Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 30

A Lady’s Toilet — Hair-dressing — Paint and Cosmetics — Afternoon Visitors — Christian Converts.

KUROISHI, August 5.

This is a pleasant place, and my room has many advantages besides light and cleanliness, as, for instance, that I overlook my neighbours and that I have seen a lady at her toilet preparing for a wedding! A married girl knelt in front of a black lacquer toilet-box with a spray of cherry blossoms in gold sprawling over it, and lacquer uprights at the top, which supported a polished metal mirror. Several drawers in the toilet-box were open, and toilet requisites in small lacquer boxes were lying on the floor. A female barber stood behind the lady, combing, dividing, and tying her hair, which, like that of all Japanese women, was glossy black, but neither fine nor long. The coiffure is an erection, a complete work of art. Two divisions, three inches apart, were made along the top of the head, and the lock of hair between these was combed, stiffened with a bandoline made from the Uvario Japonica, raised two inches from the forehead, turned back, tied, and pinned to the back hair. The rest was combed from each side to the back, and then tied loosely with twine made of paper. Several switches of false hair were then taken out of a long lacquer box, and, with the aid of a quantity of bandoline and a solid pad, the ordinary smooth chignon was produced, to which several loops and bows of hair were added, interwoven with a little dark-blue crepe, spangled with gold. A single, thick, square-sided, tortoiseshell pin was stuck through the whole as an ornament.

The fashions of dressing the hair are fixed. They vary with the ages of female children, and there is a slight difference between the coiffure of the married and unmarried. The two partings on the top of the head and the chignon never vary. The amount of stiffening used is necessary, as the head is never covered out of doors. This arrangement will last in good order for a week or more — thanks to the wooden pillow.

The barber’s work was only partially done when the hair was dressed, for every vestige of recalcitrant eyebrow was removed, and every downy hair which dared to display itself on the temples and neck was pulled out with tweezers. This removal of all short hair has a tendency to make even the natural hair look like a wig. Then the lady herself took a box of white powder, and laid it on her face, ears, and neck, till her skin looked like a mask. With a camel’s-hair brush she then applied some mixture to her eyelids to make the bright eyes look brighter, the teeth were blackened, or rather reblackened, with a feather brush dipped in a solution of gall-nuts and iron-filings — a tiresome and disgusting process, several times repeated, and then a patch of red was placed upon the lower lip. I cannot say that the effect was pleasing, but the girl thought so, for she turned her head so as to see the general effect in the mirror, smiled, and was satisfied. The remainder of her toilet, which altogether took over three hours, was performed in private, and when she reappeared she looked as if a very unmeaning-looking wooden doll had been dressed up with the exquisite good taste, harmony, and quietness which characterise the dress of Japanese women.

A most rigid social etiquette draws an impassable line of demarcation between the costume of the virtuous woman in every rank and that of her frail sister. The humiliating truth that many of our female fashions are originated by those whose position we the most regret, and are then carefully copied by all classes of women in our country, does not obtain credence among Japanese women, to whom even the slightest approximation in the style of hair-dressing, ornament, or fashion of garments would be a shame.

I was surprised to hear that three “Christian students” from Hirosaki wished to see me — three remarkably intelligent-looking, handsomely-dressed young men, who all spoke a little English. One of them had the brightest and most intellectual face which I have seen in Japan. They are of the samurai class, as I should have known from the superior type of face and manner. They said that they heard that an English lady was in the house, and asked me if I were a Christian, but apparently were not satisfied till, in answer to the question if I had a Bible, I was able to produce one.

Hirosaki is a castle town of some importance, 3.5 ri from here, and its ex-daimiyo supports a high-class school or college there, which has had two Americans successively for its headmasters. These gentlemen must have been very consistent in Christian living as well as energetic in Christian teaching, for under their auspices thirty young men have embraced Christianity. As all of these are well educated, and several are nearly ready to pass as teachers into Government employment, their acceptance of the “new way” may have an important bearing on the future of this region.

I. L. B.

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