Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 36 —(Continued)

A Supposed Act of Worship — Parental Tenderness — Morning Visits — Wretched Cultivation — Honesty and Generosity — A “Dug-out”— Female Occupations — The Ancient Fate — A New Arrival — A Perilous Prescription — The Shrine of Yoshitsune — The Chief’s Return.

When I crept from under my net much benumbed with cold, there were about eleven people in the room, who all made their graceful salutation. It did not seem as if they had ever heard of washing, for, when water was asked for, Shinondi brought a little in a lacquer bowl, and held it while I bathed my face and hands, supposing the performance to be an act of worship! I was about to throw some cold tea out of the window by my bed when he arrested me with an anxious face, and I saw, what I had not observed before, that there was a god at that window — a stick with festoons of shavings hanging from it, and beside it a dead bird. The Ainos have two meals a day, and their breakfast was a repetition of the previous night’s supper. We all ate together, and I gave the children the remains of my rice, and it was most amusing to see little creatures of three, four, and five years old, with no other clothing than a piece of pewter hanging round their necks, first formally asking leave of the parents before taking the rice, and then waving their hands. The obedience of the children is instantaneous. Their parents are more demonstrative in their affection than the Japanese are, caressing them a good deal, and two of the men are devoted to children who are not their own. These little ones are as grave and dignified as Japanese children, and are very gentle.

I went out soon after five, when the dew was glittering in the sunshine, and the mountain hollow in which Biratori stands was looking its very best, and the silence of the place, even though the people were all astir, was as impressive as that of the night before. What a strange life! knowing nothing, hoping nothing, fearing a little, the need for clothes and food the one motive principle, sake in abundance the one good! How very few points of contact it is possible to have! I was just thinking so when Shinondi met me, and took me to his house to see if I could do anything for a child sorely afflicted with skin disease, and his extreme tenderness for this very loathsome object made me feel that human affections were the same among them as with us. He had carried it on his back from a village, five miles distant, that morning, in the hope that it might be cured. As soon as I entered he laid a fine mat on the floor, and covered the guest-seat with a bearskin. After breakfast he took me to the lodge of the sub-chief, the largest in the village, 45 feet square, and into about twenty others all constructed in the same way, but some of them were not more than 20 feet square. In all I was received with the same courtesy, but a few of the people asked Shinondi not to take me into their houses, as they did not want me to see how poor they are. In every house there was the low shelf with more or fewer curios upon it, but, besides these, none but the barest necessaries of life, though the skins which they sell or barter every year would enable them to surround themselves with comforts, were it not that their gains represent to them sake, and nothing else. They are not nomads. On the contrary, they cling tenaciously to the sites on which their fathers have lived and died. But anything more deplorable than the attempts at cultivation which surround their lodges could not be seen. The soil is little better than white sand, on which without manure they attempt to grow millet, which is to them in the place of rice, pumpkins, onions, and tobacco; but the look of their plots is as if they had been cultivated ten years ago, and some chance-sown grain and vegetables had come up among the weeds. When nothing more will grow, they partially clear another bit of forest, and exhaust that in its turn.

In every house the same honour was paid to a guest. This seems a savage virtue which is not strong enough to survive much contact with civilisation. Before I entered one lodge the woman brought several of the finer mats, and arranged them as a pathway for me to walk to the fire upon. They will not accept anything for lodging, or for anything that they give, so I was anxious to help them by buying some of their handiwork, but found even this a difficult matter. They were very anxious to give, but when I desired to buy they said they did not wish to part with their things. I wanted what they had in actual use, such as a tobacco-box and pipe-sheath, and knives with carved handles and scabbards, and for three of these I offered 2.5 dollars. They said they did not care to sell them, but in the evening they came saying they were not worth more than 1 dollar 10 cents, and they would sell them for that; and I could not get them to take more. They said it was “not their custom.” I bought a bow and three poisoned arrows, two reed-mats, with a diamond pattern on them in reeds stained red, some knives with sheaths, and a bark cloth dress. I tried to buy the sake-sticks with which they make libations to their gods, but they said it was “not their custom” to part with the sake-stick of any living man; however, this morning Shinondi has brought me, as a very valuable present, the stick of a dead man! This morning the man who sold the arrows brought two new ones, to replace two which were imperfect. I found them, as Mr. Von Siebold had done, punctiliously honest in all their transactions. They wear very large earrings with hoops an inch and a half in diameter, a pair constituting the dowry of an Aino bride; but they would not part with these.

