Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 11

Comfort disappears — Fine Scenery — An Alarm — A Farm-house — An unusual Costume — Bridling a Horse — Female Dress and Ugliness — Babies — My Mago — Beauties of the Kinugawa — Fujihara — My Servant — Horse-shoes — An absurd Mistake.

FUJIHARA, June 24.

Ito’s informants were right. Comfort was left behind at Nikko!

A little woman brought two depressed-looking mares at six this morning; my saddle and bridle were put on one, and Ito and the baggage on the other; my hosts and I exchanged cordial good wishes and obeisances, and, with the women dragging my sorry mare by a rope round her nose, we left the glorious shrines and solemn cryptomeria groves of Nikko behind, passed down its long, clean street, and where the In Memoriam avenue is densest and darkest turned off to the left by a path like the bed of a brook, which afterwards, as a most atrocious trail, wound about among the rough boulders of the Daiya, which it crosses often on temporary bridges of timbers covered with branches and soil. After crossing one of the low spurs of the Nikkosan mountains, we wound among ravines whose steep sides are clothed with maple, oak, magnolia, elm, pine, and cryptomeria, linked together by festoons of the redundant Wistaria chinensis, and brightened by azalea and syringa clusters. Every vista was blocked by some grand mountain, waterfalls thundered, bright streams glanced through the trees, and in the glorious sunshine of June the country looked most beautiful.

We travelled less than a ri an hour, as it was a mere flounder either among rocks or in deep mud, the woman in her girt-up dress and straw sandals trudging bravely along, till she suddenly flung away the rope, cried out, and ran backwards, perfectly scared by a big grey snake, with red spots, much embarrassed by a large frog which he would not let go, though, like most of his kind, he was alarmed by human approach, and made desperate efforts to swallow his victim and wriggle into the bushes. After crawling for three hours we dismounted at the mountain farm of Kohiaku, on the edge of a rice valley, and the woman counted her packages to see that they were all right, and without waiting for a gratuity turned homewards with her horses. I pitched my chair in the verandah of a house near a few poor dwellings inhabited by peasants with large families, the house being in the barn-yard of a rich sake maker. I waited an hour, grew famished, got some weak tea and boiled barley, waited another hour, and yet another, for all the horses were eating leaves on the mountains. There was a little stir. Men carried sheaves of barley home on their backs, and stacked them under the eaves. Children, with barely the rudiments of clothing, stood and watched me hour after hour, and adults were not ashamed to join the group, for they had never seen a foreign woman, a fork, or a spoon. Do you remember a sentence in Dr. Macgregor’s last sermon? “What strange sights some of you will see!” Could there be a stranger one than a decent-looking middle-aged man lying on his chest in the verandah, raised on his elbows, and intently reading a book, clothed only in a pair of spectacles? Besides that curious piece of still life, women frequently drew water from a well by the primitive contrivance of a beam suspended across an upright, with the bucket at one end and a stone at the other.

When the horses arrived the men said they could not put on the bridle, but, after much talk, it was managed by two of them violently forcing open the jaws of the animal, while a third seized a propitious moment for slipping the bit into her mouth. At the next change a bridle was a thing unheard of, and when I suggested that the creature would open her mouth voluntarily if the bit were pressed close to her teeth, the standers-by mockingly said, “No horse ever opens his mouth except to eat or to bite,” and were only convinced after I had put on the bridle myself. The new horses had a rocking gait like camels, and I was glad to dispense with them at Kisagoi, a small upland hamlet, a very poor place, with poverty-stricken houses, children very dirty and sorely afflicted by skin maladies, and women with complexions and features hardened by severe work and much wood smoke into positive ugliness, and with figures anything but statuesque.

