Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 26

The Fatigues of Travelling — Torrents and Mud — Ito’s Surliness — The Blind Shampooers — A Supposed Monkey Theatre — A Suspended Ferry — A Difficult Transit — Perils on the Yonetsurugawa — A Boatman Drowned — Nocturnal Disturbances — A Noisy Yadoya — Storm-bound Travellers — Hai! Hai! — More Nocturnal Disturbances

ODATE, July 29.

I have been suffering so much from my spine that I have been unable to travel more than seven or eight miles daily for several days, and even that with great difficulty. I try my own saddle, then a pack-saddle, then walk through the mud; but I only get on because getting on is a necessity, and as soon as I reach the night’s halting-place I am obliged to lie down at once. Only strong people should travel in northern Japan. The inevitable fatigue is much increased by the state of the weather, and doubtless my impressions of the country are affected by it also, as a hamlet in a quagmire in a gray mist or a soaking rain is a far less delectable object than the same hamlet under bright sunshine. There has not been such a season for thirty years. The rains have been tremendous. I have lived in soaked clothes, in spite of my rain-cloak, and have slept on a soaked stretcher in spite of all waterproof wrappings for several days, and still the weather shows no signs of improvement, and the rivers are so high on the northern road that I am storm-bound as well as pain-bound here. Ito shows his sympathy for me by intense surliness, though he did say very sensibly, “I’m very sorry for you, but it’s no use saying so over and over again; as I can do nothing for you, you’d better send for the blind man!”

In Japanese towns and villages you hear every evening a man (or men) making a low peculiar whistle as he walks along, and in large towns the noise is quite a nuisance. It is made by blind men; but a blind beggar is never seen throughout Japan, and the blind are an independent, respected, and well-to-do class, carrying on the occupations of shampooing, money-lending, and music.

We have had a very severe journey from Toyoka. That day the rain was ceaseless, and in the driving mists one could see little but low hills looming on the horizon, pine barrens, scrub, and flooded rice-fields; varied by villages standing along roads which were quagmires a foot deep, and where the clothing was specially ragged and dirty. Hinokiyama, a village of samurai, on a beautiful slope, was an exception, with its fine detached houses, pretty gardens, deep-roofed gateways, grass and stone-faced terraces, and look of refined, quiet comfort. Everywhere there was a quantity of indigo, as is necessary, for nearly all the clothing of the lower classes is blue. Near a large village we were riding on a causeway through the rice-fields, Ito on the pack-horse in front, when we met a number of children returning from school, who, on getting near us, turned, ran away, and even jumped into the ditches, screaming as they ran. The mago ran after them, caught the hindmost boy, and dragged him back — the boy scared and struggling, the man laughing. The boy said that they thought that Ito was a monkey-player, i.e. the keeper of a monkey theatre, I a big ape, and the poles of my bed the scaffolding of the stage!

Splashing through mire and water we found that the people of Tubine wished to detain us, saying that all the ferries were stopped in consequence of the rise in the rivers; but I had been so often misled by false reports that I took fresh horses and went on by a track along a very pretty hillside, overlooking the Yonetsurugawa, a large and swollen river, which nearer the sea had spread itself over the whole country. Torrents of rain were still falling, and all out-of-doors industries were suspended. Straw rain-cloaks hanging to dry dripped under all the eaves, our paper cloaks were sodden, our dripping horses steamed, and thus we slid down a steep descent into the hamlet of Kiriishi, thirty-one houses clustered under persimmon trees under a wooded hillside, all standing in a quagmire, and so abject and filthy that one could not ask for five minutes’ shelter in any one of them. Sure enough, on the bank of the river, which was fully 400 yards wide, and swirling like a mill-stream with a suppressed roar, there was an official order prohibiting the crossing of man or beast, and before I had time to think the mago had deposited the baggage on an islet in the mire and was over the crest of the hill. I wished that the Government was a little less paternal.

Just in the nick of time we discerned a punt drifting down the river on the opposite side, where it brought up, and landed a man, and Ito and two others yelled, howled, and waved so lustily as to attract its notice, and to my joy an answering yell came across the roar and rush of the river. The torrent was so strong that the boatmen had to pole up on that side for half a mile, and in about three-quarters of an hour they reached our side. They were returning to Kotsunagi — the very place I wished to reach — but, though only 2.5 miles off, the distance took nearly four hours of the hardest work I ever saw done by men. Every moment I expected to see them rupture blood-vessels or tendons. All their muscles quivered. It is a mighty river, and was from eight to twelve feet deep, and whirling down in muddy eddies; and often with their utmost efforts in poling, when it seemed as if poles or backs must break, the boat hung trembling and stationary for three or four minutes at a time. After the slow and eventless tramp of the last few days this was an exciting transit. Higher up there was a flooded wood, and, getting into this, the men aided themselves considerably by hauling by the trees; but when we got out of this, another river joined the Yonetsurugawa, which with added strength rushed and roared more wildly.

