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Izzy Bird, not a chicken in the pot


Isabella has decided to use her privilege to help the horses by going to the corral herself to choose her mount. Her goal is to select one without a sore back, but the choice is usually between one with a raw spot and those who have “holes in their backs into which I could put my hand, or altogether uncovered spines. The practice does no immediate good, but by showing the Japanese that foreign opinion condemns these cruelties an amendment may eventually be brought about.”

She’s currently in Horobets* and it is, of course, pouring rain once again. She is offered 20 horses to choose from and none is in good shape. “I should like to have them all shot,” she says.**

More are driven down from the hills. “I chose the largest and finest horse I have seen in Japan, with some spirit and action, bit I soon found that he had tender feet,” she says. With that and the buckets of rain, the ride was less than fun. The horse fell five times; she fell a few more, but they made it to their destination: Old Mororan, which is a village of 30 Ainu and 9 Japanese houses.

She and Ito settle in for the night. They use a wooden frame placed over a charcoal brazier to try to dry out their bedding and clothing. Ito buys a chicken for their dinner, “but when he was going to kill it an hour later its owner in much grief returned the money, saying she had brought it up and could not bear to see it killed. This is a wild, outlandish place, but an intuition tells me that it is beautiful.”

* You might have noticed that the places she visits in Hokkaido have -bets in their name. Good eye! That ending is common in the North.

** because the last two entries have been gruesome, let me distract you with one of the more horrifying mascots I’ve seen: Melon Kuma from Yubari City, which isn’t that far from where Isabella currently is.

Izzy Bird, display of brutality


Just as a warning: this one is about how the Japanese in this area break horses* and it’s tough to read. Proceed accordingly.


That night, after her trip to the volcano, Isabella watched a Japanese man bring a handsome young horse into the village street. The horse is saddled and a “most cruel gag bit.” The man wore spurs and carried a stout board.Then he mounted the horse.

“The horse had not been mounted before, and was frightened but not the least vicious. He was spurred into a gallop, and ridden at full speed up and down the street, turned by main force, thrown on his haunches, goaded with the spurs, and cowed by being mercilessly thrashed over the ears and eyes with the piece of board till he was blinded with blood. Whenever he tried to stop from exhaustion he was spurred, jerked, and flogged, till at last, covered with sweat, foam, and blood… he reeled, staggered, and fell, the rider dexterously disengaging himself. As soon as [the horse] was able to stand, he was allowed to crawl into a shed, where he was kept without food till morning, when a child could do anything with him. He was ‘broken,’ effectually spirit-broken, useless for the rest of his life.

“It was a brutal and brutalizing experience, as triumphs of brute force always are.”


* Then, that is. I imagine it’s much more humane now.

Izzy Bird meets a volcano


Isabella is out exploring the countryside around Shiraoi. She has ridden out with only an Ainu guide, leaving Ito back in town. “It was a relief to leave Ito behind,” she says, “and get away with an Ainu, who was at once silent, trustworthy, and faithful.”

The aforementioned countryside is mostly defined by Shikatsu*, a volcano with several cones. It had erupted during the last 50 years and left a vast bed of pumice over the area that washes into the village whenever it rains, which this being Japan, is often.

Looking at the landscape, Isabella points out Tarumai, one of the cones, with its bare grey top and blasted sides, surrounded by mountains “tumbled together in most picturesque confusion, densely covered with forest and cleft by magnificent ravines, here and there opening out into narrow valleys.”

Isabella, of course, wants to ride deep into the forest and up to the top of the volcano. She doesn’t quite make it to the caldera — farther progress in that direction was impossible without “a force of pioneers” — but reaches “a point where there were several great fissures emitting smoke and steam, with occasional subterranean detonations. One fissure was completely lines with exquisite, acicular* crystals of sulphur, which perished with a touch. Lower down there were two hot springs with a deposit of sulphur round their margins, and bubbles of gas, which, from its strong garlic smell, I suppose to be sulphuretted hydrogen.”

Because she is herself, Isabella jammed her arm down into various crevices to find out how deep they were. In one, she is forced “ to withdraw it at once, owing to the great heat, in which some beautiful specimen of tropical ferns were growing. At the same height, I came to a hot spring — hot enough to burst one of my thermometers, which was graded above the boiling point of Fahrenheit; and tying up an egg*** in a pocket-handkerchief and holding it by a stick in the water, it was hard boiled in 8.5 minutes.”

The ride back is a challenge because of the denseness of the forest. At one point, a great loop of vine catches her around the neck and pulls her off of her horse. “The Ainu, whose face was badly scratched, missing me, came back, said never a word, helped me up, brought me some water in a leaf, brought my hat, and we rode on again.”

* More:

** needle shaped and pictured below.

*** I mean, who doesn’t travel with a raw egg, just in case a volcano should happen by?

Izzy Bird, my favorite sentence


Short one today. A series of plumbing emergencies has turned the day into a weird one. BUT I finally get to share one of my favorite lines that Isabella wrote.