I write the truth as I see it, and if my accounts conflict with those of tourists who write of the Tokaido and Nakasendo, of Lake Biwa and Hakone, it does not follow that either is inaccurate. But truly this is a new Japan to me, of which no books have given me any idea, and it is not fairyland. The men may be said to wear nothing. Few of the women wear anything but a short petticoat wound tightly round them, or blue cotton trousers very tight in the legs and baggy at the top, with a blue cotton garment open to the waist tucked into the band, and a blue cotton handkerchief knotted round the head. From the dress no notion of the sex of the wearer could be gained, nor from the faces, if it were not for the shaven eyebrows and black teeth. The short petticoat is truly barbarous-looking, and when a woman has a nude baby on her back or in her arms, and stands staring vacantly at the foreigner, I can hardly believe myself in “civilised” Japan. A good-sized child, strong enough to hold up his head, sees the world right cheerfully looking over his mother’s shoulders, but it is a constant distress to me to see small children of six and seven years old lugging on their backs gristly babies, whose shorn heads are frizzling in the sun and “wobbling” about as though they must drop off, their eyes, as nurses say, “looking over their heads.” A number of silk-worms are kept in this region, and in the open barns groups of men in nature’s costume, and women unclothed to their waists, were busy stripping mulberry branches. The houses were all poor, and the people dirty both in their clothing and persons. Some of the younger women might possibly have been comely, if soap and water had been plentifully applied to their faces; but soap is not used, and such washing as the garments get is only the rubbing them a little with sand in a running stream. I will give you an amusing instance of the way in which one may make absurd mistakes. I heard many stories of the viciousness and aggressiveness of pack-horses, and was told that they were muzzled to prevent them from pasturing upon the haunches of their companions and making vicious snatches at men. Now, I find that the muzzle is only to prevent them from eating as they travel. Mares are used exclusively in this region, and they are the gentlest of their race. If you have the weight of baggage reckoned at one horse-load, though it should turn out that the weight is too great for a weakly animal, and the Transport agent distributes it among two or even three horses, you only pay for one; and though our cortege on leaving Kisagoi consisted of four small, shock-headed mares who could hardly see through their bushy forelocks, with three active foals, and one woman and three girls to lead them, I only paid for two horses at 7 sen a ri.

My mago, with her toil-hardened, thoroughly good-natured face rendered hideous by black teeth, wore straw sandals, blue cotton trousers with a vest tucked into them, as poor and worn as they could be, and a blue cotton towel knotted round her head. As the sky looked threatening she carried a straw rain-cloak, a thatch of two connected capes, one fastening at the neck, the other at the waist, and a flat hat of flags, 2.5 feet in diameter, hung at her back like a shield. Up and down, over rocks and through deep mud, she trudged with a steady stride, turning her kind, ugly face at intervals to see if the girls were following. I like the firm hardy gait which this unbecoming costume permits better than the painful shuffle imposed upon the more civilised women by their tight skirts and high clogs.

From Kohiaku the road passed through an irregular grassy valley between densely-wooded hills, the valley itself timbered with park-like clumps of pine and Spanish chestnuts; but on leaving Kisagoi the scenery changed. A steep rocky tract brought us to the Kinugawa, a clear rushing river, which has cut its way deeply through coloured rock, and is crossed at a considerable height by a bridge with an alarmingly steep curve, from which there is a fine view of high mountains, and among them Futarayama, to which some of the most ancient Shinto legends are attached. We rode for some time within hearing of the Kinugawa, catching magnificent glimpses of it frequently — turbulent and locked in by walls of porphyry, or widening and calming and spreading its aquamarine waters over great slabs of pink and green rock, lighted fitfully by the sun, or spanned by rainbows, or pausing to rest in deep shady pools, but always beautiful. The mountains through which it forces its way on the other side are precipitous and wooded to their summits with coniferae, while the less abrupt side, along which the tract is carried, curves into green knolls in its lower slopes, sprinkled with grand Spanish chestnuts scarcely yet in blossom, with maples which have not yet lost the scarlet which they wear in spring as well as autumn, and with many flowering trees and shrubs which are new to me, and with an undergrowth of red azaleas, syringa, blue hydrangea — the very blue of heaven — yellow raspberries, ferns, clematis, white and yellow lilies, blue irises, and fifty other trees and shrubs entangled and festooned by the wistaria, whose beautiful foliage is as common as is that of the bramble with us. The redundancy of the vegetation was truly tropical, and the brilliancy and variety of its living greens, dripping with recent rain, were enhanced by the slant rays of the afternoon sun.

The few hamlets we passed are of farm-houses only, the deep-eaved roofs covering in one sweep dwelling-house, barn, and stable. In every barn unclothed people were pursuing various industries. We met strings of pack-mares, tied head and tail, loaded with rice and sake, and men and women carrying large creels full of mulberry leaves. The ravine grew more and more beautiful, and an ascent through a dark wood of arrowy cryptomeria brought us to this village exquisitely situated, where a number of miniature ravines, industriously terraced for rice, come down upon the great chasm of the Kinugawa. Eleven hours of travelling have brought me eighteen miles!

