Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 29

Hope deferred — Effects of the Flood — Activity of the Police — A Ramble in Disguise — The Tanabata Festival — Mr. Satow’s Reputation.

KUROISHI, August 5.

After all the waters did not fall as was expected, and I had to spend a fourth day at Ikarigaseki. We left early on Saturday, as we had to travel fifteen miles without halting. The sun shone on all the beautiful country, and on all the wreck and devastation, as it often shines on the dimpling ocean the day after a storm. We took four men, crossed two severe fords where bridges had been carried away, and where I and the baggage got very wet; saw great devastations and much loss of crops and felled timber; passed under a cliff, which for 200 feet was composed of fine columnar basalt in six-sided prisms, and quite suddenly emerged on a great plain, on which green billows of rice were rolling sunlit before a fresh north wind. This plain is liberally sprinkled with wooded villages and surrounded by hills; one low range forming a curtain across the base of Iwakisan, a great snow-streaked dome, which rises to the west of the plain to a supposed height of 5000 feet. The water had risen in most of the villages to a height of four feet, and had washed the lower part of the mud walls away. The people were busy drying their tatami, futons, and clothing, reconstructing their dykes and small bridges, and fishing for the logs which were still coming down in large quantities.

In one town two very shabby policemen rushed upon us, seized the bridle of my horse, and kept me waiting for a long time in the middle of a crowd, while they toilsomely bored through the passport, turning it up and down, and holding it up to the light, as though there were some nefarious mystery about it. My horse stumbled so badly that I was obliged to walk to save myself from another fall, and, just as my powers were failing, we met a kuruma, which by good management, such as being carried occasionally, brought me into Kuroishi, a neat town of 5500 people, famous for the making of clogs and combs, where I have obtained a very neat, airy, upstairs room, with a good view over the surrounding country and of the doings of my neighbours in their back rooms and gardens. Instead of getting on to Aomori I am spending three days and two nights here, and, as the weather has improved and my room is remarkably cheerful, the rest has been very pleasant. As I have said before, it is difficult to get any information about anything even a few miles off, and even at the Post Office they cannot give any intelligence as to the date of the sailings of the mail steamer between Aomori, twenty miles off, and Hakodate.

The police were not satisfied with seeing my passport, but must also see me, and four of them paid me a polite but domiciliary visit the evening of my arrival. That evening the sound of drumming was ceaseless, and soon after I was in bed Ito announced that there was something really worth seeing, so I went out in my kimono and without my hat, and in this disguise altogether escaped recognition as a foreigner. Kuroishi is unlighted, and I was tumbling and stumbling along in overhaste when a strong arm cleared the way, and the house-master appeared with a very pretty lantern, hanging close to the ground from a cane held in the hand. Thus came the phrase, “Thy word is a light unto my feet.”

We soon reached a point for seeing the festival procession advance towards us, and it was so beautiful and picturesque that it kept me out for an hour. It passes through all the streets between 7 and 10 p.m. each night during the first week in August, with an ark, or coffer, containing slips of paper, on which (as I understand) wishes are written, and each morning at seven this is carried to the river and the slips are cast upon the stream. The procession consisted of three monster drums nearly the height of a man’s body, covered with horsehide, and strapped to the drummers, end upwards, and thirty small drums, all beaten rub-a-dub-dub without ceasing. Each drum has the tomoye painted on its ends. Then there were hundreds of paper lanterns carried on long poles of various lengths round a central lantern, 20 feet high, itself an oblong 6 feet long, with a front and wings, and all kinds of mythical and mystical creatures painted in bright colours upon it — a transparency rather than a lantern, in fact. Surrounding it were hundreds of beautiful lanterns and transparencies of all sorts of fanciful shapes — fans, fishes, birds, kites, drums; the hundreds of people and children who followed all carried circular lanterns, and rows of lanterns with the tomoye on one side and two Chinese characters on the other hung from the eaves all along the line of the procession. I never saw anything more completely like a fairy scene, the undulating waves of lanterns as they swayed along, the soft lights and soft tints moving aloft in the darkness, the lantern-bearers being in deep shadow. This festival is called the tanabata, or seiseki festival, but I am unable to get any information about it. Ito says that he knows what it means, but is unable to explain, and adds the phrase he always uses when in difficulties, “Mr. Satow would be able to tell you all about it.”

I. L. B.

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