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Review: Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella Bird


Pages: 333

Original date of publication: 1880

My edition: 1984 (Virago)

Why I decided to read: recommended to me through LibraryThing

How I acquired my copy: Amazon UK seller, January 2011

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan is composed of a series of letters that Isabella Bird wrote home to her sister and friends during the summer of 1878. She set out from Tokyo, eager to explore the “unbeaten tracks” of the northern part of Honshu (the largest island of Japan) and Hokkaido. The letters are a combination of travelogue, anthropological study, and cultural study. I was especially eager to grab this book off my TBR shelf after what’s recently happened in Japan, and I enjoyed reading about Isabella Bird’s adventures there 130 years ago—a very different experience from when my family lived in Tokyo in the 1980s and ‘90s!

Isabella Bird inserts very little of her own thoughts and feelings into the narrative of her letters, but at times her very subtle sense of humor comes through, especially with regards to her interpreter, Ito, towards whom she has a kind of maternal disapproval at times. Bird was the first Western woman to travel in some of the remoter parts of Japan; in fact, she was the first Western person to travel in those areas, period, so caused quite a stir there when she arrived! Through her letters, Bird comes across as a very courageous woman, despite the fact that she suffered from back pain during her travels.

Some of the details she recounts are a bit boring (she even lists temperatures at certain points), but her views on the natives of Japan are fascinating, albeit from a modern prospective sometimes a bit disturbing. But I think Bird went to Japan with preconceived ideas of the Japanese. It’s interesting, therefore, to see how her opinions changed and improved over the course of her journey. Bird’s writing style itself is almost poetic at times, especially when she’s describing the scenery she passes through. I loved, for example her description of Mount Fuji when first arriving!

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