Amusing Experiences In Japan
( Originally Published 1915 )
When the boys were ushered into the dining room they found themselves in the presence of two guests, evidently not Japanese, one of them a matronly looking woman, and the other a handsome gentleman wearing a silken coat.
The woman glanced at the boys for a moment, and quietly inquired: "Do you speak English?"
It was such a relief, for they were really distressed at the seeming formality of the meal, because they did not have the least idea of its nature, and what difficulties they might experience.
The eyes of Stanwood and Winfield glowed with pleasure, as Winfield answered: "Yes, indeed, and we are very glad to meet you."
She turned to the man and spoke a few words in a foreign tongue, and lie nodded to the boys.
":The gentleman is a Spaniard, and cannot speak either Japanese or English, so I act as interpreter for him. Are you acquainted with the language"
"No,"replied Stanwood. "We have been here for several days only, and are now on a trip through Japan. We have often wondered what we should do if we came to places where we could not make them understand us."
"Do not feel uncomfortable on that account, for the people here are really wonderful, and will find a way to meet your wants, wherever you go."
"Well, this is the first meal we have tried, out-side of the hotels and the restaurants, and we're glad to have some one to post us."
The boys looked around. They saw no chairs, but in the middle of the room was a pretty lacquered round table, on legs not more than a foot high, and all about the table, spread on the floor, were artistically-woven mats, or rugs, on which reposed cushions, in all colors, and ornamented with fancy figures of lilies and the inevitable lotus flower.
She noticed the smiles of the boys as they observed the arrangement and said: "I know you will enjoy the meal, because, somehow, although I have been in Japan for several years, I cannot get away from the charm of these dinners. The meals at the hotels, where they have the chairs, seem to be so much more stiff and formal."
"What must we do?" asked Stanwood. "Do we have to kneel down?"
She laughed while replying: "When I first tried the experiment I always thought that it was something like sitting on your heels; but it is really easy when you understand it. You may feel about it just as I did, that these meals are make believe only, like those in children's playhouses."
She walked toward the table and gracefully sank down by the side of the cushions, resting her left elbow on one of them, and the Spanish seignor did the same with considerable ease.
"I think I can do that," said Winfield, and he dropped to his knees and hugged a pillow.
Stanwood burst into laughter, in spite of all he could do. He was particularly susceptible to amusing situations, and was rarely ever able to control himself when anything ridiculous appealed to him. This was one of the occasions, and Win-field was blushing scarlet at Stanwood's apparent rudeness.
The lady smiled, and to put them more at their ease added, "I cannot help laughing at myself, even to this day, when I think of my first attempt at being graceful in this act."
A dainty little waitress with a rather close-fitting kimono appeared with a tray and served each with a small bowl of soup. As there were no spoons or other table implements, the boys watched the proceedings with eager eyes, for they were pretty hungry.
They soon learned that. the soup was to be sipped from the cup, and they followed their instructors with the utmost decorum. Then came a course of fish, the odor of which was most appetizing. The boys looked at each other with an eye of expectancy, as they saw two little pencil-like sticks on the side of each plate.
Mrs. Waldon, for such was their companion's name, interested the boys with her conversation, and made them feel at ease, and smiled when the boys eyed the sticks. "It may be a little inconvenient at first," she remarked, "but it is easily handled after a few trials."
"Are these what they call `chop sticks'?" asked Winfield.
"It is the same as the Chinese implement of that name; but the Japanese call them hashi," and she patiently watched the boys try to pick up the first morsels.
"You must learn to use them with one hand only," she continued. "Notice first how they are held. Place them vertically between the thumb and hand, and slightly separated from each other. Now, let the point of the forefinger rest against one of the sticks, and the end of the second finger against the other, and in that way the lower ends of the sticks are controlled."
They tried it over and over; but it was terribly awkward at first, and after they went to their rooms they practiced over and over until they could pick up an object from the floor with the hashi without the slightest difficulty. Try it for yourself, and you will be surprised how quickly the art is mastered.
Then a side dish, which Mrs. Waldon explained was a puree of chestnuts, accompanied the fish. "Sometimes they serve raw fish," she said; "but I have not yet accustomed myself to that."
When the dishes of this course were removed a salmi of fowl appeared, and accompanying this two vegetables, one a white root similar in appearance to a white onion, and the other a grass-like lot of stems more nearly resembling asparagus than anything else, but much smaller and absolutely green.
