Chapter Ten. At Mionoseki

Seki wa yoi toko, Asahi wo ukete; O-Yama arashiga Soyo-soyoto! (SONG OF MIONOSEKI.)

[Seki is a goodly place, facing the morning sun. There, from the holy mountains, the winds blow softly, softly - soyosoyoto.]


THE God of Mionoseki hates eggs, hen's eggs. Likewise he hates hens and chickens, and abhors the Cock above all living creatures. And in Mionoseki there are no cocks or hens or chickens or eggs. You could not buy a hen's egg in that place even for twenty times its weight in gold.

And no boat or junk or steamer could be hired to convey to Mionoseki so much as the feather of a chicken, much less an egg. Indeed, it is even held that if you have eaten eggs in the morning you must not dare to visit Mionoseki until the following day. For the great deity of Mionoseki is the patron of mariners and the ruler of storms; and woe unto the vessel which bears unto his shrine even the odour of an egg.

Once the tiny steamer which runs daily from Matsue to Mionoseki encountered some unexpectedly terrible weather on her outward journey, just after reaching the open sea. The crew insisted that something displeasing to Koto-shiro-nushi-no-Kami must have been surreptitiously brought on board. All the passengers were questioned in vain. Suddenly the captain discerned upon the stem of a little brass pipe which one of the men was smoking, smoking in the face of death, like a true Japanese, the figure of a crowing cock! Needless to say, that pipe was thrown overboard. Then the angry sea began to grow calm; and the little vessel safely steamed into the holy port, and cast anchor before the great torii of the shrine of the god!


Concerning the reason why the Cock is thus detested by the Great Deity of Mionoseki, and banished from his domain, divers legends are told; but the substance of all of them is about as follows: As we read in the Kojiki, Koto-shiro-nushi-no-Kami, Son of the Great Deity of Kitsuki, was wont to go to Cape Miho, [1] 'to pursue birds and catch fish.' And for other reasons also he used to absent himself from home at night, but had always to return before dawn. Now, in those days the Cock was his trusted servant, charged with the duty of crowing lustily when it was time for the god to return. But one morning the bird failed in its duty; and the god, hurrying back in his boat, lost his oars, and had to paddle with his hands; and his hands were bitten by the wicked fishes.

Now the people of Yasugi, a pretty little town on the lagoon of Naka- umi, through which we pass upon our way to Mionoseki, most devoutly worship the same Koto-shiro-nushi-no-Kami; and nevertheless in Yasugi there are multitudes of cocks and hens and chickens; and the eggs of Yasugi cannot be excelled for size and quality. And the people of Yasugi aver that one may better serve the deity by eating eggs than by doing as the people of Mionoseki do; for whenever one eats a chicken or devours an egg, one destroys an enemy of Koto-shiro-nushi-no-Kami.


From Matsue to Mionoseki by steamer is a charming journey in fair weather. After emerging from the beautiful lagoon of Naka-umi into the open sea, the little packet follows the long coast of Izumo to the left. Very lofty this coast is, all cliffs and hills rising from the sea, mostly green to their summits, and many cultivated in terraces, so as to look like green pyramids of steps. The bases of the cliffs are very rocky; and the curious wrinklings and corrugations of the coast suggest the work of ancient volcanic forces. Far away to the right, over blue still leagues of sea, appears the long low shore of Hoki, faint as a mirage, with its far beach like an endless white streak edging the blue level, and beyond it vapoury lines of woods and cloudy hills, and over everything, looming into the high sky, the magnificent ghostly shape of Daisen, snow-streaked at its summit.

So for perhaps an hour we steam on, between Hoki and Izumo; the rugged and broken green coast on our left occasionally revealing some miniature hamlet sheltered in a wrinkle between two hills; the phantom coast on the right always unchanged. Then suddenly the little packet whistles, heads for a grim promontory to port, glides by its rocky foot, and enters one of the prettiest little bays imaginable, previously concealed from view. A shell-shaped gap in the coast - a semicircular basin of clear deep water, framed in by high corrugated green hills, all wood- clad. Around the edge of the bay the quaintest of little Japanese cities, Mionoseki.

