Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 39

A Welcome Gift — Recent Changes — Volcanic Phenomena — Interesting Tufa Cones — Semi-strangulation — A Fall into a Bear-trap — The Shiraoi Ainos — Horsebreaking and Cruelty.

OLD MORORAN, VOLCANO BAY, YEZO, September 2.

After the storm of Sunday, Monday was a grey, still, tender day, and the ranges of wooded hills were bathed in the richest indigo colouring. A canter of seventeen miles among the damask roses on a very rough horse only took me to Yubets, whose indescribable loneliness fascinated me into spending a night there again, and encountering a wild clatter of wind and rain; and another canter of seven miles the next morning took me to Tomakomai, where I rejoined my kuruma, and after a long delay, three trotting Ainos took me to Shiraoi, where the “clear shining after rain,” and the mountains against a lemon-coloured sky, were extremely beautiful; but the Pacific was as unrestful as a guilty thing, and its crash and clamour and the severe cold fatigued me so much that I did not pursue my journey the next day, and had the pleasure of a flying visit from Mr. Von Siebold and Count Diesbach, who bestowed a chicken upon me.

I like Shiraoi very much, and if I were stronger would certainly make it a basis for exploring a part of the interior, in which there is much to reward the explorer. Obviously the changes in this part of Yezo have been comparatively recent, and the energy of the force which has produced them is not yet extinct. The land has gained from the sea along the whole of this part of the coast to the extent of two or three miles, the old beach with its bays and headlands being a marked feature of the landscape. This new formation appears to be a vast bed of pumice, covered by a thin layer of vegetable mould, which cannot be more than fifty years old. This pumice fell during the eruption of the volcano of Tarumai, which is very near Shiraoi, and is also brought down in large quantities from the interior hills and valleys by the numerous rivers, besides being washed up by the sea. At the last eruption pumice fell over this region of Yezo to a medium depth of 3 feet 6 inches. In nearly all the rivers good sections of the formation may be seen in their deeply-cleft banks, broad, light-coloured bands of pumice, with a few inches of rich, black, vegetable soil above, and several feet of black sea-sand below. During a freshet which occurred the first night I was at Shiraoi, a single stream covered a piece of land with pumice to the depth of nine inches, being the wash from the hills of the interior, in a course of less than fifteen miles.

Looking inland, the volcano of Tarumai, with a bare grey top and a blasted forest on its sides, occupies the right of the picture. To the left and inland are mountains within mountains, tumbled together in most picturesque confusion, densely covered with forest and cleft by magnificent ravines, here and there opening out into narrow valleys. The whole of the interior is jungle penetrable for a few miles by shallow and rapid rivers, and by nearly smothered trails made by the Ainos in search of game. The general lie of the country made me very anxious to find out whether a much-broken ridge lying among the mountains is or is not a series of tufa cones of ancient date; and, applying for a good horse and Aino guide on horseback, I left Ito to amuse himself, and spent much of a most splendid day in investigations and in attempting to get round the back of the volcano and up its inland side. There is a great deal to see and learn there. Oh that I had strength! After hours of most tedious and exhausting work I reached a point where there were several great fissures emitting smoke and steam, with occasional subterranean detonations. These were on the side of a small, flank crack which was smoking heavily. There was light pumice everywhere, but nothing like recent lava or scoriae. One fissure was completely lined with exquisite, acicular crystals of sulphur, which perished with a touch. Lower down there were two hot springs with a deposit of sulphur round their margins, and bubbles of gas, which, from its strong, garlicky smell, I suppose to be sulphuretted hydrogen. Farther progress in that direction was impossible without a force of pioneers. I put my arm down several deep crevices which were at an altitude of only about 500 feet, and had to withdraw it at once, owing to the great heat, in which some beautiful specimens of tropical ferns were growing. At the same height I came to a hot spring — hot enough to burst one of my thermometers, which was graduated above the boiling point of Fahrenheit; and tying up an egg in a pocket-handkerchief and holding it by a stick in the water, it was hard boiled in 8.5 minutes. The water evaporated without leaving a trace of deposit on the handkerchief, and there was no crust round its margin. It boiled and bubbled with great force.

