A Japanese water healing pharmacopeia of 1874

Traditional healing takes many forms and can be found in unlikely places… John Billingsley came across some curious Japanese traditions  in an Orkney showcase.

On a trip to Orkney, I came across a page of a diary written by J J H Scharbau,1 a doctor visiting Japan in 1874 and evidently diligently collecting traditional cures as he travelled the world.

The doctor was evidently a friend of the Watt family of Skaill House, which stands a few hundred yards away from the Neolithic village of Skara Brae. The 7th Laird of this family, William Graham Watt, was responsible for spotting Skara Brae poking out of the sand after a storm in 1850, and excavating four of its houses. There are other prehistoric remains in the vicinity, indicating that the area of Skaill House has been in human employment for millennia – as they say in the field, ‘scratch Orkney and it bleeds archaeology’.

Skaill House is now in the care of Historic Scotland, and during refurbishments it was discovered that the house had been built on an early Norse cemetery – a skeleton was unearthed in the stair-hall. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the house and holiday apartments are said to be copiously haunted, although not necessarily by disgruntled Stone Agers – the current owner and manager both experienced a smell of fresh cigarette smoke.2

The doctor’s diary is in the possession of Skaill House, but unfortunately only two pages are on display – this fascinating transcript of some truly bizarre medicinal uses of water acquired from an equally bizarre range of sources really just whets the appetite for more of the same, especially by the reference in the opening paragraph to ‘equally mysterious remedies’! One wonders, however, if a caution should be attached: ‘Don’t try these at home’….but of course that’s just what people did.

Ancient Japanese Water Medicines taken from J.J.H. Scharbau’s diary, written in 1874:

“A great many of the remedies employed in the Pharmacy of Japan are equally mysterious, for example:

Rainwater collected in the 5th month (May) is valuable for bathing when suffering from skin diseases, that obtained during other [months] is used in preparing remedies for those suffering from worms.

Moonwater, which is obtained by means of a mirror in which the moon is reflected and the dew which collects at the same time on the surface is used externally for diseases of the eye and internally in cases of madness.

Hailwater is used for heart diseases.

Water percolated through the roof of a house is used internally when [one is] poisoned by mercury and externally for the bite of mad dogs.

Saltwater or seawater is externally used in syphilitic diseases, and internally as an emetic.

Stinking water, which collects round rotten wooden posts in the ground is used in cases of leprosy.

Water which collects in stone jars, in which a corpse is buried, is used in cases of madness.

Water in which serpents have been living is used to sure sores.

Water collected in ruts, or in holes made in the ground by the hoofs of horses or cows – particularly if collected on the 5th May3  – is used in diseases of cancer.

Water collected in ruts of yellow clay is used as an emetic when [one is] poisoned by plants or fishes.

Dirty water collected in pigsteps [pigsties?] is used externally to cure the bite of serpents and poisonous insects.

There are many more remedies of a similar kind….”



  1. I suspect this is the Johann (John) J.H.Scharbau listed in UK and German genealogy sites Ancestry and GEDBAS as born 1830 and died 1901. John J H Scharbau (GEDBAS and Vulkaner give his German name, Johann Joachim Heinrich Scharbau) was registered as an elector at 7 Morley Rd. in Lewisham 1890-91; he married Sybilla Facey Hine Barry (baptised Linton, Kent, 11-5-1834) at St Pancras Old Church on 7-11-1863. GEDBAS raises the possibility that he died in Japan; I cannot find Sybilla’s death, so she may have been with him.

Published in NE151 (December 2017), pp.23-24