From Sea to Sea

Letter XIV

by Rudyard Kipling

There’s a deal o’ fine confused feedin’ about sheep’s head.

Christopher North.


‘COME along to Osaka,’ said the Professor.

‘Why? I’m quite comfy here, and we shall have lobster cutlets for tiffin; and, anyhow, it is raining heavily, and we shall get wet.’

Sorely against my will—for it was in my mind to fudge Japan from a guide-book while I enjoyed the cookery of the Oriental at Kobé—I was dragged into a ’rickshaw and the rain, and conveyed to a railway station. Even the Japanese cannot make their railway stations lovely, though they do their best. Their system of baggage-booking is borrowed from the Americans; their narrow-gauge lines, locos, and rolling-stock are English; their passenger-traffic is regulated with the precision of the Gaul, and the uniforms of their officials come from the nearest ragbag. The passengers themselves were altogether delightful. A large number of them were modified Europeans, and resembled nothing more than Tenniel’s picture of the White Rabbit on the first page of Alice in Wonderland. They were dressed in neat little tweed suits with fawn-coloured overcoats, and they carried ladies’ reticules of black leather and nickel platings. They wore paper and celluloid stuck-up collars which must have been quite thirteen inches round the neck, and their boots were number fours. On their hands—their wee-wee hands—they had white cotton gloves, and they smoked cigarettes from fairy little cigarette cases. That was young Japan—the Japan of the present day.

‘Wah, wah, God is great,’ said the Professor. ‘But it isn’t in human nature for a man who sprawls about on soft mats by instinct to wear Europe clothes as though they belonged to him. If you notice, the last thing that they take to is shoes.’

A lapis-lazuli coloured locomotive which, by accident, had a mixed train attached to it happened to loaf up to the platform just then, and we entered a first-class English compartment. There was no stupid double roof, window shade, or abortive thermantidote. It was a London and Southwestern carriage. Osaka is about eighteen miles from Kobé, and stands at the head of the bay of Osaka. The train is allowed to go as fast as fifteen miles an hour and to play at the stations all along the line. You must know that the line runs between the hills and the shore, and the drainage-fall is a great deal steeper than anything we have between Saharunpur and Umballa. The rivers and the hill torrents come down straight from the hills on raised beds of their own formation, which beds again have to be bunded and spanned with girder bridges or—here, perhaps, I may be wrong—tunnelled.

The stations are black-tiled, red-walled, and concrete-floored, and all the plant from signal levers to goods-truck is English. The official colour of the bridges is a yellow-brown most like unto a faded chrysanthemum. The uniform of the ticket-collectors is a peaked forage cap with gold lines, black frock-coat with brass buttons, very long in the skirt, trousers with black mohair braid, and buttoned kid boots. You cannot be rude to a man in such raiment.

But the countryside was the thing that made us open our eyes. Imagine a land of rich black soil, very heavily manured, and worked by the spade and hoe almost exclusively, and if you split your field (of vision) into half-acre plots, you will get a notion of the raw material the cultivator works on. But all I can write will give you no notion of the wantonness of neatness visible in the fields; of the elaborate system of irrigation, and the mathematical precision of the planting. There was no mixing of crops, no waste of boundary in footpath, and no difference of value in the land. The water stood everywhere within ten feet of the surface, as the well-sweeps attested. On the slopes of the foothills each drop between the levels was neatly riveted with unmortared stones, and the edges of the water-cuts were faced in like manner. The young rice was transplanted very much as draughts are laid on the board; the tea might have been cropped garden box; and between the lines of the mustard the water lay in the drills as in a wooden trough, while the purple of the beans ran up to the mustard and stopped as though cut with a rule.

On the seaboard we saw an almost continuous line of towns variegated with factory chimneys; inland, the crazy-quilt of green, dark-green and gold. Even in the rain the view was lovely, and exactly as Japanese pictures had led me to hope for. Only one drawback occurred to the Professor and myself at the same time. Crops don’t grow to the full limit of the seed on heavily worked ground dotted with villages except at a price.

‘Cholera? ‘said I, watching a stretch of well-sweeps.

‘Cholera,’ said the Professor. ‘Must be, y’ know. It’s all sewage irrigation.’

I felt that I was friends with the cultivators at once. These broad-hatted, blue-clad gentlemen who tilled their fields by hand—except when they borrowed the village buffalo to drive the share through the rice-slough—knew what the Scourge meant.

‘How much do you think the Government takes in revenue from vegetable gardens of that kind?’ I demanded.

‘Bosh,’ said he quietly, ‘you aren’t going to describe the land-tenure of Japan. Look at the yellow of the mustard!’

