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Izzy Bird, cucumbers and horses


From her yadoya in Shingoji, Isabella witnesses a small procession walk past the house, “consisting of a decorated palanquin, carried and followed by priests, with capes and stoles over crimson chasubles and white cassocks. This ark, they said, contained papers inscribed with the names of people and the evils they feared, and the priests were carrying the papers to throw in the river.”

So maybe that’s a tradition to revive this weekend? Couldn’t hurt.

After her night there, Isabella takes a boat to Kubota, which as far as I can tell, is essentially what we now call Akita.* It’s a good-sized city of 36,000 people. Ito takes her for “foreign food, ”which is a good beef-steak, an excellent curry, cucumbers**, and foreign salt and mustard. It was a meal she needed.


During the next few days, she visits a hospital, where the “odour of carbolic acid pervades…there were spray producers enough to satisfy Dr. Lister!” She also visits the Normal school, which is where teachers are taught how to teach.*** The approves of the natural science curriculum, which uses Ganot’s Physics as its text.

“My next visit was to a factory of handloom silk weavers, where 180 hands, half to them women, are employed. These new industrial openings for respectable employment for women and girls are very important and tend in the direction of a much-needed social reform.”


(The photo above is from 1910ish but you get the idea.)

“On the whole, I like Kubota better than any other Japanese town, perhaps because it is so completely Japanese and has no air of having seen better days….I have become quite used to Japanese life, and think that I learn more about it in traveling in this solitary way than I should otherwise.”

*Kubota was the name of the castle that once stood in the center of what’s now Akita. I think.

** naturally

*** the SUNY school where I taught and my husband teaches started as a Normal school.



Isabella is stuck in Akita/Kubota because the rain “is so ceaseless as to be truly ‘a plague of immoderate rain and waters.’” Others arriving at the yadoya have tales of impassable roads and washed-away bridges. She and Ito are staying put until it improves.

She’s taking this time to write a bit about Ito. While her observations go into great detail,* a couple of sentences stand out:

“He is never late, never dawdles, never goes out in the evenings except on errands for me, never touches sake, is never disobedient, never requires to be told the same thing twice, is always within hearing, has a good deal of tact as to what he repeats, and all with an undisguised view of his own interest.”

Most of his wages are sent to his mom, a widow, and the remainder is spent on sweets, tobacco, and “the luxury of frequent shampooing.”

His strongest feeling, Isabella thinks, is his patriotism. “I never met with such a boastful display of it, except in a Scotchman or an American.”

She also has some words to say about Japanese horses:

“I have now ridden, or rather sat, upon 76 horses, all horrible. They all stumble. The loins of some are higher than their shoulders, so that one slips forwards, and the back-bones of all are ridgy. Their hind feet grow into points which turn up, and their hind legs all turn outwards, like those of a cat, from carrying heavy burdens at an early age. The same thing gives them a roll in their gait, which is increased by their awkward shoes.”

However, “they are neither kicked nor beaten, not threatened in rough tones, and when they die they are decently buried, and have stones placed over their graves.”

Tomorrow, btw, we’ll still be in Kubota BUT there will be a wedding to attend.

* short version: He doesn’t hesitate to “squeeze” a little out of Isabella but nothing to egregious and she could have done worse in a guide.

Izzy Bird, customs of the country


Isabella is just north of Shinjo.* It is July 18 and she is ill enough from bites and stings** that they have called a Japanese doctor for aid.


After Ito puts on his best silk outfit and the doctor, also in silk, prostrates himself the times in front of Isabella, he asks to see her “‘honourable hand,’ which he examined carefully, and then my ‘honourable foot.’ He felt my pulse and looked at my eyes with a magnifying glass, and with much sucking in of his breath — a sign of good breeding and politeness — informed me that I had much fever, which I knew before; then that I must rest, which I also knew; then he lighted his pipe and contemplated me.”

The doctor sends for his black lacquer chest, mixed up a lotion and a “febrifuge,*** which, as it is purely vegetable, I have not hesitated to take, and told me to drink it in hot water, and to avoid sake for a day or two!”

