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Memoirs of Robert Dollar
Vol. 1 - Chapter Five. The Return Voyage via Japan

After leaving China, on our return trip we had a strong northeast monsoon. We kept in sight of the China coast until we reached the north, end of the Island of Formosa. We then crossed the China Sea and saw the south end of Japan, and in going between the islands at the south end of the Sea of Japan we saw Korea. We then went up the Japan Sea, most of the time keeping in sight of the Island of Nippon (Japan). We reached the Straits of Tsugaru the sixth day from Hong Kong. The Strains of Tsugaru connect the Sea of Japan with the Pacific Ocean and divide the Islands of Nippon and Hokkaido. Hakodate is on the extreme southern end of the Island of Hokkaido, and Aomori, which is on the north end of the Island of Nippon, is a terminus of the railroad that runs the entire length of Nippon.


Hakodate is a very nice harbor, where ships lay at anchor, as it is protected from all winds except from the north or northeast. The harbor is circular, and the town is mostly on the west side. The streets are wide and well laid out. From the harbor the town has a good appearance, but ashore it does not look so well. Close to the water's edge the houses are low and small. The Custom House is a good, imposing building, and there are many other very nice buildings for a Japanese city. There were about twenty steamers of all sizes and also a great many fishing schooners and quite a number of sailing vessels, which make this their home port and headquarters for the West Alaska fisheries. The regular steamers run from Yokohama and other ports in Japan to all ports on the Island of Hokkaido. A great deal of seaweed is exported for food to China. Sulphur is brought in small vessels from the north of this island and from other small islands north and east and is trans-shipped here to various parts of the world. Altogether it is rather a lively place. The population is entirely Japanese, there being not more than half a dozen Europeans.

We took a Japanese steamer from here for Otaru, on this island. When buying our tickets we were told they had only Japanese food on board and to govern ourselves accordingly, so we took sandwiches, etc. At supper we fared all right by using our own bread, but came off rather short at breakfast as the only things we could eat were rice and eggs. It. would have been impossible for us to eat the food they had until we had become accustomed to it.

When we arrived at Otaru it was blowing a blizzard and was very cold as they were having a big snow storm. A few days before this we had been wearing our white clothes in a tropical climate so this took our breath away and it was hours before we got warmed up as the houses were not heated at all. having only the small "hibashi" to stoop over, in which was a handful of lighted charcoal. The streets are very narrow and crooked here on the waterfront, but back on the hill they are wide and well laid out. This harbor, like Hakodate, is exposed to the northeast and well protected by high walls on all other sides. Great improvements are going on in the way of making streets and erecting buildings. A railroad runs from Muroran up the center of the island, and this city is connected by rail with a branch that connects with the main line about sixty miles away. A great deal of coal is shipped from this port. Six good sized steamers were here from England discharging cargoes of railroad iron, locomotives and cars for a new railroad that is building from here to Hakodate. Quite a large sawmill is in operation, having English machinery. American sawmill machinery and railroad equipment are the best in the world, but lack of enterprise on our part enables the British merchants to supply inferior machinery. This mill is sawing logs brought in by rail from the north of the island and which are all hewn square in the woods. The wood looks a good deal like our pine. There is a big demand for lumber and it goes into consumption as soon as it is manufactured.

This is also a great fishing place. The boats were all upon the shore and housed in for the winter, the season being over.


We took the tram for Sapporo, the capital, which is about twenty-five miles distant. It is situated in a beautiful and fertile valley about ten miles from the ocean. The city was laid out by American engineers in the most approved style, many streets being one hundred feet wide. It is well built and a very fine city. I saw as many telephone wires on poles here as I ever saw in San Francisco, and this is entirely a Japanese city. No Europeans are here unless it might be a very few missionaries.

We stopped at a house which had been built as a temporary summer residence for the Mikado; a few rooms are set apart for the accommodation of the few foreigners that come this way. However for a Japanese hotel it was very comfortable, and we had good American food.


We left for Muroran and passed through a fine, level valley so wide we often could not see the hills on either side; then we got into a low, hilly country, all heavily wooded. Many small mills were cutting lumber, and ties were being made extensively. The ground being covered with snow, they were hauling with sleds the same as they do in Canada and Michigan.

Muroran is situated on the south side of a bay, very well protected from most any wind and there is plenty of room for many vessels. The principal industry is the shipping of coal, and there is no doubt that this will develop into a big trade. The town is quite hilly, and the streets are fairly straight and well laid out. The entire community is Japanese, mostly poor people who are depending on work from the coal company. There are many very fair stores and several hotels. We stayed at the best one. which is conducted in regular Japanese style. The bedrooms have no furniture at all. We got mats to sit cross legged on, and when night came our beds were made on the floor with one mattress to lay on and one on the top of us with a Wbashi to warm us. There were no wash-stands, but every one had to wash at the one stand and the one bath, in which men and women bathed indiscriminately. The hotel office has the ground for a floor, and every one is obliged to take off his shoes there. Then they supply him with a pair of slippers, which are worn to the bedroom and left outside the door. If you have occasion to go upstairs ten limes a day the same process has to be gone through.

When one arrives at the hotel the first time the clerk goes on his knees and makes a very low bow, making one feel most uncomfortable. There is no furniture in any of the rooms; even when eating one sits on the floor and the food is brought in on a tray.

The natives were all engaged in harvesting roots, called "daikon," which looks like white carrots but much larger and longer, running from two to three feet long and as much as two inches in diameter. They are washed clear and hung up to dry. Then we understand they are taken down and salted, or put in about the same shape as sauerkraut. It is a staple article of food, as everywhere we went we saw great quantities drying at every house.

At this time they had not been used to seeing Americans, and everywhere we went we had a retinue of from one to two hundred persons following us. One day we went into a candy store to buy candy made out of seaweed, and the crowd filled the street so full we could not get out. The American Consul from Hakodate happened to be passing, and. as he talked Japanese, he inquired the cause of the mob. They said they had two foreigners in the store and were having fun with them, that the woman had on strange clothes and wore a hat (a thing unknown in that part of Japan). He gave them a talk, and we were released. Now foreigners come and go, and they never even get so much as a glance.

This preliminary trip to Hokkaido convinced me that considerable trade could be worked up between the three chief seaports (Hakodate, Otaru, Muroran) and America. I was pleased with the quality of the oak, and bought six oak railroad ties and took them to San Francisco. This was the first oak taken from Japan to the United States. We tried those pieces out by making them into furniture, which proved to be satisfactory. We then made contracts to deliver large quantities of ties to the Southern Pacific Company, who were to start at Guaymas, Mexico, in extensive railroad building the following year. The first cargo of ties I inspected myself to show the Japanese exactly what we wanted. To show the freaks of commerce—this year the steamer "Hazel Dollar" took a cargo of Oregon fir ties from Puget Sound to Tientsin, China, and, returning, loaded a cargo of oak ties in Japan for Mexico. After this we bought a quantity of oak logs and sold them in San Francisco and Los Angeles. This developed into a large and satisfactory business, requiring many steamers to carry the logs in future years.

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