The Village of Babies

From “Rambles in Japan”, by H B Tristram, 1895.

Windows into Japan 6All this month we have been looking at some quotes from travel writers who visited Japan during the latter half of the 19th Century, after isolationism came to an end.  The following quote is from Jottings of Travel in China and Japan, by Simon Adler Stern, written in 1887 and published the following year:

Directly across the Canal, on the lowland to the right of the Bluff, is the village of Homura, a sort of suburb of Yokohama. It is thickly settled, the streets are narrow, the houses closely huddled together, and, while there are shops and artificers of various kinds, the chief product, at first blush, appears to consist of Japanese babies. There are so many of them that it is sometimes difficult to get out of their way. B. amuses himself by giving them small copper coins and is soon the centre of an admiring crowd. There are babies of all sizes, the large ones carrying the smaller, toddlers of six or seven years with their infant brothers or sisters strapped to their backs — a settlement of live Japanese dolls, as it were.

I must not forget to mention Fujita, or the House of the Hundred Steps. The most direct way of getting there is to use the steep stone stairs, of just one hundred steps, that lead from the end of one of the streets of Homura up to the top of the Bluff. There is an easier but longer approach from the other side.

It is visited for the sake of the fine sunsets, for the extended view of Yokohama and the Bay, and, when the skies are clear, of distant Fujiama. The place belongs to the Tanabe family, and is in charge of the two clever Misses Tanabe who, with their brother, Tanabe Gengoro, are interested in a successful silk shop in Homura. The Hundred Steps House is much affected by most foreigners who visit Yokohama. If you choose, you can have a cup of tea, a glass of wine, or other simple refreshment. You are politely served by the female attendants, one of whom, for some inscrutable reason, has been nicknamed “Jimmy.” As the Tanabes and Jimmy are bright, clever women, with pleasant manners, who are able to converse in English, French, German or Russian, it is easy to understand how their establishment has come to be a favorite lounging place. After a visitor has enjoyed the views again and again, he will still find it worth his while to climb the hundred steps for the sake of lounging away an hour or two at Fujita. A seat overlooking the hillside; a companion ready for a chat when you are in the mood, but not conversational enough to force you to talk against your will; and that other good comrade, a cigar: with these elements you will find it pleasant enough to end up the day there, doing a little quiet lotus-eating on your own account, and interrupted only by Jimmy’s ”Donzhu want some more tea?” or the antics of mischievous Cheesi (a diminutive relative of the Tanabes), whose great delight it is to tease the visitors.


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Disaster Narrowly Averted

Yokohama station, photographed in 1872.

Windows into Japan 5. In an earlier article in this series we looked at how the arrival of Commodore Perry and his fleet of ships in 1853 brought an enforced end to Japanese isolationism.  From that point onwards, modernisation was inevitable, and by 1872 a railway line between Tokyo and Yokohama had been constructed, the first in the country.  Of course, railways always came with inherent dangers, particularly during the early days of rail transport.  A narrowly averted disaster was described by Edmund Gregory Holtham in his book Eight Years in Japan, 1873-1881, published in 1883:

Just as here in England we hear from time to time of small boys who aver that they put a piece of wood or iron in the way of a train, that they might “see the engine jump,” so in Japan with children of a larger growth it is much the same story. Indeed, so far as my own experience and observation go, there seems great reason to believe that many obstructions are created by persons employed as watchmen or gate-keepers, for the mere pleasure of seeing the obstruction smashed into fragments by the charge of the powerful machine at the head of its train.

There is happily no instance of actual wrecking of a train by reason of such obstructions; but they were at one time so frequently met with, as to demoralize the staff, and even one or two of the English drivers were more than suspected of romancing in their reports of obstruction on the road — one of them had what almost amounted to a monomania on the subject.

One case that occurred while I was in charge at Tokiyo, however, will always seem to me to be amongst the most remarkable of thoroughly understood events coming within a hair’s-breadth of disaster. It was when we had a quantity of material for laying down the second line alongside the single line used for traffic; the timber sleepers were approximately in place, and the rails paired, but not fastened in any way. In the dusk of the evening — the time when such things almost invariably occur — some person, or perhaps more than one, lifted one end of a loose rail and carried it round, laying it across the nearer rail of the running line, pointing towards the next approaching train. It was then roughly propped in that position with some stones, to prevent it from slipping down if shaken by vibration from an approaching train; and formed an ingenious preparation for a hideous smash. Yet no smash occurred, though the train ran into the obstruction at thirty miles an hour, the driver only sighting it in the twilight as he came round the curve that terminated a few yards away from the spot.

