Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 41

A Group of Fathers — The Lebunge Ainos — The Salisburia adiantifolia — A Family Group — The Missing Link — Oshamambe — Disorderly Horses — The River Yurapu — The Seaside — Aino Canoes — The Last Morning — Dodging Europeans.

HAKODATE, September 12.

Lebunge is a most fascinating place in its awful isolation. The house-master was a friendly man, and much attached to the Ainos. If other officials entrusted with Aino concerns treat the Ainos as fraternally as those of Usu and Lebunge, there is not much to lament. This man also gave them a high character for honesty and harmlessness, and asked if they might come and see me before I left; so twenty men, mostly carrying very pretty children, came into the yard with the horses. They had never seen a foreigner, but, either from apathy or politeness, they neither stare nor press upon one as the Japanese do, and always make a courteous recognition. The bear-skin housing of my saddle pleased them very much, and my boots of unblacked leather, which they compare to the deer-hide moccasins which they wear for winter hunting. Their voices were the lowest and most musical that I have heard, incongruous sounds to proceed from such hairy, powerful-looking men. Their love for their children was most marked. They caressed them tenderly, and held them aloft for notice, and when the house-master told them how much I admired the brown, dark-eyed, winsome creatures, their faces lighted with pleasure, and they saluted me over and over again. These, like other Ainos, utter a short screeching sound when they are not pleased, and then one recognises the savage.

These Lebunge Ainos differ considerably from those of the eastern villages, and I have again to notice the decided sound or click of the ts at the beginning of many words. Their skins are as swarthy as those of Bedaween, their foreheads comparatively low, their eyes far more deeply set their stature lower, their hair yet more abundant, the look of wistful melancholy more marked, and two, who were unclothed for hard work in fashioning a canoe, were almost entirely covered with short, black hair, specially thick on the shoulders and back, and so completely concealing the skin as to reconcile one to the lack of clothing. I noticed an enormous breadth of chest, and a great development of the muscles of the arms and legs. All these Ainos shave their hair off for two inches above their brows, only allowing it there to attain the length of an inch. Among the well-clothed Ainos in the yard there was one smooth-faced, smooth-skinned, concave-chested, spindle-limbed, yellow Japanese, with no other clothing than the decorated bark-cloth apron which the Ainos wear in addition to their coats and leggings. Escorted by these gentle, friendly savages, I visited their lodges, which are very small and poor, and in every way inferior to those of the mountain Ainos. The women are short and thick-set, and most uncomely.

From their village I started for the longest, and by reputation the worst, stage of my journey, seventeen miles, the first ten of which are over mountains. So solitary and disused is this track that on a four days’ journey we have not met a human being. In the Lebunge valley, which is densely forested, and abounds with fordable streams and treacherous ground, I came upon a grand specimen of the Salisburia adiantifolia, which, at a height of three feet from the ground, divides into eight lofty stems, none of them less than 2 feet 5 inches in diameter. This tree, which grows rapidly, is so well adapted to our climate that I wonder it has not been introduced on a large scale, as it may be seen by everybody in Kew Gardens. There is another tree with orbicular leaves in pairs, which grows to an immense size.

From this valley a worn-out, stony bridle-track ascends the western side of Lebungetoge, climbing through a dense forest of trees and trailers to a height of about 2000 feet, where, contented with its efforts, it reposes, and, with only slight ups and downs, continues along the top of a narrow ridge within the seaward mountains, between high walls of dense bamboo, which, for much of that day’s journey, is the undergrowth alike of mountain and valley, ragged peak, and rugged ravine. The scenery was as magnificent as on the previous day. A guide was absolutely needed, as the track ceased altogether in one place, and for some time the horses had to blunder their way along a bright, rushing river, swirling rapidly downwards, heavily bordered with bamboo, full of deep holes, and made difficult by trees which have fallen across it. There Ito, whose horse could not keep up with the others, was lost, or rather lost himself, which led to a delay of two hours. I have never seen grander forest than on that two days’ ride.

At last the track, barely passable after its recovery, dips over a precipitous bluff, and descends close to the sea, which has evidently receded considerably. Thence it runs for six miles on a level, sandy strip, covered near the sea with a dwarf bamboo about five inches high, and farther inland with red roses and blue campanula.

