Unbeaten Tracks in Japan

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan
Isabella L. Bird

The Meiji restoration in 1868 and the following opening of a country closed to outsiders for centuries sparked an enormous worldwide interest in all things Japanese. While the average Japanophile of the time was content with exported ceramics, kimono, art, or weapons, there were a handful that were not satisfied with second-hand accounts, but visited the country by themselves.

Photo of Isabella L. BirdIsabella Lucy Bird was one of them. Already a seasoned traveller, she toured mostly the rural parts of Japan. Her trip of 1878 took her first from Tokyo to Nikko, and then all the way through the often hardly passable wilderness of the Japanese Alps to Aomori, the northernmost prefecture of Honshu. From there, she took a steamer to Yezo (Hokkaido), then a wild and untamed island inhabited by the native Ainu, a people of non-Japanese origin. Isabella travelled chiefly with man-pulled carts and on horseback, stayed at tiny local guesthouses where she – often grudgingly – had to eat the local fare, and was generally considered a major attraction for miles on end as the first white woman the local residents ever laid eyes upon.

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan is composed of letters she wrote to her sister, where she faithfully describes her impressions of the landscape and the Japanese and their strange customs. As a foreigner, she is often a special guest at various ceremonies or of high-ranking people, and especially her account of the Ainu and their long-lost customs holds many surprises even for modern Japanese.

I greatly enjoyed this book, it gives a glimpse into a Japan long forgotten, although some things still appear familiar. However, her writings are not at all politically correct, and she certainly never sugarcoats her opinions. She generally loves the countryside and is charmed by the children everywhere, but she despises the Japanese food she had to eat once her own provisions ran out, and she also views the Japanese adults unfavourably – she describes them as ugly, uncouth, and dirty, the last most likely because of their extreme poverty. Anyway, if you can see beyond her old-fashioned, almost missionary attitudes, the book is a great source for those interested in the really “old” Japan.

Fun fact: Although more than 100 years old, this book has been translated to Japanese less than five years ago.

The book is available from amazon of course, but there is also a free e-book available from gutenberg.org, and, based on it, a free audio version from librivox.org.


The earth is still rumbling in Kumamoto, where last week, Saturday the 16th, a large earthquake with a magnitude of 7.1 has taken place. Already on Thursday, there was a foreshock of 6.4 magnitude, and until now, there were 15 earthquakes altogether with a magnitude of more than 5. These numbers are always a bit hard to grasp – what does “magnitude 6.4” mean in reality? Obviously, it is strong, but how strong?

In 1884, the Japanese Meteorological Agency has introduced the Shindo scale of earthquakes, which since 1908 includes descriptions of the effect an earthquake of a given magnitude has on people; and since the Kobe earthquake in 1995, there are 10 distinct levels on the Shindo scale.

So, for the Kumamoto foreshock we have Shindo scale 7, meaning for example:

Effects on people: Thrown by the shaking and impossible to move at will.
Effects on buildings: Most or all buildings (even earthquake-resistant ones) suffer severe damage.
Ground and slopes: The ground is considerably distorted by large cracks and fissures, and slope failures and landslides take place, which can change topographic features; ground acceleration of more than 4 m/s².

The main shock, Shindo scale 6+, had only marginally less severe consequences; theoretically, that is, remember that there was not much left after the first earthquake.

In the first two earthquakes, 44 people lost their lives, so far 8 are missing, and more than 3000 injured. If you live in Japan, the thought that this can happen to you, that you might be killed in the next earthquake which might just happen at your place, is always present in the back of your head. And still, it’s something you just deal with. Just like stepping on a plane and knowing that it may crash, you rely on the fact that airplane travel is the safest means of transport. Just like Japan, where centuries of dealing with 400 earthquakes a day have made it probably the safest place to be when you’re caught in the middle.

New Endeavours

logoWell, I thought I’m not busy enough these days, so I started another webpage. It is meant to become a one-stop-shop for everything that’s up in Kyoto, from sights to events, from how to get around to where to eat and sleep… I’m hoping for the best, meaning: some income, but obviously, we’re talking about a work in progress right now. Check out the page – and watch it grow before your eyes!

Plastic Bags

I have recently read that the European Union wants to greatly reduce the number of plastic grocery bags used in Europe. Right now, the average EU citizen uses some 200 of them per year, that makes more than 500 million bags in total. If even only a small number of those end up in our oceans – which they inevitably will do – this has disastrous consequences. Tiny plastic particles have already made it into our food, and I think that any measure that can be taken to prevent this should be taken.

plastic grocery bagsLooking at the numbers a bit more closely, one finds that the EU states differ greatly: While Ireland and Luxemburg’s citizens use 18 plastic bags per person and year, in Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Portugal and a few other states the number is close to 500 bags per person and year. Austria, with 45 bags, lies only a little bit above the final goal of 40 bags per person per years, which should be reached EU-wide in 2025.

