From Sea to Sea

Letter XII

by Rudyard Kipling

Rome! Rome! Wasn’t that the place where I got the good cigars?—Memoirs of a Traveller.

ALAS for the incompleteness of the written word! There was so much more that I meant to tell you about Nagasaki and the funeral procession that I found in her streets. You ought to have read about the wailing women in white who followed the dead man shut up in a wooden sedan-chair that rocked on the shoulders of the bearers, while the bronze-hued Buddhist priest tramped on ahead, and the little boys ran alongside.

I had prepared in my mind moral reflections, purviews of political situations, and a complete essay on the future of Japan. Now I have forgotten everything except O-Toyo in the tea-garden.

From Nagasaki we—the P. and O. Steamer—are going to Kobé by way of the Inland Sea. That is to say, we have for the last twenty hours been steaming through a huge lake, studded as far as the eye can reach with islands of every size, from four miles long and two wide to little cocked-hat hummocks no bigger than a decent hayrick. Messrs. Cook and Son charge about one hundred rupees extra for the run through this part of the world, but they do not know how to farm the beauties of nature. Under any skies the islands—purple, amber, grey, green, and black—are worth five times the money asked. I have been sitting for the last half-hour among a knot of whooping tourists, wondering how I could give you a notion of them. The tourists, of course, are indescribable. They say, ‘Oh my!’ at thirty-second intervals, and at the end of five minutes call one to another: ‘Sa-ay, don’t you think it’s vurry much the same all along?’ Then they play cricket with a broomstick till an unusually fair prospect makes them stop and shout ‘Oh my!’ again. If there were a few more oaks and pines on the islands, the run would be three hundred miles of Naini Tal lake. But we are not near Nai ni Tal; for as the big ship drives down the alleys of water, I can see the heads of the breakers flying ten feet up the side of the echoing cliffs, albeit the sea is dead-still.

Now we have come to a stretch so densely populated with islands that all looks solid ground. We are running through broken water thrown up by the race of the tide round an outlying reef, and, apparently, are going to hit an acre of solid rock. Somebody on the bridge saves us, and we head out for another island, and so on, and so on, till the eye wearies of watching the nose of the ship swinging right and left, and the finite human soul, which, after all, cannot repeat ‘Oh my!’ through a chilly evening, goes below. When you come to Japan—it can be done comfortably in three months, or even ten weeks—sail through this marvellous sea, and see how quickly wonder sinks to interest, and interest to apathy. We brought oysters with us from Nagasaki. I am much more interested in their appearance at dinner to-night than in the shagbacked starfish of an islet that has just slidden by like a ghost upon the silver-grey waters, awakening under the touch of the ripe moon. Yes, it is a sea of mystery and romance, and the white sails of the junks are silver in the moonlight. But if the steward curries those oysters instead of serving them on the shell, all the veiled beauties of cliff and water-careen rock will not console me. Today being the seventeenth of April, I am sitting in an ulster under a thick rug, with fingers so cold I can barely hold the pen. This emboldens me to ask how your thermantidotes are working. A mixture of steatite and kerosene is very good for creaking cranks, I believe, and if the coolie falls asleep, and you wake up in Hades, try not to lose your temper. I go to my oysters!

Two days later. This comes from Kobé (thirty hours from Nagasaki), the European portion of which is a raw American town. We walked down the wide, naked streets between houses of sham stucco, with Corinthian pillars of wood, wooden verandahs and piazzas, all stony grey beneath stony grey skies, and keeping guard over raw green saplings miscalled shade trees. In truth, Kobé is hideously American in externals. Even I, who have only seen pictures of America, recognised at once that it was Portland, Maine. It lives among hills, but the hills are all scalped, and the general impression is of out-of-the-wayness. Yet, ere I go further, let me sing the praises of the excellent M. Begeux, proprietor of the Oriental Hotel, upon whom be peace. His is a house where you can dine. He does not merely feed you. His coffee is the coffee of the beautiful France. For tea he gives you Peliti cakes (but better) and the vin ordinaire which is compris, is good. Excellent Monsieur and Madame Begeux! If the Pioneer were a medium for puffs, I would write a leading article upon your potato salad, your beefsteaks, your fried fish, and your staff of highly trained Japanese servants in blue tights, who looked like so many small Hamlets without the velvet cloak, and who obeyed the unspoken wish. No, it should be a poem—a ballad of good living. I have eaten curries of the rarest at the Oriental at Penang, the turtle steaks of Raffles’s at Singapur still live in my regretful memory, and they gave me chicken liver and sucking-pig in the Victoria at Hong-Kong which I will always extol. But the Oriental at Kobé was better than all three. Remember this, and so shall you who come after slide round a quarter of the world upon a sleek and contented stomach.

