Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 13

The Plain of Wakamatsu — Light Costume — The Takata Crowd — A Congress of Schoolmasters — Timidity of a Crowd — Bad Roads — Vicious Horses — Mountain Scenery — A Picturesque Inn — Swallowing a Fish-bone — Poverty and Suicide — An Inn-kitchen — England Unknown! — My Breakfast Disappears.

KURUMATOGE, June 30.

A short ride took us from Ichikawa to a plain about eleven miles broad by eighteen long. The large town of Wakamatsu stands near its southern end, and it is sprinkled with towns and villages. The great lake of Iniwashiro is not far off. The plain is rich and fertile. In the distance the steep roofs of its villages, with their groves, look very picturesque. As usual not a fence or gate is to be seen, or any other hedge than the tall one used as a screen for the dwellings of the richer farmers.

Bad roads and bad horses detracted from my enjoyment. One hour of a good horse would have carried me across the plain; as it was, seven weary hours were expended upon it. The day degenerated, and closed in still, hot rain; the air was stifling and electric, the saddle slipped constantly from being too big, the shoes were more than usually troublesome, the horseflies tormented, and the men and horses crawled. The rice-fields were undergoing a second process of puddling, and many of the men engaged in it wore only a hat, and a fan attached to the girdle.

An avenue of cryptomeria and two handsome and somewhat gilded Buddhist temples denoted the approach to a place of some importance, and such Takata is, as being a large town with a considerable trade in silk, rope, and minjin, and the residence of one of the higher officials of the ken or prefecture. The street is a mile long, and every house is a shop. The general aspect is mean and forlorn. In these little-travelled districts, as soon as one reaches the margin of a town, the first man one meets turns and flies down the street, calling out the Japanese equivalent of “Here’s a foreigner!” and soon blind and seeing, old and young, clothed and naked, gather together. At the yadoya the crowd assembled in such force that the house-master removed me to some pretty rooms in a garden; but then the adults climbed on the house-roofs which overlooked it, and the children on a palisade at the end, which broke down under their weight, and admitted the whole inundation; so that I had to close the shoji, with the fatiguing consciousness during the whole time of nominal rest of a multitude surging outside. Then five policemen in black alpaca frock-coats and white trousers invaded my precarious privacy, desiring to see my passport — a demand never made before except where I halted for the night. In their European clothes they cannot bow with Japanese punctiliousness, but they were very polite, and expressed great annoyance at the crowd, and dispersed it; but they had hardly disappeared when it gathered again. When I went out I found fully 1000 people helping me to realise how the crowded cities of Judea sent forth people clothed much as these are when the Miracle–Worker from Galilee arrived, but not what the fatigue of the crowding and buzzing must have been to One who had been preaching and working during the long day. These Japanese crowds, however, are quiet and gentle, and never press rudely upon one. I could not find it in my heart to complain of them except to you. Four of the policemen returned, and escorted me to the outskirts of the town. The noise made by 1000 people shuffling along in clogs is like the clatter of a hail-storm.

After this there was a dismal tramp of five hours through rice-fields. The moist climate and the fatigue of this manner of travelling are deteriorating my health, and the pain in my spine, which has been daily increasing, was so severe that I could neither ride nor walk for more than twenty minutes at a time; and the pace was so slow that it was six when we reached Bange, a commercial town of 5000 people, literally in the rice swamp, mean, filthy, damp, and decaying, and full of an overpowering stench from black, slimy ditches. The mercury was 84 degrees, and hot rain fell fast through the motionless air. We dismounted in a shed full of bales of dried fish, which gave off an overpowering odour, and wet and dirty people crowded in to stare at the foreigner till the air seemed unbreathable.

But there were signs of progress. A three days’ congress of schoolmasters was being held; candidates for vacant situations were being examined; there were lengthy educational discussions going on, specially on the subject of the value of the Chinese classics as a part of education; and every inn was crowded.

