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[VIDEO] EXCLUSIVE: ‘They Look Like Lions, But They’re Gods’: New Edition of Tono Matsuri Festival Documentary


We arrived at our new home in northern Japan just days before the beginning of the Tono-matsuri Festival. We had a unique opportunity to capture some footage and share it with our readers.

Tōno, Iwate, is‘s new eastern HQ.

UPDATE: The original, 23-minute long director’s cut documentary home movie is still up on our YouTube channel, but we’ve added this more watchable 9-minute version, since even family members were beginning to politely suggest that the original, was too long.  With the festival elements better condensed, and some new footage added, we hope it’s an improvement.

Even Lion-Gods use mobile phones and drink beer, so make sure you stay past the credits at the end, for the bonus second ending.

There’s lots to tell about Tono, past and present, but here are some of the basics:

Tōno (遠野市 Tōno-shi) is a city in Iwate Prefecture, Japan. Tōno is known as “The City of Folklore” for its rural nature, its preservation of traditional culture and especially for the collection of folktales, Tōno Monogatari, written by Kunio Yanagita in 1910.


Tōno is a garden city laid in a basin that is surrounded by the Kitakami Range in the central part of Iwate. The three notable mountains of the Kitakami Range are Mt. Hayachine-san, Mt. Rokkoushi-san and Mt. Ishigami-san. Together they are called Tono’s Three Mountains. The center of Tono is situated near the upper reaches of the Sarugaishi-gawa River, which is a tributary of the Kitakami-gawa River, at the western end of the Tono Basin. Tono has been well-known for horse breeding for many centuries and has prospered as a trading point between the inland and the coast.


Tono is the land of old folk tales. There are a number of folk tales in Tono that have been told from generation to generation. The most loved tale of the locals is that of the Kappa, an imaginary, peculiar looking creature with a mischievous character that lives in water and has a dish on its head. You will see statues of Kappa all over the town including the one in front of Tono Station and another in the pond of the square near the railway station. Tono’s old folk tales, including Kappa stories and old customs, are introduced at Tono Mukashi-banashi Mura (Old Tales Village) and the Tono City Museum.


The most exciting event of Tono is the Tono-matsuri Festival, which is held in early autumn every year. During the festival, local performing arts such as Kagura (Japanese ancient sacred music) and the Rice Planting Dance are performed. Yabusame (Japanese horseback archery) is also a very popular performance that attracts large crowds of people every year.

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Chizuko with her family, circa 1980

Tono is also the home of my wife’s ancestors, going back into the mists of history,  Records, kept in shrines (though some burned down) exist as far back as the 1700s. Her grandparents were farmers, and their ancestors were some of Tono’s original settlers.

In fact, Chizuko’s last name is shared by some of the real-life characters in Japan’s legendary folktales, Tōno Monogataricollected by Kunio Yanagita, and to this day, the family name Nitta is well-known in the region.

Here is Chizuko interviewing a local resident, discussing the Shishi-mai (lion dance) and translating.


If you enjoy the video hit the like button, and subscribe to our YouTube channel!

Tono is also the new sister city of Chattanooga Tennessee. More on that in a future post.

History sources: Thefreedictionary, Wikipediaand Jnto Japan

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Tono Matsuri festival, September 217

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