Speaking Volumes:Unbeaten Tracks in Japan

April 7, 1995

Marie Conte-Helm on Isabella Bird's Unbeaten Tracks in Japan .

I was introduced to Isabella Bird's Unbeaten Tracks in Japan as a postgraduate at the East West Center of the University of Hawaii. It was the 1970s and I was about to visit Japan for the first time. What better travelling companion than these first-hand impressions of the Victorian lady traveller who had similarly explored the Sandwich Isles before venturing further East. No ordinary guidebook, from Bird's account I learned that one person's talent for observing the detail of the present becomes another's aid to understanding the past.

Travellers' accounts can be notoriously unreliable. The Japan seen through the eyes of a host of Victorian travel writers was sometimes strikingly perceived but often, through a glass darkly, reflected the outlooks and preoccupations of the beholder. Descriptions abound from this period of the smallness, the quaintness, the differentness of Japan, the "topsy-turvydom" which made the one culture impenetrable to the other.

The Victorian writers brought another distortion to the chronicling of Japan. He or she who, from the first glimpse of Mt Fuji, railed against the ills of the West and saw a cure in the lifestyle of the "simple Japanese" - steeped in nostalgia - for modern life. Such love affairs inevitably went wrong and left the observer bitterly resentful that Japan was not, after all, the lotus land.

Bird's impressions were of a more measured variety. Neither a japanophile nor a seeker of shibboleths, she was essentially both curious and adventurous. Her slate may not have been quite clean at the start of her journey but she managed observations which were more detached than many. She described the hardships and the joys of travel in equally rich and lucid detail. On my first visit to Japan and on many subsequent occasions, their tone and her spirit were something of an inspiration.

Writing just a few decades after Japan's re-opening to the West, Bird's account provided a further initiation into the layering of tradition and modernity which still marks out that nation's identity. As the Meiji period transformed the face of Japan's cities in the image of the West, Miss Bird opined at the way in which "the old and the new . . . contrast with and jostle each other". The adoption of European dress and furnishings, she deplored as "bad taste" and longed "to get away into real Japan". Her journey into the "unbeaten tracks" of northern Japan were a realisation of this longing. To the contemporary reader, this unveiled yet another country and a vivid illustration of the Victorian lady's intrepidity. To the student of Japan in the 1970s, her experiences conveyed the urgency of seeing the world before it changed further.

The Japan that confronted me on leaving Honolulu was not to be compared with the land of Bird's reminiscences. Tokyo was New York, London or any other international city going about its business. Osaka, too, was a busy, congested metropolis with subways and motorways channelling faceless people into its centre.

And yet Kyoto gave me pause for thought. Japan's cultural capital, rich in historic temples, palaces and gardens, had laid over its heritage - like an ill-fitting mantle - a layer of contemporary urban life. It was a realisation of a lost Japan and of the inevitability of change, an inevitability not peculiar to East or West but common to modern life. The layers of past and present form a kind of historical reminiscence for the future to disinter.

Looking back to this first encounter, the world of Bird had everything: the old, the new, the European, the Japanese, converging in an impressionistic blend of history and literature. It revealed a period which still fascinates and a series of images which I return to each time I step off the beaten track in Japan.

Marie Conte-Helm is reader in Japanese studies University of Northumbria.

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