THAT was one of the long Nagaoka winters. For five months we saw only snow. In the early spring our relatives in Tokyo had written that arrangements had been made for my school. From that time I had been waiting impatiently for the mountain roads to become safe from avalanches; for just as soon as we could travel Brother was to take me to the capital.

At last the dykes were dry—that was where the snow always melted first—and we had a “gathering-green” picnic as a farewell to my companions in Nagaoka. One sunny morning a group of us, with purple scarfs on our heads and kimonos tucked up over our bright skirts, dotted the dyke slopes, each carrying a small basket and a bamboo knife and filling the air with laughter and merry calls as we hurried up and down the banks, trying to see how many different kinds of green each could find. Often in later years I recall that happy day as my last gay time at home as a girl.

Finally the mail carriers reported that the overhanging snow-cliffs had all fallen and the slopes were clear. Soon after came the day of our departure. With a heart half of elation, half of regret, I bade good-bye to Honourable Grandmother and Mother and with misty eyes was carefully tucked into my jinrikisha by Ishi. Then, between lines of bowing friends, our two jinrikishas and a baggage-laden horse led by a coolie started on the eight-days’ journey to Tokyo.

Most of the way we travelled in jinrikishas, changing them at certain towns, but occasionally we had to go on horseback. My saddle was a high box-seat; so Brother and the coolie rigged up a double-basket held by bands across the horse’s back. I sat in one part, and baggage filled the other. As we went around the steep, curving road on the mountain side, I could lean over and look far, far down to the fisher villages on the coast. But it was more interesting, as we got farther along, to look across the deep valley to the sloping hillsides with their terraces of ricefields—odd-shaped patches fitted in like the silk pieces of a Buddhist priest’s robe. In every little village of thatch-roofed huts was a shrine set high in the midst of a few trees, and, half-hidden in a hollow beside a stream, was whirling the great narrow wheel of a rice-mill. The air was so clear that I could plainly see the awkward lunge of a water-buffalo as he dragged a wooden plough along the furrows of one of the rice-patches, and I could even distinguish a scarlet flower stuck between the folds of the towel knotted about the head of the coolie behind. In those days no one ever wore a living flower, except to carry it to the dead; so I knew he was taking it home for the house shrine. I wondered what kind of a home he had.

I think it was our third day when I noticed that we were leaving the snow country. No longer did the towns have their sidewalks roofed, and these thatches bore no rows of avalanche stones. The houses looked bare and odd—like a married woman’s face with newly shaved eyebrows. But we were not entirely beyond the sight of snow, for as we skirted Myoko Mountain we saw a good many drifts and patches. The jinrikisha men said snow lasted there until July.

“From the top,” said Brother, “you can see Fujiyama——”

My heart thrilled, and I foolishly turned my head, feeling for a moment that I was really near the sacred mountain which my eyes had never expected to behold. And then, with a deeper, warmer thrill, I heard the conclusion of his sentence:

“—and then, if you turn and look in the opposite direction, you can see the plains of Echigo.”

“We are very far away from home,” I replied in a small voice.

Brother gave a quick look at my grave face; then he laughed.

“Also, if you look just beyond, you can see the Isle of Sado. If Matsuo should not come up to expectations, here’s some advice for you.”

And his merry voice broke into an old song:

Nikuiotoko ni kisetae shima wa
Royagoshi ni Sado ga shima.

I was shocked that Brother should sing a common servant’s song, and doubly shocked that he should joke so lightly about serious things; so my face was still grave as we rolled along in our jinrikishas.

The Isle of Sado used to be a place of exile for criminals and was considered by common people as the end of the world. This joking song, which is popular among peasant girls, is literally a threat to present to a disliked suitor, not the pleated garment which is the usual gift of the bride to a groom, but instead, a convict’s garb: meaning, “I pray the gods will send the unwelcome one across the raging seas to the end of the world.”

We spent our fifth night at Nagano in the temple of Zenkoji where lived the royal nun beneath whose high-lifted razor I had walked, years before, in a procession of gaily clad little girls, for a Buddhist ceremony of consecration.

