Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 4

“John Chinaman”— Engaging a Servant — First Impressions of Ito — A Solemn Contract — The Food Question.

H.B.M.‘s LEGATION, YEDO, June 7.

I went to Yokohama for a week to visit Dr. and Mrs. Hepburn on the Bluff. Bishop and Mrs. Burdon of Hong Kong were also guests, and it was very pleasant.

One cannot be a day in Yokohama without seeing quite a different class of orientals from the small, thinly-dressed, and usually poor-looking Japanese. Of the 2500 Chinamen who reside in Japan, over 1100 are in Yokohama, and if they were suddenly removed, business would come to an abrupt halt. Here, as everywhere, the Chinese immigrant is making himself indispensable. He walks through the streets with his swinging gait and air of complete self-complacency, as though he belonged to the ruling race. He is tall and big, and his many garments, with a handsome brocaded robe over all, his satin pantaloons, of which not much is seen, tight at the ankles, and his high shoes, whose black satin tops are slightly turned up at the toes, make him look even taller and bigger than he is. His head is mostly shaven, but the hair at the back is plaited with a quantity of black purse twist into a queue which reaches to his knees, above which, set well back, he wears a stiff, black satin skull-cap, without which he is never seen. His face is very yellow, his long dark eyes and eyebrows slope upwards towards his temples, he has not the vestige of a beard, and his skin is shiny. He looks thoroughly “well-to-do.” He is not unpleasing-looking, but you feel that as a Celestial he looks down upon you. If you ask a question in a merchant’s office, or change your gold into satsu, or take your railroad or steamer ticket, or get change in a shop, the inevitable Chinaman appears. In the street he swings past you with a purpose in his face; as he flies past you in a kuruma he is bent on business; he is sober and reliable, and is content to “squeeze” his employer rather than to rob him — his one aim in life is money. For this he is industrious, faithful, self-denying; and he has his reward.

Several of my kind new acquaintances interested themselves about the (to me) vital matter of a servant interpreter, and many Japanese came to “see after the place.” The speaking of intelligible English is a sine qua non, and it was wonderful to find the few words badly pronounced and worse put together, which were regarded by the candidates as a sufficient qualification. Can you speak English? “Yes.” What wages do you ask? “Twelve dollars a month.” This was always said glibly, and in each case sounded hopeful. Whom have you lived with? A foreign name distorted out of all recognition, as was natural, was then given. Where have you travelled? This question usually had to be translated into Japanese, and the usual answer was, “The Tokaido, the Nakasendo, to Kiyoto, to Nikko,” naming the beaten tracks of countless tourists. Do you know anything of Northern Japan and the Hokkaido? “No,” with a blank wondering look. At this stage in every case Dr. Hepburn compassionately stepped in as interpreter, for their stock of English was exhausted. Three were regarded as promising. One was a sprightly youth who came in a well-made European suit of light-coloured tweed, a laid-down collar, a tie with a diamond (?) pin, and a white shirt, so stiffly starched, that he could hardly bend low enough for a bow even of European profundity. He wore a gilt watch-chain with a locket, the corner of a very white cambric pocket-handkerchief dangled from his breast pocket, and he held a cane and a felt hat in his hand. He was a Japanese dandy of the first water. I looked at him ruefully. To me starched collars are to be an unknown luxury for the next three months. His fine foreign clothes would enhance prices everywhere in the interior, and besides that, I should feel a perpetual difficulty in asking menial services from an exquisite. I was therefore quite relieved when his English broke down at the second question.

The second was a most respectable-looking man of thirty-five in a good Japanese dress. He was highly recommended, and his first English words were promising, but he had been cook in the service of a wealthy English official who travelled with a large retinue, and sent servants on ahead to prepare the way. He knew really only a few words of English, and his horror at finding that there was “no master,” and that there would be no woman-servant, was so great, that I hardly know whether he rejected me or I him.

The third, sent by Mr. Wilkinson, wore a plain Japanese dress, and had a frank, intelligent face. Though Dr. Hepburn spoke with him in Japanese, he thought that he knew more English than the others, and that what he knew would come out when he was less agitated. He evidently understood what I said, and, though I had a suspicion that he would turn out to be the “master,” I thought him so prepossessing that I nearly engaged him on the spot. None of the others merit any remark.

