Japan is often called by foreign people a land of suit shine and cherry blossoms. This is because tourists generally visit only the eastern and southern parts of the country, where the climate is mild all the year round. On the northwest coast the winters are long, snow often covering the ground from December to March or April.
In the province of Echigo, where was my home, winter usually began with a heavy snow which came down fast and steady until only the thick, round ridge-poles of our thatched roofs could be seen. Then groups of coolies, with straw mats over their shoulders and big woven hats that looked like umbrellas, came and with broad wooden shovels cut tunnels through from one side of the street to the other. The snow was not removed from the middle of the street all winter. It lay in a long pile, towering far above the house-tops. The coolies cut steps, for they were carrying snow at intervals all winter, and we children used to climb up and run along the top. We played many games there, sometimes pretending we were knights rescuing a snow-bound village, or fierce brigands stealing upon it for an attack.
But a still more exciting time for us was before the snow came, when the entire town was making preparations for winter. This always took several weeks, and each day as we went to and from school we would stop to watch the coolies busily wrapping the statues and small shrines along the streets in their winter clothing of straw. The stone lanterns and all the trees and bushes of our gardens were enclosed in straw, and even the outside walls of the temples were protected by sheets of matting fastened on with strips of bamboo, or immense nettings made of straw rope. Every day the streets presented a new appearance, and by the time the big carved lions at the temple steps were covered, we were a city of grotesque straw tents of every shape and size, waiting for the snow that would bury us in for three or four months.
Most large houses had thatched roofs with wide eaves, but the shops on the streets had shingled roofs weighted with stones to prevent avalanches when the snow began to melt in the spring. Above all the sidewalks extended a permanent roof, and during the winter the sidewalks were enclosed by walls of upright boards with an occasional panel of oiled paper, which turned them into long halls, where we could walk all over town in the stormiest weather, entirely protected from wind and snow. These halls were dim, but not dark, for light shines through snow pretty well, and even at the street corners, where we crossed through the snow tunnels, it was light enough for us to read good-sized characters. Many a time, coming home from school, I have read my lessons in the tunnel, pretending that I was one of the ancient sages who studied by snow-light.
Echigo, which means "Behind the Mountains," is so shut off from the rest of Japan by the long Kiso range that during the early feudal days it was considered by the Government only a frozen outpost suitable as a place of exile for offenders too strong in position or influence to be treated as criminals. To this class belonged reformers. In those days Japan had little tolerance for reforms either in politics or religion, and an especially progressive thinker at court or a broad-minded monk was branded as equally obnoxious and sent to some desolate spot where his ambitions would be permanently crushed. Most political offenders that were sent to Echigo either filled the graves of the little cemetery beyond the execution ground or lost themselves in some simple home among the peasants. Our literature holds many a pathetic tale of some rich and titled youth, who, disguised as a pilgrim, wanders through the villages of Echigo, searching for his lost father.
The religious reformers fared better; for they generally spent their lives in working quietly and inoffensively among the people. Some founders of new Buddhist sects exiled for a lifetime, were men of great ability, and gradually their belief spread so widely that Echigo became known all over Japan as the stronghold of reformed Buddhism. From earliest childhood I was familiar with priest tales and was accustomed to seeing pictures of images cut on the rocks or carved figures standing in caves on the mountain-sides—the work of the tireless hands of those ancient monks.
My home was in the old castle town of Nagaoka. Our household consisted of my father and mother, my honoured grandmother, my brother, my sister, and myself. Then there was Jiya, my father's head servant, and my nurse, Ishi, besides Kin and Toshi. Several other old servants came and went on occasions. I had married sisters, all in distant homes except the eldest, who lived about half a day's jinrikisha ride from Nagaoka. She came occasionally to visit us, and sometimes I went home with her to spend several days in her big thatched farmhouse, which had been, in ancient days, the fortress of three mountains. Samurai families often married into the farmer class, which was next in rank to the military, and much respected, for "one who owns rice villages holds the life of the nation in his hand."
