Review: Isabella Bird – Unbeaten tracks in Japan

unbeatentracks-illustrationIsabella Bird is one of those travelers and writers that only the 19th century could produce. She was born in 1831 as the daughter of  Reverend Edward Bird and Dora Lawson. Because she had poor health from her youth, the doctors recommended an open-air life. Her family encouraged her, for example by letting her learn horse riding  (a skill that would prove to be very important later in life). Nevertheless, her health was always frail. After an operation to remove a tumor that was only partially successful, the doctor recommended her to travel. In 1854 her father gave her a hundred pounds and the permission to travel wherever she wanted. She gradually started to travel, for example making a trip to the United States of a few months. The letters she wrote from the United States to her sister were published as a book, The Englishwoman in America (1856), which became popular, and established her as a travel writer.

In 1872, on her way to New Zealand, she had a stopover in Hawaii, and decided on the spot to change plans. She stayed six months in Hawaiii and explored it to even the most remote corners of the islands. That visit resulted in another book, The Hawaiian Archipelago (1875), again a bundled selection of letters to her sister. Many more explorations, and many more books would follow.

In early 1878 she decided to visit Japan, mainly because she was curious about the country, or as she put it herself: `attracted less by the reputed excellence of its climate, than by the certainty that it possessed in a special degree those sources of novel and sustained interest, which conduce so essentially to the enjoyment and restoration of a solitary health-seeker’.

In April 1878 she traveled to New York, crossed overland to San Francisco, sailed to Shanghai, and from there took the s.s. City of Tokio to Yokohama. She reached Yokohama on May 20, 1878; the first letter to her sister from Japan is dated May 21. It is also the first letter in the book she later published about her trip to Japan, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880). (In fact, the full title of the book is “UNBEATEN TRACKS IN JAPAN AN ACCOUNT OF TRAVELS IN THE INTERIOR INCLUDING VISITS TO THE ABORIGINES OF YEZO AND THE SHRINE OF NIKKO BY ISABELLA L. BIRD”, but in our impatient times most readers will have moved on halfway through that title.)

By the time of Isabella’s visit, Japan was going through a period of fundamental political transformations at a breathtaking pace. In 1853, only 25 years earlier, Admiral Perry’s gunboat diplomacy forced Japan to end its self-imposed isolation of two centuries by signing highly unfavourable trading agreements with the major colonising powers, establishing trading ports where the partners had the right to settle and start businesses under highly favourable conditions to them. The trade agreements were humiliating enough, but it was clear that this was just the beginning, and that Japan had two choices: become a colony of a western power, or become powerful enough to play in the major league itself. Japan’s pride permitted only one choice, so at an astonishing speed it transformed itself from a sleepy feudal state into a modern western industrialised democracy complete with army and navy (and colonisation ambitions of its own).

Of course such a rigorous change in political goals  did not happen overnight or without strive. The opening of Japan triggered the Bakumatsu era, a period of intense political and military unrest. However, with the official end of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868, 10 years before Isabella’s visit, the turmoil ended, and and the Meji (restoration) period started.

By the time of Isabella’s visit, Japan was trying to learn as much as possible about the western world, and the western world was trying to learn as much as possible about Japan. In Japan, Isabella met many of the westerner scholars that were investigating Japan, and that were world-famous authorities even at the time, such as Harry Smith Parkes, Ernest Satow, and James Curtis Hepburn.

When Isabella stepped on land in Yokohama she of course entered a society that was alien to her, but she could take the train from Yokohama to Tokyo (opened only three years before), see many locals dressed in western clothes on the streets, and take refuge from the strangeness in the households of western people living in Yokohama and Tokyo. There were even established touristic routes for western visitors, in particular to Nikko and Kyoto, complete with special hotels for westerners. This kind of beaten track was not to her taste. Sure, she was happy to visit the touristic attractions if she had the opportunity. She admired the new railway:

The journey between the two cities is performed in an hour by an admirable, well-metalled, double-track railroad, 18 miles long, with iron bridges, neat stations, and substantial roomy termini, built by English engineers at a cost known only to Government, and opened by the Mikado in 1872.

and got her first local impressions:

“[T]he train came to rest in the terminus, the Shinbashi railroad station, and disgorged its 200 Japanese passengers with a combined clatter of 400 clogs—a new sound to me. These clogs add three inches to their height, but even with them few of the men attained 5 feet 7 inches, and few of the women 5 feet 2 inches; but they look far broader in the national costume, which also conceals the defects of their figures. So lean, so yellow, so ugly, yet so pleasant-looking, so wanting in colour and effectiveness; the women so very small and tottering in their walk; the children so formal-looking and such dignified burlesques on the adults, I feel as if I had seen them all before, so like are they to their pictures on trays, fans, and tea-pots.”

