One of Japan's Three Hidden Valleys, Iya has 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. Simply put, Iya offers the roots of Japan. If merely listening to the grumbles of Kerr, someone may be inclined to think that Iya (like everywhere else) has been devoured by what he calls the Moloch (aesthetically challenged over-development) since his first encounter here in the early 1970's, but the reality is that most of the valley still remains 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 And while sections of the rivers have been replaced by the usual concrete channels to prevent landslides, the single-lane road widened (in parts) to accommodate dual-direction traffic, and some mountainsides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, the overall natural splendor of the valley proves to be a great escape while soaking in the bounty of its hotsprings, the tall peaks offer some of the finest hiking in Shikoku, and many of the less-visited mountainside hamlets offer glimpses into a past way of life that somehow still clings on here even though it has utterly vanished elsewhere in Japan.
The 60km long valley is divided in two: 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 Deep Iya). Traversing the entire length of the valley by car takes over two hours. There are dozens of small settlements (some abandoned) on the mountain sides along the main road. In the western half, the 'downtown' section of central Nishi-Iya is the most condensed as well as the tourist area around the Kazurabashi. The largest district on the eastern side (Higashi-Iya) is Kyojo (京上), with many facilities. The historic hamlet of Ochiai (落合) in eastern Higashi-Iya is registered as an important national preservation district due to its collection of traditional homes, terraced farm plots, and ancient walking paths. The far-off hamlet of Mi-no-Koshi (見ノ越) at the base of Mt. Tsurugi is popular with hikers but has only basic facilities.
For visitors, it is recommended to get one of the detailed free tourist maps available at any tourist point in or near the valley. Printed by the local government and available in either Japanese or English, this is an accurate road map with clear explanations for points of interest, trail-heads, and other less known landmarks.
The official tourism webpage for Miyoshi City (including the Iya Valley) is available in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. It has a contact page for travel questions in English, which can be helpful when making reservations.
Money and Communications
The only bank branch in the Iya Valley is the Japan Post (JP) Bank. There are three JP branches: one in central Nishi Iya, another in the Kyojo area of central Higashi Iya, and the third in Ochiai. Regular hours are M-F 9AM-5PM, but they don't handle international exchange. ATMs are open M-F 9AM-6PM, Sa 9AM-5PM, and Su 9AM-2PM. Foreign bank cards are accepted at the ATMs, and the ATMs have English menus. The closest currency exchanges are in major cities (Kochi, Takamatsu, etc), and the closest 24h ATM is the Seven-Eleven at the WestWest rest stop in Koboke.
Most larger hotels accept credit cards. Most other places are cash-only.
Inhabited areas have good cell phone coverage, but many mountain trails and peaks do not. Pay phones are scattered here and there, usually in the more condensed areas. There are no Internet cafes or libraries with computers available, and few hotels offer computers to use. Wi-Fi is sometimes available for use in bigger hotels, some tourist areas have free Wi-Fi.
Health and Emergencies
For emergencies call 119 for fire or rescue, or 110 for police. An English operator can be connected.
There are two local clinics. The doctors and staff at each location speak a little English. The nearest large hospital is in Ikeda town.
- 1 Nishi-Iya Clinic (西祖谷山診療所) (In the Nishi-Iya town center near the junction of Rt32 and Rt45), ☎ . M-F 8:30AM-5PM.
- 2 Higashi-Iya Clinic (東祖谷診療所) (In the red civic building along with the folk museum.), ☎ . Tu W F 8:30AM-4PM.
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. Weather info can be found in English at the Japan Meteorogical webpage, with precipitation forecasts for either Kochi or Takamatsu usually being more accurate for the Iya Valley area than those of Tokushima City (in winter, subtract about 5 to 8 degrees from the Kochi temperature to get an idea if any rain there should be considered snow in Iya). A daily weather log for Kyojo (in the center of the valley) can be found here which can give an idea about recent temperatures and conditions.
- Spring. 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.
- Summer. 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 sometimes limit the extent of mountain top views. Mid-July and August have only sporadic rain, but in the late afternoon thunderstorms and short heavy downpours sometimes occur on the hottest days (the mountains of Shikoku tend to harbor these sudden storms). By the end of the summer and early autumn the chance of a typhoon hitting increases (some come as early as June), which can wreck havoc in the valley. Landslides are not uncommon during prolonged downpours, winds are ferocious, and hiking can be very dangerous in forests due to falling trees. If a typhoon is coming, it's time to buckle down in a safe place and wait for it to pass. (see the Stay safe section for more typhoon info)
- Autumn. 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 early-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.
