Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 36

Savage Life — A Forest Track — Cleanly Villages — A Hospitable Reception — The Chief’s Mother — The Evening Meal — A Savage Seance — Libations to the Gods — Nocturnal Silence — Aino Courtesy — The Chief’s Wife.

AINO HUT, BIRATORI, August 23.

I am in the lonely Aino land, and I think that the most interesting of my travelling experiences has been the living for three days and two nights in an Aino hut, and seeing and sharing the daily life of complete savages, who go on with their ordinary occupations just as if I were not among them. I found yesterday a most fatiguing and over-exciting day, as everything was new and interesting, even the extracting from men who have few if any ideas in common with me all I could extract concerning their religion and customs, and that through an interpreter. I got up at six this morning to write out my notes, and have been writing for five hours, and there is shortly the prospect of another savage seance. The distractions, as you can imagine, are many. At this moment a savage is taking a cup of sake by the fire in the centre of the floor. He salutes me by extending his hands and waving them towards his face, and then dips a rod in the sake, and makes six libations to the god — an upright piece of wood with a fringe of shavings planted in the floor of the room. Then he waves the cup several times towards himself, makes other libations to the fire, and drinks. Ten other men and women are sitting along each side of the fire-hole, the chief’s wife is cooking, the men are apathetically contemplating the preparation of their food; and the other women, who are never idle, are splitting the bark of which they make their clothes. I occupy the guest seat — a raised platform at one end of the fire, with the skin of a black bear thrown over it.

I have reserved all I have to say about the Ainos till I had been actually among them, and I hope you will have patience to read to the end. Ito is very greedy and self-indulgent, and whimpered very much about coming to Biratori at all — one would have thought he was going to the stake. He actually borrowed for himself a sleeping mat and futons, and has brought a chicken, onions, potatoes, French beans, Japanese sauce, tea, rice, a kettle, a stew-pan, and a rice-pan, while I contented myself with a cold fowl and potatoes.

We took three horses and a mounted Aino guide, and found a beaten track the whole way. It turns into the forest at once on leaving Sarufuto, and goes through forest the entire distance, with an abundance of reedy grass higher than my hat on horseback along it, and, as it is only twelve inches broad and much overgrown, the horses were constantly pushing through leafage soaking from a night’s rain, and I was soon wet up to my shoulders. The forest trees are almost solely the Ailanthus glandulosus and the Zelkowa keaki, often matted together with a white-flowered trailer of the Hydrangea genus. The undergrowth is simply hideous, consisting mainly of coarse reedy grass, monstrous docks, the large-leaved Polygonum cuspidatum, several umbelliferous plants, and a “ragweed” which, like most of its gawky fellows, grows from five to six feet high. The forest is dark and very silent, threaded by this narrow path, and by others as narrow, made by the hunters in search of game. The “main road” sometimes plunges into deep bogs, at others is roughly corduroyed by the roots of trees, and frequently hangs over the edge of abrupt and much-worn declivities, in going up one of which the baggage-horse rolled down a bank fully thirty feet high, and nearly all the tea was lost. At another the guide’s pack-saddle lost its balance, and man, horse, and saddle went over the slope, pots, pans, and packages flying after them. At another time my horse sank up to his chest in a very bad bog, and, as he was totally unable to extricate himself, I was obliged to scramble upon his neck and jump to terra firma over his ears.

There is something very gloomy in the solitude of this silent land, with its beast-haunted forests, its great patches of pasture, the resort of wild animals which haunt the lower regions in search of food when the snow drives them down from the mountains, and its narrow track, indicating the single file in which the savages of the interior walk with their bare, noiseless feet. Reaching the Sarufutogawa, a river with a treacherous bottom, in which Mr. Von Siebold and his horse came to grief, I hailed an Aino boy, who took me up the stream in a “dug-out,” and after that we passed through Biroka, Saruba, and Mina, all purely Aino villages, situated among small patches of millet, tobacco, and pumpkins, so choked with weeds that it was doubtful whether they were crops. I was much surprised with the extreme neatness and cleanliness outside the houses; “model villages” they are in these respects, with no litter lying in sight anywhere, nothing indeed but dog troughs, hollowed out of logs, like “dug-outs,” for the numerous yellow dogs, which are a feature of Aino life. There are neither puddles nor heaps, but the houses, all trim and in good repair, rise clean out of the sandy soil.

