Izzy Bird, some homework

Today has been a sprint from one thing to another and it is already almost dinnertime. Isabella* is still chilling at the northeastern-most tip on Honshu and will soon take the ferry to Hokkaido, which is what she'll do on Monday.

In preparation, however, some homework: I'd forgotten that Anthony Bourdain* made a show about Hokkaido in 2011. It's on Hulu, at least, and might be on your favorite streaming service as well. You could do worse than give it a watch this weekend....

Izzy Bird, into the woods


Tomorrow, Isabella will make it to Aomori, which will be her last stop before taking the ferry to the wilds of Hokkaido.* Today, however, she set off in a kuruma into the wilds around her for some sightseeing without Ito along for the ride.
The kuruma runner was “a nice, kind, and merry creature, quite delighted, Ito said, to have a chance of carrying so great a sight as a foreigner into a district which no foreigner has even been seen. In the absolute security of Japanese traveling, which I have fully realised for a long time, I look back upon my fears a Kasukabe with a feeling of self-contempt.”
The scenes around her are lovely. The sun is out and illuminating shades of cobalt and indigo, green blues and blue greens. “A simple, home-like region, a very pleasant land,” she says.
During her trip, she passes through very small villages. The houses are mud. The thatch is “rude.” No windows and, generally, no smoke-holes, so the houses “smoked all over like brick-kilns.” Horses and chickens live on one side of the house; the people on the other. Their horses and crops look good, she says.
On her way back through these same villages in the evening, she saw “unclothed men and women, nude to their waists, were sitting outside the dwellings with the small fry, clothed only in amulets, about them, several big yellow dogs forming part of each family group, and the faces of the dogs, children, and people were all placidly contented!”
In the heart of the wilderness, the found “a fine flight of moss grown steps down to the water, a pretty bridge, two superb stone torii, some handsome stone lanterns, and then a grand flight of steep stone steps up a hillside dark with cryptomeria leads to a small Shinto shrine. Not far off there is a sacred tree, with the token of love and revenge upon it. The whole place is entrancing.”

* Remember? We’re on our way to Hokkaido.

I couldn't find any good art for this part of her trip. But I have been to Hagi, a similar place in a different part of Japan. It looked like this.

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Izzy Bird, black teeth


As we learned yesterday, Isabella’s window overlooks her neighbor’s backyard. This morning, she watched a bride prepare for her wedding.

First, the hair, which was helped along by a female barber. “The coiffure is an erection,* a complete work of art. Two divisions, three inches apart, were made at the top of the head, and the lock of hair between these was combed, stiffened with a bandoline made from the Uvario Japonica**, raised two inches from the forehead, turned back, tied, and pinned to the back hair. The rest was combed from each side to the back, then tied loosely with a twine made of paper. Several switches of false hair … with the aid of a bandoline and a solid pad, the ordinary smooth chignon was produced, to which several loops and bows of hair were added, interwoven with a little dark-blue crepe, spangled with gold.”

Every age and class of woman has her own culturally proscribed hairdo, btw. And once in place, the hair stays in place for a week or more. The traditional wooden pillow helps it from being crushed.

Once arranged, the barber then plucks “every vestige of recalcitrant eyebrow… and every downy hair which dared display itself on the temples and neck.”

The lady herself applies white powder “until her skin looks like a mask. With a camel’s-hair brush she then applied some mixture to her eyelids to make the bright eyes look brighter, the teeth were blackened, or rather reblackened,*** with a feather brush dipped in a solution of gall-nuts and iron-filings — a tiresome and disgusting process… and then a patch of red was placed upon the lower lip.”

The girl’s entire process of getting prepared took three hours. Isabella is lukewarm on the result.

“I cannot say that the effect was pleasing, but the girl thought so, for she turned her head so as to see the general effect in the mirror, smiled, and was satisfied.”


* look, you

** seems to be some kind of creeping vine

*** more than you wanted to know

Izzy Bird, a sight to behold


After an extra day in Ikarigaseki, Isabella is on the move again.

She, Ito, and four hired men traveled 15 miles to Kuroishi. They had to ford the river frequently because bridges were washed out, where, as Isabella says, “I and the baggage got very wet.”

They saw great devastation, lost crops, and downed trees. In one of the villages they traveled through, “the water had risen to a height of four feet, and had washed the lower part of the mud walls away. The people were busy drying their tatami, futons, and clothing, reconstructing their dykes and small bridges, and fishing for logs which were still coming down in large quantities.”

Currently, she is in Kuroishi, famous at the time for making clogs and combs, and is in a lovely room, with a “good view over the surrounding country and of the doings of my neighbors in their back rooms and gardens.” Because it is so pleasant — and because information about the state of the roads further on — she an Ito plan to stay a couple of days to dry out and rest up.