IKARI, June 25. — Fujihara has forty-six farm-houses and a yadoya — all dark, damp, dirty, and draughty, a combination of dwelling-house, barn, and stable. The yadoya consisted of a daidokoro, or open kitchen, and stable below, and a small loft above, capable of division, and I found on returning from a walk six Japanese in extreme deshabille occupying the part through which I had to pass. On this being remedied I sat down to write, but was soon driven upon the balcony, under the eaves, by myriads of fleas, which hopped out of the mats as sandhoppers do out of the sea sand, and even in the balcony, hopped over my letter. There were two outer walls of hairy mud with living creatures crawling in the cracks; cobwebs hung from the uncovered rafters. The mats were brown with age and dirt, the rice was musty, and only partially cleaned, the eggs had seen better days, and the tea was musty.

I saw everything out of doors with Ito — the patient industry, the exquisitely situated village, the evening avocations, the quiet dulness — and then contemplated it all from my balcony and read the sentence (from a paper in the Transactions of the Asiatic Society) which had led me to devise this journey, “There is a most exquisitely picturesque, but difficult, route up the course of the Kinugawa, which seems almost as unknown to Japanese as to foreigners.” There was a pure lemon-coloured sky above, and slush a foot deep below. A road, at this time a quagmire, intersected by a rapid stream, crossed in many places by planks, runs through the village. This stream is at once “lavatory” and “drinking fountain.” People come back from their work, sit on the planks, take off their muddy clothes and wring them out, and bathe their feet in the current. On either side are the dwellings, in front of which are much-decayed manure heaps, and the women were engaged in breaking them up and treading them into a pulp with their bare feet. All wear the vest and trousers at their work, but only the short petticoats in their houses, and I saw several respectable mothers of families cross the road and pay visits in this garment only, without any sense of impropriety. The younger children wear nothing but a string and an amulet. The persons, clothing, and houses are alive with vermin, and if the word squalor can be applied to independent and industrious people, they were squalid. Beetles, spiders, and wood-lice held a carnival in my room after dark, and the presence of horses in the same house brought a number of horseflies. I sprinkled my stretcher with insect powder, but my blanket had been on the floor for one minute, and fleas rendered sleep impossible. The night was very long. The andon went out, leaving a strong smell of rancid oil. The primitive Japanese dog — a cream-coloured wolfish-looking animal, the size of a collie, very noisy and aggressive, but as cowardly as bullies usually are — was in great force in Fujihara, and the barking, growling, and quarrelling of these useless curs continued at intervals until daylight; and when they were not quarrelling, they were howling. Torrents of rain fell, obliging me to move my bed from place to place to get out of the drip. At five Ito came and entreated me to leave, whimpering, “I’ve had no sleep; there are thousands and thousands of fleas!” He has travelled by another route to the Tsugaru Strait through the interior, and says that he would not have believed that there was such a place in Japan, and that people in Yokohama will not believe it when he tells them of it and of the costume of the women. He is “ashamed for a foreigner to see such a place,” he says. His cleverness in travelling and his singular intelligence surprise me daily. He is very anxious to speak GOOD English, as distinguished from “common” English, and to get new words, with their correct pronunciation and spelling. Each day he puts down in his note-book all the words that I use that he does not quite understand, and in the evening brings them to me and puts down their meaning and spelling with their Japanese equivalents. He speaks English already far better than many professional interpreters, but would be more pleasing if he had not picked up some American vulgarisms and free-and-easy ways. It is so important to me to have a good interpreter, or I should not have engaged so young and inexperienced a servant; but he is so clever that he is now able to be cook, laundryman, and general attendant, as well as courier and interpreter, and I think it is far easier for me than if he were an older man. I am trying to manage him, because I saw that he meant to manage me, specially in the matter of “squeezes.” He is intensely Japanese, his patriotism has all the weakness and strength of personal vanity, and he thinks everything inferior that is foreign. Our manners, eyes, and modes of eating appear simply odious to him. He delights in retailing stories of the bad manners of Englishmen, describes them as “roaring out ohio to every one on the road,” frightening the tea-house nymphs, kicking or slapping their coolies, stamping over white mats in muddy boots, acting generally like ill-bred Satyrs, exciting an ill-concealed hatred in simple country districts, and bringing themselves and their country into contempt and ridicule.10 He is very anxious about my good behaviour, and as I am equally anxious to be courteous everywhere in Japanese fashion, and not to violate the general rules of Japanese etiquette, I take his suggestions as to what I ought to do and avoid in very good part, and my bows are growing more profound every day! The people are so kind and courteous, that it is truly brutal in foreigners not to be kind and courteous to them. You will observe that I am entirely dependent on Ito, not only for travelling arrangements, but for making inquiries, gaining information, and even for companionship, such as it is; and our being mutually embarked on a hard and adventurous journey will, I hope, make us mutually kind and considerate. Nominally, he is a Shintoist, which means nothing. At Nikko I read to him the earlier chapters of St. Luke, and when I came to the story of the Prodigal Son I was interrupted by a somewhat scornful laugh and the remark, “Why, all this is our Buddha over again!”

