The Boy Travelers - Japan and China by Thomas W. Knox The Boy Travelers by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 8: Sights in the Eastern Capital of Japan

To see the whole of Tokyo is a matter of no small moment, as the area of the city is very great. There seems to have been no stint of ground when the place was laid out, and in riding through it you find whole fields and gardens so widely spread that you can readily imagine yourself to be in the rural districts, and are rather surprised when told that you are yet in the city limits. The city is divided into two unequal portions by the Sumida River, and over this river is the Nihon Bashi, or Nihon Bridge, which is often called the center of Japan, for the reason that all the roads were formerly measured from it. It has the same relation to Japan as the famous "London Stone" once had to England.
View of Tokyo

From the railway station, our travelers went to the Nihon Bashi in order to begin their journey from the center of the empire. A more practical reason was a desire to see the river, and the great street leading to it, as they would get a good idea of the extent of the city by taking this route, and would obtain numerous glimpses of Japanese street life. They found the streets full of people, and it seemed to the boys that the whole population must be out for an airing. But the Doctor informed them that the sight they were witnessing was an everyday affair, as the Japanese were essentially an outdoor people, and that many of the industries which in other countries would be conducted under a roof were here seen in progress out of doors. The fronts of the Japanese houses are quite open to the view of the public, and there is hardly anything of what we call privacy. It was formerly no uncommon sight to see people bathing in tubs placed in front of their doorsteps, and even at the present time one has only to go into the villages, or away from the usual haunts of foreigners, to see that spectacle which would be unknown in the United States. The bathhouses are now closed in front in all the cities, but remain pretty much as before in the smaller towns. Year by year the country is adopting Western ideas, including some Western views of propriety.

As the boys rode along, their attention was drawn to some tall ladders that rose above the buildings, and they eagerly asked the Doctor what those ladders were for. They could not see the use of climbing up in the air and then coming down again, and, altogether, the things were a mystery to them. A few words explained the matter. The ladders were nothing more nor less than fire lookouts, and were elevated above the buildings so that the watchmen could have an unobstructed view. A bell was attached to each ladder, and by means of it a warning signal was given in case of a threatened conflagration. Fires are frequent in Tokyo, and some of them have done immense damage. The city is mostly built of wood, and when a fire breaks out and a high wind is blowing, the result is often disastrous to an enormous extent.
Fire Lookouts in Tokyo

After the great fires of the last twenty years, the burned districts have been rebuilt of stone, or largely so, and precautions that were hitherto unknown are now taken for the prevention of fresh disasters. Some of the new quarters are quite substantial, but they resemble too strongly the edifices of a city in Europe to be characteristic of Japan.

A portion of the way took our friends through the grounds of some of the castles, and the boys were rather astonished at the extent of these residences of princes. Doctor Bronson explained that Tokyo was formerly a city of princes, and that the residences of the Daimyos, as these great men were called, were of more consequence at one time than all the rest of the city. The palace of a Daimyo was known as a yashiki, and the yashikis were capable, in some instances, of lodging five or ten thousand men. Under the present government the power of the princes has been taken away, and their troops of retainers have been disbanded. The government has converted the most of the yashikis into offices and barracks and schools, and one at least has been turned into a manufactory.

The original plan of Tokyo was that of a vast camp, and from that the city grew into its present condition. The best locations were occupied by the castles and yashikis, and the principal castle in the center has the best place of all. Frank observed as they crossed the bridge leading into the castle yard that the broad moat was full of lotus flowers in full bloom, and he longed to gather some of them so that he might send them home as a souvenir of the country. He had heard of the lotus as a sort of water lily, similar in general appearance to the pond lily of his native land. He was surprised to find a flower, eight or ten inches in diameter, growing on a strong stalk that did not float on the water, but held itself erect and far above it. The Doctor explained the matter by telling him that the Japanese lotus is unlike the Egyptian lotus, from which our ideas of that flower are derived. But the Japanese one is highly prized by all types of people, and it grows in abundance in all the castle moats, and in marshy ground generally.

