Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 27

Good-tempered Intoxication — The Effect of Sunshine — A tedious Altercation — Evening Occupations — Noisy Talk — Social Gathering — Unfair Comparisons.

SHIRASAWA, July 29.

Early this morning the rain-clouds rolled themselves up and disappeared, and the bright blue sky looked as if it had been well washed. I had to wait till noon before the rivers became fordable, and my day’s journey is only seven miles, as it is not possible to go farther till more of the water runs off. We had very limp, melancholy horses, and my mago was half-tipsy, and sang, talked, and jumped the whole way. Sake is frequently taken warm, and in that state produces a very noisy but good-tempered intoxication. I have seen a good many intoxicated persons, but never one in the least degree quarrelsome; and the effect very soon passes off, leaving, however, an unpleasant nausea for two or three days as a warning against excess. The abominable concoctions known under the names of beer, wine, and brandy, produce a bad-tempered and prolonged intoxication, and delirium tremens, rarely known as a result of sake drinking, is being introduced under their baleful influence.

The sun shone gloriously and brightened the hill-girdled valley in which Odate stands into positive beauty, with the narrow river flinging its bright waters over green and red shingle, lighting it up in glints among the conical hills, some richly wooded with coniferae, and others merely covered with scrub, which were tumbled about in picturesque confusion. When Japan gets the sunshine, its forest-covered hills and garden-like valleys are turned into paradise. In a journey of 600 miles there has hardly been a patch of country which would not have been beautiful in sunlight.

We crossed five severe fords with the water half-way up the horses’ bodies, in one of which the strong current carried my mago off his feet, and the horse towed him ashore, singing and capering, his drunken glee nothing abated by his cold bath. Everything is in a state of wreck. Several river channels have been formed in places where there was only one; there is not a trace of the road for a considerable distance, not a bridge exists for ten miles, and a great tract of country is covered with boulders, uprooted trees, and logs floated from the mountain sides. Already, however, these industrious peasants are driving piles, carrying soil for embankments in creels on horses’ backs, and making ropes of stones to prevent a recurrence of the calamity. About here the female peasants wear for field-work a dress which pleases me much by its suitability — light blue trousers, with a loose sack over them, confined at the waist by a girdle.

On arriving here in much pain, and knowing that the road was not open any farther, I was annoyed by a long and angry conversation between the house-master and Ito, during which the horses were not unloaded, and the upshot of it was that the man declined to give me shelter, saying that the police had been round the week before giving notice that no foreigner was to be received without first communicating with the nearest police station, which, in this instance, is three hours off. I said that the authorities of Akita ken could not by any local regulations override the Imperial edict under which passports are issued; but he said he should be liable to a fine and the withdrawal of his license if he violated the rule. No foreigner, he said, had ever lodged in Shirasawa, and I have no doubt that he added that he hoped no foreigner would ever seek lodgings again. My passport was copied and sent off by special runner, as I should have deeply regretted bringing trouble on the poor man by insisting on my rights, and in much trepidation he gave me a room open on one side to the village, and on another to a pond, over which, as if to court mosquitoes, it is partially built. I cannot think how the Japanese can regard a hole full of dirty water as an ornamental appendage to a house.

My hotel expenses (including Ito’s) are less than 3s. a-day, and in nearly every place there has been a cordial desire that I should be comfortable, and, considering that I have often put up in small, rough hamlets off the great routes even of Japanese travel, the accommodation, minus the fleas and the odours, has been surprisingly excellent, not to be equalled, I should think, in equally remote regions in any country in the world.

This evening, here, as in thousands of other villages, the men came home from their work, ate their food, took their smoke, enjoyed their children, carried them about, watched their games, twisted straw ropes, made straw sandals, split bamboo, wove straw rain-coats, and spent the time universally in those little economical ingenuities and skilful adaptations which our people (the worse for them) practise perhaps less than any other. There was no assembling at the sake shop. Poor though the homes are, the men enjoy them; the children are an attraction at any rate, and the brawling and disobedience which often turn our working-class homes into bear-gardens are unknown here, where docility and obedience are inculcated from the cradle as a matter of course. The signs of religion become fewer as I travel north, and it appears that the little faith which exists consists mainly in a belief in certain charms and superstitions, which the priests industriously foster.

A low voice is not regarded as “a most excellent thing,” in man at least, among the lower classes in Japan. The people speak at the top of their voices, and, though most words and syllables end in vowels, the general effect of a conversation is like the discordant gabble of a farm-yard. The next room to mine is full of stormbound travellers, and they and the house-master kept up what I thought was a most important argument for four hours at the top of their voices. I supposed it must be on the new and important ordinance granting local elective assemblies, of which I heard at Odate, but on inquiry found that it was possible to spend four mortal hours in discussing whether the day’s journey from Odate to Noshiro could be made best by road or river.

Japanese women have their own gatherings, where gossip and chit-chat, marked by a truly Oriental indecorum of speech, are the staple of talk. I think that in many things, specially in some which lie on the surface, the Japanese are greatly our superiors, but that in many others they are immeasurably behind us. In living altogether among this courteous, industrious, and civilised people, one comes to forget that one is doing them a gross injustice in comparing their manners and ways with those of a people moulded by many centuries of Christianity. Would to God that we were so Christianised that the comparison might always be favourable to us, which it is not!

July 30. — In the room on the other side of mine were two men with severe eye-disease, with shaven heads and long and curious rosaries, who beat small drums as they walked, and were on pilgrimage to the shrine of Fudo at Megura, near Yedo, a seated, flame-surrounded idol, with a naked sword in one hand and a coil of rope in the other, who has the reputation of giving sight to the blind. At five this morning they began their devotions, which consisted in repeating with great rapidity, and in a high monotonous key for two hours, the invocation of the Nichiren sect of Buddhists, Namu miyo ho ren ge Kiyo, which certainly no Japanese understands, and on the meaning of which even the best scholars are divided; one having given me, “Glory to the salvation-bringing Scriptures;” another, “Hail, precious law and gospel of the lotus flower;” and a third, “Heaven and earth! The teachings of the wonderful lotus flower sect.” Namu amidu Butsu occurred at intervals, and two drums were beaten the whole time!

The rain, which began again at eleven last night, fell from five till eight this morning, not in drops, but in streams, and in the middle of it a heavy pall of blackness (said to be a total eclipse) enfolded all things in a lurid gloom. Any detention is exasperating within one day of my journey’s end, and I hear without equanimity that there are great difficulties ahead, and that our getting through in three or even four days is doubtful. I hope you will not be tired of the monotony of my letters. Such as they are, they represent the scenes which a traveller would see throughout much of northern Japan, and whatever interest they have consists in the fact that they are a faithful representation, made upon the spot, of what a foreigner sees and hears in travelling through a large but unfrequented region.

I. L. B.

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