Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 32

A Hard Day’s Journey — An Overturn — Nearing the Ocean — Joyful Excitement — Universal Greyness — Inopportune Policemen — A Stormy Voyage — A Wild Welcome — A Windy Landing — The Journey’s End.

HAKODATE, YEZO, August, 1878.

The journey from Kuroishi to Aomori, though only 22.5 miles, was a tremendous one, owing to the state of the roads; for more rain had fallen, and the passage of hundreds of pack-horses heavily loaded with salt-fish had turned the tracks into quagmires. At the end of the first stage the Transport Office declined to furnish a kuruma, owing to the state of the roads; but, as I was not well enough to ride farther, I bribed two men for a very moderate sum to take me to the coast; and by accommodating each other we got on tolerably, though I had to walk up all the hills and down many, to get out at every place where a little bridge had been carried away, that the kuruma might be lifted over the gap, and often to walk for 200 yards at a time, because it sank up to its axles in the quagmire. In spite of all precautions I was upset into a muddy ditch, with the kuruma on the top of me; but, as my air-pillow fortunately fell between the wheel and me, I escaped with nothing worse than having my clothes soaked with water and mud, which, as I had to keep them on all night, might have given me cold, but did not. We met strings of pack-horses the whole way, carrying salt-fish, which is taken throughout the interior.

The mountain-ridge, which runs throughout the Main Island, becomes depressed in the province of Nambu, but rises again into grand, abrupt hills at Aomori Bay. Between Kuroishi and Aomori, however, it is broken up into low ranges, scantily wooded, mainly with pine, scrub oak, and the dwarf bamboo. The Sesamum ignosco, of which the incense-sticks are made, covers some hills to the exclusion of all else. Rice grows in the valleys, but there is not much cultivation, and the country looks rough, cold, and hyperborean.

The farming hamlets grew worse and worse, with houses made roughly of mud, with holes scratched in the side for light to get in, or for smoke to get out, and the walls of some were only great pieces of bark and bundles of straw tied to the posts with straw ropes. The roofs were untidy, but this was often concealed by the profuse growth of the water-melons which trailed over them. The people were very dirty, but there was no appearance of special poverty, and a good deal of money must be made on the horses and mago required for the transit of fish from Yezo, and for rice to it.

At Namioka occurred the last of the very numerous ridges we have crossed since leaving Nikko at a point called Tsugarusaka, and from it looked over a rugged country upon a dark-grey sea, nearly landlocked by pine-clothed hills, of a rich purple indigo colour. The clouds were drifting, the colour was intensifying, the air was fresh and cold, the surrounding soil was peaty, the odours of pines were balsamic, it looked, felt, and smelt like home; the grey sea was Aomori Bay, beyond was the Tsugaru Strait — my long land-journey was done. A traveller said a steamer was sailing for Yezo at night, so, in a state of joyful excitement, I engaged four men, and by dragging, pushing, and lifting, they got me into Aomori, a town of grey houses, grey roofs, and grey stones on roofs, built on a beach of grey sand, round a grey bay — a miserable-looking place, though the capital of the ken.

It has a great export trade in cattle and rice to Yezo, besides being the outlet of an immense annual emigration from northern Japan to the Yezo fishery, and imports from Hakodate large quantities of fish, skins, and foreign merchandise. It has some trade in a pretty but not valuable “seaweed,” or variegated lacquer, called Aomori lacquer, but not actually made there, its own speciality being a sweetmeat made of beans and sugar. It has a deep and well-protected harbour, but no piers or conveniences for trade. It has barracks and the usual Government buildings, but there was no time to learn anything about it — only a short half-hour for getting my ticket at the Mitsu Bishi office, where they demanded and copied my passport; for snatching a morsel of fish at a restaurant where “foreign food” was represented by a very dirty table-cloth; and for running down to the grey beach, where I was carried into a large sampan crowded with Japanese steerage passengers.

