One of Japan's Three Hidden Valleys, Iya is home to dramatic mountain scenery, traditional thatched roof homes, and historic vine bridges. Supposedly a hiding place for the fleeing samurai of the defeated Heike clan from centuries past, the isolation of the Iya valley has a rich history of being a waypoint for wanderers and a place one could go to be away from it all. The valley was somewhat raised into the Japanese and Western consciousness by outspoken Japanese-culture conservationist Alex Kerr. His book Lost Japan (ISBN 0864423705) presented an idyllic picture of a misty valley stuck in a time warp to days gone by.
The Iya Valley offers a different facet of otherwise urban Japan and is a welcomed reprieve for visitors due to its fresh natural environment, slow country lifestyle, and friendly welcoming inhabitants. Though parts of Iya have been devoured by what Kerr calls the Moloch since his first encounter here in the early 1970's, most parts still remain remote, unspoiled, and traditional. One could say that the lifestyle and environment still maintained are about as far from Tokyo's Shinjuku as one could get yet still remain in the same country. And while sections of the rivers have been replaced by the usual concrete channels to prevent landslides, the single-lane road widened (in parts) to accommodate dual-direction traffic, and some mountainsides covered by uniform cedar for logging, the Iya Gorge section at the start of the valley remains unmarred by development, and many of the less-visited eastern reaches are certainly worth visiting for their glimpses into a past way of life that somehow still clings on yet has utterly vanished elsewhere in Japan.
The valley is divided into halves (which together can take about 2 to 2.5 hours by car to traverse): the more visited and (slightly more) developed Nishi-Iya (西祖谷 West Iya); and the more remote Higashi-Iya (東祖谷 East Iya ), which is also known as Oku-Iya (奥祖谷). There are small settlements going up the mountain sides (some of them abandoned) along the main road that connect the two halves. The 'downtown' section of central Nishi-Iya is the most condensed, and the largest districts on the eastern side (Higashi-Iya) are the town center of Kyojo (京上) and the far off hamlet of Mi-no-Koshi (見ノ越) out near Mt. Tsurugi and the intersection of three main roads. The historic hamlet of Ochiai (落合) in the eastern part of Higashi-Iya is of significance as it was registered as an important national preservation district due to its collection of traditional homes, terraced farm plots, and ancient walking paths.
For anyone coming to the valley, it is highly recommended to get one of the detailed free tourist maps available at any tourist point when entering or within the Iya valley (train stations, restaurants, tourist offices, hotels, etc.). Printed by the local government and available in either Japanese or English, this is not your typical hand-drawn, cartoon-ish, and wildly out-of-scale tourist map so often found in Japan (see below on the right), but a rather precise road map with clear explanations for points of interest, trail heads, and other less known landmarks.
Getting in no longer requires a week of hiking along misty mountain trails, but it certainly remains a bit more difficult than most Japanese destinations.
There are four airports on Shikoku Island, and the central location of the Iya valley makes all of them viable options if you intend to include other sights in Shikoku. Cars can be rented at any airport.
The closest airport to the Iya valley would be Kochi Airport (total 1.5 hours to Oboke via airport shuttle bus with express train) though the flight options are limited (mainly just Osaka and Tokyo).
Takamatsu Airport has more flight options, including international routes, and is about 2 hours away by shuttle bus and train to Oboke.
Tokushima Airport, though in the same prefecture as the Iya Valley, is actually fairly far and has only a limited amount of flight destinations. Expect 2.5 to 3 hours by bus/train combo.
And Matsuyama Airport has the most flight options, both domestic and international, but is the farthest of the bunch. Plan on at least 3 hours by public transport or a bit faster if driving and taking the highways.
For real international connections, Kansai Airport near Osaka is the way to go. Buses go from central Osaka to Awa-Ikeda station several times a day (4 hours).
The nearest train station to the main sights of the Iya Valley is at Oboke, which is along the JR Dosan Line between Kochi and Takamatsu. There are several local trains to Oboke throughout the day, and hourly express trains from either Kochi city or from Awa-Ikeda (connecting to Okayama/Takamatsu or Tokushima city.) The hourly Nanpu which runs from Okayama stops here (1 3/4 hours, ¥4410).
From Oboke you can connect to a bus through a tunnel into Nishi-Iya, but services are infrequent: there are up to eight buses per day on weekends only in the high season (April-Nov), and as few as four per day the rest of the time. Taxis from the station can also be arranged but prices are not cheap since the drives to points in the valley can be far.
For those looking to enter into the lower reaches of the valley (Iya Gorge, Matsuogawa Onsen, Iya-Kei Camp Village) one can instead get off at Iyaguchi Station (祖谷口駅) for more direct access, and hitch a ride or take one of the few daily buses that pass through the lower valley from here.
There are 7 direct buses daily from Ikeda's Awa Ikeda Bus Terminal (阿波池田ＢT), which pass by JR Ikeda Station and travel to Nishi-Iya either via Oboke (4 daily) or via Iyaguchi and Iya Onsen (3 daily). See Yonkoh for a timetable, in Japanese only; select "祖谷線" (the Iya Valley line) and then look for Awa Ikeda (阿波池田ＢT) or Ikeda (池田駅前) departure times. Half the buses terminate at Kazurabashi (かずら橋) in Nishi-Iya and the rest end at Kubo (久保) in Higashi-Iya.