Three hours more of exhausting toil, which almost knocked up the horses, brought us to the apparent ridge, and I was delighted to find that it consisted of a lateral range of tufa cones, which I estimate as being from 200 to 350, or even 400 feet high. They are densely covered with trees of considerable age, and a rich deposit of mould; but their conical form is still admirably defined. An hour of very severe work, and energetic use of the knife on the part of the Aino, took me to the top of one of these through a mass of entangled and gigantic vegetation, and I was amply repaid by finding a deep, well-defined crateriform cavity of great depth, with its sides richly clothed with vegetation, closely resembling some of the old cones in the island of Kauai. This cone is partially girdled by a stream, which in one place has cut through a bank of both red and black volcanic ash. All the usual phenomena of volcanic regions are probably to be met with north of Shiraoi, and I hope they will at some future time be made the object of careful investigation.

In spite of the desperate and almost overwhelming fatigue, I have enjoyed few things more than that “exploring expedition.” If the Japanese have no one to talk to they croon hideous discords to themselves, and it was a relief to leave Ito behind and get away with an Aino, who was at once silent, trustworthy, and faithful. Two bright rivers bubbling over beds of red pebbles run down to Shiraoi out of the back country, and my directions, which were translated to the Aino, were to follow up one of these and go into the mountains in the direction of one I pointed out till I said “Shiraoi.” It was one of those exquisite mornings which are seen sometimes in the Scotch Highlands before rain, with intense clearness and visibility, a blue atmosphere, a cloudless sky, blue summits, heavy dew, and glorious sunshine, and under these circumstances scenery beautiful in itself became entrancing.

The trailers are so formidable that we had to stoop over our horses’ necks at all times, and with pushing back branches and guarding my face from slaps and scratches, my thick dogskin gloves were literally frayed off, and some of the skin of my hands and face in addition, so that I returned with both bleeding and swelled. It was on the return ride, fortunately, that in stooping to escape one great liana the loop of another grazed my nose, and, being unable to check my unbroken horse instantaneously, the loop caught me by the throat, nearly strangled me, and in less time than it takes to tell it I was drawn over the back of the saddle, and found myself lying on the ground, jammed between a tree and the hind leg of the horse, which was quietly feeding. The Aino, whose face was very badly scratched, missing me, came back, said never a word, helped me up, brought me some water in a leaf, brought my hat, and we rode on again. I was little the worse for the fall, but on borrowing a looking-glass I see not only scratches and abrasions all over my face, but a livid mark round my throat as if I had been hung! The Aino left portions of his bushy locks on many of the branches. You would have been amused to see me in this forest, preceded by this hairy and formidable-looking savage, who was dressed in a coat of skins with the fur outside, seated on the top of a pack-saddle covered with a deer hide, and with his hairy legs crossed over the horse’s neck — a fashion in which the Ainos ride any horses over any ground with the utmost serenity.

It was a wonderful region for beauty. I have not seen so beautiful a view in Japan as from the river-bed from which I had the first near view of the grand assemblage of tufa cones, covered with an ancient vegetation, backed by high mountains of volcanic origin, on whose ragged crests the red ash was blazing vermilion against the blue sky, with a foreground of bright waters flashing through a primeval forest. The banks of these streams were deeply excavated by the heavy rains, and sometimes we had to jump three and even four feet out of the forest into the river, and as much up again, fording the Shiraoi river only more than twenty times, and often making a pathway of its treacherous bed and rushing waters, because the forest was impassable from the great size of the prostrate trees. The horses look at these jumps, hold back, try to turn, and then, making up their minds, suddenly plunge down or up. When the last vestige of a trail disappeared, I signed to the Aino to go on, and our subsequent “exploration” was all done at the rate of about a mile an hour. On the openings the grass grows stiff and strong to the height of eight feet, with its soft reddish plumes waving in the breeze. The Aino first forced his horse through it, but of course it closed again, so that constantly when he was close in front I was only aware of his proximity by the tinkling of his horse’s bells, for I saw nothing of him or of my own horse except the horn of my saddle. We tumbled into holes often, and as easily tumbled out of them; but once we both went down in the most unexpected manner into what must have been an old bear-trap, both going over our horses’ heads, the horses and ourselves struggling together in a narrow space in a mist of grassy plumes, and, being unable to communicate with my guide, the sense of the ridiculous situation was so overpowering that, even in the midst of the mishap, I was exhausted with laughter, though not a little bruised. It was very hard to get out of that pitfall, and I hope I shall never get into one again. It is not the first occasion on which I have been glad that the Yezo horses are shoeless. It was through this long grass that we fought our way to the tufa cones, with the red ragged crests against the blue sky.

