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

Biratori & Bird's Account of Ainu Culture

Biratori, the largest of the Aino settlements in this region, is very prettily situated among forests and mountains, on rising ground, with a very sinous river winding at its feet and a wooded height above. A lonelier place could scarcely be found.

Isabella Bird, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, Vol. 2 (1880), 53.

One of ways that Bird's travelogue is unique when compared to those of her contemporaries is the sheer amount of text she devotes to descriptions of the Ainu in Hokkaido, or "Yezo." The Ainu are the indigenous people of not only the island of Hokkaido, but also the Sakhalin peninsula and the Kuril Islands that extend northeast towards Kamchatka. In the late-nineteenth century, as travel by steamer made far reaches of the world more accessible, Western explorers and budding anthropologists became enthralled with Ainu culture and theories of their genetic makeup. One dominant theory (that prevails even in Bird's text) is that the Ainu were not of Japanese or Asian descent, but were racially white. This notion caused an interesting push and pull between anthropologists, who were intent on preserving Ainu culture, and a Japan that was rapidly modernizing. The development of Hokkaido was part of this modernization project, and similar to manifest destiny in the United States, it was seen as a blank slate for the new Meiji government to test its new incorporation of Western knowledge and institutions.

Bird traveled the island of Hokkaido for roughly one month, winding her way around "Volcano Bay" (Uchiura Bay) to the town of Biratori. There she met with Chief Penri, who we know to be an actual historical figure by the name of Penriuku Hiramura (1833-1903), pictured on the right. "Chief Penri" or his relatives appear in many travelogues of the period. Having close connections to Anglican missionary John Batchelor, Penri was seen as an accessible resource for many travelers to the region, including Isabella Bird. After his death at the age of 72 (1903), a stone tablet commemorating his life was erected at the Yoshitsune Shrine, a sacred site for the Biratori Ainu, and a location that Penri showed Isabella Bird back in 1878.

Bird carefully describes the Ainu that she meets in Biratori and was often more complimentary of the men, who she saw as having the potential for civilization, than the women, who she perceived as superstitious. You can read the pop-up for Biratori below to see how Bird described one of the Ainu men, called Shinondi, in her own words. In Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, Bird also details their living arrangements, spiritual customs, weaving techniques, parenting customs, and occupations.

Bird's travel route is represented by a green line, but clicking on the small map pins will lead to you quotes and images found in Unbeaten Tracks in Japan where she speaks about specific locales. Clicking on the pin to Biratori will show you some of her reflections on Ainu culture.

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