From Sea to Sea

Letter XV

by Rudyard Kipling

Could I but write the things I see,
My world would haste to gaze with me.
But since the traitor Pen hath failed
To paint earth’s loveliness unveiled,
I can but pray my folk who read—
For lavish Will take starveling Deed.

WE are consorting with sixty of the Sahib-log in the quaintest hotel that ever you saw. It stands on the hillside overlooking the whole town of Kioto, and its garden is veritable Japanese. Fantastically trimmed tea trees, junipers, dwarfed pine, and cherry are mixed up with ponds of gold-fish, stone lanterns, quaint rock-work, and velvety turf all at an angle of thirty-five degrees. Behind us the pines, red and black, cover the hill and run down in a long spur to the town. But an auctioneer’s catalogue cannot describe the charms of the place or deal justly with the tea-garden full of cherry trees that lies a hundred yards below the hotel. We were solemnly assured that hardly any one came to Kioto. That is why we meet every soul in the ship that had brought us to Nagasaki; and that is why our ears are constantly assailed with the clamour of people who are discussing places which must be ‘done.’ An Englishman is a very horrible person when he is on the war-path; so is an American, a Frenchman, or a German.

I had been watching the afternoon sunlight upon the trees and the town, the shift and play of colour in the crowded street of the cherry, and crooning to myself because the sky was blue and I was alive beneath it with a pair of eyes in my head.

Immediately the sun went down behind the hills the air became bitterly cold, but the people in crepe sashes and silk coats never ceased their sober frolicking. There was to be a great service in honour of the cherry blossom the next day at the chief temple of Kioto, and they were getting ready for it. As the light died in a wash of crimson, the last thing I saw was a frieze of three little Japanese babies with fuzzy top-knots and huge sashes trying to hang head downwards from a bamboo rail. They did it, and the closing eye of day regarded them solemnly as it shut. The effect in silhouette was immense

A company of China tea-merchants were gathered in the smoking-room after dinner, and by consequence talked their own ‘shop’ which was interesting. Their language is not Our language, for they know nothing of the tea-gardens, of drying and withering and rolling, of the assistant who breaks his collar-bone in the middle of the busiest season, or of the sickness that smites the coolielines at about the same time. They are happy men who get their tea by the break of a thousand chests from the interior of the country and play with it upon the London markets. None the less they have a very wholesome respect for Indian tea, which they cordially detest. Here is the sort of argument that a Foochow man, himself a very heavy buyer, flung at me across the table.

‘You may talk about your Indian teas, Assam and Kangra, or whatever you call them,—but I tell you that if ever they get a strong hold in England, the doctors will be down on them, Sir. They’ll be medically forbidden. See if they aren’t. They shatter your nerves to pieces. Unfit for human consumption—that’s what they are. Though I don’t deny they are selling at Home. They don’t keep, though. After three months, the sorts that I’ve seen in London turn to hay.’

‘I think you are wrong there,’ said a Hankow man. ‘My experience is that the Indian teas keep better than ours by a long way. But’—turning to me—‘if we could only get the China Government to take off the duties, we could smash Indian tea and every one connected with it. We could lay down tea in Mincing Lane at threepence a pound. No, we do not adulterate our teas. That’s one of your tricks in India. We get it as pure as yours—every chest in the break equal to sample.’

‘You can trust your native buyers then?’ I interrupted.

‘Trust ’em? Of course we can,’ cut in the Foochow merchant. ‘There are no tea-gardens in China as you understand them. The peasantry cultivate the tea, and the buyers buy from them for cash each season. You can give a Chinaman a hundred thousand dollars and tell him to turn it into tea of your own particular chop—up to sample. Of course the man may be a thorough-paced rogue in many ways, but he knows better than to play the fool with an English house. Back comes your tea—a thousand half-chests, we’ll say. You open perhaps five, and the balance go home untried. But they are all equal to sample. That’s business, that is. The Chinaman’s a born merchant and full of backbone. I like him for business purposes. The Jap’s no use. He isn’t man enough to handle a hundred thousand dollars. Very possibly he’d run off with it—or try to.’

