The Troubles of Travellers

The Troubles of Travellers

Miss Bird has deservedly won renown as a spirited and courageous traveller. In her “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan” she gives a most interesting account of her wanderings in the interior of the main island and Yezo, describing how she lived among the Japanese, and saw their mode of living, in regions which had never before been penetrated by any European. Nothing could be more admirable than the patience, determination, and fearlessness evinced by the English lady in carrying out her work scheme of thoroughly investigating Japanese life. It is, therefore, the more curious and remarkable to those who are interested in the diet question to observe that the one exception to her usual hardihood was in the matter of food. In this she was only following the example of most of her countrymen, for, as she informs us at an early date in her book, “Foreign ministers, professors, missionaries, all discuss it (the food question) with becoming gravity. The fact is, that except at a few hotels in popular resorts which are got up for foreigners, bread, butter, milk, meat, poultry, coffee, wine, and beer are unattainable.” The painful impression created in our minds by this momentous fact is somewhat lessened when we find that the population of Japan does somehow manage to subsist without the above-mentioned “necessaries.” Miss Bird herself informs us that “the range of Japanese eatables is almost unlimited,” and “the variety of vegetable is infinite;” though she complains of the tastelessness of most of these. Beans, peas, buckwheat, rice, maize, potatoes, turnips, carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, spinach, onions, yams, the egg-plant, and the daikon, a root widely used in Japan, are among the vegetables she enumerates. Mushrooms, “dried, boiled, and served with sauce, are to be seen at every roadside teahouse.” Of fruits “there are many varieties,” of which the finest is the kaki, a large golden fruit on a beautiful tree. There are also grapes, oranges, apples, pears, plums, peaches, and melons. The Japanese appear to dispense with tarts and puddings; but Miss Bird informs us that she has never seen elsewhere such numbers of shops for the sale of confectionery. In additions to these vegetable productions, there are over ninety kinds of fish used as an article of diet by the well-to-do classes, and game and poultry can sometimes be obtained; but in the country regions the diet of the peasants is wholly Vegetarian. One would have thought that, with so ample a choice of vegetables and fruit, no traveller need be greatly exercised in mind on the subject of his diet; but Miss Bird seems to have felt very keenly the loss of flesh food. At first she managed to fare pretty well, while she was still occupied in visiting the chief towns and seacoast districts; but once committed to the interior of the country, she finds her troubles begin. Here is an example, “No food can be got here,” she writes, “except rice and eggs, and I am haunted by memories of the fowls and fish of Nikkô, to say nothing of the flesh-pots of the Legation.” The next anxiety is on the score of milk. “I thought I might get some fresh milk, but the idea of anything but a calf milking a cow was so new to the people that there was a universal laugh,” for the Japanese think the use of milk in tea “most disgusting.” Then there was another sad disappointment about a hen: “I was just falling asleep last night when I was roused by loud outcries of poultry; and Ito, carrying a screaming, refractory hen, appeared by my bed. I feebly said I would have it boiled for breakfast, but when Ito called me this morning he told me, with a rueful face, that just as he was going to kill it it had escaped to the woods! In order to understand my feelings, you must have experienced what it is not to have tasted fish, flesh, or fowl for ten days!” On this occasion the unfortunate lady was compelled to make a meal off eggs and a paste made of coarse flour and buckwheat – a very tolerable repast, one would have thought. But the crowning sorrow was yet to be undergone at Yokote: “On the way I heard that a bullock was killed every Thursday at Yokote, and had decided on having a broiled steak for supper, and taking another with me; but when I arrived it was all sold, there were no eggs, and I made a miserable meal of rice and bean curd.” She at last realises the truth of the warnings her friends had addressed to her. “The Italian Minister said to me in Tokiyo, ‘No question in Japan is so solemn as that of food’; and many others echoed what I thought at the time a most unworthy sentiment. I recognised its truth to-day, when I opened my last resort, a box of Brand’s meat lozenges, and found them a mass of mouldiness.” But it is now time to turn to a brighter side of the picture; for our heroine’s efforts were sometimes crowned with success. On one occasion Ito brought in an old hen late at night, “which he said he could stew till it was tender, and I fell asleep with its dying squeak in my ears.” A place named Tsugawa was the scene of another felicitous event. “We walked through the town to find something eatable. . . . A slice of fresh salmon has been produced, and I think I never tasted anything so delicious.” Still more refreshing was the diet obtained at Kabota. “My three days here have been fully occupied and very pleasant. Foreign food, a good beefsteak, an excellent curry, cucumbers, and foreign salt and mustard, were at once obtained, and I felt my ‘eyes lightened’ after partaking of them.”

Such were the chief difficulties experienced by this typical Englishwoman in her adventurous travels; and they certainly suggest the idea that the food question is, as the Italian Minster said, “a solemn one,” though hardly in the sense by him intended. It is very sad that Europeans should be so prejudiced, and therefore so needlessly anxious, about the subject of their food, and should think it necessary to compass the death of oxen and aged hens, when they can obtain an abundance of more wholesome and equally nutritious vegetables. It is satisfactory to note that Miss Bird’s strength did not fail her, even under the dietetic deprivations to which her travels exposed her, but that she brought her explorations to a triumphant conclusion.

H. S. Salt

The Dietetic Reformer and Vegetarian Messenger, September 1, 1886

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