Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 20 —(Continued)

Lunch in Public — A Grotesque Accident — Police Inquiries — Man or Woman? — A Melancholy Stare — A Vicious Horse — An Ill-favoured Town — A Disappointment — A Torii.

Yusowa is a specially objectionable-looking place. I took my lunch — a wretched meal of a tasteless white curd made from beans, with some condensed milk added to it — in a yard, and the people crowded in hundreds to the gate, and those behind, being unable to see me, got ladders and climbed on the adjacent roofs, where they remained till one of the roofs gave way with a loud crash, and precipitated about fifty men, women, and children into the room below, which fortunately was vacant. Nobody screamed — a noteworthy fact — and the casualties were only a few bruises. Four policemen then appeared and demanded my passport, as if I were responsible for the accident, and failing, like all others, to read a particular word upon it, they asked me what I was travelling for, and on being told “to learn about the country,” they asked if I was making a map! Having satisfied their curiosity they disappeared, and the crowd surged up again in fuller force. The Transport Agent begged them to go away, but they said they might never see such a sight again! One old peasant said he would go away if he were told whether “the sight” were a man or a woman, and, on the agent asking if that were any business of his, he said he should like to tell at home what he had seen, which awoke my sympathy at once, and I told Ito to tell them that a Japanese horse galloping night and day without ceasing would take 5.5 weeks to reach my county — a statement which he is using lavishly as I go along. These are such queer crowds, so silent and gaping, and they remain motionless for hours, the wide-awake babies on the mothers’ backs and in the fathers’ arms never crying. I should be glad to hear a hearty aggregate laugh, even if I were its object. The great melancholy stare is depressing.

The road for ten miles was thronged with country people going in to see the fire. It was a good road and very pleasant country, with numerous road-side shrines and figures of the goddess of mercy. I had a wicked horse, thoroughly vicious. His head was doubly chained to the saddle-girth, but he never met man, woman, or child, without laying back his ears and running at them to bite them. I was so tired and in so much spinal pain that I got off and walked several times, and it was most difficult to get on again, for as soon as I put my hand on the saddle he swung his hind legs round to kick me, and it required some agility to avoid being hurt. Nor was this all. The evil beast made dashes with his tethered head at flies, threatening to twist or demolish my foot at each, flung his hind legs upwards, attempted to dislodge flies on his nose with his hind hoof, executed capers which involved a total disappearance of everything in front of the saddle, squealed, stumbled, kicked his old shoes off, and resented the feeble attempts which the mago made to replace them, and finally walked in to Yokote and down its long and dismal street mainly on his hind legs, shaking the rope out of his timid leader’s hand, and shaking me into a sort of aching jelly! I used to think that horses were made vicious either by being teased or by violence in breaking; but this does not account for the malignity of the Japanese horses, for the people are so much afraid of them that they treat them with great respect: they are not beaten or kicked, are spoken to in soothing tones, and, on the whole, live better than their masters. Perhaps this is the secret of their villainy —“Jeshurun waxed fat and kicked.”

Yokote, a town of 10,000 people, in which the best yadoyas are all non-respectable, is an ill-favoured, ill-smelling, forlorn, dirty, damp, miserable place, with a large trade in cottons. As I rode through on my temporary biped the people rushed out from the baths to see me, men and women alike without a particle of clothing. The house-master was very polite, but I had a dark and dirty room, up a bamboo ladder, and it swarmed with fleas and mosquitoes to an exasperating extent. On the way I heard that a bullock was killed every Thursday in Yokote, and had decided on having a broiled steak for supper and taking another with me, but when I arrived it was all sold, there were no eggs, and I made a miserable meal of rice and bean curd, feeling somewhat starved, as the condensed milk I bought at Yamagata had to be thrown away. I was somewhat wretched from fatigue and inflamed ant bites, but in the early morning, hot and misty as all the mornings have been, I went to see a Shinto temple, or miya, and, though I went alone, escaped a throng.

The entrance into the temple court was, as usual, by a torii, which consisted of two large posts 20 feet high, surmounted with cross beams, the upper one of which projects beyond the posts and frequently curves upwards at both ends. The whole, as is often the case, was painted a dull red. This torii, or “birds’ rest,” is said to be so called because the fowls, which were formerly offered but not sacrificed, were accustomed to perch upon it. A straw rope, with straw tassels and strips of paper hanging from it, the special emblem of Shinto, hung across the gateway. In the paved court there were several handsome granite lanterns on fine granite pedestals, such as are the nearly universal accompaniments of both Shinto and Buddhist temples.

After leaving Yakote we passed through very pretty country with mountain views and occasional glimpses of the snowy dome of Chokaizan, crossed the Omono (which has burst its banks and destroyed its bridges) by two troublesome ferries, and arrived at Rokugo, a town of 5000 people, with fine temples, exceptionally mean houses, and the most aggressive crowd by which I have yet been asphyxiated.

