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Letter from Gertrude Bell to her stepmother, Dame Florence Bell

Letter from Gertrude Bell to her stepmother Florence Bell, written over the course of several days from the 8th to the 13th of March.

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Bell, Dame Florence Eveleen Eleanore
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
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1 letter, paper

35.6761919, 139.6503106

Tokyo. Tuesday March 8 Dearest Mother. Where, where shall I begin! If I were to tell you all the delicious things we have seen and done during the last 3 days, I should write a letter as long as from here to Redcar. However, concerning what follows, as you say in Arabic: When we woke up on Saturday morning we found ourselves lying in Yokohama harbour, a grey day, bitter cold, and the roofs all white with what I tried to believe were plum blossoms, but turned out to be snow! After breakfast Mr Scott, M [Maurice] and I, Mr Mainwaring and Mr de Rutzen jumped into a sampan and were rowed ashore by two little blue clad gentlemen muffled up to the eyes. Then came our first Japanese experience, a rickshaw. You get into a little perambulator, a blue man in a mushroom hat picks up the shafts and trots off with you at about 6 miles an hour - it's too amusing! His name is written on his hat in English and his address (I imagine) in large white Japanese letters on his blue cotton back. We went to the post office and then to the hotel, which is very comfortable. My room looked out over the bay and there was a bright fire in it. Having established ourselves we got into rickshaws and drove to various parts of the town, shopping and making arrangements for having things cleaned, photographs developed etc. Everything is marvellous cheap. Your (human) horse and carriage is 2/ for the whole day; 12 photographs developed and printed 2/6d and so forth. Yokohama consists of a European settlement, partly down by the bay and partly up on a hill called the Bluff, and a wide spreading Jap town of 2 storied wooden houses, all shops. After lunch we took the train and in an hour found ourselves in Tokyo. The line runs along the bay through a screen landscape, dotted over with houses, pines, rice fields, bamboos and plums in full flower in spite of the sprinkle of snow. The little people trot along on their high wooden pattens, the clank of which is like dropping water, but almost deafening in a crowded railway station - the sound of Japan just as some curious aromatic musky thing is its smell. We got into rickshaws and drove about leaving our letters of introduction. Tokyo is enormous, the area of London; you start out gaily for a place and find it is 6 miles away. It's all full of gardens and open spaces and cryptomeria groves shading temples. After we had done our business we went to a big bazaar, streets and streets of little stores, roofed over, selling every sort of thing. We passed through real Jap streets to get to it - the joy of all those little shops! The people were everywhere sitting bundled up in their wadded clothes over a pan of charcoal. I exchanged confidences with my horse about the weather - in Japanese! Says I: "It is cold"; then seeing that he was mopping his brow with a sky blue cotton handkerchief I remarked, "Is it hot?" He took off his Quangle wangle hat and tucked it under the seat, saying "It is very hot, honourable young lady esquire" and a lot more to which I had to reply Wakarimasen, I don't understand, whereupon the conversation ended, as all conversations do end in Japan, with peals of laughter. We got back to Yokohama at 5 o'clock. After dinner Mr Walford came to see us and presently carried M off to the club and I went to bed very tired and slept till 10 when a blue gnome came in and lighted my fire. I breakfasted and went out in a rickshaw. When I came in M. was up and we took a little stroll up the Bluff. It was a delicious sunny day, cold but heavenly and the bay all glittering in the sun. I then went off to my shirt maker who lives in a tiny matted shop in the Japanese quarter; he saluted me à quatre pattes and I ordered 4 linen skirts, to ride in and they cost £1 the four! When I came in I found a Chinese tailor waiting for me; he had on a pigtail and a blue cap with a little red button on top, a long blue wadded robe to Bellow his knees, a bright yellow robe Bellow that, white leggings and black shoes with thick white felt soles! I ordered a silk gown and two cotton ones for my next journey in the tropics - the sum total is £5. After lunch Mr Walford called for us, we drove off in rickshaws with two men pulling each of us, along a Japanese street, and up the Bluff right into the country. Then we got out and walked in and out among little villages and pine trees and delicious places and so back to Mr Walfords's house where we had tea. He turned out drawers full of embroideries for us, quantitites of ivories and a pile