“A canter of 17 miles among the damask roses on a very rough horse only took me to Yubets, whose indescribably loneliness fascinated me into spending a night there again, and encountering a wild clatter of wind and rain; and another canter of seven miles the next morning took me to Tomakomai, where I rejoined my kuruma, and after long delay, three trotting Ainus took me to Shiraoi,* where the ‘clear shining after rain,’and the mountains against a lemon-coloured sky, were extremely beautiful; but the Pacific was as unrestful as a guilty thing, and its crash and clamour and the severe cold fatigued me so much that I did not pursue my journey the next day, and had the pleasure of a flying visit from Mr. Von Siebold and Count Diesbach, who bestowed a chicken upon me.”

I mean.

There’s a whole novel right there.

Until tomorrow.

* Shiraoi was the home of the Ainu Museum. It was closed in 2018 because a new museum being built nearby. It was due to open in April 2020 but, um, didn’t for obvious reasons. The website has some great images,** tho:
** I think there may be something off in translation for this building, however:
Screen Shot 2020-06-10 at 2.19.08 PM

Izzy Bird, lovesick Ito


Isabella has left this mountain Ainu tribe and is resting in Members before heading to a coastal Ainu tribe.

Before she left, Benri’s two wives spent the morning making snacks for the road: millet ground into a floury paste, rolled with “unclean fingers” into cakes, then boiled in an unwashed pots. Isabella declined the treats.* She is offered venison fat instead.

She’s now in a yadoya in Mombets, which is a “stormily-situated and most wretched cluster** of 27 decayed houses, some Ainu and some Japanese.” The fishing boats can't get out today and so the fishermen have decided to throw a sake party. “Tipsy men were staggering about and falling flat on their backs, to lie there like dogs till they were sober — Ainu when were vainly endeavoring to drag their drunken lords home, and men of both races were reduced to a beastly equality.”

Even given how sad the scene was, she says, “it is one to be matched in a hundred places in Scotland every Saturday afternoon.”***

Ito, it must be said, is against Isabella’s plan to travel further up the coast and would prefer that they return to Mororan. He thinks “he has made a sufficient sacrifice of personal comfort.” Besides, she points out, there is a very pretty girl in Mororan with whom Ito has left some things and the “desire to see her again is at the bottom of his opposition to the other route.”

And so Isabella pushes up the coast, trailing a sulky young man who’d just rather not.

* I’m of two minds: you should never decline hospitality but food poisoning is also never fun.

** It is not, it seems, a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

*** and this was before soccer hooligans


The photo is another in the "Ainu and their bears" batch and I simply can't get it out of my mind, for reasons that should be obvious if you have ever met a bear.


Izzy Bird, birds and bears


Isabella has a bit more to say about Ainu religious practices. They seem to be Shinto-ish, where parts of the natural world like rocks and trees are worshipped, but not fully. With the one exception,* they “have no temples, and they have neither priests, sacrifices, nor worship.”

She goes onto explain that what she has been labeling “worship,” that is, when they drink sake and wave their hands, it isn’t really what she’d view as “worship.” There is no spiritual act of depreciation or supplication.” Drinking and drunkenness are “inseparably connected, as the more sake the Ainus drink the more devout they are, and the better pleased the gods.”

As stated earlier, their outward symbols of religion, their gods, are wands and posts of peeled wood. They are set up in houses, yes, but also on the banks of rivers and streams, on the edges of precipices, and in mountain passes. Indeed, in the spot in the river where Isabella was unhorsed on her way to the village, four wands have been planted since.**

One of the few outward traditions is to place a dead bird near one of the wands, then let it remain there “till it reaches an advanced stage of putrefaction.”

Bears, however, are the one animal singled out for worship. Usually, in front of the chief’s house, there are tall poles with the fleshless skull of a bear on top of each. There is also usually a stout wooden cage in front as well. In early spring, bear cubs are captured, then “introduced into a dwelling house … where it is suckled by a woman,*** and played with by the children, till it grows to big and rough for domestic ways.” Then it goes into the cage, where it is cared for until autumn, when the Festival of the Bear is celebrated. At which point, the bear is dispatched, **** “accompanied with much sake and a curious dance, in which the men alone take part.”


The bear’s head is then plunked on a tall pole in front of the chief’s house, which, I’m guessing, fills with the smell of rotting bear flesh until the next year’s festival.


* the temple to Yoshitsune, mentioned earlier.

** so the wands are like orange traffic cones? Religion is complicated.

*** I’m picturing breast-feeding here and do not like that mental image one bit.

**** the method varies by village but is largely one of those manhood ritual sorts of things. In some villages, the human “mother” of the bear delivers keening wails as the bear is killed, then beats the killers with stout tree branches.

IzzyBird, weaving details


Isabella is doing what most writers toward the end of a trip, which is dump all of her notes into one very long document that isn’t terribly interesting but is full of very specific details about the size of the houses* and the size of the sleeping mats. While I’m happy that someone has noted all of this, I don’t know that it tells us much about the people. Your mileage may vary.