I had long been watching a large house-boat far above us on the other side, which was being poled by desperate efforts by ten men. At that point she must have been half a mile off, when the stream overpowered the crew and in no time she swung round and came drifting wildly down and across the river, broadside on to us. We could not stir against the current, and had large trees on our immediate left, and for a moment it was a question whether she would not smash us to atoms. Ito was livid with fear; his white, appalled face struck me as ludicrous, for I had no other thought than the imminent peril of the large boat with her freight of helpless families, when, just as she was within two feet of us, she struck a stem and glanced off. Then her crew grappled a headless trunk and got their hawser round it, and eight of them, one behind the other, hung on to it, when it suddenly snapped, seven fell backwards, and the forward one went overboard to be no more seen. Some house that night was desolate. Reeling downwards, the big mast and spar of the ungainly craft caught in a tree, giving her such a check that they were able to make her fast. It was a saddening incident. I asked Ito what he felt when we seemed in peril, and he replied, “I thought I’d been good to my mother, and honest, and I hoped I should go to a good place.”

The fashion of boats varies much on different rivers. On this one there are two sizes. Ours was a small one, flat-bottomed, 25 feet long by 2.5 broad, drawing 6 inches, very low in the water, and with sides slightly curved inwards. The prow forms a gradual long curve from the body of the boat, and is very high.

The mists rolled away as dusk came on, and revealed a lovely country with much picturesqueness of form, and near Kotsunagi the river disappears into a narrow gorge with steep, sentinel hills, dark with pine and cryptomeria. To cross the river we had to go fully a mile above the point aimed at, and then a few minutes of express speed brought us to a landing in a deep, tough quagmire in a dark wood, through which we groped our lamentable way to the yadoya. A heavy mist came on, and the rain returned in torrents; the doma was ankle deep in black slush. The daidokoro was open to the roof, roof and rafters were black with smoke, and a great fire of damp wood was smoking lustily. Round some live embers in the irori fifteen men, women, and children were lying, doing nothing, by the dim light of an andon. It was picturesque decidedly, and I was well disposed to be content when the production of some handsome fusuma created daimiyo’s rooms out of the farthest part of the dim and wandering space, opening upon a damp garden, into which the rain splashed all night.

The solitary spoil of the day’s journey was a glorious lily, which I presented to the house-master, and in the morning it was blooming on the kami-dana in a small vase of priceless old Satsuma china. I was awoke out of a sound sleep by Ito coming in with a rumour, brought by some travellers, that the Prime Minister had been assassinated, and fifty policemen killed! [This was probably a distorted version of the partial mutiny of the Imperial Guard, which I learned on landing in Yezo.] Very wild political rumours are in the air in these outlandish regions, and it is not very wonderful that the peasantry lack confidence in the existing order of things after the changes of the last ten years, and the recent assassination of the Home Minister. I did not believe the rumour, for fanaticism, even in its wildest moods, usually owes some allegiance to common sense; but it was disturbing, as I have naturally come to feel a deep interest in Japanese affairs. A few hours later Ito again presented himself with a bleeding cut on his temple. In lighting his pipe — an odious nocturnal practice of the Japanese — he had fallen over the edge of the fire-pot. I always sleep in a Japanese kimona to be ready for emergencies, and soon bound up his head, and slept again, to be awoke early by another deluge.

We made an early start, but got over very little ground, owing to bad roads and long delays. All day the rain came down in even torrents, the tracks were nearly impassable, my horse fell five times, I suffered severely from pain and exhaustion, and almost fell into despair about ever reaching the sea. In these wild regions there are no kago or norimons to be had, and a pack-horse is the only conveyance, and yesterday, having abandoned my own saddle, I had the bad luck to get a pack-saddle with specially angular and uncompromising peaks, with a soaked and extremely unwashed futon on the top, spars, tackle, ridges, and furrows of the most exasperating description, and two nooses of rope to hold on by as the animal slid down hill on his haunches, or let me almost slide over his tail as he scrambled and plunged up hill.

