The perception of time changes in the Valley of Iya. Everything flows according to the rhythms of nature in this isolated and remote valley, which became one of the places of refuge of the Taira clan, defeated by the Minamoto in the Genpei War.
So far from the neon and lights of Tokyo, but also so different from the landscapes of the Japanese Alps. The nature of the Iya Valley has something mysterious and secret, something that attracts you, but at the same time keeps you at a distance. A narrow valley, a few villages scattered on the sides of the hills, rocks smoothed by the water and vertiginous overhangs. We are in Shikoku, the less known one among the four islands of Japan, chosen by Lonely Planet among the Best in Travel 2022.
Why visit the Iya Valley
The Iya Valley is perhaps not the most suitable destination for the first trip to Japan but it is a stop that I highly recommend to lovers of Japanese history, legends and folklore and to those looking for a place to savor moments away from the hustle and bustle of the city and everyday life, relaxing or doing activities in nature.
In the Valley of Iya you will not find “the Japan you imagine”, no futuristic trains, colorful characters, not even dozens of temples or hundreds of sushi or ramen restaurants. There is nothing like what we expect to see in Japan.
But then why go this far?
Perhaps because there is nothing of what we expect and there is something that we can only find here, such as the Kazurabashi bridges made of vines, which apparently were originally built by the Taira Clan so as to be easily cut in case of enemy attack, or a village inhabited by dolls or meeting a Yokai, characters of Japanese folklore who seem to have become the protagonists of many episodes in the area .. and then thanks to Alex Kerr and his book, this valley has experienced a sort of rediscovery.
I spent two days there, staying at Kajiya Iya Romantei where, thanks to the welcome and experiences organized by Shino San, I lived one of the experiences that I will always remember. Two days was enough for me to get a taste of the Iya Valley and visit the major points of interest, but I am already planning to return for an immersion in history in the footsteps of the Taira clan.
The refuge of the Taira Clan
Between 1180 and 1885 the Minamoto and Taira clans face off in a series of Battles, in what is called the Genpei War (from the other two readings of the kanji which are Genji and Heike), to ensure “control of the Emperor” and thus indirectly control of Japan. You can read about this saga into Heike Monohatari. Two of the battles of this war took place in Shikoku, including the Battle of Yashima (Takamatsu) which made the young archer Nasu no Yoichi famous, which I will tell you about in an upcoming Takamatsu post, and the Genpei War ended with the victory of the Minamoto that led the surviving Taira to disperse in the most remote corners of Japan, such as at Yunishigawa Onsen which I had told you about in a YouTube video, and especially in the Iya Valley.
There aren’t actually many written confirmations that the Heikes actually escaped here, but it seems that the typical bridges of the Iya Valley were built by them and that the descendants of the ancient clan still live in the Ochiai area.
There are many places in the valley that seem to be linked to this story, I have already decided that in the future I will return to follow all the tracks of the Taira in the Iya Valley, if you like you can support this project by offering me a coffee here!
What to see in the Iya Valley
The deeper you go into the Iya Valley, the narrower the streets, the rarer public transport and the number of visitors drops … my advice is to dedicate at least two days and one night to the Iya Valley, in order to visit even the most remote part of Oku-Iya and let yourself be enveloped by the mysterious nature that surrounds the area.
We can divide the Iya Valley into three areas: the Oboke area, at the entrance to the valley where the trains also arrive, Nishi-Iya with the “main attractions” and a splendid onsen and Oku-Iya, the most remote area where no the bus tours arrive.
Oboke and the adjacent Koboke mean “Large dangerous stones” and “Small dangerous stones”, and this is a good indication of how difficult it has always been to access the Iya Valley from here… Now it is the starting point for visitors in the area, where there is also the JR station for those arriving by public transport. Oboke is a spectacular gorge with impressive walls of great geological interest due to their particular conformation, crossed by the Yoshino River, one of the three important rivers of Japan, with splendid emerald waters. During the typhoon season, the river can also get very swollen, even becoming dangerous. There are many rafting enthusiasts who visit Oboke to sail the waters of the Yoshino River!
