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Tono Watermill   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

Where Kami Play
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

In a valley along the Sarugaishi River in northern Japan, surrounded by tall mountains and deep forests, lies the town of Tono. The area has a long farming tradition. Many old thatch-roofed farmhouses and watermills are still in use today. The area is also a cradle of Japanese folklores. During the turn of the 20th century, Yanagita Kunio collected many local stories from here and published The Legends of Tono, a classic book on Japanese folklores filled with mysterious stories of yokai (supernatural beings and monsters).

Some of the stories from Tono actually happened. From the 1750s to 1780s, persistent cold weather caused a decline in crop harvests and famines. Exasperating the problem, two volcanoes - Mt. Iwaki and Mt. Asama - erupted within months of each other in 1783, spewing ash that blocked sunlight over wide areas. The resulting Great Tenmei Famine killed hundreds of thousands. Rural northern Japan was especially hard hit. To pacify the souls of the victims, the head priest of the Buddhist temple Daijiji carved 500 stone rakan  (disciples of the Budda) on a hillside near Tono. Many of the carvings remain today.

One late October, Kuro-e came to Tono, intrigued by its rustic charm and legends. She spent yesterday visiting the Chiba family farmhouse, a designated national cultural property. Today, she planned to visit Gohyaku Rakan (500 Rakan). Hearing that Kuro-e was interested in Tono legends, the keeper of the inn where she stayed gave her a map and pointed out another place called Tsuzuki Ishi 続石 (Continued Stone) featured in one of the legends.

It was a long walk to Gohyaku Rakan. When she arrived at the location on her map, she did not see any stone carving. She climbed farther up the hillside looking for them, wandering deeper and deeper into the forest, crawling over boulders and searching the gullies, but still found nothing. Just when she was about to give up, she had a spooky feeling she was being watched. On a rock right next to her, half-hidden among the green moss, a face was staring at her. Looking around, she saw more faces appearing one after another. She was surrounded by faces on the jumble of rocks, camouflaged among green moss, all watching her in silence. The place was so spooky that instead of pacifying her, the rakan carvings sent a chill down her spine.


Gohyaku Rakan   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

The second destination was too far to walk to, Kuro-e took a taxi to a mountain west of town. The middle-aged driver with a bald head kept up a cheerful conversation until the car stopped by the side of the road in front of a deep cedar forest. He turned around and said, “Go through that gate,” pointing to a rustic Torii gate at the bottom of the hill. Kuro-e paid for the ride and thanked him. Before she got off, the man added in a low serious tone, “Chūi shite kudasai!” (Be careful!) His tone caught Kuro-e by surprise; she looked at the man quizzically, but he said nothing more.

The wooden Torii gate was so old and weathered there was hardly any paint left. A sign warning of bear hung next to the gate. Perhaps that was what the taxi driver cautioning her about, Kuro-e thought. Having hiked in grizzly bear country in Montana, she knew how to behave. She walked through the gate, making noise and talking to herself. A long flight of steps made of ancient-looking wooden logs led steeply uphill. Fallen leaves covered much of the path. As she ascended, the trees grew taller and the undergrowth grew darker. Before long, she arrived at a massive rock, big as a truck, supported horizontally in mid-air by a pair of vertical boulders, forming a narrow archway. A sign said Tsuzuki Ishi. The formation did not look natural. Some said the stones were put in place by a strong warrior named Benkei. Others suggested that it was a tomb, but no one knew who created it or for whom.

Squeezing through the stone archway, Kuro-e found a weathered wooden Shinto shrine. A copper suzu bell hung on a heavy braided rope from the eave; an assortment of rusted ceremonial iron blades affixed to the door frame. Inside, on the altar next to the incense holders sat a wooden effigy of a horse. A wooden plaque over the door bore the three characters 山神社 – Shrine of Mountain Kami (Gods or Spirits). Kuro-e recalled one of the Tono legends and sucked in a breath.

According to this legion, there was a falconer in the town of Tono. They called him Torigozen. One day, he and a friend went mushroom-hunting in the mountains between the town and Sarugaishi River. The two became separated. Torigozen continued to climb higher until the sun hung low in the west. It was then he saw a man and a woman with beet-red faces, standing in the shade next to a big rock. When Torigozen approached, the man kept pushing him back. Judging from the couple’s appearance, Torigozen did not believe they were real. He pulled out a knife and swung it at the man, but the man lashed out with a vicious kick and knocked him out. Torigozen’s friend found him unconscious at the bottom of a valley and took him home. After telling his friend what had happened, Torigonzen fell ill and died three days later. It was said that the way he died was so mysterious, he might have disturbed the place where Mountain Kami were playing.


Late afternoon sunlight filtering through the tall trees cast strange shadows around the shrine, adding to the mysterious aura of the place. The line between real and imagined became blurred. Before she left, Kuro-e paid tribute to the shrine. She bowed and gently tugged the braided rope attached to the copper bell, a symbolic gesture of calling the Kami. To her surprise, the sound of the bell was answered by rustling noises in the bush behind the shrine. The taxi driver’s cautionary words and the bear-warning sign flashed back in her mind; she suddenly felt vulnerable. Now, she was unsure if she should make more noise or stay quiet and not to disturb the Kami.  Cautiously, she retreated past the giant rocks, and quietly made her way down the shadowed path.

Tsuzuki Ishi.jpg

Tsuzuki Ishi   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

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