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Izzy Bird, Interlude 2

Interlude #2

According to Falser Havely,* at the age of 18, Bird had a “fibrous tumor” removed from her spine.

I know. I’m making that face, too. It sounds like a horrible surgery now — but imagine what it was like in 1849. Was anesthesia even a thing?** What about germ theory?*** It’s a wonder she survived, even though she would have severe back pain for the rest of her remarkably long life.

Only traveling seemed to bring relief. “She felt less pain on a mud floor or in a wet tent, riding on a horse, a mule, and elephant, a yak, or even a cow than she did on any padded Victorian sofa.”

In some ways, traveling became an addiction for Bird and she always needed to increase the dose. Her first trip was to the American East Coast. A few years later, she went to New York and the Mediterranean but didn’t get the same thrill. So in her early 40s, she went to the Sandwich Islands in the Pacific and onward to the American West, which was still a mostly undeveloped**** frontier. And then off to Asia, including Hokkaido, Tibet, China, Persia, Kurdistan, Korea, and Marrakech. She wrote about each trip in the form of letters back to her sister; then edited the letters when she returned to Britain. John Murray published the result.

Since she had family money, the extra income from her work was put to work. When she first visited Western Scotland, which had been hit by the potato blight in the 1840s, she was shocked by the conditions there. Bird contributed money to buy “deep-sea fishing boats, equipment for tweed manufacture, and for kitting out emigrant families (who were all to often dumped on the shores of the New World with no more than the clothes on their backs).” Once she spent some time in Asia, her extra cash went to charity hospitals there.

As we know from her trip to Japan, her journeys were not without danger, almost always from the wilderness rather than humans. Her trip to Korea, however, was cut shot when the Japanese invaded the peninsula, shot the King and Queen (among many others), and a very small war ensued. Isabella “had to leave with no more than the clothes she stood up in for Chefoo (Yantai) in China. She did not even have enough money for a rickshaw, and presented herself hot, disheveled, and somewhat nervously at the British Consulate.”

For what it’s worth, it sounds like she had a lovely time in Korea before it all went pear-shaped.


* or Halser Favely, as I keep typing

** chloroform was just starting to be used and, maybe, ether. Mostly, it was just a whole lot of morphine and hope for the best.

*** Ignatz Semmelweis was just starting his work and the cholera epidemic in London was still a few years off.

**** by white people

Izzy Bird, interlude 1


I promised the start of a new adventure — this one will involve the man who was likely the one true love of Isabella’s life* — but I want to take a quick detour first. This will a) give me a little more time to read further ahead and b) helps round out Our Isabella a little more.

One of the books that rekindled interest in Bird briefly was Cicely Falser Havely’s** This Grand Beyond. It’s a compilation of the best bits of Bird’s books, which is interesting enough. What I found more compelling was Falser Havely’s introduction. It does a great job of putting Bird in context.

“No one ever seems to have told Miss Bird that what she wanted to do was too dangerous for a woman. Nor, of course, was she the sole example of her kind. We think of middle-class Victorian women as living in some kind of purdah, but some of those who managed to escape were able to enjoy an enviable degree of freedom which may in part have been due to the very notions of sexual propriety that tended to keep the majority respectably at home.”

And that's one of the parts of Isabella's story I find most interesting. We think of women’s lives as incredibly constrained in all of the years before we get to, like, 1968. But that's not true.*** Women’s autonomy waxes and wanes throughout the centuries, just like everything else. In Jane Austen's times, certain classes women were free to wander the countryside (even with men) with little social scandal. By Victorian times, this would never have been done. Like any progress, it looks like a series of stair steps rather than a smooth, upward arc.

“Rare though it then was, Isabella Bird's freedom to share with men companionably the pursuits traditionally reserved for men alone became for decades after her time not less but far more difficult for a woman to achieve,” Falser Havely writes.

The standards for acceptance changed during Bird’s time, too, just in the span of a few years. In 1890, she the first women awarded a Fellowship in the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. In 1892, she was one of the first women elected a Fellow in the Royal Geographic Society. Then, by 1893, the Society decided it had too many women and met to remove them all. Her acceptance was always conditional, which is familiar to those who aren't white and male no matter when they lived.

