Prof. Harold Bolitho’s essay Travelers’ Tales: Three Eighteenth-Century Travel Journals introduces the travel journal as a significant cultural artifact which, by its qualitative appeal and ubiquitous presence among the masses, was fundamental in laying the foundation for Japanese modernity. Modernity, a historically-loaded, complicated notion, took roots during the Tokugawa period, roughly between 1600 and 1868, when political power and cultural prestige started to concentrate around large urban centers which today are the famous, sprawling metropoles on every tourist’s ‘must-visit’ list. Prof. Bolitho’s cultured travelers by contrast sought to visit inaccessible, uninviting, far-off locations. They left behind a rich treasury of written records about difficult journeys, remote destinations and unexpected (and oftentimes whimsical and fanciful) encounters. These records were and still are of an exceptional literary quality, foreshadowing an unparalleled development on the Japanese literary stage, even surpassing the West at the time in both output and consumption.
The three protagonists of Prof. Bolitho’s article are Furukawa Koshōken (1726-1807), Tachibana Nankei (1753-1805) and Sugae Masumi (1754-1829). It is noteworthy to point out that these three travelers conducted their journeys in the eighteenth century, at a time when, in Prof. Bolitho’s words, “recreational travel came into its own.” This unexpected evolution was caused in great part by the introduction of the sankin kōtai (or ‘alternate attendance’) system in 1637, which required all daimyō to travel regularly from their residential domains — regardless how far they were located — to Edo (as Tokyo was known then), to maintain lodgings in the capital and to leave their wives and children behind upon their return home. As a result, the unprecedented development of the highway network took off. And even though the government sought to hamper free travel with a complicated checkpoint system including heavily-armed guard posts, signed documents, travel passes and bodily check-ups, the frequent movement of multitudes of samurai to Edo “led to the provision of facilities of a kind which could be used by all travelers, commoners as well as samurai — inns at which they could lodge, teahouses at which they could rest, porters and horses whose services they could use.” On the extensive precautions that the government officials instituted on its highways, Sugae was begrudgingly straightforward:
On going to get a pass from the local official, he noted that “On it was written who you were, where you came from, what kind of clothes you were wearing, whether or not you carried a short sword, what your destination was, and the fact that you had been checked at this barrier. Then you paid a sum of money as a fee…whereupon the official took you to the check-point, you handed in your pass at the barrier and you were then allowed through. All check-points are the same.
Despite tight government control, traveling was oftentimes a risky enterprise. The most notable danger were bandits that robbed and killed people although their incidence decreased significantly by the time our three protagonists embarked on their journeys. Bears were still a constant threat. The only important hazard, however, remained the general unsafeness of the relief and the means of transport. Nankei attempted to scale down these risks by developing five prohibitions or rules for a successful trip: “not to travel by sea, not to ford a river on foot, not to travel at night, not to eat strange food, and not to associate with low women.”
Although of different ages, Koshōken, Nankei and Sugae share qualities and skills that overlap; more often than not, they have distinctive personalities although it is noteworthy to mention that the main attribute which unifies them is the exhaustive interest they took in recording every absorbing detail from their journeys to the various corners of Japan. They differed in motivation (it seems that Nankei was particularly interested in making a fortune from his writings, while Koshōken had a rigid Neo-Confucianist view in regard to money-handling) but this did not hamper their style or their enthusiasm to bring their experiences to audiences who couldn’t risk or afford to journey outside their village or city. Their written chronicles (Koshōken’s Saiyū zakki, Nankei’s Saiyūki and Tōyūki, and Sugae’s Yūranki) are still accessible today and they are popular among scholars of Japanese history as well as casual readers. Moreover, all three of them travelled (although not at the same time and it’s presumed that they never met) to the Tōhoku region, in the north-eastern part of Japan. Their descriptions of Tōhoku form the central point of Prof. Bolitho’s essay. Having lived in Sendai for a long period of time, these descriptions are of a personal interest to me, reason for which I am bringing this article to your attention.