The next morning, soon after we started, Brother halted and allowed my jinrikisha to roll up to his side. “Etsu-bo,” he asked, “when did they give up making a priestess of you?”

“Why—I don’t know,” I said, surprised.

He gave a little scornful laugh and rode on to his place ahead leaving me silent and thoughtful.

I had spoken the truth when I said I did not know. I had always accepted my education with no thought of results. But Brother’s laugh had startled me, and, rolling along that mountain road, I did a good deal of thinking. At last I believed that I understood. I know my father had never approved, although he acquiesced in Honourable Grandmother’s wish that I should be educated for a priestess; and when, after my brother’s sad departure, he had quietly substituted studies which would be of benefit should I ever hold the position of his heir, I think Honourable Grandmother, aching with sympathy for her proud, disappointed son, laid aside her cherished hope, and the plan was silently abandoned.

In the province of Shinano, an hour or so from Nagano, my jinrikisha man pointed across the river to a small wooded mountain.

“Obatsuyama, it is,” he said.

How my mind went back to Ishi and her mother-love story which tells of a time long, long ago, when there lived at the foot of this mountain a poor farmer and his aged widowed mother. They owned a bit of land which supplied them with food and their humble lives were peaceful and happy.

At that time Shinano was governed by a despotic ruler who, though a brave warrior, had a great and cowardly shrinking from anything suggestive of fading health and strength. This caused him to send out a cruel proclamation. The entire province was given strict orders immediately to put to death all aged people.

Those were barbarous days, and the custom of abandoning old people to die was not uncommon. However, it was not a law, and many of the helpless old lived as long as nature allowed in comfortable and welcome homes. The poor farmer loved his aged mother with tender reverence, and the order filled his heart with sorrow. But no one ever thought a second time about obeying the mandate of a daimio, so with many deep and hopeless sighs the youth prepared for what at that time was considered the kindest mode of death.

Just at sundown, when his day’s work was ended, he took a quantity of the unwhitened rice which is the principal food of the poor, cooked and dried it, and tying it in a square of cloth he swung the bundle around his neck along with a gourd filled with cool, sweet water. Then he lifted his helpless old mother to his back and started on his painful journey up the mountain.

The road was long and steep. He plodded steadily on, the shadows growing deeper and deeper, until the moon, round and clear, rose above the mountain-top and peered pityingly through the branches upon the youth toiling onward, his head bent with weariness and his heart heavy with sorrow. The narrow road was crossed and recrossed by many paths made by hunters and wood-cutters. In some places they mingled in a confused puzzle, but he gave no heed. One path or another, it mattered not. On he went, climbing blindly upward—ever upward—toward the high, bare summit of what is now known as Obatsuyama, the mountain of the “Abandoning of the Aged.”

The eyes of the old mother were not so dim out that they noted the reckless hastening from one path to an other, and her loving heart grew anxious. Her son did not know the mountain’s many paths, and his return might be one of danger, so she stretched forth her hand and snapping the twigs from the bushes as they passed, she quietly dropped a handful every few steps of the way, so as they climbed, the narrow path behind them was dotted at frequent intervals with tiny piles of twigs.

At last the summit was reached. Weary and heartsick, the youth gently released his burden and silently prepared a place of comfort, as his last duty to the loved one. Gathering fallen pine needles he made a soft cushion, and tenderly lifting his old mother thereon, he wrapped her padded coat more closely about the stooping shoulders and with tearful eyes and an aching heart said farewell.

The trembling mother voice was full of unselfish love as she gave her last injunction.

“Let not thine eyes be blind, my son. The mountain road is full of danger. Look carefully and follow the path which holds the piles of twigs. They will guide thee to the familiar way farther down.”

The son’s surprised eyes looked back over the path, then at the poor old shrivelled hands all scratched and soiled by their work of love. His heart smote him and, bowing to the ground, he cried aloud:

“Oh, Honourable Mother, thy kindness thrusts my heart! I will not leave thee. Together we will follow the path of twigs, and together we will die!”

