Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 19

Prosperity — Convict Labour — A New Bridge — Yamagata — Intoxicating Forgeries — The Government Buildings — Bad Manners — Snow Mountains — A Wretched Town.

KANAYAMA, July 16.

Three days of travelling on the same excellent road have brought me nearly 60 miles. Yamagata ken impresses me as being singularly prosperous, progressive, and go-ahead; the plain of Yamagata, which I entered soon after leaving Kaminoyama, is populous and highly cultivated, and the broad road, with its enormous traffic, looks wealthy and civilised. It is being improved by convicts in dull red kimonos printed with Chinese characters, who correspond with our ticket-of-leave men, as they are working for wages in the employment of contractors and farmers, and are under no other restriction than that of always wearing the prison dress.

At the Sakamoki river I was delighted to come upon the only thoroughly solid piece of modern Japanese work that I have met with — a remarkably handsome stone bridge nearly finished — the first I have seen. I introduced myself to the engineer, Okuno Chiuzo, a very gentlemanly, agreeable Japanese, who showed me the plans, took a great deal of trouble to explain them, and courteously gave me tea and sweetmeats.

Yamagata, a thriving town of 21,000 people and the capital of the ken, is well situated on a slight eminence, and this and the dominant position of the kencho at the top of the main street give it an emphasis unusual in Japanese towns. The outskirts of all the cities are very mean, and the appearance of the lofty white buildings of the new Government Offices above the low grey houses was much of a surprise. The streets of Yamagata are broad and clean, and it has good shops, among which are long rows selling nothing but ornamental iron kettles and ornamental brasswork. So far in the interior I was annoyed to find several shops almost exclusively for the sale of villainous forgeries of European eatables and drinkables, specially the latter. The Japanese, from the Mikado downwards, have acquired a love of foreign intoxicants, which would be hurtful enough to them if the intoxicants were genuine, but is far worse when they are compounds of vitriol, fusel oil, bad vinegar, and I know not what. I saw two shops in Yamagata which sold champagne of the best brands, Martel’s cognac, Bass’ ale, Medoc, St. Julian, and Scotch whisky, at about one-fifth of their cost price — all poisonous compounds, the sale of which ought to be interdicted.

The Government Buildings, though in the usual confectionery style, are improved by the addition of verandahs; and the Kencho, Saibancho, or Court House, the Normal School with advanced schools attached, and the police buildings, are all in keeping with the good road and obvious prosperity. A large two-storied hospital, with a cupola, which will accommodate 150 patients, and is to be a medical school, is nearly finished. It is very well arranged and ventilated. I cannot say as much for the present hospital, which I went over. At the Court House I saw twenty officials doing nothing, and as many policemen, all in European dress, to which they had added an imitation of European manners, the total result being unmitigated vulgarity. They demanded my passport before they would tell me the population of the ken and city. Once or twice I have found fault with Ito’s manners, and he has asked me twice since if I think them like the manners of the policemen at Yamagata!

North of Yamagata the plain widens, and fine longitudinal ranges capped with snow mountains on the one side, and broken ranges with lateral spurs on the other, enclose as cheerful and pleasant a region as one would wish to see, with many pleasant villages on the lower slopes of the hills. The mercury was only 70 degrees, and the wind north, so it was an especially pleasant journey, though I had to go three and a half ri beyond Tendo, a town of 5000 people, where I had intended to halt, because the only inns at Tendo which were not kashitsukeya were so occupied with silk-worms that they could not receive me.

The next day’s journey was still along the same fine road, through a succession of farming villages and towns of 1500 and 2000 people, such as Tochiida and Obanasawa, were frequent. From both these there was a glorious view of Chokaizan, a grand, snow-covered dome, said to be 8000 feet high, which rises in an altogether unexpected manner from comparatively level country, and, as the great snow-fields of Udonosan are in sight at the same time, with most picturesque curtain ranges below, it may be considered one of the grandest views of Japan. After leaving Obanasawa the road passes along a valley watered by one of the affluents of the Mogami, and, after crossing it by a fine wooden bridge, ascends a pass from which the view is most magnificent. After a long ascent through a region of light, peaty soil, wooded with pine, cryptomeria, and scrub oak, a long descent and a fine avenue terminate in Shinjo, a wretched town of over 5000 people, situated in a plain of rice-fields.

The day’s journey, of over twenty-three miles, was through villages of farms without yadoyas, and in many cases without even tea-houses. The style of building has quite changed. Wood has disappeared, and all the houses are now built with heavy beams and walls of laths and brown mud mixed with chopped straw, and very neat. Nearly all are great oblong barns, turned endwise to the road, 50, 60, and even 100 feet long, with the end nearest the road the dwelling-house. These farm-houses have no paper windows, only amado, with a few panes of paper at the top. These are drawn back in the daytime, and, in the better class of houses, blinds, formed of reeds or split bamboo, are let down over the opening. There are no ceilings, and in many cases an unmolested rat snake lives in the rafters, who, when he is much gorged, occasionally falls down upon a mosquito net.

Again I write that Shinjo is a wretched place. It is a daimiyo’s town, and every daimiyo’s town that I have seen has an air of decay, partly owing to the fact that the castle is either pulled down, or has been allowed to fall into decay. Shinjo has a large trade in rice, silk, and hemp, and ought not to be as poor as it looks. The mosquitoes were in thousands, and I had to go to bed, so as to be out of their reach, before I had finished my wretched meal of sago and condensed milk. There was a hot rain all night, my wretched room was dirty and stifling, and rats gnawed my boots and ran away with my cucumbers.