His training and treatments will sound familiar to anyone who has met an acupuncturist. He relies on needles and moxa as well as certain “animal and vegetable medicines,**** and certain kinds of food. The use of leeches and blisters is unknown to him, and he regards mineral drugs with obvious suspicion. He has heard of chloroform, but has never seen it used, and considers that in maternity, it must be fatal either to mother or child. He asked me (and I have twice before been asked the same question) whether it is not by its use that we endeavour to keep down our redundant population!”

* Not sure where to put this but want to share, sometimes, Isabella describes things in amusingly concise ways. My recent favorite is “samisen, that instrument of dismay.”

** left hand stung by a hornet and gadfly; ulcerated spot on her foot where she was bitten by a “horse ant.”

*** fever-reducer

**** ginseng, rhinoceros horn, powdered (tiger?) liver, and “unicorn horn”


This part of Isabella’s journey seems marked by illness and death but not, you know, in a bad way. It’s more that she is interested in all of the routines of life - and has simply encountered more of the “in sickness” ones that the “in health” ones.

She is near Yakote (8 above) and has been invited to a Buddhist funeral. She borrowed an appropriate kimono from the teahouse, which was a thing you could do, apparently. She put a blue hood over her head and Ito coached her through the rituals of the thing.

Once such is that the deceased is laid with his head to the north. A saucer of oil with a lit rush, cakes of uncooked rice dough, and a saucer of incense sticks are nearby. The priests choose the kaimiyo (the posthumous name), write it on a tablet of white wood, then sit by the corpse. Forty-eight hours later, the body is washed, prayed over, has its head shaved, and dressed in a white linen or cotton robe.

Then, it gets interesting.

In this tradition, the person is interred in a large earthenware jar (if you’re wealthy) or a large square wooden box (if not). The body is placed within the container “in the usual squatting position.”* The remainder of the space is filled with vermillion (if you’re wealthy) or chaff (if not).

At the service, the “widow was painted white; her lips were reddened with vermillion; her hair was elaborately dressed and ornamented with carved shell pins; she wore a beautiful dress of sky-blue silk, with a haori** of fine white crepe and a scarlet crepe grilled embroidered in gold, and looked like a bride on her marriage day rather than a widow.”

“Owing to the beauty of the dresses and the amount of blue and white silk,” Isabella observes, “the room had a festal rather than a funereal look.”

The deceased processed to the graveyard by a priest carrying his “dead name” tablet, followed by one carrying a lotus blossom, then ten priest followed, “two by two, chanting litanies from books,” then the coffin carried by four men, then the widow, then everyone else.

Once interred and the prayers were said, the widow walked home unattended. “There were now hired mourners or any signs of grief, but nothing could be more solemn, reverent, and decorous, than the whole service.”

* My hips and knees hurt just thinking about this. There was also some debate about how the bodies are coaxed into this position once rigor mortis sets in. I’ll spare you that.

** A short jacket

Izzy Bird, a discovery


Isabella is still on her way to Yamagata. It is taking a while. But that works out well for me because I have made a big discovery.

Would it feel quite so big if I hadn’t been safer-at-home for the last *checks notes* seven years? Maybe not. But is it big to me right now? YES.

First, the passage that led to the discovery:

Isabella noticed that several of the streams she has passed have cotton cloths suspended above them by four bamboo stakes. There is a long narrow tablet with characters on it nearby. Sometimes, there are flowers in the stakes. Always, there is a wooden water dipper on the cloth.  In this part of her journey, she happened to catch a Buddhist priest pouring water onto the cloth with the dipper. They were heading the same way, so she had the chance to talk with him about what is happening there. It is called “the Flowing Invocation.”

“… the tablet bears on it the kaimiyo, or posthumous name of a woman. The flowers have the same significance as those which loving hands place on the graves of kindred. If there are characters on the cloth, they represent the well-known invocation of the Nichiren sect, Namu mil ten ge kio.* The pouring of the water into the cloth … is a prayer.