We are going from Kobé to Yokohama by various roads. This necessitates a passport, because we travel in the interior and do not run round the coast on ship-board. We take a railroad, which may or may not be complete as to the middle, and we branch off from that railroad, complete or not, as the notion may prompt. This will be an affair of some twenty days, and ought to include forty or fifty miles by ’rickshaw, a voyage on a lake, and, I believe, bedbugs. Nota bene.—When you come to Japan stop at Hong-Kong and send on a letter to the ‘Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary at Tokio,’ if you want to travel in the interior of this Fairyland. Indicate your route as roughly as ever you choose, but for your own comfort give the two extreme towns you intend to touch. Throw in any details about your age, profession, colour of hair, and the like that may occur to you, and ask to have a passport sent to the British Consulate at Kobé to meet you. Allow the man with a long title a week’s time to prepare the passport, and you will find it at your service when you land. Only write distinctly, to save your vanity. My papers are addressed to a Mister Kyshrig—‘Radjerd Kyshrig.’

As in Nagasaki, the town was full of babies, and as in Nagasaki, every one smiled except the Chinamen. I do not like Chinamen. There was something in their faces which I could not understand, though it was familiar enough.

‘The Chinaman’s a native,’ I said. ‘That’s the look on a native’s face, but the Jap isn’t a native, and he isn’t a Sahib either. What is it?’ The Professor considered the surging street for a while.

‘The Chinaman’s an old man when he’s young, just as a native is; but the Jap is a child all his life. Think how grown-up people look among children. That’s the look that’s puzzling you.’

I dare not say that the Professor is right, but to my eyes it seemed he spoke sooth. As the knowledge of good and evil sets its mark upon the face of a grown man of Our people, so something I did not understand had marked the faces of the Chinamen. They had no kinship with the crowd beyond that which a man has to children.

‘They are the superior race,’ said the Professor, ethnologically.

‘They can’t be. They don’t know how to enjoy life,’ I answered immorally. ‘And, anyway, their art isn’t human.’

‘What does it matter?’ said the Professor. ‘Here’s a shop full of the wrecks of old Japan. Let’s go in and look.’ We went in, but I want somebody to solve the Chinese question for me. It’s too large to handle alone.

We entered the curio-shop aforementioned, with our hats in our hands, through a small avenue of carved stone lanterns and wooden sculptures of devils unspeakably hideous, to be received by a smiling image who had grown grey among netsukes and lacquer. He showed us the banners and insignia of daimios long since dead, while our jaws drooped in ignorant wonder. He showed us a sacred turtle of mammoth size, careen in wood down to minutest detail. Through room after room he led us, the light fading as we went, till we reached a tiny garden and a woodwork cloister that ran round it. Suits of old-time armour made faces at us in the gloom, ancient swords clicked at our feet, quaint tobacco pouches as old as the swords swayed to and fro from some invisible support, and the eyes of a score of battered Buddhas, red dragons, Jain tirthankars, and Burmese beloos glared at us from over the fence of tattered gold brocade robes of state. The joy of possession lives in the eye. The old man showed us his treasures, from crystal spheres mounted in sea-worn wood to cabinet on cabinet full of ivory and wood carvings, and we were as rich as though we owned all that lay before us. Unfortunately the merest scratch of Japanese character is the only clew to the artist’s name, so I am unable to say who conceived, and in creamy ivory executed, the old man horribly embarrassed by a cuttle-fish; the priest who made the soldier pick up a deer for him and laughed to think that the brisket would be his and the burden his companion’s; or the dry, lean snake coiled in derision on a jawless skull mottled with the memories of corruption; or the Rabelaisan badger who stood on his head and made you blush though he was not half an inch long; or the little fat boy pounding his smaller brother; or the rabbit that had just made a joke; or—but there were scores of these notes, born of every mood of mirth, scorn, and experience that sways the heart of man; and by this hand that has held half a dozen of them in its palm I winked at the shade of the dead carver! He had gone to his rest, but he had worked out in ivory three or four impressions that I had been hunting after in cold print.

The Englishman is a wonderful animal. He buys a dozen of these things and puts them on the top of an overcrowded cabinet, where they show like blobs of ivory, and forgets them in a week. The Japanese hides them in a beautiful brocaded bag or a quiet lacquer box till three congenial friends come to tea. Then he takes them out slowly, and they are looked over with appreciation amid quiet chuckles to the deliberative clink of cups, and put back again till the mood for inspection returns. That is the way to enjoy what we call curios. Every man with money is a collector in Japan, but you shall find no crowds of ‘things’ outside the best shops.

We stayed long in the half-light of that quaint place, and when we went away we grieved afresh that such a people should have a ‘constitution’ or should dress every tenth young man in European clothes, put a white ironclad in Kobé harbour, and send a dozen myoptic lieutenants in baggy uniforms about the streets.

‘It would pay us,’ said the Professor, his head in a clog-shop, ‘it would pay us to establish an international suzerainty over Japan; to take away any fear of invasion or annexation, and pay the country as much as ever it chose, on condition that it simply sat still and went on making beautiful things while our men learned. It would pay us to put the whole Empire in a glass case and mark it, “Hors Concours,” Exhibit A.’

‘H’mm,’ said I. ‘Who’s us?’

‘Oh, we generally—the Sahib-log all the world over. Our workmen—a few of them—can do as good work in certain lines, but you don’t find whole towns full of clean, capable, dainty, designful people in Europe.’

‘Let’s go to Tokio and speak to the Emperor about it,’ I said.

‘Let’s go to a Japanese theatre first,’ said the Professor. ‘It’s too early in the tour to start serious politics.’