- Winter. 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 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 but do close during/after storms, 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 (including practically everything in Mi-no-Koshi) close for the season as well. Check ahead for time tables.
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. To make the most out of your visit, it is highly recommended to use a vehicle (such as a rental car, see Get Around for options) since public transport into and around the valley is limited, with many places unreachable and/or very time consuming to access by bus.
The central location of the Iya valley makes Shikoku's four airports viable options. Cars can be rented at any airport.
- Kochi Airport is closest (1.5 hours to Oboke via airport shuttle bus with express train), though the flight options are mainly limited to 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.
- 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.
For 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 JR Oboke Station throughout the day, and hourly express trains from either Kochi city or from JR Awa-Ikeda Station (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 up the mountain and 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 JR 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.
Long distance night buses to/from Tokyo stop at the Miyoshi Highway Bus Stop (三好ＢＳ), which is located in neighboring Highashi Miyoshi-cho Town at the Yoshino River Service Area rest stop, about 15 minutes or so east of central Ikeda by car. This bus stop is not a final destination, but rather a stop along the way with buses traveling between Tokyo and Kochi city. For more info, see the bus access listing on the Ikeda page.
There are several buses daily from Ikeda's Awa Ikeda Bus Terminal (阿波池田ＢT), which pass by JR Awa-Ikeda Station (one minute away) and travel to the Iya valley in various ways. Some terminate in Deai (Iya Gorge area), some terminate in Nishi-Iya at the Kazurabashi (かずら橋), and a few continue all the way into Higashi-Iya and terminate in Kubo (久保). If you wish to enter via the Iya Gorge, be sure to take a bus that goes via Deai and continues to Nishi-Iya. There are also four buses on weekends/holidays only that travel between JR Oboke station and the Kazurabashi only. For a complete timetable, 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.
For a local bus timetable of routes in English, most of the major stops between Ikeda, Oboke, Iya Gorge, Kazurabashi, Higashi Iya, and up to Mt. Tsurugi can be found in the Miyoshi Tourism pdf files below.
An overview of bus times into the Iya Valley's main points are as follows:
- Buses starting in Oboke are weekends and national holidays only, April to November.
From Kyojo and/or Kubo, there is a connecting service on a separate bus deeper into the valley in Higashi-Iya (to Nagaro, the vine bridges of Oku-Iya Kazurabashi (奥祖谷かずら橋) and on to Mi-no-Koshi (見の越) at the base of Mt. Tsurugi). Closer points travel daily, while the deepest spots are on weekends or holiday periods only. See Get around below for more information on this service.
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 [dead link] 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. It is very much worth the cost of rental, and it may even be cheaper than using a bus if more than one person is traveling.
If your first or only destination is Mi-no-Koshi (for Mt. Tsurugi), Route 438 from Sadamitsu and Route 439 from Anabuki connect directly into Higashi-Iya and offer the fastest route if arriving from Tokushima, Takamatsu 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 if hitch-hiking. The roads are quite narrow and twisty, so this is a long ride up to and/or down from Mi-no-koshi (1.5+ hr from Sadamitsu) and this route is recommended only if your first or only destination is Mt. Tsurugi.
Otherwise, when 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 (about 15 minutes from Oboke to central Nishi Iya). 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). From Oboke to the Kazurabashi is about a 20 minutes drive.
It is also possible to drive the entire length of the Iya valley from the lowest reaches of Iyaguchi along 'old' Route 32 (turn off main Route 32 to follow the signs for Deai). Though not necessarily dangerous, this part of the road is not for the faint of heart, as it is mostly one lane, very twisty, and often on the side of steep cliffs, however 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. It's about a 1 hour drive from Iyaguchi to the Kazurabashi.