of exquisite kimonos for me to try on and I came away with a handfull [sic] of strips of Chinese embroideries to decorate my skirt withal. We had a very merry dinner; Mr Mainwaring, Mr de Rutzen and Mr Walford (I need not say!). After dinner in came Mr Adam and told us long tales of his newspaper office and his Jap printers - extraordinary funny. Monday morning was delicously bright and fine. M. and I and Mr Mainwaring (Mr de Rutzen had gone to Tokyo) took bicycles and went for miles through the Jap town. We got off and walked, examining all the shops and the people sitting on their white mats with a tiny plum tree flowering in a pot beside them and a group of babies playing on the step. It seems to be a law in Japan that no woman over 6 should appear in public without a baby on her back. We got into the street of theatres which was a most amusing place. The theatres were all decorated with flowers and long streamers of different colours and people were hanging round the box offices - the play begins at 7 AM and lasts till 7 P.M! Presently on a hill above us we saw the tall gateways of a Shinto temple, so leaving our bicycles with a rickshaw man, we climbed up flights of stairs between plum trees in full flower till we reached the little bare temple. And there a christening was going on and we sat and watched a white robed priest performing the ceremony until the mother and grandmother bowed themselves away with the tiny bundled up baby, and then we wandered round behind the temple and suddenly between the trees we caught sight of a great snowy cone far away. It was Fuji - our first vision of the sacred mountain. The next thing we came to was a delicious house with matted floors and sliding paper walls. A bowing personage presented himself of whom I asked whether there was honourable tea. He said there was and would we be honourably seated. Off with our shoes and in we went, sat down on the mats with our stockinged toes against a box of charcoal and drank green tea in little thin cups, after which we paid him 6d and said Sayonara to which he replied Please come again. Then back to the hotel to lunch. After lunch we came to Tokyo where we found Mr de Rutzen waiting for us at our inn. We jumped into rickshaws and flew off to the Buddhist temple of Shiba, one of the wonders of Japan, gateway after gateway of carved and lacquered wood, court after court, cloistered with lacquer pillars, planted with pines and here and there an exquisite plum or almond, and in the middle of each a gem of a temple glowing with gold lacquer. St Mark's is the only place approaching these in colour. They are dedicated each to a dead shogun and behind each is a little court containing the plain stone and bronze tomb of the great man and a grove of cryptomeria backs it all.
We dined at the Legation. If you could have seen M and me starting out to dinner under a full moon drawn along by a trotting blue gnome! Sir Ernest is a delightful creature; besides us there was a dull English couple, travellers, and a secretary of sorts, rather nice, which his name is Gubbins. We had an amusing dinner and Sir E. showed us lots of beautiful things. This morning at 10.30 appeared Mr Mainwaring and Mr de Rutzen for the day. We took rickshaws with two men each, very swell, and went along long way to the tombs of more Shoguns, exquisitely lovely, then to a tea house where we we lunched at the Japanese, sitting cross legged on mats. We fired off phrases out of Murray upon our waiting maid and she brought us first weak tea, then an hors d'oeuvre of pickled vegetables in a tiny bowl, then four bowls of boiled rice and broiled fish, quite good, then more tea and saki which is a sort of sour wine. We eat with chop sticks, not very tidily and all the geishas peeped in at the windows and laughed. The room was quite bare except for a kakemono hanging up in a recess and a vase under it. Next we went to the temple of the Goddess of Mercy at Asakusa, a popular shrine surrounded by streets of booths and peep shows of every sort. We visited them extensively, wax works, wild beast which you fed with little bits of meat on a long stick, tanks of fish which you fed with a rod and line, dwarf gardens and countless more things. Then to the play where we arrived about 3 and stayed till past 5. We had the stage box; you are by way of sitting on the floor which Mr Mainwaring and I did; the other two sat on chairs so as to see over our heads. Between the acts they brought us tea and things. Of course we did not know at all what it was about, but the acting was wonderful and the stage managing extremely good. The women were men, but most attractive and graceful. There was a charming scene between two of them in which one told the other a sad tale and they both wept, the whole theatre following suit. You never heard such a sniffing, everyone was in tears, men and women. We got in at 6 and Mr M. and Mr de R. went back to Yokohama. There is a furious wind tonight and the dust!!!

