A Japanese Boy / Shigemi Shiukichi / Ch-5


CHAPTER V.

When the close of a day called me home from school, and my father's work was done, a sense of contentment and repose brooded over our household. A vigorous scrub at a public bath often gave our tired bodies a renewed muscular tone. I accompanied my father to this resort; when I was very young, my mother carried me thither. The bath-house is a private establishment of its proprietor, and public in the sense that towns-people betake themselves to it without restraint. The charge is only a few mills for the adult, half the amount for the child and nothing for the suckling. If a number of checks (branded, flat pieces of wood) be purchased at one time, the average charge is still less. In Imabari there are a dozen or more of these baths; they mostly occupy the corners of the streets like American drug stores. They are opened from late in the afternoon till late at night; on holidays accommodation baths are ready at early daybreak. As soon as a bath is in readiness, its keeper places a flag at the eaves, in the daytime, and a square, paper lantern after dusk. At the entrance is a stand, where you deposit your fare, and exchange a word on the weather with the keeper if you are neighborly. Advancing a few steps, you leave your clogs on a low platform, on the sides of which rise tiers of lockers for clothes. You must bring your own towels; ladies also take with them little cotton bags of rice-bran. They close the bags tightly with strings, soak them in hot water and rub their faces and hands with the wet balls. The process is said to refine the texture of the skin wonderfully.

The bath proper is a great, covered tank, full of hot water, with a terrace-work of planks sloping down on the four sides, where you sit and wash. The ceiling is low enough to bump your head unless you are cautious; it projects forward and stoops to prevent the steam from escaping unnecessarily; therefore, even when it is lighted within, it is twilight, owing to the confined vapor. One feels in it as if working in a mine or tunnel. Older men discuss town topics and business, and young men hum popular airs as they bathe, and intimate friends press each other to rub down their backs. The water is kept warm by a huge metallic heater behind, which is in communication with the tank but covered with planks so as not to scald the bathers' feet. In case the water proves too hot, the bathers consult each other's comfort courteously, and one of them claps his hands. It is answered by a sound at the entrance stand, and immediately cold water spouts into the tank. Then the men stir the tank thoroughly on all sides. Being but a child I took great delight in the excitement. I would creep up to the hole and plug it with my wet towel, and after a few minutes pull it out abruptly to see the water spurt forth with redoubled energy. The wall has usually a small door; pushing it open the fireman peeps in occasionally, when there is too much noise. The first time I noticed it, I was almost scared out of my wits; for, happening to look around, I saw on the dim wall a grim human head staring me in the face.

Between the tank and the floor is a space paved with large, flat, rectangular stones and cemented with mortar, where the people who think it too close in the tank can step out and wash, sitting on long, narrow benches; in some baths this place is overlaid with planks in such a manner that water can trickle down between them. Here we may use soap, but not in the tank. Several small wooden tubs are near at hand; with them we pour the hot water over our body after rubbing, and in them we give our towels a final clean-water washing when through using them. The clear, cold water for the latter purpose is constantly bubbling up in a shallow, well-like enclosure hard by. A couple of dippers float in it, and the people also drink of the water, if thirsty. In well-regulated baths, near the cold-water enclosure is a hot water cistern, constantly fed through a bamboo pipe with boiling water that has not been used. People of cleanly habits, on emerging from the common tank, dip out this fresh, warm water and bathe again. Of course, it would be objectionable to retain the same water in the tank all day and have people bathe in it over and over; as a matter of fact, a portion of it is drawn off at intervals and replaced with a fresh supply.

The ladies' side is precisely the same in arrangement as the gentlemen's; a partition, however, separates them completely.

If you meet a man on the street in Japan with a wet towel hanging on his shoulder, he is from the public bath. He wears no hat even in sallying forth into the open air from the confined atmosphere, walks leisurely along, dragging the high clogs and feeling thoroughly comfortable. In summer evenings, while maidens, mothers and children are cooling themselves in the breeze on movable platforms in front of their residences, young men from the bath come strolling up, inquire politely after their health and make themselves agreeable. As the after-bath garment and towel are to be thus exhibited before the eyes of their admirers new fashions arise every year in regard to them. The fashion changes not so much in tailoring as in the color and pattern.

We are not without private baths, too. Large aristocratic families are all provided with them. The bath-house is usually fitted up in a wing at the back of the building; in it a tub large enough to admit a person in a squatting position is placed on a caldron. The loose wooden bottom of the tub is left floating while the water boils, serving as the cover; it is fastened afterward. The head of the family goes in first; after him, his wife; then come their children, beginning with the eldest; after them follow the domestics, ranged according to their relative importance.

