When I started producing travel content back in the spring of 2016, Iwate’s town of Tono was one place that I knew I was going to need to feature. Known nation-wide for its local legends, Tono has often been described as the birthplace of Japanese folklore for the modern era. This legacy was mainly built on the back of Sasaki Kizen, a man who has come to be known as the “Japanese Grimm.” Originally from Tono, Sasaki was the first to pioneer the academic study of folklore in Japan. Over time, Sasaki passed the torch to another man, Yanagita Kunio, who would continue the work of popularizing these stories in his tome The Legends of Tono.
These days, a trip to Tono is like traveling back in time to a simpler age. While you’ll find the odd trappings of modernity here and there, the hamlet is largely free from the insanity of our technology-addicted world. In fact, if it weren’t for the electrically powered bicycle that I was mounted upon, I would have been hard pressed to tell what century, let alone what decade, I was presently in as I cycled about. In the rural reaches of Tono, it often feels as if the hands of time have all but stopped.
Especially if you like to get active while traveling, I cannot recommend Tono’s folktales and countryside charms more highly. Though decidedly not a destination that I would want to push on first-time visitors, Tono is exactly the type of place that I envision when I talk about seeing Japan’s lesser-known sides. Somehow, this village in Iwate Prefecture ticks all of the boxes that I look for when evaluating off-the-beaten-path spots for their tourism potential. If you’re looking for a true hidden gem that is also rife with allures, there are few places that I’d suggest over this one.
How to Get There
All things considered, the trip to Tono is not all too bad. Assuming that you’re coming from Tokyo, you’ll want to first begin by taking the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station up to Shin-Hanamaki Station. From there, you’ll need to take the JR Kamaishi Line that cuts across central Iwate Prefecture. Your final goal will be Tono Station and this leg of the journey from Shin-Hanamaki Station should take you around 50 more minutes. Refer to a service like Jorudan to make calculating connections easier.
As easy as it is to visit this rural hamlet, the real difficulties begin only once you arrive in Tono. You see, many of the attractions in this part of Japan are dispersed across Tono’s vast valley basin. What’s more, unlike with some other destinations in this amazing country, the public access to many of these places is lacking. While there are indeed a few buses, you would be hard pressed to see everything in Tono by relying on these alone.
Most Japanese visitors to Tono elect to take a tour bus that shuttles them to and from the widely-dispersed points of interest. Alas, unless you have someone around to help interpret all of the talks about traditional culture in Tono, you’re going to miss out. Thus, my preferred means of exploring the area is to instead get a motor-assisted bicycle. These can be procured right in front of Tono Station from the tourism information center for 1,000 yen or so and will help you explore the city.
Now, you should expect to work up a sweat. During my time in Tono, I actually got a bit of a late start on the day and therefore had to really book it to make it to all of the spots that I wanted to see. Luckily, there is a coin-operated shower in the tourism information center. After biking around all day, this was a godsend and allowed me to freshen up before continuing on to Morioka and some other spots in northern Japan.
One of the other downsides of Tono’s logistics is that the trains on the JR Kamaishi Line are quite infrequent. Thus, you’re going to want to get to Tono as early as you can. There’s a lot to see here and you could honestly spend a few days leisurely exploring it all. If you can, I suggest that you figure out a way to start the day either in or nearby Tono. This way, you’re not rushing about from location to location like I was.
Lastly, know that a rental car is of course a good option in Tono. Since I don’t drive, I don’t know where one might procure a borrowed set of wheels, but just like with most small cities in Japan, there is bound to be a rental car facility somewhere in the central areas of Tono. If this is an option for you, skip the bikes and get yourself a proper vehicle.
Tono Furusato Village
Let’s begin this exposé on Tono with what I consider to be the top attraction in town, the Tono Furusato Village. Located around 8 kilometers to the northeast of Tono Station, this collection of buildings recreates what life would have been like in Tono during the Edo period (1603–1868). Within the compound, you’ll encounter an eclectic collection of rustic L-shaped houses, storehouses, watermills, and more. Here, you can really get a sense of what Tono culture would have been like during the days of yesteryear.
