Izzy Bird, two women


Benri, the chief of the Ainu village Isabella is staying in, has many wives. I wish I could tell you how many but Our Lady Traveler has not yet revealed it to us. There are seven additional women in the household but it’s not clear what all of the relationships are.

Really, it seems like the only wife who matters is the first one.* She’s made the night’s meal over the fire in the fireplace. She “cut wild roots, green beans, seaweed, and shred dried fish and venison, adding millet, water, and some strong smelling fish oil, and set the whole on to stew for three hours, stirring the ‘mess’** now and then with a wooden spoon.”

After dinner and conversation, the men retired to drink a lot of sake, offering it up to the gods.***

Isabella crawled under her mosquito net for the night. Her cot is separated from the rest of the big main room by a tapestry, so she is separated but not really. Ito and one of the Ainu men talked for a bit as she drifted off — but did first ask if it would keep her awake.

Later, after the house was asleep, Noma, the principle wife, lit a fish-oil lamp, “and by the dim light of this rude lamp sewed until midnight a garment of bark cloth which she was ornamenting for her lord with strips of blue cloth, and when I opened my eyes the next morning she was at the window sewing by the earliest daylight. She is the most intelligent-looking of all the women, but looks sad and almost stern, and speaks seldom. Although she is the principle wife of the chief, she is not happy, for she is childless, and I thought that her sad look darkened into something evil as the other wife caressed a fine baby boy.”

She also might be sad because her mother-in-law lives with them and, clearly, doesn’t like pretty much anyone but her son.
According to Isabella, the mother-in-law “is a weird, witch-like woman of 80, with shocks of yellow-white hair, and a stern suspiciousness in her wrinkled face. I have come to feel as if she had the evil eye, as she sits there watching, watching always, and for every knotting the bark thread like one of the Fates, keeping a jealous watch on her son’s two**** wives, and on other young women who come in to weave — neither the dullness not the repose of old age about her; and her eyes gleam with a greedy light when she sees sake, or which she drains a bowl without taking breath. She alone is suspicious of strangers, and she thinks the my visit bodes no good to her tribe. I see her eyes fixed upon me now, and they make me shudder.”

There is something about these passages that make the place come alive for me, maybe because the writing makes the dynamic clear. Is Isabella projecting some of her own baggage onto these women? Maybe? Or is this tension between the mom and the wife more the rule than the exception? And is there a second wife because the first one was barren?

So many questions.


* Again, I’m not saying that as people all of the other wives don’t have value, just that the main one seems to have to most responsibilities.

** Pretty sure she’s not calling it a mess, just using it to describe a meal like you would in the military.

*** There’s a larger entry that I’ll put together about this ritual.

**** Oh. I just needed to read further.

Izzy Bird, savages


The letters get longer for the next bit, mostly because Isabella is deep in the mountains and there is no where she can post them. I’ll break them into more manageable chunks just for the sake of clarity.

For the last three days and two nights she’s been in an Ainu hut in Biratori. She has been overwhelmed by the newness of it all and finally sat down five hours ago to write up her notes. She is still writing them up. She also refers to the Ainu as “savages” throughout, which, through a modern lens is highly problematic.*

Her trip to Biratori is through a “dark and very silent forest. The ‘main road’ sometimes plunges into deep bogs, at others is roughly corduroyed by the roots of trees, and frequently hangs over the edge of abrupt and much-worm declivities, in going up one of which the baggage-horse rolled down bank 30 feet high, and nearly all the tea was lost.” At one point, Isabella’s horse gets bogged down and she has to “scramble upon his neck and jump to terra firma over his ears.”**

They make it to the chief’s dwelling, which is quite large and inhabited by a bunch of people. Even though her entourage’s arrival is a complete surprise to the people who live there, they welcome her warmly. Ito is less thrilled about this whole thing — according to Isabella, “one would have thought he was going to the stake.” While they were advised to bring food for themselves — the Ainu live pretty close to starvation most of the time and visitors shouldn’t tax their resources — Ito has gone above and beyond, packing “chicken, onions, potatoes, French beans, Japanese sauce, tea, rice, a kettle, a stew-pan, and a rice-pan.”

