If foreign visitors to Japan in the Edo Period (1603-1868) ran certain risks by committing their impressions of the country to paper in a totalitarian state that worked hard to maintain its obscurity, the new Meiji Era (1868-1912) positively encouraged attention.
July 4, 1879, marked the day when a Japanese sovereign first shook the hand of a foreigner. This took place between Ulysses S. Grant and the Meiji Emperor when Grant and his wife attended a kabuki performance held in their honor at the Shintomiza Theater in Tokyo. Among the select audience was a young American woman, Clara Whitney, who wrote about the Shimbashi geisha who danced that night, each young woman, “dressed in a robe made of the dear old Star and Stripes, while upon their heads shone a circlet of silver stars … their girdles were dark blue, sandals, red and white, and presently they took out fans having on one side the American and upon the other the national flag.”
Japan hosted an increasing number of privileged foreign residents, who, like Mary Crawford Fraser, author of “A Diplomat’s Wife in Japan,” Sir John Bachelor, a member of the church mission society in Hokkaido, and the American teacher and Japanophile William Griffis, dabbled in prose that, in its indebtedness to long descriptive passages, aspires to travel writing.
Among the writers and reporters who came to Japan to experience this age of adventure was Lafcadio Hearn, who had cut his teeth writing travel and social commentary pieces on the people and cultural life of places such as New Orleans and the island of Martinique. Hearn applied his considerable descriptive skills to not only writing about Japanese folklore and the supernatural, but to well observed impressions of destinations such as the Oki Islands, regions little known at the time even to Japanese people.
The fledgling travel industry was supported by a number of guidebooks, the most popular the very literate “A Hand-Book for Travellers in Japan,” brought out by the London publisher Murray. The sixth edition, which appeared in 1906, was written by Basil Hall Chamberlain, a writer who would author several books on the country and be much consulted as an authority on Japan-related matters. Isabella Lucy Bird sought out his company when exploring Tokyo. Taking a rickshaw with Chamberlain to Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa, she described the concentrated paraphernalia of its main altar, with “all the mysterious symbols of a faith which is a system of morals and metaphysics to the educated and initiated, and an idolatrous superstition to the masses.”
In many ways, Bird represents the advent of the bona fide foreign travel writer in Japan. A woman of fearless courage, the Yorkshire-born author arrived in Japan in 1878, having already written travel accounts of destinations as far flung as Tibet, Hawaii and Turkey. Though an indefatigable Christian, Bird was driven by a powerful spirit of inquiry. Her main interest was people. Strongly admonished by members of the conservative foreign community to abandon her plan to travel into scantly explored fastnesses of Japan, the writer, an experienced horsewoman, undertook an ambitious journey north that would take her as far as the Ainu villages of Hokkaido. The result was the early travel classic, “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan,” a book that remains in print today.
Much retrospective praise was lavished by foreign writers at the time on the Fujiya Hotel in Miyanoshita, a village in the Hakone region. Far removed from the flea-ridden, vermin-infested hovels that Bird endured during her rural rides, the Fujiya, Japan’s first Western-style hotel, was designed to pamper its guests. I put up there myself a couple of years ago for a single night. Despite some evidence of rising damp — telltale air bubbles under the wallpaper — and a geriatric plumbing system, I found the surroundings most commodious, as a Victorian guest might have expressed it.
As the Meiji Era entered its twilight, foreign writers and artists ventured further afield in search of experience and material. The photographer Herbert G. Ponting, left a vivid chronicle of his journey, traveling as far as Kyushu to find subjects. Visiting Shuizen-ji Joji-en, a circuit garden in Kumamoto in high summer, the author sampled a cone of shaved ice topped with fruit syrup, recalling in his 1911 publication, “In Lotus-Land Japan,” how adults stripped off to bathe in its pond, while small children, “paddled in the water and scampered over the grasses.” As much about recreation as the art of landscaping, the garden retains its theme park mood, though you would be unlikely these days to see visitors cooling off in its waters.
If a note of prescience was sounded at the close of the Edo Period in some of the observations of foreign visitors who managed to gain admittance to the country, the same could be said of the Meiji Era, as more non-Japanese, some deferential, others wanting in respect, trickled into Japan. Rudyard Kipling, visiting the tombs of the revered 47 ronin in Sengaku-ji Temple in the spring of 1889, discovered that, “an animal of the name of V. Gay had seen fit to scratch his entirely uninteresting name” on the exquisite gold-leafed panels of a tomb. “Presently,” the young Kipling concluded, “there will be neither gold nor lacquer — nothing but the finger marks of foreigners.”
This is the second of a three-part series on foreign travel writing on Japan. The final installment will appear on Feb. 21, 2016. Stephen Mansfield’s next book, a critical history, entitled ‘Tokyo A Biography,’ will be published in the spring.