From Kubo, there is a connecting service via the Oku-Iya Kazurabashi (奥祖谷かずら橋) to Mi-no-Koshi (見の越) at the base of Mt. Tsurugi. This service runs twice daily during weekends, holidays, and certain vacation periods and does not run in winter. Go to this site (Japanese only) for more information including exact times and dates.
A similar but even more restricted service is provided when coming from the north. Normally, the buses from JR Sadamitsu Station (貞光駅) do not run all the way towards the Iya Valley, but on weekends and holidays during summer there seems to be a connecting service (3 daily) to Mi-no-Koshi at the trail head of Mt. Tsurugi. See this site (Japanese only for more information. At other times, if you are heading to Mt. Tsurugi (剣山) from Sadamitsu (貞光), the regular (non-holiday/weekend) bus service along Route 438 goes only as far as the lower base of the mountain, and is a long way up. Coming from Mi-no-Koshi (見ノ越), figure on a four hour walk down the mountain to the bus stop there.
Having a car for touring the Iya valley is probably the best for flexibility and convenience due to limited public transport. See "Get around" for some rental options.
If you have your own set of wheels or want to try your luck hitchhiking, Route 438 from Sadamitsu and Route 439 from Anabuki connect directly into Higashi-Iya if your destination is Mi-no-Koshi (for Mt. Tsurugi), and offer the fastest route if arriving from Tokushima and Kansai. Along the way, try some delicious hand-made udon noodles (手打ちうどん) at the restaurant beside the river. Note that traffic is very light, especially on weekdays, and the roads are quite narrow and twisty.
If coming via Ikeda or Kochi, (or if from Tokushima/Kansai and you are not planning to first go to Mi-no-Koshi/Mt. Tsurugi), then the fastest option is drive north/south along Route 32 to enter the valley via Oboke along Route 45. In central Nishi-Iya Route 45 has a junction near the gas station with 'old' Route 32 (yes, the numbers are the same, but the roads are different), allowing one to turn left for the Iya gorge and Iya Onsen, or turn right for the Kazurabashi and Higashi Iya (Kyojo, Ochiai, Oku-Iya, Mt.Tsurugi).
It is also possible to drive the entire length of the Iya valley from Iya-guchi in Yamashiro town along 'old' Route 32. This road is not for the faint of heart, as it is mostly one lane, very twisty, and often on the side of steep cliffs, though the scenery is breathtaking and the gorge here is almost completely undeveloped. Until a generation ago, this was the main way into the valley. About half-way you can also stop at the famous Peeing Boy statue, or ride down to the bottom via cable car for a riverside bath at the Iya Onsen.
For travelers from Kochi, it is not necessarily advised to take Route 439 from Otoyo, as the road is very twisty and goes over a mountain pass, which all together can take 30 minutes to an hour longer to get destinations in the valley (though the views are indeed quite pleasant).
In the valley itself, public transportation is limited to a few buses a day. Car rental or hitchhiking is probably the fastest way of getting around, but hitchhikers beware: at times the main road may see only a handful cars per hour on a weekday. However the locals are friendly enough (expect little to no English) and are inclined to pick up a hitcher when they occasionally appear. If asked, some hotels offer transportation services.
By public transport
Although options are limited, going deep in the valley is possible by only bus. The information center outside Awa-Ikeda Train Station has some excellent English brochures including one on exploration by public transport. A summary of the recomended routes (notes Bus 1 refers to bus to Kazurabashi (West Vine Bridge) via Deai [3x day], Bus 2 refers to bus to Kubo via Oboke [4x day, +4x on weekends/public holidays from Obokekyo to Kazurabashi only], Bus 3 refers to bus from Kubo to Mt. Tsurugi [2x day]):
- Awa-Ikeda bus 1 to Kazurabashi (West Vine Bridge) (70min) → bus 2 to Obokekyo (30min) → bus 2 to Awa-Ikeda
Stop and See:
- West Vine Bridge
- Biwa Waterfall
- Peeing Boy Statue
- Hinoji Valley
- Iya Onsen
- Awa-Ikeda bus 1 to Furonotani (50min) → walk to Kazurabashi (110min) → bus 2 to Obokekyo (30min) → walk to Oboke (20min) → train to Awa-Ikeda (30min)
Stop and See:
- Peeing Boy Statue
- Hinoji Valley
- Iya Onsen
- West Vine Bridge
- Biwa Waterfall
- Awa-Ikeda Train to Koboke (20min) → walk to Obokekyo (60min) → walk Oboke (20min) → train to Awa-Ikeda (30min)
Stop and See:
- Awa-Ikeda bus 2 to Kubo (110min) → bus 3 to Mt. Tsurugi (50min) → bus 3 to Kubo (50min) → bus 2 to Awa-Ikeda (110min)
Stop and See:
- Mt. Tsurugi
- West Vine Bridge (won't see from bus)
- Biwa Waterfall (won't see from bus)
- Scarecrow Village
- East Vine Bridges (son't see from bus)
For latest bus timetables for bus 1 and 2 look at  (in Japanese but google translate works well enough)
By rental car
Car rental is available in Ikeda at the Awa-Ikeda train station. Ask at the tourist office just outside for information on rentals. Descent English is spoken by staff here.
