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River deep, mountain high: Adventures in Iya Valley

River deep, mountain high: Adventures in Iya Valley

One of the things I crave most when in Japan is serene, untouched nature. But I got more of that than I imagined when I decided to explore Tokushima (徳島県 Tokushima-ken)’s Iya Valley, one of Japan’s most secluded locations, with my family in the summer of 2017. 

Iya Valley (祖谷渓 Iya-kei) is so secluded that it was historically the hiding place of choice for fallen warriors! It was the perfect escape for me too, from the noise of everyday life.

 

Day 1: Iya-no Kazurabashi, Nishi Iya

Just along the road in Nishi Iya. (Image credit: Hui Min)

 

The gateway to Iya Valley is Oboke Station (大歩危駅), one of the area’s few signs of modernity. Stepping off the train, one of the first few things I notice is that there are no konbini (convenience stores) in sight—not even a vending machine! 

Iya Valley is roughly divided into two areas, the more accessible Nishi Iya (西祖谷), where most hotels are clustered, and the deeper Higashi Iya (東祖谷) where mountain villages remain as they have from the past (more on that later).

 

Iya-no Kazurabashi Bridge. (Image credit: Hui Min)

 

Our first night is still relatively within comfort zone in Nishi Iya’s Hotel Kazurabashi, named after the area’s main attraction: Iya-no Kazurabashi (祖谷のかずら橋), the largest of three vine bridges remaining in the valley.

 

Thankfully, there are local buses to take us there, and after dropping off our bags we quickly set off for the eponymous bridge, just a 15-minute walk away. 

 

Already, I am wowed by the vast mountains all around me and the gushing river deep below. It really feels like you’ve been transported to a completely different realm!

 

After admiring the crystal clear river from the bridge, I had to go down for a dip. (Image credit: Hui Min)

 

The anticipated vine bridge is breathtaking too, in more ways than one. Those afraid of heights should note that not only does the bridge sway, but the floor is made of thick wooden sticks spaced apart such that you can see right through to the river below. Passage is only allowed one-way, so once you step on there’s no return. No one around dared to cross without holding on to the thick ropes of vine at the side.

 

As a thrill-seeker, I was overjoyed however. And rest assured that the bridge is reinforced with steel cables and rebuilt every three years!

 

Local river fish of ayu and amego, and skewers of dekomawashi. (Image credit: Hui Min)

 

A few small food shops are conveniently located on the other side, and having my energy zapped from all that balancing, I cave to skewers of charcoal-roasted ayu (), freshly caught from the river, and dekomawashi (でこまわし), a local specialty consisting of tofu, konnyaku and potato slathered in sweet miso sauce. More than enough fuel to power me on to Biwa Falls (琵琶の滝 Biwa no taki) just down the road.

 

Gondola up the onsen. (Image credit: Hui Min)

 

Back at the hotel, more thrills await us. One of Hotel Kazaurabashi’s highlights is actually its open-air bath further up the mountain… accessible by a private gondola! Yes, you can enjoy onsen with full aerial views of the valley.

 

Slightly spooky at night. (Image credit: Hui Min)

 

After a rejuvenating soak and kaiseki dinner, it is not yet time to turn in for the night. We board the hotel’s cute “bonnet bus” for a night tour of Kazurabashi Bridge. Of course, crossing is not allowed, but the illuminations do elevate the air of mystery. 

 

Hotel Kazurabashi (新祖谷温泉 ホテルかずら橋)
Address: 33-1 Nishi-Iya Yamamura Zentoku, Miyoshi-shi, Tokushima 778-0102
Nearest station: Oboke Station (大歩危駅)
Nearest Bus Stop: Hotel Kazurabashi-Mae (ホテルかずら橋)
Tel: +81 883-87-2171

 

