Thursday, August 25, 2016

Tracing a Victorian Woman's Hokkaido Journey

In the summer of 1878, Isabella Bird sailed from Aomori in the north of Honshu to Hakodate in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island of any size.

She then sought undeveloped places beyond Hakodate.

When she returned home to Edinburgh, Scotland, she published a book of her letters, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. It's still in print and available as an ebook. It's a good read, full of intense and detailed observations.

She was the first Western woman to explore beyond Hakodate. She traveled on horseback, accompanied by a native-Japanese interpreter, and stayed in the homes of the indigenous Ainu people.

The thirty years leading to Isabella's arrival in Hokkaido saw monumental changes in Japan:
1848 Ranald MacDonald faked that he was a castaway off what is today's Hokkaido. At that time, Japan was closed to foreigners. [See my previous post, Japan's First ESL (English as a Second Language) Teacher.] 
1850's United States gunboat diplomacy helped Hakodate become one of five ports in Japan to open to foreign ships. 
1860's Japan rejected feudalism and isolation. Emperor Meiji was installed in 1868, beginning an amazing period of opening up to the outside world and modernization. 
1869 The island of Ezo was renamed Hokkaido. Hokkaido was now officially part of Japan, and intense colonization followed. 
1873 Ferry service started from Aomori (northern Honshu) to Hakodate
Isabella crossed the Tsugara Strait from Aomori to Hakodate on a steamer "unfit for bad weather." For fourteen hours she endured a gale and high seas: "Much water entered the cabin."
The photograph at the top of this post shows Hakodate harbor. Winter was lingering when I was there in 2013. I traveled from Aomori to Hakodate via a 33-mile tunnel under the Tsugaru Strait. 
In Hakodate, Isabella mixed with the small foreign community, but was itching to explore new trails.

I've marked places she visited with green pins on an interactive map.

Interactive map.

From Hakodate she rode on horseback to Uchiura Bay which she called Volcano Bay. On the way, I'm guessing she passed Lake Onuma.

Lake Onuma. I hiked this area in 2013.

She took a boat across "Volcano Bay" to Muroran, "a small town very picturesquely situated on the steep shore of a most lovely bay." She stayed in a "very poor and dirty inn" but was grateful for the absence of mosquitoes and a good meal of fish.
Isabella's descriptions of the countryside make me crave trails in this area. The Pacific, the forests, and volcanoes beckon.
Today, most of the places Isabella stayed are connected by passenger rail. Towards the end of my visit to Hokkaido in September 2016, I'll use Muroran as a convenient base to ride the rails to some of the countryside Isabella describes. I also get a straight shot by train to New Chitose Airport where I'll fly back to Minneapolis via Tokyo.
I expect my Muroran business hotel will be more comfortable than Isabella's "dirty inn."
Beyond Muroran, Isabella stayed with Ainu families.
At the Hakodate Museum of Northern Peoples I learned something about the Ainu and their artifacts, but somehow felt I was missing their stories.
Isabella went in search of stories. Using language acceptable at the time, she described the Ainu as "very kind, and so courteous... that I quite forgot I was alone among savages." She provided intense detail about their rituals, their personalities, and their domestic lives. She noted their "singular, and I hope an unreasonable, fear of the Japanese Government."

 She left the Ainus "with real regret."
In 1878 the Ainu way-of-life was doomed. Roads and railroads would soon open up the island. Forests would be cleared to create farmland. Waves of "pioneer" settlers would soon be moving to Hokkaido to farm on land allocated by the government. 

1 comment:

  1. Japan's Lost and Found:
    I am seeking Hokkaido.
    It may be hidden.