It lay in sheets round the line. It ran up the hills to the dark pines. It rioted over the brown sandbars of the swollen rivers, and faded away by mile after mile to the shores of the leaden sea. The high-peaked houses of brown thatch stood knee-deep in it, and it surged up to the factory chimneys of Osaka.

‘Great place, Osaka,’ said the guide. ‘All sorts of manufactures there.’

Osaka is built into and over and among one thousand eight hundred and ninety-four canals, rivers, dams, and watercuts. What the multitudinous chimneys mean I cannot tell. They have something to do with rice and cotton; but it is not good that the Japs should indulge in trade. and I will not call Osaka a ‘great commercial entrepôt.’ ‘People who live in paper houses should never sell goods,’ as the proverb says.

Because of his many wants there is but one hotel for the Englishman in Osaka, and they call it Juter’s. Here the views of two civilisations collide and the result is awful. The building is altogether Japanese; wood and tile and sliding screen from top to bottom; but the fitments are mixed. My room, for instance, held a tokonoma, made of the polished black stem of a palm and delicate woodwork, framing a scroll picture representing storks. But on the floor over the white mats lay a Brussels carpet that made the indignant toes tingle. From the back verandah one overhung the river which ran straight as an arrow between two lines of houses. They have cabinet-makers in Japan to fit the rivers to the towns. From my verandah I could see three bridges—one a hideous lattice-girder arrangement—and part of a fourth. We were on an island and owned a water-gate if we wanted to take a boat.

Apropos of water, be pleased to listen to a Shocking Story. It is written in all the books that the Japanese though cleanly are somewhat casual in their customs. They bathe often with nothing on and together. This notion my experience of the country, gathered in the seclusion of the Oriental at Kobé, made me scoff at. I demanded a tub at Juter’s. The infinitesimal man led me down verandahs and upstairs to a beautiful bath-house full of hot and cold water and fitted with cabinet-work, somewhere in a lonely out-gallery. There was naturally no bolt to the door any more than there would be a bolt to a dining-room. Had I been sheltered by the walls of a big Europe bath, I should not have cared, but I was preparing to wash when a pretty maiden opened the door, and indicated that she also would tub in the deep, sunken Japanese bath at my side. When one is dressed only in one’s virtue and a pair of spectacles it is difficult to shut the door in the face of a girl. She gathered that I was not happy, and withdrew giggling, while I thanked heaven, blushing profusely the while, that I had been brought up in a society which unfits a man to bathe à deux. Even an experience of the Paddington Swimming Baths would have helped me; but coming straight from India, Lady Godiva was a ballet-girl in sentiment compared to this Actæon.

It rained monsoonishly, and the Professor discovered a castle which he needs must see. ‘It’s Osaka Castle,’ he said, ‘and it has been fought over for hundreds of years. Come along.’

‘I’ve seen castles in India. Raighur, Jodhpur—all sorts of places. Let’s have some more boiled salmon. It’s good in this station.’

‘Pig,’ said the Professor.

We threaded our way over the four thousand and fifty-two canals, etc., where the little children played with the swiftly running water, and never a mother said ‘don’t,’ till our ’rickshaw stopped outside a fort ditch thirty feet deep, and faced with gigantic granite slabs. On the far side uprose the walls of a fort. But such a fort! Fifty feet was the height of the wall, and never a pinch of mortar in the whole. Nor was the face perpendicular, but curved like the ram of a man-of-war. They know the curve in China, and I have seen French artists introduce it into books describing a devil-besieged city of Tartary. Possibly everybody else knows it too, but that is not my affair; life as I have said being altogether new to me. The stone was granite, and the men of old time had used it like mud. The dressed blocks that made the profile of the angles were from twenty feet long, ten or twelve feet high, and as many in thickness. There was no attempt at binding, but there was no fault in the jointing.

‘And the little Japs built this!’ I cried, awe-stricken at the quarries that rose round me.

‘Cyclopean masonry,’ grunted the Professor, punching with a stick a monolith of seventeen feet cube. ‘Not only did they build it, but they took it. Look at this. Fire!’