If driving further into Higashi Iya, the road is sporadically one-laned after the Kazurabashi and what little traffic encountered in Nishi-Iya becomes even less here. The village center of Kyojo is located about 15 minutes after the Kazurabashi, Ochiai Hamlet is another 10 minutes away, and Sugeoi, Nagoro, and the Oku-Iya Kazurabashi are each about 10 minutes apart. A further 10 to 15 minutes of twists and turns brings one to the base of Mt Tsurugi (Mi-no-koshi), making it about 1 hour and fifteen minutes or so from the Kazurabashi to Mi-no-koshi non-stop.
For travelers from Kochi, it is not necessarily advised to take Route 439 from Otoyo, as the road is very twisty and goes over the 1,120m high Kyobashira mountain pass (京柱峠 "kyobashira-toge"), which all together can take 30 minutes to an hour longer to get destinations in the valley (though the views are indeed quite pleasant).
Note to drivers: Gasoline stations are few and far between in Iya. There are gas stations in Iyaguchi and Oboke along the main Route 32, but within the valley itself the only stations are: in Nishi-Iya at the junction of Route 45 and 'old' Route 32; in Higashi Iya in the town center of Kyojo; and a 'last chance' gas station on the main road in Higashi Iya between Ochiai and the Oku-Iya double vine bridge. These three gas stations in the valley have hours of about 8am to 6pm and may/may not be open Sundays/holidays. So if driving all the way to Mt. Tsurugi (Mi-no-koshi) be sure to have enough gasoline.
Parking is free nearly everywhere in the Iya Valley with the single exception being the main Kazurabashi (vine bridge) in Nishi Iya. The large parking complex charges 300yen.
There are no traffic lights in the entire Iya Valley (only at the Oboke and Iyaguchi turn offs in neighboring Yamashiro), and the valley's solitary stop sign can only be encountered if driving from Higashi Iya on Route 32 at the junction of the Kazurabashi turn off in Nishi Iya. But the lack of stop signs does not mean one should just drive through any intersection with total disregard. Always use caution on the narrow roads.
In the valley itself, public transportation is limited to a few buses a day, particularly in Higashi Iya. If using only a bus you will require much more time than if traveling by car, and since buses can be several hours apart and only along the main road, you may be limited to the number of sights that can be seen in a day. And if finances are a concern, it should be noted that two people traveling by bus in/out/around the valley can easily accrue the same or more in bus ticket costs in a single day as would be the rate for a small rental car. That said, car rental or even hitchhiking are the fastest way of getting around, but hitchhikers beware: at times the main road may see only a handful of 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. There would be little if any security concerns. If asked, some hotels offer transportation services to/from JR Oboke station and some local sights.
By public transport
Although options are limited (and confusing), going deep into the valley is possible by bus, but one must have both patience and an attention to making a realistic schedule. The information center outside JR Awa-Ikeda Train Station has some excellent English brochures including one on exploration by public transport.
For travel by bus within the lower Iya Valley, the areas of the Iya Gorge, Nishi-Iya, and Kazurabashi are serviced by buses to/from Ikeda or Oboke. See Get In for details on these services.
For travel deeper into the valley into Higashi-Iya, four of the daily buses from Ikeda continue past the Nishi-Iya Kazurabashi and onward to Kyojo, Ochiai and finally terminate in Kubo. But if looking to go further, don't despair! It is possible to ride on the Community Bus (also serving as the school bus) to points deeper and occasionally as far as Minokoshi (Mt. Tsurugi base) at the farthest edge of the valley. Be sure to state your destination to the driver when getting on to be sure that it is the correct bus.
This Community Bus begins/ends in Kyojo and runs daily all year as far as Nagoro (Scarecrow Village). Between April and November some buses continue on to the Oku-Iya Kazurabashi and Minokoshi (on weekends and holiday periods only). The Community Bus times are made to allow transfer with the main Ikeda-Kubo bus.
|Kyojo||Middle School||Ochiai||Kubo||Sugeoi||Nagoro||Oku-Iya Kazurabashi||Minokoshi|
|Minokoshi||Oku-Iya Kazurabashi||Nagoro||Sugeoi||Kubo||Ochiai||Middle School||Kyojo|
Note: *Buses to the Oku-Iya Kazurabashi run from April 1 to the end of November, and **buses to Minokoshi run from mid-April to the end of November. These buses are on Saturday, Sunday and national holidays only during this time. However, they do run daily during the Golden Week period (usually around April 25 to May 10), during the summer holiday period (usually around July 21 to August 31), and the autumn leaf viewing period (usually October 5 to November 6). But these dates are subject to change each year so be sure to check the official site for accurate listings. https://www.miyoshi.i-tokushima.jp/docs/4292.html (Japanese only, updated each March)
The Kazurabashi Taxi Company ( tel: +81 883-87-2013 email@example.com ) is based in Nishi-Iya and can provide service to/from Oboke Station or to/from other sights anywhere in the valley. Prices start at 4300yen per hour.for up to four people and 6500yen for up to nine people. They also offer tourist route courses, with a Nishi-Iya course starting at 7800yen (2.5 hours) and a Higashi-Iya course at 20,300yen (6 hours).
