From Sea to Sea

Letter XVII

by Rudyard Kipling

(The Kipling Society presents here Kipling’s work as he
wrote it, but wishes to alert readers that the text below
contains some derogatory and/or offensive language)


When I went to Hell I spoke to the man on the road.

Old Saw.


YOU know the story of the miner who borrowed a dictionary and returned it with the remark that the stories, though interesting in the main, were too various. I have the same complaint to make against Japanese scenery—twelve hours of it by train from Nagoya to Yokohama. About seven hundred years ago the king of those days built a sea-road which he called the Tokaido (or else all the sea-coast was called the Tokaido, but it’s of no importance, which road endures to the present. Later on, when the English engineer appeared, he followed the Grand Trunk more or less closely, and the result has been a railway that any nation might take off their hat to. The last section of the through line from Kioto to Yokohama was only opened five days before the Professor and I honoured it with an unofficial inspection.

The accommodation of all kinds is arranged for the benefit of the Japanese; and this is distressing to the foreigner, who expects in a carriage remotely resembling E.I.R. rolling-stock the conveniences of that pea-green and very dusty old line. But it suits the Japanese admirably: they hop out at every other station—pro re nata—and occasionally get left behind. Two days ago they managed to kill a Government official of high standing between a footboard and a platform, and to-day the Japanese papers are seriously discussing the advantages of lavatories. Far be it from me to interfere with the arrangements of an artistic empire; but for a twelve hours’ run there might at least be arrangements.

We had left the close-packed cultivation at the foot of the hills and were running along the shores of a great lake, all steel-blue from one end to the other, except where it was dotted with little islands. Then the lake turned into an arm of the sea, and we ran across it on a cut-stone causeway, and the profligacy of the pines ceased, as the trees had to come down from clothing dank hills, and fight with bowed head, outstretched arms, and firmly planted feet, against the sands of the Pacific, whose breakers were spouting and blowing not a quarter of a mile away from the causeway. The Japs know all about forestry. They stake down wandering sand-torrents, which are still allowed to ruin our crops in the Hoshiarpur district, and they plug a shifting sand-dune with wattle-dams and pine seedlings as cleverly as they would pin plank to plank. Were their forest officers trained at Nancy, or are they local products? The stake-binding used to hold the sand is of French pattern, and the diagonal planting-out of the trees is also French.

Half a minute after the train dropped this desolate, hardly controlled beach it raced through four or five miles of the suburbs of Patna, but a clean and glorified Patna bowered in bamboo plantations. Then it hit a tunnel and sailed forth into a section of the London, Chatham, and Dover, or whatever the railway is that wants to make the Channel Tunnel. At any rate, the embankment was on the beach, and the waves lapped the foot of it, and there was a wall of cut rock to landward, Then we disturbed many villages of fishermen, whose verandahs gave on to the track, and whose nets lay almost under our wheels. The railway was still a new thing in that particular part of the world, for mothers held up their babes to see it.

Any one can keep pace with Indian scenery, arranged as it is in reaches of five hundred miles. This blinding alternation of field, mountain, sea-beach, forest, bamboo grove, and rolling moor covered with azalea blossoms was too much for me, so I sought the society of a man who had lived in Japan for twenty years.

‘Yes, Japan’s an excellent country as regards climate. The rains begin in May or latter April. June, July, and August are hot months. I’ve known the thermometer as high as 86° at night, but I’d defy the world to produce anything more perfect than the weather between September and May. When one gets seedy, one goes to the hot springs in the Hakone mountains close to Yokohama. There are heaps of places to recruit in, but we English are a healthy lot. Of course we don’t have half as much fun as you do in India. We are a small community, and all our amusements are organised by ourselves for our own benefit—concerts, races, and amateur theatricals and the like. You have heaps of ’em in India, haven’t you?’

‘Oh, yes!’ I said, ‘we enjoy ourselves awfully, ’specially about this time of the year. I quite understand, though, that small communities dependent on themselves for enjoyment are apt to feel a little slow and isolated—almost bored, in fact. But you were saying—?’

