The professor’s snoring had kept me up until the wee hours of the morning. When I awoke, the reading light in the hostel’s upper bunk was still on and a copy of “The Legends of Tono” lay open at the page where I had dozed off. With that book being full of hobgoblins, ravaging wolf packs and rural satyrs, it was surprisingthat I’d got a wink of sleep.
A place of mystery, saturated in superstition, folk beliefs, ancient customs and stories of hideous creatures and apparitions, the well-watered Tono Basin in Iwate Prefecture, known for its paddy fields but surrounded by hills smothered in dark forests and orchards, is about as traditional a Japanese agricultural landscape as you are likely to find.
These post-3/11 days, however, it’s more likely that those staying in Tono will be involved in relief or reconstruction work in the nearby stricken coastal areas.
Nonetheless, it was just over 100 years ago that Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962), Japan’s foremost folklorist, published “Tono Monogatari,” a collection of tales from this locality that was translated as “The Legends of Tono” by Ronald A. Morse. You would be hard pressed to find a Japanese adult not familiar with this title — but you’d be equally hard pressed to meet many who had actually visited the area.
With his fine ear for oral traditions, Yanagita discovered a trove of ancestor worship and pre-Buddhist beliefs still practiced in the villages of Tono, though long vanished from other parts of mainland Japan. In this world of largely malevolent spirits, locals were scrupulous in observing rituals designed to mollify those inhabiting the parallel realm of the fields, irrigation ditches, penumbral mountain tracks and groves of Tono.
The 118 accounts in the book of strange encounters, ghostly stirrings, the goings-on of deities and ghouls, and vivid descriptions of gruesomely violent attacks on innocent wayfarers were recounted to Yanagita by Kyoseki Sasaki, an aspiring writer from a family of peasant farmers. As the tales were related, it struck Yanagita that much of the narrative was drawn from a blend of folklore, imagination and actual incidents, some of which were reported in the local newspapers by eyewitnesses. That realization must have sent a chill down the man’s spine, as it does today’s visitor familiar with the tales.
What sets Yanagita’s work apart from the more improbable fairy tales and edifying fables associated with Japan’s folklore catalog are the details of rural life that resonate with the landscape of Tono today, where the exterior, observable world coexists with the concealed, preternatural zones. Despite modern farming methods, an enduring socio-cultural residue remains from former times.
The local train to Tono passes through a green landscape set in the northern style, with many country barns and storehouses having graduated, red-zinc roofs that resemble ancient Flemish peasant hats — the kind with earflaps. There is not a great deal to detain the visitor in the town itself, though the inn where Yanagita stayed while researching the legends, and a museum in an old storehouse beside a green swath of land in the center of town, are good places to begin for background.
And there is also the local cuisine: You won’t go hungry or thirsty in Tono. Hitsuko soba, handmade noodles eaten with chicken, mushrooms, onion and raw egg, is a local specialty that is plain and simple and goes down well. More ample is nanbu hitsumi, a rich soup replete with dumplings and seasoned vegetables. The excellent dinner I had at the youth hostel included a very quaffable glass of Iwate white wine which, judging from its fruitiness and subdued acidity, was most likely a Satsuki Nagane Budoen from the local Ohasama vineyards.
The tobacco and drying sheds along the road to Fukusen-ji Temple create a different mood, the pleasant smell — even for non-smokers — being fresh yet mildly sour, like a barrel of marinated pickles. In the opposite direction out of town, in the depths of a dark forest, is the curious and arresting Gohyaku Rakan.
A very personal response to appease the spirits of the victims of a terrible two-year famine in 1753-54, this comprises images of 500 disciples of the Buddha carved by a local priest from boulders in a shallow ravine in a wood west of Tono. It is an extraordinary experience to see figures emerging from the mossy rocks in the gloom of the wooded vale, though some remain concealed beneath the soft, green stubble.
Other designated treasures have similarly been left untouched, including the Yamaguchi Waterwheel, northeast of town. Revolving eternally, its produces a soothing lapping and splashing sound, though now it powers nothing except visitor interest.
Unlike Western legends, where demons and deities struggle for supremacy in an eternal engagement between darkness and light, the supernatural world of Tono sees mortals interacting with and accommodating the spirits and forces of an animistic domain that is inseparable from the human realm.