"I dare say you think they are onions," suggested Airs. Waldon, "but you will be surprised at the taste, because they are entirely unlike that vegetable."
"It isn't at all bad," volunteered Stanwood, as he managed by a little display of dexterity to get a portion of one of them safely landed. "I am anxious to learn what it is."
"It is the root of the lily," she answered. "The other will be just as surprising. It is sea weed."
The only drink served was called saki, some-thing like sherry, but it was hot, and at the close of the meal tea was distributed in the dainty little cups, with the oddest confections, together with preserved ginger.
"Ginger is one of the most efficient stimulants for the stomach, and no Japanese dinner is complete without it for that reason," added Mrs. Waldon.
`It seems to me as though it would be needed if all meals are like this," ventured Winfield. "Have you enjoyed it?" she asked.
"It was simply wonderful," he answered. "I am ashamed to say it, but I have eaten so much that I can do without eating for a day."
"I am sure you will not be uncomfortable. That is one of the advantages of a meal like this."
During the meal the boys had time to tell their story, and she was greatly interested, meanwhile interpreting the tale to the Spaniard, who also smiled as the different experiences were re-counted. They learned that Mrs. Waldon was English, and that her husband occupied an official position in Yokohama. The hostelry where they were stopping was famed for its cuisine and well patronized.
As the boys passed out of the room, after the meal, they noticed an adjoining room, in which the evening meal was being served in the same fashion, and Mrs. Waldon told them that there were six dining rooms, detached from each other. Such an arrangement made the guests feel the homelike atmosphere which would not be possible where the meals were taken in a large room, as in the ordinary hotels.
The maid appeared at the door before ten that night and proceeded to arrange the beds. The proprietor also came, and while the maid was thus engaged he constantly seemed to upbraid her, and, in a sort of broken English, constantly apologized for the clumsiness of the maid.
The latter did not appear to be annoyed, or to take any notice of the reproofs, and the next morning, when Winfield spoke to Mrs. Waldon of the affair, she said: "That is a curious thing. They try to please the guests in every way, and the object was to show you that the servant, however capable she might be, could not possibly perform a service which would be as efficient and as worthy as lie desired it to be."
On the floor were two beds made up of a pair of thickly-padded blankets and a pair of white sheets, and over these was thrown a sort of quilt. The pillows, while beautiful externally, were heavy and hard.
"Well, of all the beds, this beats me. What do you think of a pillow like that? Hard as a rock. I'm going to take one of the cushions," said Stanwood, disgustedly.
Winfield rolled himself into the padded quilts. "Wheew, but that is hard," he remarked, after trying the new bed for a few minutes.
"Same here," said Stanwood. "I wonder if they never have any springs?"
"The bed at the hotel was all right," answered Winfield.
As both were tired they fell asleep within a very few minutes, and somehow they managed to survive the night.
How did you sleep?" asked Winfield in the morning.
"Well, it was mighty hard at first, but I don't think I woke up once, but my hips are a little sore," answered Stanwood.
After breakfast, when they again met their friends of the night before, they prepared to depart.
They regretted to leave the little inn. It had been such a pleasant retreat, and they learned so much from the kindly Mrs. Waldon, as her suggestions were found to be of great service to them in the journey.
They marched up the road with happy feelings, and at peace with every one, as well as themselves, for the entertainment at the hotel, the curious customs and the happy manner of the people all con-spired to make them look at existence in a new way.
Many groups of people were passed, and some trudged along with them on the way. The road constantly ascended, so that they felt they must now be at a considerable altitude above the sea. Only occasionally Fuji Yama would appear through the dense foliage, but before noon reached a higher altitude, which they judged to be the case because the view to the south was now a vast panorama with the dark green sea as a far off background.
Before night they expected to be half way to the mountain. They were now on a level plateau, but the country everywhere was well wooded, and a profusion of flowers decked the roadside, ever presenting new beauties as they passed.
One of the scenes that attracted their attention was a school, the building of which was near the roadside. The children were at play, and to their surprise a dozen or more boys, with bows and arrows, were shooting at marks, which were posted up to form a miniature range.
They watched the archers for a quarter of an hour or more, and were surprised to see the accuracy with which they sent forward the bamboo arrows. This was sufficient to convince them that this was one of their school games, as it really is, and these archery contests are encouraged every-where.