There is no beach, only a semicircle of stone wharves, and above these the houses, and above these the beautiful green of the sacred hills, with a temple roof or two showing an angle through the foliage. From the rear of each house steps descend to deep water; and boats are moored at all the back-doors. We moor in front of the great temple, the Miojinja. Its great paved avenue slopes to the water's edge, where boats are also moored at steps of stone; and looking up the broad approach, one sees a grand stone torii, and colossal stone lanterns, and two magnificent sculptured lions, karashishi, seated upon lofty pedestals, and looking down upon the people from a height of fifteen feet or more. Beyond all this the walls and gate of the outer temple court appear, and beyond them, the roofs of the great haiden, and the pierced projecting cross- beams of the loftier Go-Miojin, the holy shrine itself, relieved against the green of the wooded hills. Picturesque junks are lying in ranks at anchor; there are two deep-sea vessels likewise, of modern build, ships from Osaka. And there is a most romantic little breakwater built of hewn stone, with a stone lantern perched at the end of it; and there is a pretty humped bridge connecting it with a tiny island on which I see a shrine of Benten, the Goddess of Waters.

I wonder if I shall be able to get any eggs!


Unto the pretty waiting maiden of the inn Shimaya I put this scandalous question, with an innocent face but a remorseful heart:

'Ano ne! tamago wa arimasenka?'

With the smile of a Kwannon she makes reply:-'He! Ahiru-no tamago-ga sukoshi gozarimasu.'

Delicious surprise!

There augustly exist eggs - of ducks!

But there exist no ducks. For ducks could not find life worth living in a city where there is only deep-sea water. And all the ducks' eggs come from Sakai.


This pretty little hotel, whose upper chambers overlook the water, is situated at one end, or nearly at one end, of the crescent of Mionoseki, and the Miojinja almost at the other, so that one must walk through the whole town to visit the temple, or else cross the harbour by boat. But the whole town is well worth seeing. It is so tightly pressed between the sea and the bases of the hills that there is only room for one real street; and this is so narrow that a man could anywhere jump from the second story of a house upon the water-side into the second story of the opposite house upon the land-side. And it is as picturesque as it is narrow, with its awnings and polished balconies and fluttering figured draperies. From this main street several little ruelles slope to the water's edge, where they terminate in steps; and in all these miniature alleys long boats are lying, with their prows projecting over the edge of the wharves, as if eager to plunge in. The temptation to take to the water I find to be irresistible: before visiting the Miojinja I jump from the rear of our hotel into twelve feet of limpid sea, and cool myself by a swim across the harbour.

On the way to Miojinja, I notice, in multitudes of little shops, fascinating displays of baskets and utensils made of woven bamboo. Fine bamboo-ware is indeed the meibutsu, the special product of Mionoseki; and almost every visitor buys some nice little specimen to carry home with him.

The Miojinja is not in its architecture more remarkable than ordinary Shinto temples in Izumo; nor are its interior decorations worth describing in detail. Only the approach to it over the broad sloping space of level pavement, under the granite torii, and between the great lions and lamps of stone, is noble. Within the courts proper there is not much to be seen except a magnificent tank of solid bronze, weighing tons, which must have cost many thousands of yen. It is a votive offering. Of more humble ex-votos, there is a queer collection in the shamusho or business building on the right of the haiden: a series of quaintly designed and quaintly coloured pictures, representing ships in great storms, being guided or aided to port by the power of Koto-shiro- nushi-no-Kami. These are gifts from ships.

The ofuda are not so curious as those of other famous Izumo temples; but they are most eagerly sought for. Those strips of white paper, bearing the deity's name, and a few words of promise, which are sold for a few rin, are tied to rods of bamboo, and planted in all the fields of the country roundabout. The most curious things sold are tiny packages of rice-seeds. It is alleged that whatever you desire will grow from these rice-seeds, if you plant them uttering a prayer. If you desire bamboos, cotton-plants, peas, lotus-plants, or watermelons, it matters not; only plant the seed and believe, and the desired crop will arise.


Much more interesting to me than the ofuda of the Miojinja are the yoraku, the pendent ex-votos in the Hojinji, a temple of the Zen sect which stands on the summit of the beautiful hill above the great Shinto shrine. Before an altar on which are ranged the images of the Thirty-three Kwannons, the thirty-three forms of that Goddess of Mercy who represents the ideal of all that is sweet and pure in the Japanese maiden, a strange, brightly coloured mass of curious things may be seen, suspended from the carven ceiling. There are hundreds of balls of worsted and balls of cotton thread of all colours; there are skeins of silk and patterns of silk weaving and of cotton weaving; there are broidered purses in the shape of sparrows and other living creatures; there are samples of bamboo plaiting and countless specimens of needlework. All these are the votive offerings of school children, little girls only, to the Maid-mother of all grace and sweetness and pity. So soon as a baby girl learns something in the way of woman 's work - sewing, or weaving, or knitting, or broidering, she brings her first successful effort to the temple as an offering to the gentle divinity, 'whose eyes are beautiful,' she 'who looketh down above the sound of prayer.' Even the infants of the Japanese kindergarten bring their first work here - pretty paper-cuttings, scissored out and plaited into divers patterns by their own tiny flower-soft hands.


