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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Japan and Taiwan: Day 9 - Cycling with legends in the Tono Valley

I had originally planned to stay a couple of nights in the small Iwate Prefecture 岩手県 city of Tōno 遠野 so that I could rent a bike and spend at least an entire day enjoying the countryside on two wheels. Typhoon 18, however, forced a change in plans, and I ended up making overnight stays in Akita 秋田 and Morioka 盛岡 instead. I had pretty much reconciled myself to giving the scenic Tōno Valley a miss on this trip when it occurred to me that, ever since moving to Shàng​hǎi 上海 almost three months ago, I'd seen nothing but urban landscapes. Even on this trip, I'd been staying in cities, and so I decided I needed to get some fresh air and open space in some form or another before I went back to China. Since I had the foresight to get a JR Pass for this Japan trip, going from Sendai 仙台 to Tono and back again seemed a perfectly feasible thing to do. And so I left Sendai just after 8:00 on a Thursday morning for the hour-long trip on the bullet train 新幹線 to Shin-Hanamaki 新花巻, where I then caught a rapid train to Tono, alighting there just over two hours after the start of my journey.

The trusty chariot I rented for the day from the tourist office opposite the train station. Six hours of use came to a very reasonable ¥900. 

I started out by heading west from the station on Route 238. 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) into the trip, I stopped to visit Unedori-jinja Shrine 卯子酉神社. Dedicated to the god responsible for matters of a matrimonial nature, those who wish to get married tie red ribbons onto a tree. Having been there and done that a couple of times, I soon moved on.

Next to the shrine, an arrow pointed the way to a walking trail heading uphill. The path eventually led to a wooded valley festooned with moss-covered stones. As I kept ascending, images gradually began to appear on these rocks, and I knew that I had reached the Gohyaku Rakan 五百羅漢, five hundred Buddhist disciples whose visages had been carved into the stones by a local monk in the late 18th century.

Coming downhill from the Gohyaku Rakan, I followed a small road that led about 700 meters (0.4 miles) to a torii 鳥居 and a sign pointing to shrine somewhere up among the pine trees. A short but steep path uphill passed through a couple more gates before reaching a small Shinō shrine 神社.

This was obviously not your ordinary Shinto shrine, but one dedicated to Konsei-sama コンセイサマ, the local fertility god. This remnant of an ancient cult that was once widespread throughout Japan was (is?) the place women who wished to conceive went to in order to beseech the gods. 

Eventually making my way back downhill to my parked bike, I returned to Tono. Following lunch at a local supermarket, I proceeded to head in the opposite direction along Route 340. Here, the scenery started to open up.

I soon arrived at Jōken-ji Temple 常堅時, founded in 1490. This Buddhist temple is noted for its statue of Obinzuru-sama おびんづる様, who is said to cure illness provided you rub the statue in the afflicted area. Most visitors come here for a different reason, however.

And that reason was the kappa pool カッパ淵. A kappa 河童 is a water-dwelling creature that features prominently in Japanese folklore. Sometimes they're presented as cute cartoon characters, but other legends portray them as nasty creatures known to drown people, kidnap children and devour souls (which were believed to exist in the anus). Though it may be hard to make out in the photo, there is a fishing pole on the left bank, with a cucumber tied to end of the line in the water. Cucumbers were considered to be a kappa's favorite food.

Next to the kappa pool a local eccentric had erected a shrine to...well, himself it seemed.

As the water sprites were proving to be rather elusive, I continued on in a northeasterly direction, passing more rice fields nearing harvest time.

The house of Kyōseki Sasaki 佐々木喜善. Sasaki was the educated son of a local farmer who related to visiting folklorist Yanagita Kunio 柳田國男 some of the many legends of ghosts and gods that were part of the everyday life of the people of the Tono Valley. Yanagita went on to publish these tales in 1910, and The Legends of Tono 遠野物語 made the area famous throughout Japan.

From the Sasaki house, it was a short side trip to Dan-no-hana ダンノハナ, where it seemed somehow fitting that I should photograph the countryside from a cemetery.

This small, thatched watermill 山口の水車 represented the furthest extent of my cycling travels. From here it was 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) back to the station.

This self-portrait was taken at Dendera-no デンデラ野. What looked like an ordinary field was in times gone by a place where those who had reached the age of 60 were sent to die. Rumor has it that many ghosts continue to haunt the field to this day.

For the return ride back to the station, I skipped the main road in favor of the Tono-Towa Bicycle Path, a 8-kilometer (five miles) path that passed by golden rice fields and along the Sarukaishi-gawa River 猿ヶ石川.

My attempt to document my ride along the path

After returning the bike, I did some souvenir shopping, purchasing a copy of The Legends of Tono (of course), as well as a bottle of Zumona Beer, the local brew 地ビール. Seeing as I had a half-hour to wait for the train to Hanamaki 花巻駅 and the return trip to Sendai, and without a source of refrigeration, I had no choice but to down the contents in the plaza in the front of the station, surrounded by statues of kappa, naturally. And, naturally, I had a pleasant buzz on the train ride back.

Sunset outside Shin-Hanamaki Station 新花巻駅. I didn't get to see all I wanted to see in Tono - had I been able to stay there and thus get an earlier start, I would've been able to reach a noted 200-year-old thatched-roofed farmhouse that was 6.5 kilometers (four miles) pass Unedori-jinja, for example. I might also have had time to check out one of the three large folk museums in the Tono Valley. But I certainly couldn't complain. Typhoon be damned, I was still able to get there and spend time with some of the legends, rock carvings, shrines and phallic symbols of this ancient corner of Japan.

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