She also visited the Asakusa temples and shrines and went shopping. But as entertaining as this all was, that was not what she had come for. Her goal from the start was to visit the unexplored inland areas of Japan. Specifically, to travel north from Tokyo and Nikko, and explore the inland areas of northern Honshu and the Hokkaido islands. Information about these regions was sparse, even among the Japanese. Moreover,

As no English lady has yet travelled alone through the interior, my project excites a very friendly interest among my friends, and I receive much warning and dissuasion, and a little encouragement. The strongest, because the most intelligent, dissuasion comes from Dr. Hepburn, who thinks that I ought not to undertake the journey, and that I shall never get through to the Tsugaru Strait. If I accepted much of the advice given to me, as to taking tinned meats and soups, claret, and a Japanese maid, I should need a train of at least six pack-horses!

Apart from the fact that she would be traveling unexplored areas, people envisioned other horrors:

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, that fresh fish is rare, and that unless one can live on rice, tea, and eggs, with the addition now and then of some tasteless fresh vegetables, food must be taken, as the fishy and vegetable abominations known as “Japanese food” can only be swallowed and digested by a few, and that after long practice.

Undeterred, she continued her preparations. The most obvious one was that she would need an interpreter. After interviewing a few candidates, one stood out from the crowd, mainly because he had traveled the inlands already with “Mr. Maries, a botanical collector”, and therefore had at least some experience in traveling the destination areas. Despite some misgivings, Isabella hired him on the spot:

His name is Ito, and you will doubtless hear much more of him, as he will be my good or evil genius for the next three months. […]

He is only eighteen, but this is equivalent to twenty-three or twenty-four with us, and only 4 feet 10 inches in height, but, though bandy-legged, is well proportioned and strong-looking. He has a round and singularly plain face, good teeth, much elongated eyes, and the heavy droop of his eyelids almost caricatures the usual Japanese peculiarity. He is the most stupid-looking Japanese that I have seen, but, from a rapid, furtive glance in his eyes now and then, I think that the stolidity is partly assumed.

Solving one worry led to another:

Another, but far inferior, difficulty on which much stress is laid is the practice common among native servants of getting a “squeeze” out of every money transaction on the road, so that the cost of travelling is often doubled, and sometimes trebled, according to the skill and capacity of the servant. Three gentlemen who have travelled extensively have given me lists of the prices which I ought to pay, varying in different districts, and largely increased on the beaten track of tourists, and Mr. Wilkinson has read these to Ito, who offered an occasional remonstrance. Mr. W. remarked after the conversation, which was in Japanese, that he thought I should have to “look sharp after money matters”—a painful prospect, as I have never been able to manage anybody in my life, and shall surely have no control over this clever, cunning Japanese youth, who on most points will be able to deceive me as he pleases.

However, the main worry was the route to take. The north of Japan had been inhabited for many centuries, but for the inland areas that Isabella wanted to explore there were no reliable maps or records. One of her friends remarked that “You will have to get your information as you go along, and that will be all the more interesting”, but that was of course not very helpful.

Eventually, she got on her way:

From the date you will see that I have started on my long journey, though not upon the “unbeaten tracks” which I hope to take after leaving Nikko, and my first evening alone in the midst of this crowded Asian life is strange, almost fearful. I have suffered from nervousness all day—the fear of being frightened, of being rudely mobbed, as threatened by Mr. Campbell of Islay, of giving offence by transgressing the rules of Japanese politeness—of, I know not what! Ito is my sole reliance, and he may prove a “broken reed.” I often wished to give up my project, but was ashamed of my cowardice when, on the best authority, I received assurances of its safety.

She brought necessities such as “two light baskets with covers of oiled paper, a travelling bed or stretcher, a folding-chair, and an india-rubber bath”, plus “a small supply of Liebig’s extract of meat, 4 lbs. of raisins, some chocolate, both for eating and drinking, and some brandy in case of need”. She also brought her own saddle. Her first destination was Nikko, even at that time a popular destination for western tourists. This was an easy start: the travel was through flat and well-mapped terrain with prominent roads (although characteristically she avoided the most popular route), and she was able to travel by rickshaw: one for her, one for Ito and some luggage, and a third one with only luggage. The first night in an inn on the road was enjoyable, but what almost made her give up was the inn of her second night out of Tokyo:

The shoji were full of holes, and often at each hole I saw a human eye. Privacy was a luxury not even to be recalled. Besides the constant application of eyes to the shoji, the servants, who were very noisy and rough, looked into my room constantly without any pretext; the host, a bright, pleasant-looking man, did the same; jugglers, musicians, blind shampooers, and singing girls, all pushed the screens aside; and I began to think that Mr. Campbell was right, and that a lady should not travel alone in Japan.

