Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Lady Isabella Bird in Japan - rats gnawed my boots and ran away with my cucumbers

I barely left Tokyo while in Japan, but I had Lady Isabella Bird's Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880) to show me some of the rest of the country. At least as it was in 1878, when Bird trooped around northern Japan, making her the first European woman to visit any number of spots. She was accompanied by a young interpreter, and otherwise hired horses and guides along the way, so she was never alone, but she was not relying on any other Europeans.

Isabella Bird's story is typically Victorian only in its comedy. Sufferering from various health problems, especially back pain, her doctor recommended horseback riding. She complied by riding horses all over Colorado, Hawaii, Japan, and a substantial part of the continent of Asia. She had some money of her own, but her trips were mostly financed by her popular travel books.

Bird's most famous book, by far, is A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879), ironically about one of the least exotic places she ever went. I haven't read this one, yet, but I think it is not as much of a pure travelogue.* Unbeaten Tracks in Japan is limited by the format, letters to her sister Henrietta. It's a journal, basically. There's no real point to the Japan trip, except that she's doing it. There's some anthropology at the end, and some geologizing, but the journey is at least as interesting as the destination.

Isabella Bird is a great travel companion. She's intrepid, stubborn, and has a fine sense of humor. A very impressive woman. She's also a fine complainer, by which I mean that she complains a lot, but with justice, ususally, and with a dry tone that's pretty funny:

"Again I write that Shinjo is a wretched place... The mosquitoes were in the thousands, and I had to go to bed, so as to be out of their reach, before I had finished my wretched meal of sago and condensed milk. There was a hot rain all night, my wretched room was dirty and stifling, and rats gnawed my boots and ran away with my cucumbers." (Letter 19)

Maybe this doesn't sound so funny on its own. I don't know, although I think ending with the cucumbers is the giveaway. Having spent some time with her, I sure that she's well aware that her misery is not really serious, is funny in retrospect. And it certainly does not keep her from mounting the next horse and moving forward, on and on and on, for the rest of her life.

* It also includes her friendship or romance or whatever it was with an actual mountain man.


  1. I remember being disappointed by Isabella Bird in the Rockies, but I assume that was a matter of misaligned expectations, because what I recall now is all good. Because my strongest reactions were about places I knew exactly where she was talking about, I'd be curious how I'd respond to her descriptions of places I've never been, like Japan. Thanks for some more additions to my reading list.

  2. I plan to read more of Bird's books soon. Soon might mean "within the next five years."

  3. I read her journals about traveling through Indonesia and Malaysia, which I found both hilarious and shocking (quite racist). But I remember thinking how unique she was for her time period, especially to have been traveling alone.

  4. Lady Isabella Bird is in some ways very much a creature of her era. Some readers may find that more of a problem than I do. For her times, she was pretty progressive, so I cut her a lot of slack.

    And she is funny - that helps a lot.