The alluring lofty peaks of Iya Valley

by Mandy Bartok

Special To The Japan Times

It’s late afternoon as my family and I motor into the Iya Valley, a remote region of western Tokushima Prefecture. Billed as many things — a lost paradise, a secret hideaway, a rural escape — by the area’s tourism brochures, I find that no adjectives can accurately capture the interplay of light and water here. Sure, the rock formations that comprise the walls of the Oboke Gorge are unique enough to comment on themselves, but there is a magic to the way the fading rays of the sun glimmer on the turquoise water of the Yoshino River.

Thankfully, we’re not too late to get a closer look at what goes into this photogenic formula. With tickets in hand, my husband and 4-year-old daughter and I wait patiently to board our Oboke Pleasure Cruise boat for a quick jaunt up this geologically fascinating cut in the earth. More intrepid thrill seekers can take to the Yoshino River’s rapids, but with a toddler in tow, an adrenaline rush is not exactly on the agenda. The 30-minute cruise through sparsely peopled scenery suits us perfectly for this trip.

If you’ve ever wondered where the true hidden Japan lies, the Iya Valley would be a top contender. Ancient rocks from the sea floor compete for attention with soaring peaks that turn fiery in autumn. Villages dot the region like specks on the forested landscape, but some claim there may be more mythical yōkai (goblins, ghouls and monsters) living here now than actual people. White-water rafter, leaf peeper, legend hunter — all would feel fulfilled with an escape to this corner of central Shikoku.

We’re lucky enough to be spending the night in this secluded mountain region and when the boat docks, we wind our way east to the Hotel Kazurabashi. Though its boxy, plain exterior is not the most atmospheric of features, I didn’t choose this modern ryokan (Japanese inn) for its facade. I didn’t even choose it for its proximity to the Kazurabashi vine bridge, one of three traditional vine bridges left in the region, though that certainly is a plus. Rather, the attraction is the hotel’s mountaintop onsen (spa), reached via self-operated cable car from the back of the building’s third floor. We head there first to assure ourselves a sunset view. From the baths I can just make out the tops of the nearby peaks, all of whose names grace the doors of the ryokan below. I settle in the rock pool, where the temperature could be termed “perfection,” and soak up the solitude of Shikoku’s interior.

Post-bath, clad in yukata (summer kimono), we install ourselves around an irori (cooking hearth) in the ryokan’s main dining hall. The table is already laid with appetizers like fresh bamboo shoots and vinegary seasonal vegetables. Small river trout and the regional specialty of dekomawashi — miso-basted skewers of tofu, potato and the kudzu starch product of konyaku — tilt over the embers of the fire.

As we tackle the many courses, Mari Taniguchi, the proprietress of Hotel Kazurabashi, settles on the tatami at the front of the dining hall and asks if we’d mind being serenaded during dinner. When we all give our assent, she offers up a bit of background on her chosen song, “Iya no Kohiki-bushi” (“Iya Milling Song”). Long ago in the Iya Valley, it was common for women to gather at the end of the day to grind the region’s buckwheat on large millstones. When the kernels were turned to powder, the resulting flour would be used to make the now-famous Iya soba. The process was a laborious one and songs helped to speed the time.

“Part of this song is in hōgen (local dialect),” Taniguchi admits, but graciously gives us a translation of the centuries-old lyrics. She then commences with the tune, a slightly haunting but surprisingly short ditty. I wonder to myself how many renditions had to be sung before the flour was deemed suitable.

After a solid night’s sleep and one more trip up to the onsen in the sky, we head out in the morning for the Kazurabashi vine bridge. Once one of the sole conduits for crossing the rushing waterways of the region, the original Iya vine bridges were said to have been built by the fugitive Heike clan, who allegedly settled here in the impenetrable valleys after their loss at the Battle of Dan-no-ura in 1185. If ever threatened by their pursuing enemies, the clansmen could easily slice through the vines to bring the bridge crashing down to the river.

The current bridge is reinforced with steel cables and a fall to the rocks below is rare (or at least rarely reported). Yet once we step out onto the slightly swaying structure, I notice just how far apart the slats actually are. My daughter’s hand clenched firmly in mine, our short trek soon becomes a test of my mental fortitude.

Elementary-aged visitors scamper around us but I can’t seem to convince my fiercely trembling knees to move any faster than the pace of a snail. When we finally step back onto solid ground, my daughter bounces off down the road to the nearby Biwa waterfall. I, meanwhile, occupy myself with calming my shaking limbs.

If the valley’s bridges are fear-inducing, its roads aren’t that much better. As we head deeper into the mountain passes in the direction of the eastern side of the region, the road alternates between a two-lane byway and a single-car dirt track. Still a tad rattled, I let my husband take the wheel, allowing me the luxury of watching the increasingly stunning scenery roll by. In the winter months, this narrow thoroughfare often becomes blocked with snow. In the warmer months, however, it’s a visual feast of wildflowers and endless forests.

Two dozen or so kilometers from the Kazurabashi Bridge, we veer off onto an even smaller road and twist our way up the side of one of the many peaks to a viewpoint overlooking the Ochiai Village. The small community of houses, most constructed over a period of two centuries spanning the Edo Period to the Showa Era (1603-1989), clings to the mountainside like a herd of grazing goats.

Cobbled-together stone walls surround a number of the properties, shoring up the landslide-prone slopes to allow for cultivation. Off to the west, the snowy peak of Mount Kanpo looms over the little community. Ochiai is not nearly as picturesque as the famed thatched-roof village of Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture, but there’s a “realness” to it that the other lacks. This isn’t a postcard village, but a thriving — albeit tiny — community.

Back in the western part of the Iya Valley, a bowl of the region’s hand-cut local soba serves to dispel any residual jitters on my part and I feel fortified once more. With a hotel bed waiting for us in Matsuyama this evening, I take the wheel to tackle winding Route 32 that leads out of the area.

If I thought the beauty of the eastern Iya region was impressive, the scenery along this western corridor takes things to an even higher level. Granted, the corkscrew lane returns to its one-vehicle width and we can’t average more than a few kilometers a minute. But there are plenty of pull-offs here to allow for glimpses down to the aquamarine waters of the Iya River, even more striking from above. At the Hinogi Gorge, we marvel at the formation of the landscape, cut by the forces of nature to resemble the Japanese hiragana character “hi.” A few yards down, a different viewpoint permits a glimpse into the river’s rocky rapids.

Our final stop is at an unassuming little statue, perched on the cliff’s edge just past the Iya Onsen Hotel. Looking for all the world like a copy of Belgium’s irreverent Mannekin Pis, the little boy emptying his bladder over the cliff’s edge here was erected to commemorate the courage of travelers in the Edo Period. Supposedly, they would clamber out onto this protruding rock, a vertigo-inducing 200 meters above the valley floor, and spit — or, well, you know — in the face of fear. Unsurprisingly, I feel a tad weak-kneed at the thought.

As the statue grows distant in our rearview mirror, I ponder the many facets of the Iya Valley. I’m certainly no closet adrenaline junkie but even for those of us who prefer to keep our feet on the ground, this hidden region still managed to captivate my senses.

The Iya Valley is best explored by car, as public transportation is limited. The Oboke Gorge Pleasure Cruise takes 30 minutes and costs ¥1,080 (adult). The Kazurabashi Bridge is free to admire, but costs ¥500 to cross. It’s worth spending the night at the Hotel Kazurabashi (www.kazurabashi.co.jp), but day-trippers can also use the mountaintop baths for ¥1,200 (adult). For more information on the area and activities, including the cruise, visit oboke-iya.jp/en.