One night, she is kept awake by the sound of many, many drums. Ito tells her she should see it, so she stumbled down the stairs in a kimono, without her hat, and into the dark streets.

It’s a parade. It passes through the streets each night during the first week of August.* At the head of the procession is an ark, into which people put wishes that have been written slips of paper. In the morning, these wishes are tipped into the river to float away.

But she is most taken with the drums and the lanterns. Three “monster drums nearly the height of a man’s body, are strapped to the drummers, ends upward, and 30 small drums, all beaten rub-a-dub-dub without ceasing. There were hundreds of paper lanterns carried on long poles of various lengths around a central lantern, 20 feet high, itself an oblong 6 feet long, with a front and wings, and all kinds of mythical and mystical creatures painted in bright colors on it — a transparency more than a lantern.

“I never saw anything more completely like a fairy scene, the undulating waves of lanterns as they swayed along, the soft lights and soft tints moving aloft in the darkness, the lantern-bearers being in deep shadow.”


* This festival still takes place. You can read about it here.

Izzy Bird, waiting out the flood


Isabella has been confined in the small mountain village of Ikarigaseki for three days now and is weary of it. Those of us who are currently “safer at home” know this weariness all too well.

We, however, are warm, dry, and well-fed. She is none of those things.

Three times per day, Ito and others go to see how far the river has fallen. The short answer each time is “not enough.”

Isabella spends her time talking with the yodoya house-master and watching the cooking, spinning, and other “domestic processes” around her. She’s been lying on her cot, sewing, looking at maps, and reading the papers of the Asiatic Society, some of which survived the trip.

She’s also using her tubes and tins of zinc lotion to treat a number of residents who have eye infections, which is buying her the good will of the locals, who continue to bring her all manner of skin diseases for her inspection, “most of which would never have arisen had cleanliness of clothing and person been attended to. The absence of soap, the infrequency with which clothing is washed, and the absence of linen next to the skin*, cause various cutaneous diseases, which are aggravated by the bites and stings of insects.”

The kids in the town spend their time obeying their parents, flying kites, and learning lessons. School is closed right now because it’s a holiday and there’s a big flood but there will be tests when it reopens. Isabella admires two boys who have fastened paper carts to the backs of two beetles and are seeing how many grains of rice each can pull. You make your own fun, is what I’m saying.

Her “small stock of foreign food has been exhausted, and I have been living here on rice, cucumbers** and salt salmon — so salt that, after being boiled in two waters, it produces a most distressing thirst.”

She doesn’t have to worry about the thirst for too long because the salmon runs out quickly.
“I opened my last resort, a box of Brand’s meat lozenges,*** and found them a mass of moldiness.” For the foreseeable future, it’s just rice and cucumbers as far as the eye can see.

At the end of this entry, she’s certain they’ll leave tomorrow.

Spoiler: she doesn’t.


* The absence of “linen next to the skin” is a big no-no in her book. It comes up frequently.

** yes still.

*** They are “A meal in the vest pocket” according to this WWI-era ad.

Advert 14

Izzy Bird, lashed to a horse


As Isabella writes, “The prophecies concerning difficulties are fulfilled.”

It has been raining for six days and five nights. It has been falling in sheets as she has “only seen for a few minutes at a time on the equator.”*

Everything is damp and covered in mildew. Worse yet, roads, bridges, rice-fields, trees, and hillsides are being swept “in a common ruin” towards the Tsugaru Strait, which is what separates Honshu, where she is, from Hokkaido, where she’s going. It’s “so tantalizingly near; and the simple people are calling on the forgotten gods of the rivers and hills, on the sun and moon, and all the host of heaven, to save them from this ‘plague of immoderate rain and waters.’”**

Like we are all doing now, Isabella has decided to lean into her inability to move. “as I cannot get on, I have ceased to chafe, and am rather inclined to magnify the advantages of the detention, a necessary process, as you would think if you saw my surroundings!”

Her journey to this yadoya in Ikarigaseki was harrowing. The day started wonderfully. The road was new, well-graded and blasted out of the rock in the mountain passes. She admires the view more than any she has seen in Japan, which is saying something, and the travel is easy.

Then the rain starts.

“I have been so rained upon for weeks that at first I took little notice of it, but very soon changes occurred before my eyes which concentrated my attention upon it.”

After a boom and a roar, “a hillside burst, and half the hill, with a noble forest of cryptomeria**** was projected outwards, and the trees, with the land on which they grew, went down heads foremost, diverting a river from its course, and where the forest covered hillside had been there was a great scar, out of which a torrent burst at high pressure, which in half and hour carved for itself a deep raving, and carried into the valley before an avalanche of stones and sand.”