A house was burned down two nights ago, and “custom” in such a case requires that all the men should work at rebuilding it, so in their absence I got two boys to take me in a “dug-out” as far as we could go up the Sarufutogawa — a lovely river, which winds tortuously through the forests and mountains in unspeakable loveliness. I had much of the feeling of the ancient mariner —

“We were the first Who ever burst Into that silent sea.”

For certainly no European had ever previously floated on the dark and forest-shrouded waters. I enjoyed those hours thoroughly, for the silence was profound, and the faint blue of the autumn sky, and the soft blue veil which “spiritualised” the distances, were so exquisitely like the Indian summer.

The evening was spent like the previous one, but the hearts of the savages were sad, for there was no more sake in Biratori, so they could not “drink to the god,” and the fire and the post with the shavings had to go without libations. There was no more oil, so after the strangers retired the hut was in complete darkness.

Yesterday morning we all breakfasted soon after daylight, and the able-bodied men went away to hunt. Hunting and fishing are their occupations, and for “indoor recreation” they carve tobacco-boxes, knife-sheaths, sake-sticks, and shuttles. It is quite unnecessary for them to do anything; they are quite contented to sit by the fire, and smoke occasionally, and eat and sleep, this apathy being varied by spasms of activity when there is no more dried flesh in the kuras, and when skins must be taken to Sarufuto to pay for sake. The women seem never to have an idle moment. They rise early to sew, weave, and split bark, for they not only clothe themselves and their husbands in this nearly indestructible cloth, but weave it for barter, and the lower class of Japanese are constantly to be seen wearing the product of Aino industry. They do all the hard work, such as drawing water, chopping wood, grinding millet, and cultivating the soil, after their fashion; but, to do the men justice, I often see them trudging along carrying one and even two children. The women take the exclusive charge of the kuras, which are never entered by men.

I was left for some hours alone with the women, of whom there were seven in the hut, with a few children. On the one side of the fire the chief’s mother sat like a Fate, for ever splitting and knotting bark, and petrifying me by her cold, fateful eyes. Her thick, grey hair hangs in shocks, the tattooing round her mouth has nearly faded, and no longer disguises her really handsome features. She is dressed in a much ornamented bark-cloth dress, and wears two silver beads tied round her neck by a piece of blue cotton, in addition to very large earrings. She has much sway in the house, sitting on the men’s side of the fire, drinking plenty of sake, and occasionally chiding her grandson Shinondi for telling me too much, saying that it will bring harm to her people. Though her expression is so severe and forbidding, she is certainly very handsome, and it is a European, not an Asiatic, beauty.

