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KS Cover no. 75 2006 August

August 2006 :: 075
 

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 work.

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 imagined.

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
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.

Text & photos: Laura Markslag

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Ways & Means

Getting There

Getting to Iya Valley is fairly easy. However, discovering the valley by public transportation is a little tricky and is best approached by car.

By Plane

It's about 1 hour and 15 minutes to Tokushima Airport from Tokyo Haneda Airport and about 35 minutes from Osaka Itami Airport. Then add 30 minutes from Tokushima Airport to Tokushima Station by bus. From there, it's about 1 hour and 10 minutes from Tokushima Station to Awa-Ikeda Station by JR Tokushima Line Limited Express.

By Train

The nearest train station is at Oboke, which is along the JR Dosan Line between Kochi and Takamatsu and runs hourly from Okayama (Shinkansen station). From Oboke you can connect to a bus through a tunnel into West Iya, but services are infrequent: there are up to eight buses per day on weekends only in the high season (April-November), and just four per day the rest of the time.

By Bus

There are seven direct buses daily from Ikeda, which travel to West Iya either via Oboke (four daily) or via Iyaguchi (three daily).

By Car

Travelling by car is by far the best way to discover Iya Valley and the fastest route if arriving from Tokushima and Kansai. Take Route 438 from Sadamitsu or Route 439 from Anabuki which connect directly into East Iya. Traffic is very light, especially on weekdays, and the roads are quite narrow and twisty.

The Chiiori Project

Higashi Iya Tsurui 209, Miyoshi, Tokushima-ken 778-0206
Tel: 0883-88-5360 / 0883-88-5290
Email: [email protected]
Reservations: [email protected]
www.chiiori.org/index.en.htm