Japan

Eliza Scidmore traveled widely throughout her life, but she was most passionate about Japan and came to be known as an expert on the country. She often lectured about Japan and wrote about her experiences there for many newspapers and magazines.

Jinrikisha Days in Japan was her second book.

Sidmore made her first trip to Japan in 1885. It was a time when Americans and Europeans were clamoring to learn about the “island empire” that had been closed to most outsiders until the mid-19th century.

Christopher Benfey has written a wonderful book about some notable Americans of that time who were heavily influenced by their exposure to Japanese culture, people such as the painter John LaFarge, the writer Lafcadio Hearn and Isabella Gardner, who built a museum of fine arts in Boston. I love the title: The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics and the Opening of Old Japan.

The woodblock print shown here, “Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Hokusai (c. 1830), from a series called “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji,” is one of the best known symbolic images of Japan.

An excellent resource for understanding what Japan looked like to visitors in the late 19th century — so-called “globetrotters” — is a series of online essays developed by MIT’s Visualizing Cultures project.

Here are a couple of sumptuous photographs of Japan during that period, from a 10-volume set of encyclopedic essays compiled by Captain Frank Brinkley (photo source: MIT unit on Japan). The books were lavishly illustrated with hand-colored photos by local photographers, and all the photos had to be pasted individually onto the pages.

The pictures here of Yokohama show what the town looked like around the time Eliza Scidmore went there. Around the turn of the century she and her mother had a home in Yokohama along the Bund, an avenue overlooking the harbor.

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