Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 25

A Holiday Scene — A Matsuri — Attractions of the Revel — Matsuri Cars — Gods and Demons — A Possible Harbour — A Village Forge — Prosperity of Sake Brewers — A “Great Sight.”

TSUGURATA, July 27.

Three miles of good road thronged with half the people of Kubota on foot and in kurumas, red vans drawn by horses, pairs of policemen in kurumas, hundreds of children being carried, hundreds more on foot, little girls, formal and precocious looking, with hair dressed with scarlet crepe and flowers, hobbling toilsomely along on high clogs, groups of men and women, never intermixing, stalls driving a “roaring trade” in cakes and sweetmeats, women making mochi as fast as the buyers ate it, broad rice-fields rolling like a green sea on the right, an ocean of liquid turquoise on the left, the grey roofs of Kubota looking out from their green surroundings, Taiheisan in deepest indigo blocking the view to the south, a glorious day, and a summer sun streaming over all, made up the cheeriest and most festal scene that I have seen in Japan; men, women, and children, vans and kurumas, policemen and horsemen, all on their way to a mean-looking town, Minato, the junk port of Kubota, which was keeping matsuri, or festival, in honour of the birthday of the god Shimmai. Towering above the low grey houses there were objects which at first looked like five enormous black fingers, then like trees with their branches wrapped in black, and then — comparisons ceased; they were a mystery.

Dismissing the kurumas, which could go no farther, we dived into the crowd, which was wedged along a mean street, nearly a mile long — a miserable street of poor tea-houses and poor shop-fronts; but, in fact, you could hardly see the street for the people. Paper lanterns were hung close together along its whole length. There were rude scaffoldings supporting matted and covered platforms, on which people were drinking tea and sake and enjoying the crowd below; monkey theatres and dog theatres, two mangy sheep and a lean pig attracting wondering crowds, for neither of these animals is known in this region of Japan; a booth in which a woman was having her head cut off every half-hour for 2 sen a spectator; cars with roofs like temples, on which, with forty men at the ropes, dancing children of the highest class were being borne in procession; a theatre with an open front, on the boards of which two men in antique dresses, with sleeves touching the ground, were performing with tedious slowness a classic dance of tedious posturings, which consisted mainly in dexterous movements of the aforesaid sleeves, and occasional emphatic stampings, and utterances of the word No in a hoarse howl. It is needless to say that a foreign lady was not the least of the attractions of the fair. The cultus of children was in full force, all sorts of masks, dolls, sugar figures, toys, and sweetmeats were exposed for sale on mats on the ground, and found their way into the hands and sleeves of the children, for no Japanese parent would ever attend a matsuri without making an offering to his child.

The police told me that there were 22,000 strangers in Minato, yet for 32,000 holiday-makers a force of twenty-five policemen was sufficient. I did not see one person under the influence of sake up to 3 p.m., when I left, nor a solitary instance of rude or improper behaviour, nor was I in any way rudely crowded upon, for, even where the crowd was densest, the people of their own accord formed a ring and left me breathing space.

We went to the place where the throng was greatest, round the two great matsuri cars, whose colossal erections we had seen far off. These were structures of heavy beams, thirty feet long, with eight huge, solid wheels. Upon them there were several scaffoldings with projections, like flat surfaces of cedar branches, and two special peaks of unequal height at the top, the whole being nearly fifty feet from the ground. All these projections were covered with black cotton cloth, from which branches of pines protruded. In the middle three small wheels, one above another, over which striped white cotton was rolling perpetually, represented a waterfall; at the bottom another arrangement of white cotton represented a river, and an arrangement of blue cotton, fitfully agitated by a pair of bellows below, represented the sea. The whole is intended to represent a mountain on which the Shinto gods slew some devils, but anything more rude and barbarous could scarcely be seen. On the fronts of each car, under a canopy, were thirty performers on thirty diabolical instruments, which rent the air with a truly infernal discord, and suggested devils rather than their conquerors. High up on the flat projections there were groups of monstrous figures. On one a giant in brass armour, much like the Nio of temple gates, was killing a revolting-looking demon. On another a daimiyo’s daughter, in robes of cloth of gold with satin sleeves richly flowered, was playing on the samisen. On another a hunter, thrice the size of life, was killing a wild horse equally magnified, whose hide was represented by the hairy wrappings of the leaves of the Chamaerops excelsa. On others highly-coloured gods, and devils equally hideous, were grouped miscellaneously. These two cars were being drawn up and down the street at the rate of a mile in three hours by 200 men each, numbers of men with levers assisting the heavy wheels out of the mud-holes. This matsuri, which, like an English fair, feast, or revel, has lost its original religious significance, goes on for three days and nights, and this was its third and greatest day.

