Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 6

Fears — Travelling Equipments — Passports — Coolie Costume — A Yedo Diorama — Rice–Fields — Tea–Houses — A Traveller’s Reception — The Inn at Kasukabe — Lack of Privacy — A Concourse of Noises — A Nocturnal Alarm — A Vision of Policemen — A Budget from Yedo.

KASUKABE, June 10.

From the date you will see that I have started on my long journey, though not upon the “unbeaten tracks” which I hope to take after leaving Nikko, and my first evening alone in the midst of this crowded Asian life is strange, almost fearful. I have suffered from nervousness all day — the fear of being frightened, of being rudely mobbed, as threatened by Mr. Campbell of Islay, of giving offence by transgressing the rules of Japanese politeness — of, I know not what! Ito is my sole reliance, and he may prove a “broken reed.” I often wished to give up my project, but was ashamed of my cowardice when, on the best authority, I received assurances of its safety. 6

The preparations were finished yesterday, and my outfit weighed 110 lbs., which, with Ito’s weight of 90 lbs., is as much as can be carried by an average Japanese horse. My two painted wicker boxes lined with paper and with waterproof covers are convenient for the two sides of a pack-horse. I have a folding-chair — for in a Japanese house there is nothing but the floor to sit upon, and not even a solid wall to lean against — an air-pillow for kuruma travelling, an india-rubber bath, sheets, a blanket, and last, and more important than all else, a canvas stretcher on light poles, which can be put together in two minutes; and being 2.5 feet high is supposed to be secure from fleas. The “Food Question” has been solved by a modified rejection of all advice! I have only brought a small supply of Liebig’s extract of meat, 4 lbs. of raisins, some chocolate, both for eating and drinking, and some brandy in case of need. I have my own Mexican saddle and bridle, a reasonable quantity of clothes, including a loose wrapper for wearing in the evenings, some candles, Mr. Brunton’s large map of Japan, volumes of the Transactions of the English Asiatic Society, and Mr. Satow’s Anglo–Japanese Dictionary. My travelling dress is a short costume of dust-coloured striped tweed, with strong laced boots of unblacked leather, and a Japanese hat, shaped like a large inverted bowl, of light bamboo plait, with a white cotton cover, and a very light frame inside, which fits round the brow and leaves a space of 1.5 inches between the hat and the head for the free circulation of air. It only weighs 2.5 ounces, and is infinitely to be preferred to a heavy pith helmet, and, light as it is, it protects the head so thoroughly, that, though the sun has been unclouded all day and the mercury at 86 degrees, no other protection has been necessary. My money is in bundles of 50 yen, and 50, 20, and 10 sen notes, besides which I have some rouleaux of copper coins. I have a bag for my passport, which hangs to my waist. All my luggage, with the exception of my saddle, which I use for a footstool, goes into one kuruma, and Ito, who is limited to 12 lbs., takes his along with him.

I have three kurumas, which are to go to Nikko, ninety miles, in three days, without change of runners, for about eleven shillings each.

Passports usually define the route over which the foreigner is to travel, but in this case Sir H. Parkes has obtained one which is practically unrestricted, for it permits me to travel through all Japan north of Tokiyo and in Yezo without specifying any route. This precious document, without which I should be liable to be arrested and forwarded to my consul, is of course in Japanese, but the cover gives in English the regulations under which it is issued. A passport must be applied for, for reasons of “health, botanical research, or scientific investigation.” Its bearer must not light fires in woods, attend fires on horseback, trespass on fields, enclosures, or game-preserves, scribble on temples, shrines, or walls, drive fast on a narrow road, or disregard notices of “No thoroughfare.” He must “conduct himself in an orderly and conciliating manner towards the Japanese authorities and people;” he “must produce his passport to any officials who may demand it,” under pain of arrest; and while in the interior “is forbidden to shoot, trade, to conclude mercantile contracts with Japanese, or to rent houses or rooms for a longer period than his journey requires.”

NIKKO, June 13. — This is one of the paradises of Japan! It is a proverbial saying, “He who has not seen Nikko must not use the word kek’ko” (splendid, delicious, beautiful); but of this more hereafter. My attempt to write to you from Kasukabe failed, owing to the onslaught of an army of fleas, which compelled me to retreat to my stretcher, and the last two nights, for this and other reasons, writing has been out of the question.

I left the Legation at 11 am. on Monday and reached Kasukabe at 5 p.m., the runners keeping up an easy trot the whole journey of twenty-three miles; but the halts for smoking and eating were frequent.