Near the entrance of one of the castle yards they met a couple that attracted their attention. It was a respectable-appearing citizen who had evidently partaken too freely of the cup that cheers and also inebriates, as his steps were unsteady, and he would have fallen to the ground had it not been for the assistance of his wife, who was leading him and guiding him in the way he should go. As the strangers went past him he raised his hand to his head, but Frank could not determine whether it was a movement of salutation or of dazed inquiry. The Doctor suggested that it was more likely to have been the latter than the former, since the Japanese do not salute in our manner, and the man was too much under the influence of the "sake" he had swallowed to adopt any foreign modes of politeness. Sights like this are not unknown in the great cities of Japan, but they are far less frequent than in New York or London. The Japanese say that drunkenness is on the decrease in the past few years, owing to the abolition of the Samurai class, who have been compelled to work for a living, instead of being supported out of the revenues of the state, as formerly. They have less time and money for dissipation now than they had in the olden days, and, consequently, their necessities have made them temperate.
Sakuradu Avenue in Tokyo

For an Asian city, Tokyo had remarkably wide streets, and some of them are laid out with all the care of Western engineering. In the course of their morning ride the party came to Sakuradu Avenue, which Fred recognized from a drawing by a native artist, who had taken pains to preserve the architecture of the buildings on each side with complete fidelity. The foundations of the houses were of irregular stones cut in the form of lozenges, but not with mathematical accuracy. The boys had already noticed this form of hewing stone in the walls of the castles, where some very large blocks were piled. They were reported to have been brought from distant parts of the empire, and the cost of their transportation must have been very great. Few of the houses were of more than two stories, and the great majority were of only one. Along Sakuradu Avenue they were of two stories, and had long and low windows with paper screens, so that it was impossible for a person in the street to see what was going on inside. The eaves projected far over the upright sides, and thus formed a shelter that was very acceptable in the heat of summer, while in rainy weather it had many advantages. These yashikis were formerly the property of Daimyos, but are now occupied by the Foreign Office and the War Department. Inside the enclosure there are many shade trees, and they make a cooling contrast to the plain walls of the buildings. The Japanese rarely paint the interior or the exterior of their buildings. Nearly everything is finished in the natural color of the wood, and very pretty the wood is too. It is something like oak in appearance, but a trifle darker, and is susceptible of a high polish. It admits of a great variety of uses, and is very easily wrought. It is known as keyaki wood, and, in spite of the immense quantity that is annually used, it is cheap and abundant.

Some of the Daimyos expended immense amounts of money in the decoration of their palaces by means of bronzes, embroideries on silk, fine lacquer, and the like. Art in Japan was nourished by the Daimyos, and we have much to thank them for in the way of household adornment.

Since the adoption of Western ideas in decoration and household furniture, the Japanese dwellings have lost somewhat in point of attractiveness. Our carpets and furniture are out of place in a Japanese room, and so are our pictures and statuary. A Japanese house loses its charm when the neat mattings give way to European carpets, and chairs and tables are spread around in place of the simple adornments to which the people were accustomed.
Japanese Children at Play

After an interesting ride, in which their eyes were in constant use, the boys reached the Temple of Asakusa, which is one of the great points of attraction to a stranger in Tokyo. The street which led up to the temple was lined with booths, in which a great variety of things were offered for sale. Nearly all of these things were of low-quality, and evidently the patrons of the temple were not of the wealthier sort. Toys were numerous, and as our party alighted they saw some children gazing wistfully at a collection of dolls. Frank and Fred suggested the propriety of making the little people happy by expending something for them. The Doctor gave his approval, so the boys invested a sum equal to about twenty cents of our money, and were astonished at the number of dolls they were able to procure for their outlay. The children were delighted, and danced around in their glee, just as any children might have done in another country. A few paces away some boys were endeavoring to walk on bamboo poles, and evidently they were having a jolly time, to judge by their laughter. Two boys were hanging by their hands from a pole, and endeavoring to turn circles, while two others were trying to walk on a pole close by them. One of the walkers fell off, and was laughed at by his companions, but he was speedily up again, determined not to give up until he had accomplished his task.

