We were now come more than half-way from sea to sea, and we were still in the thick of Europeanization. So far we had traveled in the track of the comic. For if Japan seems odd for what it is, it seems odder for what it is no longer.
One of the things which imitation of Western ways is annihilating is distance. Japan, like the rest of the world, is shrinking. This was strikingly brought home that afternoon. A few short hours of shifting panorama, a varying foreground of valley that narrowed or widened like the flow of the stream that had made it, peaks that opened and shut on one another like the changing flies in some spectacular play, and we had compassed two days' worth of old-time travel when a man made every foot of ground his own, and were drawing near Zenkoji.
I was glad to be there; hardly as glad to be there so soon. There are lands made to be skimmed, tame samenesses of plain or weary wastes of desert, where even the iron horse gallops too slow. Japan is not one of them. A land which Nature herself has already crumpled into its smallest compass, and then covered with vegetation rich as velvet, is no land to hurry over. One may well linger where each mile builds the scenery afresh. And in this world, whose civilization grows at the expense of the picturesque, it is something to see a culture that knows how least to mar.
Upon this mood of unsatisfied satisfaction my night fell, and shortly after the train rolled into the Zenkoji station, amid a darkness deepened by falling rain. The passengers bundled out. The station looked cheerless enough. But from across the open space in front shone a galaxy of light. A crowd of tea-houses posted on the farther side had garlanded themselves all over with lanterns, each trying to outvie its neighbor in apparent hospitality. The display was perceptibly of pecuniary intent; but still it was grateful. To be thought worth catching partakes, after all, of the nature of a compliment. What was not so gratifying was the embarrassment of choice that followed; for each of these gayly beckoning caravansaries proved to be a catch-pilgrim for its inn up-town. Being on a hill, Zenkoji is not by way of easy approach by train; and the pilgrims to it are legion. In order, therefore, to anticipate the patronage of unworthy rivals, each inn has felt obliged to be personally represented on the spot.
The one for which mine host of Takasaki had, with his blessing, made me a note turned out so poorly prefaced that I hesitated. The extreme zeal on the part of its proprietor to book me made me still more doubtful. So, sending Yejiro off to scout, I walked to and fro, waiting. I did not dare sit down on the sill of any of the booths, for fear of committing myself.
While he was still away searching vainly for the proper inn, the lights were suddenly all put out. At the same fatal moment the jinrikisha, of which a minute before there had seemed to be plenty, all mysteriously vanished. By one fell stroke there was no longer either end in sight nor visible means of reaching it.
"In the street of by and by Stands the hostelry of never,"
as a rondel of Henley's hath it; but not every one has the chance to see the Spanish proverb so literally fulfilled. There we were - nowhere. I think I never suffered a bitterer change of mood in my life.
At last, after some painful groping in the dark, and repeated resolves to proceed on foot to the town and summon help, I chanced to stumble upon a stray kuruma, which had incautiously returned, under cover of the darkness, to the scene of its earlier exploits. I secured it on the spot, and by it was trundled across a bit of the plain and up the long hill crowned by the town, to the pleasing jingle of a chime of rings hung somewhere out of sight beneath the body of the vehicle. When the trundler asked where to drop me, I gave at a venture the name that sounded the best, only to be sure of having guessed awry when he drew up before the inn it designated. The existence of a better was legible on the face of it. We pushed on.
Happily the hostelries were mostly in one quarter, the better to keep an eye on one another; for in the course of the next ten minutes I suppose we visited nearly every inn in the place. The choice was not a whit furthered by the change from the outposts to the originals. At last, however, I got so far in decision as to pull off my boots, - an act elsewhere as well, I believe, considered an acquiescence in fate, - and suffered myself to be led through the house, along the indoor piazza of polished board exceeding slippery, up several breakneck, ladder-like stairways even more polished and frictionless, round some corners dark as a dim andon (a feeble tallow candle blinded by a paper box), placed so as not to light the turn, could make them, until finally we emerged on the third story, a height that itself spoke for the superiority of the inn, and I was ushered into what my bewildered fancy instantly pictured a mediaeval banqueting hall. It conjured up the idea on what I must own to have been insufficient grounds, namely, a plain deal table and a set of questionably made, though rather gaudily upholstered chairs. But chairs, in a land whose people have from time immemorial found their own feet quite good enough to sit on, were so unexpected a luxury, even after our Takasaki experience, that they may be pardoned for suggesting any flight of fancy.