Just as is the case with the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Museum, guests can actually enter all of the buildings within Tono Furusato Village. Surprisingly, the locale also is quite functional. In addition to chronicling the history of life in this part of Japan, the property also hosts a number of hands-on workshops where you can learn about the crafts traditionally produced here in Tono. Note that these do require a reservation in advance and will be entirely in Japanese.
One of the other cool things about this village is that it’s often used by filmmakers as a setting for period pieces. As you stroll about the grounds, you’ll feel as if you’ve been whisked away from the modern era and slipped back in time to another world. Honestly, though it is indeed around a 30–45-minute bike ride out from Tono’s downtown area, I am of the mind that you’d be a fool to skip visiting Tono Furusato Village. It’s truly one of the top highlights of Tono.
Note that the space is open from 9 AM until 5 PM, and entry will set you back a few hundred yen. That said, be warned that you’ll have to return your bikes to the tourism information center by no later than 5 PM. Given that you will need to budget for a little under an hour to make your way back, you’ll want to finish up by 4 PM or so. Because of this, I suggest that you make Tono Furusato Village the first place you visit and then hit up the others while en route back to the station.
Tono is a town rich with stories relating to Japanese folklore and legends, but none are more famous than its tales of Kappa. These mythical creatures have a mixed mythos behind them. The reptilian yokai are typically depicted as emerald humanoids with webbed hands and feet and turtle-like carapaces on their backs. Being water spirits, they can often be found lurking near rivers and ponds where they await the arrival of would-be victims. If you’re not careful, the Kappa will extract your shirikodama — a hardened magical ball within the anus said to house the human soul.
Luckily for you, dear reader, Kappa are actually extremely polite. Thus, they can be easily rendered helpless with a quick bow. Out of respect, the yokai will return the act, thereby causing it to spill some water out of the saucer that sits upon all Kappa’s heads. According to hearsay, without this liquid, they are unable to move while on land until someone refills the container with water from the river or pond that the Kappa originally came from. Should you do this, the nature spirit will be forever grateful and will perform a number of good deeds for your family.
Anyway, before I get too distracted with obscure Japanese folklore, let’s get back to Tono. Home to Kappabuchi Pond, this hamlet in northern Japan might very well be the most famous spot in all of the country for these dangerous but ever-respectful sprites. Allegedly, this portion of the secluded creek has been home to Kappa for time immemorial. Moreover, the locals of Tono still assert that you can occasionally capture one here by using a cucumber (the favorite food of Kappa) as bait.
While he is not always there, you can regularly find one of Tono’s leading folklorists at Kappabuchi Pond. This eccentric individual sells cucumbers which can be used to fish for Kappa. While I didn’t know this at the time of my trip, I found out later that you can actually purchase a license to hunt Kappa that even comes with its own rule set. It’s things like this that set Tono apart from elsewhere as Japan’s capital for folklore.
In addition to having the chance to potentially capture a Kappa, there’s also a small shrine dedicated to the yokai of Kappabuchi Pond. It became popular with pregnant women due to one of the local legends of Tono. Allegedly, women who offer up a bosom-shaped ball of red cloth when praying at the shrine will be blessed with ample breast milk for their children after birth. Not being female nor pregnant, I can’t confirm or deny this one for you though folks
Note that Kappabuchi Pond can be quite hard to find. There’s some signage (in Japanese only, of course), but otherwise, you could completely miss it if you didn’t know where to look. Essentially, the small pool can be found out back of the Joken-ji temple complex. Rather than confuse you though, I’ll direct you to this Google Map instead. In essence, if you see a bunch of other people leading to what otherwise looks like nowhere, you’re in the right spot.
What Else to See in Tono City
Though the aforementioned duo is definitely the highlights of Tono, there are a lot of other places in the nearby vicinity worth checking out. Unfortunately, unless you pedal like your life depends on it, you’re going to need to make some concessions when it comes to Tono. All things considered, I estimate that you’d need to budget two full days to make the rounds to all of Tono’s many allures, so take a quick perusal of the following list and plan out a route that works well with the iconic pair featured thus far.
As always, I’ll provide a link to a Google Map along with a short description to help you decide if these are places you’d like to see:
Located in the northeastern part of Tono, Fukusen-ji is a temple compound built directly into the hillside. The space is home to the five-story pagoda pictured above as well as a massive statue of the Buddhist deity of compassion, Kannon. Note that both of these are located at the end of a few minutes’ march up a steep slope, but the painful parade is indeed worth the huffing and puffing.