The stones had been split and bronzed in places, and the cleavage was the cleavage of fire. Evil must it have been for the armies that led the assault on these monstrous walls. Castles in India I know, and the forts of great Emperors I had seen, but neither Akbar in the north, nor Scindia in the south, had built after this fashion—without ornament, without colour, but with a single eye to savage strength and the utmost purity of line. Perhaps the fort would have looked less forbidding in sunlight. The grey, rain-laden atmosphere through which I saw it suited its spirit. The barracks of the garrison, the commandant’s very dainty house, a peach-garden, and two deer were foreign to the place. They should have peopled it with giants from the mountains, instead of—Gurkhas! A Jap infantryman is not a Gurkha, though he might be mistaken for one as long as he stood still. The sentry at the quarter-guard belonged, I fancy, to the 4th Regiment. His uniform was black or blue, with red facings, and shoulder-straps carrying the number of the regiment in cloth. The rain necessitated an overcoat, but why he should have carried knapsack, blanket, boots, and binoculars I could not fathom. The knapsack was of cowskin with the hair on, the boots were strapped soles, cut on each side, while a heavy country blanket was rolled U-shape over the head of the knapsack, fitting close to the back. In the place usually occupied by the messtin was a black leather case shaped like a field-glass. This must be a mistake of mine, but I can only record as I see. The rifle was a side-bolt weapon of some kind, and the bayonet an uncommonly good sword one, locked to the muzzle, English fashion. The ammunition-pouches, as far as I could see under the greatcoat, ran on the belt in front, and were double-strapped down. White spatter-dashes—very dirty—and peaked cap completed the outfit. I surveyed the man with interest, and would have made further examination of him but for fear of the big bayonet. His arms were well kept,—not speckless by any means,but his uniform would have made an English colonel swear. There was no portion of his body except the neck that it pretended to fit. I peeped into the quarter-guard. Fans and dainty tea-sets do not go with one’s notions of a barrack. One drunken defaulter of certain faraway regiments that I could name would not only have cleared out that quarter-guard, but brought away all its fittings except the rifle-racks. Yet the little men, who were always gentle, and never got drunk, were mounting guard over a pile that, with a blue fire on the bastions, might have served for the guard-gates of Hell.

I climbed to the top of the fort and was rewarded by a view of thirty miles of country, chiefly pale yellow mustard and blue-green pine, and the sight of the very large city of Osaka fading away into mist. The guide took most pleasure in the factory chimneys. ‘There is an exposition here—an exposition of industrialities. Come and see,’ said he. He took us down from that high place and showed us the glory of the land in the shape of corkscrews, tin mugs, eggwhisks, dippers, silks, buttons, and all the trumpery that can be stitched on a card and sold for five-pence three farthings. The Japanese unfortunately make all these things for themselves, and are proud of it. They have nothing to learn from the West as far as finish is concerned, and by intuition know how to case and mount wares tastefully. The exposition was in four large sheds running round a central building which held only screens, pottery, and cabinetware loaned for the occasion. I rejoiced to see that the common people did not care for the penknives, and the pencils, and the mock jewellery. They left those sheds alone and discussed the screens: first taking off their clogs that the inlaid floor of the room might not suffer. Of all the gracious things I beheld, two only remain in my memory,—one a screen in grey representing the heads of six devils instinct with malice and hate; the other, a bold sketch in monochrome of an old wood-cutter wrestling with the down-bent branch of a tree. Two hundred years have passed since the artist dropped his pencil, but you may almost hear the tough wood jar under the stroke of the chopper as the old man puts his back into the task and draws in the labouring breath. There is a picture by Legros of a beggar dying in a ditch, which might have been suggested by that screen.

Next morning, after a night’s rain which sent the river racing under the frail balconies at eight miles an hour, the sun broke through the clouds. Is this a little matter to you who can count upon him daily? I had not seen him since March, and was beginning to feel anxious. Then the land of peach blossom spread its draggled wings abroad and rejoiced. All the pretty maidens put on their loveliest crêpe sashes,—fawn colour, pink, blue, orange, and lilac,—all the little children picked up a baby each, and went out to be happy. In a temple garden full of blossom I performed the miracle of Deucalion with two cents’ worth of sweets. The babies swarmed on the instant, till, for fear of raising all the mothers too, I forbore to give them any more. They smiled and nodded prettily, and trotted after me, forty strong, the big ones helping the little, and the little ones skipping in the puddles. A Jap child never cries, never scuffles, never fights, and never makes mud-pies, except when it lives on the banks of a canal. Yet, lest it should spread its sash-bow and become a bald-headed angel, ere its time, Providence has decreed that it should never, never blow its little nose. Notwithstanding the defect, I love it.

There was no business in Osaka that day because of the sunshine and the budding of the trees. Everybody went to a tea-house with his friends. I went also, but first ran along a boulevard by the side of the river, pretending to look at the Mint. This was only a common place of solid granite where they turn out dollars and rubbish of that kind. All along the boulevard the cherry, peach, and plum trees, pink, white, and red, touched branches and made a belt of velvety soft colour as far as the eve could reach. Weeping willows were the normal ornaments of the waterside, this revel of bloom being only part of the prodigality of Spring. The Mint may make a hundred thousand dollars a day, but all the silver in its keeping will not bring again the three weeks of the peach blossom which, even beyond the chrysanthemum, is the crown and glory of Japan. For some act of surpassing merit performed in a past life I have been enabled to hit those three weeks in the middle.

