Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 40

“More than Peace”— Geographical Difficulties — Usu-taki — Swimming the Osharu — A Dream of Beauty — A Sunset Effect — A Nocturnal Alarm — The Coast Ainos.

LEBUNGE, VOLCANO BAY, YEZO, September 6.

“Weary wave and dying blast

Sob and moan along the shore,

All is peace at last.”

And more than peace. It was a heavenly morning. The deep blue sky was perfectly unclouded, a blue sea with diamond flash and a “many-twinkling smile” rippled gently on the golden sands of the lovely little bay, and opposite, forty miles away, the pink summit of the volcano of Komono-taki, forming the south-western point of Volcano Bay, rose into a softening veil of tender blue haze. There was a balmy breeziness in the air, and tawny tints upon the hill, patches of gold in the woods, and a scarlet spray here and there heralded the glories of the advancing autumn. As the day began, so it closed. I should like to have detained each hour as it passed. It was thorough enjoyment. I visited a good many of the Mororan Ainos, saw their well-grown bear in its cage, and, tearing myself away with difficulty at noon, crossed a steep hill and a wood of scrub oak, and then followed a trail which runs on the amber sands close to the sea, crosses several small streams, and passes the lonely Aino village of Maripu, the ocean always on the left and wooded ranges on the right, and in front an apparent bar to farther progress in the volcano of Usu-taki, an imposing mountain, rising abruptly to a height of nearly 3000 feet, I should think.

In Yezo, as on the main island, one can learn very little about any prospective route. Usually when one makes an inquiry a Japanese puts on a stupid look, giggles, tucks his thumbs into his girdle, hitches up his garments, and either professes perfect ignorance or gives one some vague second-hand information, though it is quite possible that he may have been over every foot of the ground himself more than once. Whether suspicion of your motives in asking, or a fear of compromising himself by answering, is at the bottom of this I don’t know, but it is most exasperating to a traveller. In Hakodate I failed to see Captain Blakiston, who has walked round the whole Yezo sea-board, and all I was able to learn regarding this route was that the coast was thinly peopled by Ainos, that there were Government horses which could be got, and that one could sleep where one got them; that rice and salt fish were the only food; that there were many “bad rivers,” and that the road went over “bad mountains;” that the only people who went that way were Government officials twice a year, that one could not get on more than four miles a day, that the roads over the passes were “all big stones,” etc. etc. So this Usu-taki took me altogether by surprise, and for a time confounded all my carefully-constructed notions of locality. I had been told that the one volcano in the bay was Komono-taki, near Mori, and this I believed to be eighty miles off, and there, confronting me, within a distance of two miles, was this grand, splintered, vermilion-crested thing, with a far nobler aspect than that of “THE” volcano, with a curtain range in front, deeply scored, and slashed with ravines and abysses whose purple gloom was unlighted even by the noon-day sun. One of the peaks was emitting black smoke from a deep crater, another steam and white smoke from various rents and fissures in its side — vermilion peaks, smoke, and steam all rising into a sky of brilliant blue, and the atmosphere was so clear that I saw everything that was going on there quite distinctly, especially when I attained an altitude exceeding that of the curtain range. It was not for two days that I got a correct idea of its geographical situation, but I was not long in finding out that it was not Komono-taki! There is much volcanic activity about it. I saw a glare from it last night thirty miles away. The Ainos said that it was “a god,” but did not know its name, nor did the Japanese who were living under its shadow. At some distance from it in the interior rises a great dome-like mountain, Shiribetsan, and the whole view is grand.

A little beyond Mombets flows the river Osharu, one of the largest of the Yezo streams. It was much swollen by the previous day’s rain; and as the ferry-boat was carried away we had to swim it, and the swim seemed very long. Of course, we and the baggage got very wet. The coolness with which the Aino guide took to the water without giving us any notice that its broad, eddying flood was a swim, and not a ford, was very amusing.

From the top of a steepish ascent beyond the Osharugawa there is a view into what looks like a very lovely lake, with wooded promontories, and little bays, and rocky capes in miniature, and little heights, on which Aino houses, with tawny roofs, are clustered; and then the track dips suddenly, and deposits one, not by a lake at all, but on Usu Bay, an inlet of the Pacific, much broken up into coves, and with a very narrow entrance, only obvious from a few points. Just as the track touches the bay there is a road-post, with a prayer-wheel in it, and by the shore an upright stone of very large size, inscribed with Sanskrit characters, near to a stone staircase and a gateway in a massive stone-faced embankment, which looked much out of keeping with the general wildness of the place. On a rocky promontory in a wooded cove there is a large, rambling house, greatly out of repair, inhabited by a Japanese man and his son, who are placed there to look after Government interests, exiles among 500 Ainos. From among the number of rat-haunted, rambling rooms which had once been handsome, I chose one opening on a yard or garden with some distorted yews in it, but found that the great gateway and the amado had no bolts, and that anything might be appropriated by any one with dishonest intentions; but the house-master and his son, who have lived for ten years among the Ainos, and speak their language, say that nothing is ever taken, and that the Ainos are thoroughly honest and harmless. Without this assurance I should have been distrustful of the number of wide-mouthed youths who hung about, in the listlessness and vacuity of savagery, if not of the bearded men who sat or stood about the gateway with children in their arms.