These kuruma-runners wore short blue cotton drawers, girdles with tobacco pouch and pipe attached, short blue cotton shirts with wide sleeves, and open in front, reaching to their waists, and blue cotton handkerchiefs knotted round their heads, except when the sun was very hot, when they took the flat flag discs, two feet in diameter, which always hang behind kurumas, and are used either in sun or rain, and tied them on their heads. They wore straw sandals, which had to be replaced twice on the way. Blue and white towels hung from the shafts to wipe away the sweat, which ran profusely down the lean, brown bodies. The upper garment always flew behind them, displaying chests and backs elaborately tattooed with dragons and fishes. Tattooing has recently been prohibited; but it was not only a favourite adornment, but a substitute for perishable clothing.

Most of the men of the lower classes wear their hair in a very ugly fashion — the front and top of the head being shaved, the long hair from the back and sides being drawn up and tied, then waxed, tied again, and cut short off, the stiff queue being brought forward and laid, pointing forwards, along the back part of the top of the head. This top-knot is shaped much like a short clay pipe. The shaving and dressing the hair thus require the skill of a professional barber. Formerly the hair was worn in this way by the samurai, in order that the helmet might fit comfortably, but it is now the style of the lower classes mostly and by no means invariably.

Blithely, at a merry trot, the coolies hurried us away from the kindly group in the Legation porch, across the inner moat and along the inner drive of the castle, past gateways and retaining walls of Cyclopean masonry, across the second moat, along miles of streets of sheds and shops, all grey, thronged with foot-passengers and kurumas, with pack-horses loaded two or three feet above their backs, the arches of their saddles red and gilded lacquer, their frontlets of red leather, their “shoes” straw sandals, their heads tied tightly to the saddle-girth on either side, great white cloths figured with mythical beasts in blue hanging down loosely under their bodies; with coolies dragging heavy loads to the guttural cry of Hai! huida! with children whose heads were shaved in hideous patterns; and now and then, as if to point a moral lesson in the midst of the whirling diorama, a funeral passed through the throng, with a priest in rich robes, mumbling prayers, a covered barrel containing the corpse, and a train of mourners in blue dresses with white wings. Then we came to the fringe of Yedo, where the houses cease to be continuous, but all that day there was little interval between them. All had open fronts, so that the occupations of the inmates, the “domestic life” in fact, were perfectly visible. Many of these houses were roadside chayas, or tea-houses, and nearly all sold sweet-meats, dried fish, pickles, mochi, or uncooked cakes of rice dough, dried persimmons, rain hats, or straw shoes for man or beast. The road, though wide enough for two carriages (of which we saw none), was not good, and the ditches on both sides were frequently neither clean nor sweet. Must I write it? The houses were mean, poor, shabby, often even squalid, the smells were bad, and the people looked ugly, shabby, and poor, though all were working at something or other.

The country is a dead level, and mainly an artificial mud flat or swamp, in whose fertile ooze various aquatic birds were wading, and in which hundreds of men and women were wading too, above their knees in slush; for this plain of Yedo is mainly a great rice-field, and this is the busy season of rice-planting; for here, in the sense in which we understand it, they do not “cast their bread upon the waters.” There are eight or nine leading varieties of rice grown in Japan, all of which, except an upland species, require mud, water, and much puddling and nasty work. Rice is the staple food and the wealth of Japan. Its revenues were estimated in rice. Rice is grown almost wherever irrigation is possible.

The rice-fields are usually very small and of all shapes. A quarter of an acre is a good-sized field. The rice crop planted in June is not reaped till November, but in the meantime it needs to be “puddled” three times, i.e. for all the people to turn into the slush, and grub out all the weeds and tangled aquatic plants, which weave themselves from tuft to tuft, and puddle up the mud afresh round the roots. It grows in water till it is ripe, when the fields are dried off. An acre of the best land produces annually about fifty-four bushels of rice, and of the worst about thirty.

On the plain of Yedo, besides the nearly continuous villages along the causewayed road, there are islands, as they may be called, of villages surrounded by trees, and hundreds of pleasant oases on which wheat ready for the sickle, onions, millet, beans, and peas, were flourishing. There were lotus ponds too, in which the glorious lily, Nelumbo nucifera, is being grown for the sacrilegious purpose of being eaten! Its splendid classical leaves are already a foot above the water.