“I have seldom seen anything more plaintively affecting, for it denotes that a mother in the first joy of maternity has passed away to suffer (according to popular belief) in the Lake of Blood, on of the Buddhist hells, for a sin committed in a former state of being, and it appeals to every passer-by to shorten the penalties of a woman in anguish, for in that lake she must remain until the cloth is so utterly worn out that the water falls through it at once.”**

I am affected just by her description, so much so that I started searching for “the Flowing Incantation” to learn more.

(Actually, I searched for the Flowering Incantation first and found a lot of yoni-talk and jade eggs. It was a weird pocket of the internet that I don’t really recommend.)

Which is when I discovered that in a small Scottish library, there exists a version of Bird’s Japan book that has illustrations and that scans of said edition exist on-line.


Attached are a couple of ‘em for parts we’ve already explored. Enjoy.

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  • It’s usually rendered as “Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō"

** Of course, the wealthy found a work-around and bought cloths that were mostly worn through to begin with. It’s like papal indulgences but with fabric.


Isabella is slogging her way up to Hokkaido still. The going is slow because of mud, bugs, and illness. To be honest, even though I’d be happy to go just about anywhere right now, this part of the trip sounds dreadful. 

At her stop in Yamagata city, she praises most of the shops but discovers that the Japanese, “from the Mikado downwards, have acquired a love of foreign intoxicants, which would be hurtful enough to them if the intoxicants were genuine, but is far worse when they are compounds of vitriol, fusel oil, bad vinegar, and I know not what. I saw two shops in Yamagata which sold champagne of the best brands, Martel’s cognac, Bass’ ale, Medoc, St. Julian, and Scotch whisky, at about one-fifth of their cost price — all poisonous compounds, the sale of which ought to be interdicted.”*

Speaking of Yamagata, their mascot** is Hanagata Beni Chan, which is a princess in cherry-print kimono with safflower flower hair. There’s probably more about her online but most of what I’ve found is in languages I don’t speak so I welcome any insight into what the heck she is holding that you can offer. Is it a pizza? Fun hat? Fireworks?

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The trip doesn’t improve after she leaves Yamagata and goes further into the Dewa mountains. At that night’s stop in Shinjo, “the mosquitos were in the thousands, and I had to go to bed, so as to be out of their reach, before I had finished my wretched meal of sago*** and condensed milk. There was a hot rain all night, my wretched room was dirty and stifling, and rats gnawed my boots and ran away with my cucumbers.”


* Which is why, in the modern age, government agencies keep track of crazy stuff like labeling and adulteration…

** I love Japanese mascots — and they have one for nearly everything. I also love Japanese manhole covers but that is another entry.

*** Tapicoa, more or less

Izzy Bird, keeps pushing north and a detour


I’ve reached a point in this journey where I look at Isabella’s journal and my maps and truly wonder if she’s just making up place names. I’m also not certain why she is choosing the route that she is to get to Hokkaido. Once in Niigata, I’d just go up the coast. And yet, she’s tracking back inland. I suspect there are reasons — but have no idea what they are.

Anyhoo. She’s going roughly towards Yamagata, which is marked 6 on this map.

The beginning of the journey is marked by cucumbers, after she and Ito ride into Kurokawa, which is “much decorated with flags and lanterns, where the people were all congregated at a shrine where there was much drumming, and a few girls, much painted and bedizened,* were dancing or posturing on a raised and covered platform**, in honor of the god of the place, whose matusri or festival it was; and out again, to be mercilessly jolted under the firs in the twilight to a solitary house where the owner made so difficulty about receiving us, but eventually succumbed, and gave me his one upstairs room, exactly five feet high, which hardly allowed of my standing upright with my hat on.***”

While she has a room, she has no dinner. The man who owns the house “had no rice, so I indulged in a feast of cucumbers. I never saw so many eaten as in that district. Children gnaw on them all day long, and even babies on their mothers’ backs suck them with avidity.”

