With its mountainous landscape and endless amounts of winding roads connecting its small towns, Japan offers drivers an array of routes that can get you off the beaten path and on the way to discovering the most beautiful and secluded areas.
Tokushima’s Iya Valley 祖谷渓, the mystical region nestled at the foot of Mount Tsurugi is one of the best examples and to us, one of the best places in Japan to enjoy a scenic drive.
The roads around the Iya Valley are not for the faint of heart though. Wide highways/roads are almost non-existent and if one wants to drive through this enigmatic land, one should be both skillful and able to handle well on narrow… extremely narrow roads. With that in mind, we have some roads and scenic spots in Iya that we want to share with our fellow drivers because such beauty should be driven, discovered, and enjoyed.
Road 32 is the central road in Iya Valley, and although it is only a two-lane highway, it is the widest and most transited road in the area. It follows the Yoshino River almost as far down as Kochi and while driving it you can find various ryokans, cafes, and a few “michi-no-eki” or roadside stations. In the Iya Valley, this road splits into two around Tsurugisan Kokutei Park. On one side you can visit the Oboke gorge and the popular pleasure boat ride while on the other side (and the most narrow portion of the road) you’ll want to stop midway to take a selfie with the famous peeing boy. There are several restaurants along Road 32 but the most reliable location for a pit stop is River Station West-West.
Just off Road 32, things start getting a bit more technical as one drives through the Tobinosu Canyon. This one is Road 271 which connects the Oboke Gorge with Shiozuka Highlands and along the way crosses through a few hamlets bordering the Shirakawadani River. Keep an eye out for the cultural details like the roadside wooden mills still in operation and reminiscent of much much older times. Recommended also is the drive up to the Shiozuka Highlands to get the most out this route.
At approximately 1,000 meters high, this plateau offers dramatic views of the mountain range and weather permitting it is one of the early-morning viewing points for the “sea of clouds”; a highlight of the Iya Valley. During the winter make sure you have winter tires and/or chains as snow covers the road as it nears the plateau.
If you want to go deeper into the heart of the mountainside villages and to reach secluded locations like Chiori House, then make sure your copilot catches the obscure signs along the route and head up the unnamed mountain roads. These hidden roads can be hard to find and are also quite narrow, but the effort is rewarded with scenery like that of the Higashi-Ochiai Preservation District.
Finally, let us remind you, to safely drive around Iya Valley make sure you have experience driving narrow winding roads, and for a winter adventure make sure you have the necessary equipment to keep you safe. Check the curve side mirrors for on-coming farmer’s truck, and watch out for road closures which happen more often than expected and can put a damper on your trip.