After running cheerily for several miles my men bowled me into a tea-house, where they ate and smoked while I sat in the garden, which consisted of baked mud, smooth stepping-stones, a little pond with some goldfish, a deformed pine, and a stone lantern. Observe that foreigners are wrong in calling the Japanese houses of entertainment indiscriminately “tea-houses.” A tea-house or chaya is a house at which you can obtain tea and other refreshments, rooms to eat them in, and attendance. That which to some extent answers to an hotel is a yadoya, which provides sleeping accommodation and food as required. The licenses are different. Tea-houses are of all grades, from the three-storied erections, gay with flags and lanterns, in the great cities and at places of popular resort, down to the road-side tea-house, as represented in the engraving, with three or four lounges of dark-coloured wood under its eaves, usually occupied by naked coolies in all attitudes of easiness and repose. The floor is raised about eighteen inches above the ground, and in these tea-houses is frequently a matted platform with a recess called the doma, literally “earth-space,” in the middle, round which runs a ledge of polished wood called the itama, or “board space,” on which travellers sit while they bathe their soiled feet with the water which is immediately brought to them; for neither with soiled feet nor in foreign shoes must one advance one step on the matted floor. On one side of the doma is the kitchen, with its one or two charcoal fires, where the coolies lounge on the mats and take their food and smoke, and on the other the family pursue their avocations. In almost the smallest tea-house there are one or two rooms at the back, but all the life and interest are in the open front. In the small tea-houses there is only an irori, a square hole in the floor, full of sand or white ash, on which the live charcoal for cooking purposes is placed, and small racks for food and eating utensils; but in the large ones there is a row of charcoal stoves, and the walls are garnished up to the roof with shelves, and the lacquer tables and lacquer and china ware used by the guests. The large tea-houses contain the possibilities for a number of rooms which can be extemporised at once by sliding paper panels, called fusuma, along grooves in the floor and in the ceiling or cross-beams.

When we stopped at wayside tea-houses the runners bathed their feet, rinsed their mouths, and ate rice, pickles, salt fish, and “broth of abominable things,” after which they smoked their tiny pipes, which give them three whiffs for each filling. As soon as I got out at any of these, one smiling girl brought me the tabako-bon, a square wood or lacquer tray, with a china or bamboo charcoal-holder and ash-pot upon it, and another presented me with a zen, a small lacquer table about six inches high, with a tiny teapot with a hollow handle at right angles with the spout, holding about an English tea-cupful, and two cups without handles or saucers, with a capacity of from ten to twenty thimblefuls each. The hot water is merely allowed to rest a minute on the tea-leaves, and the infusion is a clear straw-coloured liquid with a delicious aroma and flavour, grateful and refreshing at all times. If Japanese tea “stands,” it acquires a coarse bitterness and an unwholesome astringency. Milk and sugar are not used. A clean-looking wooden or lacquer pail with a lid is kept in all tea — houses, and though hot rice, except to order, is only ready three times daily, the pail always contains cold rice, and the coolies heat it by pouring hot tea over it. As you eat, a tea-house girl, with this pail beside her, squats on the floor in front of you, and fills your rice bowl till you say, “Hold, enough!” On this road it is expected that you leave three or four sen on the tea-tray for a rest of an hour or two and tea.

All day we travelled through rice swamps, along a much-frequented road, as far as Kasukabe, a good-sized but miserable-looking town, with its main street like one of the poorest streets in Tokiyo, and halted for the night at a large yadoya, with downstairs and upstairs rooms, crowds of travellers, and many evil smells. On entering, the house-master or landlord, the teishi, folded his hands and prostrated himself, touching the floor with his forehead three times. It is a large, rambling old house, and fully thirty servants were bustling about in the daidokoro, or great open kitchen. I took a room upstairs (i.e. up a steep step-ladder of dark, polished wood), with a balcony under the deep eaves. The front of the house upstairs was one long room with only sides and a front, but it was immediately divided into four by drawing sliding screens or panels, covered with opaque wall papers, into their proper grooves. A back was also improvised, but this was formed of frames with panes of translucent paper, like our tissue paper, with sundry holes and rents. This being done, I found myself the possessor of a room about sixteen feet square, without hook, shelf, rail, or anything on which to put anything — nothing, in short, but a matted floor. Do not be misled by the use of this word matting. Japanese house-mats, tatami, are as neat, refined, and soft a covering for the floor as the finest Axminster carpet. They are 5 feet 9 inches long, 3 feet broad, and 2.5 inches thick. The frame is solidly made of coarse straw, and this is covered with very fine woven matting, as nearly white as possible, and each mat is usually bound with dark blue cloth. Temples and rooms are measured by the number of mats they contain, and rooms must be built for the mats, as they are never cut to the rooms. They are always level with the polished grooves or ledges which surround the floor. They are soft and elastic, and the finer qualities are very beautiful. They are as expensive as the best Brussels carpet, and the Japanese take great pride in them, and are much aggrieved by the way in which some thoughtless foreigners stamp over them with dirty boots. Unfortunately they harbour myriads of fleas.