Anyone who is familiar with the history of the Tōhoku region will know that it has always been isolated from the rest of Japan, politically, economically as well as culturally. The long and bitter winter gave this part of Japan a notorious fame for its harsh and dangerous living conditions. The mountainous terrain unfavorable to cultivation forced the region into famine on more than one occasion. Capricious weather impacted negatively the insufficient crops, and these were often failing. Generally, the people lived in abject poverty. (As a side-note, it is worth mentioning that the misfortunes of the inhabitants of Tōhoku following the 1905-1906 famine was used by extremist right-wingers as a motivational point for domestic unrest and support for empire expansion.) When Tachibana Nankei came to Tōhoku the Tenmei famine was far from over, rather it seemed to have reached its peak. He recorded the following:
“I came to Ōshū [i.e. Tōhoku] at the beginning of 1786,” he wrote, “believing that the region would by now be amply supplied with food. But the famine of 1783 was a hundred times worse than we had heard in Kyoto. Many were dying of hunger, the Nambu-Tsugaru region was a wasteland. Such sights I had never seen,” Nankei continued, describing bodies, or portions thereof, left by the roadside. “In the course of a morning I would see the remains of perhaps five people, and in the afternoon another fourteen or fifteen; then the next day I would see twenty-three, and the day after fifty or sixty. Thereafter I became accustomed to seeing them, and felt no particular unease.”
Sugae also wrote of his encounter with a beggar from the famine-ridden area who claimed to have eaten horse flesh and even indulged in cannibalism, preferring ears and noses over the rest of the human body. The poverty and backwardness of the region bothered all three travelers. Koshōken blamed the daimyōs of Sendai and Akita for the miserable conditions of the populace:
“In the world today,” he wrote, “demons are those who, lost in selfishness, kill people and take their money. Or they are rulers who govern badly, and who when their peasants are in difficulties because their money has been unlawfully taken from them, and come to complain, will accuse them of rebellion and have them killed. These too are demons, whether in the past or in the present…”
The travelers had very different approaches regarding the Tōhoku people. For example, Sugae displayed in his writings a detached, almost ethnographic sensitivity. He described everything he saw without passing any sort of moral judgement. Here’s an observation which is exemplary of his neutral attitude; on seeing the traditional face covering of the Shōnai area he remarked the following:
“It is the custom in this province,” he wrote, in his usual emphatic way, “to place something called a domokko on the head, and on top of that to affix a turban, and then to wind a three-foot long strip of cloth called a tenno around the jaw and the cranium, leaving only the eyes visible.”
In contrast, according to Bolitho, Nankei made blatant racist remarks whenever he witnessed a custom that didn’t prefigure in his definition of ‘normal.’ He was particularly stuck on the allegedly non-Japanese ethnic background of the Tōhoku inhabitants:
“In ancient times,” [he wrote], “…Oshu…was in part dominated by the Ezo (i.e., the Ainu). Furthermore, the barbarians would appear to have lived here until comparatively recently, for there are many barbarous names among the place-names of the Nanbu and Tsugaru regions…Even now in areas such as Uten the customs are very like this of the Ezo, and the people of Tsugaru are disliked because they are thought to be of Ezo stock…For this reason manners and culture are still undeveloped…In ancient times the Nanbu, Tsugaru, and Akita region was inhabited by barbarians. Only in the past two hundred years has it become so thoroughly part of Japan, so people say.”
Moving away from bleak topics, it is important to add that all three writers enjoyed the natural beauty of Tōhoku, particularly the scenery at Matsushima, a tourist magnet even to the present day. Many exhilarating encounters were recorded here:
In Nankei’s case, nothing could spoil the experience for him, not even an unfortunate encounter with a group of Zen priests, “quite unlike priests in their deportment, laughing at the top of their voices, and summoning four or five geisha from the town in the early evening, drinking sake and eating meat,” and to compound their crimes further, speaking in Tōhoku accents. After viewing the panorama of pine-covered islands from a temple on Tomiyama, he was reluctant to leave, and when he did so, “came down feeling as though I had just parted from an old friend.” Koshōken similarly was full of anticipation, and was not disappointed — “on seeing these islands scattered on the surface of the sea we were struck dumb, having no words with which to frame poems.”
I would like to conclude by recording the last lines of Prof. Bolitho’s article, lines which were written down by Koshōken at the end of his journeys. For me Koshōken was the more interesting fellow of the three travelers, mostly due to his comical dislike of all Japanese religions (whether indigenous Shinto or Buddhist sects, they were all equally scorned by Koshōken) and his acerbic critiques of daimyōs who failed in their duty to maintain their fiefs in a sustainable if not prosperous state. Koshōken was an old man by the time he wrote the following:
“Although I am in my sixties, I am still vigorous. I have traveled many hundreds of miles in the north-east in the company of the inspectors, my nerves chilled by steep-sided mountains, my eyes amazed by the turbulent billows of mighty oceans, my travel-fatigue dispelled by noble vistas. Now, seeing my humble abode, I drenched my sleeves.”
Bolitho, Harold. “Travelers’ Tales: Three Eighteenth-Century Travel Journals.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies (1990): 485-504.