Unbeaten Tracks in Japan

From the foremother of today’s women travelers–a classic tale from 1878 by the first woman to explore and write about the interior of Japan. Written during a time when women did not travel alone and Japan was still mysterious to most, this is a groundbreaking book-illuminating a side of Japan little known today.




No content.
Introduction to the New Edition — Evelyn Kaye


Letter I.
First View of Japan—A Vision of Fujisan—Japanese Sampans—”Pullman Cars”—Undignified Locomotion—Paper Money—The Drawbacks of Japanese Travelling

Letter II.
Sir Harry Parkes—An “Ambassador’s Carriage”—Cart Coolies

Letter III.
Yedo and Tôkiyô—The Yokohama Railroad—The Effect of Misfits—The Plain of Yedo—Personal Peculiarities—First Impressions of Tôkiyô—H. B. M.’s Legation—An English Home

Letter IV.
“John Chinaman”—Engaging a Servant—First Impressions of Ito—A Solemn Contract—The Food Question

Letter V.
Kwan—non Temple—Uniformity of Temple Architecture—A Kuruma Expedition—A Perpetual Festival—The Ni-ô—The Limbo of Vanity—Heathen Prayers—Binzuru—A Group of Devils—Archery Galleries—New Japan—An Élégante

Letter VI.
Fears—Travelling Equipments—Passports—Coolie Costume—A Yedo Diorama—Rice-Fields—Tea-Houses—A Traveller’s Reception—The Inn at Kasukabé—Lack of Privacy—A Concourse of Noises—A Nocturnal Alarm—A Vision of Policemen—A Budget from Yedo

Letter VI.—(Continued.)
A Coolie Falls Ill—Peasant Costume—Varieties in Threshing—The Tochigi Yadoya—Farming Villages—A Beautiful Region—An In Memoriam Avenue—A Doll’s Street—Nikkô—The Journey’s End—Coolie Kindliness

Letter VII.
A Japanese Idyll—Musical Stillness—My Rooms—Floral Decorations—Kanaya and His Household—Table Equipments

Letter VIII.
The Beauties of Nikkô—The Burial of Iyéyasu—The Approach to the Great Shrines—The Yomei Gate—Gorgeous Decorations—Simplicity of the Mausoleum—The Shrine of Iyémitsu—Religious Art of Japan and India—An Earthquake—Beauties of Wood-carving

Letter IX.
A Japanese Pack-Horse and Pack-Saddle—Yadoya and Attendant—A Native Watering-Place—The Sulphur Baths—A “Squeeze”

Letter X.
Peaceful Monotony—A Japanese School—A Dismal Ditty—Punishment—A Children’s Party—A Juvenile Belle—Female Names—A Juvenile Drama—Needlework—Caligraphy—Arranging Flowers—Kanaya—Daily Routine—An Evening’s Entertainment—Planning Routes—The God-Shelf

Letter X.—(Continued.)
Darkness Visible— Nikkô Shops—Girls and Matrons—Night and Sleep—Parental Love—Childish Docility—Hair-Dressing—Skin Diseases

Letter X.—(Completed.)
Shops and Shopping—The Barber’s Shop—A Paper Waterproof—Ito’s Vanity—Preparations for the Journey—Transport and Prices—Money and Measurements

Letter Xi.
Comfort Disappears—Fine Scenery—An Alarm—A Farm-House—An Unusual Costume—Bridling a Horse—Female Dress and Ugliness—Babies—My Mago—Beauties of the Kinugawa—Fujihara—My Servant—Horse-Shoes—An Absurd Mistake

Letter XII.
A Fantastic Jumble—The “Quiver” of Poverty—The Water-Shed—From Bad to Worse—The Rice Planter’s Holiday—A Diseased Crowd—Amateur Doctoring—Want of Cleanliness—Rapid Eating—Premature Old Age

Letter XII.—(Concluded.)
A Japanese Ferry—A Corrugated Road—The Pass of Sanno—Various Vegetation—An Unattractive Undergrowth—Preponderance of Men

