Lovely Meal, Achy Back

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

Windows into Japan 7All 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:

It has been raining incessantly since yesterday noon, and just now it is pouring at a rate that must be very discouraging to pleasure seekers and livery-stable keepers.

In spite of the rain, I went to Tokio last evening, to attend a dinner given by Mr. Masujima. At the banquet to the faculty of the Law School, and at which I was his guest, the service was in the European style. On this occasion, it was his desire that the foreigners in the party should see how the Japanese live among themselves. He had invited about twenty-four gentlemen, one-third of whom were Americans or Europeans, and the remaining two-thirds Japanese. The latter were, all of them, attired in the costume of the country.

After leaving the Shinbashi Station at Tokio I rode for about half an hour in a jin-ricsha. For the greater part of the way our route lay through a quarter of the city that was quite new to me and finer than any portion of Tokio I had yet seen. I was told afterward that it is the most aristocratic section of the city. When I reached the restaurant, a sort of private club-house, where we were to be entertained, I found that it was on a hill overlooking a beautiful little valley and surrounded with fine trees and shrubbery. The place and its surroundings were so picturesque that I could only wish for a chance to see it all in fine weather. On our way thither I got the impression that we were going into a section devoted to semi-detached suburban villas, such as we have on the outskirts of our cities. Looking through the trees, I could, however, distinguish closely-built streets in various directions, and was told that we were, so to say, in the heart of Tokio.

On entering, we removed our shoes, as is the custom of the country; the proper sequel to this would have been to follow the example of our Japanese friends and put on the straw sandals that were provided for us. Unfortunately, however, our socks were not made with thumbs, and, as a result, we were obliged to remain in our stocking feet for the rest of the evening. One of our party had the forethought to provide himself with felt slippers. The floor was, as usual, covered with slabs of straw matting, and the rooms, although larger, were in nearly all respects much like that in the restaurant I visited in company with Mr. Shiraishi some days ago.

There were no chairs, and I found sitting on my haunches rather fatiguing. I therefore changed my position from time to time, but did not attempt to sit on my feet, as the lithe and slender Japanese are wont to do. To one with my figure, and without previous practice, that would have been an impossibility. Indeed, my back still aches from the efforts I made to balance myself while enjoying the dinner.

We were first invited to the upper floor of the building, where we took part in a ceremonious tea drinking. One of the Japanese gentlemen, assisted by others, went through certain forms, according to an old-time ritual prescribed for such occasions. When every guest had partaken of a cup of the delicious tea that had been thus prepared, we were invited to descend to the ground floor, where the dinner was to be served.

The guests were ranged along the sides of the large room, and the viands were brought to each one on a lacquered tray, by pretty Japanese girls. Each course was served in a lacquered cup with cover; when you had tasted of it, you replaced the cover and left the cup standing before you. By the time the dinner was over there were some dozen or more of the cups in front of each guest. We drank sake, which was served warm and in tiny porcelain cups. They gave us soup, rice, boiled tay (the favorite fish of Japan, and excellent), salmon trout, sea-weed, etc., etc. ; some of them savory and palatable; others, to one unaccustomed to them, impossible. For the soups, we were provided with porcelain spoons; knives and forks were not to be seen, for this was a chopstick affair.

For the entertainment of the guests, there was a performance of sleight-of-hand tricks, some of which were marvellously well done, the cleverest performer in the troupe being an urchin apparently not over twelve years old. There were, also, Japanese songs, singing and dancing by Japanese girls, besides songs and humorous speeches by some of the foreign guests. How long the festivities were kept up I am unable to say, as those of us who wanted to take the last train for Yokohama were obliged to leave at about ten o’clock. Those whom we left there seemed to think that very early, hardly ”the shank of the evening” as John Phenix has it.

It was a most interesting entertainment, affording me a glimpse of Japanese ways that I might not have found it easy to obtain otherwise. For this and other courtesies I have abundant reason to be grateful for the constant kindness of Mr. Masujima.

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About Roger Pocock

Author of Co-writer on Editor of
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Books, History, Japan, Travel and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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