Once more he shouldered his burden (how light it seemed now!) and hastened down the path, through the shadows and the moonlight, to the little hut in the valley.

Beneath the kitchen floor was a walled closet for food, which was covered over and hidden from view. There the son hid his mother, supplying her with everything needful and continually watching and fearing.

Time passed and he was beginning to feel safe, when again the despot sent forth heralds bearing an unreasonable and useless order; seemingly as a boast of his power. His demand was that his subjects should present him with a rope of ashes. The entire province trembled with dread. The order must be obeyed; yet who in all Shinano could make a rope of ashes?

One night, in great distress, the son whispered the news to his hidden mother.

“Wait!” she said, “I will think.”

On the second day she told him what to do.

“Make a rope of twisted straw,” she said, “then stretch it upon a row of flat stones and burn it there on a windless night.”

He called the people together and did as she said, and when the blaze had died, behold, upon the stones, with every twist and fibre showing perfect, lay a rope of whitened ashes.

The daimio was pleased at the wit of the youth, and praised him greatly, but demanded to know where he had obtained his wisdom.

“Alas! Alas!” cried the farmer, “the truth must be told!” and with many deep bows he related his story.

The daimio listened, then meditated in silence. Finally he lifted his head.

“Shinano needs more than the strength of youth,” he said gravely. “Ah, that I should have forgotten the well-known saying, ‘With the crown of snow, there cometh wisdom!’ ”

That very hour the cruel law was abolished, and the custom drifted into so far a past that only the legend remains.

As we went farther on, I found the customs so different from those of Nagaoka that I felt as if I were already in a strange land. At one place, long before we reached the village, we heard a hoarse voice calling, “Ma-kat-ta? Ma-kat-ta?” (Is it sold? Is it sold?) and as we rolled through the one narrow, crowded street we saw an auctioneer standing high in the midst of dozens of bamboo baskets of beans, carrots, greens, and bamboo shoots; while lying around him, in ungainly confusion, were every size and shape of purple eggplant and long, sprawling, delicious lotus roots.

Brother looked back and laughed.

“Who is he? What were all the people doing?” I asked, as soon as we reached the end of the long street and rolled out on to the public road.

“It is a vegetable auction,” Brother explained. “Merchants buy in quantities, and every morning the things are auctioned off by the basketful. Weren’t those fine lotus roots? If we hadn’t had breakfast only a couple of hours ago I’d believe I was hungry.”

At another place we went by a house where death had entered. Before the door stood a funeral palanquin into which coolies with big hats and crest-coats were just lifting the heavy wooden bucket containing the body. Over it was thrown a small kimono of scarlet and gold, showing that the dead child must have been a little daughter. The dress would have been white for a son. Around stood a number of white-robed mourners with white towels folded over their hair. As we passed, I caught a glimpse of a screen placed upside down and the lighted candles of a tiny shrine.

At one place, where the road ran close to a broad river with bold bluffs coming down, in some places, almost to the water, we saw a number of odd floating rice-mills with turning paddle-wheels that looked like a fleet of boats standing motionless in a hopeless struggle against a strong tide. I wondered where, in that rocky country, were enough people to eat all the rice that was being ground; but when we turned away from the river we suddenly found ourselves in a silk-culture district, where our road ran through village after village, each having its own mulberry plantation.

The town where we expected to spend the night was only a few hours ahead when the sky began to darken with a threatening storm. Brother was casting anxious looks backward when his jinrikisha man told him that in the next village was a large house where travellers had sometimes been kept for a night. So we hurried there, the last quarter of an hour being a bouncing, breathless race between men and clouds. The men won, whirling us up to the door, into which we ran unannounced, just as the storm broke with a downpour which it would have been hard to struggle through on the road.

It was an odd house where we had found shelter; but I know that even my honourable father, on his journeys in ancient days, never, on any occasion, received a more cordial welcome or more kindly treatment than did we and our perspiring, laughing, boasting men at the end of our exciting race.


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Women's Autobiography Copyright © by dixonk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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