The lady explorer who took a native interest in Hokkaido


“Mori is a large, ramshackle village . . . a wild, dreary-looking place with a number of . . . disreputable characters . . . a forlorn, decayed place.” Yubetsu “looks like the end of all things, as if loneliness and desolation could go no farther.”

Biratori? “A lonelier place could scarcely be found.”

Mombetsu? “A stormily-situated and most wretched cluster of 27 decayed houses, some of them Aino, and some Japanese. . . . The whole place smelt of sake.”

Isabella Bird loved Hokkaido. True, her love doesn’t radiate from every sentence. The dirt, fleas, raw manners and lack of amenities all struck her, sometimes forcefully. But they never blunted the main point: “I am once again in the wilds!” she wrote to her sister four days after her arrival. The exclamation mark says it all. She was an unusual tourist. The Japan of her day was no tourist resort. Still less so was its northernmost island — which, by the mid-Victorian standards Bird stretched but never rejected, scarcely qualified as part of the civilized world.

A Yorkshire clergyman’s daughter, sickly from childhood, she took up traveling on the advice of her doctor. In 1854, age 23, she embarked on her first trip — to Canada and the United States. By the time she came to Japan in 1878 she was, at 47, a seasoned globe-trotter, having herded cattle, driven wagons, visited mining camps and climbed volcanoes in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and the Rocky Mountains. Journeys to Hong Kong, China, Indochina, Singapore, Malaya, India, Tibet, Persia and North Africa were to follow.

It hardly seems a suitable itinerary for a valetudinarian. But it must have done her good — she lived to 73. And the letters she wrote home to beloved sister Henrietta formed the basis of her several books, of which “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan” is the best known today.

Bird arrived in Japan in May 1878, and reached Hokkaido in August. Her companion was a Japanese servant-translator named Ito. “Kindly interest has been excited,” she wrote, “by the first foray made by a lady into the country of the aborigines.” A letter from the governor accordingly granted the lady access to horses, rickshaws and coolies.

In the course of a month, she covered about 550 km, traveling roughly eastward from Hakodate toward Cape Erimo and then back, sometimes venturing inland, but mainly hugging the coast. At Mori, “the inn was very noisy, as some travelers in the next room to mine hired geishas, who played, sang, and danced till 2 in the morning.” At Muroran, the rickshaw runners “were such ruffianly-looking men, and were dressed so wildly in bark cloth, that, in sending Ito on 12 miles [20 km] to secure relays, I sent my money along with him.” From Yubetsu, “a mounted policeman started with us . . . and rode the whole way here, keeping exactly to my pace, but never speaking a word.”

It all seems terribly disconcerting, but Bird trekked on, undismayed. From Yubetsu she proceeded to Biratori. “I am in the lonely Aino land, and I think that the most interesting of my traveling experiences has been the living for three days and two nights in an Aino hut, and seeing and sharing the daily life of complete savages, who go on with their ordinary occupations just as if I were not among them.”

The Ainu fascinated Bird. She found them simultaneously admirable and appalling. They puzzled her. She had never met anyone quite like them before. “What a strange life! Knowing nothing, hoping nothing, fearing little, the need for clothes and food the one motive principle, sake in abundance the one good!” And yet: “Shinondi met me and took me to his house to see if I could do anything for a child sorely afflicted with skin disease, and his extreme tenderness for this very loathsome object made me feel that human affections were the same among them as with us.

“The log-fire lights up as magnificent a set of venerable heads as painter or sculptor would desire to see — heads, full of — what? They have no history, their traditions are scarcely worthy the name, they claim descent from a dog, their houses and persons swarm with vermin, they are sunk in the grossest ignorance . . . they are uncivilizable and altogether irreclaimable savages, yet they are attractive, and in some ways fascinating, and I hope I shall never forget the music of their low, sweet voices . . . and the wonderful sweetness of their smile.”

She may have termed them “savages,” but Bird seemed, at times, to be more taken with the “Aino” than with the civilized Japanese: “After the yellow skins, the stiff horse hair . . . the sunken chests . . . 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 make a very singular impression.” The impression is of vigor to the point of ferocity — “but as soon as they speak the countenance brightens into a smile as gentle as that of a woman.”

“Savagery” and intelligence, too, she discovers, are not incompatible. “Benri is, for an Aino, intelligent. Two years ago Mr. Dening of Hakodate came up here and told him that there was but one God who made us all, to which the shrewd old man replied, ‘If the God who made you made us, how is it that you are so different — you so rich, we so poor?’ “

No answer is given. Could Mr. Dening, whoever he was, have been at a loss for words?