* It wasn’t her husband, btw.

** also British but a modern scholar.

*** It’s also not true after 1968 but that's another argument

Izzy Bird, sailing away

And, so, the last entry from Unbeaten Tracks in Japan* by Isabella Bird.
“S.S. Volga, Christmas Eve, 1878. — The snowy dome of Fujisan reddinging in the sunrise rose above the violet woodlands of Mississippi Bay as we steamed out of Yokohama Harbour on the 19th, and three days later I saw the last of Japan — a rugged coast, lashed by a wintery sea.”**
* I’m going to take Friday off from her adventuring and start a fresh journey on Monday.
** I am exactly the sort of book geek who finds herself reminded of the last line of Infinite Jest:  “And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.”

Izzy Bird, one last attraction


Isabella has spent ten days in Tokyo and has written about virtually none of them. The weather has been lovely and exactly what it should have been two months ago when she started this shindig. Her time has been full of excursions, shopping, dinner parties, and farewell calls.

The only excursion she devotes any detail to is her trip to a crematorium. It’s something that a sect of Buddhists had long practiced until five years ago, when the government banned it.* The ban was lifted three years ago and now 9000 bodies are burned annually.

The governor, after they had a conversation about the Ainu,** loaded her in his personal karuma and sends her into the suburb where the burnings are done. To her eyes, the rural surroundings suggest “farm buildings in Kent” rather than a “horrible funeral pyre.”

The dead are brought to this temple, which has four rooms with earthen floors and mud walls. There are small red earthenware urn and tongs for sale to relatives. A service for the family is done in the pubic space, then the body is interred in a coffin. At 8 p.m., the fire is lit and replenished during the night. By morning, “that which was a human being is a small heap of ashes, which is placed in an urn by the relatives and honorably interred.”

“Thirteen bodies were burned the night before my visit, but there was not the slightest odor in or about the building, and the interpreter told me that, owing to the height of the chimneys, the people of the neighborhood never experience the least annoyance even while the the process is going on.”

Tomorrow will mark our last entry from Japan. The time draws near.

* No one is certain why but it is implied that the government believed it offended the Europeans.

** He asks for her unvarnished opinions. She doesn’t actually give them because this is Japan. Asking for unvarnished opinions doesn’t mean they are actually desired.

Izzy Bird, of course there is


Isabella is sailing from Hakodate to Yokohama. It should have taken 50 hours. It took five days.

Screen Shot 2020-06-23 at 4.30.26 PM

The first two days, Isabella and her two fellow British travelers stayed in their cabins and were tossed around by the sea. On the day they emerged, a “great heat came on with suffocating closeness, the mercury rose to 85 degrees, and we encountered a ‘typhoon,’ otherwise a ‘cyclone,’ otherwise a ‘revolving hurricane,’ which lasted for 25 hours and ‘jettisoned’ the cargo.”*

The captain drew a diagram of the storm for Isabella and showed all of his attempts to avoid the worst of it, to varying degrees of success. Once it passed, the typhoon was followed by dense fog. Because of course it did.

When they finally land in Yokohama, they are greeted with destruction, which you’d imagine would happen if a 19th century town was hit by a typhoon. The railway is flooded and the the rice crop is likely ruined. Once train travel is possible again, Isabella heads to Tokyo and settles in for a period of “rest and ease” under Mr Wilkinson’s roof**.

“The afternoon was bright and sunny, and Tokyo was looking its best. The long lines of yashikis*** looked handsome, the castle moat was so full of the gigantic leaves of the lotus that the water was hardly visible, the grass embankments of the upper moat were a brilliant green, the pines on their summits stood out boldly against the clear sky, the hill on which the legation stands looked dry and cheerful, and, better than all, I had a most kindly welcome from those who have made this house my home in a strange land.”


* I feel like “jettisoned the cargo” should be code for something but know not what.

** We met him when she was outbound.

*** big houses, essentially

Izzy Bird, the junk


Today is Isabella’s last day in Hokkaido and she is about to step on the boat that will bring her back to Yokohama.