At the foot of the bluff there is a ruinous Japanese house, where an Aino family has been placed to give shelter and rest to any who may be crossing the pass. I opened my bento bako of red lacquer, and found that it contained some cold, waxy potatoes, on which I dined, with the addition of some tea, and then waited wearily for Ito, for whom the guide went in search. The house and its inmates were a study. The ceiling was gone, and all kinds of things, for which I could not imagine any possible use, hung from the blackened rafters. Everything was broken and decayed, and the dirt was appalling. A very ugly Aino woman, hardly human in her ugliness, was splitting bark fibre. There were several irori, Japanese fashion, and at one of them a grand-looking old man was seated apathetically contemplating the boiling of a pot. Old, and sitting among ruins, he represented the fate of a race which, living, has no history, and perishing leaves no monument. By the other irori sat, or rather crouched, the “MISSING LINK.” I was startled when I first saw it. It was — shall I say? — a man, and the mate, I cannot write the husband, of the ugly woman. It was about fifty. The lofty Aino brow had been made still loftier by shaving the head for three inches above it. The hair hung, not in shocks, but in snaky wisps, mingling with a beard which was grey and matted. The eyes were dark but vacant, and the face had no other expression than that look of apathetic melancholy which one sometimes sees on the faces of captive beasts. The arms and legs were unnaturally long and thin, and the creature sat with the knees tucked into the armpits. The limbs and body, with the exception of a patch on each side, were thinly covered with fine black hair, more than an inch long, which was slightly curly on the shoulders. It showed no other sign of intelligence than that evidenced by boiling water for my tea. When Ito arrived he looked at it with disgust, exclaiming, “The Ainos are just dogs; they had a dog for their father,” in allusion to their own legend of their origin.

The level was pleasant after the mountains, and a canter took us pleasantly to Oshamambe, where we struck the old road from Mori to Satsuporo, and where I halted for a day to rest my spine, from which I was suffering much. Oshamambe looks dismal even in the sunshine, decayed and dissipated, with many people lounging about in it doing nothing, with the dazed look which over-indulgence in sake gives to the eyes. The sun was scorching hot, and I was glad to find refuge from it in a crowded and dilapidated yadoya, where there were no black beans, and the use of eggs did not appear to be recognised. My room was only enclosed by shoji, and there were scarcely five minutes of the day in which eyes were not applied to the finger-holes with which they were liberally riddled; and during the night one of them fell down, revealing six Japanese sleeping in a row, each head on a wooden pillow.

The grandeur of the route ceased with the mountain-passes, but in the brilliant sunshine the ride from Oshamambe to Mori, which took me two days, was as pretty and pleasant as it could be. At first we got on very slowly, as besides my four horses there were four led ones going home, which got up fights and entangled their ropes, and occasionally lay down and rolled; and besides these there were three foals following their mothers, and if they stayed behind the mares hung back neighing, and if they frolicked ahead the mares wanted to look after them, and the whole string showed a combined inclination to dispense with their riders and join the many herds of horses which we passed. It was so tedious that, after enduring it for some time I got Ito’s horse and mine into a scow at a river of some size, and left the disorderly drove to follow at leisure.

At Yurapu, where there is an Aino village of thirty houses, we saw the last of the aborigines, and the interest of the journey ended. Strips of hard sand below high-water mark, strips of red roses, ranges of wooded mountains, rivers deep and shallow, a few villages of old grey houses amidst grey sand and bleaching driftwood, and then came the river Yurapu, a broad, deep stream, navigable in a canoe for fourteen miles. The scenery there was truly beautiful in the late and splendid afternoon. The long blue waves rolled on shore, each one crested with light as it curled before it broke, and hurled its snowy drift for miles along the coast with a deep booming music. The glorious inland view was composed of six ranges of forest-covered mountains, broken, chasmed, caverned, and dark with timber, and above them bald, grey peaks rose against a green sky of singular purity. I longed to take a boat up the Yurapu, which penetrates by many a gorge into their solemn recesses, but had not strength to carry my wish.

After this I exchanged the silence or low musical speech of Aino guides for the harsh and ceaseless clatter of Japanese. At Yamakushinoi, a small hamlet on the sea-shore, where I slept, there was a sweet, quiet yadoya, delightfully situated, with a wooded cliff at the back, over which a crescent hung out of a pure sky; and besides, there were the more solid pleasures of fish, eggs, and black beans. Thus, instead of being starved and finding wretched accommodation, the week I spent on Volcano Bay has been the best fed, as it was certainly the most comfortable, week of my travels in northern Japan.

Another glorious day favoured my ride to Mori, but I was unfortunate in my horse at each stage, and the Japanese guide was grumpy and ill-natured — a most unusual thing. Otoshibe and a few other small villages of grey houses, with “an ancient and fish-like smell,” lie along the coast, busy enough doubtless in the season, but now looking deserted and decayed, and houses are rather plentifully sprinkled along many parts of the shore, with a wonderful profusion of vegetables and flowers about them, raised from seeds liberally supplied by the Kaitakushi Department from its Nanai experimental farm and nurseries. For a considerable part of the way to Mori there is no track at all, though there is a good deal of travel. One makes one’s way fatiguingly along soft sea sand or coarse shingle close to the sea, or absolutely in it, under cliffs of hardened clay or yellow conglomerate, fording many small streams, several of which have cut their way deeply through a stratum of black volcanic sand. I have crossed about 100 rivers and streams on the Yezo coast, and all the larger ones are marked by a most noticeable peculiarity, i.e. that on nearing the sea they turn south, and run for some distance parallel with it, before they succeed in finding an exit through the bank of sand and shingle which forms the beach and blocks their progress.

