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Home of Folktales

The city of Tono in Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan, is famous as the home of many folktales, old legends and mysterious stories featuring spirits, ghosts and other imaginative creatures. Some 119 mysterious stories handed down by word of mouth through the ages in Tono were compiled and released nearly a century ago in the book The Legends of Tono (Tono Monogatari), helping to pave a new path for the study of folklore in Japan. A journey of just under four hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen bullet train and transferring at Shin-Hanamaki Station, Tono even today boasts natural and rural scenery, from mist-shrouded hills to winding paths amongst rice paddies, that can mentally transport you easily to a scene from the world of Japan’s folktale.

The Legends of Tono: Origin of Japanese Folktales


Nostalgic rice paddy scenery that looks like it could have been conjured right out of a folktale. © Tono City Tourism Association

The city of Tono is located in a basin roughly 40 kilometers west of the Pacific Ocean, hit especially hard by the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan in March 2011. Since the 1910 publication of the The Legends of Tono, a classic collection recounting happenings, lore and customs of the Tono area, the city has been known as home to Japanese folklore. The city was largely spared the excesses that accompanied Japan’s era of rapid growth. Consequently, the city retains several spots where its classic scenery can still be seen. A folklore scholar and author of The Legends of Tono, Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962) is largely seen as laying the foundation for the study of folklore in Japan. In the preface to this book, he writes: “Within 40 kilometers from the town of Hanamaki there are only three towns; the rest of the area is green mountains and open fields.” Located just under a one-hour train ride from Shin-Hanamaki Station, the area, when viewed from the window of the old and conventional railway, is itself like a prologue of a story, a prologue of mountains and forests that roll gently onward.


The Chiba Family Residence, a typical magariya farmhouse, built on a wall of stones on the hill. Today only two such farmhouses are lived in within Tono City. © Tono City Tourism Association

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Tono formerly flourished as a castle town and a stop for people traveling between further inland and the coast. Today, Tono is still home to many precious remains that communicate how life was lived in this town for hundreds of years.

Head west 11 kilometers from Tono Station and you will find the Chiba Family Residence, a nationally designated important cultural property. The house is a type of farmhouse known as a nambu magariya (bent house). Its distinctive construction, from above the structure appears L shaped, with the main residence adjoined to the horse barn, was said to be common across the area until more than half a century ago. Built nearly 200 years ago, this farmhouse has a distinctly castle-like air. Boasting total floor space of 550 square meters, the farmhouse at one time housed as many as 25 people and 20 horses. That people and horses lived in the same building speaks to the lifestyle at this time in this cold, snowy northeastern area, where horses were treated like family members.

Kappa: Legendary Creature

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Left: Kappa sculptures on display in front of Tono Station. © Tono City Tourism Association
Right: The legendary Kappabuchi Pool where kappa are said to live.
© Tono City Tourism Association

Of the 119 tales recounted in The Legends of Tono, many have to do with lore attributing local natural phenomenons or disasters to the supernatural, such as spirits, ghosts or gods. In a forbidding climate where winter temperatures can plummet to 20 C below zero, these stories reflect both the closeness people felt to nature as well as the reverence and fear they felt toward it.

Another site of historical interest is a stream called the Kappabuchi Pool, located 11 kilometers northeast of Tono Station. Kappa refers to a legendary creature that is said to live in water, to have webbed hands and feet, and keep a moist, cap-like plate on its head. Kappa are said to be mischievous creatures, with a lighter side that involves tricks such as wrestling with children, and also said to drag down horses into rivers. Kappa appear in five of the Tono tales and have come to symbolize such folktales. They are also visible around town, decorating it in the form of art objects and also appearing on many souvenir goods. At first glance, Kappabuchi Pool may simply look like a brook with a depth of less than a meter, but gaze a little closer at the dense kumazasa (bamboo grass) undergrowth on the opposite bank and it seems as if a mischievous kappa could pop out at any moment.

