III. The Usui Pass.
The first object to catch my eye, when the shoji were pushed apart, the next morning, was a string of the ubiquitous paper fish, dangling limp in the motionless May air from a pole in a neighboring yard; highly suggestive of having just been caught for breakfast. The sight would have been painfully prophetic but for the food we had brought with us; for, of all meals, a Japanese breakfast is the most cold, the most watery, and the most generally fishy in the world. As it was, breakfast consisted of pathetic copies of consecrated originals. It might have been excellent but for the canned milk.
No doubt there are persons who are fond of canned milk; but, for my part, I loathe it. The effect of the sweetish glue upon my inner man is singularly nauseating. I have even been driven to drink my matutinal coffee in all its after-dinner strength rather than adulterate it with the mixture. You have, it is true, the choice of using the stuff as a dubious paste, or of mixing it with water into a non-committal wash; and, whichever plan you adopt, you wish you had adopted the other. Why it need be so unpalatably cloying is not clear to my mind. They tell me the sugar is needed to preserve the milk. I never could make out that it preserved anything but the sugar. Simply to see the stuff ooze out of the hole in the can is deterrent. It is enough to make one think seriously at times of adding a good milch cow to his already ample trip encumberment, at the certain cost of delaying the march, and the not improbable chance of being taken for an escaped lunatic. Indeed, to the Japanese mind, to be seen solemnly preceding a caravan of cattle for purposes of diet would certainly suggest insanity. For cows in Japan are never milked. Dairy products, consequently, are not to be had on the road, and the man who fancies milk, butter, or cheese must take them with him.
It used to be the same in Tokyo, but in these latter days a dairy has been started at Hakone, which supplies fresh butter to such Tokyoites as like it. One of my friends, who had been many years from home, was much taken with the new privilege, and called my attention to it with some pride. The result was a colorless lardy substance that looked like poor oleomargarine (not like good oleomargarine, for that looks like butter), but which was held in high esteem, nevertheless. My friend, indeed, seriously maintained to me once that such was the usual color of fresh butter, and insisted that the yellow hue common elsewhere must be the result of dyes. He was so positive on the point that he almost persuaded me, until I had left him and reason returned. It took me some time to recover from the pathos of the thing: a man so long deprived of that simple luxury that he had quite forgotten how it looked, and a set of cows utterly incapable, from desuetude, of producing it properly.
After I had duly swallowed as much as I could of the doubtful dose supposed to be cafe au lait, the cans were packed up again, and we issued from the inn to walk a stone's throw to the train.
Takasaki stands well toward the upper end of the plain, just below where the main body of it thrusts its arms out into the hills. Up one of these we were soon wending. Every minute the peaks came nearer, frowning at us from their crumbling volcanic crags. At last they closed in completely, standing round about in threatening pinnacles, and barring the way in front. At this, the train, contrary to the usual practice of trains in such seemingly impassable places, timidly drew up.
In truth, the railway comes to an end at the foot of the Usui toge (toge, meaning "pass"), after having wandered up, with more zeal than discretion, into a holeless pocket. Such untimely end was far from the original intention; for the line was meant for a through line along the Nakasendo from Tokyo to Kioto, and great things were expected of it. But the engineering difficulties at this point, and still more at the Wada toge, a little farther on, proving too great, the project was abandoned, and the through line built along the Tokaido instead. The idea, however, had got too much headway to be stayed. So it simply jumped the Usui toge, rolled down the Shinano valley, climbed another divide, and came out, at last, on the sea of Japan.
The hiatus caused by the Usui pass is got over by a horse railroad! Somehow, the mere idea seemed comic. A horse railroad in the heart of Japan over a pass a mile high! To have suddenly come upon the entire Comedie Francaise giving performances in a teahouse at the top could hardly have been more surprising. The humor of the thing was not a whit lessened by its looks.
To begin with, the cars were fairly natural. This was a masterly stroke in caricature, since it furnished the necessary foil to all that followed. They were not, to my eye, of any known species, but, with the exception of being evidently used to hard lines, they looked enough like trams to pass as such. Inside sat, in all seriousness, a wonderful cageful of Japanese. To say that they were not to the horse-car born conveys but a feeble notion of their unnaturalness. They were propped, rather than seated, bolt upright, with a decorum which would have done more than credit to a funeral. They did not smile; they did not even stir, except to screw their heads round to stare at me. They were dummies pure and simple, and may pass for the second item in the properties.