Oboke gorge boat ride
For this time, also given the rainy weather, we opted for the quiet boat ride, with departure from the road station Obokekyo Mannaka, about twenty minutes walk from the station. The tour lasts 30 minutes and the boat is covered, so it is possible to enjoy the excursion even on rainy days, which, contrary to what one might think, contributes to making the atmosphere even more mystical. The single ticket costs 1,500 yen, but I recommend you buy the combined ticket which also includes the Yokai Museum and Kazurabashi Bridge for 2,150 yen. Departures every 15/30 minutes from 9.00 to 15.30
Between Oboke station and the boarding point is the Oboke Lapis a small information center which also houses the particular Yokai Museum. The Yokai are monsters and creatures of Japanese folklore, such as Kappa, Tengu and Tanuki, but by stopping in this museum you will discover many others!
I told you, the Valley of Iya is a mysterious land and there are many folk tales and legends that tell of strange outbreaks that occurred in the area, all of course, starring the yokai who live here! In the Oboke Museum of Yokai you will find many statues with related explanations and legends, also written in English, and it is definitely an interesting stop both for fans of the subject and for those who love particular things.
Admission costs 600 yen (or included in the pass) and also includes the small museum of gems and rocks on the second floor. Open from 9 to 17, closed on Mondays.
Continuing inland, we arrive in the “most famous” area of the Iya Valley, the one where there are what we could define the symbols of the Iya Valley. By organizing a little, you can also think about getting around by bus, even if you are very bound to the timetables as there are few trips.
Iya Kazurabashi Bridge
The most famous thing about Iya is certainly its vine bridges, which seem to have been originally built by the Taira so that they can be easily severed in the event of an enemy attack, and which are now rebuilt every 3 years to allow safe crossing. However, we are talking about suspension bridges on which you walk on planks spaced apart and tied together by branches…. not really a walk to do in flip-flops or heels here.
Once there were 13 bridges in the Iya Valley, now there are only three. The most famous and imposing is located in Nishi-Iya, is 45 meters long and is suspended at a height of 14 meters. Being quite popular, it is possible to walk it in one direction only and turning left after crossing it, you will also reach a beautiful waterfall. If you are a little peckish, stop by the restaurant between the bridge and the waterfall to enjoy some excellent dango or delicious river fish skewered and cooked over the fire, just like in cartoons!
Cost to cross the bridge 550yen (or included in the pass), open from 8.00 to 17.00 (extended hours in summer)
Unfortunately this time I did not have the opportunity to personally experience this famous onsen located on the river bank which is accessed by a funicular. You can either stay overnight in the hotel but also take a break of a few hours in the onsen at a cost of 1,700yen from 7.30 to 18.00
The bus stop is right in front of the property.
The peeing boy of Iya Valley
A couple of minutes’ walk from Iya Onsen and you reach what has become the symbol of the Iya Valley: the statue of a child peeing from a rock that juts out over a 200 meter drop!
The road that passes from this point is called “nana magari”, seven curves because of its sequence of curves and it seems that getting to this point and peeing from this rock was a test of bravery among the children of the area. Today there is a guardrail and several signs indicating the prohibition of leaning, so just observe this brave statue and do not imitate it: D
If you are driving, there is no space to stop, I recommend leaving it at Iya Onsen and walking a little bit of the way.
Hi no ji viewpoint
Along the road that leads to Iya Onsen is this spectacular viewpoint where the river Iya that flows into the valley below forms a curve that resembles the letter ひ (hi). The view is breathtaking and there is also a small clearing where you can stop the car to photograph the view.
Narrower roads and very sparse public transport, the innermost part of Iya is the least touristy and where in my opinion is the essence of this valley, where the passage of time flows differently and where there are many particular things (including many places related to the Taira clan that I will deepen next time). Oku-Iya is also where I chose to stay overnight.