By rental car
To get the most out of your experience in the Iya Valley, it is highly recommended to have your own vehicle. If you are not traveling alone, it pretty much pays for itself in what you'd need to pay in bus tickets, not to mention that it is incomparably more flexible and convenient.
There are many single-laned roads in the Iya Valley. See the "Driving" section under Stay Safe for driving tips.
Miyoshi Rental Car is located just outside of downtown Ikeda and can do free pick-up or drop off to main access points such as the bus station, JR Awa-Ikeda station, or the highway bus stop. Prices for a small car start at 5,100 yen for the first day and 4,600 yen each day thereafter.
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 or contact through email.
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 rally 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 public 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.)
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. There are two sets, a single bridge in Nishi-Iya and a double bridge in Higashi Iya.
- The most popular vine bridge is in Nishi-Iya and known simply as "Kazurabashi", fairly close to the main village, and sole destination for 90% of visitors to the valley. There is a rather large operation going on here due to the number of visitors, and the bridge itself is not particularly scary or atmospheric. Entrance costs ¥550 Adult/ 350 child 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 (Parking fee is 300yen, this is the only point in the valley which charges to park). 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 Niju Kazurabashi (奥祖谷二重かずら橋 Deep Iya Double Vine Bridge) 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, one really gets the sense of going somewhere hidden. There are two vine bridges 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. The surroundings are peaceful and idyllic, and 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 where you can slide halfway across the ravine before you need to pull yourself the rest of the way with the rope in the cart, though if someone is waiting they 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 ¥550/350 adult/child. Getting here can be a bit of problem as most buses usually don't come this far (buses only run on weekends, holiday periods, and daily during Golden Week, the summer, and the mid-autumn), but if you have your own transport or a good working thumb, you'll be sure to enjoy the lack of mass access. See Get Around for bus options.
The lower area at the mouth of the Iya Valley between Iyaguchi and central Nishi-Iya is mostly undeveloped and simply stunning, and it is known as Iya-kei (祖谷渓 Iya Gorge). A twisty, mostly one-laned road meanders 20km through this section ('old' Route 32, aka "Iya Highway"), 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 Valley Campsite (also called "Iya-kei Campground"), 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, or hit up by the middle-of-nowhere Iya Onsen Hotel and ride a cable-car far down to the valley floor for a riverside bath. A few minutes after the hotel a large bend in the river is noted for its shape which looks like the Japanese letter ひ ("hi") where one can pull over to take in the whole view. After another 10 minutes or so of twisting through the forest the road emerges in the central part of Nishi-Iya at the junction of Rt 45. 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), or for those looking for a hike, you can take a bus as far as Deai and walk along the winding one-lane road to Nishi-Iya in about 2 to 3 hours. See Get In for bus options.
Note: On town maps, local road signs, brochures, and tourism websites the Iya Gorge area is often referred to as simply "Iya Valley" which can lead to confusion as the entire valley all the way up to the base of Mt. Tsurugi should be classified as such. This misnomer is due to translation irregularities.
Registered as a national historic preservation district in 2005, Ochiai's (落合) 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. (However, it's worth noting that this is not a re-creation "living museum" -this is just an actual community of mainly elderly residents somewhat stuck in a time-warp). In recent years an effort has been made to restore the buildings here. Several of these thatched-roof homes have been beautifully restored and are now available to stay in overnight with Tougenkyo-Iya (See Sleep for details on staying in one of these traditional homes). 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.
To access the base of Ochiai village by bus, take either a bus that goes to/fom Ikeda (see Get In) or one of the Higashi Iya community buses (see Get Around). From the bus stop on the main road either walk up via the village roads or one of the many foot paths.
