The Courageous Congressmen-Geisha and Nesan-The Maple Club-The Gentleness of Servants-Removable Walls -Dancing Girls-A Lesson in the Use of Chopsticks- "Truthful Girl"-A Toast in Sakê-Drunkenness-My Friend the Amiable Inebriate-The Great Rice-Ball MysteryIT AMUSED me to hear, a little while ago, that a party of our Congressmen, on a junket in Japan, had been implored by certain pious Americans over there, to avoid such sinful things as teahouses and geisha. No doubt the poor devils of Congressmen had fancied they would be able to lead their own lives five thousand miles from home and constituents. And evidently they proposed to do it, for they replied with uncongressmanlike boldness that teahouses and geisha were among the things they most desired to see. That pleased me not only because it showed that a Congressman can be spunky-even though he has to go to another hemisphere to do it-but because it showed a normal human interest in what is assuredly a very curious phase of life.
I, too, was interested in tea houses and geisha, and I made it a point to find out as much about them as I could.
The first geisha I saw were in attendance at a luncheon for some forty persons-about half of them Americans-given by a Tokyo gentleman for the purpose of showing us what a purely Japanese luncheon was like. It was held at the Maple Club, a large, rambling Japanese-style building standing in charming gardens in the midst of one of the Tokyo parks-a Far Eastern equivalent of such Parisian restaurants as the Café d'Armenonville or the Pré Catelan.
As we alighted from our rickshas a flock of smiling serving maids appeared in the doorway to greet us, indicating to us that we were to sit on the high door-step and have our shoes removed by the blueclad coolies who were in attendance-each with the insignia of the Maple Club in a large design upon the back of his coat. (If you wish the coolie who draws your ricksha or does other work for you to wear your crest you supply his costume and pay him a few cents extra per day.)
When our shoes had been checked and our feet encased in soft woollen slippers like bed-bootees, we were bowed into the building and escorted through a series of rooms with soft straw-matted floors and walls of wood and paper. Emerging upon an outer gallery of highly polished wood, we followed it, looking out over the lovely garden as we moved along, and finally reached a flight of stairs, also of wood having a satiny polish, which led to the banquet hall. Our escorts on this journey were several little Japanese maids in pretty kimonos, who, though they spoke no English, talked to us in soft international smiles. No one without a sweet nature could smile the smile of one of these Japanese serving maids. They are called nesan, meaning literally "elder sister." This familiar appellation is generally used in speaking to a maidservant whose name one does not know, and in the term is revealed a hint of the beautiful relationship which exists in Japan between master and servant, whether in a private house or a Japanese inn. In the great cities this old relationship is to some extent breaking down as Japan becomes Westernized, but in Japanese hotels and country inns, and in prosperous homes one sees it still. Service is rendered with a grace and friendliness which make it very charming. Even about the menservants in the houses of the rich there is nothing of the flunkey spirit. The Japanese manservant generally wears silken robes which give him a fine dignity and make it difficult, sometimes, to differentiate him from members of the family. He is extremely polite, but not rigid. You feel that he is a self-respecting man. As for maidservants, they are like so many pet butterflies. One of Japan's strongest claims to democracy, it seems to me, is founded on the attitude existing between master and servant.
Those who have visited Japan, yet who do not agree with me as to the exquisite courtesy of the Japanese servant, will be those whose stopping places have been European-style hotels in the large cities. In such hotels the service is often poor and one occasionally encounters a servant who is surly and ill-mannered. I encountered one such in Kobe-said to be the rudest city in Japan. But by the time I ran across him I had seen enough of the real Japan to know what such rudeness signified. It showed merely that in this individual case native courtesy had been worn away by contact with innumerable ill-bred foreigners.
But to return to our luncheon.
As a concession to American custom our host greeted us with a handshake, and his Japanese guests walked in and shook hands instead of dropping to their knees on entering and bowing to the floor according to the old national custom.
The room, which was large, well illustrated the elasticity of the Japanese style of building. Five or six private dining rooms usually occupied this section of the house, but for the requirements of the present occasion the walls forming these rooms had been removed making the entire area into one spacious chamber. It is a simple matter to remove such walls, since they consist only of a series of screens of wood and paper which slide in grooves and can easily be lifted out and put away in closets. And let me add that, though the climate of Japan is very damp, the Japanese use such thoroughly seasoned wood, and work in wood so admirably, that I never once found a sliding screen that stuck in its grooves.
