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A Tale of Discovering Tracks - Where in Time and Place Is Isabella Bird?

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A Tale of Discovering Tracks

Nathan Henman


Where in Time and Place is Isabella Bird?

Japan is a place rich with history and culture along with a unique geographical layout. In the mid to late 1800's Japan was a very new place for travelers to go. It had a closed door policy, in an attempt to preserve its culture, until 1853 when Commodore Mathew Perry of the US Navy forced them to open their doors (History of Japan). About twenty-five years later there was a great traveler named Isabella Bird who was one of the first English females to have traveled into these parts. Isabella Bird was born on October 15, 1831 in Yorkshire, England to a well off family. As a child she would often get sick and later had to have an operation to have a tumor removed from her spine. Fallowing the operation, backed by doctor's orders, Isabella began to travel to help aid in her recovery. ( Isabella had many travels including trips to North America, Canada, and the Hawaiian Islands, before she embarked on the adventure of exploring Japan. She would write letters to her sister, as a type of travelogue, that where later published into several books about her travels. Isabella's letter twenty-nine in "Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880)" gives great detail of the landscape, times, and culture of Japan during her travels in the late 1870's. Through her travelogue we see what it was like for her to be one of the first English woman travelers to have traveled these rarely traveled roads.

Isabella's interpenetration of her physical surroundings

In her letter Isabella gives great description of what she is seeing in her surroundings as she travels from one place to the next and about the places where she stays. In this letter she is in Ikarigaseki which is in Aomori prefecture. This is in the northern region of Tohoku which is in the northern part of Japan (see fig. 1.0 & 1.1). The area that she is in, during this time, is usually very warm and humid (see fig. 1.2). During this part of her journey she is heading north to Kuroishi , which is also in Aomori prefecture (see fig. 1.3).

As she travels she describes the weather as being very wet and unpredictable. She describes a terrain that is difficult to traverse through. She mentions that an early start was needed for a fifteen mile day of travel. The letter had description of steep cliffs and flooded rivers with washed away bridges. The landscape also changes as she continues her journey north. She also describes great pains which were used to farm rice. The description of these plains surrounded by hills gives a feel of a kind of valley that is unaffected by outsider influence only by that of Mother Nature. In the valley she describes little wooded villages. There is also description of devastation to the land from all of the flooding. There is a brief mention of Iwakisan, a snow capped dome with a supposed height of 5000 ft. (Bird 246). She is describing Mount Iwaki, a stratovolcano, which had its last eruption in 1863 (Wikipedia Mount Iwaki). There were also descriptions of places where she would stay.

Isabella's next stop in this letter was in Kuroishi. She describes her surroundings as a neat town with a population of about 5500 people, famous for making clogs and combs (Bird 246). Her descriptions of this town are one that is inviting and full of good times and culture.

Isabella's interpretation of the Times she is in

While reading Isabella's letter we have to keep in mind that the times in which she wrote them were very different. Isabella is a product of her time, so although her main purpose of her writings were to describe what she was seeing, some of own opinions and beliefs show through. In this time period there were not too many travelers that had made their way up to where she is. It was even more uncommon for those travelers to be women. Isabella was the first foreign person some of these villages have ever met so as she entered in to new places she would usually be greeted by police who were not sure how to deal with her. To be a Victorian woman just made it that much more of a rarity. The police would ask her for her passport to verify that it was ok for her to be there, but this was also the first time the police had ever seen a passport and they would examine it like it were fake. The way she mentions the rate in which they travel is something that is very different from what we think of today. What takes an hour or so today by plane took about a month to travel back then, traveling by foot or kuruma (drawn carriage)

While staying in Kuroishi she talks about it being a very unlighted, and the need for lanterns. We have to keep in mind that this was common for the time this letter takes place. The light bulb was not even invented until 1879 (Idea Finder). She also talks about how difficult it is for information to flow. Today we have the internet, cell phones, and technology that allows for almost instantaneous transfer of information. Back during the time of the letters things were a lot different. She mentions that not even the Post Offices



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