Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 17

The Canal-side at Niigata — Awful Loneliness — Courtesy — Dr. Palm’s Tandem — A Noisy Matsuri — A Jolting Journey — The Mountain Villages — Winter Dismalness — An Out-of-the-world Hamlet — Crowded Dwellings — Riding a Cow —“Drunk and Disorderly”— An Enforced Rest — Local Discouragements — Heavy Loads — Absence of Beggary — Slow Travelling.

ICHINONO, July 12.

Two foreign ladies, two fair-haired foreign infants, a long-haired foreign dog, and a foreign gentleman, who, without these accompaniments, might have escaped notice, attracted a large but kindly crowd to the canal side when I left Niigata. The natives bore away the children on their shoulders, the Fysons walked to the extremity of the canal to bid me good-bye, the sampan shot out upon the broad, swirling flood of the Shinano, and an awful sense of loneliness fell upon me. We crossed the Shinano, poled up the narrow, embanked Shinkawa, had a desperate struggle with the flooded Aganokawa, were much impeded by strings of nauseous manure-boats on the narrow, discoloured Kajikawa, wondered at the interminable melon and cucumber fields, and at the odd river life, and, after hard poling for six hours, reached Kisaki, having accomplished exactly ten miles. Then three kurumas with trotting runners took us twenty miles at the low rate of 4.5 sen per ri. In one place a board closed the road, but, on representing to the chief man of the village that the traveller was a foreigner, he courteously allowed me to pass, the Express Agent having accompanied me thus far to see that I “got through all right.” The road was tolerably populous throughout the day’s journey, and the farming villages which extended much of the way — Tsuiji, Kasayanage, Mono, and Mari — were neat, and many of the farms had bamboo fences to screen them from the road. It was, on the whole, a pleasant country, and the people, though little clothed, did not look either poor or very dirty. The soil was very light and sandy. There were, in fact, “pine barrens,” sandy ridges with nothing on them but spindly Scotch firs and fir scrub; but the sandy levels between them, being heavily manured and cultivated like gardens, bore splendid crops of cucumbers trained like peas, melons, vegetable marrow, Arum esculentum, sweet potatoes, maize, tea, tiger-lilies, beans, and onions; and extensive orchards with apples and pears trained laterally on trellis-work eight feet high, were a novelty in the landscape.

Though we were all day drawing nearer to mountains wooded to their summits on the east, the amount of vegetation was not burdensome, the rice swamps were few, and the air felt drier and less relaxing. As my runners were trotting merrily over one of the pine barrens, I met Dr. Palm returning from one of his medico-religious expeditions, with a tandem of two naked coolies, who were going over the ground at a great pace, and I wished that some of the most staid directors of the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society could have the shock of seeing him! I shall not see a European again for some weeks. From Tsuiji, a very neat village, where we changed kurumas, we were jolted along over a shingly road to Nakajo, a considerable town just within treaty limits. The Japanese doctors there, as in some other places, are Dr. Palm’s cordial helpers, and five or six of them, whom he regards as possessing the rare virtues of candour, earnestness, and single-mindedness, and who have studied English medical works, have clubbed together to establish a dispensary, and, under Dr. Palm’s instructions, are even carrying out the antiseptic treatment successfully, after some ludicrous failures!

We dashed through Nakajo as kuruma-runners always dash through towns and villages, got out of it in a drizzle upon an avenue of firs, three or four deep, which extends from Nakajo to Kurokawa, and for some miles beyond were jolted over a damp valley on which tea and rice alternated, crossed two branches of the shingly Kurokawa on precarious bridges, rattled into the town of Kurokawa, much decorated with flags and lanterns, where the people were all congregated at a shrine where there was much drumming, and a few girls, much painted and bedizened, were dancing or posturing on a raised and covered platform, in honour of the god of the place, whose matsuri or festival it was; and out again, to be mercilessly jolted under the firs in the twilight to a solitary house where the owner made some difficulty about receiving us, as his licence did not begin till the next day, but eventually succumbed, and gave me his one upstairs room, exactly five feet high, which hardly allowed of my standing upright with my hat on. He then rendered it suffocating by closing the amado, for the reason often given, that if he left them open and the house was robbed, the police would not only blame him severely, but would not take any trouble to recover his property. He had no rice, so I indulged in a feast of delicious cucumbers. I never saw so many eaten as in that district. Children gnaw them all day long, and even babies on their mothers’ backs suck them with avidity. Just now they are sold for a sen a dozen.

