Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 18

Comely Kine — Japanese Criticism on a Foreign Usage — A Pleasant Halt — Renewed Courtesies — The Plain of Yonezawa — A Curious Mistake — The Mother’s Memorial — Arrival at Komatsu — Stately Accommodation — A Vicious Horse — An Asiatic Arcadia — A Fashionable Watering-place — A Belle —“Godowns.”

KAMINOYAMA.

A severe day of mountain travelling brought us into another region. We left Ichinono early on a fine morning, with three pack-cows, one of which I rode [and their calves], very comely kine, with small noses, short horns, straight spines, and deep bodies. I thought that I might get some fresh milk, but the idea of anything but a calf milking a cow was so new to the people that there was a universal laugh, and Ito told me that they thought it “most disgusting,” and that the Japanese think it “most disgusting” in foreigners to put anything “with such a strong smell and taste” into their tea! All the cows had cotton cloths, printed with blue dragons, suspended under their bodies to keep them from mud and insects, and they wear straw shoes and cords through the cartilages of their noses. The day being fine, a great deal of rice and sake was on the move, and we met hundreds of pack-cows, all of the same comely breed, in strings of four.

We crossed the Sakuratoge, from which the view is beautiful, got horses at the mountain village of Shirakasawa, crossed more passes, and in the afternoon reached the village of Tenoko. There, as usual, I sat under the verandah of the Transport Office, and waited for the one horse which was available. It was a large shop, but contained not a single article of European make. In the one room a group of women and children sat round the fire, and the agent sat as usual with a number of ledgers at a table a foot high, on which his grandchild was lying on a cushion. Here Ito dined on seven dishes of horrors, and they brought me sake, tea, rice, and black beans. The last are very good. We had some talk about the country, and the man asked me to write his name in English characters, and to write my own in a book. Meanwhile a crowd assembled, and the front row sat on the ground that the others might see over their heads. They were dirty and pressed very close, and when the women of the house saw that I felt the heat they gracefully produced fans and fanned me for a whole hour. On asking the charge they refused to make any, and would not receive anything. They had not seen a foreigner before, they said, they would despise themselves for taking anything, they had my “honourable name” in their book. Not only that, but they put up a parcel of sweetmeats, and the man wrote his name on a fan and insisted on my accepting it. I was grieved to have nothing to give them but some English pins, but they had never seen such before, and soon circulated them among the crowd. I told them truly that I should remember them as long as I remember Japan, and went on, much touched by their kindness.

The lofty pass of Utsu, which is ascended and descended by a number of stone slabs, is the last of the passes of these choked-up ranges. From its summit in the welcome sunlight I joyfully looked down upon the noble plain of Yonezawa, about 30 miles long and from 10 to 18 broad, one of the gardens of Japan, wooded and watered, covered with prosperous towns and villages, surrounded by magnificent mountains not altogether timbered, and bounded at its southern extremity by ranges white with snow even in the middle of July.

In the long street of the farming village of Matsuhara a man amazed me by running in front of me and speaking to me, and on Ito coming up, he assailed him vociferously, and it turned out that he took me for an Aino, one of the subjugated aborigines of Yezo. I have before now been taken for a Chinese!

Throughout the province of Echigo I have occasionally seen a piece of cotton cloth suspended by its four corners from four bamboo poles just above a quiet stream. Behind it there is usually a long narrow tablet, notched at the top, similar to those seen in cemeteries, with characters upon it. Sometimes bouquets of flowers are placed in the hollow top of each bamboo, and usually there are characters on the cloth itself. Within it always lies a wooden dipper. In coming down from Tenoko I passed one of these close to the road, and a Buddhist priest was at the time pouring a dipper full of water into it, which strained slowly through. As he was going our way we joined him, and he explained its meaning.

According to him the tablet bears on it the kaimiyo, or posthumous name of a woman. The flowers have the same significance as those which loving hands place on the graves of kindred. If there are characters on the cloth, they represent the well-known invocation of the Nichiren sect, Namu mio ho ren ge kio. The pouring of the water into the cloth, often accompanied by telling the beads on a rosary, is a prayer. The whole is called “The Flowing Invocation.” I have seldom seen anything more plaintively affecting, for it denotes that a mother in the first joy of maternity has passed away to suffer (according to popular belief) in the Lake of Blood, one of the Buddhist hells, for a sin committed in a former state of being, and it appeals to every passer-by to shorten the penalties of a woman in anguish, for in that lake she must remain until the cloth is so utterly worn out that the water falls through it at once.

Where the mountains come down upon the plain of Yonezawa there are several raised banks, and you can take one step from the hillside to a dead level. The soil is dry and gravelly at the junction, ridges of pines appeared, and the look of the houses suggested increased cleanliness and comfort. A walk of six miles took us from Tenoko to Komatsu, a beautifully situated town of 3000 people, with a large trade in cotton goods, silk, and sake.

