Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 6 —(Continued)

A Coolie falls ill — Peasant Costume — Varieties in Threshing — The Tochigi yadoya — Farming Villages — A Beautiful Region — An In Memoriam Avenue — A Doll’s Street — Nikko — The Journey’s End — Coolie Kindliness.

By seven the next morning the rice was eaten, the room as bare as if it had never been occupied, the bill of 80 sen paid, the house-master and servants with many sayo naras, or farewells, had prostrated themselves, and we were away in the kurumas at a rapid trot. At the first halt my runner, a kindly, good-natured creature, but absolutely hideous, was seized with pain and vomiting, owing, he said, to drinking the bad water at Kasukabe, and was left behind. He pleased me much by the honest independent way in which he provided a substitute, strictly adhering to his bargain, and never asking for a gratuity on account of his illness. He had been so kind and helpful that I felt quite sad at leaving him there ill — only a coolie, to be sure, only an atom among the 34,000,000 of the Empire, but not less precious to our Father in heaven than any other. It was a brilliant day, with the mercury 86 degrees in the shade, but the heat was not oppressive. At noon we reached the Tone, and I rode on a coolie’s tattooed shoulders through the shallow part, and then, with the kurumas, some ill-disposed pack-horses, and a number of travellers, crossed in a flat-bottomed boat. The boatmen, travellers, and cultivators, were nearly or altogether without clothes, but the richer farmers worked in the fields in curved bamboo hats as large as umbrellas, kimonos with large sleeves not girt up, and large fans attached to their girdles. Many of the travellers whom we met were without hats, but shielded the front of the head by holding a fan between it and the sun. Probably the inconvenience of the national costume for working men partly accounts for the general practice of getting rid of it. It is such a hindrance, even in walking, that most pedestrians have “their loins girded up” by taking the middle of the hem at the bottom of the kimono and tucking it under the girdle. This, in the case of many, shows woven, tight-fitting, elastic, white cotton pantaloons, reaching to the ankles. After ferrying another river at a village from which a steamer plies to Tokiyo, the country became much more pleasing, the rice-fields fewer, the trees, houses, and barns larger, and, in the distance, high hills loomed faintly through the haze. Much of the wheat, of which they don’t make bread, but vermicelli, is already being carried. You see wheat stacks, ten feet high, moving slowly, and while you are wondering, you become aware of four feet moving below them; for all the crop is carried on horses’ if not on human backs. I went to see several threshing-floors — clean, open spaces outside barns — where the grain is laid on mats and threshed by two or four men with heavy revolving flails. Another method is for women to beat out the grain on racks of split bamboo laid lengthwise; and I saw yet a third practised both in the fields and barn-yards, in which women pass handfuls of stalks backwards through a sort of carding instrument with sharp iron teeth placed in a slanting position, which cuts off the ears, leaving the stalk unbruised. This is probably “the sharp threshing instrument having teeth” mentioned by Isaiah. The ears are then rubbed between the hands. In this region the wheat was winnowed altogether by hand, and after the wind had driven the chaff away, the grain was laid out on mats to dry. Sickles are not used, but the reaper takes a handful of stalks and cuts them off close to the ground with a short, straight knife, fixed at a right angle with the handle. The wheat is sown in rows with wide spaces between them, which are utilised for beans and other crops, and no sooner is it removed than daikon (Raphanus sativus), cucumbers, or some other vegetable, takes its place, as the land under careful tillage and copious manuring bears two, and even three, crops, in the year. The soil is trenched for wheat as for all crops except rice, not a weed is to be seen, and the whole country looks like a well-kept garden. The barns in this district are very handsome, and many of their grand roofs have that concave sweep with which we are familiar in the pagoda. The eaves are often eight feet deep, and the thatch three feet thick. Several of the farm-yards have handsome gateways like the ancient “lychgates” of some of our English churchyards much magnified. As animals are not used for milk, draught, or food, and there are no pasture lands, both the country and the farm-yards have a singular silence and an inanimate look; a mean-looking dog and a few fowls being the only representatives of domestic animal life. I long for the lowing of cattle and the bleating of sheep.