On the way I saw two Ainos land through the surf in a canoe, in which they had paddled for nearly 100 miles. A river canoe is dug out of a single log, and two men can fashion one in five days; but on examining this one, which was twenty-five feet long, I found that it consisted of two halves, laced together with very strong bark fibre for their whole length, and with high sides also laced on. They consider that they are stronger for rough sea and surf work when made in two parts. Their bark-fibre rope is beautifully made, and they twist it of all sizes, from twine up to a nine-inch hawser.

Beautiful as the blue ocean was, I had too much of it, for the horses were either walking in a lather of sea foam or were crowded between the cliff and the sea, every larger wave breaking over my foot and irreverently splashing my face; and the surges were so loud-tongued and incessant, throwing themselves on the beach with a tremendous boom, and drawing the shingle back with them with an equally tremendous rattle, so impolite and noisy, bent only on showing their strength, reckless, rude, self-willed, and inconsiderate! This purposeless display of force, and this incessant waste of power, and the noisy self-assertion in both, approach vulgarity!

Towards evening we crossed the last of the bridgeless rivers, and put up at Mori, which I left three weeks before, and I was very thankful to have accomplished my object without disappointment, disaster, or any considerable discomfort. Had I not promised to return Ito to his master by a given day, I should like to spend the next six weeks in the Yezo wilds, for the climate is good, the scenery beautiful, and the objects of interest are many.

Another splendid day favoured my ride from Mori to Togenoshita, where I remained for the night, and I had exceptionally good horses for both days, though the one which Ito rode, while going at a rapid “scramble,” threw himself down three times and rolled over to rid himself from flies. I had not admired the wood between Mori and Ginsainoma (the lakes) on the sullen, grey day on which I saw it before, but this time there was an abundance of light and shadow and solar glitter, and many a scarlet spray and crimson trailer, and many a maple flaming in the valleys, gladdened me with the music of colour. From the top of the pass beyond the lakes there is a grand view of the volcano in all its nakedness, with its lava beds and fields of pumice, with the lakes of Onuma, Konuma, and Ginsainoma, lying in the forests at its feet, and from the top of another hill there is a remarkable view of windy Hakodate, with its headland looking like Gibraltar. The slopes of this hill are covered with the Aconitum Japonicum, of which the Ainos make their arrow poison.

The yadoya at Togenoshita was a very pleasant and friendly one, and when Ito woke me yesterday morning, saying, “Are you sorry that it’s the last morning? I am,” I felt we had one subject in common, for I was very sorry to end my pleasant Yezo tour, and very sorry to part with the boy who had made himself more useful and invaluable even than before. It was most wearisome to have Hakodate in sight for twelve miles, so near across the bay, so far across the long, flat, stony strip which connects the headland upon which it is built with the mainland. For about three miles the road is rudely macadamised, and as soon as the bare-footed horses get upon it they seem lame of all their legs; they hang back, stumbling, dragging, edging to the side, and trying to run down every opening, so that when we got into the interminable main street I sent Ito on to the Consulate for my letters, and dismounted, hoping that as it was raining I should not see any foreigners; but I was not so lucky, for first I met Mr. Dening, and then, seeing the Consul and Dr. Hepburn coming down the road, evidently dressed for dining in the flag-ship, and looking spruce and clean, I dodged up an alley to avoid them; but they saw me, and did not wonder that I wished to escape notice, for my old betto’s hat, my torn green paper waterproof, and my riding-skirt and boots, were not only splashed but CAKED with mud, and I had the general look of a person “fresh from the wilds.”

I. L. B.

Itinerary of Tour in Yezo.

Hakodate to

No. of Houses.
Jap. Aino. Ri. Cho.
Ginsainoma 4 7 18
Mori 105 4
Mororan 57 11
Horobets 18 47 5 1
Shiraoi 11 51 6 32
Tomakomai 38 5 21
Yubets 7 3 3 5
Sarufuto 63 7 5
Biratori 53 5
Mombets 27 5 1

From Horobets to

Jap. Aino. Ri. Cho.
Old Mororan 9 30 4 28
Usu 3 99 6 2
Lebunge 1 27 5 22
Oshamambe 56 38 6 34
Yamakushinai 40 4 18
Otoshibe 40 2 3
Mori 105 3 29
Togenoshita 55 6 7
Hakodate 37,000 souls 3 29

About 358 English miles.

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