Seeing these numbers, however, I cannot help but wonder what it would be here in Japan, or in Asia as a whole. Part of the problem in Japan is that wrapping gifts has been elevated to an art, and the bag from the store – whether plastic or paper – is always presented to the recipient together with the gift. In fact, the bag is used to carry the  gift to the recipient, then the present is taken out and the bag neatly folded and placed underneath the gift when it is handed to the recipient – with both hands and a deep bow, of course.

This goes so far that you may receive extra plastic bags when buying multiple pre-packed gifts. For example, I once bought three packs of Yatsuhashi for different friends – and I promptly received three (folded) plastic bags of the store to go with them. Hilarious – or frustrating?

Of course, that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. No matter what you buy and where, you will receive plastic bags. In a bakery, your items will be individually placed in small plastic bags and then in a large one at the end. When I recently bought 100 sheets of loose leaf writing paper – already wrapped in plastic – I was offered another plastic bag to take them home in. The other day I bought a few stamps which were also put in a tiny plastic bag, where even in Austria we use paper. And let’s not talk about the fact that even cookies here are wrapped individually – in plastic of course.

Although the supermarket I now frequent for my groceries is not offering free plastic bags any longer (you have to buy them for 5 YEN apiece) they still provide large rolls of bags at the places where you pack your groceries. Although they are without handles and cannot be used to carry things home, people happily pack their already plastic wrapped meat, sushi, or vegetables a second time, probably to prevent leakage on the way home (which never seems to happen to me).

Not every plastic bag is bad of course, they can be very useful. But is it really necessary to use that many for everything – especially if you know that you’ll throw them out the moment you reach your home? There is nothing wrong with putting my baguette into a paper bag, or just tossing my already plastic wrapped onigiri into my backpack without further ado.

Even though I carry at least my little backpack with me at all times; even though I have an additional cloth bag (which in Japan are called eco-bags, by the way) with me when I know that I will go shopping; and even though I am refusing plastic bags left and right, I still end up with so much more than I could possibly ever reuse. And it annoys me greatly, that at this point, there is not much I can do about it…


It’s summer time, and as Kyoto is a relatively flat city, there are lots of cyclists around these days. There are young children with or without their parents, elderly people with or without their canes strapped to their bikes somewhere, middle-aged salarymen and office ladies in their best outfits…

Today I received a little pamphlet in the mail with a list of traffic rules and how they pertain to cyclists. Of course, this being Japan, you can’t just write a plain list – you have to include cute little pictures – which help understanding tremendously:Japanese bicycle rulesSome things are very obvious: Don’t jump red lights or train crossings, don’t ride your bicycle in a pedestrian zone or path, don’t drink and cycle, don’t use your mobile when on the bike… It even includes my personal pet peeve: Ride on the correct (i.e., left) side of the road! Interestingly, it does not say anything about using lights in the dark, but maybe the list was incomplete.

However, the pamphlet is very clear on what will happen if you get caught doing any of these 14 things (and possibly more): If you get caught twice or more in a span of 3 years, you count as “repeated offender” and will be sent to a special re-education where you will be instructed as to the rules. These classes cost 5.700 YEN at the moment; I am not sure whether you’ll have to take a test at the end – although, as this is Japan, I would not be surprised.

Expensive, isn’t it? This would be a reason for simply not showing up to the re-education, but there is a catch: If you prefer not to show up to your class within three months of being asked to do so, there will be a fine of 50.000 YEN! I have never heard of such a steep fine being levied for not behaving on a bicycle. Seems to be better to do the right thing after all…


A Japanese address is much longer than a Western one. Generally, it can have the following parts:

satellite photo of Japan

Name of Region (-fu)
Postcode and Name of Town (-shi)
Name of City District (-ku)
Name of City Subdistrict
Name (and number) of Neighborhood (-cho)
Number (and name) of building (and/or apartment)
Name of Person

Note that this from-large-to-small approach is the normal way of writing a Japanese address, very much along the idea that the group is everything and the individual is nothing. Also, in Japan, there are hardly any street names, and if there are any, they are rarely used in an address. Instead, the neighborhood (-cho) and the number of the building are used. Of course, building numbers are not given out consecutively along a road, but consecutively according to the date of building the house…

As you can see, instead of the usual Person-Street-City address that takes up only three lines, the important parts of my address take up six, if I ignore the first two lines which are not really needed for a large city like Kyoto. With a bit of squeezing, I can get it down to five lines, but it is still too much for the average Western database.

I still have an account in Germany and I am still using their credit card, mostly for online purchases. Unfortunately, my German bank insists on sending me physical, paper credit card bills instead of electronic ones, and they just cannot wrap their mind around my address. The last three letters I have received from my German bank used three different subsets of the six lines of my address, but never the complete one.

Once the city district and subdistrict were missing, which is not too bad because the postcode is very specific and this is part of the coding. Another time the building name and number were missing. Thank goodness, the neighborhoods in Japan are very small, and my neighborhood only comprises an apartment complex with a management office, so it is still possible to find me. And so far, only a single time the full post code was present, but luckily the last and thus most important of the seven digits were always there.