As Isabella is writing up her notes, “a savage is taking a cup of sake by the fire in the centre of the floor. He salutes me by extending his hands and waving them towards his face, and then dips a rod in the sake, and makes six libations to the god — and upright piece of wood with a fringe of shavings*** planted in the floor of the room. Then he waves the cup several times toward himself, makes other libations to the fire, and drinks.”


Tomorrow: everyone’s favorite topic — gender politics!


* I know I keep saying we’re going to unpack this and then not unpacking this. But do I need to? Or is the baggage behind “savage” already known?


*** a quick explainer about Inau.

Izzy Bird, Mr Von S


Isabella is having a very good traveling day.

“Above all, I had a horse so good that he was always trying to run away, and galloped so lightly over the flowery grass that I rode the 17 miles here with great enjoyment. Truly a good horse, good ground to gallop on, and sunshine, make up the sum of enjoyable traveling.”

As is her habit, she noted all of the flora she passed, including: reedy grass as high as the horse’s ears, Ailanthus glandulosus (which was much riddled by the mountain silkworm), and the undergrowth of the familiar Pteris aquilina.

Tonight she is stopping a Japanese village, which she calls a colonization settlement, mainly of displaced samurai from a nearby province. Tomorrow she’ll go deeper into the mountains, which will be more Ainu than Japanese.


(I believe she is at the dot where my pen is pointing. Place names are a little sketchy in this stretch.)

Our Austrian/French friends Mr Von Siebold and Count Diesbach* have turned up in the same village and are returning from their trip to map rivers and drink claret. They were successful with one of those pursuits.

“They have suffered terribly from fleas, mosquitos, and general discomfort, and are much exhausted; but Mr Von S thinks that, in spite of all, a visit to the mountain Ainos** is worth the long journey. As I expected, they have completely failed in their explorations, and have been deserted by Lieutenant Kreitner. I asked Mr Von S to speak to Ito in Japanese about the importance of being kind and courteous to the Ainos whose hospitality I shall receive and Ito is very indignant at this. ‘Treat Ainos politely!’ he says; ‘they’re just dogs; not men,’” which just goes to show you how bad feelings about the native people you’ve displaced are standard across cultures.

* from May 20’s entry, you know, the one about Ito’s Scandal.

** I just now realized that I’ve been spelling it “Ainu” and Bird’s been using “Aino.” I’m 99% certain it’s “Ainu” but it might have been one of those spellings that morphed over time. Bird also  flips between Eskimo and Eskimeaux, fwiw. Language is weird.

Izzy Bird, all the plants

Isabella found the night too cold for good sleep and is back in the saddle early. The Ainu also were up at dawn to round all of the horses up, find the ones who aren’t saddle sore, and set out for the ride up the coast. The road is perfectly level for 13 miles. Isabella is feeling meditative and poetic, judging from this entry.

She spends the journey doing what most upper class women of the age did; she named all of the plants she saw. It’s a long list and includes: a dwarf rose, of a deep crimson colour, with orange, medlar-shaped hips*, as large as crabs, and corollas three inches across; a large rose-red convolvulus**; a blue campanula, with tiers of bells; a blue monkshood, Aconitum Japonicum; the flaunting Calystegia soldanella; purple asters; grass of Parnassus; and yellow lilies. There is also some kind of vine, remarkable only for its unique pistils and “most offensive carrion-like odour.”

