Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 1

First View of Japan — A Vision of Fujisan — Japanese Sampans — “Pullman Cars”— Undignified Locomotion — Paper Money — The Drawbacks of Japanese Travelling.

ORIENTAL HOTEL, YOKOHAMA, May 21.

Eighteen days of unintermitted rolling over “desolate rainy seas” brought the “City of Tokio” early yesterday morning to Cape King, and by noon we were steaming up the Gulf of Yedo, quite near the shore. The day was soft and grey with a little faint blue sky, and, though the coast of Japan is much more prepossessing than most coasts, there were no startling surprises either of colour or form. Broken wooded ridges, deeply cleft, rise from the water’s edge, gray, deep-roofed villages cluster about the mouths of the ravines, and terraces of rice cultivation, bright with the greenness of English lawns, run up to a great height among dark masses of upland forest. The populousness of the coast is very impressive, and the gulf everywhere was equally peopled with fishing-boats, of which we passed not only hundreds, but thousands, in five hours. The coast and sea were pale, and the boats were pale too, their hulls being unpainted wood, and their sails pure white duck. Now and then a high-sterned junk drifted by like a phantom galley, then we slackened speed to avoid exterminating a fleet of triangular-looking fishing-boats with white square sails, and so on through the grayness and dumbness hour after hour.

For long I looked in vain for Fujisan, and failed to see it, though I heard ecstasies all over the deck, till, accidentally looking heavenwards instead of earthwards, I saw far above any possibility of height, as one would have thought, a huge, truncated cone of pure snow, 13,080 feet above the sea, from which it sweeps upwards in a glorious curve, very wan, against a very pale blue sky, with its base and the intervening country veiled in a pale grey mist.1 It was a wonderful vision, and shortly, as a vision, vanished. Except the cone of Tristan d’Acunha — also a cone of snow — I never saw a mountain rise in such lonely majesty, with nothing near or far to detract from its height and grandeur. No wonder that it is a sacred mountain, and so dear to the Japanese that their art is never weary of representing it. It was nearly fifty miles off when we first saw it.

The air and water were alike motionless, the mist was still and pale, grey clouds lay restfully on a bluish sky, the reflections of the white sails of the fishing-boats scarcely quivered; it was all so pale, wan, and ghastly, that the turbulence of crumpled foam which we left behind us, and our noisy, throbbing progress, seemed a boisterous intrusion upon sleeping Asia.

The gulf narrowed, the forest-crested hills, the terraced ravines, the picturesque grey villages, the quiet beach life, and the pale blue masses of the mountains of the interior, became more visible. Fuji retired into the mist in which he enfolds his grandeur for most of the summer; we passed Reception Bay, Perry Island, Webster Island, Cape Saratoga, and Mississippi Bay — American nomenclature which perpetuates the successes of American diplomacy — and not far from Treaty Point came upon a red lightship with the words “Treaty Point” in large letters upon her. Outside of this no foreign vessel may anchor.

The bustle among my fellow-passengers, many of whom were returning home, and all of whom expected to be met by friends, left me at leisure, as I looked at unattractive, unfamiliar Yokohama and the pale grey land stretched out before me, to speculate somewhat sadly on my destiny on these strange shores, on which I have not even an acquaintance. On mooring we were at once surrounded by crowds of native boats called by foreigners sampans, and Dr. Gulick, a near relation of my Hilo friends, came on board to meet his daughter, welcomed me cordially, and relieved me of all the trouble of disembarkation. These sampans are very clumsy-looking, but are managed with great dexterity by the boatmen, who gave and received any number of bumps with much good nature, and without any of the shouting and swearing in which competitive boatmen usually indulge.

The partially triangular shape of these boats approaches that of a salmon-fisher’s punt used on certain British rivers. Being floored gives them the appearance of being absolutely flat-bottomed; but, though they tilt readily, they are very safe, being heavily built and fitted together with singular precision with wooden bolts and a few copper cleets. They are SCULLED, not what we should call rowed, by two or four men with very heavy oars made of two pieces of wood working on pins placed on outrigger bars. The men scull standing and use the thigh as a rest for the oar. They all wear a single, wide-sleeved, scanty, blue cotton garment, not fastened or girdled at the waist, straw sandals, kept on by a thong passing between the great toe and the others, and if they wear any head-gear, it is only a wisp of blue cotton tied round the forehead. The one garment is only an apology for clothing, and displays lean concave chests and lean muscular limbs. The skin is very yellow, and often much tattooed with mythical beasts. The charge for sampans is fixed by tariff, so the traveller lands without having his temper ruffled by extortionate demands.

The first thing that impressed me on landing was that there were no loafers, and that all the small, ugly, kindly-looking, shrivelled, bandy-legged, round-shouldered, concave-chested, poor-looking beings in the streets had some affairs of their own to mind. At the top of the landing-steps there was a portable restaurant, a neat and most compact thing, with charcoal stove, cooking and eating utensils complete; but it looked as if it were made by and for dolls, and the mannikin who kept it was not five feet high. At the custom-house we were attended to by minute officials in blue uniforms of European pattern and leather boots; very civil creatures, who opened and examined our trunks carefully, and strapped them up again, contrasting pleasingly with the insolent and rapacious officials who perform the same duties at New York.

