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.

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

qotd, on the black death and humanism

The plague made no sense, and in making no sense, it helped reorder how human beings understood the world. The changes took time; as Tuchman remarked, “The persistence of the normal is strong.” Yet the Black Death undermined received authority. The shift from faith in institutions — monarchies, aristocracies, papacies — to an emphasis on the individual would be accelerated in the years of the Protestant Reformation and the scientific revolution, but Tuchman posited that the roots of modernity can be traced to the disease-bearing fleas and rats of the 14th century. “Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered,” Tuchman wrote. “God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came into sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.”

from this Jon Meacham piece on pandemics and books.

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.)