Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 16

Abominable Weather — Insect Pests — Absence of Foreign Trade — A Refractory River — Progress — The Japanese City — Water Highways — Niigata Gardens — Ruth Fyson — The Winter Climate — A Population in Wadding.

NIIGATA, July 9.

I have spent over a week in Niigata, and leave it regretfully tomorrow, rather for the sake of the friends I have made than for its own interests. I never experienced a week of more abominable weather. The sun has been seen just once, the mountains, which are thirty miles off, not at all. The clouds are a brownish grey, the air moist and motionless, and the mercury has varied from 82 degrees in the day to 80 degrees at night. The household is afflicted with lassitude and loss of appetite. Evening does not bring coolness, but myriads of flying, creeping, jumping, running creatures, all with power to hurt, which replace the day mosquitoes, villains with spotted legs, which bite and poison one without the warning hum. The night mosquitoes are legion. There are no walks except in the streets and the public gardens, for Niigata is built on a sand spit, hot and bare. Neither can you get a view of it without climbing to the top of a wooden look-out.

Niigata is a Treaty Port without foreign trade, and almost without foreign residents. Not a foreign ship visited the port either last year or this. There are only two foreign firms, and these are German, and only eighteen foreigners, of which number, except the missionaries, nearly all are in Government employment. Its river, the Shinano, is the largest in Japan, and it and its affluents bring down a prodigious volume of water. But Japanese rivers are much choked with sand and shingle washed down from the mountains. In all that I have seen, except those which are physically limited by walls of hard rock, a river-bed is a waste of sand, boulders, and shingle, through the middle of which, among sand-banks and shallows, the river proper takes its devious course. In the freshets, which occur to a greater or less extent every year, enormous volumes of water pour over these wastes, carrying sand and detritus down to the mouths, which are all obstructed by bars. Of these rivers the Shinano, being the biggest, is the most refractory, and has piled up a bar at its entrance through which there is only a passage seven feet deep, which is perpetually shallowing. The minds of engineers are much exercised upon the Shinano, and the Government is most anxious to deepen the channel and give Western Japan what it has not — a harbour; but the expense of the necessary operation is enormous, and in the meantime a limited ocean traffic is carried on by junks and by a few small Japanese steamers which call outside. 13 There is a British Vice–Consulate, but, except as a step, few would accept such a dreary post or outpost.

But Niigata is a handsome, prosperous city of 50,000 inhabitants, the capital of the wealthy province of Echigo, with a population of one and a half millions, and is the seat of the Kenrei, or provincial governor, of the chief law courts, of fine schools, a hospital, and barracks. It is curious to find in such an excluded town a school deserving the designation of a college, as it includes intermediate, primary, and normal schools, an English school with 150 pupils, organised by English and American teachers, an engineering school, a geological museum, splendidly equipped laboratories, and the newest and most approved scientific and educational apparatus. The Government Buildings, which are grouped near Mr. Fyson’s, are of painted white wood, and are imposing from their size and their innumerable glass windows. There is a large hospital 14 arranged by a European doctor, with a medical school attached, and it, the Kencho, the Saibancho, or Court House, the schools, the barracks, and a large bank, which is rivalling them all, have a go-ahead, Europeanised look, bold, staring, and tasteless. There are large public gardens, very well laid out, and with finely gravelled walks. There are 300 street lamps, which burn the mineral oil of the district.

Yet, because the riotous Shinano persistently bars it out from the sea, its natural highway, the capital of one of the richest provinces of Japan is “left out in the cold,” and the province itself, which yields not only rice, silk, tea, hemp, ninjin, and indigo, in large quantities, but gold, copper, coal, and petroleum, has to send most of its produce to Yedo across ranges of mountains, on the backs of pack-horses, by roads scarcely less infamous than the one by which I came.

The Niigata of the Government, with its signs of progress in a western direction, is quite unattractive-looking as compared with the genuine Japanese Niigata, which is the neatest, cleanest, and most comfortable-looking town I have yet seen, and altogether free from the jostlement of a foreign settlement. It is renowned for the beautiful tea-houses, which attract visitors from distant places, and for the excellence of the theatres, and is the centre of the recreation and pleasure of a large district. It is so beautifully clean that, as at Nikko, I should feel reluctant to walk upon its well-swept streets in muddy boots. It would afford a good lesson to the Edinburgh authorities, for every vagrant bit of straw, stick, or paper, is at once pounced upon and removed, and no rubbish may stand for an instant in its streets except in a covered box or bucket. It is correctly laid out in square divisions, formed by five streets over a mile long, crossed by very numerous short ones, and is intersected by canals, which are its real roadways. I have not seen a pack-horse in the streets; everything comes in by boat, and there are few houses in the city which cannot have their goods delivered by canal very near to their doors. These water-ways are busy all day, but in the early morning, when the boats come in loaded with the vegetables, without which the people could not exist for a day, the bustle is indescribable. The cucumber boats just now are the great sight. The canals are usually in the middle of the streets, and have fairly broad roadways on both sides. They are much below the street level, and their nearly perpendicular banks are neatly faced with wood, broken at intervals by flights of stairs. They are bordered by trees, among which are many weeping willows; and, as the river water runs through them, keeping them quite sweet, and they are crossed at short intervals by light bridges, they form a very attractive feature of Niigata.