What actually happened was this, as we traced it out by the marks on the engine. The life-guard on the off-side, the piece of iron specially designed to throw obstructions off the rail in advance of the wheels, caught the loose rail, throwing it round further across the line; owing to the far end of the rail being a little lower than the running line, there was a slight incline of the near end upward, that brought it against the inside framing of the engine, as it slewed round, just below the axle box of the near leading wheel, stripping a nut off a bolt securing the strap below the box. The sudden pinch slightly bowed the rail, and it glanced off, missing the wheel, and riding over the boss, or enlargement at the lower end of the brake-hanger in front of the near driving wheel, supported on which, and pushed sideways by the life-guard that had first come in contact with it, the rail was transferred bodily across the line, between the two wheels mentioned, and by the onward motion of the engine finally delivered clear of everything, on the near side of the road.

Such an occurrence was not calculated to make things pleasant for any one responsible for the safety of the public; and of course the Japanese authorities were just as anxious as I was. There was some very tall talk amongst the staff, and the propriety of converting a field adjoining the spot where the train was not wrecked into an execution ground for the occasion was mooted. However, it seemed that the most reasonable way of treating an outrageous crime was to show, if possible, to all interested, that justice need not deviate one step from her regular path in dealing with it, and that the penalty and its enforcement were commonplace as well as inevitable; and this view found favour with those whose advice was likely to be most respected. Unfortunately we never caught our criminal; but the matter was a good deal discussed, and perhaps it is not strange that it was the last case of wilful obstruction of the railway for a long time; so that though no one was brought to justice, it would seem that the public conscience was stimulated.


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Bustling Tokyo, 1878

Illustration from “Japan and its Art”, by Marcus B Huish, 1889.

Windows into Japan 4Nowadays Tokyo is know for being a very busy city, but even in the 19th Century travellers from abroad were already remarking on the contrast between this highly populated city and the quiet rural areas of Japan.  One such travel writer was Edmund Gregory Holtham, who wrote Eight Years in Japan, 1873-1881, published in 1883:

The first few days of 1878 were by no means such as the Japanese love to find about the new year. The last two days of December and the first three of January are official holidays; the 4th is appointed for a commencement of business, which means merely attendance for half an hour; the 5th is another holiday, and so on. The closing days of the year are supposed to be devoted to settling one’s private affairs and providing for festivities, and the opening days of the new year are devoted to socialities, such as complimentary calls and receptions…

A walk through the streets of any large town, on a fine day at the commencement of a year, is rather an amusing experience. The good people pervade the streets in holiday garments, on calling expeditions; or, in the case of women, armed with battledore, they occupy any available space near their own doors and fill the air with shuttle-cocks, while children and servants fly kites. One’s progress has to be warily conducted, unless it is a joy to be beaten on the back and smitten on the nose (always with profuse apologies), or harried by whirring things, or entangled in strings, or butted in the chest by smiling persons whose eyes are fixed upon some acquaintance who is returning their bow from the other side of the road. The babies, carried on the back, are the only beings who don’t come to grief in some way, for the occasional delivery of them on to the roadway, over their mothers’ shoulders, like coals, is of course merely so much practice for them against they are big enough to butt the stranger.


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Japanese Politeness

Illustration from “Rambles in Japan”, by H B Tristram, 1895

Windows into Japan 3Last week I quoted from Anna D’a’s A Lady’s Visit to Manilla and Japan, published in 1863, as part of our themed Japanese month on Windows into History.  Before we move on to a different writer, let’s look at one more quote from D’a, concerning her arrival in Japan and how impressed she was with the Japanese:

As soon as the vessel was anchored the Japanese officials came on board, seemingly fearful of losing a moment in making the necessary inquiries.

One, who spoke pretty tolerable English, acted as interpreter for the rest, a second read aloud some questions in Japanese, which the other explained, and all the answers seemed perfectly satisfactory. Then after partaking of cake and wine, which, by the liberality of our captain, they were offered, and evidently thoroughly enjoyed, they very politely bowed and departed, leaving an officer on board, who was to remain during the time the vessel was anchored in the harbour.