‘The Jap has no business savvy. God knows I hate the Chinaman,’ said a bass voice behind the tobacco smoke, ‘but you can do business with him. The Jap’s a little huckster who can’t see beyond his nose.’

They called for drinks and told tales, these merchants of China,—tales of money and bales and boxes,—but through all their stories there was an implied leaning upon native help which, even allowing for the peculiarities of China, was rather startling. ‘The compradore did this: Ho Whang did that: a syndicate of Pekin bankers did the other thing’—and so on. I wondered whether a certain lordly indifference as to details had anything to do with eccentricities in the China tea-breaks and fluctuations of quality which do occur in spite of all the men said to the contrary. Again, the merchants spoke of China as a place where fortunes are made—a land only waiting to be opened up to pay a hundredfold. They told me of the Home Government helping private trade, in kind and unobtrusive ways, to get a firmer hold on the Public Works Department contracts that are now flying abroad. This was pleasant hearing. But the strangest thing of all was the tone of hope and almost contentment that pervaded their speech. They were well-to-do men making money, and they liked their lives. You know how, when two or three of Us are gathered together in our own barren pauper land, we groan in chorus and are disconsolate. The civilian, the military man, and the merchant, they are all alike. The one overworked and broken by exchange, the second a highly organised beggar, and the third a nobody in particular, always at loggerheads with what he considers an academical Government. I knew in a way that We were a grim and miserable community in India, but I did not know the measure of Our fall till I heard men talking about fortunes, success, money, and the pleasure, good living, and frequent trips to England that money brings. Their friends did not seem to die with unnatural swiftness, and their wealth enabled them to endure the calamity of Exchange with calm. Yes, we of India are a wretched folk.

Very early in the dawn, before the nesting sparrows were awake, there was a sound in the air which frightened me out of my virtuous sleep. It was a lisping mutter—very deep and entirely strange. ‘That’s an earthquake, and the hillside is beginning to slide,’ quoth I, taking measures of defence. The sound repeated itself again and again, till I argued, that if it were the precursor of an earthquake, the affair had stuck half-way. At breakfast men said: ‘That was the great bell of Kioto just next door to the hotel a little way up the hillside. As a bell, y’ know, it’s rather a failure, from an English point of view. They don’t ring it properly, and the volume of sound is comparatively insignificant.’

‘So I fancied when I first heard it,’ I said casually, and went out up the hill under sunshine that filled the heart and trees, that filled the eye with joy. You know the unadulterated pleasure of that first clear morning in the Hills when a month’s solid idleness lies before the loafer, and the scent of the deodars mixes with the scent of the meditative cigar. That was my portion when I stepped through the violet-studded long grass into forgotten little Japanese cemeteries—all broken pillars and lichened tablets—till I found, under a cut in the hillside, the big bell of Kloto—twenty feet of green bronze hung inside a fantastically roofed shed of wooden beams.

A beam, by the way, is a beam in Japan; anything under a foot thick is a stick. These beams were the best parts of big trees, clamped with bronze and iron. A knuckle rapped lightly on the lip of the bell—it was not more than five feet from the ground—made the great monster breathe heavily, and the blow of a stick started a hundred shrill-voiced echoes round the darkness of its dome. At one side, guyed by half a dozen small hawsers, hung a battering-ram, a twelve-foot spar bound with iron, its nose pointing full-butt at a chrysanthemum in high relief on the belly of the bell. Then, by special favour of Providence, which always looks after the idle, they began to sound sixty strokes. Half a dozen men swung the ram back and forth with shoutings and outcries, till it had gathered sufficient way, and the loosened ropes let it hurl itself against the chrysanthemum. The boom of the smitten bronze was swallowed up by the earth below and the hillside behind, so that its volume was not proportionate to the size of the bell, exactly as the men had said. An English ringer would have made thrice as much of it. But then he would have lost the crawling jar that ran through rock-stone and pine for twenty yards round, that beat through the body of the listener and died away under his feet like the shock of a distant blasting. I endured twenty strokes and removed myself, not in the least ashamed of mistaking the sound for an earthquake. Many times since I have heard the bell speak when I was far off. It says B-r-r-r very deep down in its throat, but when you have once caught the noise you will never forget it. And so much for the big bell of Kioto.