The privacy problem would stay with her throughout her journey. Especially in the inland areas she was often the first western woman ever to visit the area, and entire villages came to stare at her. People climbed roofs to get a glimpse of her, and wooden walls collapsed under the weight of the spectators. Initially she described the attention with amusement and some exasperation, but later we don’t hear much about it anymore; she got used to the attention, or at least made her peace with it.

Despite the discomforts at the second inn, the trip from Toyo to Nikko was relatively easy. In Nikko she stayed at the private home of a mister Kanaya and his family, a place she loved. At he time, mister Kanaya had a guest house that he opened for guests with the proper introduction, (Isabella got her introduction from Dr. Hepburn). In later years Mister Kanaya opened a luxurious western-style hotel that still exists. Isabella visited the local attractions in Nikko and its surroundings, and describes them in detail in her letters. She was greatly impressed by the temples, the beautiful nature, and the friendly people.

From Nikko northwards the travel got serious; she now really was on the unbeaten tracks she had come for. People did travel there, but the terrain was far more difficult, and especially the road Isabella wanted to take from Nikko to Niigata was poorly maintained and barely documented, so a lot of improvisation was necessary. Still, she was in Japan, a civilised country. No matter where she went, she could rely on a well-organised and well-regulated network of  transport. At each stop in the network there was a Transport agent where she could book transport for herself, Ito, and her luggage. She paid the Transport agent a government-determined price, and local people would then provide this transport by renting out their packhorses and a mago, a man or woman to lead the packhorses. No matter where she went, Isabella could use this network, and it was reliable and efficient, even in the most remote parts of Japan that she visited.

That did not mean that travel was always easy. The roads were sometimes mere trails of mud, especially in mountainous areas, and although Isabella could normally ride one of the horses, on steep inclines or declines she had to walk. The horses occasionally slipped or fell, and on the most difficult parts of the road travel could be painfully slow.

She was now traveling in backcountry Japan, areas that were unknown even to the rest of Japan. She visited small villages in areas that were often poor and infertile, and living conditions bad.

All wear the vest and trousers at their work, but only the short petticoats in their houses, and I saw several respectable mothers of families cross the road and pay visits in this garment only, without any sense of impropriety. The younger children wear nothing but a string and an amulet. The persons, clothing, and houses are alive with vermin, and if the word squalor can be applied to independent and industrious people, they were squalid. Beetles, spiders, and wood-lice held a carnival in my room after dark, and the presence of horses in the same house brought a number of horseflies.

Especially fleas were a constant worry. Depending on the inn where she stayed the burden was better or worse, but at one point in the worst part of the trip even Ito had enough:

At five Ito came and entreated me to leave, whimpering, “I’ve had no sleep; there are thousands and thousands of fleas!” He has travelled by another route to the Tsugaru Strait through the interior, and says that he would not have believed that there was such a place in Japan, and that people in Yokohama will not believe it when he tells them of it and of the costume of the women. He is “ashamed for a foreigner to see such a place,” he says.

Although Isabella continued to grumble about food, roads, and inns occasionally (good inns were often “of ill repute”), she quickly started to enjoy the journey. She saw beautiful mountains, rivers, and valleys, she met interesting people, and she was traveling the “unbeaten tracks” that she had put her mind to.

She also did some amateur doctoring, as she called it herself. She dispersed cough sirup, gave medical advice, and even held consults:

[…] a child two and a half years old swallowed a fish-bone last night, and has been suffering and crying all day, and the grief of the mother so won Ito’s sympathy that he took me to see her. She had walked up and down with it for eighteen hours, but never thought of looking into its throat, and was very unwilling that I should do so. The bone was visible, and easily removed with a crochet needle. An hour later the mother sent a tray with a quantity of cakes and coarse confectionery upon it as a present, with the piece of dried seaweed which always accompanies a gift. Before night seven people with sore legs applied for “advice.” The sores were all superficial and all alike, and their owners said that they had been produced by the incessant rubbing of the bites of ants.

