From Sea to Sea

Letter XI

by Rudyard Kipling

Thou canst not wave thy staff in air
Or dip thy paddle in the lake,
But it carves the bow of beauty there,
And ripples in rhyme the oar forsake.

THIS morning, after the sorrows of the rolling night, my cabin port-hole showed me two great grey rocks studded and streaked with green and crowned by two stunted blue-black pines. Below the rocks a boat, that might have been carved sandal-wood for colour and delicacy, was shaking out an ivory-white frilled sail to the wind of the morning. An indigo-blue boy with an old ivory face hauled on a rope. Rock and tree and boat made a panel from a Japanese screen, and I saw that the land was not a lie. This ‘good brown earth’ of ours has many pleasures to offer her children, but there be few in her gift comparable to the joy of touching a new country, a completely strange race, and manners contrary. Though libraries may have been written aforetime, each new beholder is to himself another Cortez. And I was in Japan—the Japan of cabinets and joinery, gracious folk and fair manners. Japan, whence the camphor and the lacquer and the shark-skin swords come; among—what was it the books said?—a nation of artists. To be sure, we should only stop at Nagasaki for twelve hours ere going on to Kobé, but in twelve hours one can pack away a very fair collection of new experiences.

An execrable man met me on the deck, with a pale-blue pamphlet fifty pages thick. ‘Have you,’ said he, ‘seen the Constitution of Japan? The Emperor made it himself only the other day. It is on entirely European lines.’

I took the pamphlet and found a complete paper Constitution stamped with the Imperial Chrysanthemum—an excellent little scheme of representation, reforms, payment of members, budget estimates, and legislation. It is a terrible thing to study at close quarters, because it is so pitifully English.

There was a yellow-shot greenness upon the hills round Nagasaki different, so my willing mind was disposed to believe, from the green of other lands. It was the green of a Japanese screen, and the pines were screen pines. The city itself hardly showed from the crowded harbour. It lay low among the hills, and its business face—a grimy bund—was sloppy and deserted. Business, I was rejoiced to learn, was at a low ebb in Nagasaki. The Japanese should have no concern with business. Close to one of the still wharves lay a ship of the Bad People; a Russian steamer down from Vladivostok. Her decks were cumbered with raffle of all kinds; her rigging was as frowsy and draggled as the hair of a lodging-house slavey, and her sides were filthy.

‘That,’ said a man of my people, ‘is a very fair specimen of a Russian. You should see their men-of-war; they are just as filthy. Some of ’em come into Nagasaki to clean.’

It was a small piece of information and perhaps untrue, but it put the roof to my good humour as I stepped on to the bund and was told in faultless English by a, young gentleman, with a plated chrysanthemum in his forage cap and badly-fitting German uniform on his limbs, that he did not understand my language. He was a Japanese customs official. Had our stay been longer, I would have wept over him because he was a hybrid—partly French, partly German, and partly American—a tribute to civilisation. All the Japanese officials from police upwards seem to be clad in Europe clothes, and never do those clothes fit. I think the Mikado made them at the same time as the Constitution. They will come right in time.

When the ’rickshaw, drawn by a beautiful apple-cheeked young man with a Basque face, shot me into the Mikado, First Act, I did not stop and shout with delight, because the dignity of India was in my keeping. I lay back on the velvet cushions and grinned luxuriously at Pitti-Sing, with her sash and three giant hair-pins in her blueblack hair, and three-inch clogs on her feet. She laughed—even as did the Burmese girl in the old Pagoda at Moulmein. And her laugh, the laugh of a lady, was my welcome to Japan. Can the people help laughing? I think not. You see they have such thousands of children in their streets that the elders must perforce be young lest the babes should grieve. Nagasaki is inhabited entirely by children. The grown-ups exist on sufferance. A four-foot child walks with a three-foot child, who is holding the hand of a two-foot child, who carries on her back a one-foot child, who—but you will not believe me if I say that the scale runs down to six-inch little Jap dolls such as they used to sell in the Burlington Arcade. These dolls wriggle and laugh. They are tied up in a blue bed-gown which is tied by a sash, which again ties up the bed-gown of the carrier. Thus if you untie that sash, baby and but little bigger brother are at once perfectly naked. I saw a mother do this, and it was for all the world like the peeling of hard-boiled eggs.

If you look for extravagance of colour, for flaming shop-fronts and glaring lanterns, you shall find none of these things in the narrow stone-paved streets of Nagasaki. But if you desire details of house construction, glimpses of perfect cleanliness, rare taste, and perfect subordination of the thing made to the needs of the maker, you shall find all you seek and more. All the roofs are dull lead colour, being shingled or tiled, and all the housefronts are of the colour of the wood God made. There is neither smoke nor haze, and in the clear light of a clouded sky I could see down the narrowest alleyway as into the interior of a cabinet.