From its house a staircase of cut stone takes you down to the temple of Chion-in, where I arrived on Easter Sunday just before service, and in time to see the procession of the Cherry Blossom. They had a special service at a place called St. Peter’s at Rome about the same time, but the priests of Buddha excelled the priests of the Pope. Thus it happened. The main front of the temple was three hundred feet long, a hundred feet deep, and sixty feet high. One roof covered it all, and saving for the tiles there was no stone in the structure; nothing but wood three hundred years old, as hard as iron. The pillars that upheld the roof were three feet, four feet, and five feet in diameter, and guiltless of any paint. They showed the natural grain of the wood till they were lost in the rich brown darkness far overhead. The cross beams were of grained wood of great richness; cedar-wood and camphor-wood and the hearts of gigantic pine had been put under requisition for the great work. One carpenter—they call him only a carpenter—had designed the whole, and his name is remembered to this day. A half of the temple was railed off for the congregation by a two-foot railing, over which silks of ancient device had been thrown. Within the railing were all the religious fittings, but these I cannot describe. All I remember was row upon row of little lacquered stands each holding a rolled volume of sacred writings; an altar as tall as a cathedral organ where gold strove with colour, colour with lacquer, and lacquer with inlay, and candles such as Holy Mother Church uses only on her greatest days, shed a yellow light that softened all. Bronze incense-burners in the likeness of dragons and devils fumed under the shadow of silken banners, behind which, wood tracery, as delicate as frost on a windowpane, climbed to the ridge-pole. Only there was no visible roof to this temple. The light faded away under the monstrous beams, and we might have been in a cave a hundred fathoms below the earth but for the sunshine and blue sky at the portals, where the little children squabbled and shouted.

On my word, I tried to note down soberly what lay before me, but the eye tired, and the pencil ran off into fragmentary ejaculations. But what would you have done if you had seen what I saw when I went round the temple verandah to what we must call a vestry at the back? It was a big building connected with the main one by a wooden bridge of deepest time-worn brown. Down the bridge ran a line of saffron-coloured matting, and down the matting, very slowly and solemnly, as befitted their high office, filed three-and-fifty priests, each one clad in at least four garments of brocade, crepe, and silk. There were silks that do not see the light of the markets, and brocades that only temple wardrobes know.

There was sea-green watered silk with golden dragons; terra-cotta crepe with ivory-white chrysanthemums clustering upon it; black-barred silk shot with yellow flames; lapis-lazuli silk and silver fishes; avatiturine silk with plaques of grey-green let in; cloth of gold over dragon’s blood; and saffron and brown silk stiff as a board with embroidery. We returned to the temple now filled with the gorgeous robes. The little lacquer stands were the priests’ book-racks. Some lay down among them, while others moved very softly about the golden altars and the incense-burners; and the high priest disposed himself, with his back to the congregation, in a golden chair through which his robe winked like the shards of a tiger-beetle.

In solemn calm the books were unrolled, and the priests began chanting Pali texts in honour of the Apostle of Unworldliness, who had written that they were not to wear gold or mixed colours, or touch the precious metals. But for a few unimportant accessories in the way of half-seen images of great men—but these could have been called saints—the scene before me might have been unrolled in a Roman-Catholic cathedral, say the rich one at Arundel. The same thought was in other minds, for in a pause of the slow chant a voice behind me whispered:

To hear the blessed mutter of the mass
And see God made and eaten all day long.

