Explore Northern Honshu
The town of Tōno is set in a bowl of low mountains in the heart of one of Japan’s poorest regions, surrounded by the flat Tōno valley. The people of Tōno and the farmers of the valley take pride in their living legacy of farming and folk traditions, embodied by the district’s magariya – large, L-shaped farmhouses – and a number of museums devoted to the old ways. But the area is perhaps most famous for its wealth of folk tales, known as Tōno Monogatari; there are references to these legends throughout the valley, alongside ancient shrines, rock carvings and traces of primitive cults, which help give Tōno its slightly mysterious undercurrent.
To make the most of the Tōno valley you really need your own transport – head to Tōno to hire cars or bikes. There are also some local buses that run from outside the station, but the only really useful routes are those heading northeast to Denshō-en and Furusato-mura.
If you plan to spend the day cycling around the valley, you can stock up on picnic supplies at the Topia shopping mall, a block from the station. The ground floor of the mall has a well-stocked supermarket as well as a small farmers’ market selling very fresh and cheap fruit and vegetables, complete with biographical notes and photographs of the farmers (and their families) who brought the produce to market.Read More
TŌNO (遠野) itself is a small town set among flat rice-lands, with orchards and pine forests cloaking the surrounding hills. Although it’s mainly a place to make use of for its hotels, banks and other facilities, there are a couple of museums to see before you set off round the valley. Allow a couple of days to do the area justice.
From Tōno Station it’s an eight-minute walk straight across town and over the river to the Tōno Municipal Museum (遠野市立博物館) at the back of a red-brick building which doubles as the library. This entertaining museum gives a good overview of Tōno’s festivals, crafts and agricultural traditions.
Walking back towards the station, turn left just across the river for Tōno Folk Village (とおの昔話村). The “village” consists of several buildings, including the ryokan where Yanagita Kunio stayed while researching his legends, and an old storehouse containing more dramatizations of the stories.
The legends of Tono
The legends of Tono
When the far-sighted folklorist Yanagita Kunio visited Tōno in 1909, he found a world still populated with the shadowy figures of demons and other usually malevolent spirits which the farmers strove to placate using ancient rituals. The following year he published Tōno Monogatari (published in English as The Legends of Tōno), the first book to tap the rich oral traditions of rural Japan. The 118 tales were told to him by Kyōseki Sasaki (or Kizen), the educated son of a Tōno peasant, to whom goblins, ghosts and gods were part of everyday life.
People in Tōno still talk about Zashiki Warashi, a mischievous child spirit (either male or female) who can be heard running at night and is said to bring prosperity to the household. Another popular tale tells of a farmer’s beautiful daughter who fell in love with their horse. When the farmer heard that his child had married the horse, he hanged it from a mulberry tree, but his grieving daughter was whisked off to heaven clinging to her lover.
Probably the most popular character from the legends, however, is the kappa, an ugly water creature which, while not being unique to Tōno, seems to exist here in large numbers. You’ll find kappa images everywhere in town – on postboxes, outside the station; even the police box is kappa-esque. The traditional kappa has long skinny limbs, webbed hands and feet, a sharp beak, and a hollow on the top of his head that must be kept full of water. He’s usually green, sometimes with a red face, and his main pastime seems to be pulling young children into ponds and rivers. Should you happen to meet a real kappa, remember to bow – on returning your bow, the water will run out of the hollow on his head and he’ll have to hurry off to replenish it.