From Sea to Sea

Letter XVIII

by Rudyard Kipling

Always speak to the stranger. If he doesn’t shoot, the chances are he’ll answer you.—Wertern Proverb.

IT is a far cry from Myanoshita to Michni and Mandalay. That is why we have met men from both those stations, and have spent a cheerful time talking about dacoits and the Black Mountain Expedition. One of the advantages of foreign travel is that one takes such a keen interest in, and hears so much about, Home. Truly, they change their trains, but not their train of thought, who run across the sea.

‘This is a most extraordinary place,’ said the Professor, red as a boiled lobster. ‘You sit in your bath and turn on the hot or cold spring, as you choose, and the temperature is phenomenal. Let’s go and see where it all comes from, and then let’s go away.’

There is a place called the Burning Mountain five miles in the hills. There went we, through unbroken loveliness of bamboo-copse, pine wood, grass downs, and pine wood again, while the river growled below. In the end we found an impoverished and second-hand Hell, set out orderly on the side of a raw and bleeding hillside. It looked as though a match-factory had been whelmed by a landslip. Water, in which bad eggs had been boiled, stood in blister-Tipped pools, and puffs of thin white smoke went up from the labouring under-earth. Despite the smell and the sulphur incrustations on the black rocks, I was disappointed, till I felt the heat of the ground, which was the heat of a boiler-sheathing. They call the mountain extinct. If untold tons of power, cased in a few feet of dirt, be the Japanese notion of extinction, glad I am that I have not been introduced to a lively volcano. Indeed, it was not an overweening notion of my own importance, but a tender regard for the fire-crust below, and a dread of starting the machinery by accident, that made me step so delicately, and urge return upon the Professor.

‘Huh! It’s only the boiler of your morning bath. All the sources of the springs are here,’ said he.

‘I don’t care. Let ’em alone. Did you never hear of a boiler bursting? Don’t prod about with your stick in that amateur way. You’ll turn on the tap.’

When you have seen a burning mountain you begin to appreciate Japanese architecture. It is not solid. Every one is burned out once or twice casually. A business isn’t respectable until it has received its baptism of fire. But fire is of no importance. The one thing that inconveniences a Jap is an earthquake. Consequently, he arranges his house that it shall fall lightly as a bundle of broom upon his head. Still further safeguarding himself, he has no foundations, but the cornerposts rest on the crowns of round stones sunk in the earth. The corner-posts take the wave of the shock, and, though the building may give way like an eel-trap, nothing very serious happens. This is what epicures of earthquakes aver. I wait for mine own experiences, but not near a suspected district such as the Burning Mountain.

It was only to escape from one terror to another that I fled Myanoshita. A blue-breeched dwarf thrust me into a dwarf ’rickshaw on spidery wheels, and down the rough road that we had taken four hours to climb ran me clamorously in half an hour. Take all the parapets off the Simla Road and leave it alone for ten years. Then run down the steepest four miles of any section,—not steeper than the drop to the old Gaiety Theatre,—behind one man!

‘We couldn’t get six Hill-men to take us in this style,’ shouted the Professor as he spun by, his wheels kicking like a duck’s foot, and the whole contraption at an angle of thirty. I am proud to think that not even sixty Hill-men would have gambolled with a sahib in that disgraceful manner. Nor would any tramway company in the Real East have run its cars to catch a train that used to start last year, but now—rest its soul—is as dead as Queen Anne. This thing a queer little seven-mile tramway accomplished with much dignity. It owned a first-class car and a second-class car,—two horses to each,—and it ran them with a hundred yards headway—the one all but empty, and the other half full. When the very small driver could not control his horses, which happened on the average once every two minutes, he did not waste time by pulling them in. He screwed down the brake and laughed—possibly at the company who had paid for the very elaborate car. Yet he was an artistic driver. He wore no Philistine brass badge. Between the shoulders of his blue jerkin were done in white, three rail-heads in a circle, and on the skirts as many tram-wheels conventionalised. Only the Japanese know how to conventionalise a tram-wheel or make a keypattern of rail-heads. Though we took twelve hours to cover the thirty miles that separated us from Yokohama, we admitted this much while we waited for our train in a village by the sea. A village of any size is about three miles long in the main street. Villages with a population of more than ten thousand souls take rank as towns.