She was often struck by the poor health of the people she encountered, and at one point she grumbled that Japan should spend a little less on warships, and a little more on combatting malaria.

The unbeaten tracks took her first to Niigata, an important port town on the west coast of Japan. It was one of the treaty ports, where western people were allowed to settle and trade, although few actually did so at the time. However, it allowed Isabella to stay in the Church Mission House, and recover from the  difficult trip from Nikko. After a week she continued her trip, turning inland again at the first opportunity. The unbeaten tracks again took her along beautiful views, and comfortable roads, but also squalor and misery. The privacy problem did not exactly improve:

I went to bed early as a refuge from mosquitoes, with the andon, as usual, dimly lighting the room, and shut my eyes. About nine I heard a good deal of whispering and shuffling, which continued for some time, and, on looking up, saw opposite to me about 40 men, women, and children (Ito says 100), all staring at me, with the light upon their faces. They had silently removed three of the shoji next the passage! I called Ito loudly, and clapped my hands, but they did not stir till he came, and then they fled like a flock of sheep. I have patiently, and even smilingly, borne all out-of-doors crowding and curiosity, but this kind of intrusion is unbearable; and I sent Ito to the police station, much against his will, to beg the police to keep the people out of the house, as the house-master was unable to do so. This morning, as I was finishing dressing, a policeman appeared in my room, ostensibly to apologise for the behaviour of the people, but in reality to have a privileged stare at me, and, above all, at my stretcher and mosquito net, from which he hardly took his eyes. Ito says he could make a yen a day by showing them! The policeman said that the people had never seen a foreigner.

Once she had reached Aomori she crossed the Tsugaru strait that separates the island of Honshu from the island of Hokkaido. Although Isabella called the island Yezo, the official name from 1869 on was Hokkaido. The renaming was part of a scheme to strengthen the ties of the island with the rest of Japan; the central government considered Russian colonisation a significant threat, and a major Japanese development and colonisation effort had been started to avoid this.

Isabella arrived on Hokkaido in a raging storm, and stayed at the Church Mission House in Hakodate, run by an English couple. That English home, the landscape of Hokkaido that reminded her of Scotland, and even the storm made her feel at home for the first time in months:

How musical the clamour of the northern ocean is! How inspiriting the shrieking and howling of the boisterous wind! Even the fierce pelting of the rain is home-like, and the cold in which one shivers is stimulating! You cannot imagine the delight of being in a room with a door that will lock, to be in a bed instead of on a stretcher, of finding twenty-three letters containing good news, and of being able to read them in warmth and quietness under the roof of an English home!

On Hokkaido the nature of Isabella’s trip changed considerably. First of all, she discovered that her original hesitations over Ito, her guide, were not unfounded. She met Mr. Maries, Ito’s previous employer, and it turned out that Ito still was under contract with him, and he was not at all pleased that Ito had disappeared in pursuit of a higher salary. She reached an agreement with Mr. Maries (Ito had little say in this) that she could continue to hire Ito for her travels in Hokkaido, but after that Ito would be returned to Mr. Maries.

A second change was that on Hokkaido she need not worry about avoiding the beaten tracks: all of Hokkaido was poorly explored, so the unbeaten tracks were everywhere. Finally, her trek through north Honshu had earned her a lot of respect, and both the British embassy and the Japanese government were even more eager than before to support her:

[the Japanese government] has granted me a shomon, a sort of official letter or certificate, giving me a right to obtain horses and coolies everywhere at the Government rate of 6 sen a ri, with a prior claim to accommodation at the houses kept up for officials on their circuits, and to help and assistance from officials generally; and the Governor has further telegraphed to the other side of Volcano Bay desiring the authorities to give me the use of the Government kuruma as long as I need it, and to detain the steamer to suit my convenience!

Although she likes the place, she doesn’t dwindle much in Hakodate.  Hokkaido was (and still is) home to the Ainu people, a distinct ethnic group similar to the Aboriginals of Australia and the Indians of North and South America. Isabella was eager to visit the Aino, as she called them, and the highlight of the trip on Hokkaido was a stay at the house of Ainu chief Benri. At the time, little was known about Hokkaido and the Ainu, so Isabella’s trip grew into an ethnographic expedition with scientific significance. Amusingly, she confidently predicted that an official French/Austrian exploring expedition would fail because they were too interested in food and claret, making the expedition too large to be manageable, and expected that she could do more with her travel-light attitude. Later she happily reported that she had been right.

