Why the spiritual and secluded Iya Valley should be your next Japanese getaway

One of the last few vestiges of old-world Japan, Iya Valley is a remote, rural region in Western Tokushima where thatched hamlets and patches of farmland cling to the mountainsides.

Buckwheat has been farmed across Iya Valley for centuries. Here, its pretty white flowers can be seen brightening the landscape.

Photograph by Western Tokushima
By Jo Davey
Published 2 Feb 2023, 08:00 GMT

Where is Iya Valley?

Iya Valley is located in western Tokushima in northeast Shikoku, which is the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. Shikoku clings to Honshu’s underbelly, hung between the big-hitters of Hiroshima and Kobe. Despite being easily reached by car, crossing the Seto Inland Sea by suspension bridges, the region remains less visited by international tourists.

Iya — which translates to ‘ancestor valley’ — is Shikoku’s dark heart: a tree-mantled, mountainous time capsule carved up by monumental valleys and rushing, jade rivers. It’s roughly divided into two regions: Nishi-Iya, a more accessible region along the great Yoshino River, and Oku-Iya (also Higashi-Iya), one of the deepest and most secluded parts of Japan.

What’s it known for?

Iya Valley is a throwback to an old-world Japan, a region which hasn’t quite caught up with the rest of the country. Isolated by its geography, the first roads into Iya only appeared in the early to mid-20th century. Before that, its hardy, self-sufficient populace was left to develop alone. The result is an anomalous culture of hilltop towns, unmechanised farming, singular gastronomy and curious folklore. Iya’s impregnable landscape also made it a hideout for political exiles, who built the region’s best-known attraction: its three remaining vine bridges that crisscross above the Iya River.

Today, nature draws visitors to this spiritual, secluded valley. Iya abounds with spectacular scenery of steep, sandstone gorges, unfathomably blue-green rivers and veils of verdant forest that shift with the seasons. One of its strangest attractions is Nagoro, where one villager has tackled the dwindling population by replacing people with life-size dolls.

Who should visit?

The valley is for the adventurous. Over the year, Iya Valley offers hikes along dramatic cliffside trails, skiing at Shikoku’s oldest resort, canyoning through glassy pools and some of Japan’s best white-water rapids at Koboke Gorge. Even crossing its swaying, wisteria vine bridges feels intrepid, despite them being renewed every three years and now secretly bolstered by cables. As relatively few tourists make it to Iya Valley, it’s ideal for off-the-beaten-track travel and those hoping to experience an entirely different side of Japan. Iya Valley is wholly unique, with its flamboyant udatsu architecture, thatched hillside hamlets, indigo dyeing and tobacco trade, plus its rice-free food culture thanks to its inhospitable agriculture.

Iya Valley is famed for its unique vine bridges (called kazurabashi) that hang over the Iya ...

Iya Valley is famed for its unique vine bridges (called kazurabashi) that hang over the Iya River. Each is made from several tons of wisteria vines that are gathered from the surrounding mountains.

Photograph by Western Tokushima

What are some of its main draws?

The Hinoji bend at Oboke and Koboke gorges is one of the valley’s most photogenic spots. A horseshoe of emerald water parts the towering, tree-filled hillside, which you can enjoy from a lookout above or on a boat tour below. Iya Valley's rivers also offer incredible class three and four rapids, with stony chutes and roiling waters broken briefly by more serene sections.

In Iya’s traditional villages and towns, you’ll find authentic crafts and architecture. Home to exiled warriors, you can still see preserved samurai houses and spot the increasingly elaborate udatsu in Wakimachi and Sadamitsu. Originally fire preventatives, these roofed walls became a status symbol for Iya Valley’s tobacco and indigo traders. Sadamitsu is also home to Teramachi, a Buddhist temple complex featuring 1,300-year-old temples. At Ochiai, you can see hillside village life and stay in one of the traditional thatched kominka buildings.

The unique cuisine of Iya Valley is another highlight, with soba (buckwheat) replacing traditional rice. Soba grows well in Iya’s terrain, carpeting the landscape white in October. Tuck into hot stews of soba noodles and soba rice, charcoal grilled wild game and river fish, and freshly foraged mountain vegetables. The area is also renowned for its light, mildly sweet sake, made in four regional breweries.

When’s the best time to visit?

Iya can be visited year-round, with each season offering a different aspect and activity. Spring and autumn are the best times to see the changing landscape. In spring, cherry trees paint the river valleys pink with sakura, while autumn foliage lights up in scarlet and saffron. Summer brings long days for hiking Oku-Iya’s interior, clear skies for stargazing and the best weather for tackling river rapids. Winter is the hardest season to travel through the valley, as it often snows heavily, making its narrow snaking roads harder to navigate. Still, winter is great for exploring traditional towns like Sadamitsu, Wakimachi and Tsuji, cosying up with a hot sake from one of the local breweries. It’s also perfect for Iya’s onsen, where you can bathe in hot spring waters and watch snow fall across the mountains.

Plan your trip

Kansai International Airport is the closest airport to Iya Valley, with regular flights from the UK. From Kansai, take the train to Okayama or Kochi, before changing to reach Awa-Ikeda or Oboke stations on Shikoku. Buses from both serve the better-connected Nishi-Iya region, but Oku-Iya’s wilderness will require a rental car. For more information, visit nishi-awa.jp/english

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