work. I soon concluded that this was just the quirkiness of digital buttons jumbling with human nerves.
I was getting embarrassed with myself for intruding the world of geishas, as if I was violating something sacred. But then I rationalized I was just a curious tourist and they were celebrities.
My wife Guia and sisters Helen and Laila were egging me on and even assumed the role of lookouts. I was about to call it a day when two maikos walking side by side emerged from another dark corner and were turning to an alley. “Kuya!” alerted my younger sister.
I bounded after them. The Taiwanese and Brazilian tourists, also a little bit wiser and bolder as usizeros, were on my heels. My experience as a documentarist kicked in, until I found myself shooting alone with the maikos, as the others faded from the chase.
The maikos were walking in measured, synchronized cadence on winding alleys. I only stopped clicking when I had that yahoo feeling and let go of the two to merge with the darkness.
As any photographer would attest, there is a joy that cannot be bought when you capture a moment. Mine was being able to have a candid image of the two maikos’ napes with their forked-tongue shape. This is akin to seeing Maria Clara’s ankles.
We left Kyoto very pleased. Before we did, we sampled the city’s renowned product, delicate cakes of fine glutinous rice and black beans.
Social graces in Japan dictate that you bring gifts when you see someone for a visit. Omiyage or pasalubong from the cake shops, complete with their wrappings and marked bags. For their packaging alone, they were irresistible.
Going back on the shikansen, I had along several bags with confection of pictures. Mission happily accomplished.

Monday, July 24, 2006


“It is too quiet,” complains most everybody in Bali who relies on the bounty that tourism brings. The island has not recovered from the recent terrorist attacks and the constant advisories of many countries that warn their citizens against traveling to this beautiful zone do not help. But there is no stopping fatalistic us.
My wife and I opted to book our stay in the laid-back town of Candi Dasa, in an exclusive for-members-only beach resort two hours from the capital Denpasar. We travel for different reasons. This time, we wanted to soak not just the waters and the sun but the deep mysticism and the arts that this Indonesian island is known for. The “too quietness” was a welcome respite.
Our seven-day foray was book-ended by massages, both Balinese and a mix of other pressure pleasures. We started in earnest, with the rolling sound of the seashore easing the tautness of our bodies as dark-skinned girls with firm grips but supple palms worked on our tired tissues with scented oils, one with lavender and the other with jasmine. A champaca tree was all abloom a few feet away resulting in a harmony of smells that was sweetly intoxicating.
The following morning, we headed for a typical village and were initiated to the arts and religiosity that surely formed the fabric of the Balinese. It is quite paradoxical that the more tourists assault the island with their alien ways, the more virulent the culture of its people envelopes the world. Thus, Balinese architecture, furnishing, textile, stonecraft, woodcraft, and exquisite silver items find their way to plush home and hotels from Australia to the Americas.
We came out of the village with several pieces of hand-woven cloth that shimmered and changed tones depending on how you handled them under the light. There is a spell that befalls eager travelers when encountering a thing of beauty for the first time. They forget to bargain, as all brochures on Bali say is de rigueur. Oh well.


What strikes first-time visitors are the temples of various sizes that dot the landscape of the island. Balinese believe strongly in magic and the power of the spirits, and much of their kind of Hindu religion is woven with an animist precedent. Shrines are built for the family, the community, each business establishment, even nooks and road bends, it seems. “There are millions of temples,” a cab driver exclaims, clearly a little too carried away.
We visited Pura Besakih, the so-called mother temple on the slopes of Mount Agung, the major mountain. We arrived in Bali just a day after Nyepi, the island’s own New Year, when making fire, cooking, work, and sexual intercourse are prohibited. Before that day of stillness, there was noise and frenzied activities. Gods were taken out of the temples and bathed in rivers. Demons were exorcised in various rituals with dance, drums, and firecrackers.
We came at a week when the Balinese were preparing for yet another significant festival, Tumpek Uduh, when people call on Sanghyang Sangkara, the god of harvests and vegetation, and offerings are made for a good turn of harvests and crops. These, on top of the daily supplications, we saw them do.


Of course, most tourists head for other temples – the shops. Our preference was in Ubud, touted to be the heart of the arts of Bali. Ubud has a deep and long tradition in the arts and intellectualism. These are quite evident in the range of offerings that the town has.
We went to the main market and started to flex our bargaining prowess, with relish this time. But we found little time and patience in foraging through the myriad of goods that could please us. We opted instead for the great pieces, porcelain ware and silver curios from among the various boutiques that lined Monkey Forest
Road and Jin Dewi Sita.
Our weeks of carbo-shunning sacrifice went to naught as we surrendered to full gustatory indulgence. At Ubud, we rubbed elbows with adventurous travelers and gorged on a local favorite, babi guling, or roasted suckling pig. This sinful fare consists of a slab of pork along with its crispy skin served on top of steaming rice, with blood sausage, heavenly crackling pork rind, and spicy diced garlic shoots on the side. We came back for another round two days later.
Travel wisdom tells us that luxurious ambience does not necessarily equate to pleasurable cuisine. An so we found a modest restaurant in Candi Dasa frequented by Dutch where we got a generous plateful of very fresh, round, succulent “banana” prawns fried in garlic butter; excellent broiled red snapper, nasi goring, and ice cold Bintang beer. We went for a repeat the next evening, and again hopped back to our resort for the nightcap. Mine was always the surprisingly light crepe suzette and Earl Grey green tea.