For online bookings with larger agencies, one would have to go to the airports or major cities on Shikoku. One unique and flexible option is Budget Rent-a-Car's Shikoku Pilgrimage Passport (四国巡礼パスポート) allowing 9, 12, and 15-day rental plans where you can either use all the days at once, or split the rental days into various trips within a one year period. Better still, with this plan cars can be picked up and dropped off at any Budget office in Shikoku or Okayama (on Honshu) for no additional cost. Nine day plans start at 37,800yen for a small car. Though Budget Japan's website offers English service, the page for this option is in Japanese only, so for English it would be better to call and reserve by phone.
It is possible to cycle the Iya Valley, but you'll need a good bike (you can carry bicycles on Japanese trains if you put them in a bike bag), a healthy pair of lungs and a genuine sense of adventure. Bring water, as even the normally ubiquitous vending machines can prove few and far between in the Iya Valley. Reduce your speed when on narrow roads with limited visibility, use the posted mirrors to see around corners, and keep as far to the left as possible. Most of the locals are cautious drivers. If you make it to Tsurugi-san, you can turn left onto the road leading to Sadamitsu Town, which is a breathtaking 25-km downhill of switchbacks, little crumbling villages and stunning river vistas.
It is also possible to join the Tour de Nishi Awa, which is a large bicycle ralley held every spring that traverses different sections of the Iya Valley and its mountain passes. http://tour-de-nishiawa.com/index.html (Their webpage has plenty of photos and videos showing what kind of road conditions to expect).
Distances are far in the Iya valley, so it may be best to try your luck at hitchhiking along the main road. As there are practically no sidewalks, be careful of vehicles barreling around turns. There are plenty of footpaths both through the hamlets and up into the mountains so one does not need to walk only on main roads. Most hamlet paths are for open pubic use even though many seem to go through people's property. Be sure to use courtesy if walking along a path close to someone's house, and only photograph people and homes with permission. As the roads up mountains are steep, there are many switchbacks and sharp curves, but these often have shortcut footpaths that bisect the hair-pin turns.
Single-day or multi-day ridge-line hikes are rewarding, allowing one to begin/end in different areas, though accessing and exiting trail heads can be tricky due to limited public transportation. (see Do for details.)
Though the Iya Valley is located in southern Japan, the temperature can be significantly lower than the rest of Shikoku, especially as one gains elevation.
Spring comes later to Iya than to the rest of Shikoku, but the clear air allows for long views. Daytimes can get pleasantly warm, allowing for great hiking weather, but the temperature drops considerably in the evenings, with freezing temperatures not uncommon overnight into early May on higher mountain tops. Trees begin to sprout leaves by mid April in most parts, but Mt. Tsurugi won't gain leaves till a month or so later. Rain is somewhat infrequent in the spring, but by early June the rainy season will begin.
The lower reaches near Iyaguchi can have almost the same hot, heavy humidity in the summer as anywhere else, but by the time one gets to Nishi Iya (and more so in Higashi-Iya) the air becomes noticeably more pleasant and less thick/humid during the daytime, allowing for a welcomed escape from just about anywhere in Shikoku. Evenings are often markedly different in the summer from the coastal cities in the region, as the forests and mountain breezes drop the temperature, making one enjoy being outside and offering great sleeping weather. A light jacket may even be needed if camping. June and early July are often rainy (though the moisture can bring fantastic fog formations that whisk up from the bottom of the valley), and the increased humidity through the season limit the extent of mountain top views. By the end of the summer and early autumn the chance of a typhoon hitting increases, which can wreck havoc in the valley. Landslides are not uncommon during downpours, winds are ferocious, and hiking can be very dangerous in forests due to falling trees. If a typhoon is coming, its time to buckle down in a safe place and wait for it to pass.
The air clears up nicely as the leaves begin to change (though typhoons still occur, see above), allowing for long views through the valley. Leaves in the upper reaches near Mt. Tsurugi start to change around mid-October, and the majority of the valley is in full splendor through much of November. This is a popular time to visit, and the weekends and public holidays then bring an increased number of visitors to the valley. On the mountain tops, snow will begin to fall as early as the beginning of November.
Winters in Iya are cold. From central Nishi-Iya upwards snow can occur anytime from December to March, making roads difficult to drive on for those inexperienced in snow. In the central valley (Nishi-Iya area up towards Kyojo) the snow is usually not so heavy and melts within a day or two. As one gets farther east moving past Kyojo and/or up into the hamlets along the valley sides, the amount of snow will increase noticeably during and just after storms. By Nagaro and the Oku-Iya double vine bridges the the snow will linger through most of the winter, with the mountain tops (above 1200m) continually blanketed through the season. Most roads are not plowed, including the main road, so be ready to drive on snow if a storm has just occurred. The roads to Mt. Tsurugi are usually passable, and hikers will still blaze a trail to the summit and other popular mountain tops year-round. Most campgrounds close for the winter, and some facilities in the Oku-Iya area close for the season as well. Check ahead for time tables.
Iya's best-known attractions are the precarious-looking vine bridges (かずら橋 kazurabashi), which used to be the only way to cross the river.
