Home > Books/Magazines, History, Reviews, Travel & Tourism > Book Review: Unbeaten Tracks In Japan By Isabella Bird

Book Review: Unbeaten Tracks In Japan By Isabella Bird

A remarkable contribution to the world of explorative literature of early modern Japan!

isabella_bird_unbeaten_tracks_book_An interesting and charming read though interspersed throughout with comments, occasionally outrageous (e.g. ‘The Japanese have a perfect passion for children, but it is not good for European children to be much with them, as they corrupt their morals, and teach them to tell lies’), that illustrate stereotypical Victorian based attitudes and prejudicial perceptions towards the Japanese in a relatively undiscovered (at the time) country. Isabella Bird frequently exhibits a patronising pseudo-proselytising attitude towards the lower classes, cites their ‘national defects of concave chest and bow legs’, and refers to them as ‘yellow’ and ‘ugly’. Most of the people she is referring to in the book as ‘savages’ are made up of rickshaw ‘coolies’ and ‘servants’. Yet she displays an almost sing song beatific attitude toward the middle and upper classes even if she is occasionally snootily grateful to the rickshaw operators and her interpreter.

nikko sketch

Yomei Gate Shrines of Nikko – sketch, Isabella Bird

In spite of these appalling historical attitudes, her descriptions of some of the sites, local customs and daily living routines are exceptionally well written giving the reader a detailed window onto an early post Meiji Restoration Japan. She also provides comprehensive descriptions in the book of a few of the most popular, both then and now, pilgrimage and tourist locations, such as Asakusa and Nikko, and of the villages, towns, and cities such as Niigata, Aomori and Hakodate, that she visited on her route.

The book takes the form of forty-four letters to her sister, Henrietta Amelia Bird, and though the synopsis, provided by the publisher which is quoted below, states that she travelled 800 miles her own account states that it was more than 1400 miles overland.

“Isabella L Bird (1831 – 1904) was a 19th century British traveler and writer. Since her father was a Church of England priest, the family moved many times during her childhood. Bird traveled to Colorado when she heard the air was very healthy. She covered the 800 miles on horseback riding like a man and not sidesaddle. She also traveled extensively in Hawaii, Japan, Korea, Persia, Kurdistan, China, and Morocco. In 1878 she traveled to Japan and this book consists of the letters she wrote to her sister. Bird traveled north through the mountainous areas and eventually visited the island of Hokkaido. Here she saw the indigenous Ainu. Isabella admired them tremendously, but could not see them as much more than savages.” (sic)

Well connected in Japan with Sir Harry Parkes, “Her Majesty’s Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary and Consul-General in Japan”, and his wife, she certainly got ‘a foot up’ at the beginning of her tour without which things may not have gone quite as well as they did (most of the time).

Her ‘servant’ and interpreter the eighteen year old (at the time) Itō Tsurukichi, towards whom she is often disdainful, turns out to be someone without whom she could not have managed and she gradually does come to trust him in her own strangely patronising way. Unsurprisingly, given that she was the daughter of a vicar, she even tries proselytising to him. She describes him as being so ugly that he had to apply make-up. Though her attitude towards him had somewhat improved by the end of her journey her parting comments about him are haughty and condescending to say the least, especially considering where his talents as an interpreter would take him (see footnotes).


Itō Tsurukichi – Isabella’s ‘servant’ and interpreter

To begin with she is plagued by anxiety; about the locals who she sees spying on her at almost every stop along the way (in those days as a foreigner she would have been an object of great interest), about Itō, and about fleas. Considering the frailty of her health (she suffered quite severe spinal problems) she was undoubtedly a brave and pioneering woman, undertaking a trip that for others would probably have been far too daunting. And she was a good artist though unfortunately this edition of her narrative does not contain any of her charming illustrations.

Ainos of Yezo

Ainos of Yezo (sic) – sketch, Isabella Bird

Her journey to the north eventually takes her, over a period of three months, to the island of Hokkaido where her observations and reflections on the Aino (sic) form one of the earliest modern Western explorations of Hokkaido and the cataloguing of the Ainu and their customs. Though she refers to them as savages, and on occasion intelligent in spite of this, she also remarks that compared to the Japanese they make a ‘singular impression’.

In spite of her Victorian attitudes and the hardships that she endured the narrative reflects her dichotomic fascination, being both appalled and charmed at the same time, with a country and its culture and people. This narrative is a remarkable contribution to the world of explorative literature of early modern Japan in the English language.

She did return to Japan some years later to find that, ‘Japan is wonderful. Her solid advance in seventeen years is most striking, and she is quiet and dignified and keeps her head. She is impressively civilised


The interpreter Itō

Itō Tsurukichi worked as interpreter to the botanist Charles Maries before and after working with Isabella Bird, and went on to serve as interpreter to the American railroad tycoon Edward Henry Harriman, the Maharaja of Baroda from Mysore in India, and the photographer Hugues Krafft, when they visited Japan. He also appeared as the character Itō Kamekichi, an interpreter for an English woman, in the novelist Kyoko Nakajima’s book ‘Itō’s Love’ (Itō no Koi – イトウの恋) about a back country journey in Japan.

Nikko – the Kanaya house

‘Kanaya Cottage Inn’ as drawn by Isabella Bird, and as it is today

‘Kanaya Cottage Inn’ as drawn by Isabella Bird, and as it is today

The ‘Kanaya Cottage Inn’, where Isabella Bird stayed for twelve days while in Nikko, has been re-opened for public viewing – it is now known in Japanese as ‘Kanaya Hotel Rekishikan (History House)’ (金谷ホテル歴史館); not to be confused with the ‘Hotel Kanaya’, a Western style hotel about 1km away, which was opened by Zenichiro Kanaya, the owner of “Kanaya Cottage Inn”.


(left) Isabella Bird’s room and (right) her servant Itō Tsurukichi’s room at the “Kanaya Cottage Inn”

(left) Isabella Bird’s room and (right) her servant Itō Tsurukichi’s room at the “Kanaya Cottage Inn”

Isabella Bird did return to Nikko as Mrs. Bishop on 3rd September 1895 and on 13th July 1896 when she stayed at Zenichiro Kanaya’s Western Style ‘Hotel Kanaya’.

Isabella Bird Kanaya Hotel guest book

Manga ‘Unbeaten Tracks in Japan’

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan has been published as a Manga series called ‘Fushigi no Kuni no Bird” (不思議の国のバード – Bird in a Land of Wonder)

fushigi no kuni no bird

…and can be read on line in English at…



Title: ‘Unbeaten Tracks in Japan’

Author: Isabella Bird

Publisher: Book Jungle

ISBN-10: 1438512627 (ISBN-13: 978-1438512624)

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.

Related Posts:

Book Review: Another Kyoto By Alex Kerr With Kathy Arlyn Sokol

Book Review: Samurai Trails By Lucian Swift Kirtland

Book Review: Samurai Assassins: “Dark Murder” And The Meiji Restoration 1853-1868 By Romulus Hillsborough



  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: