Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 40 —(Continued)

The Sea-shore — A “Hairy Aino”— A Horse Fight — The Horses of Yezo — “Bad Mountains”— A Slight Accident — Magnificent Scenery — A Bleached Halting–Place — A Musty Room — Aino “Good-breeding.”

A charge of 3 sen per ri more for the horses for the next stage, because there were such “bad mountains to cross,” prepared me for what followed — many miles of the worst road for horses I ever saw. I should not have complained if they had charged double the price. As an almost certain consequence, it was one of the most picturesque routes I have ever travelled. For some distance, however, it runs placidly along by the sea-shore, on which big, blue, foam-crested rollers were disporting themselves noisily, and passes through several Aino hamlets, and the Aino village of Abuta, with sixty houses, rather a prosperous-looking place, where the cultivation was considerably more careful, and the people possessed a number of horses. Several of the houses were surrounded by bears’ skulls grinning from between the forked tops of high poles, and there was a well-grown bear ready for his doom and apotheosis. In nearly all the houses a woman was weaving bark-cloth, with the hook which holds the web fixed into the ground several feet outside the house. At a deep river called the Nopkobets, which emerges from the mountains close to the sea, we were ferried by an Aino completely covered with hair, which on his shoulders was wavy like that of a retriever, and rendered clothing quite needless either for covering or warmth. A wavy, black beard rippled nearly to his waist over his furry chest, and, with his black locks hanging in masses over his shoulders, he would have looked a thorough savage had it not been for the exceeding sweetness of his smile and eyes. The Volcano Bay Ainos are far more hairy than the mountain Ainos, but even among them it is quite common to see men not more so than vigorous Europeans, and I think that the hairiness of the race as a distinctive feature has been much exaggerated, partly by the smooth-skinned Japanese.

The ferry scow was nearly upset by our four horses beginning to fight. At first one bit the shoulders of another; then the one attacked uttered short, sharp squeals, and returned the attack by striking with his fore feet, and then there was a general melee of striking and biting, till some ugly wounds were inflicted. I have watched fights of this kind on a large scale every day in the corral. The miseries of the Yezo horses are the great drawback of Yezo travelling. They are brutally used, and are covered with awful wounds from being driven at a fast “scramble” with the rude, ungirthed pack-saddle and its heavy load rolling about on their backs, and they are beaten unmercifully over their eyes and ears with heavy sticks. Ito has been barbarous to these gentle, little-prized animals ever since we came to Yezo; he has vexed me more by this than by anything else, especially as he never dared even to carry a switch on the main island, either from fear of the horses or their owners. To-day he was beating the baggage horse unmercifully, when I rode back and interfered with some very strong language, saying, “You are a bully, and, like all bullies, a coward.” Imagine my aggravation when, at our first halt, he brought out his note-book, as usual, and quietly asked me the meaning of the words “bully” and “coward.” It was perfectly impossible to explain them, so I said a bully was the worst name I could call him, and that a coward was the meanest thing a man could be. Then the provoking boy said, “Is bully a worse name than devil?” “Yes, far worse,” I said, on which he seemed rather crestfallen, and he has not beaten his horse since, in my sight at least

The breaking-in process is simply breaking the spirit by an hour or two of such atrocious cruelty as I saw at Shiraoi, at the end of which the horse, covered with foam and blood, and bleeding from mouth and nose, falls down exhausted. Being so ill used they have all kinds of tricks, such as lying down in fords, throwing themselves down head foremost and rolling over pack and rider, bucking, and resisting attempts to make them go otherwise than in single file. Instead of bits they have bars of wood on each side of the mouth, secured by a rope round the nose and chin. When horses which have been broken with bits gallop they put up their heads till the nose is level with the ears, and it is useless to try either to guide or check them. They are always wanting to join the great herds on the hillside or sea-shore, from which they are only driven down as they are needed. In every Yezo village the first sound that one hears at break of day is the gallop of forty or fifty horses, pursued by an Aino, who has hunted them from the hills. A horse is worth from twenty-eight shillings upwards. They are very sure-footed when their feet are not sore, and cross a stream or chasm on a single rickety plank, or walk on a narrow ledge above a river or gulch without fear. They are barefooted, their hoofs are very hard, and I am glad to be rid of the perpetual tying and untying and replacing of the straw shoes of the well-cared-for horses of the main island. A man rides with them, and for a man and three horses the charge is only sixpence for each 2.5 miles. I am now making Ito ride in front of me, to make sure that he does not beat or otherwise misuse his beast.

After crossing the Nopkobets, from which the fighting horses have led me to make so long a digression, we went right up into the “bad mountains,” and crossed the three tremendous passes of Lebungetoge. Except by saying that this disused bridle-track is impassable, people have scarcely exaggerated its difficulties. One horse broke down on the first pass, and we were long delayed by sending the Aino back for another. Possibly these extraordinary passes do not exceed 1500 feet in height, but the track ascends them through a dense forest with most extraordinary abruptness, to descend as abruptly, to rise again sometimes by a series of nearly washed-away zigzags, at others by a straight, ladder-like ascent deeply channelled, the bottom of the trough being filled with rough stones, large and small, or with ledges of rock with an entangled mass of branches and trailers overhead, which render it necessary to stoop over the horse’s head while he is either fumbling, stumbling, or tumbling among the stones in a gash a foot wide, or else is awkwardly leaping up broken rock steps nearly the height of his chest, the whole performance consisting of a series of scrambling jerks at the rate of a mile an hour.

In one of the worst places the Aino’s horse, which was just in front of mine, in trying to scramble up a nearly breast-high and much-worn ledge, fell backwards, nearly overturning my horse, the stretcher poles, which formed part of his pack, striking me so hard above my ankle that for some minutes afterwards I thought the bone was broken. The ankle was severely cut and bruised, and bled a good deal, and I was knocked out of the saddle. Ito’s horse fell three times, and eventually the four were roped together. Such are some of the divertissements of Yezo travel.

Ah, but it was glorious! The views are most magnificent. This is really Paradise. Everything is here — huge headlands magnificently timbered, small, deep bays into which the great green waves roll majestically, great, grey cliffs, too perpendicular for even the most adventurous trailer to find root-hold, bold bluffs and outlying stacks cedar-crested, glimpses of bright, blue ocean dimpling in the sunshine or tossing up wreaths of foam among ferns and trailers, and inland ranges of mountains forest-covered, with tremendous gorges between, forest filled, where wolf, bear, and deer make their nearly inaccessible lairs, and outlying battlements, and ridges of grey rock with hardly six feet of level on their sinuous tops, and cedars in masses giving deep shadow, and sprays of scarlet maple or festoons of a crimson vine lighting the gloom. The inland view suggested infinity. There seemed no limit to the forest-covered mountains and the unlighted ravines. The wealth of vegetation was equal in luxuriance and entanglement to that of the tropics, primeval vegetation, on which the lumberer’s axe has never rung. Trees of immense height and girth, specially the beautiful Salisburia adiantifolia, with its small fan-shaped leaves, all matted together by riotous lianas, rise out of an impenetrable undergrowth of the dwarf, dark-leaved bamboo, which, dwarf as it is, attains a height of seven feet, and all is dark, solemn, soundless, the haunt of wild beasts, and of butterflies and dragonflies of the most brilliant colours. There was light without heat, leaves and streams sparkled, and there was nothing of the half-smothered sensation which is often produced by the choking greenery of the main island, for frequently, far below, the Pacific flashed in all its sunlit beauty, and occasionally we came down unexpectedly on a little cove with abrupt cedar-crested headlands and stacks, and a heavy surf rolling in with the deep thunder music which alone breaks the stillness of this silent land.

There was one tremendous declivity where I got off to walk, but found it too steep to descend on foot with comfort. You can imagine how steep it was, when I tell you that the deep groove being too narrow for me to get to the side of my horse, I dropped down upon him from behind, between his tail and the saddle, and so scrambled on!

The sun had set and the dew was falling heavily when the track dipped over the brow of a headland, becoming a waterway so steep and rough that I could not get down it on foot without the assistance of my hands, and terminating on a lonely little bay of great beauty, walled in by impracticable-looking headlands, which was the entrance to an equally impracticable-looking, densely-wooded valley running up among densely-wooded mountains. There was a margin of grey sand above the sea, and on this the skeleton of an enormous whale was bleaching. Two or three large “dug-outs,” with planks laced with stout fibre on their gunwales, and some bleached drift-wood lay on the beach, the foreground of a solitary, rambling, dilapidated grey house, bleached like all else, where three Japanese men with an old Aino servant live to look after “Government interests,” whatever these may be, and keep rooms and horses for Government officials — a great boon to travellers who, like me, are belated here. Only one person has passed Lebunge this year, except two officials and a policeman.

There was still a red glow on the water, and one horn of a young moon appeared above the wooded headland; but the loneliness and isolation are overpowering, and it is enough to produce madness to be shut in for ever with the thunder of the everlasting surf, which compels one to raise one’s voice in order to be heard. In the wood, half a mile from the sea, there is an Aino village of thirty houses, and the appearance of a few of the savages gliding noiselessly over the beach in the twilight added to the ghastliness and loneliness of the scene. The horses were unloaded by the time I arrived, and several courteous Ainos showed me to my room, opening on a small courtyard with a heavy gate. The room was musty, and, being rarely used, swarmed with spiders. A saucer of fish-oil and a wick rendered darkness visible, and showed faintly the dark, pathetic faces of a row of Ainos in the verandah, who retired noiselessly with their graceful salutation when I bade them good-night. Food was hardly to be expected, yet they gave me rice, potatoes, and black beans boiled in equal parts of brine and syrup, which are very palatable. The cuts and bruises of yesterday became so very painful with the cold of the early morning that I have been obliged to remain here.

I. L. B.

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