The younger women were all at work; two were seated on the floor weaving without a loom, and the others were making and mending the bark coats which are worn by both sexes. Noma, the chief’s principal wife, sat apart, seldom speaking. Two of the youngest women are very pretty — as fair as ourselves, and their comeliness is of the rosy, peasant kind. It turns out that two of them, though they would not divulge it before men, speak Japanese, and they prattled to Ito with great vivacity and merriment, the ancient Fate scowling at them the while from under her shaggy eyebrows. I got a number of words from them, and they laughed heartily at my erroneous pronunciation. They even asked me a number of questions regarding their own sex among ourselves, but few of these would bear repetition, and they answered a number of mine. As the merriment increased the old woman looked increasingly angry and restless, and at last rated them sharply, as I have heard since, telling them that if they spoke another word she should tell their husbands that they had been talking to strangers. After this not another word was spoken, and Noma, who is an industrious housewife, boiled some millet into a mash for a mid-day lunch. During the afternoon a very handsome young Aino, with a washed, richly-coloured skin and fine clear eyes, came up from the coast, where he had been working at the fishing. He saluted the old woman and Benri’s wife on entering, and presented the former with a gourd of sake, bringing a greedy light into her eyes as she took a long draught, after which, saluting me, he threw himself down in the place of honour by the fire, with the easy grace of a staghound, a savage all over. His name is Pipichari, and he is the chief’s adopted son. He had cut his foot badly with a root, and asked me to cure it, and I stipulated that it should be bathed for some time in warm water before anything more was done, after which I bandaged it with lint. He said “he did not like me to touch his foot, it was not clean enough, my hands were too white,” etc.; but when I had dressed it, and the pain was much relieved, he bowed very low and then kissed my hand! He was the only one among them all who showed the slightest curiosity regarding my things. He looked at my scissors, touched my boots, and watched me, as I wrote, with the simple curiosity of a child. He could speak a little Japanese, but he said he was “too young to tell me anything, the older men would know.” He is a “total abstainer” from sake, and he says that there are four such besides himself among the large number of Ainos who are just now at the fishing at Mombets, and that the others keep separate from them, because they think that the gods will be angry with them for not drinking.

Several “patients,” mostly children, were brought in during the afternoon. Ito was much disgusted by my interest in these people, who, he repeated, “are just dogs,” referring to their legendary origin, of which they are not ashamed. His assertion that they have learned politeness from the Japanese is simply baseless. Their politeness, though of quite another and more manly stamp, is savage, not civilised. The men came back at dark, the meal was prepared, and we sat round the fire as before; but there was no sake, except in the possession of the old woman; and again the hearts of the savages were sad. I could multiply instances of their politeness. As we were talking, Pipichari, who is a very “untutored” savage, dropped his coat from one shoulder, and at once Shinondi signed to him to put it on again. Again, a woman was sent to a distant village for some oil as soon as they heard that I usually burned a light all night. Little acts of courtesy were constantly being performed; but I really appreciated nothing more than the quiet way in which they went on with the routine of their ordinary lives.

During the evening a man came to ask if I would go and see a woman who could hardly breathe; and I found her very ill of bronchitis, accompanied with much fever. She was lying in a coat of skins, tossing on the hard boards of her bed, with a matting-covered roll under her head, and her husband was trying to make her swallow some salt-fish. I took her dry, hot hand — such a small hand, tattooed all over the back — and it gave me a strange thrill. The room was full of people, and they all seemed very sorry. A medical missionary would be of little use here; but a medically-trained nurse, who would give medicines and proper food, with proper nursing, would save many lives and much suffering. It is of no use to tell these people to do anything which requires to be done more than once: they are just like children. I gave her some chlorodyne, which she swallowed with difficulty, and left another dose ready mixed, to give her in a few hours; but about midnight they came to tell me that she was worse; and on going I found her very cold and weak, and breathing very hard, moving her head wearily from side to side. I thought she could not live for many hours, and was much afraid that they would think that I had killed her. I told them that I thought she would die; but they urged me to do something more for her, and as a last hope I gave her some brandy, with twenty-five drops of chlorodyne, and a few spoonfuls of very strong beef-tea. She was unable, or more probably unwilling, to make the effort to swallow it, and I poured it down her throat by the wild glare of strips of birch bark. An hour later they came back to tell me that she felt as if she were very drunk; but, going back to her house, I found that she was sleeping quietly, and breathing more easily; and, creeping back just at dawn, I found her still sleeping, and with her pulse stronger and calmer. She is now decidedly better and quite sensible, and her husband, the sub-chief, is much delighted. It seems so sad that they have nothing fit for a sick person’s food; and though I have made a bowl of beef-tea with the remains of my stock, it can only last one day.

