Exploring the Iya Valley, Japan’s lost Shangri-La


2023.11.28

NAVITIME TRAVEL EDITOR

If you wanted to get away from it all in Japan without going to a remote island, the Iya Valley should be on your list of destinations. Nestled between mountains, this region of Shikoku Island is famed as one of the most isolated areas of the nation. Legend has it that samurai warriors of the Taira clan used it as a hideaway after their defeat in a 12th-century civil war. Today, traveling to this mountain kingdom along winding roads hugging mountainsides feels like entering a forgotten world. It offers travelers unmatched scenery, unique attractions, and a chance to get away from the frenetic pace of Japan’s big cities.

  • Chiiori is a 300-year-old farmhouse deep in the mountains of the Iya Valley

    Chiiori is a 300-year-old farmhouse deep in the mountains of the Iya Valley

    Iya Valley
    place
    Tokushima Pref. Miyoshishi Ikedachoumatsuo - Nishiyanyama Village
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    Wanoyado Hotel Iya Onsen Natural Hot Spring

    367-28 Matsumoto, Ikeda-cho, Matsuo, Miyoshi-shi Tokushima

    Agoda
    • Wanoyado Hotel Iya Onsen Natural Hot Spring
    • Wanoyado Hotel Iya Onsen Natural Hot Spring
    • Wanoyado Hotel Iya Onsen Natural Hot Spring
    • Wanoyado Hotel Iya Onsen Natural Hot Spring
    • Wanoyado Hotel Iya Onsen Natural Hot Spring
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    Misty mountains and deep ravines

    The Iya Valley lies in eastern Shikoku, about 70 kilometers west of Tokushima City. It’s a collection of misty mountains and deep ravines centering on the Iya River, or Iyagawa, a name that translates as “Ancestor River.” Due to its very mountainous terrain, access was very challenging and the valley was slow to open up—roads and railways only penetrated the region in the early 20th century. Even today, its narrow, single-lane roads prevent tour buses from reaching some areas. Centuries-old farmhouses, some with traditional thatched roofs, can still be seen clinging to the mountainsides.

    Its narrow, single-lane roads prevent tour buses from reaching some parts of the Iya Valley

    Its narrow, single-lane roads prevent tour buses from reaching some parts of the Iya Valley

    According to legend, samurai hiding in the valley built vine bridges that could be easily severed to block enemies

    One way in which early settlers adapted to this terrain remains one of its main attractions. The kazurabashi are suspension bridges fashioned from woody vines that were once the only way into the valley. At one point there were more than ten of these spans, whose construction is attributed either to Taira samurai or the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi (774–835), but only three are left today.

    At the western end of Iya Gorge, the easiest bridge to reach is Iya Kazurabashi, a 45-meter-long web of hardy kiwi vines and wooden slats that wouldn’t be out of place in an Indiana Jones film. Illuminated at night, this photogenic span offers eye-popping views of the dramatic Iya River cascading over large boulders below. If stepping across the somewhat flimsy construction hanging 14 meters above the Iya River gives you pause, don’t worry: the entire affair is reinforced with steel cables and is rebuilt every three years.

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    Whitewater rafting and places to relax along the valley

    The Yoshino River boasts some of the best whitewater rafting in Japan     ©Tokushima Prefecture

    The Yoshino River boasts some of the best whitewater rafting in Japan ©Tokushima Prefecture

    The thundering rivers of Iya also draw outdoor sports enthusiasts. The Yoshino River, the second-longest in Shikoku, has some of the best whitewater rafting in Japan. The 8-kilometer long linked gorges of Oboke and Koboke were chiseled out by the river over hundreds of millions of years. The emerald waters run through calm stretches and build up to mighty torrents in the Class 4 rapids, where the World Rafting Championship was held in 2017. There are a number of local rafting companies (https://miyoshi-tourism.jp/en/rafting/) that lead excursions for all levels of rafters.

    Abandoned elementary school turned coffee and pizza hangout

    Abandoned elementary school turned coffee and pizza hangout

    Housed in an old elementary school, Haretoke Coffee serves home-roasted brews and unique pizzas

    Housed in an old elementary school, Haretoke Coffee serves home-roasted brews and unique pizzas

    To refresh yourself after battling the waves, head to one of Shokoku’s more unique relaxation spots. Like many regional areas of Japan, depopulation has left many abandoned buildings in Iya, but a Tokyo designer turned one closed elementary school into a hostelry, Swedish sauna and café. About 5 km from Iyaguchi Station, Haretoke Coffee serves home-roasted coffee, pizza and cakes in a former classroom adorned with funky antiques and unusual bric-à-brac. The other classrooms are dorm accommodations, a kids’ room and a library. A deck on the schoolyard outside is perfect for admiring the mountain scenery.