We left on mild-tempered horses, quite unlike the fierce fellows of Yamagata ken. Between Minato and Kado there is a very curious lagoon on the left, about 17 miles long by 16 broad, connected with the sea by a narrow channel, guarded by two high hills called Shinzan and Honzan. Two Dutch engineers are now engaged in reporting on its capacities, and if its outlet could be deepened without enormous cost it would give north-western Japan the harbour it so greatly needs. Extensive rice-fields and many villages lie along the road, which is an avenue of deep sand and ancient pines much contorted and gnarled. Down the pine avenue hundreds of people on horseback and on foot were trooping into Minato from all the farming villages, glad in the glorious sunshine which succeeded four days of rain. There were hundreds of horses, wonderful-looking animals in bravery of scarlet cloth and lacquer and fringed nets of leather, and many straw wisps and ropes, with Gothic roofs for saddles, and dependent panniers on each side, carrying two grave and stately-looking children in each, and sometimes a father or a fifth child on the top of the pack-saddle.

I was so far from well that I was obliged to sleep at the wretched village of Abukawa, in a loft alive with fleas, where the rice was too dirty to be eaten, and where the house-master’s wife, who sat for an hour on my floor, was sorely afflicted with skin disease. The clay houses have disappeared and the villages are now built of wood, but Abukawa is an antiquated, ramshackle place, propped up with posts and slanting beams projecting into the roadway for the entanglement of unwary passengers.

The village smith was opposite, but he was not a man of ponderous strength, nor were there those wondrous flights and scintillations of sparks which were the joy of our childhood in the Tattenhall forge. A fire of powdered charcoal on the floor, always being trimmed and replenished by a lean and grimy satellite, a man still leaner and grimier, clothed in goggles and a girdle, always sitting in front of it, heating and hammering iron bars with his hands, with a clink which went on late into the night, and blowing his bellows with his toes; bars and pieces of rusty iron pinned on the smoky walls, and a group of idle men watching his skilful manipulation, were the sights of the Abukawa smithy, and kept me thralled in the balcony, though the whole clothesless population stood for the whole evening in front of the house with a silent, open-mouthed stare.

Early in the morning the same melancholy crowd appeared in the dismal drizzle, which turned into a tremendous torrent, which has lasted for sixteen hours. Low hills, broad rice valleys in which people are puddling the rice a second time to kill the weeds, bad roads, pretty villages, much indigo, few passengers, were the features of the day’s journey. At Morioka and several other villages in this region I noticed that if you see one large, high, well-built house, standing in enclosed grounds, with a look of wealth about it, it is always that of the sake brewer. A bush denotes the manufacture as well as the sale of sake, and these are of all sorts, from the mangy bit of fir which has seen long service to the vigorous truss of pine constantly renewed. It is curious that this should formerly have been the sign of the sale of wine in England.

The wind and rain were something fearful all that afternoon. I could not ride, so I tramped on foot for some miles under an avenue of pines, through water a foot deep, and, with my paper waterproof soaked through, reached Toyoka half drowned and very cold, to shiver over a hibachi in a clean loft, hung with my dripping clothes, which had to be put on wet the next day. By 5 a.m. all Toyoka assembled, and while I took my breakfast I was not only the “cynosure” of the eyes of all the people outside, but of those of about forty more who were standing in the doma, looking up the ladder. When asked to depart by the house-master, they said, “It’s neither fair nor neighbourly in you to keep this great sight to yourself, seeing that our lives may pass without again looking on a foreign woman;” so they were allowed to remain!

I. L. B.

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