A journey to the Tibet of Japan
Iya Valley, Shikoku
One of Japan's Three Hidden Regions, Iya Valley is a place of
mystery and intrigue. With its tall peaks and deep gorges, it is
where many people have sought refuge after from battles in the
8th, 12th and 14th centuries. Today, the local inhabitants, many
of whom are descendants from those that fled to the region
centuries past, struggle to preserve their traditional ways
regardless of significant economic pressure to move to the cities.
Until the 1970s, Iya Valley preserved a way of life unspoiled by
the consequences of modernity and was a paradigm for the sustainable
harmony of man and nature. Although recent decades
have shifted the main livelihood of the local people from agriculture
to construction, Iya remains a gentle rural community, or
about as close to one as you will find in Japan.
Situated in the west of Tokushima and nearly in the centre
of Shikoku Island, the Iya area forms part of Mt. Tsurugi Quasi-
National Park. The valley can be divided into halves; the more
populated and developed West Iya (Nishi-Iya) and the more
remote East Iya (Higashi-Iya), which is also known as Oku-Iya.
There are small settlements (many of them abandoned) along
the highway connecting the two, but the largest on the east side
is the hamlet of Mino-Koshi, near Mt. Tsurugi and the intersection
of three small highways. The eight kilometre stretch of the
Yoshinogawa gorge between the entrance to Iya Valley, Okoke,
and Koboke is spectacular.
The Chiiori Project
Nestled in the steep hills dotted by thatched houses and forests
teeming with narrow paths, you will find the Chiiori Project. Coowned
by Alex Kerr (Lost Japan) and travel writer Mason Florence,
this 300-year-old thatched farmhouse is one of the few efforts
across Japan to preserve and revive traditional lifestyles vital to
Japan's living heritage.
In his travels to Iya Valley in the early 1970s, Kerr stumbled
upon and bought an Edo-period farmhouse. He named the
farm-house Chiiori (Cottage of the Flute). Over the years, he
re-thatched the house and learned how to subsist like one of
the locals. Florence later joined Kerr (1997) in the task of
maintaining the structure. In 1998 they founded the Chiiori
Project, with the goal to bring the house and the depopulated
village around it back to life.
Now an official non-profit organization (NPO) in Japan and with
the help of volunteers, they work to restore traditional practices,
organize cultural events, and hold civic forums to discuss community
problems. The Chiiori Project also works to protect the natural
environment, ensuring a place for future generations to live and
Hundreds of people visit each year. Most people go simply to
experience the romance of the old thatched house in the mountains.
The majority drop by for the day and stay for a tasty homemade
dinner or spend a night or two chatting in the cosy house
heated by the irori hearth, a square cut in the middle of the floor
that burns an eternal campfire. Others come as volunteers to
trade their time and energy to experience the rural lifestyle and
learn about farming, roof thatching or carpentry.
The Chiiori Project is not a hotel, nor an inn, nor a B&B. It is a
chance to stay and actively participate at a working farmhouse.
This may not be for everyone. Your clothes will get smoky and
you'll be reminded of grade school sleepovers as all guests (up
to ten people) comfortably share the one-room sleeping area.
The lack of heated water is quickly disregarded with a short trip
to the nearby hilltop onsen under the stars, where you quickly
forget about stiff muscles and inhibitions.
Kazura Vine Suspension Bridges
Iya's best-known attractions are the famed vine bridges (kazurabashi)
that span the deep river gorges, and which used to be the
only way to cross the river. These beautiful bridges could (and
would) be conveniently cut to prevent enemy invaders from
crossing the river.
Close to the main village in West Iya, and beside a monstruous
cement parking lot, is the most popular vine bridge, Iya Kazurabashi,
dangling over the Iyagawa River. Not very far from the
main road, the 45-metre long and
2-metre wide suspension bridge with
a height of 15 metres from the water
level, isn't particularly scary. Designated
important folkloric property as one of
Japan's three rare bridges, the bridge
is rebuilt every three years.
However, by venturing 30 km deeper
upstream into the eastern end of the
valley, before the final ascent to Mino-
Koshi, you will find the serene riverbanks
and waterfall with the double
vine bridges, the Oku-Iya vine bridges.
The Husband's Bridge (Otto-no-hashi),
the longer and higher up bridge, and the
Wife's Bridge (Tsuma-no-hashi) offer
a much more atmospheric and peaceful
place to experience the serenity of Iya.
Reinforced with steel cables hidden
inside the vines, these are a bit closer
to the Tarzan style vine bridge often
Althought the bridges are accessible
year round, they are "officially" open
sunrise to sunset, April – November,
and you'll be required to pay ¥500 to
cross during these times.
Mt. Tsurugi, also known locally as Kenzan
or "Sword Mountain", is the most
popular hiking destination and is the
second tallest mountain in Shikoku at
1955m. (The tallest is Mount Ishizuchi).
Though hardly sword-like, this gently
rounded fell is a beautiful two to three
hour hike. For the less adventurous,
a chairlift can be taken up most of the
way (¥1,000) and the summit can then
be reached on foot in about half an
hour. If you choose to hike up or down
the long way, you can stop at O-Tsurugi
Shrine along the way for a free sip of
holy sake and a rest at a clear mountain
spring with drinkable water. The shrine
is in fact in three parts, with one in
Mino-Koshi, one on the trail to the top
and one at the very top of the mountain.
Trails radiate from Tsurugi in a number
of directions, one of the most popular
being across Jirogyu and Maruishi and
down directly to the Oku-Iya vine
bridges and campground.
Miune is another popular trip, and
less crowded than Mt Tsurugi. Locals
say it is the best hike to see the autumn
foliage. The trail starts at the hamlet of
Nagoro and takes about two and a half
hours. The area is currently the focus of
some cons-truction with a hot spring
resort, cable car and even a monorail
being carved into the mountainside.
Iya Valley is a magical place to visit,
truly a chance to experience rural life
as it was hundreds of years ago. The
asto-nishing views with the traditional
that-ched homes perched high in the
mountains overlooking the Iyagawa
River, and the fresh, clean air establish
Iya Valley as one of the most scenic,
and accessible, spots in Western Japan.