‘And yet,’ said a man at Yokohama that night, you have not seen the densest population. That’s away in the western kens-districts, as you call them. The folk are really crowded thereabouts, but, virtually, poverty does not exist in the country. You see, an agricultural labourer can maintain himself and his family, as far as rice goes, for four cents a day, and the price of fish is nominal. Rice now costs a hundred pounds to the dollar. What do you make it by Indian standards? From twenty to twenty-five seers the rupee. Yes, that’s about it. Well, he gets, perhaps, three dollars and a-half a month. The people spend a good deal in pleasuring. They must enjoy themselves. I don’t think they save much. How do they invest their savings? In jewellery? No, not exactly; though you’ll find that the women’s hair-pins, which are about the only jewellery they wear, cost a good deal. Seven and eight dollars are paid for a good hair-pin, and, of course, jade may cost anything. What the women really lock their money up in is in their obis—the things you call sashes. An obi is ten or twelve yards long, and I’ve known them sold wholesale for fifty dollars each. Every woman above the poorest class has at least one good dress of silk and an obi. Yes, all their savings go in dress, and a handsome dress is always worth having. The western kens are the richest taken all round. A skilled mechanic there gets a dollar or dollar and a half a day, and, as you know, lacquer-workers and inlayers—artists—get two. There’s enough money in Japan for all current expenses. They won’t borrow any for railroads. They raise it ’emselves. Most progressive people the Japanese are as regards railways. They make them very cheaply; much more cheaply than any European lines. I’ve some experience, and I take it that two thousand pounds a mile is the average cost of construction. Not on the Tokaido, of course—the line that you came up by. That’s a Government line, State built, and a very expensive one. I’m speaking of the Japanese Railway Company with a mileage of three hundred, and the line from Kobé south, and the Kinshin line in the Southern island. There are lots of little companies with a few score miles of line, but all the companies are extending. The reason why the construction is so cheap is the nature of the land. There’s no long haulage of rails, because you can nearly always find a creek running far up into the country, and dump out your rails within a few miles of the place where they are wanted. Then, again, all your timber lies to your hand, and your staff are Japs. There are a few European engineers, but they are quite the heads of the departments, and I believe if they were cleared out to-morrow, the Japs would go on building their lines. They know how to make ’em pay. One line started on a State guarantee of eight per cent. It hasn’t called for the guarantee yet. It’s making twelve per cent on its own hook. There’s a very heavy freight-traffic in wood and provisions for the big towns, and there’s a local traffic that you can have no idea of unless you’ve watched it. The people seem to move in twenty-mile circles for business or pleasure—’specially pleasure. Oh, I tell you, Japan will be a gridiron of railways before long. In another month or two you’ll be able to travel nearly seven hundred miles on and by the Tokaido line alone from one end to the other of the central islands. Getting from east to west is harder work. The backbone-hills of the country are just cruel, and it will be some time before the Japs run many lines across. But they’ll do it, of course. Their country must go forward.

‘If you want to know anything about their politics, I’m afraid I can’t help you much. They are, so to speak, drunk with Western liquor, and are sucking it up by the hogshead. In a few years they will see how much of what we call civilisation they really want, and how much they can discard. ’Tisn’t as if they had to learn the arts of life or how to make themselves comfortable. They knew all that long ago. When their railway system is completed, and they begin to understand their new Constitution, they will have learned as much as we can teach ’em. That’s my opinion; but it needs time to understand this country. I’ve been a matter of eight or ten years in it, and my views aren’t worth much. I’ve come to know some of the old families that used to be of the feudal nobility. They keep themselves to themselves and live very quietly. I don’t think you’ll find many of them in the official classes. Their one fault is that they entertain far beyond their means. They won’t receive you informally and take you into their houses. They raise dancing-girls, or take you to their club and have a big feed. They don’t introduce you to their wives, and they haven’t yet given up the rule of making the wife eat after the husband. Like the native of India you say? Well, I am very fond of the Jap; but I suppose he is a native any way you look at him. You wouldn’t think that he is careless in his workmanship and dishonest. A Chinaman, on an average, is out and away a bigger rogue than a Jap; but he has sense enough to see that honesty is the best policy, and to act by that light. A Jap will be dishonest just to save himself trouble. He’s like a child that way.’

How many times have I had to record such an opinion as the foregoing? Everywhere the foreigner says the same thing of the neat-handed, polite little people that live among flowers and babies, and smoke tobacco as mild as their own manners. I am sorry; but when you come to think of it, a race without a flaw would be perfect. And then all the other nations of the earth would rise up and hammer it to pieces. And then there would be no Japan.

‘I’ll give you a day to think over things generally,’ said the Professor. ‘After that we’ll go to Nikko and Tokio. Who has not seen Nikko does not know how to pronounce the word “beautiful.”’