To-day’s journey, though very rough, has been rather pleasant. The rain moderated at noon, and I left Fujihara on foot, wearing my American “mountain dress” and Wellington boots — the only costume in which ladies can enjoy pedestrian or pack-horse travelling in this country — with a light straw mat — the waterproof of the region — hanging over my shoulders, and so we plodded on with two baggage horses through the ankle-deep mud, till the rain cleared off, the mountains looked through the mist, the augmented Kinugawa thundered below, and enjoyment became possible, even in my half-fed condition. Eventually I mounted a pack-saddle, and we crossed a spur of Takadayama at a height of 2100 feet on a well-devised series of zigzags, eight of which in one place could be seen one below another. The forest there is not so dense as usual, and the lower mountain slopes are sprinkled with noble Spanish chestnuts. The descent was steep and slippery, the horse had tender feet, and, after stumbling badly, eventually came down, and I went over his head, to the great distress of the kindly female mago. The straw shoes tied with wisps round the pasterns are a great nuisance. The “shoe strings” are always coming untied, and the shoes only wear about two ri on soft ground, and less than one on hard. They keep the feet so soft and spongy that the horses can’t walk without them at all, and as soon as they get thin your horse begins to stumble, the mago gets uneasy, and presently you stop; four shoes, which are hanging from the saddle, are soaked in water and are tied on with much coaxing, raising the animal fully an inch above the ground. Anything more temporary and clumsy could not be devised. The bridle paths are strewn with them, and the children collect them in heaps to decay for manure. They cost 3 or 4 sen the set, and in every village men spend their leisure time in making them.

At the next stage, called Takahara, we got one horse for the baggage, crossed the river and the ravine, and by a steep climb reached a solitary yadoya with the usual open front and irori, round which a number of people, old and young, were sitting. When I arrived a whole bevy of nice-looking girls took to flight, but were soon recalled by a word from Ito to their elders. Lady Parkes, on a side-saddle and in a riding-habit, has been taken for a man till the people saw her hair, and a young friend of mine, who is very pretty and has a beautiful complexion, when travelling lately with her husband, was supposed to be a man who had shaven off his beard. I wear a hat, which is a thing only worn by women in the fields as a protection from sun and rain, my eyebrows are unshaven, and my teeth are unblackened, so these girls supposed me to be a foreign man. Ito in explanation said, “They haven’t seen any, but everybody brings them tales how rude foreigners are to girls, and they are awful scared.” There was nothing eatable but rice and eggs, and I ate them under the concentrated stare of eighteen pairs of dark eyes. The hot springs, to which many people afflicted with sores resort, are by the river, at the bottom of a rude flight of steps, in an open shed, but I could not ascertain their temperature, as a number of men and women were sitting in the water. They bathe four times a day, and remain for an hour at a time.

We left for the five miles’ walk to Ikari in a torrent of rain by a newly-made path completely shut in with the cascading Kinugawa, and carried along sometimes low, sometimes high, on props projecting over it from the face of the rock. I do not expect to see anything lovelier in Japan.

