By Joanne Verikios
Do you like folklore and fairytales?
I do too. In fact, once upon a very long time ago, the topic of my Bachelor of Arts Honours thesis was The Interplay of Realism and Expression in the Form and Technique of the Russian Folktale.
Anyway, given my lifelong love of (a) horses and (b) folklore, I was thrilled to discover a charming folktale while travelling in the northern Japanese prefecture of Iwate. The connection is no accident, because Iwate was the home of Japanese horse breeding back in the Samurai days and the quiet rural town of Tono is famous for stories and legends.
Tono has a very strong horse culture, as horses were vital to peoples livelihoods and - reminiscent of treasured Arabians who were brought into the tents of their Bedouin owners - slept inside with the family. Even the bus stops in Tono are shaped to remind us of the importance of horses!
Note the beautiful halter knotting and the detail in the horse shoes in the pictures below.
Tono also preserves some of the traditional L-shaped Magariya houses, where people lived once in the long side of the L and horses lived in the short side. The most famous of these, the Chiba / Chibaya House, was closed when we were there (in March 2019) but we found another example at the Densho-en cultural complex. This is the Kikuchi Family Magariya (pictured), which was built in the mid 1700s.
The horse accommodation is on the left (see the historic photo below).
It was at Densho-en that we encountered the story of #Oshirasama. According to legend, a poor farmer had no wife but he did have a beautiful daughter and one horse.
The daughter spent a great deal of time with the horse, even sleeping in his part of the house overnight. One thing led to another and horse and woman became husband and wife.
When the farmer found out, he killed the horse.
There are a number of gruesome versions of how he killed him and what happened next, including subsequent mutilation of the dead horse when the farmer saw his daughter grieving over the body, but they all end with the daughter flying into the sky, either clinging to her beloved horse's head or on his skin, whereupon she became Oshira-Sama a Kami (deity), patron of silk worms, agriculture and horses.
Oshira-sama also foretells both good and bad fortune for believers in dreams.
There is an amazing chamber in the Densho-en complex called Oshirado Hall, where you can write your wishes on a piece of cloth and spike it on one of the 1000 wooden figures carved to represent Oshirasama in both equine and human form. Thousands of visitors - not just from Japan but from all over the world - have taken the opportunity to have their heart's desires expedited by Oshirasama by adorning one of these statues.
Iwate Travel Notes
Where is Tono: Tono is located near the middle of the Iwate prefecture on the Pacific coast in the Tohoku Region of Honshu in north eastern Japan.
How we got there: Using Hyperdia to work out routes and timetables, we travelled from Sendai in the Miyagi prefecture by Shinkansen (bullet train) to Shin-Hanamaki, where we picked up a hire car from the Toyota Rent a Car depot just across the road from the station. We booked the car online before arrival. The roads are excellent, by the way, the drivers are competent and courteous and the countryside is very picturesque.
Navigating: The rental car came with a satnav system in English, but we preferred to use a combination of two phone apps: Waze (for the route) and Google Maps (for nearby cafes, restaurants and opening times). Yes, we bought a local SIM at the airport on arrival in Tokyo.
Accommodation: We stayed right on the coast of Ofunato Bay at the Ofunato Onsen, which is about 30kms from Tono. It was a great base for exploring the region, with excellent nearby restaurants and relaxing onsen (natural hotspring baths) overlooking the bay and out to the Pacific Ocean.
Refreshments: We really enjoyed our coffees and snacks in the On Cafe and the Noto General Store.
All photos by Joanne Verikios
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From a very early age I have been able to tune in to what horses and ponies were thinking and what they were likely to do next.