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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About Roger Pocock

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3 Responses to The Village of Babies

  1. Ged Maybury says:

    Damned if I can find this place. Google maps drew a blank on ‘Homura’ (presumable ‘North Village’ – as prefixed like Hokkaido), and looking at the area opposite Yokohama (the east side: Kisarazu/Kimitsu), I cannot see the bluff as mentioned. The landscapes there have been so extensively modified/extended as to render original shore-lines all but guess-work.

    I’d love to know more about the Tanabe’s cafe on the hill. Sounds like a fabulous setting for a movie!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Roger Pocock says:

      It does indeed! The problem with place names in 19th Century travel journals is that the spelling is often haphazard depending on the writer – I think they just tended to write things phonetically the way they heard them. This is a particular problem with travellers in Japan where they have their own alphabet and the standard Romanized spellings of words didn’t come in until really the very end of the 19th Century, so writers did just have to make a judgement on how to write things, especially where there was no real precedent (if they could even be bothered to look at the work of other writers). I’ve found things in the past by being creative with varying the spelling on a search, but I haven’t tried with this example.


      • Ged Maybury says:

        “The problem with place names in 19th Century travel journals is that the spelling is often haphazard depending on the writer …”
        Ah yes. That would be a problem for all who follow, although fortunately Japanese is (*almost*) entirely phonetic. That said, however, it would still come down to how the Europeans *hear* the words, and how their own language habits of mapping sounds to alphabet could *still* send the records awry. “Homura” might only resemble “北村” by pure chance!

        Liked by 1 person

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