‘Well, living is not very dear, and house rent is. A hundred dollars a month gets you a decent house and you can get one for sixty. But house property is down just now in Yokohama. The races are on in Yokohama to-day and Monday. Are you going? No? You ought to go and see all the foreigners enjoying themselves. But I suppose you’ve seen much better things in India, haven’t you? You haven’t anything better than old Fuji—Fujiyama. There he is now to the left of the line. What do you think of him?’

I turned and beheld Fujiyama across a sea of upward-sloping fields and woods. It is about fourteen thousand feet high not very much, according to Our ideas. But fourteen thousand feet above the sea when one stands in the midst of sixteen-thousand-foot peaks, is quite another thing from the same height noted at sea-level in a comparatively flat country. The labouring eye crawls up every foot of the dead crater’s smooth flank, and at the summit confesses that it has seen nothing in all the Himalayas to match the monster. I was satisfied. Fujiyama was exactly as I had seen it on fans and lacquer boxes; I would not have sold my sight of it for the crest of Kinchinjunga flushed with the morning. Fujiyama is the keynote of Japan. When you understand the one you are in a position to learn something about the other. I tried to get information from my fellow-traveller.

‘Yes, the Japanese are building railways all over the island. What I mean to say is that the companies are started and financed by Japs, and they make ’em pay. I can’t quite tell you where the money comes from, but it’s all to be found in the country. Japan’s neither rich nor poor, but just comfortable. I’m a merchant myself. Can’t say that I altogether like the Jap way o’ doing business. You can never be certain whether the little beggar means what he says. Give me a Chinaman to deal with. Other men have told you that, have they? You’ll find that opinion at most of the treaty ports. But what I will say is, that the Japanese Government is about as enterprising a Government as you could wish, and a good one to have dealings with. When Japan has finished reconstructing herself on the new lines, she’ll be quite a respectable little Power. See if she isn’t. Now we are coming into the Hakone mountains. Watch the railway. It’s rather a curiosity.’

We came into the Hakone mountains by way of some Irish scenery, a Scotch trout-stream, a Devonshire combe, and an Indian river running masterless over half a mile of pebbles. This was only the prelude to a set of geological illustrations, including the terraces formed by ancient riverbeds, denudation, and half a dozen other ations. I was so busy telling the man from Yokohama lies about the height of the Himalayas that I did not watch things closely, till we got to Yokohama, at eight in the evening, and went to the Grand Hotel, where all the clean and nicely dressed people who were just going in to dinner regarded us with scorn, and men, whom we had met on steamers aforetime, dived into photograph books and pretended not to see us. There’s a deal of human nature in a man—got up for dinner—when a woman is watching him—and you look like a bricklayer—even in Yokohama.

The Grand is the Semi or Cottage Grand really, but you had better go there unless a friend tells you of a better. A long course of good luck has spoiled me for even average hotels. They are too fine and large at the Grand, and they don’t always live up to their grandeur; unlimited electric bells, but no one in particular to answer ’em; printed menu, but the first comers eat all the nice things, and so forth. None the less there are points about the Grand not to be despised. It is modelled on the American fashion, and is but an open door through which you may catch the first gust from the Pacific slope. Officially, there are twice as many English as Americans in the port. Actually, you hear no languages but French, German, or American in the street. My experience is sadly limited, but the American I have heard up to the present, is a tongue as distinct from English as Patagonian.

A gentleman from Boston was kind enough to tell me something about it. He defended the use of ‘I guess’ as a Shakespearian expression to be found in Richard the Third. I have learned enough never to argue with a Bostonian.

‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’ve never heard a real American say “I guess”; but what about the balance of your extraordinary tongue? Do you mean to say that it has anything in common with ours except the auxiliary verbs, the name of the Creator, and Damn? Listen to the men at the next table.’

