Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 10 —(Completed)

Shops and Shopping — The Barber’s Shop — A Paper Waterproof — Ito’s Vanity — Preparations for the Journey — Transport and Prices — Money and Measurements.

I have had to do a little shopping in Hachiishi for my journey. The shop-fronts, you must understand, are all open, and at the height of the floor, about two feet from the ground, there is a broad ledge of polished wood on which you sit down. A woman everlastingly boiling water on a bronze hibachi, or brazier, shifting the embers about deftly with brass tongs like chopsticks, and with a baby looking calmly over her shoulders, is the shopwoman; but she remains indifferent till she imagines that you have a definite purpose of buying, when she comes forward bowing to the ground, and I politely rise and bow too. Then I or Ito ask the price of a thing, and she names it, very likely asking 4s. for what ought to sell at 6d. You say 3s., she laughs and says 3s. 6d.; you say 2s., she laughs again and says 3s., offering you the tabako-bon. Eventually the matter is compromised by your giving her 1s., at which she appears quite delighted. With a profusion of bows and “sayo naras” on each side, you go away with the pleasant feeling of having given an industrious woman twice as much as the thing was worth to her, and less than what it is worth to you!

There are several barbers’ shops, and the evening seems a very busy time with them. This operation partakes of the general want of privacy of the life of the village, and is performed in the raised open front of the shop. Soap is not used, and the process is a painful one. The victims let their garments fall to their waists, and each holds in his left hand a lacquered tray to receive the croppings. The ugly Japanese face at this time wears a most grotesque expression of stolid resignation as it is held and pulled about by the operator, who turns it in all directions, that he may judge of the effect that he is producing. The shaving the face till it is smooth and shiny, and the cutting, waxing, and tying of the queue with twine made of paper, are among the evening sights of Nikko.

Lacquer and things curiously carved in wood are the great attractions of the shops, but they interest me far less than the objects of utility in Japanese daily life, with their ingenuity of contrivance and perfection of adaptation and workmanship. A seed shop, where seeds are truly idealised, attracts me daily. Thirty varieties are offered for sale, as various in form as they are in colour, and arranged most artistically on stands, while some are put up in packages decorated with what one may call a facsimile of the root, leaves, and flower, in water-colours. A lad usually lies on the mat behind executing these very creditable pictures — for such they are — with a few bold and apparently careless strokes with his brush. He gladly sold me a peony as a scrap for a screen for 3 sen. My purchases, with this exception, were necessaries only — a paper waterproof cloak, “a circular,” black outside and yellow inside, made of square sheets of oiled paper cemented together, and some large sheets of the same for covering my baggage; and I succeeded in getting Ito out of his obnoxious black wide-awake into a basin-shaped hat like mine, for, ugly as I think him, he has a large share of personal vanity, whitens his teeth, and powders his face carefully before a mirror, and is in great dread of sunburn. He powders his hands too, and polishes his nails, and never goes out without gloves.

To-morrow I leave luxury behind and plunge into the interior, hoping to emerge somehow upon the Sea of Japan. No information can be got here except about the route to Niigata, which I have decided not to take, so, after much study of Brunton’s map, I have fixed upon one place, and have said positively, “I go to Tajima.” If I reach it I can get farther, but all I can learn is, “It’s a very bad road, it’s all among the mountains.” Ito, who has a great regard for his own comforts, tries to dissuade me from going by saying that I shall lose mine, but, as these kind people have ingeniously repaired my bed by doubling the canvas and lacing it into holes in the side poles, 9 and as I have lived for the last three days on rice, eggs, and coarse vermicelli about the thickness and colour of earth-worms, this prospect does not appal me! In Japan there is a Land Transport Company, called Riku-unkaisha, with a head-office in Tokiyo, and branches in various towns and villages. It arranges for the transport of travellers and merchandise by pack-horses and coolies at certain fixed rates, and gives receipts in due form. It hires the horses from the farmers, and makes a moderate profit on each transaction, but saves the traveller from difficulties, delays, and extortions. The prices vary considerably in different districts, and are regulated by the price of forage, the state of the roads, and the number of hireable horses. For a ri, nearly 2.5 miles, they charge from 6 to 10 sen for a horse and the man who leads it, for a kuruma with one man from 4 to 9 sen for the same distance, and for baggage coolies about the same. [This Transport Company is admirably organised. I employed it in journeys of over 1200 miles, and always found it efficient and reliable.] I intend to make use of it always, much against Ito’s wishes, who reckoned on many a prospective “squeeze” in dealings with the farmers.

My journey will now be entirely over “unbeaten tracks,” and will lead through what may be called “Old Japan;” and as it will be natural to use Japanese words for money and distances, for which there are no English terms, I give them here. A yen is a note representing a dollar, or about 3s. 7d. of our money; a sen is something less than a halfpenny; a rin is a thin round coin of iron or bronze, with a square hole in the middle, of which 10 make a sen, and 1000 a yen; and a tempo is a handsome oval bronze coin with a hole in the centre, of which 5 make 4 sen. Distances are measured by ri, cho, and ken. Six feet make one ken, sixty ken one cho, and thirty-six cho one ri, or nearly 2.5 English miles. When I write of a road I mean a bridle-path from four to eight feet wide, kuruma roads being specified as such.

I. L. B.

9 I advise every traveller in the ruder regions of Japan to take a similar stretcher and a good mosquito net. With these he may defy all ordinary discomforts.

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