Bange was malarious: there was so much malarious fever that the Government had sent additional medical assistance; the hills were only a ri off, and it seemed essential to go on. But not a horse could be got till 10 p.m.; the road was worse than the one I had travelled; the pain became more acute, and I more exhausted, and I was obliged to remain. Then followed a weary hour, in which the Express Agent’s five emissaries were searching for a room, and considerably after dark I found myself in a rambling old over-crowded yadoya, where my room was mainly built on piles above stagnant water, and the mosquitoes were in such swarms as to make the air dense, and after a feverish and miserable night I was glad to get up early and depart.

Fully 2000 people had assembled. After I was mounted I was on the point of removing my Dollond from the case, which hung on the saddle horn, when a regular stampede occurred, old and young running as fast as they possibly could, children being knocked down in the haste of their elders. Ito said that they thought I was taking out a pistol to frighten them, and I made him explain what the object really was, for they are a gentle, harmless people, whom one would not annoy without sincere regret. In many European countries, and certainly in some parts of our own, a solitary lady-traveller in a foreign dress would be exposed to rudeness, insult, and extortion, if not to actual danger; but I have not met with a single instance of incivility or real overcharge, and there is no rudeness even about the crowding. The mago are anxious that I should not get wet or be frightened, and very scrupulous in seeing that all straps and loose things are safe at the end of the journey, and, instead of hanging about asking for gratuities, or stopping to drink and gossip, they quickly unload the horses, get a paper from the Transport Agent, and go home. Only yesterday a strap was missing, and, though it was after dark, the man went back a ri for it, and refused to take some sen which I wished to give him, saying he was responsible for delivering everything right at the journey’s end. They are so kind and courteous to each other, which is very pleasing. Ito is not pleasing or polite in his manner to me, but when he speaks to his own people he cannot free himself from the shackles of etiquette, and bows as profoundly and uses as many polite phrases as anybody else.

In an hour the malarious plain was crossed, and we have been among piles of mountains ever since. The infamous road was so slippery that my horse fell several times, and the baggage horse, with Ito upon him, rolled head over heels, sending his miscellaneous pack in all directions. Good roads are really the most pressing need of Japan. It would be far better if the Government were to enrich the country by such a remunerative outlay as making passable roads for the transport of goods through the interior, than to impoverish it by buying ironclads in England, and indulging in expensive western vanities.

That so horrible a road should have so good a bridge as that by which we crossed the broad river Agano is surprising. It consists of twelve large scows, each one secured to a strong cable of plaited wistari, which crosses the river at a great height, so as to allow of the scows and the plank bridge which they carry rising and falling with the twelve feet variation of the water.

Ito’s disaster kept him back for an hour, and I sat meanwhile on a rice sack in the hamlet of Katakado, a collection of steep-roofed houses huddled together in a height above the Agano. It was one mob of pack-horses, over 200 of them, biting, squealing, and kicking. Before I could dismount, one vicious creature struck at me violently, but only hit the great wooden stirrup. I could hardly find any place out of the range of hoofs or teeth. My baggage horse showed great fury after he was unloaded. He attacked people right and left with his teeth, struck out savagely with his fore feet, lashed out with his hind ones, and tried to pin his master up against a wall.

Leaving this fractious scene we struck again through the mountains. Their ranges were interminable, and every view from every fresh ridge grander than the last, for we were now near the lofty range of the Aidzu Mountains, and the double-peaked Bandaisan, the abrupt precipices of Itoyasan, and the grand mass of Miyojintake in the south-west, with their vast snow-fields and snow-filled ravines, were all visible at once. These summits of naked rock or dazzling snow, rising above the smothering greenery of the lower ranges into a heaven of delicious blue, gave exactly that individuality and emphasis which, to my thinking, Japanese scenery usually lacks. Riding on first, I arrived alone at the little town of Nozawa, to encounter the curiosity of a crowd; and, after a rest, we had a very pleasant walk of three miles along the side of a ridge above a rapid river with fine grey cliffs on its farther side, with a grand view of the Aidzu giants, violet coloured in a golden sunset.