‘They are Westerners,’ said the man from Boston, as who should say I observe this cassowary.’

‘They are Westerners, and if you want to make a Westerner mad tell him he is not like an Englishman. They think they are like the English. They are awfully thin-skinned in the West. Now in Boston it’s different. We don’t care what the English people think of us.’

The idea of the English people sitting down to think about Boston, while Boston on the other side of the water ostentatiously ‘didn’t care,’ made me snigger. The man told me stories. He belonged to a Republic. That was why every man of his acquaintance belonged either ‘to one of the first families in Boston’ or else ‘was of good Salem stock, and his fathers had come over in the Mayftower.’ I felt as though I were moving in the midst of a novel. Fancy having to explain to the casual stranger the blood and breeding of the hero of every anecdote. I wonder whether many people in Boston are like my friend with the Salem families. I am going there to see.

‘There’s no romance in America—it’s all hard business facts,’ said a man from the Pacific slope, after I had expressed my opinion about some rather curious murder cases which might have been called miscarriages of justice. Ten minutes later, I heard him say slowly, apropos of a game called ‘Round the Horn’ (this is a bad game. Don’t play it with a stranger), ‘Well, it’s a good thing for this game that Omaha came up. Dice were invented in Omaha, and the man who invented ’em he made a colossal fortune.’

I said nothing. I began to feel faint. The man must have noticed it. ‘Six-and-twenty years ago, Omaha came up,’ he repeated, looking me in the eye, ‘and the number of dice that have been made in Omaha since that time is incalculable.’

‘There is no romance in America,’ I moaned like a stricken ringdove, in the Professor’s ear. ‘Nothing but hard business facts, and the first families of Boston, Massachusetts, invented dice at Omaha when it first came up, twenty-six years ago, and that’s the solid truth. What am I to do with a people like this?

‘Are you describing Japan or America? For goodness’ sake, stick to one or the other,’ said the Professor.

‘It wasn’t my fault. There’s a bit of America in the bar-room, and on my word it’s rather more interesting than Japan. Let’s go across to ’Frisco and hear some more lies.’

‘Let’s go and look at photographs, and refrain from mixing our countries or our drinks.’

By the way, wherever you go in the Further East be humble to the white trader. Recollect that you are only a poor beast of a buyer with a few dirty dollars in your pockets, and you can’t expect a man to demean himself by taking them. And observe humility not only in the shops, but elsewhere. I was anxious to know how I should cross the Pacific to ’Frisco, and very foolishly went to an office where they might, under certain circumstances, be supposed to attend to these things. But no anxiety troubled the sprightly soul who happened to be in the office-chair. ‘There’s heaps of time for finding out later on,’ he said, ‘and anyhow, I’m going to the races this afternoon. Come later on.’ I put my head in the spittoon, and crawled out under the door.

When I am left behind by the steamer it will console me to know that that young man had a good time, and won heavily. Everybody keeps horses in Yokohama, and the horses are nice little fat little tubs, of the circus persuasion. I didn’t go to the races, but a Calcutta man did, and returned saying that ‘they ran 13.2 cart-horses, and even time for a mile was four minutes and twenty -seven seconds.’ Perhaps he had lost heavily, but I can vouch for the riding of the few gentlemen I saw outside the animals. It is very impartial and remarkably all round.

Just when the man from Boston was beginning to tell me some more stories about first families, the Professor developed an unholy taste for hot springs, and bore me off to a place called Myanoshita to wash myself. ‘We’ll come back and look at Yokohama later on, but we must go to this because it’s so beautiful.’

‘I’m getting tired of scenery. It’s all beautiful and it can’t be described, but these men here tell you stories about America. Did you ever hear how the people of Carmel lynched Edward M. Petree for preaching the gospel without making a collection at the end of the service? There’s no romance in America—it’s all hard business facts. Edward M. Petree was——’

Are you going to see Japan or are you not?’

