Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 24

The Symbolism of Seaweed — Afternoon Visitors — An Infant Prodigy — A Feat in Caligraphy — Child Worship — A Borrowed Dress — A Trousseau — House Furniture — The Marriage Ceremony.

KUBOTA, July 25.

The weather at last gives a hope of improvement, and I think I shall leave tomorrow. I had written this sentence when Ito came in to say that the man in the next house would like to see my stretcher and mosquito net, and had sent me a bag of cakes with the usual bit of seaweed attached, to show that it was a present. The Japanese believe themselves to be descended from a race of fishermen; they are proud of it, and Yebis, the god of fishermen, is one of the most popular of the household divinities. The piece of seaweed sent with a present to any ordinary person, and the piece of dried fish-skin which accompanies a present to the Mikado, record the origin of the race, and at the same time typify the dignity of simple industry.

Of course I consented to receive the visitor, and with the mercury at 84 degrees, five men, two boys, and five women entered my small, low room, and after bowing to the earth three times, sat down on the floor. They had evidently come to spend the afternoon. Trays of tea and sweetmeats were handed round, and a labako-bon was brought in, and they all smoked, as I had told Ito that all usual courtesies were to be punctiliously performed. They expressed their gratification at seeing so “honourable” a traveller. I expressed mine at seeing so much of their “honourable” country. Then we all bowed profoundly. Then I laid Brunton’s map on the floor and showed them my route, showed them the Asiatic Society’s Transactions, and how we read from left to right, instead of from top to bottom, showed them my knitting, which amazed them, and my Berlin work, and then had nothing left. Then they began to entertain me, and I found that the real object of their visit was to exhibit an “infant prodigy,” a boy of four, with a head shaven all but a tuft on the top, a face of preternatural thoughtfulness and gravity, and the self-possessed and dignified demeanour of an elderly man. He was dressed in scarlet silk hakama, and a dark, striped, blue silk kimono, and fanned himself gracefully, looking at everything as intelligently and courteously as the others. To talk child’s talk to him, or show him toys, or try to amuse him, would have been an insult. The monster has taught himself to read and write, and has composed poetry. His father says that he never plays, and understands everything just like a grown person. The intention was that I should ask him to write, and I did so.

It was a solemn performance. A red blanket was laid in the middle of the floor, with a lacquer writing-box upon it. The creature rubbed the ink with water on the inkstone, unrolled four rolls of paper, five feet long, and inscribed them with Chinese characters, nine inches long, of the most complicated kind, with firm and graceful curves of his brush, and with the ease and certainty of Giotto in turning his O. He sealed them with his seal in vermilion, bowed three times, and the performance was ended. People get him to write kakemonos and signboards for them, and he had earned 10 yen, or about 2 pounds, that day. His father is going to travel to Kiyoto with him, to see if any one under fourteen can write as well. I never saw such an exaggerated instance of child worship. Father, mother, friends, and servants, treated him as if he were a prince.

The house-master, who is a most polite man, procured me an invitation to the marriage of his niece, and I have just returned from it. He has three “wives” himself. One keeps a yadoya in Kiyoto, another in Morioka, and the third and youngest is with him here. From her limitless stores of apparel she chose what she considered a suitable dress for me — an under-dress of sage green silk crepe, a kimono of soft, green, striped silk of a darker shade, with a fold of white crepe, spangled with gold at the neck, and a girdle of sage green corded silk, with the family badge here and there upon it in gold. I went with the house-master, Ito, to his disgust, not being invited, and his absence was like the loss of one of my senses, as I could not get any explanations till afterwards.

The ceremony did not correspond with the rules laid down for marriages in the books of etiquette that I have seen, but this is accounted for by the fact that they were for persons of the samurai class, while this bride and bridegroom, though the children of well-to-do merchants, belong to the heimin.

In this case the trousseau and furniture were conveyed to the bridegroom’s house in the early morning, and I was allowed to go to see them. There were several girdles of silk embroidered with gold, several pieces of brocaded silk for kimonos, several pieces of silk crepe, a large number of made-up garments, a piece of white silk, six barrels of wine or sake, and seven sorts of condiments. Jewellery is not worn by women in Japan.