- The most popular vine bridge is in Nishi-Iya, fairly close to the main village, and sole destination for 90% of visitors to the valley. This is a rather large operation and not particularly scary, entrance costs ¥500 and the bridge's operating hours are officially defined as sunrise to sunset. Adjacent to the vine bridge is a very large parking area made to handle the loads of tour buses, with several souvenir shops and places to eat. There are also several small inns and a campground within walking distance.
- For considerably more atmosphere and far fewer crowds (if any at all), the Oku-Iya vine bridges (奥祖谷二重かずら橋) can be found at the eastern end of the valley, before the final ascent to Mi-no-Koshi. Located a short hike down through the forest, there are two of them here, namely the Husband's Bridge (夫の橋 Otto-no-hashi), the longer, higher up and thus evidently manlier of the two, and on the left the Wife's Bridge (婦の橋, Tsuma-no-hashi). These are a bit closer to the Tarzan kind of vine bridge and best avoided if you have a fear of heights, although even here there are steel cables hidden inside the vines. On the other side is an excellent campground and a beautiful waterfall. There is also a small wooden cart that can seat up to three people suspended from rope cables near the Wife's Bridge. You can go halfway across the ravine before you need to pull yourself the rest of the way with the rope in the cart, though people waiting in line often help pull at either end. The river is also easily accessible here, and is refreshing for a cool dip on a hot summer day. Entrance ¥500. Getting here can be a problem as most buses usually don't come this far, but if you have your own transport or a good working thumb, you'll be sure to enjoy the lack of mass access.
The lower area at the mouth of the Iya Valley between Iyaguchi and central Nishi-Iya is mostly undeveloped and simply stunning. A twisty, mostly one-laned road meanders through this section ('old' Route 32), and allows for sweeping vista views and a Mario-Cart driving experience. From Iyaguchi the road snakes closer to the river, then after the tiny hamlet of Deai (turn here for Matsuogawa Onsen) you begin to ascend the valley wall. After a few more minutes you will pass the entrance to the Iya-Kei Camp Village, then it starts to get steadily higher and more intense. Panoramic view points are here and there, and when the autumn leaves are changing it is quite spectacular. Stop by the precariously perched Peeing Boy statue for a near vertical view of the turquoise waters a couple hundred meters below, and pass by the middle-of-nowhere Iya Onsen before heading into the central part of Nishi-Iya. Expect about an hour with viewpoint stops when driving from Iyaguchi to central Nishi-Iya. Three of the daily public buses also take this route (Awa-Ikeda Bus Terminal to Kazurabashi route via Deai).
Registered as a national historic preservation district in 2005, Ochiai's collection of traditional farmhouses dates back to the middle Edo era. Climbing up the side of a mountain, the hamlet is a weave of stone footpaths, terraced farm plots growing the famed Iya soba (buckwheat) and Iya potatoes, and welcoming local residents who are proud to show off their heritage and lifestyle. In recent years an effort has been made to restore the buildings here and several of these thatched-roof homes are now available to stay in overnight for a fee with Tougenkyo-Iya. On the opposite mountainside across the valley, a viewpoint has been built (equip with sparkling new public toilets) where one can take in the whole view of Ochiai. This can be accessed by road or hiked.
- San-jo Shrine is located in the center of Ochiai Hamlet and the site dates back to the Edo era. Surrounded by towering cedar trees, the doors of the shrine usually remain closed, but the structure is of traditional wooden style and is a calm, cool spot to take a break during a warm summer afternoon. Adjacent to the shrine is a small open field, where twice a year (June 8 and August 5 on the Lunar Calendar) a local festival takes place. Participants wear traditional robes as they carry and throw to one-another long bamboo poles, while children wear traditional face paint and play drums and are pulled around in a covered wooden cart. A special portable shrine weighing about 100kg (220lbs) is also brought out and carried on the shoulders of four men. Outside visitors are warmly welcomed (there are usually very few, if any) and may even be asked to partake in the activities.
Scarecrow Village (aka Valley of the Dolls)
This is one of the more extreme oddities of Japan, and a reflection of the realities of rural life in the country. Local artist Ayano Tsukimi, who was born and raised in Higashi-Iya, moved back to her house in the early 2000s after years away, only to see her once active hamlet nearly deserted, as is the case with many country-side towns. She began making life-sized dolls on a fluke to help "re-populate" her neighborhood, but it has now become her life's obsession. One can see examples of her dolls throughout the whole valley at tourist spots here and there, but for the full blown mind-bending experience one needs to head out to the remote hamlet of Nagaro along the main road on the way to the Oku-Iya double vine bridges and Mi-no-Koshi. Here one can see her extensive work of hundreds of humanoid dolls which at first glance may be mistaken for actual people as they are waiting at bus stops, working in fields, and even attending the now defunct elementary school.
- Manpu Gorge Located in the central part of the valley in Higashi-Iya, this steep-walled gorge was one of the main stumbling blocks that prevented road access to much of the valley until the mid-1900s. Literally meaning "ten thousand men", this is what it took to carve a road into the sheer rock faces here. The old one-laned parts are almost all widened now, and the Ryugu Tunnel opened in 2003 which goes under the roughest patch, but the one kilometer section of the original road which the tunnel bypasses can still be driven upon for those who wish for a little adventure. An awesome wire suspension foot bridge (no fee) spans the gorge here very, very high above the river, which serves as a secondary access route to the Ryugugake Cottages on the opposite side (the main route is by car bridge a little further along). To access this original road, when traveling from the Nishi-Iya/Kazurabashi direction turn off to the left just after the large brown wood sign announcing "Tourist Information" (in English) and follow it around to the other side of the tunnel. From the other direction (from Kyojo/Mt.Tsurugi) turn left just before entering the Ryugu Tunnel.
