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!

At the threshold of Kaga we turned abruptly to the left, and attacked the pass leading over into Etchiu. As we wound our way up the narrow valley, day left the hollows to stand on rosy tiptoe on the sides of the hills, the better to take flight into the clouds. There it lingered a little, folding the forests about with its roseate warmth. Even the stern old pines flushed to the tips of their shaggy branches, while here and there a bit of open turned a glowing cheek full to the good-night kiss of the sun. And over beyond it all rose the twilight bow, in purplish insubstantiality creeping steadily higher and higher, above the pine-clad heights.

I reached the top before the jinrikisha, and as a sort of reward of merit scrambled a little farther up the steep slope to the left. From here I commanded the pass, especially that side of it I had not come up. The corkscrew of the road carried the eye most pleasingly down with it. I could see a teahouse a few hundred feet below, and beyond it, at a much lower level, a bridge. Beyond this came a comparatively flat stretch, and then the road disappeared into a gorge. Here and there it was pointed with people toiling slowly up. Of the encircling hills the shoulders alone were visible. While I was still surveying the scene, the jinrikisha men, one after the other, emerged from the gulf out of sight on the right and proceeded to descend into the one on the left. When the last had well passed, and I had tickled myself with the sense of abandonment, I scrambled back, took a jump into the road and slipped down after them. The last had waited for me at the teahouse, and stowing me in started to rattle down the descent. The road, unlike us, seemed afraid of its own speed, and brought itself up every few hundred feet with a round turn. About each of these we swung, only to dash down the next bend, and begin the oscillation over again. The men were in fine excitement, and kept up a shouting out of mere delight. In truth we all enjoyed the dissipated squandering in a few minutes of the energy of position we had so laboriously gained by toiling up the other side. Over the bridge we rattled, bowled along the level stretch, and then into the gorge and once more down, till in another ten minutes the last fall had shot us out into the plain with mental momentum enough to carry us hilariously into Imaisurugi, where we put up for the night.

At breakfast the next morning the son of the house, an engaging lad, presented me with an unexpected dish, three fossil starfish on a platter. They were found, he said, in numbers, on the sides of the hill hard by; a fact which would go to prove that this part of Japan has been making in later geologic time. Indeed, I take it the better part of Etchiu has thus been cast up by the sea, and now lies between its semicircle of peaks and its crescent of beach, like a young moon in the western sky, a new bay of ricefield in the old bay's arms. We had come by way of its ocean terminator along its fringe of sand; we were now to cross its face.

As we pulled out from the town and entered the great plain of paddyfields it was like adventuring ourselves in some vast expanse of ocean, cut up only by islets of trees. So level the plain and so still the air on this warm May morning, the clumps shimmered in mirage in the distance like things at sea. Farmhouses and peasants at work in the fields loomed up as ships, past which we slowly tacked and then dropped them out of sight behind. And still no end of the same infinite level. New clumps rose doubtfully afar, took on form and vanished in their turn. Our men rolled along at a good six-knot gait, and mile went to join mile with little perceptible effect on the surroundings. Only the misty washes of the mountains, glistening in spots with snow, came out to the south and then swung slowly round like the sun himself. Occasionally, we rolled into a village of which I duly inquired the distance from the last known point. One of these, Takaoka, was a very large place and stretched a mile or more along the road, with ramifications to the side.

At last we neared some foothills which we crossed by a baby pass, and from the farther side looked off against the distant Tateyama range. Descending again, another stretch of plain brought us to Toyama, the old feudal capital of the province. It is still a bustling town, and does a brisk business, I was told, in patent medicine, which is hawked over Japan generally and cures everything. But the former splendor of the place has left it forever. The rooms in the inn, where neighboring daimyos were wont to rest on their journeys through, are still superb with carving, lacquer and paintings, but no daimyo will ever again hold his traveling court before their tokonoma. The man perchance may again tarry there, but the manner of it all has gone to join the past. Now he who wills may ensconce himself in the daimyo's corner, and fancy himself a feudal lord; nor will the breeding of those about him disillusion his midday dream.

The castle they have turned into a public school; and as I strolled into its close I met bands of boys in foreign lycee-like uniform trooping out; chubby-faced youngsters in stiff visored caps. Girls there were too, in knots of twos and threes, pretty little things in semi-European dress, their hair done a la grecque, stuck with a single flower, who stopped in their chatter to stare at me. To think that the feudal times are to them as much a tale as the making of the plain itself where its ruins stand already mantled with green!