For the meal we knelt upon silk cushions laid two or three feet apart around three walls of the room. As the weather was chilly there stood beside each of us a brazier, or hibachi, consisting of a pot of live charcoal standing in a wooden box. The Japanese love of finish in all things is shown in the careful way they have of banking the ashes in a hibachi, and making neat patterns over the top of them.
In front of each of us was placed a little table of red lacquer about a foot high, with an edge like that of a tray, and on this table were sundry covered bowls of lacquer and of china, and little dishes containing sour pickles and a pungent, watery brown sauce. In front of every one or two guests knelt a nesan, presiding over a covered lacquered tub, containing boiled rice, which is eaten with almost everything, and even mixed with green tea and drunk with it out of the rice-bowl.
Also, in attendance upon each guest, there was a geisha. Some of the geisha were women perhaps twenty years old, wearing handsome dark kimonos which they generally carried with a great deal of style, but others were little maiko, dancing girls, in brilliant-coloured kimonos with the yard-long sleeves of youth. The youngest of these was perhaps twelve years of age, while the oldest may have been sixteen.
As I afterward learned, there is a vast difference between various grades of geisha. Those present at this luncheon were among the most popular in Tokyo. They were truly charming creatures, sweet-faced, soft-eyed and gentle, with beautiful manners and much more poise than is shown by the average Japanese lady. For Japanese ladies are not, as a rule, accustomed to our sort of mixed social life, in which husbands and wives take part together, whereas geisha are in the business of entertaining men and presumably understand men as women seldom do.
Since few geisha speak English, and very few Americans speak Japanese, we travellers from abroad are rather outsiders with the geisha, and our appreciation of them must be largely ocular. But a geisha can come as near to carrying on a wordless conversation as any woman can. Mine smiled at me, filled my shallow little cup with warm saké from time to time, and showed me how to use my chop-sticks. I found the lesson most agreeable, and was presently rewarded by being told, through the Japanese friend at my side, that for a beginner I was doing very well.
If you want to know what it is like to eat with chop-sticks try sitting on the floor and eating from a bowl, placed in front of you, with a pair of pencils or thick knitting needles. It is a dangerous business, and the risk is rendered greater by the fact that the Japanese do not wear napkins in their laps, and that to soil the spotless matting is about the greatest sin the barbarian outlander can commit. The Japanese napkin is a small soft towel which is brought to one warm and damp, in a little basket. It is used on the face and hands as a wash-cloth and is then removed.
Presently my geisha called one of her sisters in the craft to witness my progress with the chopsticks. The new arrival was named Jitsuko- otherwise "truthful girl"-and she seemed to be quite the most fashionable of them all. Her kimono, with its dyed-out decorations and its five ceremonial crests, was very handsome and was worn with great chic, her obi was a gorgeous thing richly patterned in gold brocade, and I noticed that she wore upon it a pin containing a very fine large diamond-a most unusual sort of trinket in Japan. Also she wore a ring containing a large diamond. Nor was this foreign note purely superficial. For, to my delight, Jitsuko spoke to me in English. She was one of Tokyo's two English-speaking geisha, and as I later learned, had the honour of being nominated as the geisha to entertain the Duke of Connaught at dinners he attended at the time of his visit to the Japanese capital.
Jitsuko and the other geisha talked together about me. Then Jitsuko paid me the compliment of saying that they agreed in thinking that I looked a little bit like a Japanese. I thanked her, and returned the compliment in kind, saying that I thought they also looked like Japanese, and very pretty ones, whereat they both giggled.
By this time we had established an entente so cordial that it seemed fitting that we should drink to each other. Aided by the gentleman at my side and by Jitsuko, I learned the proper formalities of this ceremony. First I rinsed my saké cup in a lacquer bowl provided for the purpose, then passed it to Jitsuko. The preliminary rinsing indicated that she was now to fill the cup and drink. Had I passed it to her without rinsing, it would have meant that she was to refill it for me-for a geisha never "plies" one with saké but waits for the cup to be passed. When she had sipped the saké she in turn rinsed the cup, refilled it, and handed it to me to drink. Thus the friendly rite was completed.