After a tea break and change of horses, she is riding again when she realized she’d forgotten to ask if she had a “front horse,” that is, one who insists on being at the front of any horse train.*** “… just as we were going at full speed we came nearly up with the others, and my horse coming abruptly to a full stop, I went six feet over his head into the rose bushes. Ito looking back saw me tightening the saddle-girths, and I never divulged this escapade.”****

Screen Shot 2020-05-21 at 3.33.23 PM

The Ainu in this part of the country scratch out a meagre living by producing fish oil, which means most of the place has a distinctive smell to it. At her evening stop, she went for a stroll to the shore, “and found open sheds much blackened, deserted huts of reeds, long sheds with a nearly insufferable odour from caldrons in which oil had been extracted from last year’s fish, two or three Ainu huts, and two or three grand-looking Ainu, clothing in skins, striding like ghosts over the sandbanks, a number of wolfish dogs, some log canoes or “dug outs,” the bones of a wrecked junk, a quantity of bleached drift-wood, a breach of dark-grey sand, and a tossing expanse of dark-grey ocean under a dull and windy sky.

“The deep boom of the surf was music, and the strange cries of sea birds, and the hoarse notes of the audacious black crows, were all harmonious, for nature, when left to herself, never produces discords either in sound or colour.”


** that’s what she said

*** for the record, I have a “front corgi” who has to lead any dog walk, despite the length of her legs.

**** until now

Izzy Bird, problematic Ainu


Isabella had to hustle for the steamer at the start of today’s journey. She an Ito made it to the boat in time and the journey across the bay to Mororan was longer than she’d hoped but without incident. After a night in “a very small room in a very poor and dirty inn,” where there were no mosquitos and she had a good meal of fish, she waited for the kuruma to take her deeper into Ainu territory.


She calls it “the” kuruma because it is the only one in town — and no one wants to pull it. The first men hired, scampered off with the money, never to be heard from again. More are rounded up; Ito spends the time flirty with a pretty girl, and Isabella gets very zen about the delay.

“Except for the loss of time it made no difference to me, but when the quorum did come up the runners were three such ruffianly-looking men, and were dressed so wildly in bark cloth, that in sending Ito on 12 miles to secure relays, I sent my money along with him.”

Eventually, she caught up with Ito in the next town, despite her kuruma runners never going about a walk and “as if on purpose, taking the vehicle over every stone and into every rut.”

It’s worth it for the view. “Mororan Bay is truly beautiful from the top of the ascent. The coast scenery of Japan generally is the loveliest I have ever seen, except that of a portion of windward Hawaii,* and this yields beauty to none.”


The villages along the coast are mixed Japanese and Ainu. In her eyes, the Ainu houses are more Polynesian than Japanese, and are raised six feet above the ground on stilts. The ainu people themselves look more Eskimo than any other, she says. She now has a team of Ainu kuruma runners, two of which are “young and beardless, their lips were thick, and their mouths very wide… with masses of soft black hair falling on each side of their faces.

“I never saw a face more completely beautiful in features and expression, with a lofty, sad, far-off, gentle, intellectual look, rather that of Sir Noel Paton’s ‘Christ’ than of savage.**”

Paton christ

The scenery remains gorgeous and the travel is easy. “The breeze came up from the sea, rustled the reeds, waved the tall plumes of the Eulalia japonica, and the thunder of the Pacific surges boomed through the air with its grand, deep bass. Poetry and music pervaded the solitude, and my spirit was rested.”***

* Fair.

** there’s a lot to unpack here, yes?

*** This is only sort of related but I just read about a not-relaxing-at-all feature of some onsens and I have to share.

Izzy Bird, noisy neighbors


Apparently, Ito also likes the relative freedom of Hokkaido and is “much more polite and agreeable” lately. He is in “excellent humour,” Isabella writes.


(She started at the bottom orange dot, which is Hakodate; She is riding to the top orange dot, which is Mori.)

The ride to Mori is “wearisome and fatiguing.” There are snakes, no villages, and several very poor tea houses. Here, no one walks and everyone rides. “The men ride at a quick run, sitting on the tops of their pack saddles with their legs crossed above their horses’ necks, and wearing large hats like coal-scuttle bonnets*.”

(Mori looks like a lovely place now.)

The quality of the horses is rapidly dropping, btw. And if you have problems with bugs/arachnids, you might want to stop reading now.

“The horses are infested with ticks, hundreds upon one animal sometimes, and occasionally they become so mad from the irritation that they throw themselves suddenly on the ground, and roll over load and rider. I saw this done twice. The ticks often transfer themselves to the riders.”


