Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 10 —(Continued)

Darkness visible — Nikko Shops — Girls and Matrons — Night and Sleep — Parental Love — Childish Docility — Hair-dressing — Skin Diseases.

I don’t wonder that the Japanese rise early, for their evenings are cheerless, owing to the dismal illumination. In this and other houses the lamp consists of a square or circular lacquer stand, with four uprights, 2.5 feet high, and panes of white paper. A flatted iron dish is suspended in this full of oil, with the pith of a rush with a weight in the centre laid across it, and one of the projecting ends is lighted. This wretched apparatus is called an andon, and round its wretched “darkness visible” the family huddles — the children to play games and learn lessons, and the women to sew; for the Japanese daylight is short and the houses are dark. Almost more deplorable is a candlestick of the same height as the andon, with a spike at the top which fits into a hole at the bottom of a “farthing candle” of vegetable wax, with a thick wick made of rolled paper, which requires constant snuffing, and, after giving for a short time a dim and jerky light, expires with a bad smell. Lamps, burning mineral oils, native and imported, are being manufactured on a large scale, but, apart from the peril connected with them, the carriage of oil into country districts is very expensive. No Japanese would think of sleeping without having an andon burning all night in his room.

These villages are full of shops. There is scarcely a house which does not sell something. Where the buyers come from, and how a profit can be made, is a mystery. Many of the things are eatables, such as dried fishes, 1.5 inch long, impaled on sticks; cakes, sweetmeats composed of rice, flour, and very little sugar; circular lumps of rice dough, called mochi; roots boiled in brine; a white jelly made from beans; and ropes, straw shoes for men and horses, straw cloaks, paper umbrellas, paper waterproofs, hair-pins, tooth-picks, tobacco pipes, paper mouchoirs, and numbers of other trifles made of bamboo, straw, grass, and wood. These goods are on stands, and in the room behind, open to the street, all the domestic avocations are going on, and the housewife is usually to be seen boiling water or sewing with a baby tucked into the back of her dress. A lucifer factory has recently been put up, and in many house fronts men are cutting up wood into lengths for matches. In others they are husking rice, a very laborious process, in which the grain is pounded in a mortar sunk in the floor by a flat-ended wooden pestle attached to a long horizontal lever, which is worked by the feet of a man, invariably naked, who stands at the other extremity.

In some women are weaving, in others spinning cotton. Usually there are three or four together — the mother, the eldest son’s wife, and one or two unmarried girls. The girls marry at sixteen, and shortly these comely, rosy, wholesome-looking creatures pass into haggard, middle-aged women with vacant faces, owing to the blackening of the teeth and removal of the eyebrows, which, if they do not follow betrothal, are resorted to on the birth of the first child. In other houses women are at their toilet, blackening their teeth before circular metal mirrors placed in folding stands on the mats, or performing ablutions, unclothed to the waist. Early the village is very silent, while the children are at school; their return enlivens it a little, but they are quiet even at play; at sunset the men return, and things are a little livelier; you hear a good deal of splashing in baths, and after that they carry about and play with their younger children, while the older ones prepare lessons for the following day by reciting them in a high, monotonous twang. At dark the paper windows are drawn, the amado, or external wooden shutters, are closed, the lamp is lighted before the family shrine, supper is eaten, the children play at quiet games round the andon; and about ten the quilts and wooden pillows are produced from the press, the amado are bolted, and the family lies down to sleep in one room. Small trays of food and the tabako-bon are always within reach of adult sleepers, and one grows quite accustomed to hear the sound of ashes being knocked out of the pipe at intervals during the night. The children sit up as late as their parents, and are included in all their conversation.

I never saw people take so much delight in their offspring, carrying them about, or holding their hands in walking, watching and entering into their games, supplying them constantly with new toys, taking them to picnics and festivals, never being content to be without them, and treating other people’s children also with a suitable measure of affection and attention. Both fathers and mothers take a pride in their children. It is most amusing about six every morning to see twelve or fourteen men sitting on a low wall, each with a child under two years in his arms, fondling and playing with it, and showing off its physique and intelligence. To judge from appearances, the children form the chief topic at this morning gathering. At night, after the houses are shut up, looking through the long fringe of rope or rattan which conceals the sliding door, you see the father, who wears nothing but a maro in “the bosom of his family,” bending his ugly, kindly face over a gentle-looking baby, and the mother, who more often than not has dropped the kimono from her shoulders, enfolding two children destitute of clothing in her arms. For some reasons they prefer boys, but certainly girls are equally petted and loved. The children, though for our ideas too gentle and formal, are very prepossessing in looks and behaviour. They are so perfectly docile and obedient, so ready to help their parents, so good to the little ones, and, in the many hours which I have spent in watching them at play, I have never heard an angry word or seen a sour look or act. But they are little men and women rather than children, and their old-fashioned appearance is greatly aided by their dress, which, as I have remarked before, is the same as that of adults.

There are, however, various styles of dressing the hair of girls, by which you can form a pretty accurate estimate of any girl’s age up to her marriage, when the coiffure undergoes a definite change. The boys all look top-heavy and their heads of an abnormal size, partly from a hideous practice of shaving the head altogether for the first three years. After this the hair is allowed to grow in three tufts, one over each ear, and the other at the back of the neck; as often, however, a tuft is grown at the top of the back of the head. At ten the crown alone is shaved and a forelock is worn, and at fifteen, when the boy assumes the responsibilities of manhood, his hair is allowed to grow like that of a man. The grave dignity of these boys, with the grotesque patterns on their big heads, is most amusing.

Would that these much-exposed skulls were always smooth and clean! It is painful to see the prevalence of such repulsive maladies as scabies, scald-head, ringworm, sore eyes, and unwholesome-looking eruptions, and fully 30 per cent of the village people are badly seamed with smallpox.

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