Outside my room an open balcony with many similiar rooms ran round a forlorn aggregate of dilapidated shingle roofs and water-butts. These rooms were all full. Ito asked me for instructions once for all, put up my stretcher under a large mosquito net of coarse green canvas with a fusty smell, filled my bath, brought me some tea, rice, and eggs, took my passport to be copied by the house-master, and departed, I know not whither. I tried to write to you, but fleas and mosquitoes prevented it, and besides, the fusuma were frequently noiselessly drawn apart, and several pairs of dark, elongated eyes surveyed me through the cracks; for there were two Japanese families in the room to the right, and five men in that to the left. I closed the sliding windows, with translucent paper for window panes, called shoji, and went to bed, but the lack of privacy was fearful, and I have not yet sufficient trust in my fellow-creatures to be comfortable without locks, walls, or doors! Eyes were constantly applied to the sides of the room, a girl twice drew aside the shoji between it and the corridor; a man, who I afterwards found was a blind man, offering his services as a shampooer, came in and said some (of course) unintelligible words, and the new noises were perfectly bewildering. On one side a man recited Buddhist prayers in a high key; on the other a girl was twanging a samisen, a species of guitar; the house was full of talking and splashing, drums and tom-toms were beaten outside; there were street cries innumerable, and the whistling of the blind shampooers, and the resonant clap of the fire-watchman who perambulates all Japanese villages, and beats two pieces of wood together in token of his vigilance, were intolerable. It was a life of which I knew nothing, and the mystery was more alarming than attractive; my money was lying about, and nothing seemed easier than to slide a hand through the fusuma and appropriate it. Ito told me that the well was badly contaminated, the odours were fearful; illness was to be feared as well as robbery! So unreasonably I reasoned! 7

My bed is merely a piece of canvas nailed to two wooden bars. When I lay down the canvas burst away from the lower row of nails with a series of cracks, and sank gradually till I found myself lying on a sharp-edged pole which connects the two pair of trestles, and the helpless victim of fleas and mosquitoes. I lay for three hours, not daring to stir lest I should bring the canvas altogether down, becoming more and more nervous every moment, and then Ito called outside the shoji, “It would be best, Miss Bird, that I should see you.” What horror can this be? I thought, and was not reassured when he added, “Here’s a messenger from the Legation and two policemen want to speak to you.” On arriving I had done the correct thing in giving the house-master my passport, which, according to law, he had copied into his book, and had sent a duplicate copy to the police-station, and this intrusion near midnight was as unaccountable as it was unwarrantable. Nevertheless the appearance of the two mannikins in European uniforms, with the familiar batons and bull’s-eye lanterns, and with manners which were respectful without being deferential, gave me immediate relief. I should have welcomed twenty of their species, for their presence assured me of the fact that I am known and registered, and that a Government which, for special reasons, is anxious to impress foreigners with its power and omniscience is responsible for my safety.

While they spelt through my passport by their dim lantern I opened the Yedo parcel, and found that it contained a tin of lemon sugar, a most kind note from Sir Harry Parkes, and a packet of letters from you. While I was attempting to open the letters, Ito, the policemen, and the lantern glided out of my room, and I lay uneasily till daylight, with the letters and telegram, for which I had been yearning for six weeks, on my bed unopened!

Already I can laugh at my fears and misfortunes, as I hope you will. A traveller must buy his own experience, and success or failure depends mainly on personal idiosyncrasies. Many matters will be remedied by experience as I go on, and I shall acquire the habit of feeling secure; but lack of privacy, bad smells, and the torments of fleas and mosquitoes are, I fear, irremediable evils. I. L. B.

6 The list of my equipments is given as a help to future travellers, especially ladies, who desire to travel long distances in the interior of Japan. One wicker basket is enough, as I afterwards found.

7 My fears, though quite natural for a lady alone, had really no justification. I have since travelled 1200 miles in the interior, and in Yezo, with perfect safety and freedom from alarm, and I believe that there is no country in the world in which a lady can travel with such absolute security from danger and rudeness as in Japan.

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