When I drew aside the shoji I was disconcerted by the painful sight which presented itself, for the people were pressing one upon another, fathers and mothers holding naked children covered with skin-disease, or with scald-head, or ringworm, daughters leading mothers nearly blind, men exhibiting painful sores, children blinking with eyes infested by flies and nearly closed with ophthalmia; and all, sick and well, in truly 'vile raiment,' lamentably dirty and swarming with vermin, the sick asking for medicine, and the well either bringing the sick or gratifying an apathetic curiosity. Sadly I told them that I did not understand their manifold 'diseases and torments,' and that, if I did, I had no stock of medicines." What an amazing, heart-breaking sight.
Isabella Bird was one of those "invalids" who enjoy poor health--they can't be expected to lead a normal productive life at home because they are "delicate"--and yet she could travel all over the world in very primitive conditions.The Sandwich Islands (Hawaii to you and me) Persia and Kurdistan, Morroco, Korea, China, etc. No one asks her to go anywhere, but whenever she shows up in a town she expects there to be accomodation, comfort and food to her taste.
Like all of Bird's books, this was a really fantastic glimpse into a country at a certain time from the perspective of a 19th century person, a woman, and a Brit at the height of empire. A perfect example on how even though she very much liked and respected the "Ainos" (Ainu people, indigenous to Northern Japan) and complimented them in many ways, she still could say such: "The profusion of black hair, and a curious intensity about their eyes, coupled with the hairy limbs and singularly vigorous physique, give them a formidably savage appearance; but the smile, full of "sweetness and light," in which both eyes and mouth bear part, and the low, musical voice, softer and sweeter than anything I have previously heard, make me at times forget that they are savages at all. This belief in the savagery of all children and the childishness of all savages served a justification for subjecting children to harsh discipline, and natives of other countries to the rule of the expanding British Empire." So, overall, I did enjoy all the insight into traditional Japanese culture, both urban and rural (Bird was the first foreigner to visit most of the places she went in this book) as well as seeing the traditional life styles of the Ainu before it was pretty much obliterated by Japan (so very, very sad to see all the culture and tradition that has been lost when researching more after I read this), thus the four stars that I gave it.
Not only did I not learn one useful thing about Japan by reading this book, I was also disgusted by how Bird dismissed every Japanese custom as "abominable" and qualified any sign of beauty in the locals as decidedly European (never ever Asiatic). The only passably good thing about reading this book had to do with the immense curiosity that the sight of a foreign woman attracted in almost all of the villages she went through.
Imagine traveling as a foreigner from Yokohama all the way to the far reaches of Hokkaido ... More than one-third of the book is taken up by her 4-month journey of discovery through Hokkaido and especially her encounters with the Ainu people.
People seem to either love or hate this book and just to be contrary I am giving it three stars. You can download the book without charge from the Gutenberg press,read the first set of letters, which are fascinating, skip the middle when it gets repetitive, and go to the letters that describe the Ainu.
I like the way she engaged totally with her surroundings, asking lots of questions, visiting houses, hospitals, people and writing detailed descriptions of everything. Her writing is alive and colored by her personality; she's obviously very intelligent, knows a lot about geology, and is a born explorer!
In this book, she reports on her observations of Japan, including her adventures on truly unbeaten tracks, interactions with the natives, continual suffering from fleas, lack of food, and other travel inconveniences.