Biratori, the largest of the Aino settlements in this region, is very prettily situated among forests and mountains, on rising ground, with a very sinuous river winding at its feet and a wooded height above. A lonelier place could scarcely be found. As we passed among the houses the yellow dogs barked, the women looked shy and smiled, and the men made their graceful salutation. We stopped at the chief’s house, where, of course, we were unexpected guests; but Shinondi, his nephew, and two other men came out, saluted us, and with most hospitable intent helped Ito to unload the horses. Indeed their eager hospitality created quite a commotion, one running hither and the other thither in their anxiety to welcome a stranger. It is a large house, the room being 35 by 25, and the roof 20 feet high; but you enter by an ante-chamber, in which are kept the millet-mill and other articles. There is a doorway in this, but the inside is pretty dark, and Shinondi, taking my hand, raised the reed curtain bound with hide, which concealed the entrance into the actual house, and, leading me into it, retired a footstep, extended his arms, waved his arms inwards three times, and then stroked his beard several times, after which he indicated by a sweep of his hand and a beautiful smile that the house and all it contained were mine. An aged woman, the chief’s mother, who was splitting bark by the fire, waved her hands also. She is the queen-regnant of the house.

Again taking my hand, Shinondi led me to the place of honour at the head of the fire — a rude, movable platform six feet long by four broad, and a foot high, on which he laid an ornamental mat, apologising for not having at that moment a bearskin wherewith to cover it. The baggage was speedily brought in by several willing pairs of hands; some reed mats fifteen feet long were laid down upon the very coarse ones which covered the whole floor, and when they saw Ito putting up my stretcher they hung a fine mat along the rough wall to conceal it, and suspended another on the beams of the roof for a canopy. The alacrity and instinctive hospitality with which these men rushed about to make things comfortable were very fascinating, though comfort is a word misapplied in an Aino hut. The women only did what the men told them.

They offered food at once, but I told them that I had brought my own, and would only ask leave to cook it on their fire. I need not have brought any cups, for they have many lacquer bowls, and Shinondi brought me on a lacquer tray a bowl full of water from one of their four wells. They said that Benri, the chief, would wish me to make his house my own for as long as I cared to stay, and I must excuse them in all things in which their ways were different from my own. Shinondi and four others in the village speak tolerable Japanese, and this of course is the medium of communication. Ito has exerted himself nobly as an interpreter, and has entered into my wishes with a cordiality and intelligence which have been perfectly invaluable; and, though he did growl at Mr. Von Siebold’s injunctions regarding politeness, he has carried them out to my satisfaction, and even admits that the mountain Ainos are better than he expected; “but,” he added “they have learned their politeness from the Japanese!” They have never seen a foreign woman, and only three foreign men, but there is neither crowding nor staring as among the Japanese, possibly in part from apathy and want of intelligence. For three days they have kept up their graceful and kindly hospitality, going on with their ordinary life and occupations, and, though I have lived among them in this room by day and night, there has been nothing which in any way could offend the most fastidious sense of delicacy.

They said they would leave me to eat and rest, and all retired but the chief’s mother, a weird, witch-like woman of eighty, with shocks of yellow-white hair, and a stern suspiciousness in her wrinkled face. I have come to feel as if she had the evil eye, as she sits there watching, watching always, and for ever knotting the bark thread like one of the Fates, keeping a jealous watch on her son’s two wives, and on other young women who come in to weave — neither the dulness nor the repose of old age about her; and her eyes gleam with a greedy light when she sees sake, of which she drains a bowl without taking breath. She alone is suspicious of strangers, and she thinks that my visit bodes no good to her tribe. I see her eyes fixed upon me now, and they make me shudder.

I had a good meal seated in my chair on the top of the guest-seat to avoid the fleas, which are truly legion. At dusk Shinondi returned, and soon people began to drop in, till eighteen were assembled, including the sub-chief and several very grand-looking old men, with full, grey, wavy beards. Age is held in much reverence, and it is etiquette for these old men to do honour to a guest in the chief’s absence. As each entered he saluted me several times, and after sitting down turned towards me and saluted again, going through the same ceremony with every other person. They said they had come “to bid me welcome.” They took their places in rigid order at each side of the fireplace, which is six feet long, Benri’s mother in the place of honour at the right, then Shinondi, then the sub-chief, and on the other side the old men. Besides these, seven women sat in a row in the background splitting bark. A large iron pan hung over the fire from a blackened arrangement above, and Benri’s principal wife cut wild roots, green beans, and seaweed, and shred dried fish and venison among them, adding millet, water, and some strong-smelling fish-oil, and set the whole on to stew for three hours, stirring the “mess” now and then with a wooden spoon.