Letter XIII.
The Plain of Wakamatsu—Light Costume—The Takata Crowd—A Congress of Schoolmasters—Timidity of a Crowd—Bad Roads—Vicious Horses—Mountain Scenery—A Picturesque Inn—Swallowing a Fish-Bone—Poverty and Suicide—An Inn-Kitchen—England Unknown!—My Breakfast Disappears

Letter XIV.
An Infamous Road—Monotonous Greenery—Abysmal Dirt—Low Lives—The Tsugawa Yadoya—Politeness—A Shipping Port—A “Barbarian Devil”

Letter XV.
A Hurry—The Tsugawa Packet—Boat—Running the Rapids—Fantastic Scenery—The River—Life—Vineyards—Drying Barley—Summer Silence—The Outskirts of Niigata—The Church Mission House

Letter XVI.
Abominable Weather—Insect Pests—Absence of Foreign Trade—A Refractory River—Progress—The Japanese City—Water Highways—Niigata Gardens—Ruth Fyson—The Winter Climate—A Population in Wadding

Letter XVII.
The Canal—Side at Niigata—Awful Loneliness—Courtesy—Dr. Palm’s Tandem—A Noisy Matsuri—A Jolting Journey—The Mountain Villages—Winter Dismalness—An Out-of-the-World Hamlet—Crowded Dwellings—Riding a Cow—”Drunk and Disorderly”—An Enforced Rest—Local Discouragements—Heavy Loads—Absence of Beggary—Slow Travelling

Letter XVIII.
Comely Kine—Japanese Criticism on a Foreign Usage—A Pleasant Halt—Renewed Courtesies—The Plain of Yonezawa—A Curious Mistake—The Mother’s Memorial—Arrival at Komatsu—Stately Accommodation—A Vicious Horse—An Asiatic Arcadia—A Fashionable Watering-Place—A Belle—”Godowns”

Letter XIX.
Prosperity—Convict Labour—A New Bridge——Yamagata—Intoxicating Forgeries—The Government Buildings—Bad Manners—Snow Mountains—A Wretched Town

Letter XX.
The Effect of a Chicken—Poor Fare—Slow Travelling—Objects of Interest—Kak’ké—The Fatal Close—A Great Fire—Security of the Kuras

Letter XX.—(Continued.)
Lunch in Public—A Grotesque Accident—Police Inquiries—Man or Woman?—A Melancholy Stare—A Vicious Horse—An Ill-Favoured Town—A Disappointment—A Torii

Letter XX.—(Concluded.)
A Casual Invitation—A Ludicrous Incident—Politeness of a Policeman—A Comfortless Sunday—An Outrageous Irruption—A Privileged Stare

Letter XXI.
The Necessity of Firmness—Perplexing Misrepresentations—Gliding with the Stream—Suburban Residences—The Kubota Hospital—A Formal Reception—The Normal School

Letter XXII.
A Silk Factory—Employment for Women—A Police Escort—The Japanese Police Force

Letter XXIII.
“A Plague of Immoderate Rain”—A Confidential Servant—Ito’s Diary—Ito’s Excellences—Ito’s Faults—A Prophecy of the Future of Japan—Curious Queries—Superfine English—Economical Travelling—The Japanese Pack-Horse Again

Letter XXIV.
The Symbolism of Seaweed—Afternoon Visitors—An Infant Prodigy—A Feat in Caligraphy—Child Worship—A Borrowed Dress—A Trousseau—House Furniture—The Marriage Ceremony

Letter XXV.
A Holiday Scene—A Matsuri—Attractions of the Revel—Matsuri Cars—Gods and Demons—A Possible Harbour—A Village Forge—Prosperity of Saké Brewers—A “Great Sight”