The wind was rising, a considerable surf was running, the spray was flying over the boat, the steamer had her steam up, and was ringing and whistling impatiently, there was a scud of rain, and I was standing trying to keep my paper waterproof from being blown off, when three inopportune policemen jumped into the boat and demanded my passport. For a moment I wished them and the passport under the waves! The steamer is a little old paddle-boat of about 70 tons, with no accommodation but a single cabin on deck. She was as clean and trim as a yacht, and, like a yacht, totally unfit for bad weather. Her captain, engineers, and crew were all Japanese, and not a word of English was spoken. My clothes were very wet, and the night was colder than the day had been, but the captain kindly covered me up with several blankets on the floor, so I did not suffer. We sailed early in the evening, with a brisk northerly breeze, which chopped round to the south-east, and by eleven blew a gale; the sea ran high, the steamer laboured and shipped several heavy seas, much water entered the cabin, the captain came below every half-hour, tapped the barometer, sipped some tea, offered me a lump of sugar, and made a face and gesture indicative of bad weather, and we were buffeted about mercilessly till 4 a.m., when heavy rain came on, and the gale fell temporarily with it. The boat is not fit for a night passage, and always lies in port when bad weather is expected; and as this was said to be the severest gale which has swept the Tsugaru Strait since January, the captain was uneasy about her, but being so, showed as much calmness as if he had been a Briton!

The gale rose again after sunrise, and when, after doing sixty miles in fourteen hours, we reached the heads of Hakodate Harbour, it was blowing and pouring like a bad day in Argyllshire, the spin-drift was driving over the bay, the Yezo mountains loomed darkly and loftily through rain and mist, and wind and thunder, and “noises of the northern sea,” gave me a wild welcome to these northern shores. A rocky head like Gibraltar, a cold-blooded-looking grey town, straggling up a steep hillside, a few coniferae, a great many grey junks, a few steamers and vessels of foreign rig at anchor, a number of sampans riding the rough water easily, seen in flashes between gusts of rain and spin-drift, were all I saw, but somehow it all pleased me from its breezy, northern look.

The steamer was not expected in the gale, so no one met me, and I went ashore with fifty Japanese clustered on the top of a decked sampan in such a storm of wind and rain that it took us 1.5 hours to go half a mile; then I waited shelterless on the windy beach till the Customs’ Officers were roused from their late slumbers, and then battled with the storm for a mile up a steep hill. I was expected at the hospitable Consulate, but did not know it, and came here to the Church Mission House, to which Mr. and Mrs. Dening kindly invited me when I met them in Tokiyo. I was unfit to enter a civilised dwelling; my clothes, besides being soaked, were coated and splashed with mud up to the top of my hat; my gloves and boots were finished, my mud-splashed baggage was soaked with salt water; but I feel a somewhat legitimate triumph at having conquered all obstacles, and having accomplished more than I intended to accomplish when I left Yedo.

How musical the clamour of the northern ocean is! How inspiriting the shrieking and howling of the boisterous wind! Even the fierce pelting of the rain is home-like, and the cold in which one shivers is stimulating! You cannot imagine the delight of being in a room with a door that will lock, to be in a bed instead of on a stretcher, of finding twenty-three letters containing good news, and of being able to read them in warmth and quietness under the roof of an English home!

I. L. B.

Itinerary of Route from Niigata to Aomori
No. of Houses. Ri. Cho.
Kisaki 56 4
Tsuiji 209 6
Kurokawa 215 2 12
Hanadati 20 2
Kawaguchi 27 3
Numa 24 1 18
Tamagawa 40 3
Okuni 210 2 11
Kurosawa 17 1 18
Ichinono 20 1 18
Shirokasawa 42 1 21
Tenoko 120 3 11
Komatsu 513 2 13
Akayu 350 4
Kaminoyama 650 5
Yamagata 21,000 souls 3 19
Tendo 1,040 3 8
Tateoka 307 3 21
Tochiida 217 1 33
Obanasawa 506 1 21
Ashizawa 70 1 21
Shinjo 1,060 4 6
Kanayama 165 3 27
Nosoki 37 3 9
Innai 257 3 12
Yusawa 1,506 3 35
Yokote 2,070 4 27
Rokugo 1,062 6
Shingoji 209 1 28
Kubota 36,587 souls 16
Minato 2,108 1 28
Carry forward 107 21

About 368 miles.

No. of Houses Ri. Cho.
Brought forward 107 21
Abukawa 163 3 33
Ichi Nichi Ichi 306 1 34
Kado 151 2 9
Hinikoyama 396 2 9
Tsugurata 186 1 14
Tubine 153 1 18
Kiriishi 31 1 14
Kotsunagi 47 1 16
Tsuguriko 136 3 5
Odate 1,673 4 23
Shirasawa 71 2 19
Ikarigaseki 175 4 18
Kuroishi 1,176 6 19
Daishaka 43 4
Shinjo 51 2 21
Aomori 1 24
Ri 153 9

This is considerably under the actual distance, as on several of the mountain routes the ri is 56 cho, but in the lack of accurate information the ri has been taken at its ordinary standard of 36 cho throughout.

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