- 1 San-jo Jinja (三所神社). This shrine is located in the center of Ochiai Hamlet (not along the road, but accessed by walking path from every direction) 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, or around early-mid July, and early-mid September) 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. Usually the events start at the shrine about 2-3pm (rain or shine).
- 2 Nagaoka-ke (長岡家). It is a thatched roof farmhouse and one of the oldest still standing structures in Ochiai. A culturally protected building, it has been cleaned up nicely for visitors to walk through and see the interior. With its floor hearths, paper doors, and antique chests, it's a nice place to relax and view the valley. Local information is available here. Closed Wednesdays, no fee. It is located in the center of Ochiai along the hamlet road, about 150 meters below the San-jo Shrine.
- 3 (なこち), e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Located about three or four minutes up the path from San-jo Jinja (to the right/northeast) or from the road just above, Nakochi is a cafe and event space situated in a recently restored traditional farmhouse. Usually only open on weekends and national holidays, it's a good place to take a break and enjoy a meal or cup of tea while exploring Ochiai hamlet. The house has nice views through the valley and is arranged with antiques and a traditional floor hearth. Various events are also held throughout the year here (potato harvesting, tea ceremony, art exhibition). Other activities can be arranged by request and include soba making, yoga, sausage making, guided Ochiai tours, star viewing, and mountain hike guides. See Eat for more details about the cafe.
- Ochiai-toge (落合峠). If one follows the road up through the hamlet, and then continue heading up for another 20 to 30 minutes by car, you will reach Ochiai-toge (Ochiai Mountain Pass). At 1520 meters, it is the highest driving road in the Iya valley (and actually 4 meters shy of the highest driving point in the entirety of western and southern Japan) and offers fantastic views of the southern ridge line, peaks, and valley floor exactly 1000m below. For those with a car, it is the easiest/laziest way to gain a mountain-top view of the valley. Stairs from the pass top lead 30 meters down to a toilet, and along the road 100m below the pass top is a large, newly paved parking area. A further 150m below the parking area is a small mountain hut (free to sleep) but not exactly 5 star accommodations (bring absolutely everything). The hut is surrounded by a mountain shrine area that is used for a small festival annually, and across the road here are some benches and a panoramic area that would be nice for a picnic. Water can be gotten from one of two streams a further 400m down the road (the 2nd lower stream is better). From the pass top a hiking trail heads off to the east for Mt. Yahazu (great view, but a fairly tough hike) or to the west for Ochi-hage (short easy hike, with better views than the pass). See 'Mt. Yahazu / Ochi-hage' under the Hiking section of Do for hike details.
Scarecrow Village (Kakashi-no-sato)
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 (known as "kakashi" 案山子) 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 Nagoro 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. Each October, usually the first or second weekend of the month, there is a "Kakashi-matsuri" (Scarecrow Festival) held here in Nagoro, with food, workshops, and events. See Get Around for bus access information to Nagoro.
Unkai and Kiryu (Valley Fog Formations)
The Iya Valley is noted for its fantastic fog formations which give an otherworldly appearance to this remote place.
- Unkai, which means "Sea of Clouds" (and also refered to by some locals as "hachigo-giri"), usually occurs in the early morning hours on clear days from around first light to just after sunrise (though it isn't daily) and is when the fog settles into the valley in a way that makes it appear like an expanse of ocean, while the mountain tops stick out like islands. The best places to observe this phenomenon would be from elevations that are at least 200 meters above the valley floor, such as from any mountain top; from the upper part of Ochiai Hamlet (including a couple Tougenkyo homes); from Ochiai-toge; from the overlook just above Senkichi Restaurant in Nishi Iya; or from around the exit to Iya Tunnel on Rt 45 looking into Oboke/Yoshino River Valley (a wooden log 'unkai viewing platform' can also be found about 2km down the small side road that heads out from the thatched roof gate just before the tunnel entrance). Though it is a gamble if the fog will settle like this on the day you wish (autumn and spring are the best bet), if lucky, you'll be happy you did wake so early as it is a truly amazing sight.