I had heard that saké was extremely intoxicating, but that is not so. It is rice wine, almost white in colour, and is served sometimes at normal temperature and sometimes slightly warm. It is rather more like a pale light sherry than any other Occidental beverage, but it lacks the full flavour of sherry, having a mild and not unpleasant flavour all its own. On the whole I rather liked saké, and I found myself able to detect the difference between ordinary saké and saké that was particularly good. While on this subject I may add that liquor of all sorts flows freely in Japan. Saké is the one alcoholic beverage generally served with meals in the Japanese style, but at the European-style luncheons and dinners I attended two or three kinds of wine were usually served, and there were cocktails before and sometimes liqueurs afterward. The Japanese have also taken up whisky-drinking to some extent. They import Scotch whisky and also make a bad imitation Scotch whisky of their own. But saké still reigns supreme as the national alcoholic drink, and when you see a Japanese intoxicated you may be pretty sure that saké-a lot of saké-did it.
In my evening strolls, particularly in the gay, crowded district of Asakusa Park in Tokyo-a Japanese Coney Island, full of theatres, motionpicture houses, animal shows, conjuring exhibitions, teahouses, bazaars and the like, surrounding a great Buddhist temple-I saw many intoxicated men, but I never came upon one who was ugly or troublesome. Whether because of some quality in the Japanese nature, or in the saké, this drink seems only to make gay, talkative and sometimes boisterous those who have taken too much of it. I should not be surprised if the Japanese need alcoholic stimulants rather more than other races need them. For one thing the climate of Japan, except in the mountains, is enervating; and for another, the Japanese nature is generally repressed, and saké tends to liberate it. I noticed this at another entertainment in Tokyo -a dinner of newspaper editors. Being the only foreigner there, and being enormously interested in he problems connected with relations between the United States and Japan, I launched forth, telling them my views in the hope of learning theirs. But although I sensed that they did not agree with all I said, their responses exhibited only the sort of polite tolerance that a courteous host will show a somewhat obstreperous guest. For some time I felt that I had acted like a bad boy at a party. But after the geisha had filled our cups with saké more than once, I got what I was looking for-an argument. It was a polite argument, but we had become friendly enough to speak frankly. In saké veritas.
This was a case of just enough saké, but so far as I was able to observe, even too much saké produces no very objectionable results. I shall never forget the young man, brightly illuminated with this beverage, who came up to me one evening on the street, in a small town. He was full of a desire to practise English on me and to help me. He didn't care what he helped me to do. He would help me to buy whatever I wanted to buy, go wherever I wanted to go, or stay wherever I wanted to stay.
I explained to him that I was only strolling about while waiting for a train and that it was now time for me to return to the station.
"Wait!" he cried. "I like you. I am drawn to you. I have been in America. I can talk to you. We are friends. Wait!" He looked about him hurriedly, then darted into a near-by shop.
In a moment he emerged and came running toward me bearing in his extended hand a curious-looking object, resembling, as nearly as I could see in the dim light, a somewhat soiled popcorn ball. This he pressed into my hand with a generous eagerness which could not fail to convey to me the fact his heart went with the gift.
"It is a present. It is for you. You will remember me. Another kind might be better, but you are in a hurry."
My fingers grasped something heavy but yielding and glutinous. As I thanked my new-found friend I examined it. It was a ball of rice somewhat larger than a baseball. Scattered through it were brown objects the precise nature of which I was unable to determine. I might very accurately have told the donor that I was "stuck on" his present, since the mass in my hand was held in form not merely by the cohesiveness of the rice, but also by some substance of the nature of molasses.
We parted. I moved toward the railroad station where my family and friends were waiting with Yuki, our invaluable maid. As I walked along I studied the object. Obviously it was intended to be eaten. Yet there were other purposes to which it might be put. It was a thing that a Sinn Feiner would like to have in his hand as the British Premier passed by in a silk hat. Charley Chaplin would have known what to do with it. It was heavier than a custard pie and fully as dramatic.
My first impulse was to drop it as soon as I could do so unobserved; but the thought occurred to me that it was probably a Japanese delicacy, and that Yuki might like it; wherefor I carried it to the station.
When I offered it to Yuki she looked surprised. Her refusal was courteous but determined.
"Where Mr. Street get that?" she demanded.
"A man gave it to me. Here, you take it."
Yuki giggled and stepped back.
"But what the man give it to Mr. Street fork?"
"A present. What's the matter with it? Isn't it good to eat?"
"Yes-good to eat."
"Why don't you take it, then?"
Giggling, she shook her head.
"But Yuki-I don't understand. What's the joke?"
Shaking with merriment she whispered to my wife. It developed that the saké-inspired Japanese had presented me with a tidbit specially prepared for prospective mothers.
All things considered it seemed advisable to get rid of it at once. I threw it on the railroad track.