Deep in Japan’s western Tokushima Prefecture, burrowed in the heart of Shikoku Island, lies the secluded and mountainous Iya Valley. Steep slopes tumble down to winding streams and thatched farm houses in rocky gorges, some crisscrossed with traditional vine bridges.
The remoteness of this valley attracts many visitors searching for an authentic experience of Japanese traditional and rural culture. Its secluded nature has seen it provide refuge to members of the Heike (Taira) Clan, which had escaped the region upon losing the Gempei War (1180–1185) to the Genji (Minamoto) clan towards the end of the Heian Period. Their descendants can still be found residing around the Iya Valley now, hundreds of years later.
The Iya Valley was later rediscovered by Alex Kerr, author of Lost Japan. After one visit in 1973, he purchased and restored an old farmhouse called Chiiori, which currently operates as a non-profit working to introduce visitors to traditional Japanese culture.
The Iya Valley is often divided into two areas: Nishi Iya and Oku Iya. Nishi Iya (West Iya) refers to the surrounding entrance of the valley and is a bit more developed and accessible with buses to the main attractions. Oku Iya (Inner Iya) is deeper into the valley and difficult to reach without private transport.
The Oboke and Koboke canyons are located at the entrance of the Iya Valley, and are inhabited by wild deer, boar and monkeys. At Oboke Canyon, visitors can glide across on pleasure boats while during the warmer months, whitewater rafting upstream provides a more exciting adventure.
Manikin Peeing Boy Statue
Not far from the Iya Onsen hotel, on the top edge of a 655-foot (200-meter) high cliff is the statue of a boy posing as though he was taking a tinkle off the ledge and into the valley below. The locals say that passing travelers have previously climbed out to copy the boy and relieve themselves as an ode to the statue. However, today a railing protects visitors from carrying out this dangerous act.
Iya Onsen Hotel
The Iya Onsen Hotel overlooks the Iya Valley from the top of a steep slope. The hotel offers outdoor hot spring baths located at the bottom of the valley, guests are transported there via cable car.
Iya Kazurabashi Bridge
Previously, suspension bridges made of mountain vines (kazurabashi) were one of the few ways to travel across the Iya Valley’s river. Out of 13 bridges, only 3 have survived until today, and the Iya Kazurabashi Bridge is the largest and most popular out of the three.
Stretching 147 feet ( 45 meters), it’s said to be made by Heike Clan warriors who had been defeated in battle. Huge cedar trees formed the anchors for the bridge, while vines were used so that they could easily be cut off should enemies pursue the land. Today, this famous bridge is reconstructed every three years to ensure it remains safe for visitors.
Shin-Iya Onsen Hotel Kazurabashi
This hotel features three outdoor baths, one for each sex and one unisex. The baths are situated above the hotel on the mountainside offering spectacular views and are accessed by cable car.
This village was settled in 1700, right in the middle of the Edo period, and is one of the most scenic of Iya Valley’s mountain villages. Those visiting can walk through the village hillside farming techniques that allow for cultivation on a steep slope. The area is a significant national preservation district due to the traditional century old thatched-roof farm houses and ancient walking paths.
Higashi Iya History and Folk Museum
The Higashi Iya History and Folk Museum is located by the entrance to Oku Iya. The museum shares exhibitions and displays items traditional to the region like household items and clothes. These items allow visitors to imagine the Heike Clan’s way of life.
Kita Clan Samurai House
Located high up on a hill, the Samurai House is the largest samurai residence in the Iya Valley. It was built in 1763 as an attempt by the Lord of Awa (Tokushima) to exercise control over the land.
Oku-Iya Kazurabashi Bridges
These two bridges were apparently built in order for the Heike Clan to access their riding grounds. One bridge is the Man’s Bridge and the other is the Woman’s Bridge. These bridges are difficult to access, but are less touristy, offering visitors a more authentic experience.
Boasting views as far as the Seto Inland Sea, Mt Tsurugi is the second highest mountain in Western Japan at 1955 meters high. Most climbers use Minokishi as their starting point. Others also take the Kanko Tozan lift, dropping them off about a 40 minute hike to the summit.
Iya Valley is the perfect off-the-beaten-path location to authentically immerse yourself within the centuries old traditional cultures of Japan. To learn about more of the Land of the Rising Sun’s hidden gems, read Japan Travel Guide.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.