There is a perceptible difference between the Chinaman and the Japanese. The contrast never strikes one so forcibly as on first arriving in Japan after leaving China. The people we have left behind are surly, impertinent, independent, self-sufficient, in their manner towards foreigners; whilst those among whom we now are, poor and rich alike, have an innate politeness which is exceedingly pleasing, and address strangers in a respectful manner but rarely witnessed on the other side of the water.


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Mixed Bathing in Japan

From “Rambles in Japan” by H B Tristram, 1895.

Windows into Japan 2Last time I quoted from Bayard Taylor’s journal of travels, in which he recounted the famous arrival of Commodore Perry and his fleet to Japan, which led to the end of isolationism. During his visit, Perry was surprised to see men and women bathing together. The practice was soon to end, but Perry was not the last traveller to be shocked by the spectacle of mixed bathing in Japan. In 1863, Anna D’a’s A Lady’s Visit to Manilla and Japan was published, in which the author described the surprising sight of men and women enjoying some steaming waters together:

We were one day, by accident, witnesses to a singularly ludicrous spectacle. A man accosted us whilst we were walking down one of the principal streets, and requested to be allowed to show us a dog he knew of, or possessed, as he had heard we were on the look out for a good one. Signifying our acquiescence, we turned and followed him through numerous by-lanes and alleys, till, at last, he stopped before a small, low building, and standing aside, invited us to enter. We did so without the slightest doubt or hesitation, little prepared for the absurdly indecent scene which awaited us within, causing us to beat a hasty retreat, and beg the man to bring the dog out if he meant to show it. At the further end of the room we had so abruptly entered, was a portion partitioned off by a low wooden wall, within which enclosed space numbers of men and women were bathing in puris naturalibus. A thick vapour rose about them, and a strong sulphurous odour pervaded the place. They were dancing about as though half-mad. Whether this arose from sensations of joy or pain, I cannot say, but I know they reminded me forcibly of a representation of souls in purgatory I once saw outside a church in Antwerp.


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The End of Isolation

Illustration from “Rambles in Japan” by H B Tristram, 1895.

Windows into Japan 1In 1853 a fleet of American ships commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japanese waters.  Up to this point Japan had managed to maintain an isolationist policy, keeping themselves separate from the Western world.  However, Perry had come to secure a trade deal and wasn’t about to take no for an answer.  Japan was in no position to defend against this superior military force, and the shogunate was forced to bring an end to their isolation.  His failure to oppose the Americans soon led to civil unrest, and the end of the Edo period.  Travelling with Perry was seasoned travel writer Bayard Taylor, whose African adventures we previous covered in a series of articles.  The following is his account of the fleet’s arrival, from his book A Visit to India, China and Japan in the Year 1853.

We kept directly up the Bay, and in half an hour after doubling Cape Sagami saw before us a bold promontory making out from the western coast, at the entrance of the Upper Bay. Within it was the Bight of Uraga, and we could plainly see the town of the same name at the head of it. The Plymouth and Saratoga were cast off, and we advanced slowly, sounding as we went, until we had advanced more than a mile beyond the point reached by the Columbus and the Morrison. We were about a mile and a half from the promontory, when two discharges of cannon were heard from a battery at its extremity, and immediately afterwards a light ball of smoke in the air showed that a shell had been thrown up. An order was immediately given to let go the anchor, but as the lead still stowed 25 fathoms, the steamer’s head was put in toward the shore, and in a few minutes the anchor was dropped.

Another shell was fired after we came to anchor, and four or five boats filled with Japanese approached us. The rowers, who were all tall, athletic men, naked save a cloth around the loins, shouted lustily as they sculled with all their strength toward us. The boats were of unpainted wood, very sharp in the bows, carrying their greatest breadth of beam well aft, and were propelled with great rapidity. The resemblance of their model to that of the yacht America, struck every body on board. In the stern of each was a small flag, with three horizontal stripes, the central one black and the other white. In each were several persons, who, by their dress and the two swords stuck in their belts, appeared to be men of authority.