Wed 9. [9 March 1898] Many happy returns to Elsa - I wish she had been here to spend the day with us. Our two little friends arrived at 10, we got into rickshaws and drove for miles till we came to some lovely Shogun tombs where a Buddhist priest showed us round. Bright sunshine was lying in all the peaceful courts and the colour of everything was divine. When we had done our sightseeing very exhaustively we went to the big bazaar I told you of and shopped all sorts of little nothings which was most amusing. After lunch we went miles in the other direction to a plum garden where we sat and had tea under white plum trees. Then to a wonderful Japanese garden, a typical garden with everything in miniature so that you get a whole landscape into a few square yards and then to the famous curio street which we pottered down looking into all the shops. A most successful day.

Thurs 10. [10 March 1898] Bitter cold again. M [Maurice] and I did a little sightseeing and lunched at the Bellgian Legation with Baroness d'Anethan. She is a sister of the Haggards. She and her husband were alone, it was very pleasant; they were most friendly. After lunch we came back to Yokohama - it felt quite like coming home. M and I dined with Mr Walford and went to a concert. An Englishman called Plummer was of the party which was quite merry. The concert was rather feeble.

Fri. 11. [11 March 1898] It snowed a little in the early morning but cleared up and became quite nice and snowy. Mr Walford sent me down his pony to try; M. [Maurice] wasn't very fit he had caught a chill, so I took Mr Mainwaring with me and we had a delicious ride out into the country. After lunch he and I sallied forth with our cameras and took snap shots in the streets. Mr Adam dined with us.

Sat 12. [12 March 1898] We have had a delightful day. Mr Mainwaring, Mr de R [de Rutzen], M [Maurice] and I started off at 9 o'clock riding, picked up Mr Walford and came down to this most charming place Kamakura, about 20 miles from Yokohama. The ride was lovely, in and out over endless little hills and valleys, through villages white with plum trees, past shrines and temples and woods and rice fields. The roads were all soft paths through the fields so that we cd go any pace we liked all the way. We got here at 12 and found our luggage which had been brought down by the men who had come to fetch our ponies. After lunch we started out in rickshaws and spent the afternoon dawdling in and out of beautiful temples. I can't tell you how wonderful they are and the extraordinary sense of peace about them all. The plum trees lift white branches over the shrines and camellias drop their scarlet flowers upon all the paths. This place was once a great capital; it was washed away by a tidal wave in the 15th[?] century, but there remains one masterpiece of the old time, a colossal Bronze Buddha. His temple was carried out to sea; and he sits all alone in a beautiful garden with bronze lotus plants in front of him and he is the most solemn and impressive thing in Japan -the only great thing that we have seen yet. The village is delicious; endless little shops and bamboo houses with their paper screens drawn back so that you see the shining floors and the white matting and the branch of plum in a blue and white pot; and then long long avenues of cryptomerias and great gates leading up to terrace after terrace of temple. Mr Plummer appeared at tea time, he is also here over Sunday. We are the only people in the hotel. We had a merry evening and went early to bed.

Sun 13 [13 March 1898] Alas! today it streamed with rain and blew a hurricane so we determined to return to Yokohama. It was not easy! there was such a gale that our rickshaws could scarcely get along, we missed our train in consequence and after waiting for half an hour at the station, during which time we amused ourselves by playing Up Jenkins on the waiting room table, we found that the next train went indeed to Yokohama, but wouldn't put down passengers there! These are the pleasures of travel in Japan! We all went back to the inn and lunched, after which we succeeded in taking a train that would have us and were back at 3. There was deep snow all along the line. M. [Maurice] dined out with Mr Adam and I dined here with the good old English couple we met at the Legation, Mr and Mrs Windeler. I felt extremely shivery, but they plied me with brandy and hot bottles. I went to bed extremely warm and am all right this morning.

Mon 14. [14 March 1898] Bright and fine, snow melted, we all feel cheerful. Now as to our plans. We think of staying here till towards the end of April because as we are here we might as well see Japan under other conditions than snow. Next month all the cherry blossoms will be out and the country is a vision. We propose vaguely going up country to Myanoshita, under Fuji on Thursday - returning here Monday 21st, Nikko 25th, 31st we two Mr M. [Mainwaring] and Mr de R. [de Rutzen] will make a little 10 days expedition into real Japan taking a guide. Back to Tokyo in time for the Emperor's Garden Party if possible. April 14th to Kyoto, leave there about the 22nd. We haven't yet found out about steamers, but we are going to do that and then telegraph to you. I'm sure you will agree that it seems wise to prolong our visit - we shall probably never be here again! We shall not be home till quite the end of June but that doesn't really matter. It's such luck having these two charming boys to travel about with, M. [Maurice] spends all his odd moments with them and is never bored which is a great relief to my mind. Not that M. is not the most delightful and amenable travelling companion; but under these circumstances I never feel any responsibility about him because I always know he is quite happy. Today Mr M. and I have had a charming time. We went up to Tokyo in the morning and photographed in the Shiba temples. After lunch we came back by train, got out half way at a little roadside station and went to a great Shinto temple where we were shown round by a dear old sort of a sacristan who took us all over the temple and the monastic buildings and schools and in and out of delightful Japanese gardens where we photographed to our hearts' content. Finally our priest (he talked French of a kind not known in Paris) took us in to his house and gave us tea and cakes made of chalk and sugar and when we went away presented us with some little wood carvings. We got back to Yokohama at 5 o'clock. M. has been spending an idle day, he has not been very fit lately but he is getting better. You may think it odd that I shd go touring round with stray young men, but I think it too far away to matter. I feel like Sue - I have made a lot of brothers! Mr M. is a great dear and loves pottering round and taking photographs and poking into shops and besides he is young enough to be my grandson! So please don't be shocked. We will call at the Post Office Hong Kong for letters. We shall have letters forwarded from the Legation tomorrow afternoon, but not in time to answer them by this mail. I was so relieved to get your telegram - I always think something awful may have happened! Ever your affectionate daughter Gertrude

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