By Koichi Saijo / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterTONO, Iwate — Partway up a hill in Tono, Iwate Prefecture, is the majestic, amazing sight of a massive rock sitting atop smaller rocks that act as a pedestal.
“There’s a legend that the warrior monk Musashibo Benkei put this big rock on the pedestal,” said Takashi Kikuchi, 78, a sightseeing guide in Tono.
Kikuchi said this as we climbed up the mountain wearing bear bells. The boulder is 7.3 meters wide, 4.6 meters tall and 2.1 meters thick. When I looked up, it seemed so heavy I felt like I’d be squashed. It was quite strange to see this huge boulder delicately balanced on smaller rocks.
Locally called “Tsuzukiishi,” meaning connecting rocks, the boulder appears in books such as “Tono Monogatari” (The Legends of Tono) written by Kunio Yanagita, the father of Japan’s native folklore studies. In the region, there are legends about a tragic warlord named Minamoto no Yoshitsune who lived around the end of the Heian period (from 794 to the late 12th century). Many locals believed the rocks were set up by Benkei, Yoshitsune’s faithful retainer.
The upper and lower rocks are both granite. “A long time ago, after a huge rock slid down a slope and stopped on the pedestal rocks by accident, the surrounding earth and sand eroded and disappeared, which created this present form. Well, that story isn’t interesting for a village of folktales,” Kikuchi, a retired high school science teacher said wryly.
After climbing down the mountain, I drove by myself to a famous tourist spot, Kappabuchi Pool, a stream connected to legends of the mythical water-dwelling creatures known as kappa.
When a family group left the stream, I was the only one at the water’s edge in the dusk. A kappa’s face is generally described as being blue, but here in Tono it’s been said that a kappa with a red face played tricks on horses and people.
Tono was often hit by poor harvests during the Edo period (1603-1867). Villagers who suffered from famine are said to have let babies, who are often described as having a red face in Japanese, float down the river when they could not take care of them.
I remembered that Kikuchi told me such stories, and thought that people may have turned a cruel history stemming from poverty into a folktale as a means of relief. I looked into the dark surface of the water with a mixture of emotions.
Located in a basin, Tono is known as a major production center for hops, a raw ingredient in beer. I heard the area experiences drastic changes in temperature between daytime and nighttime in summer, which results in hops with a strong aroma and bitterness.
When I visited the Beer Experience Co. farm, an agricultural corporation established last year, I saw hop plants growing to a height of five meters.
I once drank a beer made by the Kamihei-shuzo brewery that uses hops from Tono. Using technology cultivated in sake brewing, the firm produces beer with moderate bitterness and an impressive clear aftertaste.
Tokyo-based Kirin Brewery Co. buys hops from Tono, so Kirin employee Ryuhei Asai, 38, concurrently serves as a vice president of Beer Experience, and now lives in Tono.
A decline in the number of hop farmers is also a major challenge for local communities. “There were 239 hop-producing farms in 1974, but the number is now down to 31,” Asai said. The decline is attributed to increasingly aged farmers.
Before Beer Experience was established, Asai and his colleagues worked on measures for the next generation of employees, calling out to young people in the Tokyo metropolitan area to take up hop farming.
Their efforts paid off, as 12 people have moved to Tono in the past three years. Farms that were no longer being cultivated were handed over to them. The harvest season began at the end of this month.
“We’re experimenting with efficient production methods, such as expanding the cultivation scale, learning from Germany, which is renowned for beer. There is great potential,” Asai said. His confident voice echoed through the green hop field.
A special exhibition titled “Tono Monogatari to Kamigami” (The Legends of Tono and deities) is being held at the Tono Municipal Museum. The exhibits are simple, mysterious dolls and masks.
The deities of houses and mountains often appear in “The Legends of Tono.” To survive the harsh natural environment of minus 20 C in winter, people must have asked for help from deities.
The items on display, usually found in small shrines and private homes, were collected from all over the Tohoku region for the exhibition. The exhibition will continue through Sept. 23.
Hokkaido is well known to be the home of jingisukan, a grilled lamb or mutton dish. People also eat jingisukan in Tono, so often that they associate jingisukan with yakiniku.
Woolen fabrics used to be popular and many sheep were kept in the area. This led to the beginning of sheep meat being distributed in the 1950s.
At present, most lamb and mutton comes from Australia and New Zealand. Fresh meat is available thanks to the development of refrigerated transport technology. Most restaurants in Tono serve lamb.
At Tono Shokuniku Center’s main store in Tono, a set of deluxe lamb and rice for ¥1,382 is popular. “You can enjoy the fresh sweetness of lamb with four kinds of sauce, including spicy or sweet sauces.” said Imi Koiguchi of the store.
It is a seven-minute car ride to the store from Tono Station.
In 2003, Tono became the first city in the nation to be designated as a “special zone of doburoku” following government deregulation. Like sake, doburoku is fermented with rice, koji malted rice and yeast. After fermentation, the color becomes cloudy white because it’s not filtered. Doburoku, called dobekko in Tono, has been popular for a long time.
Now, four companies in the city are competing with each other over taste. The degree of sweetness and alcohol content are also different because the rice-polishing ratio varies depending on the breweries. You should sample them and compare the tastes and aroma. A small bottle will cost from around ¥400.
Access: About 3 hours and 10 minutes from JR Tokyo Station to Shin-Hanamaki Station on the Tohoku Shinkansen line. Transfer to a rapid train on the JR Kamaishi Line and travel about 40 minutes to Tono Station. An appointment must be made seven days in advance for a Tono sightseeing guide.Speech