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IzzyBird, continued

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.


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