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The legends of Tono

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When the far-sighted folklorist Yanagita Kunio visited Tōno in 1909, he found a world still populated with the shadowy figures of demons and other usually malevolent spirits which the farmers strove to placate using ancient rituals. The following year he published Tōno Monogatari (published in English as The Legends of Tōno), the first book to tap the rich oral traditions of rural Japan. The 118 tales were told to him by Kyōseki Sasaki (or Kizen), the educated son of a Tōno peasant, to whom goblins, ghosts and gods were part of everyday life.

People in Tōno still talk about Zashiki Warashi, a mischievous child spirit (either male or female) who can be heard running at night and is said to bring prosperity to the household. Another popular tale tells of a farmer’s beautiful daughter who fell in love with their horse. When the farmer heard that his child had married the horse, he hanged it from a mulberry tree, but his grieving daughter was whisked off to heaven clinging to her lover.

Probably the most popular character from the legends, however, is the kappa, an ugly water creature which, while not being unique to Tōno, seems to exist here in large numbers. You’ll find kappa images everywhere in town – on postboxes, outside the station; even the police box is kappa-esque. The traditional kappa has long skinny limbs, webbed hands and feet, a sharp beak, and a hollow on the top of his head that must be kept full of water. He’s usually green, sometimes with a red face, and his main pastime seems to be pulling young children into ponds and rivers. Should you happen to meet a real kappa, remember to bow – on returning your bow, the water will run out of the hollow on his head and he’ll have to hurry off to replenish it.

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