Friday, December 19, 2014

Nonfiction RC #19

I read this book for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2014.

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: An Account of Travels in the Interior Including Visits to the Aborigines of Yezo and the Shrine of Nikko – Isabella Bird

Miss Bird is known as the most famous Victorian lady traveler. Published in 1880, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan was the result of her first East Asian journey, one made after her sojourn in the US, which produced the memorable A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. She was an accurate observer, had a keen eye for plants, and had interest in public sanitation and medical care in hospitals.

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan is a selection of the letters she sent to her sister during her seven months in Japan in 1878. She began her trip in Yokohama and Edo (then newly named Tokyo). With her 18-year-old guide Ito, she made her way through the prefectures of Tochigi (Nikko), Niigata, Yamagata, Akita, and Aomori. Luckily it was summer when she passed through mountainous snow country. Then she crossed the Tsugaru Strait to Yezo (now called Hokkaido), where she learned about the culture of the Ainu, an indigenous people of Japan and Russia.

In the northeastern part of the country, she was definitely the first foreigner that local people had seen in their lives. Imagine such a sight for country people, living narrow lives, toiling in unmitigated drudgery, eating a monotonous diet, never seeing strangers. Miss Bird was mistaken not only for a man but also for:

Near a large village we were riding on a causeway through the rice-fields, Ito on the pack-horse in front, when we met a number of children returning from school, who, on getting near us, turned, ran away, and even jumped into the ditches, screaming as they ran. The mago ran after them, caught the hindmost boy, and dragged him back—the boy scared and struggling, the man laughing. The boy said that they thought that Ito was a monkey-player, i.e. the keeper of a monkey theatre, I a big ape, and the poles of my bed the scaffolding of the stage!

Generally she found people well-mannered though nearly naked, "lamentably dirty and swarming with vermin." That she tolerated amazing discomforts and privations on her rough journey is impressive. She lived off eggs, rice, tofu cucumbers, and the occasional chicken. Of course, she’s a lady of her time with the opinions about food, evil smells, dirt and squalor of poverty that we would expect in a country parson’s daughter.

Happily, not all that frequent are remarks in which she names names like “These preliminaries being settled, Mr. Tomatsu Aoki, the Chief Director, and Mr. Shude Kane Nigishi, the principal teacher, both looking more like monkeys than men in their European clothes, lionised me.” She also observes, like many foreign employees that came after her – like me – “An enormous quantity of superfluous writing is done by all officialdom in Japan, and one usually sees policemen writing. What comes of it I don't know.”

I admire Isabella Bird and thus recommend her book, at least as realistic counter to the gushing of, say, Lafcadio Hearn. Any reader with interest in determined women, travel narratives, or early modern Japan should read this book.

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