It was a man from Hong-Kong, very angry that he too had not been permitted to photograph an interior. He called all this splendour of ritual and paraphernalia just ‘an interior,’ and revenged himself by spitting Browning at it.

The chant quickened as the service drew to an end, and the candles burned low.

We went away to other parts of the temple pursued by the chorus of the devout till we were out of earshot in a paradise of screens. Two or three hundred years ago there lived a painterman of the name of Kano. Him the temple of Chion-in brought to beautify the walls of the rooms. Since a wall is a screen, and a screen is a wall, Kano, R.A., had rather a large job. But he was helped by pupils and imitators, and in the end left a few hundred screens which are all finished pictures. As you already know, the interior of a temple is very simple in its arrangements. The priests live on white mats, in little rooms, with brown ceilings, that can at pleasure be thrown into one large room. This also was the arrangement at Chion-in, though the rooms were comparatively large and gave on to sumptuous verandahs and passages. Since the Emperor occasionally visited the place, there was a room set apart for him of more than ordinary splendour. Twisted silk tassels of intricate design served in lieu of catches to pull back the sliding screens, and the woodwork was lacquered. These be only feeble words, but it is not in my grip to express the restfulness of it all, or the power that knew how to secure the desired effect with a turn of the wrist. The great Kano drew numbed pheasants huddled together on the snow-covered bough of a pine; or a peacock in his pride spreading his tail to delight his womenfolk; or a riot of chrysanthemums poured out of a vase; or the figures of toilworn countryfolk coming home from market; or a hunting scene at the foot of Fujiyama. The equally great carpenter who built the temple framed each picture with absolute precision under a ceiling that was a miracle of device, and Time, the greatest artist of the three, touched the gold so that it became amber, and the woodwork so that it grew dark honey-colour, and the shining surface of the lacquer so that it became deep and rich and semi-transparent. As in one room, so in all the others. Sometimes we slid back the screens and discovered a tiny bald-pated acolyte praying over an incense-burner, and sometimes a lean priest eating his rice; but generally the rooms were empty, swept and garnished.

Minor artists had worked with Kano the magnificent. These had been allowed to lay brush upon panels of wood in the outer verandahs, and very faithfully had they toiled. It was not till the guide called my attention to them that I discovered scores of sketches in monochrome low down on the verandah doors. An iris broken by the fall of a branch torn off by a surly ape; a bamboo spray bowed before the wind that was ruffling a lake; a warrior of the past ambushing his enemy in a thicket, hand on sword, and mouth gathered into puckers of intensest concentration, were among the many notes that met my eye. How long, think you, would a sepia-drawing stand without defacement in the midst of our civilisation were it put on the bottom panel of a door, or the scantling of a kitchen passage? Yet in this gentle country a man may stoop down and write his name in the very dust, certain that, if the writing be craftily done, his children’s children will reverently let it stand.

‘Of course there are no such temples made nowadays,’ I said, when we regained the sunshine, and the Professor was trying to find out how panel pictures and paper screens went so well with the dark dignity of massive woodwork.

‘They are building a temple on the other side of the city,’ said Mister Yamagutchi. ‘Come along, and see the hair-ropes which hang there.’

We came flying in our ’rickshaws across Kioto, till we saw netted in a hundred cobwebs of scaffolding a temple even larger than the great Chion-in.

‘That was burned down long ago,—the old temple that was here, you know. Then the people made a penny subscription from all parts of Japan, and those who could not send money sent their hair to be made into rope. They have been ten years building this new temple. It is all wood,’ said the guide.

The place was alive with men who were putting the finishing touches to the great tiled roof and laying down the floors. Wooden pillars as gigantic, carving as wantonly elaborate, eaves as intricate in their mouldings, and joinery as perfect as anything in the Chion-in temple met me at every turn. But the fresh-cut wood was creamy white and lemon where, in the older building, it had been iron-hard and brown. Only the raw ends of the joists were stopped with white lacquer to prevent the incursions of insects, and the deeper tracery was protected against birds by fine wire netting. Everything else was wood—wood down to the massive clamped and bolted beams of the foundation which I investigated through gaps in the flooring.