Japanese children are well supplied with dolls and other playthings, and there are certain festivals in which the whole family devotes itself to the preparation or purchase of dolls to amuse the little ones. The greatest of these festivals is known as the "Hina Matsuri," or Feast of Dolls, hina meaning doll, and matsuri being applicable to any kind of feast. It occurs on the third day of the third month, and for several days before the appointed time the shops are filled with dolls just as they are filled among us at Christmas. In fact, the whole business in this line is transacted at this period, and at other times it is next to impossible to procure the things that are so abundant at the Matsuri. Every family that can afford the outlay buys a quantity of images made of wood or enameled clay, and dressed to represent various imperial, noble, or mythological characters, either of the present time or of some former period in Japanese history. In this way the children are taught a good deal of history. Not only dolls, but a great variety of other things, are given to the girls, for the Hina Matsuri is more particularly a festival for girls rather than for boys. The presents are arranged on tables, and there is general rejoicing in the household. Miniature tea and toiletry sets, miniature bureaus and wardrobes, and miniature houses are among the things a Japanese girl may receive at the time of the Hina Matsuri.
The Feast of Dolls

Fred thought the Japanese had surprising notions when compared with ours about the location of a temple in the midst of all sorts of entertainments. He was fascinated to find the temple surrounded with booths for singing and dancing and other amusements, and was very sure that such a thing would not be allowed in America. Doctor Bronson answered that the subject had been discussed before by people who had visited Japan, and various opinions had been formed concerning it. He thought it was not unlike some of the customs in Europe, especially in the more Catholic countries, where the people go to church in the forenoon and devote the afternoon to amusement. Japanese people do not see any wrong in going to their worship through an avenue of entertainments, and then returning to them. They say their prayers as a matter of devotion, and then apply themselves to innocent pleasure. They are firmly attached to their religious faith, and their recreations are a part of their religion.

People of various trades were working in the shops at Asakusa, and their way of operating was of much interest to our young friends. A barber was engaged in arranging the hair of a customer. The forehead had been shaven, and the hair at the back of the head was gathered into a knot and thickly plastered, so as to make it stick and remain in place when turned over into a short cue. The customer knelt on the ground in front of a box that contained the tools of the operator's trade, and by his side was a portable furnace for heating water. The whole equipment was of very little value, and the expense of fitting up a fashionable barber's shop in New York would send hundreds of Japanese barbers on their way rejoicing.

Close by was a clothes merchant, to whom a customer was making an offer, while the dealer was rubbing his head and vowing he could not possibly part with the garment at that price. Frank watched him to see how the affair terminated, and found it was very much as though the transaction had been in New York instead of Tokyo: the merchant, whispering he would never consent, consented, and the customer obtained the garment at his own figures when the vender found he could not obtain his own price. Haggling is the same all the earth over, and Frank thought he saw in this tale of a coat the touch of nature that makes the whole world kin.
Sport at Asakusa

Hundreds of pigeons were circling around the temple, or walking among the people that thronged the street. Nobody showed the slightest intention of harming them, and the consequence was they were very tame. Several stands were devoted to the sale of grain for the birds, and the sharp-eyed pigeons knew, when they saw the three strangers halt in front of one of the stands, that there was good prospect of a free breakfast. The Doctor bought a quart or more of the grain and threw it out upon the ground. Instantly there was a whirring of wings in the air, and in less time than it takes to say so the grain was devoured. The birds were rather shy of the visitors, and possibly it had been whispered to them that the foreigner likes his pigeons broiled or served up in pies. But they did not display any such timidity when the natives approached them. Some of the Japanese temples are the homes of a great number of pigeons, and in this respect, they resemble the mosques at Constantinople and other Muslim cities.

Close at hand is a stable where two beautiful ponies are kept. They are snowy white, and are consecrated to the goddess Ku-wanon, the deity of mercy, who is the presiding genius of the temple. They are in the care of a young girl, and it is considered a pious duty to feed them. Peas and beans are for sale outside, and many devotees contribute a few cash for the benefit of the sacred animals. If the poor beasts should eat a quarter of what is offered to them, or, rather, of what is paid for, they would soon die of overfeeding. It is shrewdly suspected that the grain is sold many times over, in consequence of a collusion between the dealers and the keeper of the horses. At all events, the health of the animals is regarded, and it would never do to give them all that is presented.

