Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 28

Torrents of Rain — An unpleasant Detention — Devastations produced by Floods — The Yadate Pass — The Force of Water — Difficulties thicken — A Primitive Yadoya — The Water rises.

IKARIGASEKI, AOMORI KEN, August 2.

The prophecies concerning difficulties are fulfilled. For six days and five nights the rain has never ceased, except for a few hours at a time, and for the last thirteen hours, as during the eclipse at Shirasawa, it has been falling in such sheets as I have only seen for a few minutes at a time on the equator. I have been here storm-staid for two days, with damp bed, damp clothes, damp everything, and boots, bag, books, are all green with mildew. And still the rain falls, and roads, bridges, rice-fields, trees, and hillsides are being swept in a common ruin towards the Tsugaru Strait, so tantalisingly near; and the simple people are calling on the forgotten gods of the rivers and the hills, on the sun and moon, and all the host of heaven, to save them from this “plague of immoderate rain and waters.” For myself, to be able to lie down all day is something, and as “the mind, when in a healthy state, reposes as quietly before an insurmountable difficulty as before an ascertained truth,” so, as I cannot get on, I have ceased to chafe, and am rather inclined to magnify the advantages of the detention, a necessary process, as you would think if you saw my surroundings!

The day before yesterday, in spite of severe pain, was one of the most interesting of my journey. As I learned something of the force of fire in Hawaii, I am learning not a little of the force of water in Japan. We left Shirasawa at noon, as it looked likely to clear, taking two horses and three men. It is beautiful scenery — a wild valley, upon which a number of lateral ridges descend, rendered strikingly picturesque by the dark pyramidal cryptomeria, which are truly the glory of Japan. Five of the fords were deep and rapid, and the entrance on them difficult, as the sloping descents were all carried away, leaving steep banks, which had to be levelled by the mattocks of the mago. Then the fords themselves were gone; there were shallows where there had been depths, and depths where there had been shallows; new channels were carved, and great beds of shingle had been thrown up. Much wreckage lay about. The road and its small bridges were all gone, trees torn up by the roots or snapped short off by being struck by heavy logs were heaped together like barricades, leaves and even bark being in many cases stripped completely off; great logs floated down the river in such numbers and with such force that we had to wait half an hour in one place to secure a safe crossing; hollows were filled with liquid mud, boulders of great size were piled into embankments, causing perilous alterations in the course of the river; a fertile valley had been utterly destroyed, and the men said they could hardly find their way.

At the end of five miles it became impassable for horses, and, with two of the mago carrying the baggage, we set off, wading through water and climbing along the side of a hill, up to our knees in soft wet soil. The hillside and the road were both gone, and there were heavy landslips along the whole valley. Happily there was not much of this exhausting work, for, just as higher and darker ranges, densely wooded with cryptomeria, began to close us in, we emerged upon a fine new road, broad enough for a carriage, which, after crossing two ravines on fine bridges, plunges into the depths of a magnificent forest, and then by a long series of fine zigzags of easy gradients ascends the pass of Yadate, on the top of which, in a deep sandstone cutting, is a handsome obelisk marking the boundary between Akita and Aomori ken. This is a marvellous road for Japan, it is so well graded and built up, and logs for travellers’ rests are placed at convenient distances. Some very heavy work in grading and blasting has been done upon it, but there are only four miles of it, with wretched bridle tracks at each end. I left the others behind, and strolled on alone over the top of the pass and down the other side, where the road is blasted out of rock of a vivid pink and green colour, looking brilliant under the trickle of water. I admire this pass more than anything I have seen in Japan; I even long to see it again, but under a bright blue sky. It reminds me much of the finest part of the Brunig Pass, and something of some of the passes in the Rocky Mountains, but the trees are far finer than in either. It was lonely, stately, dark, solemn; its huge cryptomeria, straight as masts, sent their tall spires far aloft in search of light; the ferns, which love damp and shady places, were the only undergrowth; the trees flung their balsamy, aromatic scent liberally upon the air, and, in the unlighted depths of many a ravine and hollow, clear bright torrents leapt and tumbled, drowning with their thundering bass the musical treble of the lighter streams. Not a traveller disturbed the solitude with his sandalled footfall; there was neither song of bird nor hum of insect.

In the midst of this sublime scenery, and at the very top of the pass, the rain, which had been light but steady during the whole day, began to come down in streams and then in sheets. I have been so rained upon for weeks that at first I took little notice of it, but very soon changes occurred before my eyes which concentrated my attention upon it. The rush of waters was heard everywhere, trees of great size slid down, breaking others in their fall; rocks were rent and carried away trees in their descent, the waters rose before our eyes; with a boom and roar as of an earthquake a hillside burst, and half the hill, with a noble forest of cryptomeria, was projected outwards, and the trees, with the land on which they grew, went down heads foremost, diverting a river from its course, and where the forest-covered hillside had been there was a great scar, out of which a torrent burst at high pressure, which in half an hour carved for itself a deep ravine, and carried into the valley below an avalanche of stones and sand. Another hillside descended less abruptly, and its noble groves found themselves at the bottom in a perpendicular position, and will doubtless survive their transplantation. Actually, before my eyes, this fine new road was torn away by hastily improvised torrents, or blocked by landslips in several places, and a little lower, in one moment, a hundred yards of it disappeared, and with them a fine bridge, which was deposited aslant across the torrent lower down.