Japan is a great people. Her masons play with stone, her carpenters with wood, her smiths with iron, and her artists with life, death, and all the eye can take in. Mercifully she has been denied the last touch of firmness in her character which would enable her to play with the whole round world. We possess that—We, the nation of the glass flower-shade, the pink worsted mat, the red and green china puppy dog, and the poisonous Brussels carpet. It is our compensation . . . .

‘Temples!’ said a man from Calcutta, some hours later, as I raved about what I had seen. ‘Temples! I’m sick of temples. If I’ve seen one, I’ve seen fifty thousand of ’em—all exactly alike. But I tell you what is exciting. Go down the rapids at Arashima,—eight miles from here. It’s better fun than any temple with a fat-faced Buddha in the middle.’

But I took my friend’s advice. Have I managed to convey the impression that April is fine in Japan? Then I apologise. It is generally rainy, and the rain is cold; but the sunshine when it comes is worth it all. We shouted with joy of living when our fiery, untamed ’rickshaws bounded from stone to stone of the vilely paved streets of the suburbs and brought us into what ought to have been vegetable gardens but were called fields. The face of the flat lands was cut up in every direction by bunds, and all the roads seem to run on the top of them.

‘Never,’ said the Professor, driving his stick into the black soil, ‘never have I imagined irrigation so perfectly controlled as this is. Look at the rajbahars faced with stone and fitted with sluices; look at the water-wheels and,—phew! but they manure their fields too well.’

The first circle of fields round any town is always pretty rank, but this superfluity of scent continued throughout the country. Saving a few parts near Dacca and Patna, the face of the land was more thickly populated than Bengal and was worked five times better. There was no single patch untitled, and no cultivation that was not up to the full limit of the soil’s productiveness. Onions, barley, in little ridges between the ridges of tea, beans, rice, and a half a dozen other things that we did not know the names of, crowded the eye already wearied with the glare of the golden mustard. Manure is a good thing, but manual labour is better. We saw both even to excess. When a Japanese ryot has done everything to his field that he can possibly think of, he weeds the barley stalk by stalk with his finger and thumb. This is true. I saw a man doing it.

We headed through the marvellous country straight across the plain on which Kioto stands, till we reached the range of hills on the far side, and found ourselves mixed up with half a mile of lumber-yard.

Cultivation and water-cuts were gone, and our tireless ’rickshaws were running by the side of a broad, shallow river, choked with logs of every size. I am prepared to believe anything of the Japanese, but I do not see why Nature, which they say is the same pitiless Power all the world over, should send them their logs unsplintered by rocks, neatly barked, and with a slot neatly cut at the end of each pole for the reception of a rope. I have seen timber fly down the Ravi in spate, and it was hooked out as ragged as a tooth-brush. This material comes down clean. Consequently the slot is another miracle.

‘When the day is fine,’ said the guide softly, ‘all the people of Kioto come to Arashima to have picnics.

‘But they are always having picnics in the cherry-tree gardens. They picnic in the teahouses. They—they—’

‘Yes, when it is a fine day, they always go somewhere and picnic.’

‘But Why? Man isn’t made to picnic.’

‘But why? Because it is a fine day. Englishmen say that the money of the Japanese comes from heaven, because they always do nothing—so you think. But look now, here is a pretty place.’

The river charged down a turn in the pine-grown hills, and broke in silver upon the timber and the remains of a light bridge washed away some days before. On our side, and arranged so as to face the fairest view of the young maples, stood a row of tea-houses and booths built over the stream. The sunlight that could not soften the gloom of the pines dwelt tenderly among the green of the maples, and touched the reaches below where the cherry blossom broke in pink foam against the black-roofed houses of a village across the water.

There I stopped.