Surrounded by steep mountains in the lowest part of Japan’s Shikoku island, Iya Valley was once called “the hidden land.”

Long isolated from the outside world, its remoteness has beguiled visitors, domestic and non-Japanese alike.

One of the latest to be hooked is professional photographer Shintaro Miyawaki, 38, who was captivated by what he calls the valley’s “sacredness.”

Aware that the world he saw may be lost within 10 or 20 years due to rapid modernization, he set out to photographically chronicle the way “people shine in their everyday lives” against the valley’s forbidding landscape. The result of his project was a book, “Children of the Mist,” a bilingual (Japanese and English) edition of which was published last fall.

It was Alex Kerr, a Japanologist, who made Iya Valley famous in the West. Kerr visited it in the summer of 1971 while hitchhiking from Hokkaido to Kyushu, and fell in love with it immediately. He renovated an abandoned traditional-style house in the area, turning it into a guesthouse called Chiiori, meaning “House of the Flute.”

Miyawaki met Kerr at that very house in 2012 and, while sitting around its irori (traditional Japanese hearth), they talked about Iya Valley for an hour. Kerr explained that the valley was where he went to escape from civilization, something Miyawaki deeply identified with, having recently moved back to his hometown of Takamatsu, in Shikoku’s Kagawa Prefecture, to escape the busy city life of Tokyo.

Miyawaki’s “Children of the Mist” captures scenes of Iya Valley and people interacting with it: deep forest covered by a sea of clouds; an elder praying for rain; local children donning makeup for a traditional festival; and a tumbledown house being slowly enveloped by the surrounding nature.

The book was originally published in Japanese five years ago under the title “The Light of Iya Valley.” The new bilingual version, however, contains fresh text and more images. Miyawaki says he prepared it with the knowledge that the valley has many admirers overseas, as well as in Japan.

Iya Valley is historically significant. In the 12th century, two powerful samurai clans, the Heike and the Genji, vied for control of Japan. When the Heike lost, surviving clan members fled to Oku-Iya, the deepest part of Iya Valley, where they settled among the existing residents to hide from pursuers. Many stories and relics of that time remain.

The Heike members were believed to have built the area’s original kazurabashi (vine bridges), replicas of which can be seen suspended over the valley’s rocky gorges and are now popular tourist sites. Back in the 12th century, if others discovered the Heike hideout, the plan was to cut the bridges’ vine ropes to prevent enemies pursuing the clan members as they escaped.

Escape plans: It's believed that the original kazurabashi (vine bridges) of Iya Valley in Shikoku were built in the 12th century by the Heike clan, who were in hiding and planned to cut the ropes if pursued by enemies. | GETTY IMAGES
Escape plans: It’s believed that the original kazurabashi (vine bridges) of Iya Valley in Shikoku were built in the 12th century by the Heike clan, who were in hiding and planned to cut the ropes if pursued by enemies. | GETTY IMAGES

Also significant is the Hokosugi, an 800-year-old cedar that, according to local legend, was planted by the leader of the fleeing samurai as a symbolic pledge to revive of the Heike clan. Miyawaki visited the tree repeatedly in order to capture the light striking its crown at just the right angles.

The first roads into Iya Valley weren’t built until the mid-20th century because of the steep gorges. Today, though it is much easier to access the area, it still takes about an hour by car from Kochi Ryoma Airport (the closest to Iya Valley) to Oboke, Iya’s main train station.

Miyawaki spent his childhood in similar countryside surroundings. In Takamatsu, he says, he used to play in the forest that surrounded a village shrine next to his house. While he was away studying at university, however, almost half of those woods were cut down.

When he was younger, he desperately wanted to get away from Takamatsu. Now, he says, “I always find myself searching for the lost scenery of my childhood.”

He says, it wasn’t until he had graduated from university in Osaka and traveled, in Japan and overseas, that he “realized the uniqueness and the beauty of Shikoku island.”

As a university student, he traveled abroad to shoot vast natural landscapes. Gradually, however, he began to shift from images of untouched nature to exploring the traces of people long gone, such as stone walls and tombstones covered with moss.

Like many areas in Japan, a wave of modernization has swept over Iya Valley as tourists flock to it. Roads have been expanded, with the lights in tunnels replaced by the latest LEDs.

Despite this, Miyawaki says that “the essential sacredness of this misty land remains unchanged.” The “real” sacredness, he adds, “resides with the people who live here.”

The title of Miyawaki’s photo book comesfrom a verse of a poem by Ryuta Imafuku, a Japanese anthropologist and cultural critic: “We are all children of the mist seeking the light.”

“I want not just Japanese people but people from all over the world to know that this kind of place still exists in Japan,” says Miyawaki. “I think just knowing that can enrich the spirit.”

“Children of the Mist,” published by Saudade Books, is ¥2,420. For more information, visit bit.ly/childrenmist.

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