Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 20

The Effect of a Chicken — Poor Fare — Slow Travelling — Objects of Interest — Kak’ke — The Fatal Close — A Great Fire — Security of the Kuras.

SHINGOJI, July 21.

Very early in the morning, after my long talk with the Kocho of Kanayama, Ito wakened me by saying, “You’ll be able for a long day’s journey today, as you had a chicken yesterday,” and under this chicken’s marvellous influence we got away at 6.45, only to verify the proverb, “The more haste the worse speed.” Unsolicited by me the Kocho sent round the village to forbid the people from assembling, so I got away in peace with a pack-horse and one runner. It was a terrible road, with two severe mountain-passes to cross, and I not only had to walk nearly the whole way, but to help the man with the kuruma up some of the steepest places. Halting at the exquisitely situated village of Nosoki, we got one horse, and walked by a mountain road along the head-waters of the Omono to Innai. I wish I could convey to you any idea of the beauty and wildness of that mountain route, of the surprises on the way, of views, of the violent deluges of rain which turned rivulets into torrents, and of the hardships and difficulties of the day; the scanty fare of sun-dried rice dough and sour yellow rasps, and the depth of the mire through which we waded! We crossed the Shione and Sakatsu passes, and in twelve hours accomplished fifteen miles! Everywhere we were told that we should never get through the country by the way we are going.

The women still wear trousers, but with a long garment tucked into them instead of a short one, and the men wear a cotton combination of breastplate and apron, either without anything else, or over their kimonos. The descent to Innai under an avenue of cryptomeria, and the village itself, shut in with the rushing Omono, are very beautiful.

The yadoya at Innai was a remarkably cheerful one, but my room was entirely fusuma and shoji, and people were peeping in the whole time. It is not only a foreigner and his strange ways which attract attention in these remote districts, but, in my case, my india-rubber bath, air-pillow, and, above all, my white mosquito net. Their nets are all of a heavy green canvas, and they admire mine so much, that I can give no more acceptable present on leaving than a piece of it to twist in with the hair. There were six engineers in the next room who are surveying the passes which I had crossed, in order to see if they could be tunnelled, in which case kurumas might go all the way from Tokiyo to Kubota on the Sea of Japan, and, with a small additional outlay, carts also.

In the two villages of Upper and Lower Innai there has been an outbreak of a malady much dreaded by the Japanese, called kak’ke, which, in the last seven months, has carried off 100 persons out of a population of about 1500, and the local doctors have been aided by two sent from the Medical School at Kubota. I don’t know a European name for it; the Japanese name signifies an affection of the legs. Its first symptoms are a loss of strength in the legs, “looseness in the knees,” cramps in the calves, swelling, and numbness. This, Dr. Anderson, who has studied kak’ke in more than 1100 cases in Tokiyo, calls the sub-acute form. The chronic is a slow, numbing, and wasting malady, which, if unchecked, results in death from paralysis and exhaustion in from six months to three years. The third, or acute form, Dr. Anderson describes thus. After remarking that the grave symptoms set in quite unexpectedly, and go on rapidly increasing, he says:— “The patient now can lie down no longer; he sits up in bed and tosses restlessly from one position to another, and, with wrinkled brow, staring and anxious eyes, dusky skin, blue, parted lips, dilated nostrils, throbbing neck, and labouring chest, presents a picture of the most terrible distress that the worst of diseases can inflict. There is no intermission even for a moment, and the physician, here almost powerless, can do little more than note the failing pulse and falling temperature, and wait for the moment when the brain, paralysed by the carbonised blood, shall become insensible, and allow the dying man to pass his last moments in merciful unconsciousness.” 15

The next morning, after riding nine miles through a quagmire, under grand avenues of cryptomeria, and noticing with regret that the telegraph poles ceased, we reached Yusowa, a town of 7000 people, in which, had it not been for provoking delays, I should have slept instead of at Innai, and found that a fire a few hours previously had destroyed seventy houses, including the yadoya at which I should have lodged. We had to wait two hours for horses, as all were engaged in moving property and people. The ground where the houses had stood was absolutely bare of everything but fine black ash, among which the kuras stood blackened, and, in some instances, slightly cracked, but in all unharmed. Already skeletons of new houses were rising. No life had been lost except that of a tipsy man, but I should probably have lost everything but my money.

15 Kak’ke, by William Anderson, F.R.C.S. Transactions of English Asiatic Society of Japan, January 1878.

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