Evenings at home were always spent very pleasantly, especially before my sisters were married and went away. There were four of them, excluding the eldest who had left us a good while ago, but used to visit us, and add to our gayety. What did we do to enjoy ourselves? We had music and dancing very often, singing, of course, parties to which our best friends came, games of cards, social chat and fireside talk—whatever goes to make home attractive. Mother took great interest in them herself; she chaperoned the girls—we had young ladies of the neighborhood come to us, and our house was looked upon as one of the social foci of little Imabari. But a reverse in my father's fortune and frequent change of abode put an end to those happy days of yore.

Japanese dancing, I declare without prejudice, is more elaborate and graceful than your round and square dances, but may not be as fascinating; ladies and gentlemen do not dance together. Moreover, our dancing is not anything that can be picked up at balls and receptions, nor is it learned by hopping and skipping at the dancing academy. In fact, it is not the simple keeping time with music, not repetitions of the same steps over and over again; it is composed of posturing and is more like acting, though the manœuvres are predetermined, in regular order, and not left to the dancer's fancy. Here in America dancing is easily acquired by persons who have an ear for music and grace of carriage, and after having learned to waltz "elegantly" or "divinely" they have practically mastered all other figures. In Japan, each figure is emphatically a new one, and there are many, many figures with distinct names; one cannot learn them all—each figure requires a separate effort for its mastery. A dance lasts twenty minutes or more; scarcely two steps in it seem alike. In learning a Japanese dance one begins with little tosses of the head, engaging sways of the body and easy movements of the extremities.

Many young girls of the town practised the primary exercises in our house; they came to ask assistance of my second sister, who excelled the rest in dancing. I see her vivacious figure trip up to a beginner, who struck an awkward attitude, and correct a twist of the neck as the barber and the photographer fix their customers' heads. She taught my youngest sister very thoroughly in all the dances she knew, and after that mother put Mitsu (that is the name of my little sister) under the special tuition of a lady who had just then arrived from Osaka, a great centre of enjoyment and politeness. The dancing mistress had a very pretty adopted daughter who assisted her, and they together aroused enthusiasm among the people of Imabari in the art of grace. A society formed itself naturally with the lady as the nucleus, and a scheme was projected for a public exhibition of dances. The parents of the dancing children manifested more zeal than the children themselves. As they came in for it with willing heart and liberal hand, the scheme was pushed forward with surprising rapidity. A mammoth curtain was made that was to be hoisted in the theatre where the brilliant events were to take place; it had painted on it numerous big fans, and on the fans were written the names of the members. My big brother was busily engaged in painting scenes and constructing apparatus, my sisters were diligently selecting stage dresses for Mitsu. And then the young ladies met in our place to rehearse the dances, songs and instrumental music, that made us still more agreeably busy. Weeks were spent in preparation; and when it came off at last, the entertainment was a grand affair continuing for several days; the town turned out in a body. It was more like successful theatricals than anything, and was repeated once or twice afterwards, with the substitution for the former dances of many equally classical pieces.

All the dances are accompanied by songs and instruments. The instrument most commonly used is the samisen; it looks somewhat like a banjo, but is much larger and has a square body instead of a round one; the wood-work is of mahogany. In playing it the touching is not done with the fingers, but with a plectrum of ivory. The samisen is capable of giving out both the mellow notes of the guitar and the sharp tone-sprays of the banjo. You hear it played in Japanese homes to the same extent as the piano is in this country. We had in our family two or three samisens, and every day my sisters practised on them.

Other instruments of music are the koto, the tsuzumi and the drum. The koto is a heavy, thirteen-stringed instrument, of which by mere description I can hardly give an idea. The player sits before it, and with claws fitted to the fingers of both hands plays at the two ends. The tsuzumi is an hour-glass-shaped drum which is tapped with the right hand. Two tsuzumis are frequently played by a single person; a light tsuzumi is laid on the right shoulder and held by the left hand, and a heavy tsuzumi is rested on the left knee slightly elevated and pressed down with the left elbow; the right hand is free to move between the two tsuzumis which it beats. The light tsuzumi emits a soft tone, the heavy one a deep sound. The stroke, unless skillfully performed, often inflicts a violent injury to the fingers. The vellum of the tsuzumi is of fox skin and yellow in color, that of the samisen is of cat skin and white as snow. The drum is not the sort drubbed in a military band; it is smaller and more moderate in its intonation.

These instruments,—the koto, samisen, taiko (drum) and tsuzumi are frequently played in concert; the samisen players—two of them, at any rate, to one of the others—sing in high pitch while their supple fingers twinkle across the chords; the taiko and tsuzumi beaters shriek now and then as they thrum and whack. Do I like it? Isn't it hideous? Well, I can't say how it would strike me now; yet I used to think it all very fine.