‘This is the Japanese festival of the cherry blossom,’ said the guide. ‘All the people will be festive. They will pray too and go to the tea-gardens.’

Now you might wall an Englishman about with cherry trees in bloom from head to heel, and after the first day he would begin to complain of the smell. As you know, the Japanese arrange a good many of their festivals in honour of flowers, and this is surely commendable, for blossoms are the most tolerant of gods.

The tea-house system of the Japanese filled me with pleasure at a pleasure that I could not fully comprehend. It pays a company in Osaka to build on the outskirts of the town a nine-storied pagoda of wood and iron, to lay out elaborate gardens round it, and to hang the whole with strings of blood-red lanterns, because the Japanese will come wherever there is a good view to sit on a mat and discuss tea and sweetmeats and saki. This Eiffel Tower is, to tell the truth, anything but pretty, yet the surroundings redeem it. Although it was not quite completed, the lower stories were full of tea-stalls and tea-drinkers. The men and women were obviously admiring the view. It is an astounding thing to see an Oriental so engaged; it is as though he had stolen something from a Sahib.

From Osaka—canal-cut, muddy, and fascinating Osaka—the Professor, Mister Yamagutchi,—the guide,—and I took train to Kioto, an hour from Osaka. On the road I saw four buffaloes at as many rice-ploughs—which was noticeable as well as wasteful. A buffalo at rest must cover the half of a Japanese field; but perhaps they are kept on the mountain-ledges and only pulled down when wanted. The Professor says that what I call buffalo is really bullock. The worst of travelling with an accurate man is his accuracy. We argued about the Japanese in the train, about his present and his future, and the manner in which he has ranged himself on the side of the grosser nations of the earth.

‘Did it hurt his feelings very much to wear our clothes? Didn’t he rebel when he put on a pair of trousers for the first time? Won’t he grow sensible some day and drop foreign habits?’ These were a few of the questions I put to the landscape and the Professor.

‘He was a baby,’ said the latter, ‘a big baby. I think his sense of humour was at the bottom of the change, but he didn’t know that a nation which once wears trousers never takes ’em off. You see “enlightened” Japan is only one-and-twenty years old, and people are not very wise at one-and-twenty. Read Reed’s Japan and learn how the change came about. There was a Mikado and a Shogun who was Sir Frederick Roberts, but he tried to be the Viceroy and——’

‘Bother the Shogun! I’ve seen something like the Babu class, and something like the farmer class. What I want to see is the Rajput class—the man who used to wear the thousands and thousands of swords in the curio-shops. Those swords were as much made for use as a Rajputana sabre. Where are the men who used ’em? Show me a Samurai.’

The Professor answered not a word, but scrutinised heads on the wayside platforms. ‘I take it that the high-arched forehead, club nose, and eyes close together—the Spanish type—are from Rajput stock, while the German-faced Jap is the Khattri—the lower class.’

Thus we talked of the natures and dispositions of men we knew nothing about till we had decided (1) that the painful politeness of the Japanese nation rose from the habit, dropped only twenty years ago, of extended and emphatic swordwearing, even as the Rajput is the pink of courtesy because his friend goes armed; (2) that this politeness will disappear in another generation, or will at least be seriously impaired; (3) that the cultured Japanese of the English pattern will corrupt and defile the tastes of his neighbours till (4) Japan altogether ceases to exist as a separate nation and becomes a button-hook manufacturing appanage of America; (5) that these things being so, and sure to happen m two or three hundred years, the Professor and I were lucky to reach Japan betimes; and (6) that it was foolish to form theories about the country until we had seen a little of it.

So we came to the city of Kioto in regal sunshine, tempered by a breeze that drove the cherry blossoms in drifts about the streets. One Japanese town, in the southern provinces at least, is very like another to look at—a grey-black sea of house roofs, speckled with the white walls of the fire-proof godowns where merchants and rich men keep their chief treasures. The general level is broken by the temple roofs, which are turned up at the edges, and remotely resemble so many terai-hats. Kioto fills a plain almost entirely surrounded by wooded hills, very familiar in their aspect to those who have seen the Siwaliks. Once upon a time it was the capital of Japan, and to-day numbers two hundred and fifty thousand people. It is laid out like an American town. All the streets run at right angles to each other. That, by the way, is exactly what the Professor and I are doing. We are elaborating the theory of the Japanese people, and we can’t agree.