We lived just on the edge of the town in a huge, rambling house that had been added to from time to time ever since I could remember. As a result, the heavy thatched roof sagged at the gable joinings, the plaster walls had numerous jogs and patches, and the many rooms of various sizes were connected by narrow, crooked halls that twisted about in a most unexpected manner. Surrounding the house, but some distance away, was a high wall of broken boulders, topped with a low, solid fence of wood. The roof of the gateway had tipped-up corners, and patches of moss on the brown thatch. It was supported by immense posts between which swung wooden gates with ornamental iron hinges that reached halfway across the heavy boards. On each side there extended, for a short distance, a plaster wall pierced by a long, narrow window with wooden bars. The gates were always open during the day, but if at night there came knocking and the call "Tano-mo-o! Tano-mo-o!" (I ask to enter!) even in the well-known voice of a neighbour, Jiya was so loyal to old-time habit that he invariably ran to peep through one of these windows before opening the gate to the guest.
From the gateway to the house was a walk of large, uneven stones, in the wide cracks of which grew the first foreign flowers that I ever saw—short-stemmed, round-headed little things that Jiya called "giant's buttons." Someone had given him the seed; and as he considered no foreign flower worthy of the dignity of a place in our garden, he cunningly planted them where they would be trod upon by our disrespectful feet. But they were hardy plants and grew as luxuriantly as moss.
That our home was such a makeshift was the result of one of the tragedies of the Restoration. Echigo Province was one of those that had believed in the dual government. To our people, the Mikado was too sacred to be in touch with war, or even annoying civil matters, and so they fought to uphold the shogun power to which, for generations, their ancestors had been loyal. At that time my father was karo, or first counsellor of the daimiate of Nagaoka, a position which he had held since the age of seven, when the sudden death of my grandfather had left it vacant. Because of certain unusual circumstances, my father was the only executive in power, and thus it was that during the wars of the Restoration he had the responsibility and the duties of the office of daimio.
At the bitterest moment that Nagaoka ever knew, Echigo found herself on the defeated side. When my mother learned that her husband's cause was lost and he taken prisoner, she sent her household to a place of safety, and then, to prevent the mansion from falling into the hands of the enemy, she with her own hands set fire to it and from the mountain-side watched it burn to the ground.
After the stormy days of war were past and Father finally was free from the governorship which he had been directed to retain until the central government became stabilized, he gathered together the remains of his family estate, and after sharing with his now "fish-on-land" retainers, he built this temporary home on the site of his former mansion. Then he planted a mulberry grove on a few acres of land near by and prided himself on having levelled his rank to the class of farmer. Men of samurai rank knew nothing about business. It had always been considered a disgrace for them to handle money; so the management of all business affairs was left to faithful but wholly inexperienced Jiya, while Father devoted his life to reading, to memories, and to introducing unwelcome ideas of progressive reform to his less advanced neighbours.
My father, however, held on to one extravagance. The formal once-in-two-years journey to the capital, which, before the Restoration, the law required of men of his position, was now changed to an informal annual trip which he laughingly called the "window toward growing days." The name was most appropriate; for this yearly visit of my father gave his whole family a distant view of progressing Japan. Besides the wonderful word pictures, he also brought us gifts of strange, unknown things—trinkets for the servants, toys for the children, useful house articles for Mother, and often rare imported things for the much-honoured grandmother.
Jiya always accompanied Father on these trips, and, in his position as business manager, came in contact with tradesmen and heard many tales of the methods of foreigners in dealing with Japanese. The cleverness of the foreign business system was acknowledged by everyone, and although frequently disastrous to the Japanese, it aroused admiration and a desire to imitate. A more honest soul than Jiya never lived, but in his desire to be loyal to the interests of his much-loved master he once got our family name into a tangle of disgrace that took months of time and much money to straighten out. Indeed, I doubt if the matter was ever clearly understood by any of the parties. I know it was a sore puzzle to Jiya as long as he lived. It happened in this way.
Jiya became acquainted with a Japanese man, who, as agent for a foreigner, was buying up cards of silkworm eggs from all the villages around. Such cards were prepared by having painted on them, with a special ink, the name or crest of the owner. Then the cards were placed beneath the butterflies, which lay on them their small, seed-like eggs by the thousands. The cards were finally classified and sold to dealers.
This agent, who was a very wealthy man, told Jiya that if mustard seeds were substituted for the eggs, the cards would sell at a profit that would make his master rich. This, the agent explained, was a foreign business method being adopted now by the merchants of Yokohama. It was known as "the new way of making Japan strong, so the high-nosed barbarian could no longer beat the children of Japan in trade."