The river, always crystal-blue or crystal-green, largely increased in volume by the rains, forces itself through gates of brightly-coloured rock, by which its progress is repeatedly arrested, and rarely lingers for rest in all its sparkling, rushing course. It is walled in by high mountains, gloriously wooded and cleft by dark ravines, down which torrents were tumbling in great drifts of foam, crashing and booming, boom and crash multiplied by many an echo, and every ravine afforded glimpses far back of more mountains, clefts, and waterfalls, and such over-abundant vegetation that I welcomed the sight of a gray cliff or bare face of rock. Along the path there were fascinating details, composed of the manifold greenery which revels in damp heat, ferns, mosses, confervae, fungi, trailers, shading tiny rills which dropped down into grottoes feathery with the exquisite Trichomanes radicans, or drooped over the rustic path and hung into the river, and overhead the finely incised and almost feathery foliage of several varieties of maple admitted the light only as a green mist. The spring tints have not yet darkened into the monotone of summer, rose azaleas still light the hillsides, and masses of cryptomeria give depth and shadow. Still, beautiful as it all is, one sighs for something which shall satisfy one’s craving for startling individuality and grace of form, as in the coco-palm and banana of the tropics. The featheriness of the maple, and the arrowy straightness and pyramidal form of the cryptomeria, please me better than all else; but why criticise? Ten minutes of sunshine would transform the whole into fairyland.

There were no houses and no people. Leaving this beautiful river we crossed a spur of a hill, where all the trees were matted together by a very fragrant white honeysuckle, and came down upon an open valley where a quiet stream joins the loud-tongued Kinugawa, and another mile brought us to this beautifully-situated hamlet of twenty-five houses, surrounded by mountains, and close to a mountain stream called the Okawa. The names of Japanese rivers give one very little geographical information from their want of continuity. A river changes its name several times in a course of thirty or forty miles, according to the districts through which it passes. This is my old friend the Kinugawa, up which I have been travelling for two days. Want of space is a great aid to the picturesque. Ikari is crowded together on a hill slope, and its short, primitive-looking street, with its warm browns and greys, is quite attractive in “the clear shining after rain.” My halting-place is at the express office at the top of the hill — a place like a big barn, with horses at one end and a living-room at the other, and in the centre much produce awaiting transport, and a group of people stripping mulberry branches. The nearest daimiyo used to halt here on his way to Tokiyo, so there are two rooms for travellers, called daimiyos’ rooms, fifteen feet high, handsomely ceiled in dark wood, the shoji of such fine work as to merit the name of fret-work, the fusuma artistically decorated, the mats clean and fine, and in the alcove a sword-rack of old gold lacquer. Mine is the inner room, and Ito and four travellers occupy the outer one. Though very dark, it is luxury after last night. The rest of the house is given up to the rearing of silk-worms. The house-masters here and at Fujihara are not used to passports, and Ito, who is posing as a town-bred youth, has explained and copied mine, all the village men assembling to hear it read aloud. He does not know the word used for “scientific investigation,” but, in the idea of increasing his own importance by exaggerating mine, I hear him telling the people that I am gakusha, i.e. learned! There is no police-station here, but every month policemen pay domiciliary visits to these outlying yadoyas and examine the register of visitors.

This is a much neater place than the last, but the people look stupid and apathetic, and I wonder what they think of the men who have abolished the daimiyo and the feudal regime, have raised the eta to citizenship, and are hurrying the empire forward on the tracks of western civilisation!

Since shingle has given place to thatch there is much to admire in the villages, with their steep roofs, deep eaves and balconies, the warm russet of roofs and walls, the quaint confusion of the farmhouses, the hedges of camellia and pomegranate, the bamboo clumps and persimmon orchards, and (in spite of dirt and bad smells) the generally satisfied look of the peasant proprietors.

No food can be got here except rice and eggs, and I am haunted by memories of the fowls and fish of Nikko, to say nothing of the “flesh pots” of the Legation, and

“— a sorrow’s crown of sorrow Is remembering happier things!”

The mercury falls to 70 degrees at night, and I generally awake from cold at 3 a.m., for my blankets are only summer ones, and I dare not supplement them with a quilt, either for sleeping on or under, because of the fleas which it contains. I usually retire about 7.30, for there is almost no twilight, and very little inducement for sitting up by the dimness of candle or andon, and I have found these days of riding on slow, rolling, stumbling horses very severe, and if I were anything of a walker, should certainly prefer pedestrianism.

I. L. B.

10 This can only be true of the behaviour of the lowest excursionists from the Treaty Ports.

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