Usu is a dream of beauty and peace. There is not much difference between the height of high and low water on this coast, and the lake-like illusion would have been perfect had it not been that the rocks were tinged with gold for a foot or so above the sea by a delicate species of fucus. In the exquisite inlet where I spent the night, trees and trailers drooped into the water and were mirrored in it, their green, heavy shadows lying sharp against the sunset gold and pink of the rest of the bay; log canoes, with planks laced upon their gunwales to heighten them, were drawn upon a tiny beach of golden sand, and in the shadiest cove, moored to a tree, an antique and much-carved junk was “floating double.” Wooded, rocky knolls, with Aino huts, the vermilion peaks of the volcano of Usu-taki redder than ever in the sinking sun, a few Ainos mending their nets, a few more spreading edible seaweed out to dry, a single canoe breaking the golden mirror of the cove by its noiseless motion, a few Aino loungers, with their “mild-eyed, melancholy” faces and quiet ways suiting the quiet evening scene, the unearthly sweetness of a temple bell — this was all, and yet it was the loveliest picture I have seen in Japan.

In spite of Ito’s remonstrances and his protestations that an exceptionally good supper would be spoiled, I left my rat-haunted room, with its tarnished gilding and precarious fusuma, to get the last of the pink and lemon-coloured glory, going up the staircase in the stone-faced embankment, and up a broad, well-paved avenue, to a large temple, within whose open door I sat for some time absolutely alone, and in a wonderful stillness; for the sweet-toned bell which vainly chimes for vespers amidst this bear-worshipping population had ceased. This temple was the first symptom of Japanese religion that I remember to have seen since leaving Hakodate, and worshippers have long since ebbed away from its shady and moss-grown courts. Yet it stands there to protest for the teaching of the great Hindu; and generations of Aino heathen pass away one after another; and still its bronze bell tolls, and its altar lamps are lit, and incense burns for ever before Buddha. The characters on the great bell of this temple are said to be the same lines which are often graven on temple bells, and to possess the dignity of twenty-four centuries:

“All things are transient; They being born must die, And being born are dead; And being dead are glad To be at rest.”

The temple is very handsome, the baldachino is superb, and the bronzes and brasses on the altar are specially fine. A broad ray of sunlight streamed in, crossed the matted floor, and fell full upon the figure of Sakya-muni in his golden shrine; and just at that moment a shaven priest, in silk-brocaded vestments of faded green, silently passed down the stream of light, and lit the candles on the altar, and fresh incense filled the temple with a drowsy fragrance. It was a most impressive picture. His curiosity evidently shortened his devotions, and he came and asked me where I had been and where I was going, to which, of course, I replied in excellent Japanese, and then stuck fast.

Along the paved avenue, besides the usual stone trough for holy water, there are on one side the thousand-armed Kwan-non, a very fine relief, and on the other a Buddha, throned on the eternal lotus blossom, with an iron staff, much resembling a crozier, in his hand, and that eternal apathy on his face which is the highest hope of those who hope at all. I went through a wood, where there are some mournful groups of graves on the hillside, and from the temple came the sweet sound of the great bronze bell and the beat of the big drum, and then, more faintly, the sound of the little bell and drum, with which the priest accompanies his ceaseless repetition of a phrase in the dead tongue of a distant land. There is an infinite pathos about the lonely temple in its splendour, the absence of even possible worshippers, and the large population of Ainos, sunk in yet deeper superstitions than those which go to make up popular Buddhism. I sat on a rock by the bay till the last pink glow faded from Usu-taki and the last lemon stain from the still water; and a beautiful crescent, which hung over the wooded hill, had set, and the heavens blazed with stars:

“Ten thousand stars were in the sky, Ten thousand in the sea, And every wave with dimpled face, That leapt upon the air, Had caught a star in its embrace, And held it trembling there.”

The loneliness of Usu Bay is something wonderful — a house full of empty rooms falling to decay, with only two men in it — one Japanese house among 500 savages, yet it was the only one in which I have slept in which they bolted neither the amado nor the gate. During the night the amado fell out of the worn-out grooves with a crash, knocking down the shoji, which fell on me, and rousing Ito, who rushed into my room half-asleep, with a vague vision of blood-thirsty Ainos in his mind. I then learned what I have been very stupid not to have learned before, that in these sliding wooden shutters there is a small door through which one person can creep at a time called the jishindo, or “earthquake door,” because it provides an exit during the alarm of an earthquake, in case of the amado sticking in their grooves, or their bolts going wrong. I believe that such a door exists in all Japanese houses.

The next morning was as beautiful as the previous evening, rose and gold instead of gold and pink. Before the sun was well up I visited a number of the Aino lodges, saw the bear, and the chief, who, like all the rest, is a monogamist, and, after breakfast, at my request, some of the old men came to give me such information as they had. These venerable elders sat cross-legged in the verandah, the house-master’s son, who kindly acted as interpreter, squatting, Japanese fashion, at the side, and about thirty Ainos, mostly women, with infants, sitting behind. I spent about two hours in going over the same ground as at Biratori, and also went over the words, and got some more, including some synonyms. The click of the ts before the ch at the beginning of a word is strongly marked among these Ainos. Some of their customs differ slightly from those of their brethren of the interior, specially as to the period of seclusion after a death, the non-allowance of polygamy to the chief, and the manner of killing the bear at the annual festival. Their ideas of metempsychosis are more definite, but this, I think, is to be accounted for by the influence and proximity of Buddhism. They spoke of the bear as their chief god, and next the sun and fire. They said that they no longer worship the wolf, and that though they call the volcano and many other things kamoi, or god, they do not worship them. I ascertained beyond doubt that worship with them means simply making libations of sake and “drinking to the god,” and that it is unaccompanied by petitions, or any vocal or mental act.

These Ainos are as dark as the people of southern Spain, and very hairy. Their expression is earnest and pathetic, and when they smiled, as they did when I could not pronounce their words, their faces had a touching sweetness which was quite beautiful, and European, not Asiatic. Their own impression is that they are now increasing in numbers after diminishing for many years. I left Usu sleeping in the loveliness of an autumn noon with great regret. No place that I have seen has fascinated me so much.

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