- Kiryu simply means "air stream" and locals use the term to refer to the jets of fog that shoot up from the valley floor and hillsides either in the early morning or after/during some rain at any time of day. These white pockets swirl and dance through the valley as they constantly change in appearance, and are best seen from a hillside with a bit of elevation (over 50m above the valley floor) from a point which has an extended view (at least 1km), but not necessarily from as high as a mountain top, as the peaks often get encased by clouds during rain. It is most common to see Kiryu from mid-spring to early autumn, but will occur even in winter if its rainy or particularly humid.
- 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. With manpu 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. The Ryugu Tunnel (opened in 2003) 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 (free) spans the gorge halfway along the tunnel bypass 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 Manpu road, when traveling from the Nishi-Iya/Kazurabashi direction turn off to the left just after the large brown wood sign announcing "Tourist Information" and "Ryugugake Park" (in English) and follow it around to the other side of the tunnel. From the other direction (coming from Kyojo/Mt.Tsurugi) turn left just before entering the Ryugu Tunnel and follow. If coming by bus, ask to get off at "Ryugugake-koen", located about twenty minutes past the Kazurabashi in Nishi-Iya or ten minutes before Kyojo.
- Bukeyashiki This wonderful, very large thatched roof house is located on the upper part of the mountain side above Kyojo. One of the nicest restored buildings in the valley, it has a broad valley view, a beautiful interior, and a classic set of Japanese feudal armor on display. Architecture lovers would appreciate the detailed construction. Entrance fee is ¥300, and is open daily, but closed in winter. Located next door by the neighborhood shrine is the Hoko-sugi, the largest cedar tree in Iya. Road signs for access refer to this place as 'Old Samurai Residence' in English. To get here it is a 4.5km drive up through a mountainside hamlet (guide signs throughout) from the turn off near eastern side of the Kyojo Tunnel (after exiting the east side of the tunnel, turn left over the bridge, then turn left again after the bridge, then go 400m and turn right up the hill, following the signs). An annual Jazz Concert is held here in early October, see the listing under Do (Festivals).
- Higashi-Iya Folk Museum, in the large red community hall 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. The collection of local artifacts (forms of which are actually still in use by many residents) is extensive. 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 by way of public tax money and described in Alex Kerr's books Lost Japan and Dogs and Demons (where he complains extensively about Japan's mis-appropriation of public money for private use). Sadly, for those who remember, Chiiori's previous days as a drop-in spot, cultural experience workshop, and volunteer project are over (previously known as "The Chiiori Project" back when the place was not directly managed by Kerr himself), and it is now only open to visitors as a private, fee-based guest house by reservation only (See 'Stay' below). A 'tour' to simply see the house must be booked in advance (you may get turned away if you just show up without contacting) is not particularly worth the 500yen charged per person. ¥500.
- 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. Every year on July 15-17 a special shrine festival takes place, culminating on the 17th when long processions clad in white robes head to the summit.
Hiking in the valley, especially the eastern end, is quite popular and there are many trails of various lengths mapped out. For information in staying at the mountain huts see details in the 'Budget' section of Sleep. Be sure to understand weather conditions of Iya by reading the Climate information at the top of this webpage. And for problems associated with hiking, be sure to read the Stay safe section at the end of this webpage
- 1 Mt. Tsurugi (剣山, Tsurugi-san, also known locally as Ken-zan, sometimes spelled 'Turugi'). (1955m) It 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 Otsurugi 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 July 15-17 every year a special shrine festival takes place, culminating on the 17th when processions clad in white robes head to the summit. A staffed mountain hut with meals and accommodation is located on the summit, and camping is available near the upper chair lift station. The main access trail-head starts in Mi-no-Koshi.
- There are several routes up Mt. Tsurugi. 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 westward 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. Note: the route up the back of Mt. Miune via Mt. Shiraga is steep and demanding, and best avoided in bad weather.(see the camping explanation under "Sleep" for hut info)
- 2 Mt. Miune (三嶺). is another popular trip, but less crowded and arguably prettier than Mt. Tsurugi. At 1893m, 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 (follow signs) with lower and upper parking areas (the upper area follows the crumbling road about 1.5km, not recommended if you love your car) and takes about 2.5 hours up. Miune can also be accessed in a very long day hike from Tsurugi-san along the ridge line (see above), 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 [dead link]. 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).