As my father's mulberry grove furnished food for many of the silkworms in near-by villages, his name was a good one for the agent to use, and poor Jiya, delighted to be doing business in the clever new way, was of course a willing tool. The man prepared the cards to the value of hundreds of yen—all marked with my father's crest. Probably he pocketed all the money; anyway, the first we knew of the affair was when a very tall, red-faced foreign man, in strange, pipe-like garments, called to see my father. How well I remember that important day! Sister and I, with moistened finger-tips, melted tiny holes in the paper doors, to peep at the wonderful stranger. We knew it was rude and low class, but it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
I have no reason to think that foreign man was in any way to blame; and possibly—possibly—the agent also thought that he was only competing in cleverness with the foreigner. So many things were misunderstood in those strange days. Of course, my father, who had known absolutely nothing of the transaction, paid the price and made good his name, but I doubt if he ever understood what it all meant. This was one of the many pathetic attempts made in those days by simple-minded vassals, whose loyal, blundering hearts were filled with more love than wisdom.
In the long winter evenings I was very fond of slipping away to the servants' hall to watch the work going on there and to hear stories. One evening, when I was about seven years old, I was hurrying along the zigzag porch leading to that part of the house when I heard voices mingling with the thuds of soft snow being thrown from the roof. It was unusual to have the roof cleared after dark, but Jiya was up there arguing with the head coolie and insisting that the work must be done that night.
"At the rate the snow is falling," I heard him say, "it will crush the roof before morning."
One of the coolies muttered something about its being time for temple service, and I noticed the dull tolling of the temple bell. However, Jiya had his way, and the men went on with the work. I was astonished at the daring of the coolie who had ventured to question Jiya's command. To my childish mind, Jiya was a remarkable person who was always right and whose word was law. But with all my respect for his wisdom, I loved him with all my heart; and with reason, for he was never too busy to twist up a straw doll for me, or to tell me a story as I sat on a garden stone watching him work.
The servants' hall was a very large room. One half of the board floor had straw mats scattered here and there. This was the part where the spinning, rice-grinding, and the various occupations of the kitchen went on. The other half, where rough or untidy work was done, was of hard clay. In the middle of the room was the fireplace—a big, clay-lined box sunk in the floor, with a basket of firewood beside it. From a beam high above hung a chain from which swung various implements used in cooking. The smoke passed out through an opening in the centre of the roof, above which was a small extra roof to keep out the rain.
As I entered the big room, the air was filled with the buzz of work mingled with chatter and laughter. In one corner was a maid grinding rice for to-morrow's dumplings; another was making padded scrub-cloths out of an old kimono; two others were tossing from one to the other the shallow basket that shook the dark beans from the white, and a little apart from the others sat Ishi whirling her spinning wheel with a little tapping stick.
There was a rustle of welcome for me, for the servants all liked a visit from "Etsu-bo Sama," as they called me. One hurried to bring me a cushion and another tossed a handful of dried chestnut hulls on the glowing fire. I loved the changing tints of chestnut hull embers, and stopped a moment to watch them.
"Come here, Etsu-bo Sama!" called a soft voice.
It was Ishi. She had moved over on to the mat, leaving her cushion for me. She knew I loved to turn the spinning wheel, so she pushed the cotton ball into my hand, holding her own safely over it. I can yet feel the soft pull of the thread slipping through my fingers as I whirled the big wheel. I am afraid that I spun a very uneven thread, and it was probably fortunate for her work that my attention was soon attracted by Jiya's entrance. He pulled a mat over to the clay side of the room and in a moment was seated with his foot stretched out, holding between his toes one end of the rope he was twisting out of rice-straw.
"Jiya San," called Ishi, "we have an honoured guest."
Jiya looked up quickly, and with a funny, bobby bow above his stretched rope, he smilingly held up a pair of straw shoes dangling from a cord.
"Ah!" I cried, jumping up quickly and running across the clay floor to him, "are they my snow-shoes? Have you finished them?"
"Yes, Etsu-bo Sama," he answered, putting in my hands a pair of small straw boots, "and I have finished them just in time. This is going to be the deepest snow we have had this year. When you go to school to-morrow you can take a short cut, straight over the brooks and fields, for there will be no roads anywhere."
As usual Jiya's prediction was right. Without our snow-boots we girls could not have gone to school at all. Moreover, his persistence with the coolies had saved our roof; for before morning five feet more of snow filled the deep-cut paths and piled on top of the long white mountain in the street.