Northern Treks: Iwate (Day 2)

I tend to like starting these posts with a description of my current surroundings for whatever reason, so let me begin from there once again. I’m now in the far less atmospheric (and far less warm) kitchen of my host’s house, since I assumed that my kind host would not exactly approve of me bringing a cup of tea and chocolate cake up to my beautiful tatami mat bedroom. Although he’s far too courteous (or awkward, or both) to have laid down any actual house rules, so this is just my own guess. I think he just was, or possibly still is, entertaining a lady friend tonight. I haven’t seen any female visitor, but I bumped into him on my way to the kitchen coming out of his kotastu room with 2 wine glasses and a greater than usual amount of his nervous energy. But this is all far besides the point of my narrative…

Well today was much more successful as far as my image of this trip is concerned. Around 9am I boarded a train out of Morioka station towards the village of Tono, about 2 hours southeast from the capital. This village is so inaka (out in the countryside) that my connecting train into Tono station had only 1 car in it. Tono is famous for its collection of “old folk villages” (meaning, Edo-era farm villages), which pretty much makes it Iwate’s biggest and only tourist attraction. Despite this, access around Tono is not very tourist-friendly. All of the farm villages are a good 8-12 km outside of the town center and the buses that connect them only run every 2-3 hours or so (the lady at the tourist information center laughed at me–not unkindly–when I suggested just walking between them all). I was warned this by both the Internet and my host, but since none of the bus schedules can be found online, there was really nothing I could’ve done to plan better. So I took the bus schedule and area map that the tourist center lady gave me, found a cafe near the station, and laid both documents across the wide tables, trying to figure out a clever way to proceed. I ultimately decided that I would take the earliest bus (departing in an hour) to the nearer farm village, then walk the 7 or so kilometers to the further, most famous village, and then return on the 4:30pm bus from there back into town.

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One-car train pulling out of Tono Station

The first village (伝承園, denshouen, “garden of legend”) was quite small, only 6 or so houses on the premises, and was completely deserted of other visitors. I forgot about this myth until just a moment ago when my host asked about my excursion today, but apparently there’s a famous legend that goes along with this village. According to legend (well, really, according to my host according to legend), ages ago, one of the village girls fell in love passionately with a horse. Her family was understandably alarmed at this development, and strictly forbid her from seeing her horse lover, but she disobeyed them and (somehow) managed to consummate the relationship. Her father was so enraged when he learned about this that he slew the horse by cutting off his head. The distraught young girl, upon seeing the severed head of her lover, promptly killed herself, and then rode on her love’s back up to heaven… Apparently the families of this village, on their family altar, have statues of a god with a horse head and human body, in deference to this ancient myth. Somehow this story strikes me as very Japanese.

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Inside one of the denshouen huts

Anyway, after exploring this little village, I walked along a nearby footpath to Jokenji temple, a compound of several pretty buildings and archways, with a pond out back called Kappabuchi pond that’s said to be the home of many kappa water spirits. Honestly, though, I think the most enchanting part of this temple and pond was simply the acres and acres of rolling rice fields that surrounded it from all sides, covered with pristine, untouched snow, and emanating a soft, blue-tinted glow.

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After the temple I started on my trek to the next village. It was such a perfectly bright and sunny day that despite the snow and ice I wasn’t remotely cold on the hike. I did, however, inspire a lot of questioning glances from basically every car that passed me on the way. Not because the country highway was particularly unsuitable to pedestrians, but just because I’m sure they had literally never seen a foreigner (much less a young female foreigner) hiking on the side of that road before. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful hike, considerably prolonged by my incessant photo-taking of the rising mountains and snowy fields.

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When I reached the village of ふるさと村 (furusatomura) about an hour and a half later, I was a little worn out, but managed to explore the rather sprawling grounds and peek into a few of the open houses before the sun began to set. Although this was by far the main attraction of the region, it was also a little sparse on visitors. This village was at least 5 times the size of denshouen, with a few rather large wooden houses and well as several smaller houses, and a couple of frozen ponds in the center.

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Furusatomura village
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Furusatomura frozen pond

When I returned to the town center after my hiking adventures, I really tried my best to find a place to eat dinner that was not the cafe I had already been to 7 hours earlier for lunch, but I did not succeed. The town really seemed awfully devoid of life and businesses, especially after the sun went down. But, on the other hand, it seemed like everyone in town knew each other. While I was eating at my favorite cafe, 5 other patrons (2 women and 3 men, all middle-aged at least) entered at different times, and each time greeted each other familiarly and happily, and then congregated around the same small table where they proceeded to enjoy a dinner of spaghetti and coffee (my dinner as well, actually) amid much cheerful and teasing chatting.

Tomorrow is my last day in Iwate, as I’ll be taking the night bus back to Tokyo at 11:30pm. For tomorrow’s excursion, my last excursion, I’ll be heading to an onsen (hot springs) village northeast of Morioka for a more indulgently relaxing (and slightly less active) adventure to end my trip on.

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