- 3 Mt. Tenguzuka (天狗塚). This tall, pyramid shaped mountain peak has fine 360 views from its 1812m pointed top. Along the ridge below the peak itself, a broad expanse of sasa (short bamboo grass) fields curve gently over the mountain top, allowing for a fairly flat long walk around the area (eventually the path here just goes down the other side of the mountain). A very nice mountain hut is located nearby in the opposite direction of the sasa grass fields. This is a fine hike and peak, and you will see relatively few people compared to Tsurugi or Miune. To access, it is about 2.5 hours from Miune along the ridge, or 3.5 to 4 hours from the Kubo trail head (From the Kubo public bus stop, cross the bridge, follow the road up for 10 minutes by foot or 1 minute by car. Bear left at the first turn off to go over the small bridge, and access the path soon after that on the right at crumbling sign). If driving, there is also a higher access road above Kubo (saving about 1 to 1.5 hours of uphill hiking) that can be reached via the small road located a few minutes past the Ochiai area on Rt 439 (turn to the right at the brown sign for "Tenguzuka" in English) and follow about 8km, or get there the other way by going through the Iyashi-no-Onsenkyo Hotel parking lot (about 7km after the hotel). If coming up this trail (either from Kubo or the access road), once at the top of the ridge, the peak will be clearly visible to the right, with the sasa fields just beyond, and the hut is 20 minutes down and around the ridge to the left towards Miune.
- 4 Mt. Yahazu (矢筈山). On the other side of the valley, Mt. Yahazu peak can be accessed from Ochiai-toge 落合峠 (Ochiai mountain pass). The summit is about a 2 to 2.5 hour hike from the parking area near the pass top (if going up from Ochiai, the path would be on the right). This is fairly steep, but the panoramic views from the peak top are fantastic as this is the highest point on the northern side of the valley (1848m). You'll most likely see few if any people. It is also possible to only hike the first ten minutes or so towards Mt. Yahazu to the first overlook if one wants a much better view than what is offered from the pass. There is no bus to Ochiai-toge, so you need a car or a lucky thumb (see the "Ochiai Pass" listing under See).
- 5 Ochi-hage (with Mt. Kanbo and Mt Eboshiyama). For those looking for a little less effort but a rewarding mountain experience (and who have a car), Ochi-hage (1683m) is only a 30-40 minute hike from Ochiai-toge (Ochiai mountain pass) and visible from the road here (take the path going to the left on the pass top if heading up from Ochiai, the opposite direction of the Mt. Yahazu trail). The beginning of the path is a gentle climb through the sasa-grass with lots of views, and the final 10-15 minute climb is a bit steeper but not too strenuous. The valley view is grand here, with Miune and Tenguzuka directly across the valley here, Tsurugi-san far off to the left, and the peaks of Nishi-Iya to the right. On a clear day, the Seto Sea and Takamatsu can be seen to the north. A further 4km hike (2 to 2.5hours) past Ochi-hage leads to Mt. Kanbo (also spelled "Kanpou", 寒峰 1604m). If looking west, it's the higher sasa-grass covered peak to the left, and from there paths also go down to the village of Kurisuto (between Ochiai and Kyojo). Looking west and to the right is the wedge-like peak of Mt. Eboshiyama (烏帽子山 1670m) which can also be scaled in about 1 to 1.5 hour if one takes the trail turn off to the right about 30 minutes after Ochi-hage towards Mt. Kanbo. Parking, toilets and a small mountain hut (free) are located near the Ochiai pass top. See the Ochiai Pass details in the 'Ochiai Hamlet' section under See for more information. There is no public bus to here.
- As the valley is ringed by mountains, there are several other options for hiking in practically every direction.
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 ¥1000-1200 (other price is noted). Soap/shampoo is provided, but bring your own towels. See the full listing for these places under Sleep. A quick run-down from lowest in the valley to the upper end near Mt. Tsurugi:
- Matsuogawa Onsen (松尾川温泉) (just off the lower end of the Iya Gorge near Deai,The closest hotspring to the Iya-Kei Camp Village). The simple baths are in a traditional setting. ¥500.
- Hotel Iya Onsen (祖谷温泉) (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 manageable on a colder day). The indoor bath up at the hotel is basic and sparse. (note: the slow cable car down takes nearly 15 minutes each way, so if you just miss its departure and/or the car is full, you might need to wait 40-45 minutes before actually getting in the bath. This should be considered if on a tight schedule).