And to make our last evening massage worth the stay, we went white water rafting earlier that day. We eschewed the scenic route of the popular Ayung River, but went for the more challenging 12-kilometer Telaga Waja River, with its multiple churns, sheer drops, and more difficult obstacles. It has been raining the past days and the roaring river was swollen and looked mean.
The course proved to be exhilarating. Our shrieks and shouts, instead of echoing against the sloped, seemed to be drowned in the by the thick verdant foliage or masticated by the gods that inhabited by the river. At certain serene portions of the river, one could feel the awesome might of nature, and there becomes no other recourse but to go into introspection.
Back at the resort, as the massage attendants kneaded our sore flesh, we went into deep sleep and dreamt of a Bali redux.


I’ve been to Hell and back. I was forced to eat gross-looking toenails, but I survived. Hell is a small, sparsely-populated town in Michigan. It’s mostly big trees and crystal clear cold rivers. It is close to being entirely a wilderness, with houses miles apart from each other. But lately, its few residents have been announcing to those who care enough to listen that their “town is on its way up”.
No plane, no bus, no train go to Hell. Even a lot of people in Michigan has not heard of Hell. They think it’s a joke. Who would want to name and live by, or even live in, a place with that name?
There are a couple of tales how the hell the town Hell got its name. They say that a pair of German travellers came to town in a curtained stagecoach one sunny summer afternoon, and upon seeing the place exclaimed “So schoene hell”. “Hell”, in German, means bright and beautiful. Those who overheard the visitors’ comments had a bit of laugh and shared the story with the other locals.
The small town had a mean reputation then to weary outsiders. In olden days, it was very swampy. The air was damp and clammy. Mosquitoes and other big bugs, specially during summer, would feast on traders and travellers who had to pass the spot to get to busier, more prosperous parts of Michigan. To them the town was a curse, really like hell.
When residents started to worry that the name was beginning to stick to their town’s name – which was tentatively known as Reevesville – they consulted the recognized pioneer and leader of the place, George Reeves. He said in a moment of potamps “ I don’t care, you can name it Hell if you want to”. Whether he meant it as a joke or not, the name stuck and stuck fast.
Today, John Cologne, a former car dealer, has cast his lot on the whole town and is determined to change its fortune. He has sold his lucrative company recently in nearby Pinckney town and has built tourist-oriented shops in Hell, capitalizing precisely on its name.
He runs, for example, Scream, an ice cream parlor cum novelty shop. It’s an all-year round Halloween shop (pick that up Pinoy entrepreneurs) that sells horrifically finely-crafted masks, costumes, toys, t-shirts, mugs, and games. Eerie moaning sounds come out from its rest rooms so that if you have to pee and you’re a scaredy cat, sorry for you.
Before you get spooked out, pretty young ladies manning the ice cream counter greet you and invite you to try their fare. Visitors are starting to come from different counties just to try the ice cream offerings. Nothing new really, just differently, creatively, and humorously packaged.
You order your scoop of Hershey’s ice cream from the bar and you go help yourself in embellishing it with your choice of toppings. The jars of toppings are neatly arranged inside an authentic, antique wooden coffin sitting at the center of the shop. This neat piece of furniture came from Transylvania. It was found in the basement of an old, abandoned farmhouse in Michigan. So says Mr. Cologne.
Toppings list includes bone chips (crushed peanuts), ghost poop (mini marshmallow), bats’ droppings (chocolate chips), red eyes (cherries), and more. That’s where I got a taste of toenail clippings (shredded coconut). I topped my two scoops with Dark Oooze (hot fudge) and Dracula’s Fangs (almonds). For a certified chocoholic like me, that’s heaven!
The shop even has its “Unhappy Hour” from 4-6 pm, when clients pay only half for big sundaes. Litlle devils or tykes can have a free ice cream cone. Crafty marketing, huh?
In the grocery store at the other building, you can buy postcards showing Hell in its autumn splendor. The grocery also doubles as the town’s official post office, so you can mail your cards from there right away. Just don’t be surprised when your friends or relatives get them with burnt or charred edges. They are postmarked from Hell, right? So the post office workers make sure that your cards look like they do! That’s another clever sales gimmick for you. I wasn’t able to ask though whether they do that to letters.
Towns rise and expand with visionaries or astute businessmen like John Cologne. Hell is known basically for canoeing, hiking, fishing, and camping. But I will not be surprised if more wanna-be shops sprout like toad warts in Hell in a few months. Competition will fuel the local economy that’s for sure. If there are all-year round Christmas towns around the world, why not an all-Halloween town? Halloweens, after all, are becoming big happy events even here in the Philippines.
It gets very, very cold in Michigan. Business may slow down in some stores in wintry months, especially with snow piling four feet and above easily in that state. But the former car salesman zealously believes that fortunes will rise very soon in Hell. If a skeptic lot retorts: “Oh yeah?! Till hell freezes over, man!” Mr. Cologne will just give you a big devilish smile.