Project Canterbury

Sea-Girt Yezo

Glimpses at Missionary Work in North Japan.

By John Batchelor

London: Church Missionary Society, 1902.

Chapter IV. Winter Troubles.

"O ye frost and cold, bless ye the Lord: praise Him, and magnify Him for ever.
"O ye ice and snow, bless ye the Lord: praise Him, and magnify Him for ever."

AS it has already been mentioned that the Island of Yezo lies well to the north and under the very shadows of Siberia, very likely the question will be put by some: "But is it not very cold there?" "Yes," one must reply; "it is fairly cold in Yezo sometimes." But it may be added that the cold here is nothing like so extreme as it is found to be in Siberia and some parts of Canada. Our life may not for a moment be compared in this respect with that of the missionaries among the Indians of North-West [37/38] Canada or among the Eskimo. Still, it is quite as cold here as any of us wish it to be. During the winter months many of the rivers are so thoroughly frozen over that horses dragging heavily-laden sleighs can cross them in perfect safety, for the ice is sometimes more than two feet thick. But this does not mean more than five or six degrees of frost below zero, while Canada has often as many as forty or fifty degrees, I hear, and Siberia even more. Zero, it will be remembered, is only thirty-two degrees of actual frost, so you see we missionaries are not so very badly off in Yezo, after all, in this respect.

When I first crossed a frozen river on horseback I very distinctly remember feeling quite unsafe, for the pebbles lying at the bottom on the river-bed could easily be seen through the transparent ice, which, though quite a foot in thickness, did not look as though it could be more than a few inches. It was so clear as to appear like looking through an ordinary piece of shop-window glass. I could almost feel myself shiver at the bare idea of a possible dipping in that quiet, clear, though dark-looking water. It was with thankfulness that I found myself at last safely on the other side of the river, though, of course, there was no real danger at all, excepting of the horse slipping down, and even then the worst would have been a little shaking, perhaps, or possibly a broken leg or arm. Hence my trouble on that occasion all arose from nervousness.

During the winter months, say from the end of November till the end of March, by far the greater part of the island is covered with snow. Around Sapporo it averages five feet in depth, while in some places but a few miles from us one may often see from ten to fifteen feet lying on the ground. Of course, such heavy falls of snow quite cover up all roads and hedges in the country districts, and in some cases even the houses also. The Japanese do not as a rule build their houses more than one storey high, and there are no chimneys to them by which one might tell their whereabouts. In place of a [38/39] chimney there will be left a hole, with a sliding shutter to it, in the roof for the smoke to escape out of. I have heard of unwary travellers occasionally walking down these by mistake during a heavy snowfall, and so surprising both themselves and also the inmates of a farmhouse by suddenly landing upon the hearth in a kitchen, and that perhaps while the family was at their meal. At this time of year, too, strong, cold, biting winds whistle and scream among the trees as they rush and roar down the valleys and mountain-sides. Sometimes also dreadful blizzards occur, which render it impossible to get out of the house while they last. These often leave great [39/40] snow-drifts behind them, which take whole days to trample down or cut through.

One great drawback to itinerating here in the winter is the Japanese country or wayside inns it is necessary to stay in during the journeys. Even here, so far north as Yezo, the inns are built just like those in the south. That is to say, the builders appear to have had more regard to the warm weather than the cold. There are no stoves in them, and the wind can get in from any quarter. Perhaps you may ask, "But why not make a good big fire in the braziers?" Well, you see, we cannot. There is no chimney, in the first place, for the smoke to go out of, so that one cannot burn wood or coal. And then as for charcoal--a big fire of this is altogether [40/41] out of the question, because charcoal fumes are of a very poisonous nature. Ever so small a fire of charcoal--so small a fire, for example, as to be merely sufficient to boil a little kettle for tea--gives some Europeans (myself among the number) a very distressing headache, and even the Japanese themselves cannot stand much of it, accustomed to charcoal as they have been all their lives. Soon after first arriving at. Hakodate, Mr. Ogawa, who was then studying for the work of a catechist, was dragged out of his quarters in the C.M.S. house at Hakodate quite insensible through the charcoal fumes, and thus his life was saved. An Ainu who was sitting in our servants' room at Sapporo was saved in like manner two winters ago. It will, therefore, now be seen that charcoal fires are really dangerous, and [41/42] it will not be wondered at that we Europeans cannot stand them. Then, again, let us notice the bed-clothes. Those provided for visitors at the inns are by no means adapted for keeping people warm in winter. They consist of thick mattresses, one to spread upon the floor and another to cover oneself up with. They do not tuck in closely round one like our delightful English blankets, but spread out stiffly in every direction, and so let the air in very much. When a person is in bed he looks more like a great tortoise, spread out flat as he is, with only the top of his head showing. There is often no help for it but to go to bed wearing the greater part of one's garments, for this is the only sure way of keeping warm.