- Higashi-Iya Folk Museum, in the large red building in Kyojo, a collection of traditional tools and displays are on exhibit, detailing the traditional lifestyle and the heritage of how the valley was settled by the refugees of the famed Heike clan. 8:30-5:00pm daily, ¥300.
- Chiiori House, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. A mountain-side thatch-roofed, traditional Japanese farmhouse, restored at exorbitant cost and described in loving detail in Lost Japan. However its previous days as a drop-in spot, cultural experience workshop, and volunteer project are over, and it is now only open to visitors as a fee-based guest house by reservation.
- O-Tsurugi Shrine (お剣神社). Located in Mi-no-Koshi, not far from the Tsurugi chairlift station. It's not very much to look at, but it's traditional to stop here before starting your ascent. The shrine is in fact in three parts, with one in Mi-no-Koshi, one on the trail to the top and one at the very top of the mountain.
Hiking in the valley, especially the eastern end, is quite popular and there are many trails of various lengths mapped out.
- Mt. Tsurugi (剣山 Tsurugi-san, also known locally as Ken-zan, 1955m) is Iya's most popular hiking destination and the 2nd tallest in Shikoku (#1 being Mount Ishizuchi). One of Japan's "100 Most Famous Mountains", the name may mean "Sword Mountain", but this is a singularly inaccurate description of this gently rounded fell, and you can even take a chairlift up most of the way (¥1000). From the chairlift terminal, it's a half-hour climb to the summit. Alternatively, if you choose to hike up or down the long way (2 hours or so), you can stop at O-Tsurugi Shrine (お剣神社) along the way for a free sip of holy sake and a quaff at a clear mountain spring with drinkable water. On the summit is a staffed mountain hut with meals and accommodation. The main access trail head starts in Mi-no-Koshi.
- Trails radiate from Tsurugi in a number of directions. Neighboring Ichinomori is a more intense climb than Tsurugi involving ascent chains, and also has a staffed hut on top. For a longer hike, head eastward across to Jirogyu and on to Maruishi, from where you can go down directly to the Oku-Iya double vine bridges and campground. If you opt not to go down here, you can continue along the ridge over Mt. Shiraga and onward to Miune. If starting early, hiking from Mi-no-Koshi to Mt.Tsurugi summit, then across to Miune can be done in a day (with sleeping in Miune hut), or you can opt to stay in one of the other free mountain huts along the way if your speed is slower. (see the camping explanation under "Sleep" for hut info)
- Mt. Miune (三嶺) is another popular trip, but less crowded and arguably prettier than Mt. Tsurugi. Locals say it is the best hike to see the autumn foliage, but it's nice any season. The main trail starts at the hamlet of Nagoro and takes about 2.5 hours up, but can also be accessed in a very long day hike from Tsurugi-san along the ridge line, or to/from the Iyashi-no-Onsenkyo hotel in a rough 3.5 to 4.5 hour climb. It can also be accessed to/from Mt. Tenguzuka in the opposite direction of Mt. Tsurugi. A colorful description of the Tenguzuka route can be found at the Hiking in Southern Japan blog. At the top of Miune is a large emergency hut which can also be used for overnight staying free of charge (bring your own sleeping and eating equipment, and seal up food due to hungry mice).
- As the valley is ringed by mountains, there are several other options for hiking in practically every direction.
Hotsprings (Onsen) There are several options for day-use hot springs to soak away your troubles, mostly at the major hotels. Admission fees for non-guests usually run about ¥1000. Soap/shampoo is provided, but bring your own towels. A quick run-down from lowest in the valley to the upper end near Mt. Tsurugi:
- Matsuogawa Onsen, just off the lower end of the Iya Gorge near Deai, the simple baths are in a traditional setting. The closest hotspring to the Iya-Kei Camp Village. ¥500
- Iya Onsen, from the hotel perched on the edge of the Iya Gorge, take the slow cable car way down to the valley floor. The pretty river-side bath smells of sulfur, but the temperature is not very hot (nice in warm weather, but only just managable on a colder day). The indoor bath up at the hotel is basic and sparse.
- Hikkyo-no-Yu Hotel, near the Michi-no-Eki and Fureai Center by central Nishi-Iya. The large indoor baths are elaborate and refreshing, but the outside option with stone baths only has limited views.
- Hotel Kazurabashi, closer to the Kazurabashi vine bridge in Nishi-Iya, the indoor bath is minimal, but the outdoor baths up the mountain via the short cable car are award-winning. Designed with charming rustic appeal, there are both men's/women's baths as well as a mixed-sex bath for the more adventurous. Small, traditional wood heated baths in private huts are also available for additional cost by reservation, but allow for an experience of cooking oneself in an iron cauldron. The adjacent thatched-roof tea house has a floor hearth for relaxing, or one can go outside to the foot bath on the broad balcony to take in the awesome view.