Beyond cucumbers, what marks the district most is its mountains and its remoteness. The climate, she says, is wet in summer and bitterly cold in winter.

“These people never know anything of what we regard as comfort, and in the long winter, when the wretched bridle-tracks are blocked by snow and the freezing wind blows strong, and the families huddle round the smoky fire by the doleful glimmer of the and on, without work, books, or play, to shiver through the long evenings in chilly dreariness, and herd together for warmth at night like animals, their condition must be as miserable as anything short of grinding poverty can make it.”

* “dressed up or decorated gaudily.” It was new to me, too.

**If the onlookers were throwing yen at them, I’d have a much different impression of why they were dancing.

*** I know. She’s taller in my mind, too.


12 (a detour)

We’re going to step away from Isabella’s journey through the mountains for a minute. We’ll get back there tomorrow.

Back when my Bird obsession started, I did what all professional writers do when they become obsessed with something: I farted around on the internet.

While farting around, I discovered many things (many of which will be revealed). One fun discovery is that there are other writers who share my obsession, like Lori Mortensen, who wrote a kid’s book about Bird called Away With Words.

“So where did this idea come from?,” Mortensen wrote on Kirby Lawson’s blog. “Like many people, I’d never heard of Isabella Bird before. However, one day when I was at my computer looking for a new project, I decided to research women’s firsts online—first woman doctor, first woman astronaut, first woman lawyer, etc. When I discovered Isabella Bird was the first woman member of the Royal Geographical Society, I was instantly intrigued.”

It took her ten years to unlock just the right combination of agents, editors, and words to get the book published. All of the detours were worth taking, however, and got her to where she needed to be. She tells Bird’s story with panache — and Kristy Caldwell’s illustrations* are the perfect partner.

There are quotes from Bird’s books interwoven with Mortensen’s text that captures Bird’s discomfort with English society and how her precarious health fed her wanderlust. Plus, there’s a timeline and a bibliography for nerds** who dig them. And there’s a photo of Bird herself, in Manchu dress from the 1880s.

* she also did the illos for a book about Frances Perkins that’ll be out in August. Yes, please.

** raises hand

Izzy Bird, into Honshu


It is July 4 and Isabella is traveling to Niigata by boat on the Agano river. The first photo is a close-up of our trusty map; the second one shows how far she has traveled.


The boat itself is not a big one: 6’ wide and 45’ long. There is one man sculling at the stern and one “pulling an oar” at the bow. It is laden with bags of rice, crates of pottery, and 25 passengers, who get dropped off along the way. They reach Niigata with three. Isabella sits on a chair on top of the cargo and is loving not having to ride a grumpy horse up the mountains in the mud.

It’s a gorgeous trip. For the first 12 miles, the river is “hemmed in by lofty cliffs, studded with visible and sunken rocks, making several abrupt turns and shallowing in many places, hurries a boat swiftly downwards.

“… the downward passages apparently barred by fantastic mountains, which just opened their rocky gates wide enough to let us through, and then closed again. Pinnacles and needles of bare, flushed rock rose out of luxuriant vegetation… There were mountains connected by ridges no broader than a horse’s back, others with great gray buttresses, deep chasms cleft by streams, temples with pagoda roofs on heights, sunny villages with deep-thatched roofs hidden away among blossoming trees, and through rifts in the nearer ranges glimpses of snowy mountains.”

Closer to Niigata, the terrain flattens out and becomes “a broad, full stream winding marvelously through a wooded and tolerably level country…except the boatmen and myself, no one was awake during the hot, silent afternoon — it was dreamy and delicious.”

While Isabella’s trip cannot be had in the modern world, you can travel the same route on the Ban’etsu west line (its mascot is below) or via Journeys in Japan.