I went to see. First in a train for one hour in the company of a carriageful of howling Globe-trotters, then in a ’rickshaw for four. You cannot appreciate scenery unless you sit in a ’rickshaw. We struck after seven miles of modified flat—the flattery of Nature that lures you to her more rugged heart—a mountain river all black pools and boiling foam. Him we followed into the hills along a road cut into the crumbling volcanic rock and entirely unmetalled. It was as hard as the Simla cart-road, but those far hills behind Kalka have no such pine and maple, ash and willow. It was a land of green-clothed cliff and silver waterfall, lovely beyond the defilement of the pen. At every turn in the road whence a view could be commanded, stood a little tea-house full of admiring Japanese. The Jap dresses in blue because he knows that it contrasts well with the colour of the pines. When he dies he goes to a heaven of his own because the colouring of ours is too crude to suit him.

We kept the valley of the glorified stream till the waters sank out of sight down the cliff side and we could but hear them calling to one another through the tangle of the trees. Where the woodlands were lovelier, the gorge deepest, and the colours of the young hornbeam most tender, they had clapped down two vile hostelries of wood and glass, and a village that lived by selling turned wood and glass inlay things to the tourist.

Australians, Anglo-Indians, dwellers in London and the parts beyond the Channel were running up and down the slopes of the hotel garden, and by their strange dresses doing all they knew to deface the landscape. The Professor and I slid down the cliff at the back and found ourselves back in Japan once more. Rough steps took us five or six hundred feet down through dense jungle to the bed of that stream we had followed all the day. The air vibrated with the rush of a hundred torrents, and whenever the eye could pierce the undergrowth it saw a headlong stream breaking itself on a boulder. Up at the hotel we had left the grey chill of a November day and cold that numbed the fingers; down in the gorge we found the climate of Bengal with real steam thrown in. Green bamboo pipes led the hot water to a score of bathing-houses in whose verandahs Japanese in blue and white dressing-gowns lounged and smoked. From unseen thickets came the shouts of those who bathed, and—oh shame! round the corner strolled a venerable old lady chastely robed in a white bathing towel, and not too much of that. Then we went up the gorge, mopping our brows, and staring to the sky through arches of rampant foliage.

Japanese maids of fourteen or fifteen are not altogether displeasing to behold. I have not seen more than twenty or thirty of them. Of these none were in the least disconcerted at the sight of the stranger. After all, ’twas but Brighton beach without the bathing-gowns. At the head of the gorge the heat became greater, and the hot water more abundant. The joints of the water-pipes on the ground gave off jets of steam; there was vapour rising from boulders on the riverbed, and the stab of a stick into the warm, moist soil was followed by a little pool of warm water. The existing supply was not enough for the inhabitants. They were mining for more in a casual and disconnected fashion. I tried to crawl down a shaft eighteen inches by two feet in the hillside, but the steam, which had no effect on the Japanese hide, drove me out. What happens, I wonder, when the pick strikes the liquid, and the miner has to run or be parboiled?

In the twilight, when we had reached upper earth once more and were passing through the one street of Myanoshita, we saw two small fat cherubs about three years old taking their evening tub in a barrel sunk under the eaves of a shop. They feigned great fear, peeping at us behind outspread fingers, attempting futile dives, and trying to hide one behind the other in a hundred poses of spankable chubbiness, while their father urged them to splash us. It was the prettiest picture of the day, and one worth coming even to the sticky, paint-reeking hotel to see.

.     .     .     .     .

He was dressed in a black frock-coat, and at first I took him for a missionary as he mooned up and down the empty corridor.

‘I have been under a ban for three days,’ he whispered in a husky voice, ‘through no fault of mine—no fault of mine. They told me to take the third watch, but they didn’t give me a printed notification which I always require, and the manager of this place says that whisky would hurt me. Through no fault of mine, God knows, no fault of mine!’

I do not like being shut up in an echoing wooden hotel next door to a gentleman of the marine persuasion, who is just recovering from D.T., and who talks to himself all through the dark hours.