Letter XXVI.
The Fatigues of Travelling—Torrents and Mud—Ito’s Surliness—The Blind Shampooers—A Supposed Monkey Theatre—A Suspended Ferry—A Difficult Transit—Perils on the Yonetsurugawa—A Boatman Drowned—Nocturnal Disturbances—A Noisy Yadoya—Storm-Bound Travellers—Hai! Hai!—More Nocturnal Disturbances

Letter XXVII.
Good-Tempered Intoxication—The Effect of Sunshine—A Tedious Altercation—Evening Occupations—Noisy Talk—Social Gatherings—Unfair Comparisons

Letter XXVIII.
Torrents of Rain—An Unpleasant Detention—Devastations Produced by Floods—The Yadate Pass—The Force of Water—Difficulties Thicken—A Primitive Yadoya—The Water Rises

Letter XXVIII.—(Continued.)
Scanty Resources—Japanese Children—Children’s Games—A Sagacious Example—A Kite Competition—Personal Privations

Letter XXIX.
Hope Deferred—Effects of the Flood—Activity of the Police—A Ramble in Disguise—The Tanabata Festival—Mr. Satow’s Reputation

Letter XXX.
A Lady’s Toilet—Hair-Dressing—Paint and Cosmetics—Afternoon Visitors—Christian Converts

Letter XXXI.
A Travelling Curiosity—Rude Dwellings—Primitive Simplicity—The Public Bath-House

Letter XXXII.
A Hard Day’s Journey—An Overturn—Nearing the Ocean—Joyful Excitement—Universal Greyness—Inopportune Policemen—A Stormy Voyage—A Wild Welcome—A Windy Landing—The Journey’s End

Letter XXXIII.
Form and Colour—A Windy Capital—Eccentricities in House Roofs

Letter XXXIV.
Ito’s Delinquency—”Missionary Manners”—A Predicted Failure

Letter XXXV.
A Lovely Sunset—An Official Letter—A “Front Horse”—Japanese Courtesy—The Steam Ferry—Coolies Abscond—A Team of Savages—A Drove of Horses—Floral Beauties—An Unbeaten Track—A Ghostly Dwelling—Solitude and Eeriness

Letter XXXV.—(Continued.)
The Harmonies of Nature—A Good Horse—A Single Discord—A Forest—Aino Ferrymen—”Les Puces! Les Puces!”—Baffled Explorers—Ito’s Contempt for Ainos—An Aino Introduction

Letter XXXVI.
Savage Life—A Forest Track—Cleanly Villages—A Hospitable Reception—The Chief’s Mother—The Evening Meal—A Savage Séance—Libations to the Gods—Nocturnal Silence—Aino Courtesy—The Chief’s Wife

Letter XXXVI.—(Continued.)
A Supposed Act of Worship—Parental Tenderness—Morning Visits—Wretched Cultivation—Honesty and Generosity—A “Dug-Out”—Female Occupations—The Ancient Fate—A New Arrival—A Perilous Prescription—The Shrine of Yoshitsuné—The Chief’s Return

Letter XXXVII.
Barrenness of Savage Life—Irreclaimable Savages—The Aino Physique—Female Comeliness—Torture and Ornament—Child Life—Docility and Obedience

Letter XXXVII.—(Continued.)
Aino Clothing—Holiday Dress—Domestic Architecture—Household Gods—Japanese Curios—The Necessaries of Life—Clay Soup—Arrow Poison—Arrow Traps—Female Occupations—Bark Cloth—The Art of Weaving

Letter XXXVII.—(Continued.)
A Simple Nature—Worship—Aino Gods—A Festival Song—Religious Intoxication—Bear—Worship—The Annual Saturnalia—The Future State—Marriage and Divorce—Musical Instruments—Etiquette—The Chieftainship—Death and Burial—Old Age—Moral Qualities

A Parting Gift—A Delicacy—Generosity—A Seaside Village—Pipichari’s Advice—A Drunken Revel—Ito’s Prophecies—The Kôchô’s Illness—Patent Medicines