I forgot to mention, however, that many of the Japanese take a small fire to bed with them--not a mere warming-pan, look you, but a real fire. They do this by placing a piece of furniture called a kotatsu under the upper mattress and putting a small brazier of charcoal fire in it. The kotatsu is simply a small square frame, something like a large cage. The people sleep with their feet towards it, and, I believe, get very warm sometimes. They are most unhealthy things to have, and we Europeans never think of using them. They are dangerous, too, for houses have been known to have been set on fire by them, while people have been asphyxiated (i.e. killed by the fumes) through using them.

Japanese country inns are to most Europeans uncomfortable places at any time. There is no furniture in them, so that one has to squat upon the floor, with a thin cushion to do duty as a chair. It makes one's bones ache very much to be obliged to sit thus upon his heels or after the fashion of a tailor. This is particularly hard after a pony-back ride of some twenty or thirty miles. At such times a chair with a nice soft cushion in it would be a real luxury, for horseriding sometimes makes one very stiff. On a certain occasion an American gentlemen came with me to see part of the work among [42/43] the Ainu. After a hard ride lasting all day we found ourselves in the evening both very tired and in need of rest. Upon arrival at our inn my friend said, "Will you please try and find a room with a mantelshelf in it for me?" I was greatly surprised at this request, and said, "Whatever can you want with a mantelshelf? Japanese inns do not have such things in them." "Oh," said he, "I am very tired and stiff and achy, and as there are no nice soft chairs to sit upon, I should like to have a mantelshelf to stand up to and eat my supper from." I could do no more for the poor man than find him a few cushions to sit upon and a nice post to lean against as a support for his back. Thus, you see, we must not expect much comfort in Japanese inns, particularly during the winter. Whenever [43/44] I enter one to rest or stay, I always look out for a room with a nice solid post in it to use as a support to lean against, and then try to borrow a chair and table. One can do this sometimes, but not always. No doubt the innkeepers think we are funny folk to need chairs and tables, for they do not see the necessity of them, not having been used to them from childhood.

You must not for a moment think that I am complaining. Far from that. I am only telling you of things just as we find them. We have indeed [44/45] much to be thankful for in our work, even in the winter; and we would not give it up for all the comforts in the world. The scenery is sometimes magnificent, and carries one's' thoughts away from self to the good God Who made the world with its summer and winter, cold and heat. The effect produced by the sunshine upon the brown trunks of the trees, standing out as they do from the pure white snow, is at once both grand and pleasing, though in the evening, as darkness is closing round, somewhat weird and ghostly. The glitter of the sun's dancing rays reflected upon the particles of snow lying upon the plains and mountain-sides fills the heart with pleasure, so that one feels constrained to lift up one's voice and sing, "0 ye Ice and Snow, bless ye the Lord: praise Him, and magnify Him for ever." On the afternoon of one severely cold day I went from Hakodate to Ono to preach. I think I shall never forget that afternoon. During the early part of the morning it had rained very heavily, and then suddenly ceased and commenced to freeze hard. The result was that the trees by the roadside became encased in transparent ice so that the bark could be seen through it. It was exquisitely beautiful, and made me wonder and rejoice with delight.