A spot near the Kappabuchi Pool that you won’t want to miss is the Oshirado Hall. The hall is in Denshoen, a tourist facility showing traditional farm-style lives and culture of Tono. Oshirado enshrines nearly 1,000 dolls commemorating the legend of Oshira-sama, a pair of dolls with one in the shape of a woman and the other shaped like a horse. According to the legend, a woman was so in love with a horse and made him her husband that after his death she flew off, following him into heaven. Decorated in vividly colored cloths, these dolls cover the walls and make for a solemn sight.

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The Oshirado Hall in Denshoen. Nearly 1,000 Oshira-sama dolls adorned in vividly colored cloths are a solemn tribute to a woman, said to have followed her horse husband into heaven to become a goddess of agriculture, horses and silkworms. Unedorisama has become popular as a “power spot,” where it is said that women can have their amorous wishes granted if they write them on a red cloth and tie it to a tree using only the left hand. Gohyaku Rakan statues stand nestled in tranquil surroundings. Visitors here can take in 380 monk-carved images located on a steep mountain slope.

There are several other sightseeing spots nearby. Among them are Unedorisama, a small shrine where it is said women can go to have wishes related to love, and Gohyaku Rakan statues carved into rock by a monk to mourn the many people who died in a great famine nearly 200 years ago.

Hanamaki: Spas for Healing & Local Cuisine

Tono is also a brewing area of doburoku, a type of simple cloudy rice wine, or sake. In 2003, the central government for the first time recognized the area as a special zone where private citizens can produce doburoku, allowing private citizens to make the beverage. Today there are four makers of the drink in Tono, all vying to produce their own unique and most palate-pleasing version.

To weather the cold winter, locals warm themselves by eating hittsumi (wheat dumplings), made by kneading, stretching and tearing off bits of flour dough, which are boiled in a broth with vegetables and mushrooms. Another famous local food is Jingisukan (Genghis Khan) or barbecued lamb or mutton. Cooked in a round metal pan and typically eaten in Tono by dipping it in a little shoyu tare (soy sauce soup), this dish is said to have been started by a local eatery around 60 years ago.

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Doburoku rice wine is a popular souvenir among Tono tourists. © Tono City Tourism Association
Hittsumi, a local dish that is especially popular in the winter. © Airinkan, Shinnamari Hot Springs
Genghis Kahn barbecued lamb pictured at Anbe, the restaurant that is said to have invented the dish. Excess fat is drained away, accumulating in a groove on the edge of the pan during cooking to make for a healthy meal. © Anbe, Inc.
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Left: Gazing at a river from an open-air hot spring bath at Hanamaki Onsen-kyo is just the way to unwind after a long day of sightseeing. © Airinkan, Shinnamari Hot Springs
Right: Local hakkinton (platinum pork), prepped to enjoy as shabu-shabu Japanese hot pot. © Airinkan, Shinnamari Hot Springs
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Left: A Nambu Tekki cast iron kettle crafted with an attractive, modern design. © Itchu-do
Right: Akegarasu, a confection for which Tono is known.
© Matsuda Shorindo

Board an express train at Tono Station and in an hour you will find yourself in Hanamaki Onsen-kyo, a conglomeration of 12 hot springs, each well known and boasting a steady flow of top-quality spring water. After a soak in a rotenburo (an open-air hot spring), many visitors like to sit down to some of Hanamaki’s very own pork, which is known locally as hakkinton, or platinum pork. Born and bred on sprawling farms blessed with a wealth of spring water high in minerals, the meat’s balanced marbling makes for a delectably sweet flavor that will impress even the most hardened gourmets.

As a reminder of your trip to Tono and Hanamaki, you will likely want to pick up a traditional craft, such as a piece of Nambu Tekki, locally produced traditional ironware. These sturdy works are forged in fires of temperatures approaching 1,000 C and are characterized by rustic designs, which never grow old.

Another item that you can’t go wrong with is Akegarasu sweets. Akegarasu is a confection associated with Tono and literally means “morning crow.” It was given this name because when sliced, the walnuts in the treat resemble birds in flight.

On a visit to Tono, one thing is certain: you will find a new attractive other side of Japan that does not exist in urban areas.

(January 2013)

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