A hundred years ago, a young scholar named Kunio Yanagita traveled to remote Iwate Prefecture in search of stories that reflected people’s lives. Yanagita was born at an epochal time when Japan was flinging off its feudal past and embracing modernity. He wanted to capture the vanishing ways in which common folk saw their world.

In the distant town of Tono, he listened to the stories of Kizen Sasaki, a 25-year-old aspiring writer from a family of farmers. Sasaki narrated fantastic legends about trickster foxes, mountain goblins and river imps. “Kizen is not a good storyteller,” Yanagita wrote in an anthology, “but he is honest and sincere.” That quality seems to have made all the difference. First published in 1910, “The Legends of Tono” became a literary classic and helped make folklore a serious study in Japan. It also put Tono on the map as ground zero for Japanese spooks.

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