The gorgeous road is gone — and so is any easy path forward. They cross and recross and cross again this new rushing river, with floodwaters rising around them. The waters “crashed and thundered” and trees nearly flung themselves from the hillsides. The magos tie Isabella to the saddle so that she doesn’t get washed away. “As I was helpless from being tied on,” she says, “I confess that I shut my eyes!”

After that last crossing, the men tell her the water is rising to fast and that they need to run. They unbound her, spoke to the horses, and took off.

Remember: these horses are, at best, terrible. This one had nearly worn out his shoes and stumbled at every step. The rain is falling in torrents.

“I speculated on the chance of being washed off my saddle, when suddenly, I saw a shower of sparks; I felt unutterable things; I was choked, bruised, stifled and presently found myself being hauled out of a ditch by three men, and realised that the horse had tumbled in going down a steepish hill and that I had gone over his head.”

She climbs back on, as one should, and after much running and stumbling and splashing, they make it to the town.

Her room in the yadoya is in a loft and the mud at the foot of the ladder is so deep that she wears her Wellington boots. Everything — books, clothes, food — is soaked and has been reduced to a “condition of universal stickiness.” She changes into her kimono because it is less wet than everything else, starts to take a nap, and is roused by Ito, because it looks like the bridge they’d crossed to get there was about to get washed away.

Reader: it did.

“On 30 miles of road,” she writes, “out of 19 bridges, only two remain, and the road itself is almost wholly carried away.”

* different story for a different day

** This is a much longer story but here’s a tidbit: one of our Japanese tour guides*** talked about the Japanese approach to religion (which, again, fascinating but too long for this medium). The relevant slice of that relates to the Shinto tradition of assigning god-like status to bits of nature, like rocks and trees. Our island keeps trying to kill us with volcanos and typhoons and earthquakes, she said. Maybe our offerings to small parts of it will make it stop.

*** she also described Japan as “a very moist country.” Not wrong.

**** It’s a pine tree.

(addendum: this is the mascot for the town she's in. It's a bamboo shoot who loves to run marathons.)

Izzy Bird, on the customs of the country


Here’s a shock: it has started raining again.

So, while we wait, some of Isabella’s observations about the people around here. Warning: her language is very much a reflection of the time.

“This evening, here, as in thousands of other villages, the men came home from their work, ate their food, took their smoke, enjoyed their children, carried them about, watched their games, twisted straw ropes, made straw sandals, split bamboo, wove straw raincoats, and spent time universally in those little economical ingenuities and skillful adaptations which out people (the worse for them) practice perhaps less than any other. Poor though the homes are, the men enjoy them; the children are an attraction at any rate, and the brawling disobedience which often turn our working-class homes into bear-gardens are unknown here, where docility and obedience are inculcated from the cradle as a matter of course.”

Part of this, Isabella observes, is because the men don’t congregate at the sake shop every night like British men do.

“Japanese women have their own gatherings, where gossip and chit-chat, marked by truly Oriental indecorum of speech,* are the staple of talk. I think that in many things, specially in some which lie on the surface, the Japanese are greatly our superiors, but that in many others they are immeasurably behind us. In living together among this courteous, industrious, and civilized people, one comes to forget that one is doing them a gross injustice in comparing their manners and ways with those of a people moulded by many centuries of Christianity. Would to God that we were so Christianized that the comparison might always be favorable to us, which it is not!”

Which is a very interesting thing to unpack from a 2020 perspective. The image I carry around in my head of an Englishwoman of the 1870s is of a woman who sees her way of living as THE way of living. And maybe it was for those who stayed home.

The next few days of the trip are the sort that would lead any traveler to wish she’d stayed home. Reports from the road ahead are grim and she hears without “equanimity that there are great difficulties ahead.”

Shit’s about to get real, y’all.


* Is the “indecorum” the subject matter? The volume? Both?

Izzy Bird, the sun comes out


As promised, the sun has come out. Roads are still more or less muddy bogs and the rivers are too high to cross until the flooding subsides so Isabella and Ito are only planning to go seven miles today. Which is good, because her back is giving her pain.

“… the bright blue sky looked as if it had been well washed,” she writes, and this might be a leading contender for my new favorite Isabella-ism.
Today’s horses are “limp, melancholy…and my mango was half-tipsy, and sang, talked, and jumped the whole way. Sake is frequently taken warm, and in that state produces a very noisy but good-tempered intoxication. I have seen a goo many intoxicated persons, but never one in the least degree quarrelsome; and the effect very soon passes off, leaving, however, an unpleasant nausea for two or three days, warning against excess.”

So now that you know, you can plan your drinking accordingly this evening.