Frank found the air full of odors more or less heavy, and some of them quite exotic. They arose from numerous sticks of incense burned in honor of the gods, and which are irreverently called joss sticks by foreigners. The incense smoke is thought to waft the supplicant's prayer to heaven. The same idea obtains in the burning of a paper on which a prayer has been printed, the flame carrying the petition as it flies upward. Traces of a similar faith are found in the Roman Catholic and Greek churches, where candles have a prominent place in religious worship. In addition to the odor of incense, there was that of oil, in which a keeper of a tiny restaurant was frying some cuttlefish. The oil was of the sort known as "sesame," or barley, and the smell was of a kind that does not touch the Western nostril as agreeably as does that of lavender or Cologne water. Men were tossing balls in the air in front of the restaurant, quite unmindful of the strong odors, and seeming to enjoy the sport, and a woman and a boy were so busy over a game of battledoor and shuttlecock that they did not observe the presence of the strangers.
Spire of a Pagoda

Through this active scene of refreshment and recreation, our party strolled along, and at length came to the gateway of the temple, an enormous structure of wood like a house with triple eaves, and raised on pillars resembling the piers of a bridge. This is similar to the gateway that is found in front of nearly every Japanese temple, and is an imposing ornament. On either hand, as we pass through, we find two statues of lion-dogs, who guard the entrance, and are gotten up in the superlative degree of fierceness. When the Japanese give their attention to the preparation of an image of surpassing ugliness, they generally succeed, and the same is the case when they search after the beautiful. Nothing can be uglier in feature than the giants at Asakusa, and what is there more gracefully beautiful than the Japanese bronzes that were shown in the great exhibitions at Philadelphia and Paris? Les extrêmes se touchent.

Fred thought he would propitiate the fierce statues in a roundabout way, and so he gave a small amount of money to some beggars that were sitting near the gateway.

Near the gateway was a pagoda or tower in seven stories, and it is said to be one of the finest in Japan. The Japanese pagoda is always built in an odd number of stories, three, five, seven, or nine, and it usually terminates, as does the one we are now contemplating, with a spire that resembles an enormous corkscrew more than anything else. It is of copper or bronze, and is a very beautiful ornament, quite in keeping with the edifice that it crowns. On its pinnacle there is a jewel, or something supposed to be one, a sacred emblem that appears very frequently in Japanese paintings or bronze-work. The edges of the little roofs projecting from each story were hung with bells that rang in the wind, but their noise was not sufficiently loud to render any inconvenience to the visitor, and for the greater part of the time they do not ring at all. The architecture of the pagoda is in keeping with that of the surrounding buildings, and thoroughly Japanese in all its features.
Japanese Temple

They passed the gateway and entered the temple. The huge building towered above them with its curved roof covered with enormous tiles, and its eaves projecting so far that they suggested an umbrella or the overhanging sides of a mushroom. Frank admired the graceful curves of the roof, and wondered why nobody had ever introduced them into architecture in America. The Doctor told him that the plan had been tried in a few instances, but that architects were generally timid about innovations, and, above all, they did not like to borrow from the Far Easterners. Fred thought they ought to be willing to take anything that was good, no matter where they found it, and Frank echoed his sentiment.

"When I build a house," said Fred, "I will have a roof on it after the Japanese style, or, at any rate, something suggestive of it. The Japanese roof is pretty and graceful, and would look well in our landscape, I am sure. I don't see why we shouldn't have it in our country, and I'll take home some photographs so that I can have something to work from."

Frank hinted that for the present the house that Fred intended to build was a castle in the air, and he was afraid it would be some time before it assumed a more substantial form.

"Perhaps so," Fred answered, "but you wait awhile, and see if I don't do something that will astonish our neighbors. I think it will do more practical good to introduce the Japanese roof into America than the Japanese pillow."