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Isabella spent just over a week in Niigata, resting up for the next push to Hokkaido. The weather has been “abominable. The sun has been seen just once, the mountains, which are 30 miles off, not at all. The clouds are a brownish grey, the air moist and motionless, the mercury has varied from 82 degrees in the day to 80 degrees at night…evening does not bring coolness, but myriads of flying, creeping, jumping, running creatures, all with power to hurt, which replace the day mosquitos, villains with spotted legs, which bite and poison one without the warning hum.”

Despite that, she has spent time seeing the town, and has discovered one of the parts of Japanese life I find most charming: backyard gardens that are made to look like forests in miniature.

“… a landscape is skillfully dwarfed in a space often not more than 30 feet square. A lake, a rock-work, a bridge, a stone lantern, and a deformed pine are indispensable; but whenever circumstances and means admit of it, quaintness of all kinds are introduced. Small pavilions, retreats for tea-making, reading, sleeping in quiet and coolness, fishing under cover, and drinking sake; bronze pagodas, cascades falling from the mouths of bronze dragons; rock caves, with old and silver fish darting in and out; lakes with rocky islands, streams crossed by green bridges, just high enough to allow a rat or frog to pass under ….”


IzzyBird, and on...


Isabella’s next few stops are kind of a guess. From Nikko (labeled 3 in the picture), she hops on horseback — the roads are more like trails and kurumas can’t pass — and winds up in Aizu-wakamatsu (4) a couple of days later. The towns she passes through/stays in are a) maybe called something else now; b) no longer exist or c) so anglicized in her letters that they no longer resemble what they are in Japanese.


Regardless, it’s on this path that shit starts getting real. It has also started raining — sometimes a drizzle, sometimes a deluge, and all points in between — which it will do for the next few weeks.

“A road, at this time a quagmire, intersected by a rapid stream, crossed in many places by planks, runs through the village. The stream is at once ‘lavatory’ and ‘drinking fountain.’ People come back from their work, sit on the planks, take off their muddy clothes and wring them out, and bathe their feet in the current.

“On either side there are dwellings, in front of which are much-decayed manure heaps, and the women were engaged in breaking them up and treading them into pulp with their bare feet. All wear the vest and trousers at their work, but only the short petticoats in their houses… the younger children wear nothing but string and an amulet. The persons, clothing, and houses are alive with vermin, and if the word squalor can be applied to independent and industrious people, they were squalid.”

In another village, further on…

“The houses in this region … are hermetically sealed at night, both in summer and winter … literally boxing them in, so that, unless [the house] is falling to pieces, which is rarely the case, none ht the air vitiated by the breathing of many persons, by the emanations from their bodies and clothing, by the miasmata produced by defective domestic arrangements, and by the fumes from charcoal hibachi, can ever be renewed.

“… unless the women work in the fields, they had over charcoal fumes the while day for five months of the year, engaged in the process of cooking, or in the attempt to get warm…. The married women look at if they have never known youth, and their skin is apt to be like tanned leather.”

Your current house-bound quarantine-situation is looking pretty good now, eh?


Isabella is still on the same trail as yesterday. The view is spectacular, for the most part. The horses are not. They bite and kick and grump. They also are wearing big woven shoes that tie onto their hooves, which seem to trip them up more than protect their feet.


It remains wet.

Still, she pushes on — and draws crowds wherever she goes.

“Fully 2000 people had assembled. After I was mounted, I was on the point of removing my Dollond* from the case, which hung on the saddle horn, when a regular stampede occurred, old and young running as fast as they possibly could, children being knocked down in haste of their elders. Ito said that they thought I was taking out a pistol to frighten them, and I made him explain what the object really was, for they are a gentle, harmless people, whom one would not annoy without sincere regret.

“In many European countries, and certainly in some parts of our own, a solitary lady-traveller in a foreign dress would be exposed to rudeness, insult, and extortion, if not actual danger; but I have not met with a single instance of incivility or real overcharge, and there is no rudeness even about the crowding.

