Inaka circa 1878

Today a lighter topic… Recently I’ve been reading Isabella L. Bird’s Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, which I’ve found to be a remarkable snapshot of life in Japan just after the Meiji Restoration. This book is particularly fascinating to me for its detailed firsthand accounts of her travels through the Japanese countryside, into places where she may have been the first foreigner even to have gone.

The book takes the form of a series of letters. Bird is a very descriptive writer which is great. I love this type of historical material as it gives you a real picture of the lives of common people of the period. Her accounts of the people she met in her travels have really surprised me in much of their particulars about the Life of Japanese people in the countryside during that time.

One thing that really surprised me is the squalor she describes in the villages she visits. I’ll admit to a bit of romanticism with regard to my ideas of life in the past. The reality of life back then was far removed from that of my imaginings.

IKARI, June 25.—Fujihara has forty-six farm-houses and a yadoya—all dark, damp, dirty, and draughty, a combination of dwelling- house, barn, and stable. The yadoya consisted of a daidokoro, or open kitchen, and stable below, and a small loft above, capable of division, and I found on returning from a walk six Japanese in extreme dishabille occupying the part through which I had to pass. On this being remedied I sat down to write, but was soon driven upon the balcony, under the eaves, by myriads of fleas, which hopped out of the mats as sandhoppers do out of the sea sand, and even in the balcony, hopped over my letter. There were two outer walls of hairy mud with living creatures crawling in the cracks; cobwebs hung from the uncovered rafters. The mats were brown with age and dirt, the rice was musty, and only partially cleaned, the eggs had seen better days, and the tea was musty. …

The persons, clothing, and houses are alive with vermin, and if the word squalor can be applied to independent and industrious people, they were squalid. Beetles, spiders, and wood-lice held a carnival in my room after dark, and the presence of horses in the same house brought a number of horseflies. I sprinkled my stretcher with insect powder, but my blanket had been on the floor for one minute, and fleas rendered sleep impossible. The night was very long.

In another place Bird relates how impressed she is by the care that the Japanese of the time show their children, especially the men.

I never saw people take so much delight in their offspring, carrying them about, or holding their hands in walking, watching and entering into their games, supplying them constantly with new toys, taking them to picnics and festivals, never being content to be without them, and treating other people’s children also with a suitable measure of affection and attention. Both fathers and mothers take a pride in their children. It is most amusing about six every morning to see twelve or fourteen men sitting on a low wall, each with a child under two years in his arms, fondling and playing with it, and showing off its physique and intelligence. To judge from appearances, the children form the chief topic at this morning gathering. At night, after the houses are shut up, looking through the long fringe of rope or rattan which conceals the sliding door, you see the father, who wears nothing but a maro in “the bosom of his family,” bending his ugly, kindly face over a gentle-looking baby, and the mother, who more often than not has dropped the kimono from her shoulders, enfolding two children destitute of clothing in her arms.

These accounts and observations of daily life in in Japan more than 100 years ago are truly eye-opening. But what reading this book has really got me thinking about is a question I am sometimes asked about the lifestyle I am going to pursue in Japan. When I talk to people about living in the country, growing your own food, living in an old farmhouse without proper flushing toilets and such, I am often asked a question which amounts to something like, “Are you trying to live like some 18th century peasant?”

And from now on I will be careful to make it clear that what I advocate in the sort of life I am pursuing is NOT a wholesale return to the ways of the past, but rather a sensible (one might even say “Amish” — haha Ken, you really are on to something there…) approach to lifestyle–one which takes a balanced and careful view of technology and judges it on the basis of whether or not it truly improves our lives and increases our self sufficiency, or becomes a tool of distraction, waste, or dependence.  I fully intend to keep using the former, and abstaining from the later as much as possible.¹

1. I  admit that I am a total technology geek, Sci-fi nerd, etc. Technology has immense power to make our lives better and also even greater power to enslave us. The challenge of the next century will be to decide which will be the dominant use of our increasingly powerful technologies…

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