I was so tired with these nocturnal expeditions and anxieties that on lying down I fell asleep, and on waking found more than the usual assemblage in the room, and the men were obviously agog about something. They have a singular, and I hope an unreasonable, fear of the Japanese Government. Mr. Von Siebold thinks that the officials threaten and knock them about; and this is possible; but I really think that the Kaitaikushi Department means well by them, and, besides removing the oppressive restrictions by which, as a conquered race, they were fettered, treats them far more humanely and equitably than the U.S. Government, for instance, treats the North American Indians. However, they are ignorant; and one of the men, who had been most grateful because I said I would get Dr. Hepburn to send some medicine for his child, came this morning and begged me not to do so, as, he said, “the Japanese Government would be angry.” After this they again prayed me not to tell the Japanese Government that they had told me their customs and then they began to talk earnestly together.

The sub-chief then spoke, and said that I had been kind to their sick people, and they would like to show me their temple, which had never been seen by any foreigner; but they were very much afraid of doing so, and they asked me many times “not to tell the Japanese Government that they showed it to me, lest some great harm should happen to them.” The sub-chief put on a sleeveless Japanese war-cloak to go up, and he, Shinondi, Pipichari, and two others accompanied me. It was a beautiful but very steep walk, or rather climb, to the top of an abrupt acclivity beyond the village, on which the temple or shrine stands. It would be impossible to get up were it not for the remains of a wooden staircase, not of Aino construction. Forest and mountain surround Biratori, and the only breaks in the dense greenery are glints of the shining waters of the Sarufutogawa, and the tawny roofs of the Aino lodges. It is a lonely and a silent land, fitter for the HIDING place than the DWELLING place of men.

When the splendid young savage, Pipichari, saw that I found it difficult to get up, he took my hand and helped me up, as gently as an English gentleman would have done; and when he saw that I had greater difficulty in getting down, he all but insisted on my riding down on his back, and certainly would have carried me had not Benri, the chief, who arrived while we were at the shrine, made an end of it by taking my hand and helping me down himself. Their instinct of helpfulness to a foreign woman strikes me as so odd, because they never show any courtesy to their own women, whom they treat (though to a less extent than is usual among savages) as inferior beings.

On the very edge of the cliff, at the top of the zigzag, stands a wooden temple or shrine, such as one sees in any grove, or on any high place on the main island, obviously of Japanese construction, but concerning which Aino tradition is silent. No European had ever stood where I stood, and there was a solemnity in the knowledge. The sub-chief drew back the sliding doors, and all bowed with much reverence, It was a simple shrine of unlacquered wood, with a broad shelf at the back, on which there was a small shrine containing a figure of the historical hero Yoshitsune, in a suit of inlaid brass armour, some metal gohei, a pair of tarnished brass candle-sticks, and a coloured Chinese picture representing a junk. Here, then, I was introduced to the great god of the mountain Ainos. There is something very pathetic in these people keeping alive the memory of Yoshitsune, not on account of his martial exploits, but simply because their tradition tells them that he was kind to them. They pulled the bell three times to attract his attention, bowed three times, and made six libations of sake, without which ceremony he cannot be approached. They asked me to worship their god, but when I declined on the ground that I could only worship my own God, the Lord of Earth and Heaven, of the dead and of the living, they were too courteous to press their request. As to Ito, it did not signify to him whether or not he added another god to his already crowded Pantheon, and he “worshipped,” i.e. bowed down, most willingly before the great hero of his own, the conquering race.

While we were crowded there on the narrow ledge of the cliff, Benri, the chief, arrived — a square-built, broad-shouldered, elderly man, strong as an ox, and very handsome, but his expression is not pleasing, and his eyes are bloodshot with drinking. The others saluted him very respectfully, but I noticed then and since that his manner is very arbitrary, and that a blow not infrequently follows a word. He had sent a message to his people by Ito that they were not to answer any questions till he returned, but Ito very tactfully neither gave it nor told me of it, and he was displeased with the young men for having talked to me so much. His mother had evidently “peached.” I like him less than any of his tribe. He has some fine qualities, truthfulness among others, but he has been contaminated by the four or five foreigners that he has seen, and is a brute and a sot. The hearts of his people are no longer sad, for there is sake in every house to-night.

I. L. B.

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