- Tono Hachimangu
The local shrine for the war god Hachiman, Tono Hachimangu is a quaint sanctuary not too far from Kappabuchi Pond. Its claim to fame is that there’s yabusame (mounted horseback archery) here during the annual festival in late September, so consider adding it to your itinerary if the timing works out.
This comparatively-small folk village is a good alternative if Tono Furusato Village’s distance is a deal-breaker. It consists of a dozen or so traditional farmhouses and other structures, as well as a museum for Sasaki Kizen. It’s not too far from Kappabuchi Pond but can be passed over in favor of other locations if need be.
- Takamuro Suikoen Park
Another one of Tono’s sub-villages, Takamuro Suikoen Park is built around a large body of water. Like with the other locations detailed in this article, you’ll find a host of historical buildings on display. Additionally, you can also try your hand at fishing and cooking at Takamuro Suikoen Park. There’s also a separate onsen facility next door too.
- Tono Folktale Museum
This museum is housed within a former sake brewery. Inside, you can learn all about Tono and its folklore as brought to light by Yanagita Kunio’s work. The property also includes the actual dwelling of this famous author from when he moved to Tono from Tokyo. It’s near the station and makes for the perfect final add-on before ditching your bicycle for the day.
- Gohyaku Rakan
Carved over 200 years ago as a means of pacifying the spirits of villagers who died in a famine, these stone etchings depict the 500 disciples of the Buddha. These days, only around 380 of the original 500 remain in good quality. If you’re interested, note that the Gohyaku Rakan are hidden away in the hills to the southeast of Tono’s center.
- The Chiba Residence
Found far to the west of Tono Station, the Chiba Residence is one of the most well-known spots in the area. While getting to it can be quite the chore, it’s an excellent example of a Nanbu clan farmhouse that once belonged to a wealthy family. Currently, the structure is undergoing renovations and won’t be open to the public until 2026. Once the preservation efforts are completed, the Chiba Residence is definitely worth the effort required to visit.
- Tsuzukiishi Stone
A marvel of mother nature, the Tsuzukiishi Stone is actually a large rock perched upon a pair of boulders. According to one of the legends of Tono, the warrior monk Benkei placed the Tsuzukiishi Stone there over 1,000 years ago. The site is quite close to the Chiba Residence, though you’ll need to hoof it uphill into the forest for about 10–15 minutes from the parking lot if you want to see it.
Lastly, note that the tourism information center also houses a cafe-cum-restaurant that rents out board games. Seeing as the trains are so infrequent (maybe one every hour at best), this is a good way for you and your squad to kill some time while waiting for the next train at night. When I was there, there was a local troupe of high school students immersed in a game as well as another group of overseas tourists, so it’s definitely somewhere in Tono City with cross-cultural appeal.
Other Nearby Attractions
While there are a few other museums and the like in Tono, you really ought to budget time for other parts of Japan’s Tohoku region. For example, Morioka is just around an hour away from Shin-Hanamaki Station. Given that the city was recently included on the New York Times list of 52 places to go in 2023, you be a fool to not at least check out Morioka. The city sits in the shadow of Mt. Iwate and is truly a treasure trove of multiple attractions. Though my first trip there predated the New York Times piece, Morioka certainly deserves the laudation.
Closer to Tono, you’ll also find the Kamaishi Daikannon Statue pictured above. To get there, you’ll want to continue on east towards the Pacific Ocean to Kamaishi Station. From there, the closest station to the massive effigy is Heita Station. Note that this route would be great for those really looking to explore the lesser-known sides of Japan as it’s easy to see more of the Sanriku Kaigan from Kamaishi. This 200-kilometer-long coastline is as picturesque as it is remote and is definitely worth seeing if you’re an intrepid adventurer like I am.
With that said, I’d like to end by noting that I suggest you look into the slew of rail passes that JR is offering if you’re interested in Tono and my other recommendations. While the vaunted Japan Rail Pass has indeed gone up significantly in price, many of the other regional passes were spared the same degree of severity. Thus, you can still travel around Japan affordably by looking to use one of these lesser-known passes such as the JR East Tohoku Rail Pass.
Until next time travelers…