There, through the good offices of the police, I was enabled to attend a Buddhist funeral of a merchant of some wealth. It interested me very much from its solemnity and decorum, and Ito’s explanations of what went before were remarkably distinctly given. I went in a Japanese woman’s dress, borrowed at the tea-house, with a blue hood over my head, and thus escaped all notice, but I found the restraint of the scanty “tied forward” kimono very tiresome. Ito gave me many injunctions as to what I was to do and avoid, which I carried out faithfully, being nervously anxious to avoid jarring on the sensibilities of those who had kindly permitted a foreigner to be present.

The illness was a short one, and there had been no time either for prayers or pilgrimages on the sick man’s behalf. When death occurs the body is laid with its head to the north (a position that the living Japanese scrupulously avoid), near a folding screen, between which and it a new zen is placed, on which are a saucer of oil with a lighted rush, cakes of uncooked rice dough, and a saucer of incense sticks. The priests directly after death choose the kaimiyo, or posthumous name, write it on a tablet of white wood, and seat themselves by the corpse; his zen, bowls, cups, etc., are filled with vegetable food and are placed by his side, the chopsticks being put on the wrong, i.e. the left, side of the zen. At the end of forty-eight hours the corpse is arranged for the coffin by being washed with warm water, and the priest, while saying certain prayers, shaves the head. In all cases, rich or poor, the dress is of the usual make, but of pure white linen or cotton.

At Omagori, a town near Rokugo, large earthenware jars are manufactured, which are much used for interment by the wealthy; but in this case there were two square boxes, the outer one being of finely planed wood of the Retinospora obtusa. The poor use what is called the “quick-tub,” a covered tub of pine hooped with bamboo. Women are dressed for burial in the silk robe worn on the marriage day, tabi are placed beside them or on their feet, and their hair usually flows loosely behind them. The wealthiest people fill the coffin with vermilion and the poorest use chaff; but in this case I heard that only the mouth, nose, and ears were filled with vermilion, and that the coffin was filled up with coarse incense. The body is placed within the tub or box in the usual squatting position. It is impossible to understand how a human body, many hours after death, can be pressed into the limited space afforded by even the outermost of the boxes. It has been said that the rigidity of a corpse is overcome by the use of a powder called dosia, which is sold by the priests; but this idea has been exploded, and the process remains incomprehensible.

Bannerets of small size and ornamental staves were outside the house door. Two men in blue dresses, with pale blue over-garments resembling wings received each person, two more presented a lacquered bowl of water and a white silk crepe towel, and then we passed into a large room, round which were arranged a number of very handsome folding screens, on which lotuses, storks, and peonies were realistically painted on a dead gold ground. Near the end of the room the coffin, under a canopy of white silk, upon which there was a very beautiful arrangement of artificial white lotuses, rested upon trestles, the face of the corpse being turned towards the north. Six priests, very magnificently dressed, sat on each side of the coffin, and two more knelt in front of a small temporary altar.

The widow, an extremely pretty woman, squatted near the deceased, below the father and mother; and after her came the children, relatives, and friends, who sat in rows, dressed in winged garments of blue and white. The widow was painted white; her lips were reddened with vermilion; her hair was elaborately dressed and ornamented with carved shell pins; she wore a beautiful dress of sky-blue silk, with a haori of fine white crepe and a scarlet crepe girdle embroidered in gold, and looked like a bride on her marriage day rather than a widow.

Indeed, owing to the beauty of the dresses and the amount of blue and white silk, the room had a festal rather than a funereal look. When all the guests had arrived, tea and sweetmeats were passed round; incense was burned profusely; litanies were mumbled, and the bustle of moving to the grave began, during which I secured a place near the gate of the temple grounds.

The procession did not contain the father or mother of the deceased, but I understood that the mourners who composed it were all relatives. The oblong tablet with the “dead name” of the deceased was carried first by a priest, then the lotus blossom by another priest, then ten priests followed, two and two, chanting litanies from books, then came the coffin on a platform borne by four men and covered with white drapery, then the widow, and then the other relatives. The coffin was carried into the temple and laid upon trestles, while incense was burned and prayers were said, and was then carried to a shallow grave lined with cement, and prayers were said by the priests until the earth was raised to the proper level, when all dispersed, and the widow, in her gay attire, walked home unattended. There were no hired mourners or any signs of grief, but nothing could be more solemn, reverent, and decorous than the whole service. [I have since seen many funerals, chiefly of the poor, and, though shorn of much of the ceremony, and with only one officiating priest, the decorum was always most remarkable.] The fees to the priests are from 2 up to 40 or 50 yen. The graveyard, which surrounds the temple, was extremely beautiful, and the cryptomeria specially fine. It was very full of stone gravestones, and, like all Japanese cemeteries, exquisitely kept. As soon as the grave was filled in, a life-size pink lotus plant was placed upon it, and a lacquer tray, on which were lacquer bowls containing tea or sake, beans, and sweetmeats.

The temple at Rokugo was very beautiful, and, except that its ornaments were superior in solidity and good taste, differed little from a Romish church. The low altar, on which were lilies and lighted candles, was draped in blue and silver, and on the high altar, draped in crimson and cloth of gold, there was nothing but a closed shrine, an incense-burner, and a vase of lotuses.

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