However, when I had nearly made up my mind in his favour, a creature appeared without any recommendation at all, except that one of Dr. Hepburn’s servants was acquainted with him. He is only eighteen, but this is equivalent to twenty-three or twenty-four with us, and only 4 feet 10 inches in height, but, though bandy-legged, is well proportioned and strong-looking. He has a round and singularly plain face, good teeth, much elongated eyes, and the heavy droop of his eyelids almost caricatures the usual Japanese peculiarity. He is the most stupid-looking Japanese that I have seen, but, from a rapid, furtive glance in his eyes now and then, I think that the stolidity is partly assumed. He said that he had lived at the American Legation, that he had been a clerk on the Osaka railroad, that he had travelled through northern Japan by the eastern route, and in Yezo with Mr. Maries, a botanical collector, that he understood drying plants, that he could cook a little, that he could write English, that he could walk twenty-five miles a day, and that he thoroughly understood getting through the interior! This would-be paragon had no recommendations, and accounted for this by saying that they had been burned in a recent fire in his father’s house. Mr. Maries was not forthcoming, and more than this, I suspected and disliked the boy. However, he understood my English and I his, and, being very anxious to begin my travels, I engaged him for twelve dollars a month, and soon afterwards he came back with a contract, in which he declares by all that he holds most sacred that he will serve me faithfully for the wages agreed upon, and to this document he affixed his seal and I my name. The next day he asked me for a month’s wages in advance, which I gave him, but Dr. H. consolingly suggested that I should never see him again!

Ever since the solemn night when the contract was signed I have felt under an incubus, and since he appeared here yesterday, punctual to the appointed hour, I have felt as if I had a veritable “old man of the sea” upon my shoulders. He flies up stairs and along the corridors as noiselessly as a cat, and already knows where I keep all my things. Nothing surprises or abashes him, he bows profoundly to Sir Harry and Lady Parkes when he encounters them, but is obviously “quite at home” in a Legation, and only allowed one of the orderlies to show him how to put on a Mexican saddle and English bridle out of condescension to my wishes. He seems as sharp or “smart” as can be, and has already arranged for the first three days of my journey. His name is Ito, and you will doubtless hear much more of him, as he will be my good or evil genius for the next three months.

As no English lady has yet travelled alone through the interior, my project excites a very friendly interest among my friends, and I receive much warning and dissuasion, and a little encouragement. The strongest, because the most intelligent, dissuasion comes from Dr. Hepburn, who thinks that I ought not to undertake the journey, and that I shall never get through to the Tsugaru Strait. If I accepted much of the advice given to me, as to taking tinned meats and soups, claret, and a Japanese maid, I should need a train of at least six pack-horses! As to fleas, there is a lamentable concensus of opinion that they are the curse of Japanese travelling during the summer, and some people recommend me to sleep in a bag drawn tightly round the throat, others to sprinkle my bedding freely with insect powder, others to smear the skin all over with carbolic oil, and some to make a plentiful use of dried and powdered flea-bane. All admit, however, that these are but feeble palliatives. Hammocks unfortunately cannot be used in Japanese houses.

The “Food Question” is said to be the most important one for all travellers, and it is discussed continually with startling earnestness, not alone as regards my tour. However apathetic people are on other subjects, the mere mention of this one rouses them into interest. All have suffered or may suffer, and every one wishes to impart his own experience or to learn from that of others. Foreign ministers, professors, missionaries, merchants — all discuss it with becoming gravity as a question of life and death, which by many it is supposed to be. The fact is that, except at a few hotels in popular resorts which are got up for foreigners, bread, butter, milk, meat, poultry, coffee, wine, and beer, are unattainable, that fresh fish is rare, and that unless one can live on rice, tea, and eggs, with the addition now and then of some tasteless fresh vegetables, food must be taken, as the fishy and vegetable abominations known as “Japanese food” can only be swallowed and digested by a few, and that after long practice.4

Another, but far inferior, difficulty on which much stress is laid is the practice common among native servants of getting a “squeeze” out of every money transaction on the road, so that the cost of travelling is often doubled, and sometimes trebled, according to the skill and capacity of the servant. Three gentlemen who have travelled extensively have given me lists of the prices which I ought to pay, varying in different districts, and largely increased on the beaten track of tourists, and Mr. Wilkinson has read these to Ito, who offered an occasional remonstrance. Mr. W. remarked after the conversation, which was in Japanese, that he thought I should have to “look sharp after money matters”— a painful prospect, as I have never been able to manage anybody in my life, and shall surely have no control over this clever, cunning Japanese youth, who on most points will be able to deceive me as he pleases.

On returning here I found that Lady Parkes had made most of the necessary preparations for me, and that they include two light baskets with covers of oiled paper, a travelling bed or stretcher, a folding-chair, and an india-rubber bath, all which she considers as necessaries for a person in feeble health on a journey of such long duration. This week has been spent in making acquaintances in Tokiyo, seeing some characteristic sights, and in trying to get light on my tour; but little seems known by foreigners of northern Japan, and a Government department, on being applied to, returned an itinerary, leaving out 140 miles of the route that I dream of taking, on the ground of “insufficient information,” on which Sir Harry cheerily remarked, “You will have to get your information as you go along, and that will be all the more interesting.” Ah! but how?

I. L. B.

4 After several months of travelling in some of the roughest parts of the interior, I should advise a person in average health — and none other should travel in Japan — not to encumber himself with tinned meats, soups, claret, or any eatables or drinkables, except Liebig’s extract of meat.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird/isabella/japan/chapter4.html

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