Book Review: 'Unbeaten Tracks in Japan' by Isabella L. Bird

If, as the British writer L.P. Hartley famously wrote, “the past is a foreign country,” then this paperback reprint of an 1880 travelogue by an intrepid Victorian lady who traversed the back roads of Japan, offers us a doubly alien world, made yet more surreal by the fact that the writer was the last thing early–Meiji rural Japan was expecting.

Book Review: 'Unbeaten Tracks in Japan' by Isabella L. Bird

The daughter of a Yorkshire clergyman, Bird was 47 when she set out for Japan in 1878, “in order to recruit my health,” as she writes. But this seems to have been no more than a convenient excuse, necessary in an age when the notion of a woman globetrotting on her own was evidently frowned upon. The writer simply had itchy feet, as her other travels to the American West, Hawaii, Malaysia, Tibet, Korea, China, Turkey, and Morocco testify.

Written, as many travelogues of the day were, in letter form, the book describes her dissatisfaction at arriving at a city that had already been adequately described by other writers. Like the backpackers of the present day, she seems driven by a hunger for the ‘authentic’ and what she describes as the “real Japan.” In search of this, she decided to travel, largely by pack–horse, with a Japanese interpreter over the forested mountain routes to Nikko, Nigata and the distant north, finally crossing to Hokkaido (then called Yezo) to describe the Ainu.

The journey presents us with fascinating details – blind ‘shampooers,’ holes poked in shoji, straw rain cloaks, and curious crowds of natives. As the pages turn, a picture also emerges of the writer. In Nikko she visits some Japanese houses, which she describes as “so light and delicate, that even when I entered them without my boots I felt like a ‘bull in a china shop,’ as if my mere weight must smash through and destroy.”

Details like this suggest that she was hardly a ballet dancer. Although it is hard to like her at first, over the course of the book, her relentless energy, rugged endurance, and bluff frankness, blissfully unshackled by modern political correctness, eventually win over.

While finding several positives – the gentleness of the common people, the kindness shown to children, etc. – she doesn’t pull her punches when it comes to describing negatives. As an upstanding Victorian Christian lady she also has much to say on the subject of nudity, then a common sight in Japan.

"A coolie servant washed some rice for my dinner, but before doing so took off his clothes, and the woman who cooked it let her kimono fall to her waist before she began to work, as is customary among respectable women,” she writes with a hint of sarcasm.
But, while she is always ready to subject the Japanese to her frequently uncharitable scrutiny, she is also willing to look at herself through their eyes:

"The house–master’s wife and Ito [her interpreter] talked about me unguardedly. I asked what they were saying. ‘She says,’ said he, ‘that you are very polite – for a foreigner,’ he added. I asked what she meant, and found that it was because I took off my boots before I stepped on the matting, and bowed when they handed me the tabako–bon.”

One of the strengths of the book is that the journey, as it heads north, takes us into ever more backward or unspoilt areas, so that we appear to be traveling back in time, from modernizing Meiji Japan to the primitive tribal life of the Ainu. In one of the most gloriously un–PC passages ever written, she brutally contrasts these two groups:

“After the yellow skins, the stiff horse hair, the feeble eyelids, the elongated eyes, the sloping eyebrows, the flat noses, the sunken chests, the Mongolian features, the puny physique, the shaky walk of the men, the restricted totter of the women, and the general impression of degeneracy conveyed by the appearance of the Japanese, the Ainos makes a very singular impression. All but two or three that I have seen are the most ferocious–looking of savages, with a physique vigorous enough for carrying out the most ferocious intentions, but as soon as they speak the countenance brightens into a smile as gentle as that of a woman.”

The fact that it doesn’t try to please a modern audience is ironically one of the book’s charms, but its main virtue is that it provides us with a vivid and unforgettable picture of Meiji Japan, traditional Ainu society, and the mindset of an opinionated and fearless Victorian lady.

April 4, 2008
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