Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 20 —(Concluded)

A Casual Invitation — A Ludicrous Incident — Politeness of a Policeman — A Comfortless Sunday — An Outrageous Irruption — A Privileged Stare.

At a wayside tea-house, soon after leaving Rokugo in kurumas, I met the same courteous and agreeable young doctor who was stationed at Innai during the prevalence of kak’ke, and he invited me to visit the hospital at Kubota, of which he is junior physician, and told Ito of a restaurant at which “foreign food” can be obtained — a pleasant prospect, of which he is always reminding me.

Travelling along a very narrow road, I as usual first, we met a man leading a prisoner by a rope, followed by a policeman. As soon as my runner saw the latter he fell down on his face so suddenly in the shafts as nearly to throw me out, at the same time trying to wriggle into a garment which he had carried on the crossbar, while the young men who were drawing the two kurumas behind, crouching behind my vehicle, tried to scuttle into their clothes. I never saw such a picture of abjectness as my man presented. He trembled from head to foot, and illustrated that queer phrase often heard in Scotch Presbyterian prayers, “Lay our hands on our mouths and our mouths in the dust.” He literally grovelled in the dust, and with every sentence that the policeman spoke raised his head a little, to bow it yet more deeply than before. It was all because he had no clothes on. I interceded for him as the day was very hot, and the policeman said he would not arrest him, as he should otherwise have done, because of the inconvenience that it would cause to a foreigner. He was quite an elderly man, and never recovered his spirits, but, as soon as a turn of the road took us out of the policeman’s sight, the two younger men threw their clothes into the air and gambolled in the shafts, shrieking with laughter!

On reaching Shingoji, being too tired to go farther, I was dismayed to find nothing but a low, dark, foul-smelling room, enclosed only by dirty shoji, in which to spend Sunday. One side looked into a little mildewed court, with a slimy growth of Protococcus viridis, and into which the people of another house constantly came to stare. The other side opened on the earthen passage into the street, where travellers wash their feet, the third into the kitchen, and the fourth into the front room. Even before dark it was alive with mosquitoes, and the fleas hopped on the mats like sand-flies. There were no eggs, nothing but rice and cucumbers. At five on Sunday morning I saw three faces pressed against the outer lattice, and before evening the shoji were riddled with finger-holes, at each of which a dark eye appeared. There was a still, fine rain all day, with the mercury at 82 degrees, and the heat, darkness, and smells were difficult to endure. In the afternoon a small procession passed the house, consisting of a decorated palanquin, carried and followed by priests, with capes and stoles over crimson chasubles and white cassocks. This ark, they said, contained papers inscribed with the names of people and the evils they feared, and the priests were carrying the papers to throw them into the river.

I went to bed early as a refuge from mosquitoes, with the andon, as usual, dimly lighting the room, and shut my eyes. About nine I heard a good deal of whispering and shuffling, which continued for some time, and, on looking up, saw opposite to me about 40 men, women, and children (Ito says 100), all staring at me, with the light upon their faces. They had silently removed three of the shoji next the passage! I called Ito loudly, and clapped my hands, but they did not stir till he came, and then they fled like a flock of sheep. I have patiently, and even smilingly, borne all out-of-doors crowding and curiosity, but this kind of intrusion is unbearable; and I sent Ito to the police station, much against his will, to beg the police to keep the people out of the house, as the house-master was unable to do so. This morning, as I was finishing dressing, a policeman appeared in my room, ostensibly to apologise for the behaviour of the people, but in reality to have a privileged stare at me, and, above all, at my stretcher and mosquito net, from which he hardly took his eyes. Ito says he could make a yen a day by showing them! The policeman said that the people had never seen a foreigner.

I. L. B.

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