The first boat came alongside, and one of the two-sworded individuals made signs for the gangway to be let down. This was refused, but Mr. Wells Williams, the Interpreter, and Mr. Portman, the Commodore’s clerk (who was a native of Holland), went to the ship’s side to state that nobody would be received on board, except the first in rank at Uraga. The conversation was carried on principally in Dutch, which the interpreter spoke very well. He asked at once if we were not Americans, and by his manner of asking showed that our coming had been anticipated. He was told that the Commander of the squadron was an officer of very high rank in the United States, and could only communicate with the first in rank on shore. After a long parley, the Vice-Governor of Uraga, who was in the boat, was allowed to come on board with the Interpreter and confer with Lieut. Contee, the Flag Lieutenant. The Japanese official, a fiery little fellow, was much exasperated at being kept in waiting, but soon moderated his tone. He was told that we came as friends, upon a peaceable mission; that we should not go to Nangasaki, as he proposed, and that it was insulting to our President and his special minister to propose it. He was told, moreover, that the Japanese must not communicate with any other vessel than the flag-ship, and that no boats must approach us during the night. An attempt to surround us with a cordon of boats, as in the case of the Columbus and Vincennes, would lead to very serious consequences. They had with them an official notice, written in French, Dutch and English, and intended as a general warning to all foreign vessels, directing them to go no further, to remain out at sea, and send word ashore, why they came and what they wanted. This Lieut. Contee declined to see or acknowledge in any way. The same notice was taken to the Plymouth by another boat, which was at once ordered off.

Commodore Perry had evidently made up his mind from the first not to submit to the surveillance of boats. The dignified and decided stand he took produced an immediate impression upon the Japanese. They were convinced that he was in earnest, and that all the tricks and delays with which they are in the habit of wheedling foreign visitors would be used in vain. Several boats having followed the first one, and begun to collect round us, the Vice-Governor was told that if they did not return at once, they would be fired into. One of them went to the Mississippi; and after being repulsed from the gangway, pulled forward to the bows, where some of the crew tried to climb on board. A company of boarders was immediately called away, and the bristling array of pikes and cutlasses over the vessel’s side caused the Japanese to retreat in great haste. Thenceforth, all the Japanese boats gave us a wide berth, and during the whole of our stay, none approached us except those containing the officials who were concerned in the negotiations.


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Blanched Bones or Human Life?

The interior of the Colosseum, painted by Thomas Cole, 1832.

Snippets 211. When visiting a country such as Italy, with so much to take in of historical interest, it is perhaps all too easy to only have eyes for the ancient ruins and ignore everything else. The following inspirational quote is from Canadian author Lady Harriet Julia Jephson’s Notes of a Nomad, published in 1918, in which she describes her travels around the world with her husband. She came to Italy with very different views to her husband, and initially fell into the trap of letting guide books make up her mind for her instead of forming her own opinions:

I was very young when I first went to Italy. The world seemed then to me “mine oyster,” which I, with the help of Baedeker and other dry-as-dust guide-books, meant to open. I had read all Ruskin’s books, and knew what to admire and what to abhor, before I went there. Later I felt sometimes a guilty pleasure in admiring what he ordered me to abhor, and in abhorring what he called upon me to admire. But at first I was his most docile and obedient pupil. When I heard ribald talk, profane enough to doubt his judgements, I never swerved from my allegiance. Was he not my master and teacher, Mr. Godly Man, assailed by the demons, Prejudice and Ill-Will! My husband, being of more virile mind than I, and much older, proclaimed his independence of thought, and had the temerity to prefer Ghirlandaio to Giotto. I admired his lion-hearted bravery in daring to differ from Ruskin, but then he knew nothing of art! Afterwards, I modified this judgement, since he knew enough about it to avoid perpetuating the Leaning Tower of Pisa in crudely sculptured white marble models, and he did not buy a bad copy of the Cenci. Like many neophytes, Italy in those days meant pictures and sculpture and architecture to me, whereas, to my husband’s wider range of vision, it was full of warm, human interest. He was quick to appreciate the gifted, poetic, artistic, beautiful race, with their passionate temperaments and complex characters. The glory of sunrise and sunset, the beauty of mouldy, mellow walls, the sharp contrasts of light and shade in the landscape and of poverty and riches in the people, were not lost upon him. The flowers and trees and shrubs, the mountain ranges, the market-places, the lively, teeming streets, all were of intensest interest. I, meanwhile, chose to dwell amid the blanched bones of skeletons in museums and art galleries, and he with the throbbing human life outside them.

Baedeker was a publisher that pioneered travel guides, founded by Karl Baedeker in 1827. John Ruskin was the most famous art critic of the Victorian age, and believed strongly that “truth in nature” was the utmost importance to art. It’s not difficult to see how an independent thinker such as Jephson could rebel against that very traditional view of the value of art. Domenico Ghirlandaio was a Renaissance painter whose apprentices included Michelangelo. The Cenci was an 1819 play written by Shelley.

The interior of the Colosseum, painted by Thomas Cole, 1832.


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