“The mago** are anxious that I should not get wet or frightened, and very scrupulous in seeing all straps and loose things are safe at the end of the journey, and, instead of hanging about asking for gratuities, or stopping to drink and gossip, they quickly unload the horses, get a paper from the Transport Agent, and go home… They are so kind and courteous to each other, which is very pleasing. Ito is not pleasing or polite in his manner to me, but when he speaks to his own people he cannot free himself from the shackles of etiquette, and bows as profoundly and uses as many polite phrases as anybody else.”

* spyglass or binoculars

** like coolies, but for horses?

We press on with Izzy Bird


Our Isabella has arrived in Nikko, a city so divine that it is said that a person who has not seen Nikko must never use the word “Kek’ko,” which loosely translates to splendid or delicious or beautiful. She goes on and on about the shrines and the plants and the manicured landscape — and having been to Japan, I could also go on and on about same. The places where people have spent 100s of years refining the natural world are breathtaking.

BUT. YOU GUYS. The most amazing thing about her stop in Nikko is that the house where she stayed is now a museum. It’s on the map and everything.

Who else wants to go there, like, now?


Isabella stayed in Nikko for a few days because she’d been warned that luxuries like flea-less bedding will cease once she leaves the city. While there, tho, she visits Irimichi (maybe Iramichi or Irimachi?) a nearby village.


“In some [houses], the women are weaving, in others spinning cotton. Usually there are three or four together — the mother, the eldest son’s wife, and one to two unmarried girls. The girls marry at sixteen, and shortly these comely, rosy, wholesome-looking creatures pass into haggard, middle-aged women with vacant faces, owning to the blackening of the teeth and the removal of the eyebrows, which, if they do not follow betrothal, are resorted to on the birth of the first child.”

Boys don’t have it much easier, tonsorially. Because of a “hideous practice” of shaving their heads until they turn three, they all look top heavy. After that, the hair is allowed to grow in three tufts, one over each ear and one on the back of the neck. At ten, only the crown is shaved, and at 15, when the boy is officially a man, he wears his hear like one, which is super complicated and we’ll get there.

These village children, she observes, are beloved. “I’ve never saw people take so much delight in their offspring, carrying them about, or holding their hands in walking, watching and entering into their games, supplying them constantly with new toys, taking them to picnics and festivals, never being content without them, and treating other people’s children also with a suitable measure of affection and attention.”

Despite all of this care, the kids (and adults, frankly) are stricken with “repulsive maladies” like scabies, scald-head, ringworm, sore eyes, “unwholesome-looking eruptions” and smallpox scars.

IzzyBird, continued


After some faffing around in Tokyo (or, as she writes, “Tokiyo” or “Yedo”), Isabella is ready to head to Nikko via horse and karuma, a kind of rickshaw. First stop is Kasukabe, which is where my pen is pointing in this picture, more or less.*

{There will be an image here and below once my computer decides to upload them. Carry on.}

A problem is that what these towns were called by the British in 1878 is not what they are called now (or really what they were called then by the people who lived there). For some of these locations, I’m guessing. Bear with me.

Her first night in the countryside is in a yadoya, or rooming house. Her room is about 16 feet square, separated from other rooms by sliding paper screens, which are more hole than screen. There are no locks or, really, any privacy, since the other guests keep staring through the holes at the big white woman in their midst. She does enjoy the tatami mats, even though they are, as promised, full of fleas.

“On one side a man recited Buddhist prayers in a high key; on the other a girl was twanging a samizen, 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 blindd shampooers, and the resonant clap of the fire-watchman who perambulates all Japanese villages, an beats two pieces of woos together in token of vigilance…. It was a life of which I knew nothing, and the mystery was more alarming that 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 odors were fearful; illness was to be feared as well as robbery! So unreasonably I reasoned!”**

* I told you my obsession went deep. I have mf’ng maps.

** In her own footnote, Bird amends this. She really had nothing to worry about — and this was one of the nicer yadoyas she’d stay in.


After her night in Kasukabe, Isabella L. Bird packed up to hit the road to Tochigi, which is where my pen is pointing. It is a large town known for manufacturing hemp rope of many kinds. But first, the journey.