The books have long ago told you how a Japanese house is constructed, chiefly of sliding screens and paper partitions, and everybody knows the story of the burglar of Tokio who burgled with a pair of scissors for jimmy and centre-bit and stole the Consul’s trousers. But all the telling in print will never make you understand the exquisite finish of a tenement that you could kick in with your foot and pound to match-wood with your fists. Behold a bunnia’s shop. He sells rice and chillies and dried fish and wooden scoops made of bamboo. The front of his shop is very solid. It is made of half-inch battens nailed side by side. Not one of the battens is broken; and each one is foursquare perfectly. Feeling ashamed of himself for this surly barring up of his house, he fills one-half the frontage with oiled paper stretched upon quarter-inch framing. Not a single square of oil paper has a hole in it, and not one of the squares, which in more uncivilised countries would hold a pane of glass if strong enough, is out of line. And the bunnia, clothed in a blue dressing-gown, with thick white stockings on his feet, sits behind, not among his wares, on a pale gold-coloured mat of soft rice straw bound with black list at the edges. This mat is two inches thick, three feet wide and six long. You might, if you were a sufficient pig, eat your dinner off any portion of it. The bunnia lies with one wadded blue arm round a big brazier of hammered brass on which is faintly delineated in incised lines a very terrible dragon. The brazier is full of charcoal ash, but there is no ash on the mat. By the bunnia’s side is a pouch of green leather tied with a red silk cord, holding tobacco cut fine as cotton. He fills a long black and red lacquered pipe, lights it at the charcoal in the brazier, takes two whiffs, and the pipe is empty. Still there is no speck on the mat. Behind the bunnia is a shadow-screen of bead and bamboo. This veils a room floored with pale gold and roofed with panels of grained cedar. There is nothing in the room save a blood-red blanket laid out smoothly as a sheet of paper. Beyond the room is a passage of polished wood, so polished that it gives back the reflections of the white paper wall. At the end of the passage and clearly visible to this unique bunnia is a dwarfed pine two feet high in a green glazed pot, and by its side is a branch of azalea, blood-red as the blanket, set in a pale grey cracklepot. The bunnia has put it there for his own pleasure, for the delight of his eyes, because he loves it. The white man has nothing whatever to do with his tastes, and he keeps his house specklessly pure because he likes cleanliness and knows it is artistic. What shall we say to such a bunnia?

His brother in Northern India may live behind a front of time-blackened open-work wood, but . . . I do not think he would grow anything save tulsi in a pot, and that only to please the Gods and his womenfolk.

Let us not compare the two men, but go on through Nagasaki.

Except for the horrible policemen who insist on being continental, the people—the common people, that is—do not run after unseemly costumes of the West. The young men wear round felt hats, occasionally coats and trousers, and semioccasionally boots. All these are vile. In the more metropolitan towns men say Western dress is rather the rule than the exception. If this be so, I am disposed to conclude that the sins of their forefathers in making enterprising Jesuit missionaries into beefsteak have been visited on the Japanese in the shape of a partial obscuration of their artistic instincts. Yet the punishment seems rather top heavy for the offence.

Then I fell admiring the bloom on the people’s cheeks, the three-cornered smiles of the fat babes, and the surpassing ‘otherness’ of everything round me. It is so strange to be in a clean land, and stranger to walk among dolls’ houses. Japan is a soothing place for a small man. Nobody comes to tower over him, and he looks down upon all the women, as is right and proper. A dealer in curiosities bent himself double on his own doormat, and I passed in, feeling for the first time that I was a barbarian, and no true Sahib. The slush of the streets was thick on my boots, and he, the immaculate owner, asked me to walk across a polished floor and white mats to an inner chamber. He brought me a foot-mat, which only made matters worse, for a pretty girl giggled round the corner as I toiled at it. Japanese shopkeepers ought not to be so clean. I went into a boarded passage about two feet wide, found a gem of a garden of dwarfed trees, in the space of half a tennis-court, whacked my head on a fragile lintel, and arrived at a four-walled daintiness where I involuntarily lowered my voice. Do you recollect Mrs. Molesworth’s Cuckoo Clock, and the big cabinet that Griselda entered with the cuckoo? I was not Griselda, but my low-voiced friend, in his long, soft wraps, was the cuckoo, and the room was the cabinet. Again I tried to console myself with the thought that I could kick the place to pieces; but this only made me feel large and coarse and dirty,—a most unfavourable mood for bargaining. The cuckoo-man caused pale tea to be brought, just such tea as you read of in books of travel,—and the tea completed my embarrassment. What I wanted to say was, ‘Look here, you person. You’re much too clean and refined for this life here below, and your house is unfit for a man to live in until he has been taught a lot of things which I have never learned. Consequently I hate you because I feel myself your inferior, and you despise me and my boots because you know me for a savage. Let me go, or I’ll pull your house of cedar-wood over your ears.’ What I really said was, ‘Oh, ah yes. Awf’ly pretty. Awful queer way of doing business.’