- Iyashi-no-Onsenkyo, located much further up the valley, the indoor and outdoor baths here are thorough enough, and mostly made of local cypress wood. A good option if coming from one of the mountain hikes or if visiting the double Oku-Iya vine bridges. Views are better from the ladies' side.
- La Fôret Tsurugi, on Route 438 going towards Sadimitsu, a 10 minute drive from Mi-no-Koshi, this small hotel's simple baths in a quiet secluded setting are the closest to the Mt. Tsurugi trail head area. ¥500
Oku-Iya Monorail Billed as the world's longest monorail of this type, the small cars putter steeply up the mountainside and through the dense forest for a 40 minute loop of sorts. It could be good option for families with small children or the disabled who want to experience the mountain scenery yet are unable to hike, but not necessarily a super thrilling experience. Bring a beer or three for a more enjoyable ride. Leaves on request from the Iyashi-no-Onsenkyo Hotel.
Tsuzuki's Soba Atelier (古式そば打ち体験 都築) +81 0883-88-5625 http://www.iyjiman.com (in central Higashi Iya, across the river from the Kyojo Tunnel) Learn how to make the famous Iya soba noodles yourself, from grinding the buckwheat by hand in a stone mortar, to rolling out and chopping the noodles, and then chow down on what you've made. Also be entertained as Ms. Tsuzuki sings a traditional soba-making ballad, and be overwhelmed with the hospitality. Two-hour classes are ¥3000 per person, and include more soba than you could ever eat.
Iya doesn't have even a single chain convenience store (one of the only places in Japan?), but there are some mom-and-pop type grocery shops throughout the valley, and quite a few more souvenir shops (particularly near the main vine bridge in Nishi-Iya). It's best to bring along anything even remotely exotic. You can get good supplies of groceries from Boke-Mart, the local grocery by the station at Oboke, but selection would be better in Awa-Ikeda.
- Michi-no-Eki and Fureai Center Located just before central Nishi-Iya on opposite sides of Route 45 and next to the Hikkyo-no-Yu Hotel as you come from Oboke. The small Michi-no-Eki (on the right coming down the hill) has 24 hour restrooms and a whole spread of travel information and maps. The shop attached sells a variety of local goods, including hand-made crafts and boxed gift snacks, and a range of cooked local foods are available from their kitchen. Just outside the back door is a little antique stand jammed with old wares. From the Michi-no-Eki its hard not to spot the Fureai Center down the road, and its large grey concrete "rainbow" is a prime example aesthetically deficient government spending at its best (Alex Kerr must cringe whenever he enters the valley through here). What's on offer is very similar to the Michi-no-Eki, and if you cross the bridge under the rainbow you can ride the very kitschy Ladybug Monorail on a harrowing adventure at about 2km per hour around the exposed hillside. Young children would enjoy, as well as those looking for a tacky photo opportunity.
Nishi-Iya and Mi-no-Koshi have the usual range of rice and noodle joints, all a bit on the expensive side by Japanese standards. Try grilled amego (a local river fish) at 500 yen a pop, sold by little stands here and there by the vine bridge, or opt for a skewer with the dense local tofu, even denser local konyaku, and the even denser still local potatoes at about ¥300 each.
Many places advertise Iya soba noodles, made with buckwheat grown in the valley, but if you've ever been to another mountain in Japan you'll recognize the topping as the same sansai mountain vegetables served everywhere else. With luck, you'll stumble upon a local place that pickles their own sansai, which grow in abundance here but require effort to cure.
And only available in Iya, hirarayaki is a dish made from many of the local specialties such as tofu, potatoes, konyaku, and amego trout. Traditionally cooked on a large flat rock and heated by fire below, more commonly it is cooked on an iron griddle where thick walls of miso paste encircle a mixture of sake and miso, such that it cooks the ingredients like a stew. However, finding this on offer can be a challenge as its usually only for special occasions, but it is available at the Oku-Iya Hotel.
- The Woody Rest, Iyaguchi. While not exactly in the Iya Valley, this is one of the last and only places to get a meal if entering/exiting the valley via Iyaguchi. If coming from Ikeda, it is located on left side of the main Route 32 a few hundred meters before the Iya Valley turn off. If exiting the valley, then turn right after crossing the bridge onto Rt 32 and go a bit past the Iyaguchi train station. Iya soba is available as well as a variety of Japanese meals. The menu is in English and the owner's friendly wife is usually on hand to take your order in her descent English. This is one of the closest restaurants to Iya-Kei Camp Village and Matsuogawa Onsen. 11am to 7:30pm, closed Wednesdays.
- Senkichi, Nishi-Iya (a little way up from Hikkyo-no-Yu Onsen and Michi-no-Eki). A soba restaurant easily spotted by the ninja climbing up the outside of the building. Inside it's decorated with rustic style furniture, and even a traditional sunken hearth. Open for lunch, closed in winter.
Also, food and snacks can be found at Fureai Center and Michi-no-Eki in Nishi-Iya (see: "Buy"), both near the Hikkyo-no-Yu Hotel close to the central district.