Chiiroi – Alex Kerr’s home
It is the 70s and a young American Japanologist, is suffering the modern transformation of Japan (and how to blame him…). Alex Kerr arrives in the Iya Valley and buys an old isolated house in this area and renovates it thanks to the help of the inhabitants of the area, intrigued by this foreigner who is so interested in arranging the house despite the difficulties and costs linked above all to that thatched roof, as much in use in the past as it is obsolete nowadays, so much so that it is quite difficult to find someone still able to supply the material!
About Chiiori, the house of the flute, Alex Kerr tells about it in that amazing book that is “Lost Japan“, which was written for a Japanese audience, in an attempt to open one’s eyes to what modern Japan was losing, dazzled by the modernity of Western countries.
Now Chiiori is part of a non-profit organization, a modern part with bathrooms and a kitchen has been added and it is possible to stay overnight. It’s not exactly cheap, but there is room for 12 futons, so going there in a group can lower the cost per person. You can also contact the association and ask to be able to visit it, in this case, a contribution of 500 yen is required, the times vary according to availability.
In the historic village of Ochiai, built on the hillside, there are still traditional thatched-roof houses, some 200 years old, and it seems that some descendants of the Taira who took refuge in the valley still live here. On the opposite hill there is an observation point, from where you can admire the village of Ochiai and its particular terrace layout.
Nagoro, the town of dolls
“Kakashi no sato“, the town of scarecrows is the nickname that has earned the village of Nagoro. When I showed them in my Instagram Stories during my visit some people found them disturbing, others cute…. but the story behind these dolls cannot fail to move.
Ayano San is a lady who was born and raised in Nagoro, but like many people, she then moves to the city, to Osaka, until 2003, when she returns to her hometown and finds it almost totally uninhabited. The faces she remembered are gone, the houses are empty and she no longer hears the shouting of the children from elementary school.
And so she decides to repopulate it. One doll at a time. One waiting for the bus, one working in the garden, one fishing along the river… now the dolls are over 400, scattered all over the town, looking out the windows, and intent on celebrating a wedding, a matsuri and a school event in the school gym.
The depopulation of the countryside is a problem that greatly afflicts Japan, I will not dwell on it because a travel blog is not the right place to talk about it, but I can only hope that more and more travelers choose to travel responsibly, also visiting lesser-known realities. and thus bringing job opportunities also in these areas, supporting healthy and sustainable tourism.
In Oku-Iya there is another kazurabashi bridge, indeed there are two! The “husband” bridge is 44 meters long, while the nearby “wife” bridge is 22 meters long. There are far fewer tourists on these two bridges than on Iya and it is possible to walk them in both directions. They are also rebuilt every 3 years and are equally impressive. It is also possible to go down to the river bank and relax in the crystal clear water and here there is also a “Wild Monkey Bridge“, which is a small wooden house suspended on ropes that were used to transport objects from one bank to another. It is still functional and can be moved by pulling the rope! I could not try the experience because you are currently closed for Covid (since everyone would touch the rope that is not continuously disinfected!)
How to visit the Iya Valley
You can visit the Iya Valley by arriving by JR trains to Oboke station, passing through Okayama and Takamatsu but once there, it would be better to have a car available.
You can also move by bus, especially between Oboke and Nishi Iya, but you have to organize yourself well so as not to lose timetables, on the Iya Time website you will find all the timetables and bus stops in English.
A very convenient solution is also to rent a car with driver, you will find several options also directly at Oboke station. You can choose to take a standard tour or request a customized itinerary depending on your interest. If you stay overnight at Kajiya Iya Romantei, Shino San is available to drive you around and asks only for a small contribution for gasoline and to be offered lunch (and any other entrances).
Where to stay in Iya Valley
To better enjoy the Iya Valley, I recommend that you choose accommodation in minshuku, which allows you to get in touch with the locals as much as possible. We had a wonderful experience at Shino San’s place, where we had the opportunity to live a traditional all-round experience, eat excellent food he cooked and sleep in a wooden and tatami house.
I will tell you about the experience in detail in a dedicated post, but if you visit the Iya Valley, Kajiya Iya Romantei is a super recommended choice!
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