To-day the temperature is high and the sky murky. The good road has come to an end, and the old hardships have begun again. After leaving Shinjo this morning we crossed over a steep ridge into a singular basin of great beauty, with a semicircle of pyramidal hills, rendered more striking by being covered to their summits with pyramidal cryptomeria, and apparently blocking all northward progress. At their feet lies Kanayama in a romantic situation, and, though I arrived as early as noon, I am staying for a day or two, for my room at the Transport Office is cheerful and pleasant, the agent is most polite, a very rough region lies before me, and Ito has secured a chicken for the first time since leaving Nikko!

I find it impossible in this damp climate, and in my present poor health, to travel with any comfort for more than two or three days at a time, and it is difficult to find pretty, quiet, and wholesome places for a halt of two nights. Freedom from fleas and mosquitoes one can never hope for, though the last vary in number, and I have found a way of “dodging” the first by laying down a piece of oiled paper six feet square upon the mat, dusting along its edges a band of Persian insect powder, and setting my chair in the middle. I am then insulated, and, though myriads of fleas jump on the paper, the powder stupefies them, and they are easily killed. I have been obliged to rest here at any rate, because I have been stung on my left hand both by a hornet and a gadfly, and it is badly inflamed. In some places the hornets are in hundreds, and make the horses wild. I am also suffering from inflammation produced by the bites of “horse ants,” which attack one in walking. The Japanese suffer very much from these, and a neglected bite often produces an intractable ulcer. Besides these, there is a fly, as harmless in appearance as our house-fly, which bites as badly as a mosquito. These are some of the drawbacks of Japanese travelling in summer, but worse than these is the lack of such food as one can eat when one finishes a hard day’s journey without appetite, in an exhausting atmosphere.

July 18. — I have had so much pain and fever from stings and bites that last night I was glad to consult a Japanese doctor from Shinjo. Ito, who looks twice as big as usual when he has to do any “grand” interpreting, and always puts on silk hakama in honour of it, came in with a middle-aged man dressed entirely in silk, who prostrated himself three times on the ground, and then sat down on his heels. Ito in many words explained my calamities, and Dr. Nosoki then asked to see my “honourable hand,” which he examined carefully, and then my “honourable foot.” He felt my pulse and looked at my eyes with a magnifying glass, and with much sucking in of his breath — a sign of good breeding and politeness — informed me that I had much fever, which I knew before; then that I must rest, which I also knew; then he lighted his pipe and contemplated me. Then he felt my pulse and looked at my eyes again, then felt the swelling from the hornet bite, and said it was much inflamed, of which I was painfully aware, and then clapped his hands three times. At this signal a coolie appeared, carrying a handsome black lacquer chest with the same crest in gold upon it as Dr. Nosoki wore in white on his haori. This contained a medicine chest of fine gold lacquer, fitted up with shelves, drawers, bottles, etc. He compounded a lotion first, with which he bandaged my hand and arm rather skilfully, telling me to pour the lotion over the bandage at intervals till the pain abated. The whole was covered with oiled paper, which answers the purpose of oiled silk. He then compounded a febrifuge, which, as it is purely vegetable, I have not hesitated to take, and told me to drink it in hot water, and to avoid sake for a day or two!

I asked him what his fee was, and, after many bows and much spluttering and sucking in of his breath, he asked if I should think half a yen too much, and when I presented him with a yen, and told him with a good deal of profound bowing on my part that I was exceedingly glad to obtain his services, his gratitude quite abashed me by its immensity.

Dr. Nosoki is one of the old-fashioned practitioners, whose medical knowledge has been handed down from father to son, and who holds out, as probably most of his patients do, against European methods and drugs. A strong prejudice against surgical operations, specially amputations, exists throughout Japan. With regard to the latter, people think that, as they came into the world complete, so they are bound to go out of it, and in many places a surgeon would hardly be able to buy at any price the privilege of cutting off an arm.

Except from books these older men know nothing of the mechanism of the human body, as dissection is unknown to native science. Dr. Nosoki told me that he relies mainly on the application of the moxa and on acupuncture in the treatment of acute diseases, and in chronic maladies on friction, medicinal baths, certain animal and vegetable medicines, and certain kinds of food. The use of leeches and blisters is unknown to him, and he regards mineral drugs with obvious suspicion. He has heard of chloroform, but has never seen it used, and considers that in maternity it must necessarily be fatal either to mother or child. He asked me (and I have twice before been asked the same question) whether it is not by its use that we endeavour to keep down our redundant population! He has great faith in ginseng, and in rhinoceros horn, and in the powdered liver of some animal, which, from the description, I understood to be a tiger — all specifics of the Chinese school of medicines. Dr. Nosoki showed me a small box of “unicorn’s” horn, which he said was worth more than its weight in gold! As my arm improved coincidently with the application of his lotion, I am bound to give him the credit of the cure.

I invited him to dinner, and two tables were produced covered with different dishes, of which he ate heartily, showing most singular dexterity with his chopsticks in removing the flesh of small, bony fish. It is proper to show appreciation of a repast by noisy gulpings, and much gurgling and drawing in of the breath. Etiquette rigidly prescribes these performances, which are most distressing to a European, and my guest nearly upset my gravity by them.

The host and the kocho, or chief man of the village, paid me a formal visit in the evening, and Ito, en grande tenue, exerted himself immensely on the occasion. They were much surprised at my not smoking, and supposed me to be under a vow! They asked me many questions about our customs and Government, but frequently reverted to tobacco.

I. L. B.

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