Still, Isabella made it to Mori, found an acceptable yadoya, checked herself for ticks**, and settled in. As many modern travelers have also experienced, her fellow guests did not respect quiet hours.

“Some travelers in the next room to mine hired geishas, who played, sang, and danced until two in the morning, and the whole party imbibed sake freely.”

She gives no report on whether or not the dread samizen was played.


* I have attempted to find a picture. I have failed.

** presumably.

Izzy Bird, into the wild again


Isabella is again in the wilds. After a day’s travel, she is not completely off of the beaten track but will be soon. From the isolated lake house where she sits, she is watching a number of men dragging down the hillside a bear carcass, which they have killed with spears.

She is absolutely alone, for the first time in forever, having ridden 18 miles from Hakodate without any help. Ito is bringing up the rear with the rest of the luggage. I suspect this is some sort of penance for his untruths.

This part of Japan was long viewed as the frontier. Things are a little looser here and a little more dangerous. She compares it to how “away down in Texas” would feel to an 1870s New Yorker.

There are forest and swamps and active volcanoes. The forests, she reminds us, “are the hunting grounds of the Ainus, who are complete savages in everything but their disposition, which is said to be so gentle and harmless that I may go among them in perfect safety.”

What isn’t safe are the horses, whose already poor behavior is about to get even worse. Horses are “cheap and abundant.” Every morning, a number are driven down from the hills, corralled in villages, used as needed, then released at night. “… they are very badly used. I have not seen one yet without a sore back, produced by the harsh pack-saddle rubbing up and down the spine, as the loaded animals are driven at a run. They are mostly very poor looking.”

Heading out of Hakodate, however, Isabella was given a better mount, even though she was never able to get him to move above a slow walk.* At one point, she dismounted to walk up a steep hill and calamity ensued.

“The saddle being too loosely girthed, the gear behind it dragged it round and under the body of the horse, and it was too heavy for me to lift on his back again.”**

Fortunately, some passing Japanese merchants bringing sake to the Ainu stop to help her out.


* I have ridden this horse’s cousin in spirit, btw.

** I have also ridden a couple of horses who were very good at inflating themselves as you cinched the saddle, only to deflate themselves at the least opportune time. Horses, it must be said, are assholes.

Izzy Bird, the scandal


When Isabella first hired Ito, she did so without a character reference, for reasons too arcane to go into. Ito told her that he was free to enter into her service. Ito also told Isabella that his previous master, Mr Maries, later asked him to continue on — but Ito said he “had a contract with a lady” and could not.

Which was both true and not-at-all true. Hence the scandal, if you can call a donnybrook about contract law a scandal.*

Mr Maries, as it turns out, is staying in the same house in Hakodate and he and Isabella decided to compare notes about Ito’s service. Turns out Mr Maries, who is on the island collecting botany samples, had a long-standing contract with Ito, who Mr Maries had trained to dry plants and collect seeds. Their contact paid $7 month and Ito bound himself to Mr Maires for as long as he was needed. But when Isabella offered Ito $12, he scampered off with her.

Isabella and Mr Maries (and Ito) agreed that Ito would return to his previous service once Isabella returned from the wilds of Hokkaido. Then Mr Maries*** will travel with his help to China and Formosa** for a year to continue collecting. As well that ends well, I guess. Ito seems to have responded to the whole thing with a shrug.

Isabella is preparing to pack up and head out — but first she had one last dinner at the British Consulate in the town. Also dining that evening were Count Diesbach, of the French Legation, Mr Von Siebold, of the Austrian Legation, and Lieutenant Kreitner, of the Austrian army. They are about to start their own journey into “the interior, intending to cross the sources of the rivers which fall into the sea on the southern coast and measure the heights of some of the mountains. They are ‘well found’ in food and claret, but take such a number of pack-ponies that I predict that they will fail, and that I, who have reduced my luggage to 45 lbs will succeed!”