But the missionary's joy and gladness does not always arise from the beautiful objects of nature. That which makes him so happy in his work--whether it be cold or hot, wet or fine--is the thought that he is on the Master's business, coupled with the knowledge that there is to be a grand reception at the end of his day's journey. He knows there will be a right good welcome from the Christians, and that besides these there are others who have not yet professed Christ waiting to hear the "good news" from his lips. Then, again, there may most likely be the Holy Communion to administer to, and partake of with, the brothers and sisters, and perhaps a baptism or two to take It is this which gives us so much pleasure, and helps [45/46] us to take with joy all things--both the cloud and sunshine--as they happen.

It will have been gathered from what has already been said that Yezo is a fairly cool place sometimes, and I want to finish this chapter by telling you some incidents to illustrate this, some of which are amusing and others more serious. Three years ago, when I went from Sapporo to Piratori to visit the Christians, I carried Miss Bryant, who was then residing there, a large stone bottle containing a couple of gallons or so of fresh cow's milk. This was at the end of November, just before the real cold had set in. The bottle was left for the night in Miss Bryant's sitting-room, and was tightly corked up. There was a very sharp frost during the night. But what surprised me in the morning, upon entering the room where the bottle was, was to see about four inches of solid milk standing out of the neck of the bottle, with the cork sitting gravely on the top of it as though doing its best to keep the milk in its proper place. It was utterly ridiculous to look at, and caused us a good deal of amusement. Fancy, the solid milk sticking out of the nozzle of the bottle with the cork upright on its top! It reminded one of a very long-necked gentleman with a top-hat on!

It has often been my duty to be on horseback between nine and one o'clock at night during the winter months. When I first arrived at Hakodate, Mission work was carried on at Ono, twelve miles away, also at Nanaye, ten miles away, and at Arikawa and Kikyo, each about eight miles away. Someone used to go to one of these places every week, so that, there being three of us, each place was visited once a week, whatever the weather might be. On more than one occasion I have been caught in a mild blizzard on my return from the preaching service, and have then felt quite sorry for myself, I assure you. Upon reaching home it has been necessary to stand in front of a good fire to get my eyelids warm before being able to see [46/47] clearly, the lashes being stuck together and the brows heavily covered with frost and snow. The ice in my moustache had to be melted out before I could open my mouth to speak or put any food in, and it was necessary to thaw my beard off [47/48] my coat before I could unbutton it. As for taking off one's gloves or unbuttoning one's coat, that was altogether out of the question for some time. One's feet, too, get terribly cold on such occasions, for the winds of the blizzards penetrate the thickest clothing. I suppose a person looks more like old Father Christmas at such times than anything else, though I do not suppose one has such a happy look on his face as is always painted on that of Father Christmas when about to scramble down a chimney loaded with his presents.

"Oh, this is cold! I don't think I can stand this. I must be off to Hakodate, where it is warmer, and get some blankets." In some such words as these you might have heard me talking to myself many years ago, had you been with me. It was at Piratori among the Ainu, and the date was December 8th, a cold day, by me ever to be remembered. I was then living with Chief Penri in his hut (see Frontispiece), and was very busy making a dictionary and grammar, and reducing the Ainu language to writing. Mats had been hung up all round to keep the wind off, for it was a cold, rough day, and the winds came in through the reed walls and glassless windows and doorless entrances of the hut. I was seated at the fire on a tub, for there was no sign of a chair or table there, wearing an otter-skin cap and a thick overcoat. The ink was placed close to the fire to keep it from freezing, and my paper was resting on my knees; but--would you believe it?--before I could get pen to paper, the ink on it would freeze, so that it was with the greatest difficulty any marks at all could be made on the paper. At last matters came to such a pass that I packed up my traps and started off to Hakodate, which was a little over 200 miles distant by the way one was obliged to travel at that time.