Letter XXXIX.
A Welcome Gift—Recent Changes—Volcanic Phenomena—Interesting Tufa Cones—Semi-Strangulation—A Fall into a Bear-Trap—The Shiraôi Ainos—Horsebreaking and Cruelty

Letter XXXIX.—(Continued.)
The Universal Language—The Yezo Corrals—A “Typhoon Rain”—Difficult Tracks—An Unenviable Ride—Drying Clothes—A Woman’s Remorse

Letter XL.
“More than Peace”—Geographical Difficulties—Usu-taki—Swimming the Osharu—A Dream of Beauty—A Sunset Effect—A Nocturnal Alarm—The Coast Ainos

Letter XL.—(Continued.)
The Sea-Shore—A “Hairy Aino”—A Horse Fight—The Horses of Yezo—”Bad Mountains”—A Slight Accident—Magnificent Scenery—A Bleached Halting-Place—A Musty Room—Aino “Good-Breeding”

Letter XLI.
A Group of Fathers—The Lebungé Ainos—The Salisburia Adiantifolia—A Family Group—The Missing Link—Oshamambé—Disorderly Horses—The River Yurapu—The Seaside—Aino Canoes—The Last Morning—Dodging Europeans

Letter XLII.
Pleasant Last Impressions—The Japanese Junk—Ito Disappears—My Letter of Thanks

Letter XLIII.
Pleasant Prospects—A Miserable Disappointment—Caught in a Typhoon—A Dense Fog—Alarmist Rumours—A Welcome at Tôkiyô—The Last of the Mutineers

Letter XLIV.
Fine Weather—Cremation in Japan—The Governor of Tôkiyô —An Awkward Question—An Insignificant Building—Economy in Funeral Expenses—Simplicity of the Cremation Process—The Last of Japan


By Evelyn Kaye

It is an incredible feeling to discover a voice from the past that speaks to you in the present. I encountered Isabella Bird for the first time at a garage sale when I found an old copy of A Lady in the Rocky Mountains, a book she wrote in 1873 about her journey to Colorado. Here was a woman after my own heart. She traveled, enjoyed the outdoors, welcomed the unusual and unexpected, and detailed it all in remarkable books she crafted from letters sent home to her family and friends. Bird was one of the outstanding explorer-writers of her day, and in her various tales of travel and discovery women today are granted a true role model. Bird’s life of adventure and literature is an inspiration to women everywhere.

Bird was a feisty Victorian voyager who traveled around the world years before it was considered appropriate or acceptable for a lady. Born in England in 1831, her ill health and bad back led her to doctors, who prescribed “a change of air.” Usually ailing Victorian women went off to spend a week at the seashore or in the country, but Bird used her doctor’s advice as an excuse to take off for distant lands, including America, Japan, Tibet, Hong Kong, Hawaii, Egypt, and more.

But what drove Bird to travel? In the 1850s, a bright, intelligent woman in Britain had only one path available to her: marry and depend on her husband. There were few opportunities for careers–only poor women were allowed to earn money doing menial labor. But when Bird’s parents died, she continued to live with her sister and earned enough money to support them both, through her writing–no small feat for anyone of any era. It took a great deal of courage for Bird to break away from traditional conventions and follow her own path. She realized, though, that her ability to travel and write provided her with the only escape from the stifling regulations of polite Victorian society. Indeed, as Bird’s credo claimed: “Travelers are privileged to do the most improper things with perfect propriety.” Indeed, Bird thrived on the freedom and possibility that she discovered on the road.

Bird sailed to Japan in 1878, just a few years after the country opened up to foreigners following more than 200 years of isolation. She arrived at the port of Yokohama and then traveled north, a challenging journey on unpaved roads. Much of rural Japan was suffering from tremendous poverty, and because no foreigners had visited for more than 200 years, there were few facilities for travelers. Bird stayed in run-down inns, faced torrential rains that washed out roads and bridges, rode on a wooden saddle on dozens of Japanese horses, and endured fleas, mosquitoes, and innumerable other biting insects. She marched over mountains and through villages and farmlands to the island of Hokkaido to find the primitive tribes of Ainu, who were being persecuted by the Japanese. She described every detail of her journey, and, realizing that many of the images would upset her readers’ romantic view of Japan, she wrote: “The scenes are strictly representative. I offer them in the interests of truth. Accuracy has been my first aim.” And that’s what you’ll find in Bird’s daring and descriptive account.