She talks a bit about the household gods and how they are an “essential part of the furnishing of every house.” In Benri’s house, at the left of the entrance, there are ten white wood wands, with with shavings at the top, stuck into a wall. Another projects from the window that faces the sunrise. “The great god — a white post, two feet high, with spirals of shavings depending from the top — is always planted in the floor, near the wall, on the left side, opposite the fire.”

The men spend the autumn, winter, and spring hunting deer and bear. They’ve been prohibited by the Japanese government from using poison and arrow traps and pitfalls, mostly because too many people were accidentally getting killed by them. But the Ainu still use poisoned arrows and let Isabella know that the eyes of the Japanese can’t be everywhere so maybe keep your eyes out for pitfalls when in the woods.

The women spend the bulk of their time making barkcloth. But unlike Japanese women, Ainu women look cheerful and “eat the same food as men at the same time, laugh and talk before the men, and receive equal support and respect in old age.”

Once this bark is prepared — layers are separated and split into narrow strips — it is time to weave it. “The loom is so simple that I almost fear to represent it as complicated by description,” Isabella says, before going on to make it seem complicated indeed.**

* Benri’s room is 35x25’, for the record, and the height of the walls never exceeds 4’10” because of the length of the reeds they use. This goes on - but because it’s not the kind of information I find interesting, I’m gonna skip it.

** A picture, which also gives you a sense of the tattoos.***


*** It’s a backstrap loom, essentially. It helps if you can see it.

Izzy Bird, tattoos



As Isabella is taking in a cliffside shrine,* Benri, the chief of these Ainu, returns. He is a “square-built, broad-shouldered, elderly man, strong as an ox, and very handsome, but his expression is not pleasing, and his eyes are bloodshot with drinking.”

She has been in this village long enough that the glamour of savage life, as she puts it, has worn off. The grinding poverty is obvious now, as is how dull and routine just trying to stay alive is. But she seems to find beauty in the Ainu, which she doesn’t see in the poor of her own country, because the Ainu are “truthful, and, on the whole, chaste, hospitable, honest, reverent, and kind to the aged.” They do, however, drink a lot but because it is part of their religion, it seems like it would be hard to break them of.

It’s here that Isabella shows that she is a woman of her age — and goes on to describe the Ainu as she would a newly discovered plant, which is to say: in great (but dull) detail. Like, say, the average head circumference of the 30 men in the village (22.1 inches) or that their ears are small and set low.

But: a couple of highlights:

Tattooing is part of their rituals, and most have a broad band above and below the mouth, a band across the knuckles, a pattern on the back of the hand, and a series of bracelets extending to the elbow. The tattoos begin at age five and are done by cutting the skin and rubbing soot in the wound.***

Kids aren’t given names until age 4 or 5. The instant a baby is born, seeds of millet are put in his or her mouth. Boys are preferred to girls but both are highly valued. They are weaned at age 3, more of less.

The kids are universally adored and are, she says, beautiful. At least until the tattooing starts.


* It’s the Yoshitsune Shrine** and Isabella believes she’s the first European to ever stand inside it. They ask her to worship the god, but she declines because she will only worship “God, the Lord of Earth and Heaven.” They don’t force it. Ito, being Japanese, has many, many gods and willingly plays along.

** I want to go there simply so that I can write something useful about it and put it on Trip Advisor because what is there is less than helpful.

*** which seems really unsanitary

many things make a post

And some shameless promo: you know you want to spend 10 minutes with Gary and me talking about what we're reading, yes

Izzy Bird, the good drugs


Isabella was asked to visit a woman who could hardly breathe and found her “very ill of bronchitis, accompanied by much fever. I took her dry, hot hand — such a small hand, tattooed all over the back — and it gave me a strange thrill.”

She laments that a medically trained nurse isn’t there. One could save lives and ease suffering. Instead, they have her and the drugs that she happened to have on hand. She gave the woman some chlorodyne.* Around midnight, they came because she was worse, cold and weak. Isabella is pretty sure she won’t last the night. She tells the family this and they urge her to do something — and as “a last hope I gave her some brandy, with 25 drops of chlorodyne, and a few spoonfuls of very strong beef tea.”


An hour later, they return to Isabella to “tell her that [the woman] felt very drunk;** but, going back to her house, I found her sleeping quietly, and breathing more easily.” So I guess the lesson to take from this is that beef tea and booze is perfect for a cough.

Isabella has a bit of a lie-in after her “nocturnal expeditions and anxiety” and wakes up to a house full of on-edge Ainu. Their fear is that a) she’ll ask the Japanese government to send medicine to them and b) that the Japanese government will think that they’ve told her too much. Mr Von Siebold has told her that the Japanese like to come in and “knock them about.” She isn’t quite sure that’s the case, that the Kaitakushi Department*** means well by them, and, besides removing the oppressive restrictions by which, as a conquered race, they were fettered, treats them fair more humanely and equitably than the U.S. Government, for instance, treats the North American Indians.”****


* not “hydroxychloroquine,” btw. This is a compound pharmacists would mix up that is largely morphine with some hemp, capsicum, and peppermint. But mostly morphine.

** I mean. Fair.

*** Hokkaido’s regional government

**** Again. Fair.