As I entered Komatsu the first man whom I met turned back hastily, called into the first house the words which mean “Quick, here’s a foreigner;” the three carpenters who were at work there flung down their tools and, without waiting to put on their kimonos, sped down the street calling out the news, so that by the time I reached the yadoya a large crowd was pressing upon me. The front was mean and unpromising-looking, but, on reaching the back by a stone bridge over a stream which ran through the house, I found a room 40 feet long by 15 high, entirely open along one side to a garden with a large fish-pond with goldfish, a pagoda, dwarf trees, and all the usual miniature adornments. Fusuma of wrinkled blue paper splashed with gold turned this “gallery” into two rooms; but there was no privacy, for the crowds climbed upon the roofs at the back, and sat there patiently until night.

These were daimiyo’s rooms. The posts and ceilings were ebony and gold, the mats very fine, the polished alcoves decorated with inlaid writing-tables and sword-racks; spears nine feet long, with handles of lacquer inlaid with Venus’ ear, hung in the verandah, the washing bowl was fine inlaid black lacquer, and the rice-bowls and their covers were gold lacquer.

In this, as in many other yadoyas, there were kakemonos with large Chinese characters representing the names of the Prime Minister, Provincial Governor, or distinguished General, who had honoured it by halting there, and lines of poetry were hung up, as is usual, in the same fashion. I have several times been asked to write something to be thus displayed. I spent Sunday at Komatsu, but not restfully, owing to the nocturnal croaking of the frogs in the pond. In it, as in most towns, there were shops which sell nothing but white, frothy-looking cakes, which are used for the goldfish which are so much prized, and three times daily the women and children of the household came into the garden to feed them.

When I left Komatsu there were fully sixty people inside the house and 1500 outside — walls, verandahs, and even roofs being packed. From Nikko to Komatsu mares had been exclusively used, but there I encountered for the first time the terrible Japanese pack-horse. Two horridly fierce-looking creatures were at the door, with their heads tied down till their necks were completely arched. When I mounted the crowd followed, gathering as it went, frightening the horse with the clatter of clogs and the sound of a multitude, till he broke his head-rope, and, the frightened mago letting him go, he proceeded down the street mainly on his hind feet, squealing, and striking savagely with his fore feet, the crowd scattering to the right and left, till, as it surged past the police station, four policemen came out and arrested it; only to gather again, however, for there was a longer street, down which my horse proceeded in the same fashion, and, looking round, I saw Ito’s horse on his hind legs and Ito on the ground. My beast jumped over all ditches, attacked all foot-passengers with his teeth, and behaved so like a wild animal that not all my previous acquaintance with the idiosyncrasies of horses enabled me to cope with him. On reaching Akayu we found a horse fair, and, as all the horses had their heads tightly tied down to posts, they could only squeal and lash out with their hind feet, which so provoked our animals that the baggage horse, by a series of jerks and rearings, divested himself of Ito and most of the baggage, and, as I dismounted from mine, he stood upright, and my foot catching I fell on the ground, when he made several vicious dashes at me with his teeth and fore feet, which were happily frustrated by the dexterity of some mago. These beasts forcibly remind me of the words, “Whose mouth must be held with bit and bridle, lest they turn and fall upon thee.”

It was a lovely summer day, though very hot, and the snowy peaks of Aidzu scarcely looked cool as they glittered in the sunlight. The plain of Yonezawa, with the prosperous town of Yonezawa in the south, and the frequented watering-place of Akayu in the north, is a perfect garden of Eden, “tilled with a pencil instead of a plough,” growing in rich profusion rice, cotton, maize, tobacco, hemp, indigo, beans, egg-plants, walnuts, melons, cucumbers, persimmons, apricots, pomegranates; a smiling and plenteous land, an Asiatic Arcadia, prosperous and independent, all its bounteous acres belonging to those who cultivate them, who live under their vines, figs, and pomegranates, free from oppression — a remarkable spectacle under an Asiatic despotism. Yet still Daikoku is the chief deity, and material good is the one object of desire.

It is an enchanting region of beauty, industry, and comfort, mountain girdled, and watered by the bright Matsuka. Everywhere there are prosperous and beautiful farming villages, with large houses with carved beams and ponderous tiled roofs, each standing in its own grounds, buried among persimmons and pomegranates, with flower-gardens under trellised vines, and privacy secured by high, closely-clipped screens of pomegranate and cryptomeria. Besides the villages of Yoshida, Semoshima, Kurokawa, Takayama, and Takataki, through or near which we passed, I counted over fifty on the plain with their brown, sweeping barn roofs looking out from the woodland. I cannot see any differences in the style of cultivation. Yoshida is rich and prosperous-looking, Numa poor and wretched-looking; but the scanty acres of Numa, rescued from the mountain-sides, are as exquisitely trim and neat, as perfectly cultivated, and yield as abundantly of the crops which suit the climate, as the broad acres of the sunny plain of Yonezawa, and this is the case everywhere. “The field of the sluggard” has no existence in Japan.