It is a mistake to arrive at a yadoya after dark. Even if the best rooms are not full it takes fully an hour to get my food and the room ready, and meanwhile I cannot employ my time usefully because of the mosquitoes. There was heavy rain all night, accompanied by the first wind that I have heard since landing; and the fitful creaking of the pines and the drumming from the shrine made me glad to get up at sunrise, or rather at daylight, for there has not been a sunrise since I came, or a sunset either. That day we travelled by Sekki to Kawaguchi in kurumas, i.e. we were sometimes bumped over stones, sometimes deposited on the edge of a quagmire, and asked to get out; and sometimes compelled to walk for two or three miles at a time along the infamous bridle-track above the river Arai, up which two men could hardly push and haul an empty vehicle; and, as they often had to lift them bodily and carry them for some distance, I was really glad when we reached the village of Kawaguchi to find that they could go no farther, though, as we could only get one horse, I had to walk the last stage in a torrent of rain, poorly protected by my paper waterproof cloak.

We are now in the midst of the great central chain of the Japanese mountains, which extends almost without a break for 900 miles, and is from 40 to 100 miles in width, broken up into interminable ranges traversable only by steep passes from 1000 to 5000 feet in height, with innumerable rivers, ravines, and valleys, the heights and ravines heavily timbered, the rivers impetuous and liable to freshets, and the valleys invariably terraced for rice. It is in the valleys that the villages are found, and regions more isolated I have never seen, shut out by bad roads from the rest of Japan. The houses are very poor, the summer costume of the men consists of the maro only, and that of the women of trousers with an open shirt, and when we reached Kurosawa last night it had dwindled to trousers only. There is little traffic, and very few horses are kept, one, two, or three constituting the live stock of a large village. The shops, such as they are, contain the barest necessaries of life. Millet and buckwheat rather than rice, with the universal daikon, are the staples of diet The climate is wet in summer and bitterly cold in winter. Even now it is comfortless enough for the people to come in wet, just to warm the tips of their fingers at the irori, stifled the while with the stinging smoke, while the damp wind flaps the torn paper of the windows about, and damp draughts sweep the ashes over the tatami until the house is hermetically sealed at night. These people never know anything of what we regard as comfort, and in the long winter, when the wretched bridle-tracks are blocked by snow and the freezing wind blows strong, and the families huddle round the smoky fire by the doleful glimmer of the andon, without work, books, or play, to shiver through the long evenings in chilly dreariness, and herd together for warmth at night like animals, their condition must be as miserable as anything short of grinding poverty can make it.

I saw things at their worst that night as I tramped into the hamlet of Numa, down whose sloping street a swollen stream was running, which the people were banking out of their houses. I was wet and tired, and the woman at the one wretched yadoya met me, saying, “I’m sorry it’s very dirty and quite unfit for so honourable a guest;” and she was right, for the one room was up a ladder, the windows were in tatters, there was no charcoal for a hibachi, no eggs, and the rice was so dirty and so full of a small black seed as to be unfit to eat. Worse than all, there was no Transport Office, the hamlet did not possess a horse, and it was only by sending to a farmer five miles off, and by much bargaining, that I got on the next morning. In estimating the number of people in a given number of houses in Japan, it is usual to multiply the houses by five, but I had the curiosity to walk through Numa and get Ito to translate the tallies which hang outside all Japanese houses with the names, number, and sexes of their inmates, and in twenty-four houses there were 307 people! In some there were four families — the grand-parents, the parents, the eldest son with his wife and family, and a daughter or two with their husbands and children. The eldest son, who inherits the house and land, almost invariably brings his wife to his father’s house, where she often becomes little better than a slave to her mother-inlaw. By rigid custom she literally forsakes her own kindred, and her “filial duty” is transferred to her husband’s mother, who often takes a dislike to her, and instigates her son to divorce her if she has no children. My hostess had induced her son to divorce his wife, and she could give no better reason for it than that she was lazy.

The Numa people, she said, had never seen a foreigner, so, though the rain still fell heavily, they were astir in the early morning. They wanted to hear me speak, so I gave my orders to Ito in public. Yesterday was a most toilsome day, mainly spent in stumbling up and sliding down the great passes of Futai, Takanasu, and Yenoiki, all among forest-covered mountains, deeply cleft by forest-choked ravines, with now and then one of the snowy peaks of Aidzu breaking the monotony of the ocean of green. The horses’ shoes were tied and untied every few minutes, and we made just a mile an hour! At last we were deposited in a most unpromising place in the hamlet of Tamagawa, and were told that a rice merchant, after waiting for three days, had got every horse in the country. At the end of two hours’ chaffering one baggage coolie was produced, some of the things were put on the rice horses, and a steed with a pack-saddle was produced for me in the shape of a plump and pretty little cow, which carried me safely over the magnificent pass of Ori and down to the town of Okimi, among rice-fields, where, in a drowning rain, I was glad to get shelter with a number of coolies by a wood-fire till another pack-cow was produced, and we walked on through the rice-fields and up into the hills again to Kurosawa, where I had intended to remain; but there was no inn, and the farm-house where they take in travellers, besides being on the edge of a malarious pond, and being dark and full of stinging smoke, was so awfully dirty and full of living creatures, that, exhausted as I was, I was obliged to go on. But it was growing dark, there was no Transport Office, and for the first time the people were very slightly extortionate, and drove Ito nearly to his wits’ end. The peasants do not like to be out after dark, for they are afraid of ghosts and all sorts of devilments, and it was difficult to induce them to start so late in the evening.