The scenery was magnificent, and after getting so far I longed to explore the sources of the rivers, but besides the many difficulties the day was far spent. I was also too weak for any energetic undertaking, yet I felt an intuitive perception of the passion and fascination of exploring, and understood how people could give up their lives to it. I turned away from the tufa cones and the glory of the ragged crests very sadly, to ride a tired horse through great difficulties; and the animal was so thoroughly done up that I had to walk, or rather wade, for the last hour, and it was nightfall when I returned, to find that Ito had packed up all my things, had been waiting ever since noon to start for Horobets, was very grumpy at having to unpack, and thoroughly disgusted when I told him that I was so tired and bruised that I should have to remain the next day to rest. He said indignantly, “I never thought that when you’d got the Kaitakushi kuruma you’d go off the road into those woods!” We had seen some deer and many pheasants, and a successful hunter brought in a fine stag, so that I had venison steak for supper, and was much comforted, though Ito seasoned the meal with well-got-up stories of the impracticability of the Volcano Bay route.

Shiraoi consists of a large old Honjin, or yadoya, where the daimiyo and his train used to lodge in the old days, and about eleven Japanese houses, most of which are sake shops — a fact which supplies an explanation of the squalor of the Aino village of fifty-two houses, which is on the shore at a respectful distance. There is no cultivation, in which it is like all the fishing villages on this part of the coast, but fish-oil and fish-manure are made in immense quantities, and, though it is not the season here, the place is pervaded by “an ancient and fish-like smell.”

The Aino houses are much smaller, poorer, and dirtier than those of Biratori. I went into a number of them, and conversed with the people, many of whom understand Japanese. Some of the houses looked like dens, and, as it was raining, husband, wife, and five or six naked children, all as dirty as they could be, with unkempt, elf-like locks, were huddled round the fires. Still, bad as it looked and smelt, the fire was the hearth, and the hearth was inviolate, and each smoked and dirt-stained group was a family, and it was an advance upon the social life of, for instance, Salt Lake City. The roofs are much flatter than those of the mountain Ainos, and, as there are few store-houses, quantities of fish, “green” skins, and venison, hang from the rafters, and the smell of these and the stinging of the smoke were most trying. Few of the houses had any guest-seats, but in the very poorest, when I asked shelter from the rain, they put their best mat upon the ground, and insisted, much to my distress, on my walking over it in muddy boots, saying, “It is Aino custom.” Ever, in those squalid homes the broad shelf, with its rows of Japanese curios, always has a place. I mentioned that it is customary for a chief to appoint a successor when he becomes infirm, and I came upon a case in point, through a mistaken direction, which took us to the house of the former chief, with a great empty bear cage at its door. On addressing him as the chief, he said, “I am old and blind, I cannot go out, I am of no more good,” and directed us to the house of his successor. Altogether it is obvious, from many evidences in this village, that Japanese contiguity is hurtful, and that the Ainos have reaped abundantly of the disadvantages without the advantages of contact with Japanese civilisation.

That night I saw a specimen of Japanese horse-breaking as practised in Yezo. A Japanese brought into the village street a handsome, spirited young horse, equipped with a Japanese demi-pique saddle, and a most cruel gag bit. The man wore very cruel spurs, and was armed with a bit of stout board two feet long by six inches broad. The horse had not been mounted before, and was frightened, but not the least vicious. He was spurred into a gallop, and ridden at full speed up and down the street, turned by main force, thrown on his haunches, goaded with the spurs, and cowed by being mercilessly thrashed over the ears and eyes with the piece of board till he was blinded with blood. Whenever he tried to stop from exhaustion he was spurred, jerked, and flogged, till at last, covered with sweat, foam, and blood, and with blood running from his mouth and splashing the road, he reeled, staggered, and fell, the rider dexterously disengaging himself. As soon as he was able to stand, he was allowed to crawl into a shed, where he was kept without food till morning, when a child could do anything with him. He was “broken,” effectually spirit-broken, useless for the rest of his life. It was a brutal and brutalising exhibition, as triumphs of brute force always are.

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