Izzy Bird, introduction
We press on with Izzy Bird

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.


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