There was not a house clean enough to rest in, so I sat on a stone and thought about the people for over an hour. Children with scald-head, scabies, and sore eyes swarmed. Every woman carried a baby on her back, and every child who could stagger under one carried one too. Not one woman wore anything but cotton trousers. One woman reeled about “drunk and disorderly.” Ito sat on a stone hiding his face in his hands, and when I asked him if he were ill, he replied in a most lamentable voice, “I don’t know what I am to do, I’m so ashamed for you to see such things!” The boy is only eighteen, and I pitied him. I asked him if women were often drunk, and he said they were in Yokohama, but they usually kept in their houses. He says that when their husbands give them money to pay bills at the end of a month, they often spend it in sake, and that they sometimes get sake in shops and have it put down as rice or tea. “The old, old story!” I looked at the dirt and barbarism, and asked if this were the Japan of which I had read. Yet a woman in this unseemly costume firmly refused to take the 2 or 3 sen which it is usual to leave at a place where you rest, because she said that I had had water and not tea, and after I had forced it on her, she returned it to Ito, and this redeeming incident sent me away much comforted.

From Numa the distance here is only 1.5 ri, but it is over the steep pass of Honoki, which is ascended and descended by hundreds of rude stone steps, not pleasant in the dark. On this pass I saw birches for the first time; at its foot we entered Yamagata ken by a good bridge, and shortly reached this village, in which an unpromising-looking farm-house is the only accommodation; but though all the rooms but two are taken up with silk-worms, those two are very good and look upon a miniature lake and rockery. The one objection to my room is that to get either in or out of it I must pass through the other, which is occupied by five tobacco merchants who are waiting for transport, and who while away the time by strumming on that instrument of dismay, the samisen. No horses or cows can be got for me, so I am spending the day quietly here, rather glad to rest, for I am much exhausted. When I am suffering much from my spine Ito always gets into a fright and thinks I am going to die, as he tells me when I am better, but shows his anxiety by a short, surly manner, which is most disagreeable. He thinks we shall never get through the interior! Mr. Brunton’s excellent map fails in this region, so it is only by fixing on the well-known city of Yamagata and devising routes to it that we get on. Half the evening is spent in consulting Japanese maps, if we can get them, and in questioning the house-master and Transport Agent, and any chance travellers; but the people know nothing beyond the distance of a few ri, and the agents seldom tell one anything beyond the next stage. When I inquire about the “unbeaten tracks” that I wish to take, the answers are, “It’s an awful road through mountains,” or “There are many bad rivers to cross,” or “There are none but farmers’ houses to stop at.” No encouragement is ever given, but we get on, and shall get on, I doubt not, though the hardships are not what I would desire in my present state of health.

Very few horses are kept here. Cows and coolies carry much of the merchandise, and women as well as men carry heavy loads. A baggage coolie carries about 50 lbs., but here merchants carrying their own goods from Yamagata actually carry from 90 to 140 lbs., and even more. It is sickening to meet these poor fellows struggling over the mountain-passes in evident distress. Last night five of them were resting on the summit ridge of a pass gasping violently. Their eyes were starting out; all their muscles, rendered painfully visible by their leanness, were quivering; rills of blood from the bite of insects, which they cannot drive away, were literally running all over their naked bodies, washed away here and there by copious perspiration. Truly “in the sweat of their brows” they were eating bread and earning an honest living for their families! Suffering and hard-worked as they were, they were quite independent. I have not seen a beggar or beggary in this strange country. The women were carrying 70 lbs. These burden-bearers have their backs covered by a thick pad of plaited straw. On this rests a ladder, curved up at the lower end like the runners of a sleigh. On this the load is carefully packed till it extends from below the man’s waist to a considerable height above his head. It is covered with waterproof paper, securely roped, and thatched with straw, and is supported by a broad padded band just below the collar bones. Of course, as the man walks nearly bent double, and the position is a very painful one, he requires to stop and straighten himself frequently, and unless he meets with a bank of convenient height, he rests the bottom of his burden on a short, stout pole with an L-shaped top, carried for this purpose. The carrying of enormous loads is quite a feature of this region, and so, I am sorry to say, are red stinging ants and the small gadflies which molest the coolies.

Yesterday’s journey was 18 miles in twelve hours! Ichinono is a nice, industrious hamlet, given up, like all others, to rearing silk-worms, and the pure white and sulphur yellow cocoons are drying on mats in the sun everywhere.

I. L. B.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird/isabella/japan/chapter21.html

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