For this part of the trip, the roads are decent enough that she is riding in a kurumas, which is a carriage pulled by locals or, as she calls them, coolies.* This morning, one of them takes ill.

“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 in Kasukabe, and was left behind. He pleased me much be 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.”

After a good 800 words about threshing wheat, which is what they do in this region, but use it not for bread but vermicelli, and a night in an even more horrifying yadoya, Bird is nearly in the splendor of Nikko.**

* There’s a lot to unpack with “coolie.” It’s a slur now for any Asian-appearing person. At the time, maybe, it was more of a descriptor of lower-class laborers, which, admittedly, still not great. Interesting, the first time I ever came across the word was in Robert Heinlein’s Number of Beast, where one of the characters describes a dim-witted (and also maybe castrated, if memory serves?) servant as a coolie.

** Not sarcasm. It’s lovely, as you’ll see.

Izzy Bird, introduction

My new obsession is with Isabella Bird, a British traveler/writer from the 1860s-1890s. I've been sharing her adventures over on Twitter and FB but figured I should have 'em here, too, for those who opt-out of social media. I'm going to lump the first few together, tho, so the blog can catch up. 



A couple of months ago, my Dad gave me a Wall Street Journal article about travel in Japan. In a footnote, the writer mentioned Isabella L. Bird, a British woman who traveled into wilds of Northern Japan in 1878 because she was told that travel would be good for her health. I strongly suspect that her doctor intended for her to travel to, say, the South of France or like, Bath, but, instead, she took on Japan.

(She did *a lot* more but I'll reveal all of that as I go. This is but one in what will be a series of posts about my obsession. Mute/block at will.)

Anyhoo. Japan. 1878. Upper-middle class British woman. At the time, Bird was the same age I am now. She was definitely an anomaly for the time: unmarried and, therefore, childless. She took care of sister, mostly, and most of her travelogues are the letters she wrote back home to Hennie.

So how, you are wondering, does a middle-aged woman who speaks no Japanese travel into the parts of the country where there are no roads? She hires a manservant/translator, Ito, and jumps on a horse. And gets on with it.

First, tho, she has to pack:

"I have a folding-chair -- for in a Japanese home there is nothing but the floor to sit upon, and not even a solid wall to lean against -- an air pillow..., an India-rubber bath*, sheets, a blanket, and last, and more important than all else, a canvas stretcher on light poles,** which an be put together in two minutes and being 2.5 feet high is supposed to be secure from fleas."

* a portable bathtub, basically

** a cot


Isabella L. Bird, my latest obsession and intrepid traveler, is still packing for her trip into Northern Japan. Remember, we're in 1878. She was going into a part of the world about which not a lot was known. I mean, the native people, the Ainu, knew a heck of a lot about it. But because she was a Brit of a certain age, it was only vaguely sketched on the map.

In terms of clothes, food, and other sundries, Bird packed:

"... only a small supply Leibig's extract of meat,* 4lbs 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... "

Thereafter follows an incredibly detailed description of her "Japanese hat." It's braided bamboo in the shape of a large inverted bowl. The light frame inside "fits round the brow and leaves a space of 1.5 inches between the hat and the head for the free circulation of air." There's more, mind, but let's just say she had a nifty hat.

She also has money, which she will obsessively detail the spending of, and her passport. Her whole kit weighs 110 lbs. Ito, her translator/guide, weighs 90. Together, their weight is near the maximum of what can be carried by a Japanese horse.***

With that, she is ready to head out.

"I have suffered from nervousness all day -- the fear of being frightened, of being rudely mobbed, of giving offense 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 on my project, but was ashamed of my cowardice when, on the best authority, I received assurances of its safety."

Even then, bravery isn't the absence of fear but the ability to go on in spite of it.

Tomorrow, we set off.

* it's like a really condensed meat paste that is mostly shelf stable

** travelers in this time period are always worried about constipation, which makes sense if you are eating meat paste

*** remind me to tell you about these horses at some point.

**** essentially, that person in a group project who always lets you down.