It was pretty country, even in the downpour, when white mists parted and fir-crowned heights looked out for a moment, or we slid down into a deep glen with mossy boulders, lichen-covered stumps, ferny carpet, and damp, balsamy smell of pyramidal cryptomeria, and a tawny torrent dashing through it in gusts of passion. Then there were low hills, much scrub, immense rice-fields, and violent inundations. But it is not pleasant, even in the prettiest country, to cling on to a pack-saddle with a saturated quilt below you and the water slowly soaking down through your wet clothes into your boots, knowing all the time that when you halt you must sleep on a wet bed, and change into damp clothes, and put on the wet ones again the next morning. The villages were poor, and most of the houses were of boards rudely nailed together for ends, and for sides straw rudely tied on; they had no windows, and smoke came out of every crack. They were as unlike the houses which travellers see in southern Japan as a “black hut” in Uist is like a cottage in a trim village in Kent. These peasant proprietors have much to learn of the art of living. At Tsuguriko, the next stage, where the Transport Office was so dirty that I was obliged to sit in the street in the rain, they told us that we could only get on a ri farther, because the bridges were all carried away and the fords were impassable; but I engaged horses, and, by dint of British doggedness and the willingness of the mago, I got the horses singly and without their loads in small punts across the swollen waters of the Hayakuchi, the Yuwase, and the Mochida, and finally forded three branches of my old friend the Yonetsurugawa, with the foam of its hurrying waters whitening the men’s shoulders and the horses’ packs, and with a hundred Japanese looking on at the “folly” of the foreigner.

I like to tell you of kind people everywhere, and the two mago were specially so, for, when they found that I was pushing on to Yezo for fear of being laid up in the interior wilds, they did all they could to help me; lifted me gently from the horse, made steps of their backs for me to mount, and gathered for me handfuls of red berries, which I ate out of politeness, though they tasted of some nauseous drug. They suggested that I should stay at the picturesquely-situated old village of Kawaguchi, but everything about it was mildewed and green with damp, and the stench from the green and black ditches with which it abounded was so overpowering, even in passing through, that I was obliged to ride on to Odate, a crowded, forlorn, half-tumbling-to-pieces town of 8000 people, with bark roofs held down by stones.

The yadoyas are crowded with storm-staid travellers, and I had a weary tramp from one to another, almost sinking from pain, pressed upon by an immense crowd, and frequently bothered by a policeman, who followed me from one place to the other, making wholly unrighteous demands for my passport at that most inopportune time. After a long search I could get nothing better than this room, with fusuma of tissue paper, in the centre of the din of the house, close to the doma and daidokoro. Fifty travellers, nearly all men, are here, mostly speaking at the top of their voices, and in a provincial jargon which exasperates Ito. Cooking, bathing, eating, and, worst of all, perpetual drawing water from a well with a creaking hoisting apparatus, are going on from 4.30 in the morning till 11.30 at night, and on both evenings noisy mirth, of alcoholic inspiration, and dissonant performances by geishas have added to the dim

In all places lately Hai, “yes,” has been pronounced He, Chi, Na, Ne, to Ito’s great contempt. It sounds like an expletive or interjection rather than a response, and seems used often as a sign of respect or attention only. Often it is loud and shrill, then guttural, at times little more than a sigh. In these yadoyas every sound is audible, and I hear low rumbling of mingled voices, and above all the sharp Hai, Hai of the tea-house girls in full chorus from every quarter of the house. The habit of saying it is so strong that a man roused out of sleep jumps up with Hai, Hai, and often, when I speak to Ito in English, a stupid Hebe sitting by answers Hai.

I don’t want to convey a false impression of the noise here. It would be at least three times as great were I in equally close proximity to a large hotel kitchen in England, with fifty Britons only separated from me by paper partitions. I had not been long in bed on Saturday night when I was awoke by Ito bringing in an old hen which he said he could stew till it was tender, and I fell asleep again with its dying squeak in my ears, to be awoke a second time by two policemen wanting for some occult reason to see my passport, and a third time by two men with lanterns scrambling and fumbling about the room for the strings of a mosquito net, which they wanted for another traveller. These are among the ludicrous incidents of Japanese travelling. About five Ito woke me by saying he was quite sure that the moxa would be the thing to cure my spine, and, as we were going to stay all day, he would go and fetch an operator; but I rejected this as emphatically as the services of the blind man! Yesterday a man came and pasted slips of paper over all the “peep holes” in the shoji, and I have been very little annoyed, even though the yadoya is so crowded.

The rain continues to come down in torrents, and rumours are hourly arriving of disasters to roads and bridges on the northern route.

I. L. B.

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