“Is there just one Sitwell? No, there are Sacheverell.”

—Ogden Nash

I just received The Bridge of the Brocade Sash as a birthday present from my father. It’s a perfectly thoughtful gift because it’s (a) an old travel book about Japan and (b) a first edition (1959) with an original dust jacket of an obscure work by Sir Sacheverell Sitwell. Old books about Japan are enormously interesting to me because they highlight the rapid transformation of Japanese society and the evolving Western attitude towards the Japanese people.

Japan has changed—the world has changed—so much since 1959, and I’m fascinated by the small, telling details.

Introduction and Chapter One

Sitwell writes in great detail about his flight from London to Copenhagen, then over the North Pole, stopping in Alaska, and on to Yokohama (the airport nearest Tokyo at that time, pre-Narita airport). He includes a description of the orange juice he was served on the plane and notes various Americanisms he sees in the Anchorage airport at 2 am: “advertisements for roadhouses serving ‘cheeseburgers’ and hot dogs.” Apparently, the terms “success stories” and “movie” were also new ones to the baronet.“We are moving at enormous speed, catching up with that fragment of a day which began at Anchorage….”

He reports it took 29 hours to reach Japan from Copenhagen. A quick look at Orbitz tells me one can do it today non-stop at enormous speed in 12 hours.

Another comment: “The trans-Polar journey is among the wonders of our age, though becoming no more of a commonplace than it is to fly higher than the summit of Mount Everest.” I envy this guy his feeling of adventure as he rides in an airplane.

But here’s some perspective about the flight Sitwell and his wife made on 19 August 1958: the first commercial trans-Polar flight was on 24 February 1957. SAS flew passengers from Copenhagen to Anchorage to Tokyo in a DC-7C (a propeller aircraft, not a jet). SAS’s website claims the trans-Polar route “shaved the flight time between Scandinavia and Japan from 50 to 32 hours.” But they had better in-flight meals back then, I know because Sitwell tells us how often and well he ate.

Sitwell was born in 1897 and, as a member of the British aristocracy, his serenely privileged and anachronistic point of view is at once grating and delightful. In the Introduction, he writes:

To my cousins Isla and Jessica Sitwell I am indebted for everything that made our stay in Japan easy and pleasant. […] It was pleasant indeed to live in a Japanese household presided over by their majordomo, Okamura-san.

Cue The Mikado for this next one on page 25:

I must have fallen asleep, myself, to be woken only a few minutes later, so it seemed by a tap on the door, by the sunlight streaming through that, and one after another, two, three, four, little figures of maids, bowing and bringing in breakfast, one of them carrying the coffee pot, another the milk and sugar, another a newspaper, and another a peach, sliced thin. Coming nearer one could see their sleek black hair and slanting eyes. So started our first morning in Japan.

Does he dare to eat a peach? Adventures with Sacheverell to be continued…