They agreed to this, and then Frank said it was not the place to waste their time in discussions. They could talk these matters over in the evening, and meanwhile they would look further at the temple and its surroundings.

The boys were somewhat disappointed at the appearance of the interior of the temple. They had expected an imposing edifice like a cathedral, with stately columns supporting a high roof, and with an air of solemn stillness pervading the entire building. They ascended a row of broad steps, and entered a doorway that extended to half the width of the front of the building. The place was full of worshippers mingled with a liberal quantity of pigeons, votive offerings, and dirt. Knowing the Japanese love for cleanliness in their domestic life, it was a surprise to the youths to find the temple so much neglected as it appeared to be. They mentioned the matter to Doctor Bronson, who replied that thousands of visitors came there daily, and after it was swept in the morning the place soon became soiled, and a renewal of the cleansing process would be a serious inconvenience to the devotees.
Shrine of the Goddess Ku-Wanon

People of all types were coming and going, and saying their prayers, without regard to each other. The floor was crowded with worshippers, some in rags and others in silks, some in youth and others in old age, some just learning to talk and others trembling with the weight of years. Beggars, soldiers, officers, merchants, women, and children knelt together before the shrine of the goddess whom they reverenced, and whose mercy and watchful care they implored. The boys were impressed with the scene of devotion, and reverently paused as they moved among the pious Japanese. They respected the unquestioning faith of the people in the power of their goddess, and had no inclination to the feeling of derision that is sometimes shown by visitors to places whose sanctity is not in accord with their own views.

But very soon Frank had occasion to bite his lip to suppress a smile when he saw one of the Japanese throw what an American schoolboy would call a "spitball" at the head of the great image that stood behind the altar. Then he observed that the whole figure of the god was covered with these balls, and he knew there must be some meaning to the action that he at first thought so funny. He called Fred's attention to the matter, and then asked the Doctor what it meant.

"It is a way they have," replied the Doctor, "of addressing their petitions to the deity. A Japanese writes his prayer on a piece of paper, or buys one already written. Then he chews it to a pulp, and throws it at the god. If the ball sticks, the omen is a good one, and the prayer will be answered. If it rebounds or falls, the sign is unlucky, and the petitioner must begin over again. I have been told," continued Doctor Bronson, "that some of the dealers in printed prayers apply a small quantity of glue to them so as to insure their sticking when thrown at the divinity."

In front of the great altar stood a box like a large trough, and into this box each worshipper threw a handful of copper cash or small coin before saying his prayers. There were two or three bushels of this coin in the trough, and it is said that frequently the contributions amount to a hundred dollars' worth in a single day. The money thus obtained is expended in repairing and preserving the building, and goes to support the priests attached to the temple.

    The Boy Travelers - Japan and China by Thomas W. Knox The Boy Travelers by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 8: Sights in the Eastern Capital of Japan


Study the chapter for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the chapter.
  • Review the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.


Bathhouse: A building with baths for communal use.
Fire Lookout: A lookout tower to search for fires in a forest or city.
Daimyo: A lord during the Japanese feudal period.
Samurai: In feudal Japan, a soldier who served a daimyo.
Yashiki: A residence or estate of a daimyo.
Lotus: A kind of aquatic plant.
Temple: A house of worship dedicated to a polytheistic (multiple gods) faith.
Shrine: A holy or sacred place dedicated to the worship of a specific deity, ancestor, hero, martyr, saint, or similar figure of awe and respect.
Pagoda: An Asian religious building, especially a multistory Buddhist tower, erected as a shrine or temple.
Altar: A table or similar flat-topped structure used for religious rites.


Activity 1: Narrate the Chapter

  • Narrate the events aloud in your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Chapter Pictures

  • Study the chapter pictures and describe how each relates to the story.

Activity 3: Observe the Modern Equivalent

  • Examine the chapter setting in modern times: The city of Tokyo, Japan.

Activity 4: Map the Chapter

  • Find the country of Japan on the map of the world.
  • Find the Japanese capital city of Tokyo.

Activity 5: Map the Chapter on a Globe

  • Repeat the mapwork from Activity 4 on a three-dimensional globe.