IV. Zenkoji.

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.

The same might formerly have been said of the illumination next introduced. Now, however, common kerosene lamps are no longer so much of a sight even in Japan. Indeed, I had the assurance to ask for a shade to go with the one they set on the table in all the glaring nudity of a plain chimney. This there was some difficulty in finding, the search resulting in a green paper visor much too small, that sat on askew just far enough not to hide the light. The Japanese called it a hat, without the least intention of humor.

By the light thus given the room stood revealed, an eyrie, encased on all sides except the one of approach by shoji only. Into these had been let a belt of glass eighteen inches wide all the way round the room, at the height at which a person sitting on the mats could see out. It is much the fashion now thus to graft a Western window upon a Far-Eastern wall. The idea is ingenious and economical, and has but two drawbacks, - that you feel excessively indoors if you stand up, and strangely out-of-doors if you sit down.

I pushed the panels apart, and stepped out upon the narrow balcony. Below me lay the street, the lanterns of the passers-by flitting like fireflies through the dark; and from it stole up to me the hum of pleasure life, a perfume of sound, strangely distinct in the still night air.

Accredited pilgrim though one be not, to pass by so famous a shrine as Zenkoji without the tribute of a thought were to be more or less than human, even though one have paid his devoirs before. Sought every year by thousands from all parts of Japan, it serves but to make the pilgrimage seem finer that the bourne itself should not be fine. Large and curious architecturally for its roof, the temple is otherwise a very ordinary structure, more than ordinarily besoiled. There is nothing rich about it; not much that is imposing. Yet in spite of poverty and dirt it speaks with a certain grandeur to the heart. True shrine, whose odor of sanctity is as widespread as the breeze that wanders through its open portals, and which comes so near the wants of the world that the very pigeons flutter in to homes among its rafters. The air-beats of their wings heighten the hush they would seem to break, and only enhance the sacred quiet of the nave, - a stillness such that the coppers of the faithful fall with exaggerated ring through the lattice of the almsbox, while the swiftly mumbled prayers of the givers rise in all simplicity straight to heaven.

In and about the courtyard live the sacred doves, and he who will may have their company for the spreading of a feast of crumbs. And the rush of their wings, as they descend to him from the sky, seems like drawing some strange benediction down.