Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 38

A Parting Gift — A Delicacy — Generosity — A Seaside Village — Pipichari’s Advice — A Drunken Revel — Ito’s Prophecies — The Kocho’s Illness — Patent Medicines.

SARUFUTO, YEZO, August 27.

I left the Ainos yesterday with real regret, though I must confess that sleeping in one’s clothes and the lack of ablutions are very fatiguing. Benri’s two wives spent the early morning in the laborious operation of grinding millet into coarse flour, and before I departed, as their custom is, they made a paste of it, rolled it with their unclean fingers into well-shaped cakes, boiled them in the unwashed pot in which they make their stew of “abominable things,” and presented them to me on a lacquer tray. They were distressed that I did not eat their food, and a woman went to a village at some distance and brought me some venison fat as a delicacy. All those of whom I had seen much came to wish me good-bye, and they brought so many presents (including a fine bearskin) that I should have needed an additional horse to carry them had I accepted but one-half.

I rode twelve miles through the forest to Mombets, where I intended to spend Sunday, but I had the worst horse I ever rode, and we took five hours. The day was dull and sad, threatening a storm, and when we got out of the forest, upon a sand-hill covered with oak scrub, we encountered a most furious wind. Among the many views which I have seen, that is one to be remembered. Below lay a bleached and bare sand-hill, with a few grey houses huddled in its miserable shelter, and a heaped-up shore of grey sand, on which a brown-grey sea was breaking with clash and boom in long, white, ragged lines, with all beyond a confusion of surf, surge, and mist, with driving brown clouds mingling sea and sky, and all between showing only in glimpses amidst scuds of sand.

At a house in the scrub a number of men were drinking sake with much uproar, and a superb-looking Aino came out, staggered a few yards, and then fell backwards among the weeds, a picture of debasement. I forgot to tell you that before I left Biratori, I inveighed to the assembled Ainos against the practice and consequences of sake-drinking, and was met with the reply, “We must drink to the gods, or we shall die;” but Pipichari said, “You say that which is good; let us give sake to the gods, but not drink it,” for which bold speech he was severely rebuked by Benri.

Mombets is a stormily-situated and most wretched cluster of twenty-seven decayed houses, some of them Aino, and some Japanese. The fish-oil and seaweed fishing trades are in brisk operation there now for a short time, and a number of Aino and Japanese strangers are employed. The boats could not get out because of the surf, and there was a drunken debauch. The whole place smelt of sake. Tipsy men were staggering about and falling flat on their backs, to lie there like dogs till they were sober — Aino women were vainly endeavouring to drag their drunken lords home, and men of both races were reduced to a beastly equality. I went to the yadoya where I intended to spend Sunday, but, besides being very dirty and forlorn, it was the very centre of the sake traffic, and in its open space there were men in all stages of riotous and stupid intoxication. It was a sad scene, yet one to be matched in a hundred places in Scotland every Saturday afternoon. I am told by the Kocho here that an Aino can drink four or five times as much as a Japanese without being tipsy, so for each tipsy Aino there had been an outlay of 6s. or 7s., for sake is 8d. a cup here!

I had some tea and eggs in the daidokoro, and altered my plans altogether on finding that if I proceeded farther round the east coast, as I intended, I should run the risk of several days’ detention on the banks of numerous “bad rivers” if rain came on, by which I should run the risk of breaking my promise to deliver Ito to Mr. Maries by a given day. I do not surrender this project, however, without an equivalent, for I intend to add 100 miles to my journey, by taking an almost disused track round Volcano Bay, and visiting the coast Ainos of a very primitive region. Ito is very much opposed to this, thinking that he has made a sufficient sacrifice of personal comfort at Biratori, and plies me with stories, such as that there are “many bad rivers to cross,” that the track is so worn as to be impassable, that there are no yadoyas, and that at the Government offices we shall neither get rice nor eggs! An old man who has turned back unable to get horses is made responsible for these stories. The machinations are very amusing. Ito was much smitten with the daughter of the house-master at Mororan, and left some things in her keeping, and the desire to see her again is at the bottom of his opposition to the other route.

Monday. — The horse could not or would not carry me farther than Mombets, so, sending the baggage on, I walked through the oak wood, and enjoyed its silent solitude, in spite of the sad reflections upon the enslavement of the Ainos to sake. I spent yesterday quietly in my old quarters, with a fearful storm of wind and rain outside. Pipichari appeared at noon, nominally to bring news of the sick woman, who is recovering, and to have his nearly healed foot bandaged again, but really to bring me a knife sheath which he has carved for me. He lay on the mat in the corner of my room most of the afternoon, and I got a great many more words from him. The house-master, who is the Kocho of Sarufuto, paid me a courteous visit, and in the evening sent to say that he would be very glad of some medicine, for he was “very ill and going to have fever.” He had caught a bad cold and sore throat, had bad pains in his limbs, and was bemoaning himself ruefully. To pacify his wife, who was very sorry for him, I gave him some “Cockle’s Pills” and the trapper’s remedy of “a pint of hot water with a pinch of cayenne pepper,” and left him moaning and bundled up under a pile of futons, in a nearly hermetically sealed room, with a hibachi of charcoal vitiating the air. This morning when I went and inquired after him in a properly concerned tone, his wife told me very gleefully that he was quite well and had gone out, and had left 25 sen for some more of the medicines that I had given him, so with great gravity I put up some of Duncan and Flockhart’s most pungent cayenne pepper, and showed her how much to use. She was not content, however, without some of the “Cockles,” a single box of which has performed six of those “miraculous cures” which rejoice the hearts and fill the pockets of patent medicine makers!

I. L. B.

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