Mapping Isabella Bird: Geolocation & Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880)

Why Unbeaten Tracks?

The title to Isabella Bird's two-volume series is Unbeaten Tracks in Japan and it is worth interrogating why she named it this. While Bird often made a sincere effort to get off of the established route taken by other explorers, she usually followed these well worn pathways for the bulk of her trip. We see this tendency in Hokkaido as well as Honshu.

Bird's travel route in Hokkaido is represented by a green line. However, clicking on the small map pins in various locations will lead to you quotes and images found in Unbeaten Tracks in Japan where she speaks about specific Hokkaido locales and the Ainu people.

Bird travels from Hakodate to the city of Mori where she catches a ferry across Uchiura Bay. She follows the established path until she reaches the city of Tomakomai. Many travelers take a fork in the path that proceeds through the Ishikari Lowlands to the prefectural capital of Sapporo, newly established in the Meiji period. However, Bird decides to skip the popular destination of Sapporo and continue her trek along the coast. She reflects on this newfound freedom in her text:

At this place the road and telegraph wires turn inland to [Sapporo], and a track for horses only turns to the north-east, and straggles round the island for about seven hundred miles... At Tomakomai we took horses, and, as I brought my own saddle, I have had the nearest approach to real riding that I have enjoyed in Japan...

I was happy when I left the "beaten track" to [Sapporo], and saw before me, stretching for I know not how far, rolling, sandy machirs like those of the Outer Hebrides, desert-like and lonely, covered almost altogether with dwarf roses and campanulas...

Isabella Bird, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, Vol. 2 (1880), 40-41.

Despite describing her "happiness" to be off the beaten track, what we know through comparison to other traveler accounts is that this Hokkaido route too was frequently traveled. Bird follows the coast towards Hidaka, and cuts northeast near the mouth of the Saru River. She follows the river towards the town of Biratori where she would meet the famous Chief Penri and his family.

Bird comments on the "beaten track" several times in her book in other cities. In Nara she writes,

Mr. and Mrs. Gulick and I left Kiyoto at eight on the 5th in a grey-brown drizzle, and reached Nara the same night, following the well-beaten track of nearly all foreigners who visit the older capital, halting at the celebrated Inari Temple of Fushimi, formerly a distinct town and the residence of Xavier, and celebrated also for the final defeat of the Shogun's army in 1869. We travelled through seven miles of continuous streets before we got into the country, much of the distance being among the dwellings of the poorest classes; but it is industrious poverty, without vice or squalor, and nearly every mean, contracted, dingy abode is displaying at least one great, bulging chrysanthemum, such as would drive the Temple gardener wild with envy.

Isabella Bird, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, Vol. 2 (1880), 254.

Bird is especially cognizant of where travelers went before, and this leads to several omissions in her book. For example, later in the second volume, Bird includes the following footnote about Lake Biwa:

I have omitted my letters from Lake Biwa and its neighbourhood, as well as most of those from Kiyoto, because these regions are on the "beaten track;" but no popular resorts in Japan are lovelier than Hiyeizan, the "priest's mountain," Sakamoto, the "priest's village," and the hill groves and temples of Miidera and of Ishiyama-no-dera--scenes which Japanese art and literature are perpetually reproducing in painting

Isabella Bird, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, Vol. 2 (1880), Footnote 1, 286.


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