Outside were about fifty of the now well-known jin-ti-ki-shas, and the air was full of a buzz produced by the rapid reiteration of this uncouth word by fifty tongues. This conveyance, as you know, is a feature of Japan, growing in importance every day. It was only invented seven years ago, and already there are nearly 23,000 in one city, and men can make so much more by drawing them than by almost any kind of skilled labour, that thousands of fine young men desert agricultural pursuits and flock into the towns to make draught-animals of themselves, though it is said that the average duration of a man’s life after he takes to running is only five years, and that the runners fall victims in large numbers to aggravated forms of heart and lung disease. Over tolerably level ground a good runner can trot forty miles a day, at a rate of about four miles an hour. They are registered and taxed at 8s. a year for one carrying two persons, and 4s. for one which carries one only, and there is a regular tariff for time and distance.

The kuruma, or jin-ri-ki-sha, 2 consists of a light perambulator body, an adjustable hood of oiled paper, a velvet or cloth lining and cushion, a well for parcels under the seat, two high slim wheels, and a pair of shafts connected by a bar at the ends. The body is usually lacquered and decorated according to its owner’s taste. Some show little except polished brass, others are altogether inlaid with shells known as Venus’s ear, and others are gaudily painted with contorted dragons, or groups of peonies, hydrangeas, chrysanthemums, and mythical personages. They cost from 2 pounds upwards. The shafts rest on the ground at a steep incline as you get in-it must require much practice to enable one to mount with ease or dignity — the runner lifts them up, gets into them, gives the body a good tilt backwards, and goes off at a smart trot. They are drawn by one, two, or three men, according to the speed desired by the occupants. When rain comes on, the man puts up the hood, and ties you and it closely up in a covering of oiled paper, in which you are invisible. At night, whether running or standing still, they carry prettily-painted circular paper lanterns 18 inches long. It is most comical to see stout, florid, solid-looking merchants, missionaries, male and female, fashionably — dressed ladies, armed with card cases, Chinese compradores, and Japanese peasant men and women flying along Main Street, which is like the decent respectable High Street of a dozen forgotten country towns in England, in happy unconsciousness of the ludicrousness of their appearance; racing, chasing, crossing each other, their lean, polite, pleasant runners in their great hats shaped like inverted bowls, their incomprehensible blue tights, and their short blue over-shirts with badges or characters in white upon them, tearing along, their yellow faces streaming with perspiration, laughing, shouting, and avoiding collisions by a mere shave.

After a visit to the Consulate I entered a kuruma and, with two ladies in two more, was bowled along at a furious pace by a laughing little mannikin down Main Street — a narrow, solid, well-paved street with well-made side walks, kerb-stones, and gutters, with iron lamp-posts, gas-lamps, and foreign shops all along its length — to this quiet hotel recommended by Sir Wyville Thomson, which offers a refuge from the nasal twang of my fellow-voyagers, who have all gone to the caravanserais on the Bund. The host is a Frenchman, but he relies on a Chinaman; the servants are Japanese “boys” in Japanese clothes; and there is a Japanese “groom of the chambers” in faultless English costume, who perfectly appals me by the elaborate politeness of his manner.

Almost as soon as I arrived I was obliged to go in search of Mr. Fraser’s office in the settlement; I say SEARCH, for there are no names on the streets; where there are numbers they have no sequence, and I met no Europeans on foot to help me in my difficulty. Yokohama does not improve on further acquaintance. It has a dead-alive look. It has irregularity without picturesqueness, and the grey sky, grey sea, grey houses, and grey roofs, look harmoniously dull. No foreign money except the Mexican dollar passes in Japan, and Mr. Fraser’s compradore soon metamorphosed my English gold into Japanese satsu or paper money, a bundle of yen nearly at par just now with the dollar, packets of 50, 20, and 10 sen notes, and some rouleaux of very neat copper coins. The initiated recognise the different denominations of paper money at a glance by their differing colours and sizes, but at present they are a distracting mystery to me. The notes are pieces of stiff paper with Chinese characters at the corners, near which, with exceptionally good eyes or a magnifying glass, one can discern an English word denoting the value. They are very neatly executed, and are ornamented with the chrysanthemum crest of the Mikado and the interlaced dragons of the Empire.

I long to get away into real Japan. Mr. Wilkinson, H.B.M.‘s acting consul, called yesterday, and was extremely kind. He thinks that my plan for travelling in the interior is rather too ambitious, but that it is perfectly safe for a lady to travel alone, and agrees with everybody else in thinking that legions of fleas and the miserable horses are the great drawbacks of Japanese travelling.

I. L. B.

1 This is an altogether exceptional aspect of Fujisan, under exceptional atmospheric conditions. The mountain usually looks broader and lower, and is often compared to an inverted fan.

2 I continue hereafter to use the Japanese word kuruma instead of the Chinese word Jin-ri-ki-sha. Kuruma, literally a wheel or vehicle, is the word commonly used by the Jin-ri-ki-sha men and other Japanese for the “man-power-carriage,” and is certainly more euphonious. From kuruma naturally comes kurumaya for the kuruma runner.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31