Tono is known as a folktale village and is located in the middle of Iwate Prefecture in an area which has beautifully preserved traditional culture. My friend who grew up in Tono proudly recommended visiting his hometown. But upon our visit I quickly came to learn that there is much more to see in Iwate Prefecture. Here’s how to discover the best of Iwate in a self guided driving tour.
Iwate Prefecture is the second largest prefecture in Japan, next to Hokkaido. Iwate is a geographically diverse location with rocky coastlines stretching along the Pacific side and towering mountain ranges. While driving in Iwate, you can see calm plain fields and solemn forested areas.
Tono is located at the midpoint between the inland and coastal areas of Iwate and prospered as a castle town because of its strategic position. What makes Tono quite so appealing is its folktales that have been passed down. Yanagita Kunio, a folklorist, collected stories and collaborated with Sasaki Kizen, a local writer, and published Tono Monogatari (Tono folklore) in 1910 as one of the first collections of Japanese folktales.
The most popular character of Japanese folktales is the mischievous kappa, a river child, with a greenish color body and a dish on its head who lives in the water and sometimes draws in people and animals on purpose. We visited Kappabuchi Pond where the kappa are said to live. There are reservoirs, rivers and ponds everywhere, so people might have started to create stories to protect children from entering dangerous places. Or people might feel the awe of nature and tell stories of unidentified creatures to the family as metaphors for tragic incidents that happen in the village.
Nanbu Magariya Farmhouse at Tono Furusato Village
Tono is regarded as a fine horse-breeding area. L-shaped houses called “Magariya” are designed to keep the horses in the same building as people who take care of them and protect them from theft and harm. People treated their horses with the same affection as family members. The farmhouse consists of a main building, storage house, space for crafting, doma soil floor with fireplace and horse barn. You can enjoy Nanbu Magariya Farmhouse at Tono Furusato Village with its calm and solemn landscape.
Tono Municipal Museum
Tono Municipal Museum exhibits Tono’s history to foster its rustic landscapes, traditional farming culture and local performing arts.
Hiraizumi is located in the center of Iwate Prefecture and one and a half hours away from the Tono area. Northernmost and eastern regions were considered distant places and were looked down on by nobles living in Kyoto, western Japan. However, from the early 11th century to the end of 12th century, the Oshu Fujiwara clan moved their base to Hiraizumi to utilize the strategic transportation crossing points from sea and land. They had begun to prosper and developed a sophisticated Hiraizumi culture.
The Oshu Fujiwara clan built Chusonji temple as a peaceful Buddhism realm to pacify and unify all those who had died in the battles. The temple had consisted of a large complex of dozens of buildings, but some of them burned or were destroyed in the civil war era.
Konjiki-do, the Golden Hall, is decorated with gold leaf and it contains mummified bodies of three generations of the Oshu Fujiwara clan. Nowadays, it is protected within a reinforced-concrete building. Although there are various theories, it was said that Marco Polo had been inspired to write of “islands of gold and silver” in his travelogue, but nobody knows the truth. The fact is, Konjikido was built with the strong passion and fortunes of the Kiyohira Fujiwara clan, wishing to realize a peaceful world.
Takadachi Gikeido is located on the high ground and is dedicated to Minamoto Yoshitsune, a hero of the Kamakura period, who killed himself with his wife and children in 1189. Yoshitsune won several battles during domestic wars, but he provoked antipathy from his brother, Minamoto Yoritomo. Yoshitsune conflicted with his brother and he was ousted to northern Japan. The Oshu Fujiwara clan sheltered him at first but eventually betrayed Yoshitsune and he took his own life here. The building itself is so small but we could enjoy the beautiful view of the Kitakami River while thinking about the tragedy.