Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 31

A Travelling Curiosity — Rude Dwellings — Primitive Simplicity — The Public Bath-house.

KUROISHI.

Yesterday was beautiful, and, dispensing for the first time with Ito’s attendance, I took a kuruma for the day, and had a very pleasant excursion into a cul de sac in the mountains. The one drawback was the infamous road, which compelled me either to walk or be mercilessly jolted. The runner was a nice, kind, merry creature, quite delighted, Ito said, to have a chance of carrying so great a sight as a foreigner into a district in which no foreigner has even been seen. In the absolute security of Japanese travelling, which I have fully realised for a long time, I look back upon my fears at Kasukabe with a feeling of self-contempt.

The scenery, which was extremely pretty, gained everything from sunlight and colour — wonderful shades of cobalt and indigo, green blues and blue greens, and flashes of white foam in unsuspected rifts. It looked a simple, home-like region, a very pleasant land.

We passed through several villages of farmers who live in very primitive habitations, built of mud, looking as if the mud had been dabbed upon the framework with the hands. The walls sloped slightly inwards, the thatch was rude, the eaves were deep and covered all manner of lumber; there was a smoke-hole in a few, but the majority smoked all over like brick-kilns; they had no windows, and the walls and rafters were black and shiny. Fowls and horses live on one side of the dark interior, and the people on the other. The houses were alive with unclothed children, and as I repassed in the evening unclothed men and women, nude to their waists, were sitting outside their dwellings with the small fry, clothed only in amulets, about them, several big yellow dogs forming part of each family group, and the faces of dogs, children, and people were all placidly contented! These farmers owned many good horses, and their crops were splendid. Probably on matsuri days all appear in fine clothes taken from ample hoards. They cannot be so poor, as far as the necessaries of life are concerned; they are only very “far back.” They know nothing better, and are contented; but their houses are as bad as any that I have ever seen, and the simplicity of Eden is combined with an amount of dirt which makes me sceptical as to the performance of even weekly ablutions.

Upper Nakano is very beautiful, and in the autumn, when its myriads of star-leaved maples are scarlet and crimson, against a dark background of cryptomeria, among which a great white waterfall gleams like a snow-drift before it leaps into the black pool below, it must be well worth a long journey. I have not seen anything which has pleased me more. There is a fine flight of moss-grown stone steps down to the water, a pretty bridge, two superb stone torii, some handsome stone lanterns, and then a grand flight of steep stone steps up a hill-side dark with cryptomeria leads to a small Shinto shrine. Not far off there is a sacred tree, with the token of love and revenge upon it. The whole place is entrancing.

Lower Nakano, which I could only reach on foot, is only interesting as possessing some very hot springs, which are valuable in cases of rheumatism and sore eyes. It consists mainly of tea-houses and yadoyas, and seemed rather gay. It is built round the edge of an oblong depression, at the bottom of which the bath-houses stand, of which there are four, only nominally separated, and with but two entrances, which open directly upon the bathers. In the two end houses women and children were bathing in large tanks, and in the centre ones women and men were bathing together, but at opposite sides, with wooden ledges to sit upon all round. I followed the kuruma-runner blindly to the baths, and when once in I had to go out at the other side, being pressed upon by people from behind; but the bathers were too polite to take any notice of my most unwilling intrusion, and the kuruma-runner took me in without the slightest sense of impropriety in so doing. I noticed that formal politeness prevailed in the bath-house as elsewhere, and that dippers and towels were handed from one to another with profound bows. The public bath-house is said to be the place in which public opinion is formed, as it is with us in clubs and public-houses, and that the presence of women prevents any dangerous or seditious consequences; but the Government is doing its best to prevent promiscuous bathing; and, though the reform may travel slowly into these remote regions, it will doubtless arrive sooner or later. The public bath-house is one of the features of Japan.

I. L. B.

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