- Yanamoto's, Higashi-Iya in Kyojo (at the end/beginning of the main Kyojo street, at the opposite end of the large red all purpose hall/museum). From the outside this place looks more like a house than a restaurant, but it is open to the public. The specialty is okonomi-yaki (Japanese vegetable and meat pancakes) as the tables are set up to be grills, but rice and noodle dishes are also available. Beer is on tap, as this is the closest thing that the town has to a pub.
- Oku-Iya Hotel restaurant, Higashi-Iya in Kyojo (in the center of the main Kyojo street, next to the gas station). Easily seen from the street, and offering a variety of local dishes and standard Japanese meals.
- Soba Dojo (そば道場), Higashi-Iya in Ochiai, (on the main road). Have some of the local soba noodles.
If you want nightlife, you are completely in the wrong place! But a beer vending machine is available till about 10pm on the corner opposite the Higashi-Iya town hall in Kyojo.
- Iya Kei Camp Village (祖谷渓キャンプ村) (on 'old' route 32, between Iya-guchi and Iya Onsen.), ☎ . Set within the undeveloped section of the Iya gorge, this campground allows for tents or has small bungalows to rent. The river is easily accessible here, with lots of cherry blossoms in the spring and colorful leaves in the fall. Tent sites are ¥1000, and small bungalows run ¥3600 for up to five people, and bigger ones that hold up to eight go for ¥6100.
- Iya Kazurabashi Campground (祖谷かずら橋キャンプ村 Iya kazurabashi kyanpu-mura), ☎ . A campground in Nishi-Iya, on the south side of the river a 20-minute walk (mostly uphill) from the vine bridge. Camping costs ¥510 if you have your own tent plus ¥200 per person. The view of the river is nice enough but the hillside riverbank has been bricked-over and developed. Toilet facilities and hot water shower are provided. Be aware that you MUST call ahead and make a reservation (Japanese only) to use the campsite. If you do not have a reservation, the manager WILL tell you to leave. Even if you arrive at a completely empty campsite with your own food and camping equipment and plenty of money and are obviously exhausted and relying on infrequent and expensive public transport to get around the valley, the caretaker will still not allow you stay if you did not call ahead make a reservation, and he will not help you find other accommodation in the area.
- Oku-Iya Kazurabashi Camping (奥祖谷かずら橋キャンプ). A rather basic, but magnificently placed campground located across the Oku-Iya vine bridges at the eastern end of the valley. Entry is ¥300 per person, plus the ¥500 to cross the bridges to the campsite (only once if you stay for more days). There is a separate cargo pulley system, so you can shift your supplies across the river without carrying them on your back across on the precarious vine bridge. There are only very basic toilet facilities and no showers. You can ask the owner of the minshuku across the road to use their bathroom for a small fee (about ¥300).
- At Mi-no-Koshi, there are a few camping sites available along the side of the trail to Mt Tsurugi (near the upper chair-lift station). Alternatively, ask nicely for permission to borrow a patch of lawn from one of minshukus — and show your gratitude by eating a meal or two there. Meoto-no-Ike (夫婦の池) is the nearest official campground, 2km up Route 438 toward Sadamitsu.
- Although there are no signs marking it as an official camping site, a tent can be discreetly pitched in the woods near the lake beside La Fôret Tsurugi's baths. It is also possible to use the herbal baths here (¥500).
- For those doing multi-day hikes in the mountains, there are several huts along the highest ridge line, that are almost all un-staffed and free of charge (the Mt.Tsurugi and Ichinomori huts being the exception). Tents can be pitched next to the huts if they are full. The Mt.Tsurugi hut has paid bunks and simple meals available, and off the side of Mt. Tsurugi is neighboring Mt. Ichinomori, with two huts (one paid, one free). If traversing the ridge line from Mt. Tsurugi, two small huts (Maruishi and Shiraga) lie along the trail from Tsurugi to Miune; the Miune hut is located just below the summit next to the pond; and the very nice hut near Tenguzuka Mountain is 20 minutes before the peak just off the trail heading from Mt. Miune. Be sure to bring everything you need as the un-staffed huts have no electric, or cooking/bedding facilities, and spring water may be unavailable if there is a lack of rain. More info about the huts can be found here.
If hiking, it is not advised to camp in unmarked spots nor should tents be pitched along trails. Some may wish to do some commando-style camping secretly out of sight, but this is not recommended and one would be scolded severely if caught. Japanese hikers often rise very early to see the sunrise from peaks (note to those sharing the free mountain huts), so it would be hard to ensure that one could get away with such camping. However, if one doesn't mind being exposed to the elements, just rolling out your sleeping bag and maybe covering it with a waterproof cover (a bivouac, not a tent) then it is possible to crash out on a peak for the night and enjoy the stars. Japanese hikers may find exception to this minimalist option, though one should be ready to get up if people arrive at sunrise. But be warned, summits get chilly overnight and/or freezing for much of the year, winds can be constant even on clear nights, and storms sometimes move in quick.
There are a number of simple minshukus in Nishi-Iya, Kyojo and Mi-no-Koshi. The basic bed-only sudomari (素泊まり) rate starts at around ¥3500 per person, higher with dinner and/or breakfast.