Her letters from Hokkaido are consequently of a different nature. She described the customs, opinions, and religious practices of the Ainu in great detail, producing what is more an ethnographic treatise rather than the report of an interesting trip. She also wrote some things about the Ainu that are nowadays very hard to swallow.
Isabella Bird was an admirable and kindhearted traveler, but she was a child of her times. She could be sentimental over a coolie:

He had been so kind and helpful that I felt quite sad at leaving him there ill,—only a coolie, to be sure, only an atom among the 34,000,000 of the Empire, but not less precious to our Father in heaven than any other.

but she did not stop to think why she had to pay him so little, and if that was fair. She was also not above a little stereotyping. Although she admired the Japanese temples and shrines, and frequented them for the agreeable atmosphere:

The temple at Rokugo was very beautiful, and, except that its ornaments were superior in solidity and good taste, differed little from a Romish church. The low altar, on which were lilies and lighted candles, was draped in blue and silver, and on the high altar, draped in crimson and cloth of gold, there was nothing but a closed shrine, an incense-burner, and a vase of lotuses.

Still, she used “idolatry” and “superstition” to describe Japanese religion as well. This 19th-century attitude is even more pronounced in her writings about the Ainu. She greatly admired some aspects of Ainu society, including the warm hospitality extended to her, but she also wrote

These Ainos, doubtless, stand high among uncivilised peoples. They are, however, as completely irreclaimable as the wildest of nomad tribes, and contact with civilisation, where it exists, only debases them. Several young Ainos were sent to Tokiyo, and educated and trained in various ways, but as soon as they returned to Yezo they relapsed into savagery, retaining nothing but a knowledge of Japanese. They are charming in many ways, but make one sad, too, by their stupidity, apathy, and hopelessness, and all the sadder that their numbers appear to be again increasing; and as their physique is very fine, there does not appear to be a prospect of the race dying out at present.

A point of view that is nowadays considered so unacceptably racist and narrow-minded that in some countries you can get prosecuted for saying this in public. However, ignoring Isabella Bird and her writings because of opinions like this would be a serious loss. Despite her 19th-century views, Isabella Bird was a courageous traveler with an open mind, a kind deposition to everyone she met, and fortunately for us modern readers, with an insatiable curiosity. If she could forgive some transgressions of Ito because he was a heathen that did not know any better, let us try to forgive her for not knowing any better herself.

Isabella Bird arrived in Japan on 21 May 1878, she left Tokyo for Nikko on 9 June, she stayed in Nikko from 14 to 23 June, in Niigata from 3 to 10 July, she reached Hokkaido on 10 August, and left it for Tokyo by ship on 14 September (she said goodbye to Ito that day, and handed him over to Mr. Maries); she reached Tokyo on 21 September, where she discussed and refined her notes using the advice of experts such as Mr. Satow and Sir Harry Parkes. She finally left Japan on 19 December. Counting from her to departure from Nikko to her departure from Hokkaido by ship she spent almost three months on the “unbeaten tracks” she came for, and almost seven months in Japan.

The route

The map below traces Isabella’s route as far as I have been able to reconstruct it from the names in the book. Not all villages that she mentions can be found. Japan has changed profoundly in the century after Isabella visited it, and town names have changed, villages have disappeared, and Isabella may have transcribed the names inaccurately. In any case, the route from Nikko to Niigata was dictated by Isabella’s desire to escape the “beaten tracks” (there was a far better and more popular route from Nikko to Niigata), and by the mountainous terrain. From Niigata north the route is far more straightforward.

[sgpx gpx=”/wp-content/uploads/gpx/Unbeaten tracks in Japan.gpx” gheight=0 waypoints=true]


Unbeaten tracks in Japan was originally published in 1880, and many editions and reprints would follow. In the second edition and later, Isabella added an introduction with some general information about Japan, a glossary, and some illustrations. The copyright of the book has expired, and it can be freely downloaded from repositories such as Project Gutenberg and many books; there even is a spoken version. A later, illustrated, edition is available from

If you prefer, there is also an abundance of printed editions. For an antiquarian or simple second-hand edition AbeBooks is a good source; new books are available in many editions from the usual book vendors:
icon alibiris
Amazon UK

[openbook booknumber=”OL1077888W”]


For some biographic and other background information in this review I was very grateful for the biography The Life of Isabella Bird (Mrs. Bischop) by Anna M. Stoddart, pub. John Murray, London, 1906. The copyright of this book has also expired, and it can be downloaded from The illustrations in this review are from an illustrated edition of Unbeaten tracks in Japan. See above for details.



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