At dusk we came upon the picturesque village of Nojiri, on the margin of a rice valley, but I shrank from spending Sunday in a hole, and, having spied a solitary house on the very brow of a hill 1500 feet higher, I dragged out the information that it was a tea-house, and came up to it. It took three-quarters of an hour to climb the series of precipitous zigzags by which this remarkable pass is surmounted; darkness came on, accompanied by thunder and lightning, and just as we arrived a tremendous zigzag of blue flame lit up the house and its interior, showing a large group sitting round a wood fire, and then all was thick darkness again. It had a most startling effect. This house is magnificently situated, almost hanging over the edge of the knife-like ridge of the pass of Kuruma, on which it is situated. It is the only yadoya I have been at from which there has been any view. The villages are nearly always in the valleys, and the best rooms are at the back, and have their prospects limited by the paling of the conventional garden. If it were not for the fleas, which are here in legions, I should stay longer, for the view of the Aidzu snow is delicious, and, as there are only two other houses, one can ramble without being mobbed.

In one a child two and a half years old swallowed a fish-bone last night, and has been suffering and crying all day, and the grief of the mother so won Ito’s sympathy that he took me to see her. She had walked up and down with it for eighteen hours, but never thought of looking into its throat, and was very unwilling that I should do so. The bone was visible, and easily removed with a crochet needle. An hour later the mother sent a tray with a quantity of cakes and coarse confectionery upon it as a present, with the piece of dried seaweed which always accompanies a gift. Before night seven people with sore legs applied for “advice.” The sores were all superficial and all alike, and their owners said that they had been produced by the incessant rubbing of the bites of ants.

On this summer day the country looks as prosperous as it is beautiful, and one would not think that acute poverty could exist in the steep-roofed village of Nojiri, which nestles at the foot of the hill; but two hempen ropes dangling from a cryptomeria just below tell the sad tale of an elderly man who hanged himself two days ago, because he was too poor to provide for a large family; and the house-mistress and Ito tell me that when a man who has a young family gets too old or feeble for work he often destroys himself.

My hostess is a widow with a family, a good-natured, bustling woman, with a great love of talk. All day her house is open all round, having literally no walls. The roof and solitary upper room are supported on posts, and my ladder almost touches the kitchen fire. During the day-time the large matted area under the roof has no divisions, and groups of travellers and magos lie about, for every one who has toiled up either side of Kurumatoge takes a cup of “tea with eating,” and the house-mistress is busy the whole day. A big well is near the fire. Of course there is no furniture; but a shelf runs under the roof, on which there is a Buddhist god-house, with two black idols in it, one of them being that much — worshipped divinity, Daikoku, the god of wealth. Besides a rack for kitchen utensils, there is only a stand on which are six large brown dishes with food for sale — salt shell-fish, in a black liquid, dried trout impaled on sticks, sea slugs in soy, a paste made of pounded roots, and green cakes made of the slimy river confervae, pressed and dried — all ill-favoured and unsavoury viands. This afternoon a man without clothes was treading flour paste on a mat, a traveller in a blue silk robe was lying on the floor smoking, and five women in loose attire, with elaborate chignons and blackened teeth, were squatting round the fire. At the house-mistress’s request I wrote a eulogistic description of the view from her house, and read it in English, Ito translating it, to the very great satisfaction of the assemblage. Then I was asked to write on four fans. The woman has never heard of England. It is not “a name to conjure with” in these wilds. Neither has she heard of America. She knows of Russia as a great power, and, of course, of China, but there her knowledge ends, though she has been at Tokiyo and Kiyoto.

July 1. — I was just falling asleep last night, in spite of mosquitoes and fleas, when I was roused by much talking and loud outcries of poultry; and Ito, carrying a screaming, refractory hen, and a man and woman whom he had with difficulty bribed to part with it, appeared by my bed. I feebly said I would have it boiled for breakfast, but when Ito called me this morning he told me with a most rueful face that just as he was going to kill it it had escaped to the woods! In order to understand my feelings you must have experienced what it is not to have tasted fish, flesh, or fowl, for ten days! The alternative was eggs and some of the paste which the man was treading yesterday on the mat cut into strips and boiled! It was coarse flour and buckwheat, so, you see, I have learned not to be particular!

I. L. B.

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