At six we reached Tochigi, a large town, formerly the castle town of a daimiyo. Its special manufacture is rope of many kinds, a great deal of hemp being grown in the neighbourhood. Many of the roofs are tiled, and the town has a more solid and handsome appearance than those that we had previously passed through. But from Kasukabe to Tochigi was from bad to worse. I nearly abandoned Japanese travelling altogether, and, if last night had not been a great improvement, I think I should have gone ignominiously back to Tokiyo. The yadoya was a very large one, and, as sixty guests had arrived before me, there was no choice of accommodation, and I had to be contented with a room enclosed on all sides not by fusuma but shoji, and with barely room for my bed, bath, and chair, under a fusty green mosquito net which was a perfect nest of fleas. One side of the room was against a much-frequented passage, and another opened on a small yard upon which three opposite rooms also opened, crowded with some not very sober or decorous travellers. The shoji were full of holes, and often at each hole I saw a human eye. Privacy was a luxury not even to be recalled. Besides the constant application of eyes to the shoji, the servants, who were very noisy and rough, looked into my room constantly without any pretext; the host, a bright, pleasant-looking man, did the same; jugglers, musicians, blind shampooers, and singing girls, all pushed the screens aside; and I began to think that Mr. Campbell was right, and that a lady should not travel alone in Japan. Ito, who had the room next to mine, suggested that robbery was quite likely, and asked to be allowed to take charge of my money, but did not decamp with it during the night! I lay down on my precarious stretcher before eight, but as the night advanced the din of the house increased till it became truly diabolical, and never ceased till after one. Drums, tom-toms, and cymbals were beaten; kotos and samisens screeched and twanged; geishas (professional women with the accomplishments of dancing, singing, and playing) danced — accompanied by songs whose jerking discords were most laughable; story-tellers recited tales in a high key, and the running about and splashing close to my room never ceased. Late at night my precarious shoji were accidentally thrown down, revealing a scene of great hilarity, in which a number of people were bathing and throwing water over each other.

The noise of departures began at daylight, and I was glad to leave at seven. Before you go the fusuma are slidden back, and what was your room becomes part of a great, open, matted space — an arrangement which effectually prevents fustiness. Though the road was up a slight incline, and the men were too tired to trot, we made thirty miles in nine hours. The kindliness and courtesy of the coolies to me and to each other was a constant source of pleasure to me. It is most amusing to see the elaborate politeness of the greetings of men clothed only in hats and maros. The hat is invariably removed when they speak to each other, and three profound bows are never omitted.

Soon after leaving the yadoya we passed through a wide street with the largest and handsomest houses I have yet seen on both sides. They were all open in front; their highly-polished floors and passages looked like still water; the kakemonos, or wall-pictures, on their side-walls were extremely beautiful; and their mats were very fine and white. There were large gardens at the back, with fountains and flowers, and streams, crossed by light stone bridges, sometimes flowed through the houses. From the signs I supposed them to be yadoyas, but on asking Ito why we had not put up at one of them, he replied that they were all kashitsukeya, or tea-houses of disreputable character — a very sad fact. 8

As we journeyed the country became prettier and prettier, rolling up to abrupt wooded hills with mountains in the clouds behind. The farming villages are comfortable and embowered in wood, and the richer farmers seclude their dwellings by closely-clipped hedges, or rather screens, two feet wide, and often twenty feet high. Tea grew near every house, and its leaves were being gathered and dried on mats. Signs of silk culture began to appear in shrubberies of mulberry trees, and white and sulphur yellow cocoons were lying in the sun along the road in flat trays. Numbers of women sat in the fronts of the houses weaving cotton cloth fifteen inches wide, and cotton yarn, mostly imported from England, was being dyed in all the villages — the dye used being a native indigo, the Polygonum tinctorium. Old women were spinning, and young and old usually pursued their avocations with wise-looking babies tucked into the backs of their dresses, and peering cunningly over their shoulders. Even little girls of seven and eight were playing at children’s games with babies on their backs, and those who were too small to carry real ones had big dolls strapped on in similar fashion. Innumerable villages, crowded houses, and babies in all, give one the impression of a very populous country.

As the day wore on in its brightness and glory the pictures became more varied and beautiful. Great snow-slashed mountains looked over the foothills, on whose steep sides the dark blue green of pine and cryptomeria was lighted up by the spring tints of deciduous trees. There were groves of cryptomeria on small hills crowned by Shinto shrines, approached by grand flights of stone stairs. The red gold of the harvest fields contrasted with the fresh green and exquisite leafage of the hemp; rose and white azaleas lighted up the copse-woods; and when the broad road passed into the colossal avenue of cryptomeria which overshadows the way to the sacred shrines of Nikko, and tremulous sunbeams and shadows flecked the grass, I felt that Japan was beautiful, and that the mud flats of Yedo were only an ugly dream!

Two roads lead to Nikko. I avoided the one usually taken by Utsunomiya, and by doing so lost the most magnificent of the two avenues, which extends for nearly fifty miles along the great highway called the Oshiu-kaido. Along the Reiheishi-kaido, the road by which I came, it extends for thirty miles, and the two, broken frequently by villages, converge upon the village of Imaichi, eight miles from Nikko, where they unite, and only terminate at the entrance of the town. They are said to have been planted as an offering to the buried Shoguns by a man who was too poor to place a bronze lantern at their shrines. A grander monument could not have been devised, and they are probably the grandest things of their kind in the world. The avenue of the Reiheishi-kaido is a good carriage road with sloping banks eight feet high, covered with grass and ferns. At the top of these are the cryptomeria, then two grassy walks, and between these and the cultivation a screen of saplings and brushwood. A great many of the trees become two at four feet from the ground. Many of the stems are twenty-seven feet in girth; they do not diminish or branch till they have reached a height of from 50 to 60 feet, and the appearance of altitude is aided by the longitudinal splitting of the reddish coloured bark into strips about two inches wide. The trees are pyramidal, and at a little distance resemble cedars. There is a deep solemnity about this glorious avenue with its broad shade and dancing lights, and the rare glimpses of high mountains. Instinct alone would tell one that it leads to something which must be grand and beautiful like itself. It is broken occasionally by small villages with big bells suspended between double poles; by wayside shrines with offerings of rags and flowers; by stone effigies of Buddha and his disciples, mostly defaced or overthrown, all wearing the same expression of beatified rest and indifference to mundane affairs; and by temples of lacquered wood falling to decay, whose bells sent their surpassingly sweet tones far on the evening air.

