Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 14

An Infamous Road — Monotonous Greenery — Abysmal Dirt — Low Lives — The Tsugawa Yadoya — Politeness — A Shipping Port — A Barbarian Devil.

TSUGAWA, July 2.

Yesterday’s journey was one of the most severe I have yet had, for in ten hours of hard travelling I only accomplished fifteen miles. The road from Kurumatoge westwards is so infamous that the stages are sometimes little more than a mile. Yet it is by it, so far at least as the Tsugawa river, that the produce and manufactures of the rich plain of Aidzu, with its numerous towns, and of a very large interior district, must find an outlet at Niigata. In defiance of all modern ideas, it goes straight up and straight down hill, at a gradient that I should be afraid to hazard a guess at, and at present it is a perfect quagmire, into which great stones have been thrown, some of which have subsided edgewise, and others have disappeared altogether. It is the very worst road I ever rode over, and that is saying a good deal! Kurumatoge was the last of seventeen mountain-passes, over 2000 feet high, which I have crossed since leaving Nikko. Between it and Tsugawa the scenery, though on a smaller scale, is of much the same character as hitherto — hills wooded to their tops, cleft by ravines which open out occasionally to divulge more distant ranges, all smothered in greenery, which, when I am ill-pleased, I am inclined to call “rank vegetation.” Oh that an abrupt scaur, or a strip of flaming desert, or something salient and brilliant, would break in, however discordantly, upon this monotony of green!

The villages of that district must, I think, have reached the lowest abyss of filthiness in Hozawa and Saikaiyama. Fowls, dogs, horses, and people herded together in sheds black with wood smoke, and manure heaps drained into the wells. No young boy wore any clothing. Few of the men wore anything but the maro, the women were unclothed to their waists and such clothing as they had was very dirty, and held together by mere force of habit. The adults were covered with inflamed bites of insects, and the children with skin-disease. Their houses were dirty, and, as they squatted on their heels, or lay face downwards, they looked little better than savages. Their appearance and the want of delicacy of their habits are simply abominable, and in the latter respect they contrast to great disadvantage with several savage peoples that I have been among. If I had kept to Nikko, Hakone, Miyanoshita, and similar places visited by foreigners with less time, I should have formed a very different impression. Is their spiritual condition, I often wonder, much higher than their physical one? They are courteous, kindly, industrious, and free from gross crimes; but, from the conversations that I have had with Japanese, and from much that I see, I judge that their standard of foundational morality is very low, and that life is neither truthful nor pure.

I put up here at a crowded yadoya, where they have given me two cheerful rooms in the garden, away from the crowd. Ito’s great desire on arriving at any place is to shut me up in my room and keep me a close prisoner till the start the next morning; but here I emancipated myself, and enjoyed myself very much sitting in the daidokoro. The house-master is of the samurai, or two-sworded class, now, as such, extinct. His face is longer, his lips thinner, and his nose straighter and more prominent than those of the lower class, and there is a difference in his manner and bearing. I have had a great deal of interesting conversation with him.

In the same open space his clerk was writing at a lacquer desk of the stereotyped form — a low bench with the ends rolled over — a woman was tailoring, coolies were washing their feet on the itama, and several more were squatting round the irori smoking and drinking tea. A coolie servant washed some rice for my dinner, but before doing so took off his clothes, and the woman who cooked it let her kimono fall to her waist before she began to work, as is customary among respectable women. The house-master’s wife and Ito talked about me unguardedly. I asked what they were saying. “She says,” said he, “that you are very polite — for a foreigner,” he added. I asked what she meant, and found that it was because I took off my boots before I stepped on the matting, and bowed when they handed me the tabako-bon.

We walked through the town to find something eatable for tomorrow’s river journey, but only succeeded in getting wafers made of white of egg and sugar, balls made of sugar and barley flour, and beans coated with sugar. Thatch, with its picturesqueness, has disappeared, and the Tsugawa roofs are of strips of bark weighted with large stones; but, as the houses turn their gable ends to the street, and there is a promenade the whole way under the eaves, and the street turns twice at right angles and terminates in temple grounds on a bank above the river, it is less monotonous than most Japanese towns. It is a place of 3000 people, and a good deal of produce is shipped from hence to Niigata by the river. To-day it is thronged with pack-horses. I was much mobbed, and one child formed the solitary exception to the general rule of politeness by calling me a name equivalent to the Chinese Fan Kwai, “foreign;” but he was severely chidden, and a policeman has just called with an apology. A slice of fresh salmon has been produced, and I think I never tasted anything so delicious. I have finished the first part of my land journey, and leave for Niigata by boat tomorrow morning.

I. L. B.

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