The glorious temples of Hiraizumi are among only a few physical reminders of the turbulent feudal past of Iwate Prefecture (岩手県; Iwate-ken), but there are nonetheless plenty of opportunities for exploration in Japan's second-largest prefecture. Sleepy valleys, a rugged coastline and high, lush mountains attract discerning hikers and those looking for a tree-change, but it’s perhaps the Tōno Valley, where countless folk tales are still born and told, where travellers will glimpse that all-too-rare Lost Japan.
The coastal communities here have regrouped admirably since the Great East Japan Earthquake and visitors with their own wheels, or the patience for the slow trains, will be rewarded with glorious sunrises and welcoming hosts.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Iwate Prefecture.
Established in AD 850 by the priest Ennin, the Chūson-ji complex was expanded by the Ōshu Fujiwara family in the 12th century. A total of 300 buildings with 40 temples were constructed. Ironically, the family's grand scheme to build a Buddhist utopia was destroyed when a massive fire ravaged nearly everything in 1337. Only two of the original structures, the Konjiki-dō and Kyōzō, remain, alongside more recent reconstructions. The sprawling site is reached via a steep cedar-lined avenue.
Gilded and gleaming up to its eaves, with elaborate lacquerwork and mother-of-pearl inlay throughout, the Konjiki-dō, in the Chuson-ji complex, was at the cutting edge of Heian-era artistry when it was created in 1124 – and still impresses today. Beneath the three altars are the mummified remains of three generations of the Ōshu Fujiwara family. Given Hiraizumi's history, it seems a miracle that the Konjiki-dō has survived. To avoid tempting fate, the pavilion is now behind glass inside a fireproof enclosure.
Established by the priest Ennin in AD 850 at the same time as Chūson-ji, Mōtsū-ji was once Tōhoku’s largest and grandest temple complex. The buildings are all long gone, but the enigmatic 12th-century ‘Pure Land’ gardens, designed with the Buddhist notion of creating an earthly paradise, remain.
Housed in the restored ryokan where Yanagita Kunio penned his famous work Legends of Tōno , this evocative museum has audiovisuals of some of the tales and memorabilia pertaining to Yanagita. There is minimal English signage, but wandering the restored buildings is still worthwhile.
This peaceful temple is dedicated to the deity image of Obinzuru-sama. Behind the temple is the kappa-buchi pool, where Tōno's famous water sprites lurk. It is said that if pregnant women worship at the shrine on the riverbank, they’ll produce plenty of milk, but only if they first produce a breast-shaped offering. The tiny altar is filled with small red or white cloth bags, most complete with nipple.
A curious rock that rests amid aromatic cedars, Tsuzuki-ishi is either a natural formation or a dolmen (primitive tomb). A short, steep hike rewards you with views across the valley, but take heed as bears (and hungry ogres) are reported to lurk in these parts.
If you head east on foot from the train station along Kaiun-bashi for about 2km, you’ll eventually come to this landscaped park, where Morioka-jō once stood. All that remains of the castle, completed in 1633 and destroyed in 1874, are its moss-covered stone foundation walls. Still, you can get a sense of its scale.
A huge cracked granite boulder sits in front of the Morioka District Court, out of which sprouts this large cherry tree, said to be almost four hundred years old. The tree is a much-loved local attraction, though there is some debate over whether or not it actually grew through the stone.
In the hills above Tōno, these eerie, moss-covered rock carvings of five hundred disciples of Buddha were fashioned by a priest to console the spirits of those who died in a 1754 famine. It's a truly unique site – approach respectfully.