I have no idea how this can happen, I have already had several email exchanges with my assistant at the bank about this. It fascinates me that the mail still reaches me, although somewhat delayed of course. Thank goodness the letters are never urgent, and thank goodness there is a post office worker somewhere in Japan, possibly in Kyoto, who goes through all the trouble to find out the correct address so I can receive my mail.

Still, I wish it would be simpler and faster, and I would not cause any extra work for anybody. I will contact my bank in Germany about this. Again…


raindrops on a windowI was looking forward to the beginning summer, with open windows all day and night, a long siesta during the hottest hours of the afternoon, tons of green tea ice cream… And what do we get? A serious drop in temperature. Last week we had highs of up to 32 degrees, today it was barely 20. And it started pouring in the afternoon – just when I had to go out, of course.

Hello tsuyu, rainy season! According to the Japanese Meteorological Agency, it starts here in Kinki or Kansai (the region around Kobe-Osaka-Kyoto) on June 6th and ends on July 19th. Yes, Japanese are that precise. However, that does not mean that it will rain every single day (although that has happened), but it will probably not stay as cool as today, and when it is getting warmer, the humidity will increase and make this time quite unpleasant. I have even heard that homes can get mouldy and food left outside of the fridge can spoil very quickly during this time even if it is not that hot. I hope there will be not too many rainy days and enough sunny ones in between to be able to air out the apartment, just in case.


Today, at 9:59 in the morning, another one of the many volcanos in Japan erupted and spewed ash as high as 9000 metres. Mount Shindake is located on a little island about 100 km south of Kyushu, where about 140 people live. All residents have been brought to safety by now.

Check out the article in the Asahi Shimbun, which has a stunning photo taken from a nearby island and a short video that shows the eruption. Scientists are worried that this might only be the start of a prolonged series of eruptions of Mount Shindake.

Meanwhile, Mount Hakone, centre of a very popular hot spring destination south of Tokyo, has also started rumbling. The ground there has risen 15 cm within two weeks by sulfurous steam emitted from the flanks of the mountain. The Japan Meteorological Agency has raised its warning level to two in the beginning of May, urging people to stay clear of the crater of the volcano. Although another scientist places the probability of an eruption of Mount Hakone at 4%, I think I will not go there any time soon.


Last Saturday, September 27, just before noon, the volcano Ontake, around 250 kilometres northeast of Kyoto erupted in what is called a phreatic explosion. This is caused by water being almost instantly turned to steam (by the volcano’s magma) and then exploding through the surface. While this sounds rather harmless compared to a full-blown eruption with liquid magma, the images (you have seen them by now) tell another story. Ontake eruption from spaceSo far, 36 people are presumed to be dead, and at least 63 have been injured, some of them severely. Given that there were around 250 people near the peak of the volcano at the time of the eruption, it could have been much worse, but still… Here is a link to the latest news from Japantimes, complete with videos and photos: article from www.japantimes.co.jp

Mount Ontake, with 3067 metres, is the second highest volcano in Japan, the highest one is Fuji. Since olden times, it has been a sacred place complete with shrine and everything; apparently it is especially popular with artists and actors who go there to seek enlightenment and inspiration in trance and meditation. Even for those of less artistic bent, Mount Ontake is a popular hiking destination. It belongs to the list of 100 famous mountains in Japan, and Ni-no-ike, one of its five crater lakes, is the highest crater lake in the country. It seems to be relatively easy to climb the mountain, and thus, around this time, when the leaves begin to turn, many Japanese nature lovers visit the mountain and the area.


I have mentioned two weeks ago or so that a United Nations court has sentenced Japan to stop their whaling, and surprisingly, Japan has agreed to do exactly that.

Well, after a few days it transpired that they were willing to put an end to it only for this season and that they may reevaluate the decision in the future. And now, it turns out that the whaling will be stopped only in the antarctic regions, the Pacific is still wide open and considered happy hunting grounds… Apparently it took the Japanese government two weeks to study the court papers in depth and to find the loophole that says: “Hey, we cannot hunt around Antarctica any more, but when it comes to every other place… ” Welcome to Japan!

The Japanese love bureaucracy and they have following the rules down to an art. In a tea ceremony, for example, every single step, no, every single movement is prescribed and has to be executed just so. Sometimes I feel that no matter what it says, if the rule is written down somewhere or stems from a higher authority, it will be obeyed. I have never seen a Japanese pedestrian cross the road at a red light, not even at 2 am in the morning, when he’s the only one around. The rule says that… and so we follow it. Hence, if the UN sentence says “not around Antarctica”, this is exactly what we do, and nothing else. Interestingly, when there is no written rule, people can be rather flexible. I guess it’s just a way of implementing that old saying: In a bureaucracy it is easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission…