Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 21

The Necessity of Firmness — Perplexing Misrepresentations — Gliding with the Stream — Suburban Residences — The Kubota Hospital — A Formal Reception — The Normal School.

KUBOTA, July 23.

I arrived here on Monday afternoon by the river Omono, what would have been two long days’ journey by land having been easily accomplished in nine hours by water. This was an instance of forming a plan wisely, and adhering to it resolutely! Firmness in travelling is nowhere more necessary than in Japan. I decided some time ago, from Mr. Brunton’s map, that the Omono must be navigable from Shingoji, and a week ago told Ito to inquire about it, but at each place difficulties have been started. There was too much water, there was too little; there were bad rapids, there were shallows; it was too late in the year; all the boats which had started lately were lying aground; but at one of the ferries I saw in the distance a merchandise boat going down, and told Ito I should go that way and no other. On arriving at Shingoji they said it was not on the Omono at all, but on a stream with some very bad rapids, in which boats are broken to pieces. Lastly, they said there was no boat, but on my saying that I would send ten miles for one, a small, flat-bottomed scow was produced by the Transport Agent, into which Ito, the luggage, and myself accurately fitted. Ito sententiously observed, “Not one thing has been told us on our journey which has turned out true!” This is not an exaggeration. The usual crowd did not assemble round the door, but preceded me to the river, where it covered the banks and clustered in the trees. Four policemen escorted me down. The voyage of forty-two miles was delightful. The rapids were a mere ripple, the current was strong, one boatman almost slept upon his paddle, the other only woke to bale the boat when it was half-full of water, the shores were silent and pretty, and almost without population till we reached the large town of Araya, which straggles along a high bank for a considerable distance, and after nine peaceful hours we turned off from the main stream of the Omono just at the outskirts of Kubota, and poled up a narrow, green river, fringed by dilapidated backs of houses, boat-building yards, and rafts of timber on one side, and dwelling-houses, gardens, and damp greenery on the other. This stream is crossed by very numerous bridges.

I got a cheerful upstairs room at a most friendly yadoya, and my three days here have been fully occupied and very pleasant. “Foreign food”— a good beef-steak, an excellent curry, cucumbers, and foreign salt and mustard, were at once obtained, and I felt my “eyes lightened” after partaking of them.

Kubota is a very attractive and purely Japanese town of 36,000 people, the capital of Akita ken. A fine mountain, called Taiheisan, rises above its fertile valley, and the Omono falls into the Sea of Japan close to it. It has a number of kurumas, but, owing to heavy sand and the badness of the roads, they can only go three miles in any direction. It is a town of activity and brisk trade, and manufactures a silk fabric in stripes of blue and black, and yellow and black, much used for making hakama and kimonos, a species of white silk crepe with a raised woof, which brings a high price in Tokiyo shops, fusuma, and clogs. Though it is a castle town, it is free from the usual “deadly-lively” look, and has an air of prosperity and comfort. Though it has few streets of shops, it covers a great extent of ground with streets and lanes of pretty, isolated dwelling-houses, surrounded by trees, gardens, and well-trimmed hedges, each garden entered by a substantial gateway. The existence of something like a middle class with home privacy and home life is suggested by these miles of comfortable “suburban residences.” Foreign influence is hardly at all felt, there is not a single foreigner in Government or any other employment, and even the hospital was organised from the beginning by Japanese doctors.

This fact made me greatly desire to see it, but, on going there at the proper hour for visitors, I was met by the Director with courteous but vexatious denial. No foreigner could see it, he said, without sending his passport to the Governor and getting a written order, so I complied with these preliminaries, and 8 a.m. of the next day was fixed for my visit Ito, who is lazy about interpreting for the lower orders, but exerts himself to the utmost on such an occasion as this, went with me, handsomely clothed in silk, as befitted an “Interpreter,” and surpassed all his former efforts.

The Director and the staff of six physicians, all handsomely dressed in silk, met me at the top of the stairs, and conducted me to the management room, where six clerks were writing. Here there was a table, solemnly covered with a white cloth, and four chairs, on which the Director, the Chief Physician, Ito, and I sat, and pipes, tea, and sweetmeats, were produced. After this, accompanied by fifty medical students, whose intelligent looks promise well for their success, we went round the hospital, which is a large two-storied building in semi-European style, but with deep verandahs all round. The upper floor is used for class-rooms, and the lower accommodates 100 patients, besides a number of resident students. Ten is the largest number treated in any one room, and severe cases are treated in separate rooms. Gangrene has prevailed, and the Chief Physician, who is at this time remodelling the hospital, has closed some of the wards in consequence. There is a Lock Hospital under the same roof. About fifty important operations are annually performed under chloroform, but the people of Akita ken are very conservative, and object to part with their limbs and to foreign drugs. This conservatism diminishes the number of patients.

The odour of carbolic acid pervaded the whole hospital, and there were spray producers enough to satisfy Mr. Lister! At the request of Dr. K. I saw the dressing of some very severe wounds carefully performed with carbolised gauze, under spray of carbolic acid, the fingers of the surgeon and the instruments used being all carefully bathed in the disinfectant. Dr. K. said it was difficult to teach the students the extreme carefulness with regard to minor details which is required in the antiseptic treatment, which he regards as one of the greatest discoveries of this century. I was very much impressed with the fortitude shown by the surgical patients, who went through very severe pain without a wince or a moan. Eye cases are unfortunately very numerous. Dr. K. attributes their extreme prevalence to overcrowding, defective ventilation, poor living, and bad light.

After our round we returned to the management room to find a meal laid out in English style — coffee in cups with handles and saucers, and plates with spoons. After this pipes were again produced, and the Director and medical staff escorted me to the entrance, where we all bowed profoundly. I was delighted to see that Dr. Kayabashi, a man under thirty, and fresh from Tokiyo, and all the staff and students were in the national dress, with the hakama of rich silk. It is a beautiful dress, and assists dignity as much as the ill-fitting European costume detracts from it. This was a very interesting visit, in spite of the difficulty of communication through an interpreter.

The public buildings, with their fine gardens, and the broad road near which they stand, with its stone-faced embankments, are very striking in such a far-off ken. Among the finest of the buildings is the Normal School, where I shortly afterwards presented myself, but I was not admitted till I had shown my passport and explained my objects in travelling. These preliminaries being settled, Mr. Tomatsu Aoki, the Chief Director, and Mr. Shude Kane Nigishi, the principal teacher, both looking more like monkeys than men in their European clothes, lionised me.

The first was most trying, for he persisted in attempting to speak English, of which he knows about as much as I know of Japanese, but the last, after some grotesque attempts, accepted Ito’s services. The school is a commodious Europeanised building, three stories high, and from its upper balcony the view of the city, with its gray roofs and abundant greenery, and surrounding mountains and valleys, is very fine. The equipments of the different class-rooms surprised me, especially the laboratory of the chemical class-room, and the truly magnificent illustrative apparatus in the natural science class-room. Ganot’s “Physics” is the text book of that department.

I. L. B.

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