We rode for four hours through these beautiful villages on a road four feet wide, and then, to my surprise, after ferrying a river, emerged at Tsukuno upon what appears on the map as a secondary road, but which is in reality a main road 25 feet wide, well kept, trenched on both sides, and with a line of telegraph poles along it. It was a new world at once. The road for many miles was thronged with well-dressed foot-passengers, kurumas, pack-horses, and waggons either with solid wheels, or wheels with spokes but no tires. It is a capital carriage-road, but without carriages. In such civilised circumstances it was curious to see two or four brown skinned men pulling the carts, and quite often a man and his wife — the man unclothed, and the woman unclothed to her waist — doing the same. Also it struck me as incongruous to see telegraph wires above, and below, men whose only clothing consisted of a sun-hat and fan; while children with books and slates were returning from school, conning their lessons.

At Akayu, a town of hot sulphur springs, I hoped to sleep, but it was one of the noisiest places I have seen. In the most crowded part, where four streets meet, there are bathing sheds, which were full of people of both sexes, splashing loudly, and the yadoya close to it had about forty rooms, in nearly all of which several rheumatic people were lying on the mats, samisens were twanging, and kotos screeching, and the hubbub was so unbearable that I came on here, ten miles farther, by a fine new road, up an uninteresting strath of rice-fields and low hills, which opens out upon a small plain surrounded by elevated gravelly hills, on the slope of one of which Kaminoyama, a watering-place of over 3000 people, is pleasantly situated. It is keeping festival; there are lanterns and flags on every house, and crowds are thronging the temple grounds, of which there are several on the hills above. It is a clean, dry place, with beautiful yadoyas on the heights, and pleasant houses with gardens, and plenty of walks over the hills. The people say that it is one of the driest places in Japan. If it were within reach of foreigners, they would find it a wholesome health resort, with picturesque excursions in many directions.

This is one of the great routes of Japanese travel, and it is interesting to see watering-places with their habits, amusements, and civilisation quite complete, but borrowing nothing from Europe. The hot springs here contain iron, and are strongly impregnated with sulphuretted hydrogen. I tried the temperature of three, and found them 100 degrees, 105 degrees, and 107 degrees. They are supposed to be very valuable in rheumatism, and they attract visitors from great distances. The police, who are my frequent informants, tell me that there are nearly 600 people now staying here for the benefit of the baths, of which six daily are usually taken. I think that in rheumatism, as in some other maladies, the old-fashioned Japanese doctors pay little attention to diet and habits, and much to drugs and external applications. The benefit of these and other medicinal waters would be much increased if vigorous friction replaced the dabbing with soft towels.

This is a large yadoya, very full of strangers, and the house-mistress, a buxom and most prepossessing widow, has a truly exquisite hotel for bathers higher up the hill. She has eleven children, two or three of whom are tall, handsome, and graceful girls. One blushed deeply at my evident admiration, but was not displeased, and took me up the hill to see the temples, baths, and yadoyas of this very attractive place. I am much delighted with her grace and savoir faire. I asked the widow how long she had kept the inn, and she proudly answered, “Three hundred years,” not an uncommon instance of the heredity of occupations.

My accommodation is unique — a kura, or godown, in a large conventional garden, in which is a bath-house, which receives a hot spring at a temperature of 105 degrees, in which I luxuriate. Last night the mosquitoes were awful. If the widow and her handsome girls had not fanned me perseveringly for an hour, I should not have been able to write a line. My new mosquito net succeeds admirably, and, when I am once within it, I rather enjoy the disappointment of the hundreds of drumming blood-thirsty wretches outside.

The widow tells me that house-masters pay 2 yen once for all for the sign, and an annual tax of 2 yen on a first-class yadoya, 1 yen for a second, and 50 cents for a third, with 5 yen for the license to sell sake.

These “godowns” (from the Malay word gadong), or fire-proof store-houses, are one of the most marked features of Japanese towns, both because they are white where all else is grey, and because they are solid where all else is perishable.

I am lodged in the lower part, but the iron doors are open, and in their place at night is a paper screen. A few things are kept in my room. Two handsome shrines from which the unemotional faces of two Buddhas looked out all night, a fine figure of the goddess Kwan-non, and a venerable one of the god of longevity, suggested curious dreams.

I. L. B.

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