XIII. On the Noto Highway.
On the morrow morning we took the road in kuruma, the road proper, as Yejiro called it; for it was the main bond between Noto and the rest of Japan. This was the nearest approach it had to a proper name, a circumstance which showed it not to be of the first importance. For in Japan, all the old arteries of travel had distinctive names, the Nakasendo or Mid-Mountain road, the Tokaido or Eastern Sea road, and so forth. Like certain other country relations, their importance was due to their city connections, not to their own local magnitude. For, when well out of sight of the town, they do not hesitate to shrink to anything but imposing proportions. In mid career you might often doubt yourself to be on so celebrated a thoroughfare. But they are always delightful to the eye, as they wander through the country, now bosomed in trees among the mountains, now stalking between their own long files of pine, or cryptomeria, across the well-tilled plains. This one had but few sentinels to line it in the open, but lost little in picturesqueness for its lack of pomp. It was pretty enough to be very good company itself.
It was fairly patronized by wayfarers to delight the soul; cheerful bodies, who, though journeying for business, had plenty of time to be happy, and radiated content. Take it as you please, the Japanese people are among the very happiest on the face of the globe, which makes them among the most charming to meet.
Nothing notable beyond such pleasing generalities of path and people lay in our way, till we came to a place where a steep and perfectly smooth clay bank shot from a spur of the hills directly into the thoroughfare. Three urchins were industriously putting this to its proper use, coasting down it, that is, on the seats of what did them for breeches. An over-grown-up regard for my own trousers alone deterred me from instantly following suit. No such scruples prevented my abetting them, however, to the extent of a trifling bribe for a repetition. For they had stopped abashed as soon as they found they had a public. Regardless of maternal consequences, I thus encouraged the sport. But after all, was it so much a bribe as an entrance fee to the circus, or better yet, a sort of subsidy from an ex-member of the fraternity? Surely, if adverse physical circumstances preclude profession in person, the next best thing is to become a noble patron of art.
From this accidental instance, I judged that boys in Noto had about as good a time of it as boys elsewhere; the next sight we chanced upon made me think that possibly women did not. We had hardly parted from the coasters on dry ground when we met in the way with a lot of women harnessed to carts filled with various merchandise, which they were toilsomely dragging along towards Nanao. It was not so picturesque a sight as its sex might suggest. For though the women were naturally not aged, and some had not yet lost all comeliness of feature, this womanliness made the thing the more appealing. Noto was evidently no Eden, since the local Adam had thus contrived to shift upon the local Eve so large a fraction of the primal curse. It was as bad as the north of Germany. The female porters we had been offered on the threshold of the province were merely symptomatic of the state of things within. I wonder what my young Japanese friend, the new light, to whom I listened once on board ship, while he launched into a diatribe upon the jinrikisha question, the degrading practice, as he termed it, of using men for horses, - I wonder, I say, what he would have said to this! He was a quixotic youth, at the time returning from abroad, where he had picked up many new ideas. His proposed applications of them did him great credit, more than they are likely to win among the class for whom they were designed. A cent and two thirds a mile, to be had for the running for it, is as yet too glittering a prize to be easily foregone.
Of the travel in question, we were treated to forty-three miles' worth that day, by relays of runners. The old men fell off gradually, to be replaced by new ones, giving our advance the character of a wave, where the particles merely oscillated, but the motion went steadily on. The oscillations, however, were not insignificant in amount. Some of the men must have run their twenty-five miles or more, broken only by short halts; and this at a dog-trot, changed of course to a slower pull on bad bits, and when going up hill. A fine show of endurance, with all allowances. In this fashion we bowled along through a smiling agricultural landscape, relieved by the hills upon the left, and with the faintest suspicion, not amounting to a scent, of the sea out of sight on the right. The day grew more beautiful with every hour of its age. The blue depths above, tenanted by castles of cloud, granted fancy eminent domain to wander where she would. Even the road below gave free play to its caprice, and meandered like any stream inquisitively through the valley, visiting all the villages within reach, after a whimsical fashion of its own. All about it, meadows were tilling, and the whole landscape breathed an air of well-established age, amid the lustiness of youth. The very farmhouses looked to have grown where they stood, as indeed the upper part of them had. For from the thatch of their roofs, deep bedded in mud, sprang all manner of plants that made of the eaves gardens in the air. The ridgepoles stood transformed into beds of flowers; their long tufts of grass waved in the wind, the blossoms nodding their heads amicably to the passers-by. What a contented folk this should be whose very homes can so vegetate! Surely a pretty conceit it is for a peasantry thus to sleep every night under the sod, and yet awake each morning to life again!