Before leaving Piratori, however, a very amusing thing happened [48/49] to me. My bed in Chief Penri's hut consisted of a bear's' skin spread upon some boards. I had a sheet and only one blanket of my own to cover me, though I might have had some of Penri's bedclothes for the asking; but there were strong and lively reasons for not borrowing them! I found the bed very hard and very cold. It was so cold one night that I got up and had a large fire made and some water made hot, which I put into two stone bottles I found in the hut. Having no corks, I stopped up the nozzles with wisps of straw, and then, armed with these, retired once more to my boards in quite a happy frame of mind. The bottles gave me great comfort, so that I was soon fast asleep. But, What is this?" I am now half awake; something has happened. It feels very cold, and I am stuck fast to the bearskin and boards. What is the cause? Alas! those wisps of straw have come out of the bottles, the water has run out, and I am-frozen down. It was after this that I determined to seek warmer quarters, and, upon my return, to provide myself with warmer bedclothes.

At the beginning of this chapter I told you a little about Yezo blizzards, and while writing of these I was reminded of one or two sad effects caused by them, of which I am now going to tell you. A few years ago a catechist who was stationed at Kushiro was caught in a blizzard as he was returning from a preaching service one evening. It appears that during his walk, which was not more than two and a half miles, a small blizzard arose and overtook him. All traces of the path were quickly obliterated, so that he soon lost his way. What happened next no one knows, for he was found the next day, not far from the track, frozen dead. Poor fellow, we felt for him very much, but we rejoice to know that he is with his Master in heaven. When he left the place in which he had been holding service he doubtless thought he had but a short two miles and a half to travel, but the journey he then commenced to take was to his [49/50] heavenly home. He did not know how near that home was, but he was prepared for it. Are we? Do we know how near home we are? Let us think about it.

Three years ago, a postman living at Hayakita, which is one of our C.M.S. stations, was likewise caught in a blizzard. He, too, was found one day quite dead, and not more than half a mile from the post-office. Poor man! I heard that he was warned not to go out with his letters that day. The journey he had to take was some eight miles long, but he thought he would be able to manage it, and so set out and died. It was [50/51] brave of him, indeed, but very rash, I think. The poor man had heard something of the Lord Jesus, but not much, alas! and he had not become a Christian. During the same winter, I myself, then at home in Sapporo, was unable to walk two hundred yards towards our church to take the Sunday morning service, and that in broad daylight and after the blizzard just referred to had blown itself out. The drifts were so bad that there was no getting through them. I soon found my clothes soaking wet, and myself plunging about nearly up to my shoulders in snow. I was obliged to give up the struggle as a bad job and return to the house. I heard in the afternoon that the congregation consisted of two people, the catechist and his little child. The catechist's house was on the same piece of land as the church, so that they had only to walk about ten yards.

Another winter trouble arises from a danger of snow-blindness. This comes from the strong light reflected from the snow on bright days. Three years ago I had my first attack of it, and very painful indeed I found it to be. When [51/52] attacked the eyes become inflamed, and it is impossible to open them where there is the least particle of light, so that any person afflicted with it must either stay in a completely dark room or have his eyes carefully bandaged up. The eyes cannot even stand the light of the dimmest of dim candles. My attack lasted four days only, I am happy to say; but what with smarting eyes, aching head, and the monotony of being in the dark, I not only felt miserable myself, but, I am afraid, made the place rather unhappy for those who had to come near me, for having been used to a very active life, I found it impossible not to grumble and groan through the pain and forced inactivity. Do you ask how I cured myself? Well, the remedy is very simple. I took a little salt and placed it in a large basin nearly full of lukewarm water. I then went every hour and buried my face in it, opening and shutting my eyes in the salt water. This I found gave instant relief from the pain and took away the inflammation. By persevering in the use of this remedy I was quite cured in four days. Now if any of my readers should happen to get snow-blindness (for we never know what may happen), he will know what to do.

In the spring and autumn come hailstorms. And it does hail sometimes, I can assure you. The stones on some rare occasions are as large as thrushes' eggs. It is impossible to ride in the face of such a storm. The only thing to do, if there is no tree under which to take shelter or house to rush into, is to dismount and turn one's back to the storm till it is over; or, better still, get on the lee side of the horse. The horses do not appear to mind the storms so much as we do, or I don't suppose they would submit to being made a shelter of. You see, the hailstones make one's face tingle so much, otherwise they might be put up with better. However, there is one comfort--the hailstorms do not last long.

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