“The sun shone gloriously and brightened the hill-girdled valley in which Odate stands into positive beauty, with the narrow river flinging its bright waters over green and red shingle, lighting it up in glints among the conical hills, some richly wooded with coniferea*, and others merely covered with scrub, which were tumbled about in picturesque confusion. When Japan gets sunshine, its forest-covered hills and garden-like valleys are turned into paradise. In a journey of 600 miles there has hardly been a patch of country this would not have been beautiful in sunlight.”**

Having been to other, equally lovely parts of the country, I can confirm.

As it does for most of us, the sunshine has improved Isabella’s outlook on her travel. After a brief (and unusual) argument with an innkeeper who refuses to let a foreigner stay in his property, she is given one that will, if nothing else, keep the rain off.

This experience is an outlier. In almost every place she has stayed, “there has been a cordial desire that I should be comfortable, and, considering that I have often put up in small, rough hamlets off the great routes even of Japanese travel, the accommodation, minus the fleas and the odors, has been surprisingly excellent, not to be equalled, I should think, in equally remote regions in any country in the world.”

* Every single plant she encounters is given its Latin name. I spent a fair amount of my first read through looking up plants. Britons from this era really loved their greenery.

** I went through my photos to try to find one of random, beautiful roadside scenery and failed. So here's an amusing sign for a dentist.

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Izzy Bird, still it rains


The rain continues. Isabella and Ito continue on through the muck.

There have been rumors on the road that the Japanese Prime Minster has been assassinated and 50 policemen killed. It turns out not have been the case — there was a partial mutiny of the Imperial Guard — but political life is unsettled right now in the country.*

“Very wild political rumours are in the air in these outlandish regions, and it is not very wonderful that the peasantry lack confidence in the existing order of things after the changes of the last ten years, and the recent assassination of the Home Minister. I did not believe the rumour, for fanaticism, even in its wildest moods, usually owes some allegiance to common sense; but it was disturbing, as I have naturally come to feel a deep interest in Japanese affairs.”

They press on and stop for the night in a yadoya that is packed with “storm-staid” travelers.

“Fifty travelers, nearly all men, are here, mostly speaking at the top of their voices, and in a provincial jargon which exasperates Ito. Cooking, bathing, eating, and, worst of all, perpetual drawing water from a well with a creaking hoisting apparatus, are going on from 4:30 in the morning to 11:30 at night, and on both evenings noisy mirth, of alcoholic inspiration, and dissonant performances by geishas have added to the din.”

But Isabella doesn’t want to make the Japanese seem ruder and louder than her British cohorts.

“It would be three times as great were I in equally close proximity to a large hotel kitchen in England, with 50 Britons only separated from me by paper partitions. I had not been long in bed on Saturday night when I was awoken by Ito bringing in an old hen which he said he could stew until tender, and I fell asleep again with its dying squeak in my ears, to be awoke a second time by two policemen wanting for some occult reason to see my passport, and a third time by two men with lanterns scrambling and fumbling about the room for the strings of a mosquito net, which they wanted for another traveler.

“These are among the ludicrous incidents of Japanese traveling.”

Tomorrow, however, the sun comes out ….

* Japan in 1878 was in the middle of the Meiji Restoration, which marked the end of shogun rule and the beginning of Imperial/parlimentary rule. During this time, the country opened its borders and adopted more Western technologies and ideas. It is not a process, however, that went smoothly. More info is here.

Izzy Bird, blind shampooers


Isabella is in Odate, which is in a part of the country where they grow a lot of indigo, and the weather continues to be miserable. Her health is declining, too, maybe from all of the travel they’ve had to do on foot because the rain makes it impossible to ride for very long.


“Only strong people should travel in northern Japan. The inevitable fatigue is much increased by the state of the weather, and doubtless my impressions of the country are affected by it also, as a hamlet in a quagmire in a grey mist or soaking rain is a far less delectable object than the same hamlet in bright sunshine. There has not been such a season for 30 years.

“I have lived in soaked clothes, in spite of my rain cloak,* and have slept on a soaked stretcher in spite of all waterproof wrappings for several days, and still the weather shows no signs of improvement, and the rivers are so high on the northern road that I am storm-bound as well as pain-bound here.”

So, in short, it’s not great.

She does provide some more info about the “blind shampooers.”

“In Japanese towns and villages you hear every evening a man (or men) making a low peculiar whistle as he walks along, and in large towns the noise is quite a nuisance. It is made by bling men; but a blind beggar is never seen throughout Japan, and the blind are an independent, respected, and well-to-do class, carrying on the occupations of shampooing, money-lending, and music.”

*It’s made from a waterproof paper. Later on, she’ll switch to an outer garment made of reeds that the Japanese wear. It’s not much better at keeping her dry, mind, but is interesting to look at.