Home > Books/Magazines, Culture, History, Reviews > Book Review: Samurai Trails By Lucian Swift Kirtland

Book Review: Samurai Trails By Lucian Swift Kirtland

A chronicle of wanderings on the Japanese high road!

Book coverOriginally published in 1918 by George H. Doran in NY and Hodder and Stoughton in London, two articles relating to the book entitled ‘On Foot Through Japan’ and ‘Adventures at the Bottle Inn’ by the same author were also published in the January and February 1918 editions of Harper Monthly magazine. Though this book has since been made available by a variety of publishers this review is based on the most recent Toyo Press publication in 2017.

The husband of the WWI photographer Helen Johns Kirtland (1890-1979), Lucian Swift Kirtland (1881-1965), a scion of the very prominent Kirtland family of Poland, Ohio (originally the Kyrtlands of Sherrington, Buckinghamshire who had travelled to the US in 1635), was a 1903 Yale Graduate, adventurer, newspaper reporter and eventual WWI correspondent for ‘Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly’ and is described as ‘very much the late 19th century traveller pith helmet and all’. He travelled to Japan on the eve of WWI to meet up with his walking companion, the Norwegian-American Alfred Owre (1870-1935), a renowned dental expert and collector of Japanese antiques and memorabilia, and their friend Dr. Hori Kenjirō (a dentist and former student of Owre at the University of Minnesota), to hike the historical Tōkaidō and Nakasendō Roads between Kyōto and Tōkyō. The original 1918 publication included eleven photographs though, unfortunately, the Toyo edition does not.

Once the reader has either become used to, or bypassed, some of the more difficult sections of post Victorian prose, this is an absolute delight of a book, a paean to a time long passed when things seem much less complicated, in much the same vein as the on the road travelogues of Patrick Leigh Fermor on his journey across Europe between the wars. Though at a time when it seemed far easier to set off on foot into the relative sanctity of unknown Arcadian pastures, for the journey along the Tōkaidō Kirtland bemoans that this idyll had been intruded upon by the introduction of the train, an indication of the increased activity and industrial development that marked the transition for Japan towards modernity.

kyoto backstreets

Kyoto Back Streets

‘You will find no one prepared for foreigners. You will not find one word of English’ their Japanese companion declares emphatically prior to the commencement of their journey. Something on which he is contradicted by the astonishing serendipitous synchronicity of a chance meeting on the Tōkaidō Road outside Ōtsu (not far from Kyōto on the shore of Lake Biwa) with an English speaking Japanese gentleman called Mr. Yoshida, whom Alfred Owre afterward recalls he had previously met in America.

we bought paper umbrellas

We Bought Paper Umbrellas

Experiencing the heat of June in Japan the boredom of hiking across the extensive and endlessly repetitive rice paddies leads them to make a change of course in Nagoya …at which point, after meeting up with Dr. Hori Kenjirō and his inimitable bicycle, the trio head north by train to join the Nakasendō. Alighting at Agematsu their walk along the Kiso River is foreshadowed on the earlier part of the Nakasendō by the local memory of two much earlier miscreant foreign hikers and their uncaring breach of Japanese etiquette.

wistful fairy of the mountains

We Came Upon a Wistful Eyed, Timid Fairy of the Mountains

The travelogue leads the reader through the unfolding landscape and into encounters with an unfamiliar people and culture in a way that, at the time, might have been perceived as attempt to uplift and lead the reader out of the more depressing and uptight Colonialist attitudes of the post Victorian end of era fin de siècle; something which Kirtland gives examples of when addressing the issue of long term foreign residents in Japan at the time.


“In the Fourteenth Year of My Youth I Took the Vow that My Life Should Be Lived in Honouring the Holy Images of Buddha”

The book is almost eerily prescient at times for instance about modern methods of working and rural depopulation. For example when passing through an area of silk production Kirtland remarks about leading Tokyo statesmen planning policies ‘…do they look forward to the time when factories will fill the land and the spinners will not be sitting in their own doorways but the children of today’s workers will be standing in long rows before machines?

As the walk progresses more in depth encounters develop out of the earlier brief descriptions of chance meetings with a white bearded priest, with various maids, and strangers on the road for example. This marks a gradual transition from accounts describing the journey and the road to much more in depth accounts of meetings along the way accompanied by various, occasionally philosophical, discussions about time, place and culture. For example that Alfred Owre was a collector of antiquities may have encouraged the bitter observations by Dr. Hori Kenjirō about the role of pawnbrokers which led, indirectly, to Kirtland’s comments about the opening up of Japan and the intrusive commercialisation of trade in and loss of cultural artefacts to foreign collectors.

Mount Fuji

Is it Idolatrous to Worship Fuji?

As the journey nears its end Kirtland’s paean to their exploration begins to change as the looming vicissitudes of the First World War start to intrude, something which would lead the author in another direction and into the trenches of the Western Front. A meeting in Kōfu with a couple of companions of the road, one French and one German, foreshadow the events, as we are told, that within the month would see France and Germany declare ‘implacable’ war against each other, placing Kirtland, Owre and Kenjirō’s meeting with them as July 1914.

In what must have been August 1914, as they reached their journey’s end, there is an absolutely fascinating, and invaluable, account of their meeting in Yokohama with the Prime Minister of Japan at the time, Count Ōkuma Shigenobu, of their conversation, and of a monologue by Shigenobu followed by, at the close of the final chapter as Kirtland and Owre sail out of Yokohama, the news that Germany had invaded France and that England might declare war… …later that year Japan would side with the Allies and declare war on Germany.

This is a very engaging account which, at times, is hard to put down and is suited both for those who love long distance walking, and armchair travellers alike. It is a must for those who might like a taste of an earlier somewhat idealised and less industrialised Japan and sections of the relatively unspoilt (at the time) Tōkaidō and Nakasendō Roads. Enjoy!

Postscript: Lucian would later return to Japan with his wife Helen, as one element in their extensive travels throughout Europe and Asia during the 1920s, during which time Lucian wrote for many American journals and magazines, articles which were accompanied by his wife’s (uncredited) photographs and which resulted in his 1926 book ‘Finding the Worthwhile in the Orient’, pub. R M McBride & Co., NY.

Portrait of Lucian Swift Kirtland Gertrude Kasebier 1912

Portrait of Lucian Swift Kirtland, Gertrude Kasebier 1912


Kansai Region: Kyōto – Kobe – Kyōto

Tōkaidō: Kyōto – Ōtsu – MinakuchiShiki – Kasada – Nagoya

Nakasendō: Agematsu – Narii (sic, Narai) – Shiojiri – Kami-Suwa

Koshu-Kaidō: Fujimi – Hinoharu – Nirasaki (Kamanashi River) – Kōfu

Yamanashi Prefecture: Shōsenkyō Gorge – Lake Shōji

Shizuoka Prefecture: Gotenba

Tōkyō  Metropolis: Yokohama – Tōkyō – Yokohama


Series: TOYO Reference Series

Paperback: 158 pages

Publisher: TOYO Press (April 26, 2017)

Language: English

The Toyo 2017 paperback edition is available from Amazon UK priced £9.50


Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

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  1. September 2, 2017 at 2:06 am

    Hi friends, its fantastic post on the topic of cultureand fully defined, keep it up all the time.


  1. September 12, 2017 at 2:52 pm
  2. September 12, 2017 at 3:28 pm
  3. January 2, 2018 at 5:41 pm
  4. May 2, 2019 at 7:54 pm

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