Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 15

A Hurry — The Tsugawa Packet-boat — Running the Rapids — Fantastic Scenery — The River-life — Vineyards — Drying Barley — Summer Silence — The Outskirts of Niigata — The Church Mission House.

NIIGATA, July 4.

The boat for Niigata was to leave at eight, but at five Ito roused me by saying they were going at once, as it was full, and we left in haste, the house-master running to the river with one of my large baskets on his back to “speed the parting guest.” Two rivers unite to form a stream over whose beauty I would gladly have lingered, and the morning, singularly rich and tender in its colouring, ripened into a glorious day of light without glare, and heat without oppressiveness. The “packet” was a stoutly-built boat, 45 feet long by 6 broad, propelled by one man sculling at the stern, and another pulling a short broad-bladed oar, which worked in a wistaria loop at the bow. It had a croquet mallet handle about 18 inches long, to which the man gave a wriggling turn at each stroke. Both rower and sculler stood the whole time, clad in umbrella hats. The fore part and centre carried bags of rice and crates of pottery, and the hinder part had a thatched roof which, when we started, sheltered twenty-five Japanese, but we dropped them at hamlets on the river, and reached Niigata with only three. I had my chair on the top of the cargo, and found the voyage a delightful change from the fatiguing crawl through quagmires at the rate of from 15 to 18 miles a day. This trip is called “running the rapids of the Tsugawa,” because for about twelve miles the river, hemmed in by lofty cliffs, studded with visible and sunken rocks, making several abrupt turns and shallowing in many places, hurries a boat swiftly downwards; and it is said that it requires long practice, skill, and coolness on the part of the boatmen to prevent grave and frequent accidents. But if they are rapids, they are on a small scale, and look anything but formidable. With the river at its present height the boats run down forty-five miles in eight hours, charging only 30 sen, or 1s. 3d., but it takes from five to seven days to get up, and much hard work in poling and towing.

The boat had a thoroughly “native” look, with its bronzed crew, thatched roof, and the umbrella hats of all its passengers hanging on the mast. I enjoyed every hour of the day. It was luxury to drop quietly down the stream, the air was delicious, and, having heard nothing of it, the beauty of the Tsugawa came upon me as a pleasant surprise, besides that every mile brought me nearer the hoped-for home letters. Almost as soon as we left Tsugawa the downward passage was apparently barred by fantastic mountains, which just opened their rocky gates wide enough to let us through, and then closed again. Pinnacles and needles of bare, flushed rock rose out of luxuriant vegetation — Quiraing without its bareness, the Rhine without its ruins, and more beautiful than both. There were mountains connected by ridges no broader than a horse’s back, others with great gray buttresses, deep chasms cleft by streams, temples with pagoda roofs on heights, sunny villages with deep-thatched roofs hidden away among blossoming trees, and through rifts in the nearer ranges glimpses of snowy mountains.

After a rapid run of twelve miles through this enchanting scenery, the remaining course of the Tsugawa is that of a broad, full stream winding marvellously through a wooded and tolerably level country, partially surrounded by snowy mountains. The river life was very pretty. Canoes abounded, some loaded with vegetables, some with wheat, others with boys and girls returning from school. Sampans with their white puckered sails in flotillas of a dozen at a time crawled up the deep water, or were towed through the shallows by crews frolicking and shouting. Then the scene changed to a broad and deep river, with a peculiar alluvial smell from the quantity of vegetable matter held in suspension, flowing calmly between densely wooded, bamboo-fringed banks, just high enough to conceal the surrounding country. No houses, or nearly none, are to be seen, but signs of a continuity of population abound. Every hundred yards almost there is a narrow path to the river through the jungle, with a canoe moored at its foot. Erections like gallows, with a swinging bamboo, with a bucket at one end and a stone at the other, occurring continually, show the vicinity of households dependent upon the river for their water supply. Wherever the banks admitted of it, horses were being washed by having water poured over their backs with a dipper, naked children were rolling in the mud, and cackling of poultry, human voices, and sounds of industry, were ever floating towards us from the dense greenery of the shores, making one feel without seeing that the margin was very populous. Except the boatmen and myself, no one was awake during the hot, silent afternoon — it was dreamy and delicious. Occasionally, as we floated down, vineyards were visible with the vines trained on horizontal trellises, or bamboo rails, often forty feet long, nailed horizontally on cryptomeria to a height of twenty feet, on which small sheaves of barley were placed astride to dry till the frame was full

More forest, more dreams, then the forest and the abundant vegetation altogether disappeared, the river opened out among low lands and banks of shingle and sand, and by three we were on the outskirts of Niigata, whose low houses — with rows of stones upon their roofs, spread over a stretch of sand, beyond which is a sandy roll with some clumps of firs. Tea-houses with many balconies studded the river-side, and pleasure-parties were enjoying themselves with geishas and sake, but, on the whole, the water-side streets are shabby and tumble down, and the landward side of the great city of western Japan is certainly disappointing; and it was difficult to believe it a Treaty Port, for the sea was not in sight, and there were no consular flags flying. We poled along one of the numerous canals, which are the carriage-ways for produce and goods, among hundreds of loaded boats, landed in the heart of the city, and, as the result of repeated inquiries, eventually reached the Church Mission House, an unshaded wooden building without verandahs, close to the Government Buildings, where I was most kindly welcomed by Mr. and Mrs. Fyson.

The house is plain, simple, and inconveniently small; but doors and walls are great luxuries, and you cannot imagine how pleasing the ways of a refined European household are after the eternal babblement and indecorum of the Japanese.

Itinerary of Route from Nikko to Niigata

(Kinugawa Route.)

From Tokiyo to: No. of houses. Ri. Cho
Nikko 36
Kohiaku 6 2 18
Kisagoi 19 1 18
Fujihara 46 2 19
Takahara 15 2 10
Ikari 25 2
Nakamiyo 10 1 24
Yokokawa 20 2 21
Itosawa 38 2 34
Kayashima 57 1 4
Tajima 250 1 21
Toyonari 120 2 12
Atomi 34 1
Ouchi 27 2 12
Ichikawa 7 2 22
Takata 420 2 11
Bange 910 3 4
Katakado 50 1 20
Nosawa 306 3 24
Nojiri 110 1 27
Kurumatoge 3 9
Hozawa 20 1 14
Torige 21 1
Sakaiyama 28 24
Tsugawa 615 2 18
Niigata 50,000 souls 18
Ri. 101 6

About 247 miles.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird/isabella/japan/chapter19.html

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