Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 9

A Japanese Pack–Horse and Pack–Saddle — Yadoya and Attendant — A Native Watering–Place — The Sulphur Baths — A “Squeeze.”

YASHIMAYA, YUMOTO, NIKKOZAN MOUNTAINS, June 22.

To-day I have made an experimental journey on horseback, have done fifteen miles in eight hours of continuous travelling, and have encountered for the first time the Japanese pack-horse — an animal of which many unpleasing stories are told, and which has hitherto been as mythical to me as the kirin, or dragon. I have neither been kicked, bitten, nor pitched off, however, for mares are used exclusively in this district, gentle creatures about fourteen hands high, with weak hind-quarters, and heads nearly concealed by shaggy manes and forelocks. They are led by a rope round the nose, and go barefoot, except on stony ground, when the mago, or man who leads them, ties straw sandals on their feet. The pack-saddle is composed of two packs of straw eight inches thick, faced with red, and connected before and behind by strong oak arches gaily painted or lacquered. There is for a girth a rope loosely tied under the body, and the security of the load depends on a crupper, usually a piece of bamboo attached to the saddle by ropes strung with wooden counters, and another rope round the neck, into which you put your foot as you scramble over the high front upon the top of the erection. The load must be carefully balanced or it comes to grief, and the mago handles it all over first, and, if an accurate division of weight is impossible, adds a stone to one side or the other. Here, women who wear enormous rain hats and gird their kimonos over tight blue trousers, both load the horses and lead them. I dropped upon my loaded horse from the top of a wall, the ridges, bars, tags, and knotted rigging of the saddle being smoothed over by a folded futon, or wadded cotton quilt, and I was then fourteen inches above the animal’s back, with my feet hanging over his neck. You must balance yourself carefully, or you bring the whole erection over; but balancing soon becomes a matter of habit. If the horse does not stumble, the pack-saddle is tolerable on level ground, but most severe on the spine in going up hill, and so intolerable in going down that I was relieved when I found that I had slid over the horse’s head into a mud-hole; and you are quite helpless, as he does not understand a bridle, if you have one, and blindly follows his leader, who trudges on six feet in front of him.

The hard day’s journey ended in an exquisite yadoya, beautiful within and without, and more fit for fairies than for travel-soiled mortals. The fusuma are light planed wood with a sweet scent, the matting nearly white, the balconies polished pine. On entering, a smiling girl brought me some plum-flower tea with a delicate almond flavour, a sweetmeat made of beans and sugar, and a lacquer bowl of frozen snow. After making a difficult meal from a fowl of much experience, I spent the evening out of doors, as a Japanese watering-place is an interesting novelty.

There is scarcely room between the lake and the mountains for the picturesque village with its trim neat houses, one above another, built of reddish cedar newly planed. The snow lies ten feet deep here in winter, and on October 10 the people wrap their beautiful dwellings up in coarse matting, not even leaving the roofs uncovered, and go to the low country till May 10, leaving one man in charge, who is relieved once a week. Were the houses mine I should be tempted to wrap them up on every rainy day! I did quite the wrong thing in riding here. It is proper to be carried up in a kago, or covered basket.

The village consists of two short streets, 8 feet wide composed entirely of yadoyas of various grades, with a picturesquely varied frontage of deep eaves, graceful balconies, rows of Chinese lanterns, and open lower fronts. The place is full of people, and the four bathing-sheds were crowded. Some energetic invalids bathe twelve times a day! Every one who was walking about carried a blue towel over his arm, and the rails of the balconies were covered with blue towels hanging to dry. There can be very little amusement. The mountains rise at once from the village, and are so covered with jungle that one can only walk in the short streets or along the track by which I came. There is one covered boat for excursions on the lake, and a few geishas were playing the samisen; but, as gaming is illegal, and there is no place of public resort except the bathing-sheds, people must spend nearly all their time in bathing, sleeping, smoking, and eating. The great spring is beyond the village, in a square tank in a mound. It bubbles up with much strength, giving off fetid fumes. There are broad boards laid at intervals across it, and people crippled with rheumatism go and lie for hours upon them for the advantage of the sulphurous steam. The temperature of the spring is 130 degrees F.; but after the water has travelled to the village, along an open wooden pipe, it is only 84 degrees. Yumoto is over 4000 feet high, and very cold.

IRIMICHI. — Before leaving Yumoto I saw the modus operandi of a “squeeze.” I asked for the bill, when, instead of giving it to me, the host ran upstairs and asked Ito how much it should be, the two dividing the overcharge. Your servant gets a “squeeze” on everything you buy, and on your hotel expenses, and, as it is managed very adroitly, and you cannot prevent it, it is best not to worry about it so long as it keeps within reasonable limits.

I. L. B.

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