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Discover the Iconic Gorges, Legends and UNESCO World Heritage Temples of Iwate Prefecture

A mere two hours by train from Tokyo, this secluded region of Tohoku feels a world away.

By 6 min read

At a time when we are continuously looking for that last “unspoiled” spot in our travels, Iwate may offer Japan’s best answer.

The largest prefecture of Tohoku—and one of the most secluded regions in Japan—it is impressively rich in terms of the nature, cultural and historical sites. When I was so sure that a certain sight would be the highlight of my visit, Iwate was quick to surprise me with a new one.

These are the highlights of my winter trip covering the central and southern parts of Iwate—just one small part of a much larger adventure.

Listen to folktales of Tono and its local creatures

Enjoy traditional folktales, “Tono Monogatari,” along with exquisite food at local folk villages, hotels and museums in Tono.

Tono, a city of 26,000 people, occupies an idyllic setting in central Iwate being surrounded by mountains in all directions. The beautiful nature encircling the town gives it a secluded and untouched feeling and perfectly complements the spirit of the town, which is known for its dedication to preservation of traditional culture.

While it may still be unknown to the international visitors, Tono enjoys quite a bit of fame in Japan with its centuries old folktales—Tono Monogatari—earning the town the nickname of the City of Folklore. The Legends of Tono is a collection of folktales originated in Tono, which was put together in a book by Yanagita Kunio, in collaboration with Tono local Sasaki Kizen, in 1910 (English translation is also available).

There are today many places in the town where visitors can listen to these folktales by attending the storytelling sessions conducted by locals at the town`s folktale museum, folk villages or even hotels.

Kappa is the legendary aquatic creature believed to be living in Kappabuchi pool in Tono.

I participated in a folktale storytelling session at my hotel – Aeria Tono, one of the most comfortable accommodation options in the town offering exquisite cuisine and spacious rooms. On a delightfully snowy winter evening, we gathered in a spacious Japanese style room around a teapot and immersed ourselves in the captive style of an elderly town lady who blessed us with three short stories. Some of the Tono folktales have very grim but also captivatingly bizarre plots (such as a girl marrying a horse) that would make Edgar Allan Poe jealous.

My imagination, fueled by the folktales, took me next morning to a river, known as the Kappa Pool, to encounter the legendary creatures of Tono—Kappas—who live in the water and feed on children and cucumbers. While there have been many reported sightings of these short and usually green colored creatures serving as a reminder of the dangers of the water, they have not made an appearance during our short visit.

Make matcha in an old samurai house in Kanegasaki

After leaving Tono and its captivating legends behind, the next stop took me further south to Kanegasaki town. The small town is also known for its gracefully well-preserved old culture and architecture where the equally fascinating samurai culture replaces the legendary creatures of Tono.

Jonai Suwakoji, the samurai district of the town, is home to old traditional wooden houses that once hosted samurai families. Visitors are welcomed to enter some of these houses and, with pre-booking, partake in different cultural experiences including matcha making, kimono-wearing and Japanese calligraphy.

We visited the Sakamoto family residence sitting inside a small garden. The house, with its dimly lit rooms, big windows allowing us to watch the snow outside, offered everything one could expect from a fairy tale-like snow setting. My travel partners and I participated in the matcha making experience where two lady instructors gently guided us through the process, which starts easily enough by tasting the sweet served alongside matcha. Next, we carefully cleaned the cup, scraped the matcha into the bowl and blended the matcha powder into the water. I sincerely hope that my visible excitement about the experience and the magical atmosphere made up for my equally visible lack of talent for matcha making.

Visit Chuson-ji, Iwate`s UNESCO heritage site

Chuson-ji in Hiraizumi is one of the most impressive temple complexes in all of Japan. Founded in 850, it was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage in 2011.

I am a little reluctant to ruin the surprise for you. But my next stop – Chuson-ji Temple – located in Hiraizumi may be the best kept secret of the entire Japan. For me, it was such an unexpectedly moving sight that I was almost happy to not know much about it prior to my visit.

Chuson-ji greets its visitors with an alley guarded by tall trees setting the right tone for the majesticity that the visitors are about to experience. The temple was rightfully registered as a UNESCO World Heritage in 2011 along with selective sites in Hiraizumi. The complex, originally established in 850 as a temple for Tendai sect of Buddhism, was expanded in the 12th century by the Fujiwara Clan, the ruling clan during the Heian Period of Japan (794-1185). The complex, which once housed dozens of temples and buildings, is still impressively large, reminding me of Koyasan, another UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Wakayama.

The bell ringing at Chuson-ji creates an eerie yet captivating atmosphere

The main attraction of Chuson-ji is Konjikido Hall (often compared to Golden Pavilion in Kyoto), a mesmerizingly beautiful structure covered in gold, which also houses the mummified remains of the leaders of Fujiwara Clan. The complex is also home to the Sankozo Museum featuring old Buddhist scriptures. Surrounded by a dense forest, Chuson-ji is particularly beautiful in the winter when the snow turns it into a winter wonderland or in autumn when the colorful leaves add to the appeal of the already impressive wooden structures.

While one can easily spend at least half a day in Chuson-ji, it was time for a lunch break at the nearby Ichinoseki city. The lunch was at historic Seki-no-Ichi—a sake distillery and beer brewery. There, we ate a delicious shabu-shabu set served with their signature honjozo sake sauce. Another specialty of the restaurant and Ichinoseki is the mochi tasting menu featuring nine different kinds of mochi.

Sail through the iconic Geibikei Gorge

Geibikei Gorge near Ichinoseki runs for 2 kilometers along Satetsu River. Visitors can take a boat tour to sail through rugged cliffs to reach Daigeibi-gan, a giant 124-meter high cliff. The gorge is one of the prime autumn colors viewing spots in Japan. But a winter visit is equally rewarding when the surrounding cliffs and trees are fully dressed in white.

The final stop of my trip was Geibikei Gorge, which almost needs no introduction as one of the most iconic nature sights in Japan. I usually expect the experience at these “famous” and “must see” spots to be relatively underwhelming. But Geibikei Gorge, running for 2-kilometers along Satetsu River, lives up to the promise, especially during the autumn colors season or on a snowy winter day when the surroundings are fully dressed in white.

Visitors can take a 90-minute boat tour, in the company of ducks begging for food and being surrounded by rugged cliffs reaching heights of 100 meters, to travel deeper into the gorge until reaching the shore to take a short walk to Daigeibi-gan, a giant picturesque 124-meter high cliff. The boatmen dressed in traditional dresses sail the un-motorized boats with a pole and sing, to the delight of all passengers, the regional tunes on the way back.

As our dreamy trip on the river came to an end, I was soon on my way back to Ichinoseki to trade the un-motorized boat with one of the most advanced transportation methods of our times, Shinkansen. I almost wished that the 2 ½ hour trip back to Tokyo was a little longer. I was not ready to trade the unassuming yet impressive atmosphere of Iwate with the flashy city lights of Tokyo.

Despite its relatively central location, Iwate may be the last undiscovered frontier of Japan.

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