Tono still has its kami (spirits) guarding kitchen, hearth and home. As for its goblins, shamans, warrior-magicians, demons, fox-spirits and those of the dead lurking beyond village boundaries in the form of mysterious strangers and wayfarers — all these presences have been reabsorbed into the folkloric scenery.
Tono was a lively trading post in the feudal Edo Period (1603-1867), when the area enjoyed a reputation for the horses bred there. It is therefore apt that one story from the tales tells of a farmer’s daughter who fell in love with a mare. Hearing of the unnatural passion, her father killed the horse by hanging it from a mulberry tree. The distraught daughter, clinging to the horse, flew with it skyward — and that’s about as close to a happy ending as you’ll find in the book.
After inspecting the earthen floors of several farmhouses, it was not difficult to imagine the scene in another of the stories, possibly adapted from a newspaper report, in which a man from the village of Otomo, staggering home drunk at night, mocks a pack of wolves by imitating their howls. Though the animals chase after the man, he manages to return home. But then, readers are told, “The wolves continued to howl around the house throughout the night. At daybreak, he found that the wolves had dug a tunnel under the stable and had devoured seven of his horses.”
The plausibility of some stories is reinforced by the fact that these accounts of packhorse drivers, wandering merchants and charcoal-burners are set in real places — and the knowledge that they were recounted by rustic locals who did not differentiate between fact and fiction.
In a home built beside the Sarugaishi River in the nearby village of Matsuzaki, we learn that “women have become pregnant with the children of a kappa for two generations. When the kappa-children are born, they are hacked into pieces, put into small wine casks, and buried in the ground.”
Nowadays, looking at the kappa statues, mascots and soft toys crowding every souvenir stall and tourist office in Tono, you could be forgiven for thinking of it as a cuddly fiction, a creature of endearing mischief. And indeed, even the town’s mascot, dubbed Karin-chan, is a reassuringly cute kappa clasping a bellflower.
The “real” kappa, however, is a nasty piece of work, its intentions clearly evident from the legends, where it is described waylaying strangers and ripping out their livers, pulling children and horses into ponds and drowning them, and committing other unspeakable and decidedly un-cuddly acts.
Naturally enough since they are amphibious, kappa are said to smell like fish. They have, however, heads topped by what resembles a sunflower or monk’s pate, and it is believed that the water in the indentation there must be kept replenished for a kappa to function. So, when meeting a kappa, the conventional wisdom is to bow. Being singularly Japanese in this respect, the kappa will then feel obliged to return the civility — thus spilling the water off its head and losing its supernatural strength.
Much sentimentality is associated with the name Tono. Sometimes it is described as “every Japanese person’s homeland,” as if to suggest it’s the kind of rural idyll everyone would like to have a link to. In truth, the past was a darker place, with a harsh climate and a combination of crop failures, famines and starvation common there well into the 20th century.
On his visit to Tono in the humid summer of 1909, Yanagita hired a horse from an innkeeper to get around. An entry in his diary recalls how the horse “had dark seaweed hanging over its sides and back to protect it from the numerous horseflies.” Today’s traveler can rent a car or bicycle to see the sights — though if you opt to peddle around the area as I did, be warned that the sights are far-flung. Nonetheless, a bicycle is the best way to explore the backroads of Tono and observe both the natural and the architectural details of its landscape that might otherwise escape you.
Rural Tono takes form and character in its magnificent magariya farmhouses. These L-shaped homes have become the area’s signature architecture. The right-angled wing of the buildings, now serving as storerooms or ancillaries to the main house, were originally designed as stables.
A few kilometers west of Tono, the well-appointed, citadel-like Chiba-ke Magariya is a 200-year-old home commanding matchless views across the valley from a building that once supported no fewer than 15 workers and 20 horses. Exploring its interior, dark even in summer, with its sooty beams, sunken hearths and the organic smell of earth, wood and jars of preserved food, it is not difficult to imagine the fear and awe felt by former inhabitants for the occult world outside its walls.
Travel basics: The Kamaishi Line serves Tono, and connects with the Tohoku Shinkansen Line at Shin-Hanamaki Station. The information office by Tono Station rents out bicycles. The friendly Tono Youth Hostel ( 62-8736) is in paddy fields a 10-min. walk from the Densho-en bus stop 4 km northwest of town. * Stephen Mansfield is donating his proceeds from this article to The Japan Times Readers Fund in aid of relief and reconstruction in the Tohoku region following the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11.