Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 33

Form and Colour — A Windy Capital — Eccentricities in House Roofs.

HAKODATE, YEZO, August 13, 1878

After a tremendous bluster for two days the weather has become beautifully fine, and I find the climate here more invigorating than that of the main island. It is Japan, but yet there is a difference somehow. When the mists lift they reveal not mountains smothered in greenery, but naked peaks, volcanoes only recently burnt out, with the red ash flaming under the noonday sun, and passing through shades of pink into violet at sundown. Strips of sand border the bay, ranges of hills, with here and there a patch of pine or scrub, fade into the far-off blue, and the great cloud shadows lie upon their scored sides in indigo and purple. Blue as the Adriatic are the waters of the land-locked bay, and the snowy sails of pale junks look whiter than snow against its intense azure. The abruptness of the double peaks behind the town is softened by a belt of cryptomeria, the sandy strip which connects the headland with the mainland heightens the general resemblance of the contour of the ground to Gibraltar; but while one dreams of the western world a kuruma passes one at a trot, temple drums are beaten in a manner which does not recall “the roll of the British drum,” a Buddhist funeral passes down the street, or a man-cart pulled and pushed by four yellow-skinned, little-clothed mannikins, creaks by, with the monotonous grunt of Ha huida.

A single look at Hakodate itself makes one feel that it is Japan all over. The streets are very wide and clean, but the houses are mean and low. The city looks as if it had just recovered from a conflagration. The houses are nothing but tinder. The grand tile roofs of some other cities are not to be seen. There is not an element of permanence in the wide, and windy streets. It is an increasing and busy place; it lies for two miles along the shore, and has climbed the hill till it can go no higher; but still houses and people look poor. It has a skeleton aspect too, which is partially due to the number of permanent “clothes-horses” on the roofs. Stones, however, are its prominent feature. Looking down upon it from above you see miles of grey boulders, and realise that every roof in the windy capital is “hodden doun” by a weight of paving stones. Nor is this all. Some of the flatter roofs are pebbled all over like a courtyard, and others, such as the roof of this house, for instance, are covered with sod and crops of grass, the two latter arrangements being precautions against risks from sparks during fires. These paving stones are certainly the cheapest possible mode of keeping the roofs on the houses in such a windy region, but they look odd.

None of the streets, except one high up the hill, with a row of fine temples and temple grounds, call for any notice. Nearly every house is a shop; most of the shops supply only the ordinary articles consumed by a large and poor population; either real or imitated foreign goods abound in Main Street, and the only novelties are the furs, skins, and horns, which abound in shops devoted to their sale. I covet the great bear furs and the deep cream-coloured furs of Aino dogs, which are cheap as well as handsome. There are many second-hand, or, as they are called, “curio” shops, and the cheap lacquer from Aomori is also tempting to a stranger.

I. L. B.

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