There is another stringed instrument, a ridiculously simple one that I liked best. It is named ichigecckin.[1] A plain board, a few feet in length, and a few inches in width, with no other ornament than half a dozen Chinese characters written on it to indicate the various keys: only a single string along the whole length; a bamboo ring for the middle finger of the left hand to touch on the keys; and a small flat piece of horn to pick the string with: these make up an ichigecckin. The origin of this unpretentious instrument is said to be as follows: a high court noble of amiable disposition and poetic temperament on his way southward from the ancient palace in Kioto, years ago, was obliged to moor near the beautiful shores of Akashi on account of a heavy storm. The sea tossed about his boat; the sky stretched gray; the thatch overhead became soaked in the rain; the wind sighed among the pines on the deserted shore. A sense of loneliness weighed on his gentle nature. The fading landscape in the dusk, the mournful cry of a sea-gull, the sight of a boat miles away laboring in the waves, peradventure laden with lives—all conspired to produce in him a sadness more than human. In order to beguile his ennui, he constructed himself a rude musical instrument with a board and string, and poured out the feelings of the hour in many a celebrated tune. The ichigecckin music is low and simple and sweet. On rainy nights, when the candle burns dim and all is quiet, I feel most in the mood to listen.


[1]in today's known spelling: ichigenkin (transcriber)

Japanese music is in a crude state of development; there are no written notes to go by in playing, nor in singing is there any system like your "Do, Re, Mi, etc," to depend upon. As yet it is strictly an art and not a science; one is obliged to get it by observation, imitation and practice. Music is taught by lady teachers; but a set of blind men, who perform massage for a livelihood, take scholars, likewise. They have their heads shaved, walk abroad alone, feeling their way with sticks; some of them have been to Osaka and Kioto for a musical degree, conferred on them in certain schools. In Japan music is not divided into the vocal and the instrumental; the two are always taught together by the same instructor.

Vocal cultivation is conducted in a singular way. During the winter the girl in training clothes herself comfortably, takes a samisen and ascends every cold night the scaffold erected on the roof of the house for drying purposes. There she sits for hours together amid the howling blasts, singing defiantly and banging away courageously at the samisen. Upon her coming down, she is found worse than hoarse; she can hardly utter a word. The training is observed persistently until her former voice has entirely left her and gradually a clear new voice, as it were, breaks out in the harshness. This voice can stand a storm. The discipline is now over, a little care needs only to be exercised in the maintenance of the acquired voice. The practice, I am well aware, will hardly commend itself to the gentlewomen of this republic, who are wrapped all winter long in furs and seal-skins and would not think for a moment of leaving the chimney corner. In my fancy I hear them repel it with their passionate "What an idea!" Therefore, I conclude it prudent to say nothing in praise of the barbarous measure, and simply state the plain fact that it has produced many an Apollo in Japan. In the other seasons of the year, after having screamed out her worthless voice, the girl takes a dose of pulverized ginger and sugar to tone up the vocal chords.

I digressed from dancing to music; now I wish to return to dancing again for a few moments. In parlor gatherings and sociables light pieces are presented; and such small things as fans, towels, masks, umbrellas, bells, tambourines only are used in dancing. Fans are most commonly used, many astonishing tricks being played with them. The guests sit in a body off the arena, where the dancer steps out; the samisen player tunes the instrument on one side. The preliminary chords ring; then come the words in song, and in accordance with them the actions of the dancer. The dances intended for the stage are much more elaborate. Scenes are to be fitted up; varieties of gew-gaws,—artificial flowers, falling paper snow, fallen woolly-cotton snow, painted waves, the outline of a boat, a lantern moon, a gilded paper crown, baskets, shells, a wooden scythe, a toy tub, high clogs, yards of white silk, etc., etc.,—are to be procured. These vain, empty articles rise up in my mind, for I used to see them stowed away in the dusty garret. They were jostled about by other things, lay in everybody's way, became mutilated, and fully repaid the glory they had received one night behind the foot-lights. We have spent time and money in getting them up, however; certain things we have even sent for to Osaka or Kioto. I remember seeing my sister practise day after day dancing with the aforementioned long white silk scarfs. The dance was to represent the process of bleaching by a famous maiden (named Okané) who dwelt beside Lake Biwa. Of all sorts of waves and undulations and flutterings she had to produce with them I recollect one:—it is to shake one scarf right and left horizontally overhead, and the other up and down longitudinally in front. Try it with your hands and see, reader: you will find it no easy task. In the stage dances the dancers must dress true to the conceptions of the characters they undertake to represent. This necessitates a large wardrobe, though the gorgeous costumes are generally made of cheap materials, and the aid of artificial lights is expected to finish off the effects. The face of the dancer is usually painted, but not so much so as that of a professional actress. The whole affair, however, savors strongly of stage-play. Several persons sometimes dance together, carry on dialogues and, indeed, dance part of a play or drama.

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