HOUSEKEEPING IN FOREIGN LANDS
A JAPANESE HOME
By Helen Strong Thompson
June 9th, 1888
Life and customs in a Japanese family of good blood and training in Japan, embodies much of picturesque interest. To the foreignor so fortunate as to find an entrance within, such a home is a perpetual surprise and delight. In one such we were a favored guest, during our stay in the Empire, where the household consisted of parents, two grown daughters, two little girls and three sons, one an infant, with their grandmother, three nurses and a large retinue of servants. Was this charming household to be called "pagan," "heathen?" - this home full to repletion of refinement, patriotism, noble arts and culture? A suggestive history was here likewise. The father was a patriot indeed, having yielded his revenues and princely title without a murmur, for the nation's weal, under the new reign. The lady-mother and eldest daughter were peers to the ladies of any land in beauty, ornament, elegant dress, skill in household management, and in the arts of social and polite life as prescribed by etiquette.
This mother was as strong in tenderness, patience and long-suffering, for and with her children, as the mothers of America, and equally faithful and assiduous in their training and education. She taught her daughters as her mother had taught her, that the three fundamental duties of woman are obedience to her parents when a child, to her husband when married, and to her eldest son if she becomes a widow. She also instructed them in the ordering of the whole conduct of life; household and social management, moral and physical duties, letter-writing, proverbs, poems, and all enforced by tales of noble women.
Boys and girls were both drilled in the histories of Japan and China, and in the traditionary, heroic and mythological lore of their own land. The sons were trained to manly sports and exploits, and were taught to overcome obstacles by the symbol over the massive outer door, where swung the huge paper carp, suspended from a bamboo pole, ever reminding the youth of Japan how the carp leaps the waterfall.
It was a grand old roof which sheltered this household, a house of solid timber, sixty feet broad by one hundred deep, with lofty rooms and long, wide corridors. Its one story had an immense and imposing sloping roof, which covered fourteen apartments and many balconies. The sliding partitions could all be removed and make, on occasion, a noble hall with many columns. The ceiling was made of fine-grained wood and fifteen feet from the floor.
This home was shielded from the street by a wall of tiles, built with cement and lined with a row of firs of mighty girth. The main gate was supported by heavy tree-trunks and covered with an ornamental roof. Just inside was the porter's lodge. Near this lodge was a clump of evergreens, and underneath their shadow stood an ark cut from solid stone, about four feet high. This was the family shrine for treasuring sacred mementoes and religious emblems. Just beyond was a rockery of great beauty, where fountains tossed their spray and toyed with sun and moonbeams. Here and there the mockungi tree shed its purple blossoms to the breeze from lofty heights, while azaleas and starry asters bloomed beneath its foot.
All about the garden camellias of brilliant red or purest white unfolded their lovely buds from low-growing shrubs, while now and then a camellia tree, towering fifty feet in the air, entranced the eye with its wax-like blossoms. Moats of running water were bounded by stone walls, moss-covered and flower decked, where darted and dived the various tribes of fish. Here grew and bloomed the lotus, king among the flowers of Japan. Here came happy children, looking upon its wondrous beauty with unspeakable delight. Into this charming garden the infant was carried by its nurse and grew up the playmate of butterflies, bees and birds.
The dining-room of this house, with its cool matted floors and soft, luxurious cushions, was characteristic of the house. The low table was always decked with flowers in costly vases of bronze, and not infrequently boughs of the blossoming trees were hung about the walls. Huge pyramids of half-peeled oranges and sliced sponge cake whetted the appetite for more substantial food. At luncheon hour obsequious servants appeared with laquered trays, of dainty plates and confections, and tiniest cups of tea set in metal sockets. When we were served, they bowed with foreheads to the floor and disappeared.
While dining we found upon the board a fine fish and leg of venison, a goose or duck, with sweet potatoes and eggs, a basket of pears and oranges, or a tray of persimmons, sweet potato custard, cakes and lemon jelly.
Often we have sat in the wide corridors, during the noonday heats, watching the ladies weave their rich emroideres or paint on silk; or paced the garden paths with rare delight while the moonlight sifted through the tall firs, silvering the spray of the fountains and illuminating the lotus blossoms in the moat - listening to tales from the quaint grandmother, or the courtly speech of the father of the dwellers in this old home more than two hundred years ago; or the many births and deaths beneath this roof; of the sickness, and joyous banquet and marriage; of the many festivals - the Feast of the Dolls - for the girls, when, year after year, the great nursery was decked with blooming boughs and the many toys in which Japan abounds, while beautiful mimic life of motherhood and housekeeping prevailed for one entire day; of the Feast of the Banners, when the boys were marched out in triumph to the streets with emblazoned banners to enact a mimic war; of the New Year day, when master and servants pledged anew their devotion to each other; of the religious festivals, when the household, like a great heart, beat for the birth and death, the joy and sorrow of its tenantry.
Here the child had come to thrill the parents [sic] hearts with joy, and after one hundred days had been taken to the temple, where the shaven priest had written a charm and placed it in the child's prayer-bag. Here, for two centuries, the daughters had been given in marriage without spoken vow or priestly rite, but by gift and song, dance and cheer began their new career. From thence, down through the shadow of these mighty trees, had gone forth the funeral cortege to the cremarium, with a hearse of pure white wood, borne on the shoulders of men, followed by mourners with muffled swords, and women in pure white robes and caps of floss-silk. Then prayers had been read, bells tinkled, candles lighted, and the body of the loved one was laid on the pyre, after which the fires were lighted by the brothers of the dead. When all was over, the ashes were deposited in the family urn, while in the oratory of this house, where the sacred lights and incense burn, another gilt-lettered tablet was set among the ancestral names, to be honored by later generations.
Thus, these walls had echoed with song and laughter, with cries and sobs. Each day we realized what a home it had been - not like ours, but none the less a home, for all the completeness of life had sanctified it.
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy these:
Home Fashions and Fancies—Japanese influenced (1889)
Japanese Folk Lore
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