Very sleepy and quiet by day is Mionoseki: only at long intervals one hears laughter of children, or the chant of oarsmen rowing the most extraordinary boats I ever saw outside of the tropics; boats heavy as barges, which require ten men to move them. These stand naked to the work, wielding oars with cross-handles (imagine a letter T with the lower end lengthened out into an oar-blade). And at every pull they push their feet against the gunwales to give more force to the stroke; intoning in every pause a strange refrain of which the soft melancholy calls back to me certain old Spanish Creole melodies heard in West Indian waters:

A-ra-ho-no-san-no-sa, Iya-ho-en-ya! 

The chant begins with a long high note, and descends by fractional tones with almost every syllable, and faints away a last into an almost indistinguishable hum. Then comes the stroke, 'Ghi! - ghi!'

But at night Mionoseki is one of the noisiest and merriest little havens of Western Japan. From one horn of its crescent to the other the fires of the shokudai, which are the tall light of banquets, mirror themselves in the water; and the whole air palpitates with sounds of revelry. Everywhere one hears the booming of the tsudzumi, the little hand-drums of the geisha, and sweet plaintive chants of girls, and tinkling of samisen, and the measured clapping of hands in the dance, and the wild cries and laughter of the players at ken. And all these are but echoes of the diversions of sailors. Verily, the nature of sailors differs but little the world over. Every good ship which visits Mionoseki leaves there, so I am assured, from three hundred to five hundred yen for sake and for dancing-girls. Much do these mariners pray the Great Deity who hates eggs to make calm the waters and favourable the winds, so that Mionoseki may be reached in good time without harm. But having come hither over an unruffled sea with fair soft breezes all the way, small indeed is the gift which they give to the temple of the god, and marvellously large the sums which they pay unto geisha and keepers of taverns. But the god is patient and longsuffering - except in the matter of eggs.

However, these Japanese seamen are very gentle compared with our own Jack Tars, and not without a certain refinement and politeness of their own. I see them sitting naked to the waist at their banquets; for it is very hot, but they use their chopsticks as daintily and pledge each other in sake almost as graciously as men of a better class. Likewise they seem to treat their girls very kindly. It is quite pleasant to watch them feasting across the street. Perhaps their laughter is somewhat more boisterous and their gesticulation a little more vehement than those of the common citizens; but there is nothing resembling real roughness - much less rudeness. All become motionless and silent as statues - fifteen fine bronzes ranged along the wall of the zashiki, [2] - when some pretty geisha begins one of those histrionic dances which, to the Western stranger, seem at first mysterious as a performance of witchcraft - but which really are charming translations of legend and story into the language of living grace and the poetry of woman's smile. And as the wine flows, the more urbane becomes the merriment - until there falls upon all that pleasant sleepiness which sake brings, and the guests, one by one, smilingly depart. Nothing could be happier or gentler than their evening's joviality - yet sailors are considered in Japan an especially rough class. What would be thought of our own roughs in such a country?

Well, I have been fourteen months in Izumo; and I have not yet heard voices raised in anger, or witnessed a quarrel: never have I seen one man strike another, or a woman bullied, or a child slapped. Indeed I have never seen any real roughness anywhere that I have been in Japan, except at the open ports, where the poorer classes seem, through contact with Europeans, to lose their natural politeness, their native morals - even their capacity for simple happiness.


Last night I saw the seamen of Old Japan: to-day I shall see those of New Japan. An apparition in the offing has filled all this little port with excitement - an Imperial man-of-war. Everybody is going out to look at her; and all the long boats that were lying in the alleys are already hastening, full of curious folk, to the steel colossus. A cruiser of the first class, with a crew of five hundred.

I take passage in one of those astounding craft I mentioned before - a sort of barge propelled by ten exceedingly strong naked men, wielding enormous oars - or rather, sweeps - with cross-handles. But I do not go alone: indeed I can scarcely find room to stand, so crowded the boat is with passengers of all ages, especially women who are nervous about going to sea in an ordinary sampan. And a dancing-girl jumps into the crowd at the risk of her life, just as we push off - and burns her arm against my cigar in the jump. I am very sorry for her; but she laughs merrily at my solicitude. And the rowers begin their melancholy somnolent song-

A-ra-ho-no-san-no-sa, Iya-ho-en-ya! 