Iya-no Kazurabashi (祖谷のかずら橋)
Address: 162-2 Nishi-Iya Yamamura Zentoku, Miyoshi-shi, Tokushima 778-0102
Nearest station: Oboke Station (大歩危駅)
Nearest bus stop: Kazurabashi (かずら橋)
Opening hours: Varies by season, from sunrise to sunset (light up daily from 7pm–9:30pm)
Admission fees: ¥550 (Adults), ¥350 (Elementary school students), Free (ages below elementary school students)

 

Day 2: Ochiai, Higashi Iya

Since we had time to kill, we hiked up the facing hill for a preview of Ochiai, where we were to stay. (Image credit: Hui Min)

 

The next day, it’s time to dive deeper into the wilderness as we board the bus for Higashi Iya and our abode for the next two nights: a thatched-roof farmhouse in the mountainside village of Ochiai (落合). 

 

Since we opted for delivery of locally-prepared bento meals for only the first night, I had intended to purchase some local ingredients to cook the second night. However, there was only a tiny shop at the foot of the mountain (nope, still no konbini), and I had to wake a sleepy grandpa to pay for whatever little was on the rack. A word of advice: if you plan to cook, buy your ingredients before getting to Ochiai.

 

Our sanctuary for two nights, Souten. (Image credit: Hui Min)

 

When it is finally time for check-in, the staff of Tougenkyo-Iya (桃源郷祖谷), a cluster of eight vacated farmhouses in Ochiai repurposed as lodgings, drive us up the mountainside to reach our chosen abode, Souten (蒼天).

 

Our lovely balcony. (Image credit: Hui Min)

 

It is truly a nature-lover’s dream. From the balcony, views of the misty valley stretch endlessly in the day, and a sea of stars sparkle above at night. And don’t be mistaken by the primitive idea of a farmhouse: the modern and sleek refurbishments assure a comfy stay. There are even floor-to-ceiling windows so you can enjoy the full view indoors. 

 

The most extravagant bento feast. (Image credit: Hui Min)

 

Dinner was way beyond my imagination as well: dishes upon dishes freshly prepared by locals, some encased in lacquerware and others hidden in the drawers of a cute wooden box. Never will I think of bento in the same way again.

 

Tougenkyo-Iya (桃源郷祖谷)
Address: 403 Higashi-Iya Ochiai, Miyoshi-shi, Tokushima 778-0202
Nearest station: Oboke Station (大歩危駅)
Nearest bus stop: Ochiai (落合)
Tel: +81 883-88-2540

 

Day 3: Oku-Iya Kazurabashi

Pulling myself across Wild Monkey Bridge. (Image credit: Hui Min)

 

While the farmhouse stay is enough reason to venture deeper into Iya Valley, the Oku-Iya Niju Kazurabashi (奥祖谷二重かずら橋), the other two remaining vine bridges found side-by-side, should not be missed. Unlike the more touristy Iya-no Kazurabashi surrounded by shops, these are found within a park of sorts with forest trails.

 

The highlight for me was actually the Wild Monkey Bridge (野猿, yaen), right next to the smaller of the two bridges. More than a bridge, this really is a suspended wooden cart you sit in to pull yourself across. Iya Valley truly treats us to one novel experience after another!

 

After an exhausting day, including the 390m high climb back up to our hut, it was time to prepare dinner ourselves. Thankfully, although my ingredients were a little lacking, the kitchen tools were not.

 

With our hearts and tummies full, we enjoyed another round of star-gazing on the balcony and prepared ourselves for a reluctant departure of this hidden paradise. 

 

Iya Valley, you were very iyashi (healing)!

 

Oku-Iya Niju Kazurabashi (奥祖谷二重かずら橋)
Address: 620 Higashi-Iya Sugeoi, Miyoshi-shi, Tokushima 778-0201
Nearest station: Oboke Station (大歩危駅)
Nearest bus stop: Niju Kazurabashi (二重かずら橋)
Opening hours: Varies by season, from sunrise to sunset (Closed Dec–Mar)
Admission fees: ¥550 (Adults), ¥350 (Elementary school students), Free (Ages below elementary school students)

 

Header image credit: Hui Min

 

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