The furniture consisted of two wooden pillows, finely lacquered, one of them containing a drawer for ornamental hairpins, some cotton futons, two very handsome silk ones, a few silk cushions, a lacquer workbox, a spinning-wheel, a lacquer rice bucket and ladle, two ornamental iron kettles, various kitchen utensils, three bronze hibachi, two tabako-bons, some lacquer trays, and zens, china kettles, teapots, and cups, some lacquer rice bowls, two copper basins, a few towels, some bamboo switches, and an inlaid lacquer etagere. As the things are all very handsome the parents must be well off. The sake is sent in accordance with rigid etiquette.

The bridegroom is twenty-two, the bride seventeen, and very comely, so far as I could see through the paint with which she was profusely disfigured. Towards evening she was carried in a norimon, accompanied by her parents and friends, to the bridegroom’s house, each member of the procession carrying a Chinese lantern. When the house-master and I arrived the wedding party was assembled in a large room, the parents and friends of the bridegroom being seated on one side, and those of the bride on the other. Two young girls, very beautifully dressed, brought in the bride, a very pleasing-looking creature dressed entirely in white silk, with a veil of white silk covering her from head to foot. The bridegroom, who was already seated in the middle of the room near its upper part, did not rise to receive her, and kept his eyes fixed on the ground, and she sat opposite to him, but never looked up. A low table was placed in front, on which there was a two-spouted kettle full of sake, some sake bottles, and some cups, and on another there were some small figures representing a fir-tree, a plum-tree in blossom, and a stork standing on a tortoise, the last representing length of days, and the former the beauty of women and the strength of men. Shortly a zen, loaded with eatables, was placed before each person, and the feast began, accompanied by the noises which signify gastronomic gratification.

After this, which was only a preliminary, the two girls who brought in the bride handed round a tray with three cups containing sake, which each person was expected to drain till he came to the god of luck at the bottom.

The bride and bridegroom then retired, but shortly reappeared in other dresses of ceremony, but the bride still wore her white silk veil, which one day will be her shroud. An old gold lacquer tray was produced, with three sake cups, which were filled by the two bridesmaids, and placed before the parents-inlaw and the bride. The father-inlaw drank three cups, and handed the cup to the bride, who, after drinking two cups, received from her father-inlaw a present in a box, drank the third cup, and then returned the cup to the father-inlaw, who again drank three cups. Rice and fish were next brought in, after which the bridegroom’s mother took the second cup, and filled and emptied it three times, after which she passed it to the bride, who drank two cups, received a present from her mother-inlaw in a lacquer box, drank a third cup, and gave the cup to the elder lady, who again drank three cups. Soup was then served, and then the bride drank once from the third cup, and handed it to her husband’s father, who drank three more cups, the bride took it again, and drank two, and lastly the mother-inlaw drank three more cups. Now, if you possess the clear — sightedness which I laboured to preserve, you will perceive that each of the three had inbibed nine cups of some generous liquor!16

After this the two bridesmaids raised the two-spouted kettle and presented it to the lips of the married pair, who drank from it alternately, till they had exhausted its contents. This concluding ceremony is said to be emblematic of the tasting together of the joys and sorrows of life. And so they became man and wife till death or divorce parted them.

This drinking of sake or wine, according to prescribed usage, appeared to constitute the “marriage service,” to which none but relations were bidden. Immediately afterwards the wedding guests arrived, and the evening was spent in feasting and sake drinking; but the fare is simple, and intoxication is happily out of place at a marriage feast. Every detail is a matter of etiquette, and has been handed down for centuries. Except for the interest of the ceremony, in that light it was a very dull and tedious affair, conducted in melancholy silence, and the young bride, with her whitened face and painted lips, looked and moved like an automaton.

I. L. B.

16 I failed to learn what the liquor was which was drunk so freely, but as no unseemly effects followed its use, I think it must either have been light wine, or light sake.

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