The remarkable Isabella Bird came to Kyoto on this day nearly 140 years ago…    Her impressions of the city are all the more noteworthy given how few foreigners had ever visited the city. According to research by Eric Johnston in his article for the WiK Anthology 2017, up to 1872 only about a dozen foreigners had ever set foot in the old capital.  Bird recorded her account of the city in the engrossing Unbeaten Tracks (1881). The first edition was in two volumes. Later editions were in one volume, cutting half, including the section on Kyoto. You can find the first edition here, with the account of Kyoto starting from p. 224. (with thanks to Joe Cronin).


Nijosan Yashiki, Kyoto, October 30 [1878]

This is truly delightful. As the Hebrew poets loved to sing of mountain-girdled Jerusalem, so Japanese poetry extols Kyoto, which is encompassed, not with forest-smothered ranges like those of Northern Japan, but with hills more or less rugged, wood here, broken into grey peaks there, crimson with maples, or dark with pines, great outbreaks of yellowish rock giving warmth and varied, and the noble summit of Hiyeizan crowing the mountain wall which bounds the city on the north. On fine days, when the sun rises in pink and gold, and set in violet and ruddy orange, these mountains pass through colours which have no names, the higher ranges beyond the Gulf of Osaka look faintly through a veil of delicious blue, and I grudge the radiant hours passing, because rain and mist, persistently return to dim the picture.  There is a pleasure in being able to agree cordially with everyone, and every one loves Kiyoto.


I realised in half an hour that Kiyoto is unlike the other cities of Japan. It is the home of art, given up to beauty, dress, and amusement; its women are pretty, their coiffures and girlies are bewitching, surprises of bright colour lurk about their attire; the children are pictures, there is music everywhere; beautiful tea-houses and pleasure-grounds abound, and besides all this, the city is completely girdled by a number of the greatest temples in Japan, with palaces and palace gardens of singular loveliness on the slopes of its purple hills.

[There follows descriptions of the Christian mission schools in the city, as well as a visit to the house of Mr and Mrs Neesima, the former of whom was to become founder of Doshisha.]