Unlike other English travelers of her time, she did not believe that the world would be a better place if everyone behaved like the British, nor did she believe that Britain had a natural right to take over other countries as colonies. She was a devout Christian–her father had been a minister–but she still respected other religions and traditions, describing Buddhist temples and Hindu ceremonies in remarkable detail. And Bird did not hesitate to criticize when she felt it was justified. She was shocked by Japanese farmers working naked in the fields, disapproved of the harems she visited in Iran, and was outraged by Chinese officials who refused to let her travel farther into a region. On a pilgrimage to climb Mount Sinai, the monks at St. Catherine’s Monastery pestered her to buy souvenirs and it horrified her. She refused to stay at the monastery and instead erected her tent in the desert in an effort to restore her peaceful mood of religious contemplation. She was a determined traveler with pluck.

Inspired by her travel books, I wrote her biography, Amazing Traveler Isabella Bird. I researched her travels and her astonishing achievements, and discovered that she was the author of ten books including Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, the first woman Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. In addition, long before British women could vote, she was invited to address British members of Parliament about her journey in Persia, and was honored by being presented to Queen Victoria.

Isabella Bird is an inspiration to women of all ages and a continual reminder that age is never to be a barrier to living life fully. She took her first trip to Colorado in her forties, went to Japan in her fifties, and was in her sixties when she traveled throughout Asia. At seventy, Bird rode through Morocco’s Atlas Mountains on the Sultan’s exquisite black horse. Three years after this journey she died peacefully at home in Scotland.

Why have Isabella Bird and her travel books endured for more than a century? Certainly, there were other travel writers of her time–she mentions them in her letters to friends–yet Bird’s writing has withstood the years like few others’. Perhaps Bird’s endurance comes from her unique combination of passion, wit, honesty, and clarity, as well as her slight touch of decoration. She never took a boring journey, and no matter where she went, some disaster was sure to befall her. If Bird boarded a boat, it was sure to be tossed in a wild storm. If she went out in the winter, she would struggle through chest- high snowdrifts. If she traveled in the summer, she would wilt in sweltering heat. No matter-Bird always marveled at her experiences. Bird’s longevity stems from her triumphant spirit, and the part of ourselves to which it speaks. Ultimately, Bird’s immense passion for travel awakens our own.

I recently published an account of my journey following in Bird’s tracks through Japan calledAdventures in Japan. I followed her footsteps–off the beaten track–using her book as my guide, and discovered a unique introduction to an unconventional view of Japan. What I never expected to find was that her name is alive and well, 120 years after her visit. There are monuments to Bird, and her books have been translated into Japanese and are sold in museum gift shops throughout the country. In the old Kanaya Hotel in Nikko, framed photographs line the corridors of famous people who had stayed there– politicians, kings, queens, movie stars, sports figures, religious leaders and one of Bird. With white hair atop her head, she wears a dark, flowing dress, and stares from her place on the wall with her hallmark determined stance. Indeed, Isabella Bird is still very much alive.

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan has most earned its place as a Travelers’ Tales Classic, and I am so pleased Travelers’ Tales has decided to grant it this new life. I hope Isabella Bird inspires you as much as she has me.

Isabella Lucy Bird was born in Yorkshire, England in 1831 and died in Scotland in 1904. Within her lifetime she gained a reputation as one of the most adventurous women travelers of the 19th century. At a time when ladies were expected to stay quietly at home she went off on unconventional journeys through Tibet, Canada, Korea, Turkey, Hawaii, and Japan.