Last October, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society conferred its Diploma of Fellowship upon Professor Kiyonori Kanasaka of Kyoto University.
The society’s president, the Earl of Lindsay, presented the award for the professor’s “contribution to the science of geography and in particular his research into the travels and writings of Isabella Bird.”
A year earlier, the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh staged an exhibition of Kanasaka’s photographs “taken in the footsteps of the 19th-century author, traveler and photographer Isabella Bird.” Isabella’s original pictures, previously exhibited in Japan but never before in the U.K., were displayed with Kanasaka’s photographs of the same images, taken more than 100 years later, shown alongside.
In what he calls “twin time travel,” Kanasaka spent 10 years traveling the remote routes Isabella had taken on five continents. He said, “To understand Isabella’s travel writing, especially for me to translate ‘The Yangtze Valley and Beyond,’ it was indispensable to visit the places she visited.”
To travel with purpose was a joy to him, a man of joyful temperament. He extended his passion for geography to include landscape, travel and travel writing. Kanasaka, who grew up in Osaka, entered Kyoto University in 1966 to study his favorite subject.
By the time he moved on through his master’s course to his doctorate, he was specializing in urban and historical geography and the changes in regional structures in modern times.
When in 1975 Kanasaka became a senior lecturer at Fukui University, he had already read the Japanese edition of Isabella Bird’s book “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan.” His admiration for her was instant and total.
A lone traveler, described as “a dumpy English spinster,” Isabella first came to Japan in 1878. The letters she wrote to her sister at home formed the bases for her books.
Kanasaka found her descriptive writing arresting. He quotes her: “We crossed the Shinano, poled up the narrow embanked Shinkawa, had a desperate struggle with the flooded Aganogawa, were much impeded by strings of nauseous manure-boats on the narrow, discolored Kajikawa, wondered at the interminable melon and cucumber fields and at the odd river life, and after hard poling for six hours reached Kisaki, having accomplished exactly ten miles.”
Kanasaka had stayed in this area of the Niigata plain in 1971, collecting materials and documents for his own work. “But I couldn’t find such descriptions as strings of nauseous manure boats. I felt the importance of vivid descriptions, and thought her book was important as a historical document as well as travel writing, ” he said.
During the 12 years Kanasaka spent as associate professor of Fukui University, he delved into the history of Fukui Prefecture. He produced a book of old picture maps, the publication seen as a model for succeeding, similar books.
In 1987, he became associate professor at Osaka University, and included Isabella Bird in a series of lectures which focused on “cultures of sexuality and gender.” Formerly professor at Osaka University, he is now professor at Kyoto University.
Kanasaka says that usually geographers do not focus on a single person. “But,” he said, “I recognized the comprehensive importance of my Isabella Bird study, and thought also that microscopic study was important and interesting. I had the good fortune of obtaining a subsidy from a foundation for the study of travel, the first person to get that financial assistance.”
Kanasaka reports that Isabella was one of the first women elected to be a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. “Earlier she became an honorary fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society,” he said.
Kanasaka set himself to collect and analyze not only her books but also unpublished papers and letters and any other unknown documents he could find.
“I like photography and travel,” he said. “I believe that twin time travel will become a new style. To find the places which Isabella visited more than a century ago, and to look at the changes or the continuity of landscape is very interesting and exciting. . . . I would like many people to visit places in the footsteps of Isabella Bird.”