From her room in Hakodate, the sun is “shining brightly over the grey and windy capital, touching the pink peaks of Komono-taki with a deeper red, and is brightening my last impressions, which, like my first, are very pleasant.”

Sixty boats are in the bay, most Japanese but some are foreign. She goes on the describe the boat* in great detail, all of which is lost on me. It sounds nice enough.


Today was her last day with Ito. The parting brought her great regret. “He has served me faithfully, and on most common topics I can get much more information through him than from any foreigner. I miss him already, though he insisted on packing for me as usual, and put all my things in order. He goes to a good,** manly master, who will help him to be good and set him a virtuous example, and that is a satisfaction.”

She boards the boat on placid seas and is traveling with two other British people. The captain promises a 50-hour sail and a “rapid and delightful passage before us.” That, however, is not what happens.

* It’s a junk, technically.

** in this instance, “good” means “like a white European christian.” But this was waaaaaay before the British started to reckon with being colonizers so.

Izzy Bird, angry at the ocean


Isabella is on her way to Mori. The horses remain disagreeable.

Like me during my last half-marathon,* Isabella is angry at the ocean. As beautiful as it is, she and the disagreeable horses have had enough of it. “[We] were either walking in a lather of sea foam or were crowded between the cliff and the sea, every larger wave breaking over my foot and irreverently splashing my face; the surges were so loud-lounged and incessant, throwing themselves on the beach with a tremendous boom, and drawing the shingle back with them an equally tremendous rattle, so impolite and noisy, bent only on showing their strength, reckless, rude, self-willed, and inconsiderate! The purposeless display of force, and this incessant waste of power, and the noise self-assertion in both, approach vulgarity!”

Been there.

When she arrives in Mori, which she’d left just three weeks before, she was “very thankful to have accomplished my object without disappointment, disaster, or any considerable discomfort.”

If Ito didn’t absolutely need to be “returned to his master” soon, she’d head back out into the wilds, she says. I doubt Ito would show the same enthusiasm.

Still, a couple of mornings later, when Ito wakes her, he asks: Are you sorry it’s the last day? I am.

She is and is “very sorry to part with the boy who had made himself more useful and invaluable than ever before.”

After they mount up, Isabella sends Ito ahead to Hakodate so that he can collect her letters at the Consulate because she hopes to simply ride to the yadoya and avoid anyone until she can get a bath and a good night’s sleep. Instead, despite dodging into an alley when she spies him, she is found by the Consul himself, who is dressed for a formal dinner.

“… they saw me, and did not wonder that I wished to escape notice, for my old bento’s hat, my torn green paper waterproof, and my riding-skirt and boots, were not only splashed but CAKED with mud, and I had the general look of a person ‘fresh from the wilds.’”

We’re not quite done with Japan yet, FYI. But soon will be.



Izzy Bird, further into the woods

Just so that you can take some time to emotionally prepare, we are nearing the end of this particular journey of Isabella’s. *
After another harrowing trip up the forested mountain, during which Ito, “whose horse could not keep up with the others, was lost, or rather lost himself,” Isabella came upon a remote Japanese house. Currently, it is occupied by the a few Ainu who have seen better days.
“The house and its inmates were a study. Everything was broken and decayed, and the dirt was appalling. A very ugly Ainu woman, hardly human in her ugliness, was spitting bark fiber.”
A “grand old man” is sitting by a cooking pot. “Old, and sitting among ruins, he represented the fate of a race which, living, has no history, and perishing, leaves no monument.”
They stop for an extra day in Oshamambe** for Isabella to rest her spine. It’s easy to forget that she suffers from a chronic illness but she does, on occasion, mention that she’ll take an extra day here and there to recover from all of the horseback riding.
Oshamambe is not the best choice for an extra long rest because it “looks dismal even in the sunshine, decayed and dissipated, with many people pounding about in it doing nothing, with the dazed look which over-indulgence in sake gives to the eyes. In her yadoya during the night, one of the screens falls down and she sees “six Japanese sleeping in a row, each head on a wooden pillow.”
The view will improve soon, by the way, as they turn back to the coast.
* There is *a lot* more to talk about and other journeys besides but we will not be in Japan anymore. It is a hard place to leave.
** This town's mascot, Manbe-kun, is very controversial. And has an iris on his head that wilts when he gets tired in addition to crab-claws for hands and pollution sensors for nipples.

