Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 44

Fine Weather — Cremation in Japan — The Governor of Tokiyo — An Awkward Question — An Insignificant Building — Economy in Funeral Expenses — Simplicity of the Cremation Process — The Last of Japan.

H. B. M.’s LEGATION, YEDO, December 18.

I have spent the last ten days here, in settled fine weather, such as should have begun two months ago if the climate had behaved as it ought. The time has flown by in excursions, shopping, select little dinner-parties, farewell calls, and visits made with Mr. Chamberlain to the famous groves and temples of Ikegami, where the Buddhist bishop and priests entertained us in one of the guest-rooms, and to Enoshima and Kamakura, “vulgar” resorts which nothing can vulgarise so long as Fujisan towers above them.

I will mention but one “sight,” which is so far out of the beaten track that it was only after prolonged inquiry that its whereabouts was ascertained. Among Buddhists, specially of the Monto sect, cremation was largely practised till it was forbidden five years ago, as some suppose in deference to European prejudices. Three years ago, however, the prohibition was withdrawn, and in this short space of time the number of bodies burned has reached nearly nine thousand annually. Sir H. Parkes applied for permission for me to visit the Kirigaya ground, one of five, and after a few delays it was granted by the Governor of Tokiyo at Mr. Mori’s request, so yesterday, attended by the Legation linguist, I presented myself at the fine yashiki of the Tokiyo Fu, and quite unexpectedly was admitted to an audience of the Governor. Mr. Kusamoto is a well-bred gentleman, and his face expresses the energy and ability which he has given proof of possessing. He wears his European clothes becomingly, and in attitude, as well as manner, is easy and dignified. After asking me a great deal about my northern tour and the Ainos, he expressed a wish for candid criticism; but as this in the East must not be taken literally, I merely ventured to say that the roads lag behind the progress made in other directions, upon which he entered upon explanations which doubtless apply to the past road-history of the country. He spoke of cremation and its “necessity” in large cities, and terminated the interview by requesting me to dismiss my interpreter and kuruma, as he was going to send me to Meguro in his own carriage with one of the Government interpreters, adding very courteously that it gave him pleasure to show this attention to a guest of the British Minister, “for whose character and important services to Japan he has a high value.”

An hour’s drive, with an extra amount of yelling from the bettos, took us to a suburb of little hills and valleys, where red camellias and feathery bamboo against backgrounds of cryptomeria contrast with the grey monotone of British winters, and, alighting at a farm road too rough for a carriage, we passed through fields and hedgerows to an erection which looks too insignificant for such solemn use. Don’t expect any ghastly details. A longish building of “wattle and dab,” much like the northern farmhouses, a high roof, and chimneys resembling those of the “oast houses” in Kent, combine with the rural surroundings to suggest “farm buildings” rather than the “funeral pyre,” and all that is horrible is left to the imagination.

The end nearest the road is a little temple, much crowded with images, and small, red, earthenware urns and tongs for sale to the relatives of deceased persons, and beyond this are four rooms with earthen floors and mud walls; nothing noticeable about them except the height of the peaked roof and the dark colour of the plaster. In the middle of the largest are several pairs of granite supports at equal distances from each other, and in the smallest there is a solitary pair. This was literally all that was to be seen. In the large room several bodies are burned at one time, and the charge is only one yen, about 3s. 8d., solitary cremation costing five yen. Faggots are used, and 1s. worth ordinarily suffices to reduce a human form to ashes. After the funeral service in the house the body is brought to the cremation ground, and is left in charge of the attendant, a melancholy, smoked-looking man, as well he may be. The richer people sometimes pay priests to be present during the burning, but this is not usual. There were five “quick-tubs” of pine hooped with bamboo in the larger room, containing the remains of coolies, and a few oblong pine chests in the small rooms containing those of middle-class people. At 8 p.m. each “coffin” is placed on the stone trestles, the faggots are lighted underneath, the fires are replenished during the night, and by 6 a.m. that which was a human being is a small heap of ashes, which is placed in an urn by the relatives and is honourably interred. In some cases the priests accompany the relations on this last mournful errand. Thirteen bodies were burned the night before my visit, but there was not the slightest odour in or about the building, and the interpreter told me that, owing to the height of the chimneys, the people of the neighbourhood never experience the least annoyance, even while the process is going on. The simplicity of the arrangement is very remarkable, and there can be no reasonable doubt that it serves the purpose of the innocuous and complete destruction of the corpse as well as any complicated apparatus (if not better), while its cheapness places it within the reach of the class which is most heavily burdened by ordinary funeral expenses. 23 This morning the Governor sent his secretary to present me with a translation of an interesting account of the practice of cremation and its introduction into Japan.

SS. “Volga,” Christmas Eve, 1878. — The snowy dome of Fujisan reddening in the sunrise rose above the violet woodlands of Mississippi Bay as we steamed out of Yokohama Harbour on the 19th, and three days later I saw the last of Japan — a rugged coast, lashed by a wintry sea.

I. L. B.

23 The following very inaccurate but entertaining account of this expedition was given by the Yomi-uri-Shimbun, a daily newspaper with the largest, though not the most aristocratic, circulation in Tokiyo, being taken in by the servants and tradespeople. It is a literal translation made by Mr. Chamberlain. “The person mentioned in our yesterday’s issue as ‘an English subject of the name of Bird’ is a lady from Scotland, a part of England. This lady spends her time in travelling, leaving this year the two American continents for a passing visit to the Sandwich Islands, and landing in Japan early in the month of May. She has toured all over the country, and even made a five months’ stay in the Hokkaido, investigating the local customs and productions. Her inspection yesterday of the cremation ground at Kirigaya is believed to have been prompted by a knowledge of the advantages of this method of disposing of the dead, and a desire to introduce the same into England(!) On account of this lady’s being so learned as to have published a quantity of books, His Excellency the Governor was pleased to see her yesterday, and to show her great civility, sending her to Kirigaya in his own carriage, a mark of attention which is said to have pleased the lady much(!)”

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