X. An Inland Sea.
They had told us overnight that a small steamer plied every other day through Noto's unfamed inland sea, leaving the capital early in the morning, and touching shortly after at Wakura. As good luck would have it, the morrow happened not to be any other day, so we embraced the opportunity to embark in her ourselves. On her, it would be more accurate to say, for she proved such a mite that her cabin was barely possible and anything but desirable. By squatting down and craning my neck I peered in at the entrance, a feat which was difficult enough. She was, in truth, not much bigger than a ship's gig; but she had a soul out of all proportion to her size. The way it throbbed and strained and set her whole little frame quivering with excitement, made me think every moment that she was about to explode. The fact that she was manned exclusively by Japanese did not entirely reassure me.
There was an apology for a deck forward, to which, when we were well under way, I clambered over the other passengers. I was just sitting down there to enjoy a comfortable pipe when I was startlingly requested by a voice from a caboose behind to move off, as I was obscuring the view of the man at the wheel. After that I perched on the gunwale.
We steamed merrily out into the middle of the bay. The water was slumberously smooth, and under the tawny haze of the morning it shone with the sheen of burnished brass. From the gentle plowing of our bow it rolled lazily to one side, as if in truth it were molten metal. Land, at varying picturesque distances, lay on all sides of us. In some directions the shore was not more than a mile and a half off; in others, the eye wandered down a vista of water framed by low headlands for ten miles or more. But the atmosphere gave the dominant thought, a strange slumber-like seclusion. So rich and golden, it shut this little corner of the world in a sort of happy valley of its own, and the smoke from my pipe drifted dreamily astern, a natural incense to the spirits of the spot.
The passengers suggested anything, from a public picnic to an early exploration party. There were men, women and children of all ages and kinds, some stowed away in the cabin behind, some gathered in groups amidships; and those in the cabin thought small fry of those on deck. The cabin was considered the place of honor because the company made one pay a higher price for the privilege of its discomfort. Altogether it was a very pretty epitome of a voyage.
Just as the steamer people were preparing for their first landing, there detached itself from the background of trees along the shore the most singular aquatic structure I think I have ever seen. It looked like the skeleton of some antediluvian wigwam which a prehistoric roc had subsequently chosen for a nest. Four poles planted in the water inclined to one another at such an angle that they crossed three-quarters of the way up. The projecting quarters held in clutch a large wicker basket like the car of a balloon. Peering above the car was a man's head. As the occupant below slowly turned the head to keep an eye on us, it suggested, amid its web of poles, some mammoth spider lying in wait for its prey.
It was a matter of some wonder at first how the man got there, until the motion of the steamer turned the side and disclosed a set of cross poles lashed between two of the uprights, forming a rude sort of ladder. Curiosity, satisfied on this primary point, next asked why he got there. As this was a riddle to me, I propounded it to Yejiro, who only shook his head and propounded it to somebody else; a compliment to the inquiry certainly, if not to my choice of informant. This somebody else told him the man was fishing. Except for the immobility of the figure, I never saw a man look less like it in my life.
Such, however, was the fact. The wigwam was connected by strings to the entrance of a sort of weir, and the man who crouched in the basket was on the lookout for large fish, of a kind called bora. As soon as one of them strayed into the mouth of the net, the man pulled the string which closed the opening. The height of his observatory above the level of the water enabled him to see through it to the necessary depth. I am a trifle hazy over the exact details of the apparatus, as I never saw a fish inquisitive enough to go in; but I submit the existence of the fishermen in proof that it works.
Having deposited such wights as wished to go ashore - for the place was of no pretension - our steam fish once more turned its tail and darted us through some narrows into another bay. It must have been a favorite one with bora, as its shores were dotted with fish-lookouts. The observatories stood a few stone-throws out in deepish water, at presumably favorable points, and never very near one another, lest they should interfere with a possible catch. Some were inhabited, some not.
This bay was further remarkable for a solar halo which I chanced to see on glancing up at the sun. I suppose it was the singular quality of the light that first caused me to look overhead. For a thin veil of cloud had drawn over the blue and tempered the sunshine peculiarly. Of course one is familiar with caricatures of the thing in meteorological books; but the phenomenon itself is not so common, and the effect was uncanny. At the first glance it seemed a bit of Noto witchery, that strangely luminous circle around the sun. To admire the moon thus bonneted, as the Japanese say, is common enough, and befits the hour. But to have the halo of the night hung aloft in broad day is to crown sober noon with enchantment.