- Matsuogawa Onsen (龍宮崖コテージ), Matsuo, Ikeda, ☎ . Not located in the Iya Valley exactly, but on a side valley a few minutes from the hamlet of Deai at the base of the western gorge area. The facilities are neat, traditional Japanese style, and the simple hot spring bath is refreshing. There are no meals available, but a large shared kitchen is here for guest use. At 3200 yen per person which includes the bath, its a bargain indeed, and for stays of 3 days or more there are reduced rates. A hike of about 30 or 40 minutes from here brings you to Kurozo Marshlands, a famous place for flower lovers and bird watchers.
- Ryugugake Cottages (龍宮崖コテージ) (within the Manpu Gorge across from the Ryugu Tunnel, in central Higashi Iya), ☎ . This collection of seven (7) modern cabins is located in the forested Ryugugake Park. One of the best deals in town, as the quiet mountain setting in the Manpu Gorge lets one feel like they are camping, but the comfortable cabins are each set up with kitchens, bathrooms, living/dining rooms, bedrooms, balconies, and even washing machines! Smaller cabins hold up to four, with the biggest holding seven people. There are no meals offered or restaurant here, but at just ¥4000 per person one shouldn't mind the task of cooking for oneself. If you are feeling carnivorous, a large covered barbecue pit is available (¥200 per person additional, bring your own meat) and yoga classes are also offered in the main building most weekends (the instructor is one of the few people in town who can freely speak English)
- Oku-Iya Hotel (旅の宿 奥祖谷), Kyojo, Higashi-Iya (near the gas station), ☎ . Located in the sleepy "downtown" area along the river, the basic but charming rooms start at ¥7000 with dinner and breakfast, but for an additional ¥1000 one can sample the valley specialty of hirarayaki or for a total of ¥10,000 one can opt to have a locally hunted deer meat course.
- Hikkyo no Yu (秘境の湯), ☎ . A large and lavishly appointed onsen hotel near to the Michi-no-Eki (道の駅) in Nishi-Iya... but it might as well be anywhere, there aren't really many valley views. Its easy to access via public transport. For non-guests, entry into the baths costs ¥1000.
- Hotel Iya Onsen (ホテル 祖谷温泉), ☎ . About as far away from it all as you can get in Japan, located within the gorge at the west end of the valley and famous for the cable car that takes guests to the not-particularly-hot spring baths in a beautiful spot beside the river. But there's a price to pay: ¥14000 and up per head, to be precise.
- Hotel Kazurabashi (ホテルかずら橋), 32 Zentoku, Nishiiyayamason, Miyoshi-gun (15 min. by bus from Oboke station, 10 min. walk from Kazurabashi vinebridge), ☎ . A modern ryokan with hot spring baths. Most guest rooms have mountain views and the staff are very accommodating. The open-air baths above the hotel (reached with a cable car) are probably the nicest in the valley, if not Shikoku, and include a traditional thatched roof tea house with burning floor hearth for taking a break in. The views from the baths are breathtaking (non-guest baths cost ¥1000). Dinner and breakfast are top-end kaiseki cuisine using local ingredients. ¥15,000 per person with meal.
- Tougenkyo-Iya (桃源郷祖谷の山里), Ochiai, Higashi-Iya, ☎ . Located within the historic Ochiai hamlet, these thatched roof homes have been beautifully restored and outfitted for guests. Visitors have the whole house to themselves, and some can accommodate groups of up to 8 people. Each has its own unique characteristics, and all have pleasant views with idyllic atmosphere. Kitchens allow for self-catering, or arrange meals to either be delivered or cooked/eaten together in the home of one of the neighborhood residents. Prices vary, but start from about ¥14,000 per person. Local guides are also available for various courses.
- Iyashi-no-Onsenkyo (いやしの温泉郷), Sugeoi, Higashi-Iya, ☎ . Located out in Oku-Iya on the way to the double vine bridge, this large, secluded complex doesn't get the loaded tourist buses found in the Nishi-Iya area, allowing one to have a bit of peace and quiet. Offering hot spring baths, restaurant, tennis courts, and various accommodations including standard hotel rooms, small separate cabins, and even traditional thatched roof guest houses. The hot spring is open for non-guests daily. This is also the location of the Oku-Iya Monorail and Miune mountain can be hiked to/from here. Room prices start at about ¥8000-9000 per person, but depend on the type of accommodation, season, and number in group.
- Chiiori Trust (篪庵(ちいおり)), Tsurui, Higashi-Iya. House of Japanese-aficionado Alex Kerr, this tucked away thatched-roof farmhouse has undergone a thorough restoration and is now available for overnight guests or day-use. Though Kerr hasn't ever really lived here for any real length of time since acquiring the place in the 1970s, he now runs the house from his homes in Kyoto and Thailand as part of an NPO dedicated to restoring crumbling old Japanese architecture. The place is quite stunning and is now equip with modern amenities that balance out the traditional floor hearths and collection of antiques. However staying in such well-kept tradition comes at a price: minimum overnight fees are 21,000 for the house off-season and some weekdays, and go up for holiday times, weekends, and with increased number of guests. Meals can be arranged at additional costs. The neighborhood hamlet has very little going on, and the view down the valley in front of the Chiiori house is rather obstructed by tall cedar trees. A newer staff house is located just next to the main building.
- The gorges of Oboke and Koboke, with more of the scenic views and world-class rafting, are just outside Nishi-Iya along Route 32.