The cuckoo-man proved to be a horrid extortioner; but I was hot and uncomfortable till I got outside, and was a bog-trotting Briton once more. You have never blundered into the inside of a three-hundred-dollar cabinet, therefore you will not understand me.

We came to the foot of a hill, as it might have been the hill on which the Shway Dagon stands, and up that hill ran a mighty flight of grey, weather-darkened steps, spanned here and there by monolithic torii. Every one knows what a torii is. They have them in Southern India. A great King makes a note of the place where he intends to build a huge arch, but, being a King, does so in stone, not ink—sketches in the air two beams and a cross-bar, forty or sixty feet high, and twenty or thirty wide. In Southern India the cross-bar is humped in the middle. In the Further East it flares up at the ends. This description is hardly according to the books, but if a man begins by consulting books in a new country he is lost. Over the steps hung heavy blue-green or green-black pines, old, gnarled, and bossed. The foliage of the hillside was a lighter green, but the pines set the keynote of colour, and the blue dresses of the few folk on the steps answered it. There was no sunshine in the air, but I vow that sunshine would have spoilt all. We clomb for five minutes,—I and the Professor and the camera,—and then we turned, and saw the roofs of Nagasaki lying at our feet—a sea of lead and dull brown, with here and there a smudge of creamy pink to mark the bloom of the cherry trees. The hills round the town were speckled with the resting-places of the dead, with clumps of pine and feathery bamboo.

‘What a country!’ said the Professor, unstrapping his camera. ‘And have you noticed, wherever we go there’s always some man who knows how to carry my kit? The gharri driver at Moulmein handed me the stops; the fellow at Penang knew all about it, too; and the ’rickshaw coolie has seen a camera before. Curious, isn’t it?’

‘Professor,’ said I, ‘it’s due to the extraordinary fact that we are not the only people in the world. I began to realise it at Hong-Kong. It’s getting plainer now. I shouldn’t be surprised if we turned out to be ordinary human beings, after all.’

We entered a courtyard where an evil-looking bronze horse stared at two stone lions, and a company of children babbled among themselves. There is a legend connected with the bronze horse, which may be found in the guide-books. But the real true story of the creature is, that he was made long ago out of the fossil ivory of Siberia by a Japanese Prometheus, and got life and many foals, whose descendants closely resemble their father. Long years have almost eliminated the ivory in the blood, but it crops out in creamy mane and tail; and the pot-belly and marvellous feet of the bronze horse may be found to this day among the pack-ponies of Nagasaki, who carry pack-saddles adorned with velvet and red cloth, who wear grass shoes on their hind feet, and who are made like to horses in a pantomime.

We could not go beyond this courtyard because a label said, ‘No admittance,’ and thus all we saw of the temple was rich-brown high roofs of blackened thatch, breaking back and back in wave and undulation till they were lost in the foliage. The Japanese play with thatch as men play with modelling clay; but how their light underpinnings can carry the weight of the roof is a mystery to the lay eye.

We went down the steps to tiffin, and a half-formed resolve was shaping itself in my heart the while. Burma was a very nice place, but they eat gnapi there, and there were smells, and after all, the girls weren’t so pretty as some others—

‘You must take off your boots,’ said Y-Tokai.

I assure you there is no dignity in sitting down on the steps of a tea-house and struggling with muddy boots. And it is impossible to be polite in your stockinged feet when the floor under you is as smooth as glass and a pretty girl wants to know where you would like tiffin. Take at least one pair of beautiful socks with you when you come this way. Get them made of embroidered sambhur skin, of silk if you like, but do not stand as I did in cheap striped brown things with a darn at the heel, and try to talk to a tea-girl.

They led us—three of them, and all fresh and pretty—into a room furnished with a golden-brown bearskin. The tokonoma, recess aforementioned, held one scroll-picture of bats wheeling in the twilight, a bamboo flower-holder, and yellow flowers. The ceiling was of panelled wood, with the exception of one strip at the side nearest the window, and this was made of plaited shavings of cedar-wood, marked off from the rest of the ceiling by a wine-brown bamboo so polished that it might have been lacquered. A touch of the hand sent one side of the room flying back, and we entered a really large room with another tokonoma framed on one side by eight or ten feet of an unknown wood bearing the same grain as a ‘Penang lawyer,’ and above by a stick of unbarked tree set there purely because it was curiously mottled. In this second tokonoma was a pearl-grey vase, and that was all. Two sides of the room were of oiled paper, and the joints of the beams were covered by the brazen images of crabs, half life-size. Save for the sill of the tokonoma, which was black lacquer, every inch of wood in the place was natural grain without flaw. Outside lay the garden, fringed with a hedge of dwarf-pines and adorned with a tiny pond, water-smoothed stones sunk in the soil, and a blossoming cherry tree.