It is a long pull to reach her - the beautiful monster, towering motionless there in the summer sea, with scarce a curling of thin smoke from the mighty lungs of her slumbering engines; and that somnolent song of our boatmen must surely have some ancient magic in it; for by the time we glide alongside I feel as if I were looking at a dream. Strange as a vision of sleep, indeed, this spectacle: the host of quaint craft hovering and trembling around that tremendous bulk; and all the long- robed, wide-sleeved multitude of the antique port - men, women, children - the grey and the young together - crawling up those mighty flanks in one ceaseless stream, like a swarming of ants. And all this with a great humming like the humming of a hive, - a sound made up of low laughter, and chattering in undertones, and subdued murmurs of amazement. For the colossus overawes them - this ship of the Tenshi-Sama, the Son of Heaven; and they wonder like babies at the walls and the turrets of steel, and the giant guns and the mighty chains, and the stern bearing of the white-uniformed hundreds looking down upon the scene without a smile, over the iron bulwarks. Japanese those also - yet changed by some mysterious process into the semblance of strangers. Only the experienced eye could readily decide the nationality of those stalwart marines: but for the sight of the Imperial arms in gold, and the glimmering ideographs upon the stern, one might well suppose one's self gazing at some Spanish or Italian ship-of-war manned by brown Latin men.

I cannot possibly get on board. The iron steps are occupied by an endless chain of clinging bodies - blue-robed boys from school, and old men with grey queues, and fearless young mothers holding fast to the ropes with over-confident babies strapped to their backs, and peasants, and fishers, and dancing-girls. They are now simply sticking there like flies: somebody-has told them they must wait fifteen minutes. So they wait with smiling patience, and behind them in the fleet of high-prowed boats hundreds more wait and wonder. But they do not wait for fifteen minutes! All hopes are suddenly shattered by a stentorian announcement from the deck: 'Mo jikan ga naikara, miseru koto dekimasen!' The monster is getting up steam - going away: nobody else will be allowed to come on board. And from the patient swarm of clingers to the hand-ropes, and the patient waiters in the fleet of boats, there goes up one exceedingly plaintive and prolonged 'Aa!' of disappointment, followed by artless reproaches in Izumo dialect: 'Gun-jin wa uso iwanuka to omoya!- uso-tsuki dana! - aa! so dana!' ('War-people-as-for-lies-never-say-that- we-thought! - Aa-aa-aa!') Apparently the gunjin are accustomed to such scenes; for they do not even smile.

But we linger near the cruiser to watch the hurried descent of the sightseers into their boats, and the slow ponderous motion of the chain- cables ascending, and the swarming of sailors down over the bows to fasten and unfasten mysterious things. One, bending head-downwards, drops his white cap; and there is a race of boats for the honour of picking it up. A marine leaning over the bulwarks audibly observes to a comrade: 'Aa! gwaikojn dana! - nani ski ni kite iru daro?' - The other vainly suggests: 'Yasu-no-senkyoshi daro.' My Japanese costume does not disguise the fact that I am an alien; but it saves me from the imputation of being a missionary. I remain an enigma. Then there are loud cries of 'Abunail' - if the cruiser were to move now there would be swamping and crushing and drowning unspeakable. All the little boats scatter and flee away.

Our ten naked oarsmen once more bend to their cross-handled oars, and recommence their ancient melancholy song. And as we glide back, there comes to me the idea of the prodigious cost of that which we went forth to see, the magnificent horror of steel and steam and all the multiple enginery of death - paid for by those humble millions who toil for ever knee-deep in the slime of rice-fields, yet can never afford to eat their own rice! Far cheaper must be the food they live upon; and nevertheless, merely to protect the little that they own, such nightmares must be called into existence - monstrous creations of science mathematically applied to the ends of destruction.

How delightful Mionoseki now seems, drowsing far off there under its blue tiles at the feet of the holy hills! - immemorial Mionoseki, with its lamps and lions of stone, and its god who hates eggs! - pretty fantastic Mionoseki, where all things, save the schools, are medieval still: the high-pooped junks, and the long-nosed boats, and the plaintive chants of oarsmen!

A-ra-ho-no-san-no-sa, Iya-ho-en-ya! 

And we touch the mossed and ancient wharves of stone again: over one mile of lucent sea we have floated back a thousand years! I turn to look at the place of that sinister vision - and lo! - there is nothing there! Only the level blue of the flood under the hollow blue of the sky - and, just beyond the promontory, one far, small white speck: the sail of a junk. The horizon is naked. Gone! - but how soundlessly, how swiftly! She makes nineteen knots. And, oh! Koto-shiro-nushi-no-Kami, there probably existed eggs on board!