    The corridors at the abandoned elementary school now lead guests to their lodgings

    The corridors at the abandoned elementary school now lead guests to their lodgings

    Keikoku-no-yu, one of Iyaonsen Hotel’s hot spring baths, is right on the Iya River affording excellent views as you soak in the waters of the onsen. ©Tokushima Prefecture

    Keikoku-no-yu, one of Iyaonsen Hotel’s hot spring baths, is right on the Iya River affording excellent views as you soak in the waters of the onsen. ©Tokushima Prefecture

    Iyaonsen Hotel’s hot spring baths are situated among very rocky terrain meaning they can only be accessed via cable car. ©Tokushima Prefecture

    Iyaonsen Hotel’s hot spring baths are situated among very rocky terrain meaning they can only be accessed via cable car. ©Tokushima Prefecture

    If you would rather chill out Japanese-style, try the hot springs to the south. At Iyaonsen Hotel, for instance, bathers ride a cable car to the bottom of the valley for a dip in the open-air rotenburo bath with unforgettable river views.

    For a truly unique accommodation, you’ll have to head to the heart of the Iya Valley. The most remote part of Iya is Higashi-Iya, to the east of the Iya-Kazurabashi bridge. Due to its narrow roads, fewer travelers reach this deep into the mountains. It’s home to secluded mountain hamlets of thatched-roof farmhouses. One of these, in the hamlet of Tsurui, is Chiiori, or House of the Flute. It’s a 300-year-old home that author and Japanologist Alex Kerr bought as an abandoned farmhouse in 1973 and gradually transformed into an upscale hostelry. This has been a labor of love, in no small part due to the difficulty of maintaining a thatched roof when reed roofers are dwindling in number.

    Even though it’s equipped as a modern guesthouse, the traditional architecture of Chiiori has been carefully preserved. It also offers excellent views across parts of the valley

    Even though it’s equipped as a modern guesthouse, the traditional architecture of Chiiori has been carefully preserved. It also offers excellent views across parts of the valley

    Overlooking the valley of the Kumatani River, a tributary to the Iya River, the house stands on a steeply sloped garden below a Shinto shrine in a cedar grove. The interior of Chiiori is mostly one large, main room. It’s almost entirely wood, from the polished floorboards with sunken irori hearths to great smoke-blackened rafters overhead supporting the many layers of thatch in the roof.

    The main room and adjacent smaller room of Chiiori both center on the irori floor hearth

    The main room and adjacent smaller room of Chiiori both center on the irori floor hearth

    Guests can have a traditional bento box of ayu sweetfish and mountain vegetables by a charcoal fire while taking in the panoramic valley views or, on clear nights, the stars of the Milky Way. On the other side of the sliding shoji paper doors, there’s a modern kitchen and bathrooms. Chiiori can be enjoyed as a place of tranquility and contemplation, the perfect spot to recharge before you leave the Iya Valley to return to the 21st century.

    Location details:

    Iya-no-Kazurabashi: Zentoku 162-2, Nishi-Iyayamamura, Miyoshi, Tokushima Prefecture

    Iya-no-Kazurabashi Bridge
    place
    Tokushima Pref. Miyoshishi Nishiyayamamurazentoku 162-2
    phone
    0883760877
    opening-hour
    [Apr.-June.]8:00-18:00[July.…
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    Haretoke Coffee: 15 Onishi, Ori, Ikeda-cho, Miyoshi, Tokushima Prefecture

    Haretoke Design-sha
    place
    Tokushima Pref. Miyoshishi Ikedachouori Onishi 15
    phone
    0883752208
    opening-hour
    Check on SNS
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    Iyaonsen Hotel: Matsumoto 367-28 Ikedacho Matsuo, Miyoshi, Tokushima Prefecture

    祖谷温泉 和の宿 ホテル祖谷温泉
    rating

    4.5

    87 Reviews
    place
    徳島県三好市池田町松尾松本367-28
    phone
    0883752311
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    Wanoyado Hotel Iya Onsen Natural Hot Spring

    367-28 Matsumoto, Ikeda-cho, Matsuo, Miyoshi-shi Tokushima

    Agoda
    • Wanoyado Hotel Iya Onsen Natural Hot Spring
    • Wanoyado Hotel Iya Onsen Natural Hot Spring
    • Wanoyado Hotel Iya Onsen Natural Hot Spring
    • Wanoyado Hotel Iya Onsen Natural Hot Spring
    • Wanoyado Hotel Iya Onsen Natural Hot Spring

    Chiiori: 209 Higashiiyatsurui, Miyoshi, Tokushima Prefecture

    CHIIORI
    place
    徳島県三好市東祖谷釣井209
    phone
    0883885290
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