She’s looking forward to starting off tomorrow. “A visit to the aborigines**** is sure to be full of novel and interesting experiences.”

She’s not wrong.

* I might have oversold this.

** Now Taiwan, sort of, and also China

*** Mr Maries is likely Charles Maries (pictured) who is a botanist of note. Or, at least, interesting enough that he has a wikipedia entry.

**** the Ainu are this northern island’s native people and, like native people nearly everywhere, have been treated amazingly poorly by their invaders

Izzy Bird, volcanos


Isabella has enjoyed her first few nights in Hakodate. She finds the climate “more invigorating than that of the main island. It is Japan, but yet there is a difference somehow. When the mists lift they reveal not mountains smothered in greenery, but naked peaks, volcanoes only recently burnt out with the red ash flaming under the noonday sun, and passing through shades of pink into violet at sundown.”

She's not, however, a fan of the houses, calling them “mean and low. The city looks as if it had just recovered from a conflagration. The houses are nothing but tinder.” Which makes a certain amount of sense, given the volcano situation.*

Residents are very aware of said volcano and use living roofs of sod and crops of grass as precautions against sparks during fires.

She’s been shopping, our Isabella, but hasn’t bought what she covets: the great bear furs and the deep cream-colored furs of the Ainu dogs.** The rest of the shops are full of only “the ordinary articles consumed by a large and poor population.”

That’s pretty much all that was in today’s letter.*** Tomorrow, tho, there is gossip about Ito.


* My next punk band will be called “The Volcano Situation.”

** Ainu dogs are now an AKC-recognized breed called the Hokkaido.

*** Not sure where else to put this so I’ll put it here: Hakodate’s mascot Marimokkori. He’s named after a species of algae and, well, you just need to click over and take a look at his most defining feature.

Izzy Bird, on to Hokkaido


After a muddy journey to Aomori, during which Isabella is flung from her kuruma and saved from being crushed by a wheel by her air-pillow*, she is ready to catch a ferry to Yezo**, which is on Hokkaido. Aomori is a “town of grey houses, grey roofs, and grey stones on roofs, build on a beach of grey sand, round a grey bay — a miserable-looking place, though the capital of the ken.”


As she is boarding the ferry, three policemen demand her passport and travel papers. “For a moment, I wished them and the passport under the waves!”

Still, she makes it on the boat, which is a “little old paddleboat of about 70 tons, with no accommodation but a single cabin on deck. She was as clean and trim as a yacht, and like a yacht, totally unfit for bad weather.”

You know, of course, what’s coming.

They set sail under a brisk northerly breeze, “which chopped round to the south-east, and by 11 blew a gale; the sea ran high, the steamer labored and shipped several heavy seas, much water entered the cabin, the captain came below every half-hour, tapped the barometer, sipped some tea, offered me a lump of sugar, and made a face and a gesture indicative of bad weather, and we were buffeted about mercilessly till 4 a.m., when heavy rain came on and the gale fell temporarily with it.”

Isabella is so impressed by the Captain’s calm stoicness in the face of rough seas that she’s convinced he could be a Briton.


After landfall and finding the house a British couple in Tokyo invited her to stay in once she made it to the north, Isabella is “unfit to enter a civilised dwelling; my clothes, besides being soaked, were coated and splashed with mud to the top of my hat; my gloves and boots were finished, my mud-splashed baggage was soaked with salt water; but I feel a somewhat legitimate triumph at having conquered all obstacles, and having accomplished more than I intended to accomplish when I left Yedo.”

Here she sings the praises of the northern ocean ***, enjoys being in a more English house that has doors that lock and a real bed, and settles in to read the 23 letters from home that have finally caught up with her.


* “I escaped with nothing worse than having my clothes soaked with water and mud, which as I had to keep them on all night, might have given me a cold, but did not.”

** also known as Hakodate (for our purposes, anyway)

*** this is how I know Isabella and I are sisters in spirit. I could not care less about warm beaches with their soft sand. Give me rocks and wind and cold with my ocean and let me wonder in its fierceness.