On the descent, when things began to look very bad, and the mountain-sides had become cascades bringing trees, logs, and rocks down with them, we were fortunate enough to meet with two pack-horses whose leaders were ignorant of the impassability of the road to Odate, and they and my coolies exchanged loads. These were strong horses, and the mago were skilful and courageous. They said if we hurried we could just get to the hamlet they had left, they thought; but while they spoke the road and the bridge below were carried away. They insisted on lashing me to the pack-saddle. The great stream, whose beauty I had formerly admired, was now a thing of dread, and had to be forded four times without fords. It crashed and thundered, drowning the feeble sound of human voices, the torrents from the heavens hissed through the forest, trees and logs came crashing down the hillsides, a thousand cascades added to the din, and in the bewilderment produced by such an unusual concatenation of sights and sounds we stumbled through the river, the men up to their shoulders, the horses up to their backs. Again and again we crossed. The banks being carried away, it was very hard to get either into or out of the water; the horses had to scramble or jump up places as high as their shoulders, all slippery and crumbling, and twice the men cut steps for them with axes. The rush of the torrent at the last crossing taxed the strength of both men and horses, and, as I was helpless from being tied on, I confess that I shut my eyes! After getting through, we came upon the lands belonging to this village — rice-fields with the dykes burst, and all the beautiful ridge and furrow cultivation of the other crops carried away. The waters were rising fast, the men said we must hurry; they unbound me, so that I might ride more comfortably, spoke to the horses, and went on at a run. My horse, which had nearly worn out his shoes in the fords, stumbled at every step, the mago gave me a noose of rope to clutch, the rain fell in such torrents that I speculated on the chance of being washed off my saddle, when suddenly I saw a shower of sparks; I felt unutterable things; I was choked, bruised, stifled, and presently found myself being hauled out of a ditch by three men, and realised that the horse had tumbled down in going down a steepish hill, and that I had gone over his head. To climb again on the soaked futon was the work of a moment, and, with men running and horses stumbling and splashing, we crossed the Hirakawa by one fine bridge, and half a mile farther re-crossed it on another, wishing as we did so that all Japanese bridges were as substantial, for they were both 100 feet long, and had central piers.

We entered Ikarigaseki from the last bridge, a village of 800 people, on a narrow ledge between an abrupt hill and the Hirakawa, a most forlorn and tumble-down place, given up to felling timber and making shingles; and timber in all its forms — logs, planks, faggots, and shingles — is heaped and stalked about. It looks more like a lumberer’s encampment than a permanent village, but it is beautifully situated, and unlike any of the innumerable villages that I have ever seen.

The street is long and narrow, with streams in stone channels on either side; but these had overflowed, and men, women, and children were constructing square dams to keep the water, which had already reached the doma, from rising over the tatami. Hardly any house has paper windows, and in the few which have, they are so black with smoke as to look worse than none. The roofs are nearly flat, and are covered with shingles held on by laths and weighted with large stones. Nearly all the houses look like temporary sheds, and most are as black inside as a Barra hut. The walls of many are nothing but rough boards tied to the uprights by straw ropes.

In the drowning torrent, sitting in puddles of water, and drenched to the skin hours before, we reached this very primitive yadoya, the lower part of which is occupied by the daidokoro, a party of storm-bound students, horses, fowls, and dogs. My room is a wretched loft, reached by a ladder, with such a quagmire at its foot that I have to descend into it in Wellington boots. It was dismally grotesque at first. The torrent on the unceiled roof prevented Ito from hearing what I said, the bed was soaked, and the water, having got into my box, had dissolved the remains of the condensed milk, and had reduced clothes, books, and paper into a condition of universal stickiness. My kimono was less wet than anything else, and, borrowing a sheet of oiled paper, I lay down in it, till roused up in half an hour by Ito shrieking above the din on the roof that the people thought that the bridge by which we had just entered would give way; and, running to the river bank, we joined a large crowd, far too intensely occupied by the coming disaster to take any notice of the first foreign lady they had ever seen.

The Hirakawa, which an hour before was merely a clear, rapid mountain stream, about four feet deep, was then ten feet deep, they said, and tearing along, thick and muddy, and with a fearful roar,

“And each wave was crested with tawny foam, Like the mane of a chestnut steed.”

Immense logs of hewn timber, trees, roots, branches, and faggots, were coming down in numbers. The abutment on this side was much undermined, but, except that the central pier trembled whenever a log struck it, the bridge itself stood firm — so firm, indeed, that two men, anxious to save some property on the other side, crossed it after I arrived. Then logs of planed timber of large size, and joints, and much wreckage, came down — fully forty fine timbers, thirty feet long, for the fine bridge above had given way. Most of the harvest of logs cut on the Yadate Pass must have been lost, for over 300 were carried down in the short time in which I watched the river. This is a very heavy loss to this village, which lives by the timber trade. Efforts were made at a bank higher up to catch them as they drifted by, but they only saved about one in twenty. It was most exciting to see the grand way in which these timbers came down; and the moment in which they were to strike or not to strike the pier was one of intense suspense. After an hour of this two superb logs, fully thirty feet long, came down close together, and, striking the central pier nearly simultaneously, it shuddered horribly, the great bridge parted in the middle, gave an awful groan like a living thing, plunged into the torrent, and re-appeared in the foam below only as disjointed timbers hurrying to the sea. Not a vestige remained. The bridge below was carried away in the morning, so, till the river becomes fordable, this little place is completely isolated. On thirty miles of road, out of nineteen bridges only two remain, and the road itself is almost wholly carried away!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird/isabella/japan/chapter34.html

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