Imaichi, where the two stately aisles unite, is a long uphill street, with a clear mountain stream enclosed in a stone channel, and crossed by hewn stone slabs running down the middle. In a room built over the stream, and commanding a view up and down the street, two policemen sat writing. It looks a dull place without much traffic, as if oppressed by the stateliness of the avenues below it and the shrines above it, but it has a quiet yadoya, where I had a good night’s rest, although my canvas bed was nearly on the ground. We left early this morning in drizzling rain, and went straight up hill under the cryptomeria for eight miles. The vegetation is as profuse as one would expect in so damp and hot a summer climate, and from the prodigious rainfall of the mountains; every stone is covered with moss, and the road-sides are green with the Protococcus viridis and several species of Marchantia. We were among the foothills of the Nantaizan mountains at a height of 1000 feet, abrupt in their forms, wooded to their summits, and noisy with the dash and tumble of a thousand streams. The long street of Hachiishi, with its steep-roofed, deep-eaved houses, its warm colouring, and its steep roadway with steps at intervals, has a sort of Swiss picturesqueness as you enter it, as you must, on foot, while your kurumas are hauled and lifted up the steps; nor is the resemblance given by steep roofs, pines, and mountains patched with coniferae, altogether lost as you ascend the steep street, and see wood carvings and quaint baskets of wood and grass offered everywhere for sale. It is a truly dull, quaint street, and the people come out to stare at a foreigner as if foreigners had not become common events since 1870, when Sir H. and Lady Parkes, the first Europeans who were permitted to visit Nikko, took up their abode in the Imperial Hombo. It is a doll’s street with small low houses, so finely matted, so exquisitely clean, so finically neat, so light and delicate, that even when I entered them without my boots I felt like a “bull in a china shop,” as if my mere weight must smash through and destroy. The street is so painfully clean that I should no more think of walking over it in muddy boots than over a drawing-room carpet. It has a silent mountain look, and most of its shops sell specialties, lacquer work, boxes of sweetmeats made of black beans and sugar, all sorts of boxes, trays, cups, and stands, made of plain, polished wood, and more grotesque articles made from the roots of trees.

It was not part of my plan to stay at the beautiful yadoya which receives foreigners in Hachiishi, and I sent Ito half a mile farther with a note in Japanese to the owner of the house where I now am, while I sat on a rocky eminence at the top of the street, unmolested by anybody, looking over to the solemn groves upon the mountains, where the two greatest of the Shoguns “sleep in glory.” Below, the rushing Daiyagawa, swollen by the night’s rain, thundered through a narrow gorge. Beyond, colossal flights of stone stairs stretch mysteriously away among cryptomeria groves, above which tower the Nikkosan mountains. Just where the torrent finds its impetuosity checked by two stone walls, it is spanned by a bridge, 84 feet long by 18 wide, of dull red lacquer, resting on two stone piers on either side, connected by two transverse stone beams. A welcome bit of colour it is amidst the masses of dark greens and soft greys, though there is nothing imposing in its structure, and its interest consists in being the Mihashi, or Sacred Bridge, built in 1636, formerly open only to the Shoguns, the envoy of the Mikado, and to pilgrims twice a year. Both its gates are locked. Grand and lonely Nikko looks, the home of rain and mist. Kuruma roads end here, and if you wish to go any farther, you must either walk, ride, or be carried.

Ito was long away, and the coolies kept addressing me in Japanese, which made me feel helpless and solitary, and eventually they shouldered my baggage, and, descending a flight of steps, we crossed the river by the secular bridge, and shortly met my host, Kanaya, a very bright, pleasant-looking man, who bowed nearly to the earth. Terraced roads in every direction lead through cryptomerias to the shrines; and this one passes many a stately enclosure, but leads away from the temples, and though it is the highway to Chiuzenjii, a place of popular pilgrimage, Yumoto, a place of popular resort, and several other villages, it is very rugged, and, having flights of stone steps at intervals, is only practicable for horses and pedestrians.

At the house, with the appearance of which I was at once delighted, I regretfully parted with my coolies, who had served me kindly and faithfully. They had paid me many little attentions, such as always beating the dust out of my dress, inflating my air-pillow, and bringing me flowers, and were always grateful when I walked up hills; and just now, after going for a frolic to the mountains, they called to wish me good-bye, bringing branches of azaleas.

I. L. B.

8 In my northern journey I was very frequently obliged to put up with rough and dirty accommodation, because the better sort of houses were of this class. If there are few sights which shock the traveller, there is much even on the surface to indicate vices which degrade and enslave the manhood of Japan.

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