They left us alone in this paradise of cleanliness and beauty, and being only a shameless Englishman without his boots—a white man is always degraded when he goes barefoot—I wandered round the wall, trying all the screens. It was only when I stopped to examine the sunk catch of a screen that I saw it was a plaque of inlay-work representing two white cranes feeding on fish. The whole was about three inches square and in the ordinary course of events would never be looked at. The screens are a cupboard in which all the lamps and candlesticks and pillows and sleeping-bags of the household seemed to be stored. An Oriental nation that can fill a cupboard tidily is a nation to bow down to. Upstairs I went by a staircase of grained wood and lacquer into rooms of rarest device with circular windows that opened on nothing, and so were filled with bamboo tracery for the delight of the eye. The passages floored with dark wood shone like ice, and I was ashamed.

‘Professor,’ said I, ‘they don’t spit; they don’t eat like pigs; they can’t quarrel, and a drunken man would reel straight through every portion in the house and roll down the hill into Nagasaki. They can’t have any children.’ Here I stopped. Downstairs was full of babies!

The maidens came in with tea in blue china and cake in a red lacquered bowl—such cake as one gets at one or two houses in Simla. We sprawled ungracefully on red rugs over the mats, and they gave us chopsticks to separate the cake with. It was a long task.

‘Is that all?’ growled the Professor. ‘I’m hungry, and cake and tea oughtn’t to come till four o’clock.’ Here he took a wedge of cake furtively with his hands.

They returned—five of them this time—with black lacquer stands a foot square and four inches high. Those were our tables. They bore a red lacquered bowlful of fish boiled in brine, and sea-anemones. At least they were not mushrooms. A paper napkin tied with gold thread enclosed our chopsticks; and in a little flat saucer lay a smoked crayfish, a slice of a compromise that looked like Yorkshire pudding and tasted like sweet omelette, and a twisted fragment of some translucent thing that had once been alive but was now pickled. They went away, but not empty handed, for thou, oh, O-Toyo, didst take away my heart—same which I gave to the Burmese girl in the Shway Dagon pagoda.

The Professor opened his eyes a little, but said no word. The chopsticks demanded all his attention, and the return of the girls took up the rest. O-Toyo, ebon-haired, rosy-cheeked, and made throughout of delicate porcelain, laughed at me because I devoured all the mustard-sauce that had been served with my raw fish, and wept copiously till she gave me saki from a lordly bottle about four inches high. If you took some very thin hock, and tried to mull it and forgot all about the brew till it was half cold, you would get saki. I had mine in a saucer so tiny that I was bold to have it filled eight or ten times and loved O-Toyo none the less at the end.

After raw fish and mustard-sauce came some other sort of fish cooked with pickled radishes, and very slippery on the chopsticks. The girls knelt in a semicircle and shrieked with delight at the Professor’s clumsiness, for indeed it was not I that nearly upset the dinner table in a vain attempt’ to recline gracefully. After the bamboo-shoots came a basin of white beans in sweet sauce—very tasty indeed. Try to convey beans to your mouth with a pair of wooden knitting-needles and see what happens. Some chicken cunningly boiled with turnips, and a bowlful of snow-white boneless fish and a pile of rice, concluded the meal. I have forgotten one or two of the courses, but when O-Toyo handed me the tiny lacquered Japanese pipe full of hay-like tobacco, I counted nine dishes in the lacquer stand—each dish representing a course. Then O-Toyo and I smoked by alternate pipefuls.

My very respectable friends at all the clubs and messes, have you ever after a good tiffin lolled on cushions and smoked, with one pretty girl to fill your pipe and four to admire you in an unknown tongue? You do not know what life is. I looked round me at that faultless room, at the dwarf pines and creamy cherry blossoms without, at O-Toyo bubbling with laughter because I blew smoke through my nose, and at the ring of Mikado maidens over against the golden-brown bearskin rug. Here was colour, form, food, comfort, and beauty enough for half a year’s contemplation. I would not be a Burman any more. I would be a Japanese—always with O-Toyo of course—in a cabinet-work house on a camphor-scented hillside.

‘Heigho!’ said the Professor. ‘There are worse places than this to live and die in. D’you know our steamer goes at four? Let’s ask for the bill and get away.’

Now I have left my heart with O-Toyo under the pines. Perhaps I shall get it back at Kobé.