Several of the older people smoke, and I handed round some mild tobacco, which they received with waving hands. I told them that I came from a land in the sea, very far away, where they saw the sun go down — so very far away that a horse would have to gallop day and night for five weeks to reach it — and that I had come a long journey to see them, and that I wanted to ask them many questions, so that when I went home I might tell my own people something about them. Shinondi and another man, who understood Japanese, bowed, and (as on every occasion) translated what I said into Aino for the venerable group opposite. Shinondi then said “that he and Shinrichi, the other Japanese speaker, would tell me all they knew, but they were but young men, and only knew what was told to them. They would speak what they believed to be true, but the chief knew more than they, and when he came back he might tell me differently, and then I should think that they had spoken lies.” I said that no one who looked into their faces could think that they ever told lies. They were very much pleased, and waved their hands and stroked their beards repeatedly. Before they told me anything they begged and prayed that I would not inform the Japanese Government that they had told me of their customs, or harm might come to them!

For the next two hours, and for two more after supper, I asked them questions concerning their religion and customs, and again yesterday for a considerable time, and this morning, after Benri’s return, I went over the same subjects with him, and have also employed a considerable time in getting about 300 words from them, which I have spelt phonetically of course, and intend to go over again when I visit the coast Ainos. 19

The process was slow, as both question and answer had to pass through three languages. There was a very manifest desire to tell the truth, and I think that their statements concerning their few and simple customs may be relied upon. I shall give what they told me separately when I have time to write out my notes in an orderly manner. I can only say that I have seldom spent a more interesting evening.

About nine the stew was ready, and the women ladled it into lacquer bowls with wooden spoons. The men were served first, but all ate together. Afterwards sake, their curse, was poured into lacquer bowls, and across each bowl a finely-carved “sake-stick” was laid. These sticks are very highly prized. The bowls were waved several times with an inward motion, then each man took his stick and, dipping it into the sake, made six libations to the fire and several to the “god”— a wooden post, with a quantity of spiral white shavings falling from near the top. The Ainos are not affected by sake nearly so easily as the Japanese. They took it cold, it is true, but each drank about three times as much as would have made a Japanese foolish, and it had no effect upon them. After two hours more talk one after another got up and went out, making profuse salutations to me and to the others. My candles had been forgotten, and our seance was held by the fitful light of the big logs on the fire, aided by a succession of chips of birch bark, with which a woman replenished a cleft stick that was stuck into the fire-hole. I never saw such a strangely picturesque sight as that group of magnificent savages with the fitful firelight on their faces, and for adjuncts the flare of the torch, the strong lights, the blackness of the recesses of the room and of the roof, at one end of which the stars looked in, and the row of savage women in the background — eastern savagery and western civilisation met in this hut, savagery giving and civilisation receiving, the yellow-skinned Ito the connecting-link between the two, and the representative of a civilisation to which our own is but an “infant of days.”

I found it very exciting, and when all had left crept out into the starlight. The lodges were all dark and silent, and the dogs, mild like their masters, took no notice of me. The only sound was the rustle of a light breeze through the surrounding forest. The verse came into my mind, “It is not the will of your Father which is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” Surely these simple savages are children, as children to be judged; may we not hope as children to be saved through Him who came “not to judge the world, but to save the world”?

I crept back again and into my mosquito net, and suffered not from fleas or mosquitoes, but from severe cold. Shinondi conversed with Ito for some time in a low musical voice, having previously asked if it would keep me from sleeping. No Japanese ever intermitted his ceaseless chatter at any hour of the night for a similar reason. Later, the chief’s principal wife, Noma, stuck a triply-cleft stick in the fire-hole, put a potsherd with a wick and some fish-oil upon it, and by the dim light of this rude lamp sewed until midnight at a garment of bark cloth which she was ornamenting for her lord with strips of blue cloth, and when I opened my eyes the next morning she was at the window sewing by the earliest daylight. She is the most intelligent-looking of all the women, but looks sad and almost stern, and speaks seldom. Although she is the principal wife of the chief she is not happy, for she is childless, and I thought that her sad look darkened into something evil as the other wife caressed a fine baby boy. Benri seems to me something of a brute, and the mother-inlaw obviously holds the reins of government pretty tight. After sewing till midnight she swept the mats with a bunch of twigs, and then crept into her bed behind a hanging mat. For a moment in the stillness I felt a feeling of panic, as if I were incurring a risk by being alone among savages, but I conquered it, and, after watching the fire till it went out, fell asleep till I was awoke by the severe cold of the next day’s dawn.

19 I went over them with the Ainos of a remote village on Volcano Bay, and found the differences in pronunciation very slight, except that the definiteness of the sound which I have represented by Tsch was more strongly marked. I afterwards went over them with Mr. Dening, and with Mr. Von Siebold at Tokiyo, who have made a larger collection of words than I have, and it is satisfactory to find that we have represented the words in the main by the same letters, with the single exception that usually the sound represented by them by the letters ch I have given as Tsch, and I venture to think that is the most correct rendering.

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