Izzy Bird, bully and coward


Isabella is riding into even more remote countryside. The paths are so bad that she is charged an extra fee for the horses — and once she made to her destination, she happily says she would have paid twice the price because is was harrowing.

At the Nopkobets river crossing, they are ferried by an Ainu, who is, it seems, a big ball of hair, “which on his shoulders was wavy like that of a retriever, and rendered clothing quite needless either for covering or warmth. A wavy, black beard rippled nearly to his waist over his furry chest, and, with his black locks hanging in masses over his shoulders, he would have looked a thorough savage had it not been for the exceeding sweetness of his smile and eyes.”

The horses remain terrible and terribly abused. Isabella does her best to cut down on the cruelty but can only do so much. She does, however, give Ito a good talking to because, while he treated the Japanese horses with deference and skill, he has zero problem with beating the Ainu horses mercilessly. She spots him beating on, rides back to him, and says, “‘ You are a bully, and, like all bullies, a coward.’ Imagine my aggravation when, at our first halt, he brought out his note-book, as usual, and quietly asked me the meaning of the words ‘bully’ and ‘coward.’ It was perfectly impossible to explain them, so I said a bully was the worst name I could call him, and that a coward was the meanest thing a man could be….he seemed rather crestfallen, and has not beaten his horse since, in my sight at least.”

Eventually and after four of the horses get in a fight while on another ferry, they arrive in a small Ainu village in a wood about a half-mile from the sea. “The room was musty, and, being rarely used, swarmed with spiders… Food was hardly to be expected, yet they gave me rice, potatoes, and black beans boiled in equal parts brine and syrup, which are very palatable.”

Which is what I hope for whatever your next meal should be: very palatable.*

* Because I love a footnote, here’s another Hokkaido travelogue. This one by Junot Diaz from 2015:

Izzy Bird, just taking it all in

Because Isabella is in a beautiful part of the country and in a mood to capture it all in a letter, I’m going to let her words do the work.
“It was a heavenly morning. The deep blue sky was perfectly unclouded, a blue sea with a diamond flash and a ‘many twinkling smile’ rippled gently on the golden sands of the the lovely little bay, and opposite, 40 miles away, the pink summit of the volcano of Komono-taki, forming the south-western point of Volcano Bay, rose into a softening veil of tender blue haze. As the day began, so it closed. I should like to have detained each hour as it passed. It was thorough enjoyment. I visited a good many of the Mororan Ainus, saw their well-grown bear in its cage*, and, tearing myself away with difficulty at noon, crossed a steep hill and wood of scrub oak, and then followed a trail which runs on the amber sands close to the sea, crosses several small streams, the ocean always on the left and wooded ranges on the right.
“Usu is a dream of beauty and peace. There is not much difference between the height of high and low water on this coast, and the lake-like illusion would have been perfect had it not been that the rocks were tinged with gold for a foot or so above the sea be a delicate species of fucus.** In the exquisite inlet where I spent the night, trees and trailers drooped into the water and were mirrored in it, their green heavy shadows lying sharp against the sunset gold and pink of the rest of the bay…
“In spite of Ito’s remonstrances and his protestations that an exceptionally good supper would be spoiled, I left my rat-haunted room, with its tarnished gilding and precarious fusuma, to get to the last of the pink and lemon-colored glory, going up the staircase in the stone-faced embankment, and up a broad, well-paved avenue, to a large temple, within whose open door I sat for some time absolutely alone, and in a wonderful stillness; for the sweet-toned bell which vainly chimes for vespers amidst this bear-worshipping population had ceased.”
I know. I want to go there, too.***
* Like one does.
** photo attached.
Fucus_ceranoides _Pieterburen _the_Netherlands
*** while I was scouting around for pictures (and found none that fit, really), I found this and can now think of nothing else.