The houses have very steep roofs of shingle, weighted with stones, and, as they are of very irregular heights, and all turn the steep gables of the upper stories streetwards, the town has a picturesqueness very unusual in Japan. The deep verandahs are connected all along the streets, so as to form a sheltered promenade when the snow lies deep in winter. With its canals with their avenues of trees, its fine public gardens, and clean, picturesque streets, it is a really attractive town; but its improvements are recent, and were only lately completed by Mr. Masakata Kusumoto, now Governor of Tokiyo. There is no appearance of poverty in any part of the town, but if there be wealth, it is carefully concealed. One marked feature of the city is the number of streets of dwelling-houses with projecting windows of wooden slats, through which the people can see without being seen, though at night, when the andons are lit, we saw, as we walked from Dr. Palm’s, that in most cases families were sitting round the hibachi in a deshabille of the scantiest kind.

The fronts are very narrow, and the houses extend backwards to an amazing length, with gardens in which flowers, shrubs, and mosquitoes are grown, and bridges are several times repeated, so as to give the effect of fairyland as you look through from the street. The principal apartments in all Japanese houses are at the back, looking out on these miniature landscapes, for a landscape is skilfully dwarfed into a space often not more than 30 feet square. A lake, a rock-work, a bridge, a stone lantern, and a deformed pine, are indispensable; but whenever circumstances and means admit of it, quaintnesses of all kinds are introduced. Small pavilions, retreats for tea-making, reading, sleeping in quiet and coolness, fishing under cover, and drinking sake; bronze pagodas, cascades falling from the mouths of bronze dragons; rock caves, with gold and silver fish darting in and out; lakes with rocky islands, streams crossed by green bridges, just high enough to allow a rat or frog to pass under; lawns, and slabs of stone for crossing them in wet weather, grottoes, hills, valleys, groves of miniature palms, cycas, and bamboo; and dwarfed trees of many kinds, of purplish and dull green hues, are cut into startling likenesses of beasts and creeping things, or stretch distorted arms over tiny lakes.

I have walked about a great deal in Niigata, and when with Mrs. Fyson, who is the only European lady here at present, and her little Ruth, a pretty Saxon child of three years old, we have been followed by an immense crowd, as the sight of this fair creature, with golden curls falling over her shoulders, is most fascinating. Both men and women have gentle, winning ways with infants, and Ruth, instead of being afraid of the crowds, smiles upon them, bows in Japanese fashion, speaks to them in Japanese, and seems a little disposed to leave her own people altogether. It is most difficult to make her keep with us, and two or three times, on missing her and looking back, we have seen her seated, native fashion, in a ring in a crowd of several hundred people, receiving a homage and admiration from which she was most unwillingly torn. The Japanese have a perfect passion for children, but it is not good for European children to be much with them, as they corrupt their morals, and teach them to tell lies.

The climate of Niigata and of most of this great province contrasts unpleasantly with the region on the other side of the mountains, warmed by the gulf-stream of the North Pacific, in which the autumn and winter, with their still atmosphere, bracing temperature, and blue and sunny skies, are the most delightful seasons of the year. Thirty-two days of snow-fall occur on an average. The canals and rivers freeze, and even the rapid Shinano sometimes bears a horse. In January and February the snow lies three or four feet deep, a veil of clouds obscures the sky, people inhabit their upper rooms to get any daylight, pack-horse traffic is suspended, pedestrians go about with difficulty in rough snow-shoes, and for nearly six months the coast is unsuitable for navigation, owing to the prevalence of strong, cold, north-west winds. In this city people in wadded clothes, with only their eyes exposed, creep about under the verandahs. The population huddles round hibachis and shivers, for the mercury, which rises to 92 degrees in summer, falls to 15 degrees in winter. And all this is in latitude 37 degrees 55’— three degrees south of Naples!

I. L. B.

13 By one of these, not fitted up for passengers, I have sent one of my baskets to Hakodate, and by doing so have come upon one of the vexatious restrictions by which foreigners are harassed. It would seem natural to allow a foreigner to send his personal luggage from one Treaty Port to another without going through a number of formalities which render it nearly impossible, but it was only managed by Ito sending mine in his own name to a Japanese at Hakodate with whom he is slightly acquainted.

14 This hospital is large and well ventilated, but has not as yet succeeded in attracting many inpatients; out-patients, specially sufferers from ophthalmia, are very numerous. The Japanese chief physician regards the great prevalence of the malady in this neighbourhood as the result of damp, the reflection of the sun’s rays from sand and snow, inadequate ventilation and charcoal fumes.

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