Yokohama is not the proper place to arrange impressions in. The Pacific Ocean knocks at your door, asking to be looked at; the Japanese and American men-of-war demand serious attention through a telescope; and if you wander about the corridors of the Grand Hotel, you stop to play with Spanish Generals, all gold lace and spurs, or are captured by touts for curio-shops. It is not a nice experience to find a Sahib in a Panama hat handing you the card of his firm for all the world like a Delhi silk-merchant. You are inclined to pity that man, until he sits down, gives you a cigar, and tells you all about his diseases, his past career in California, where he was always making money and always losing it, and his hopes for the future. You see then that you are entering upon a new world. Talk to every one you meet, if they show the least disposition to talk to you, and you will gather, as I have done, a host of stories that will be of use to you hereafter. Unfortunately, they are not all fit for publication. When I tore myself away from the distractions of the outer world, and was dust sitting down to write seriously on the Future of Japan, there entered a fascinating man, with heaps of money, who had collected Indian and Japanese curios all his life, and was now come to this country to get some old books which his collection lacked. Can you imagine a more pleasant life than his wanderings over the earth, with untold special knowledge to back each signature of his cheque-book?

In five minutes he had carried me far away from the clattering, fidgety folk around, to a quiet world where men meditated for three weeks over a bronze, and scoured all Japan for a sword-guard designed by a great artist and—were horribly cheated in the end.

‘Who is the best artist in Japan now?’ I asked.

‘He died in Tokio, last Friday, poor fellow, and there is no one to take his place. His name was K——, and as a general rule he could never be persuaded to work unless he was drunk. He did his best pictures when he was drunk.’

Ému. Artists are never drunk.’

‘Quite right. I’ll show you a sword-guard that he designed. All the best artists out here do a lot of designing. K—— used to fritter away his time on designs for old friends. Had he stuck to pictures he could have made twice as much. But he never turned out pot-boilers. When you go to Tokio, make it your business to get two little books of his called Drunken Sketches—pictures that he did when he was—ému. There is enough dash and go in them to fill half a dozen studios. An English artist studied under him for some time. But K——’s touch was not communicable, though he might have taught his pupil something about technique. Have you ever come across one of K——’s crows? You could tell it anywhere. He could put all the wicked thoughts that ever came into the mind of a crow—and a crow is first cousin to the Devil—on a piece of paper six inches square, with a brush of Indian ink and two turns of his wrist. Look at the sword-guard I spoke of. How is that for feeling?’

On a circular piece of iron four inches in diameter and pierced by the hole for the tang of the blade, poor K——, who died last Friday, had sketched the figure of a coolie trying to fold up a cloth which was bellying to a merry breeze—not a cold wind, but a sportive summer gust. The coolie was enjoying the performance, and so was the cloth. It would all be folded up in another minute and the coolie would go on his way with a grin.

This thing had K—— conceived, and the faithful workman executed, with the lightest touches of the graver, to the end that it might lie in a collector’s cabinet in London.

‘Wah! wah!’ I said, and returned it reverently. ‘It would kill a man who could do that to live after his touch had gone. Well for him he died—but I wish I had seen him. Show me some more.’

‘I’ve got a painting by Hokusai—the great artist who lived at the end of the last century and the beginning of this. Even you have heard of Hokusai, haven’t you?’

‘A little. I have heard it was impossible to get a genuine painting with his signature attached.’

‘That’s true; but I’ve shown this one to the Japanese Government expert in pictures—the man the Mikado consults in cases of doubt—to the first European authority on Japanese art, and of course I have my own opinion to back the signed guarantee of the seller. Look!’

He unrolled a silk-scroll and showed me the figure of a girl in pale blue and grey crepe, carrying in her arms a bundle of clothes that, as the tub behind her showed, had just been washed. A dark-blue handkerchief was thrown lightly over the left forearm, shoulder, and neck, ready to tie up the clothes when the bundle should be put down. The flesh of the right arm showed through the thin drapery of the sleeve. The right hand merely steadied the bundle from above; the left gripped it firmly from below. Through the stiff blue-black hair showed the outline of the left ear.

That there was enormous elaboration in the picture, from the ornamentation of the hair-pins to the graining of the clogs, did not strike me till after the first five minutes, when I had sufficiently admired the certainty of touch.

‘Recollect there is no room for error in painting on silk,’ said the proud possessor. ‘The line must stand under any circumstances. All that is possible before painting is a little dotting with charcoal, which is rubbed off with a feather-brush. Did he know anything about drapery or colour or the shape of a woman? Is there any one who could teach him more if he were alive to-day?’

Then we went to Nikko.