" But do you know what is the most peculiar thing to me about their shooting?" said Winfield. No."
Why, the way each one handles the bow, and the particular motion each makes in putting the arrow on the string, and in taking hold of it with his fingers."
Yes I noticed that, too," said Stanwood, "but I didn't think much of it at the time. I remember now that all held the bow alike while putting on the arrow and that they drew back the arrow while raising up the bow."
The strict and orderly manner of the game of archery is prescribed by the most exact rules, and it would be a severe infraction to depart from them in the slightest degree.
Probably they do the shooting in the same way that they serve the tea. Do you remember what Mr. Redfield told us about the custom of the ceremonial tea?"
They again started on their way and passed the rest of the day without incident.
The second day thereafter they reached the foot of the great mountain, and there were accosted by a number of natives who tried to secure the job of taking them to the top, but they refused to undertake the task. They debated the question with each other for a half hour, but finally persuaded themselves that it would be wiser to go on.
On the evening of the next day they were twenty miles west of the snow-capped peak, and close to the shores of the ocean. The railway was to their left and ahead they could see the succession of grouped cottages, which generally indicated that a large town was nearby. In a half hour more they entered the main street of a pretentious place, called Shizuoka, and the first thing that caught their eyes was a curious building on a slight elevation, surrounded by a grove of trees.
Throughout Japan one of the things most frequently noted is the diminutive size of the trees. On the other hand, the observer will also be struck with the immense size of the flowers, the vegetation being in this respect the very reverse of the conditions in our own country.
Even the cherry blossoms are larger, while the trees themselves are smaller than ours, and no-where is it possible to see more magnificent chrysanthemums than are raised in Japan, except in Holland. No place in the world produces such a variety as may be found in the latter country.
This was the first time that the striking contrast between the flowers and the trees impressed itself on their minds. Gradually they began to feel the real joy that comes with traveling,—the quality to observe and to note the things which present themselves.
"Then why do they have so many temples everywhere?" asked Winfield.
"Simply to teach the virtues. They believe men will live hereafter and that there is a real Hell in the center of the earth."
"Don't they believe in a God?"
"They neither believe nor disbelieve it. They say they do not know."
"Where did the religion come from?" asked Stanwood.
"From India; and it is found all over the East-ern country, in every section. But here we are; this appears to be the main entrance."
The moment they stepped across the portals the deep tone of a mighty bell far in the interior could be heard. There was absolutely no other sound. Their feet trod on the softest of matting that yielded to every step and almost seemed to lure them on.
Slowly they followed the man and his wife. While it was exceedingly bright without, it was dark and sombre within, and little lights, which did not seem to cast any reflections, dimly shone through the open space. All around were objects which seemed like screens, with odd figures thereon, and as they moved along new objects would constantly appear.
Unlike our well known church interiors, the altar, if such it was, projected out from the side of the main auditorium, and was not at the end; and furthermore, it was far up in the body of the room, so that the devotees were all around the priests. In such a large edifice an arrangement of this kind seemed to be very sensible and convenient for the worshippers.
The bell sounded like a dirge, the tones being slowly measured, giving a weird feeling. All around were little alcoves, in each of which, high on the wall, was a verse of poetry, or some quotation from the great founder, Buddha.
Looking out from each alcove was a walk, shaded with trees on both sides, which had thickly covered leaves, and not a ray of sunlight was permitted to enter through those doors.
After walking around the interior, they approached the center and stood with the other worshippers. Then they noticed for the first time that on the altar were numbers of green boughs, which they afterwards learned were plucked from a sacred tree.
Above and behind the altar were shrines, within little canopied enclosures, which were unveiled as the priest approached the altar. For a moment his arms were raised toward the shrines, and then, advancing, prepared sticks of incense, which were burned until odors were wafted through the great enclosure.
During this part of the ceremony the bell was silent, but when the priest struck a small silver bell, the deep and impressive tone of the great bell again resounded, and the priest turned, offering a present of cloth and grain; then, advancing toward the altar, grasped one of the boughs and waved it over his head.
Turning to the audience he repeated a prayer, then lighted another stick and slowly retired.
This seemed to be a very peculiar rite to the boys, but each part had its peculiar significance understood to the devotees. It was most impressive, but their friend informed them that the ceremonies were not the same at all places, and, in-deed, in Japan, Buddhism is divided into two camps, as totally different as Catholicism and Protestantism in our own country.