- Hikyō-no-Yu Hotel (ホテル秘境の湯) (near the Michi-no-Eki and across the road from the Fureai Center by central Nishi-Iya). The large indoor baths are elaborate and refreshing (by far the best indoor baths in the valley), but the outside stone-lined pools don't offer as nice of a view as elsewhere.
- Hotel Kazurabashi (ホテルかずら橋) (closer to the Kazurabashi vine bridge in Nishi-Iya). The indoor bath is minimal, but the stone-lined outdoor baths up the mountain via the short cable car are award-winning. Overlooking the valley and 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. Available for non-guests 10am-4pm, closed Wednesdays.
- Iyashi-no-Onsenkyo (いやしの温泉郷) (located further up the valley in Higashi Iya, 10-15 minutes past Ochiai). 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. ¥500/¥300 adult/children.
- La Fôret Tsurugi (ラ・フォーレつるぎ山) (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.
There are several festivals of various size held throughout the year.
Most local Shinto shrines host their own festivals for the surrounding neighborhood hamlet, usually once or twice a year according to their own traditions. In these events, local customs often call for a group of men to carry a small (70-150kg) portable shrine (mikoshi) around the shrine grounds while accompanied with drummers, people in costume, and sometimes pairs of people throwing long bamboo staffs. Each shrine and neighborhood has its own customs (one or two even have the attendees engage in sumo wrestling), but unfortunately, due to an ever dwindling population, many of these traditions are being lost. Dates vary from shrine to shrine and are according to the lunar calendar, so unless directly contacting a local resident, one would probably happen upon such an event only by chance (though if you do, you'd be warmly welcomed). But for a more sure opportunity, see "San-jo Jinja" under the Ochiai Hamlet section of See for more specific information and dates for this large shrine festival event.
The largest general festivals in the valley are the summer festivals, one each in Nishi-Iya and Higashi-Iya. They are held at the middle-school grounds on the weekends before the national Obon Holiday (August 15) as this is a common time for family members who've moved away to return home for a visit. These events are open to anyone and include food tents, games, performances, and fireworks, so if visiting the area in August ask around or look for promotional posters for exact dates. (Nishi-Iya festival is usually the first weekend of August. Higashi-Iya festival is usually on August 13. Typhoon or heavy rain may cause different date.)
- Festival Jindai Odori (西祖谷の神代踊) (in Nishi-Iya). It is a traditional folk dance festival and considered a protected cultural asset for its long history and unique style. Costumed participants dance to beating taiko drums at the grounds of a shrine hidden in the forest atop a small mountain. Held annually on June 25th of the lunar calandar (approximately mid-end July), the turn off for the shrine is located a couple hundred meters from the Kazurabashi bus stop on the main road in Nishi Iya. On the day of the festival there are shuttle buses available to take people up to the shrine from the turn off which is about 4km up a narrow, curvy road (even if you have a car, you probably want to take the shuttle).
- Jazz Concert, Bukeyashiki (Old Samurai Residence), Higashi Iya. An annual jazz concert that includes a buffet dinner of various local foods is held the first Saturday night of October starting at 6pm at the large thatched roof Bukeyashiki house on top of the hill far above Kyojo in Higashi Iya. Tickets can be bought at the door and run about 4 or 5,000yen. The event runs till about 9pm. See listing for Bukeyashiki under "See (other)" for directions. (the 2016 concert is October 1)
- Kakashi-matsuri (Scarecrow Festival), Nagoro (Near to the Oku-Iya Double Vine Bridge). On either the first or second weekend of October (usually) the small hamlet of Nagoro hosts a small festival to celebrate the scarecrow artwork of Ayano Tsukimi. With food vendors, workshops, and some performances, this very local affair is open to anyone. See the "Scarecrow Village" listing under See for more info. (the 2016 festival will be October 2, Sunday, starting 9am)
- Heike Matsuri (平家まつり). This festival is held the fourth Sunday of October and celebrates the tradition of how the defeated Heike samurai came to the valley eight-hundred years ago in order to hide from the victors in the Genpei War. This is held at the Kazurabashi grounds in Nishi-Iya and includes various performances including a theatrical re-enactment of how the warriors arrived in the valley. Local food vendors will also be set up. It can be possible for anyone (including foreign non-residents) to don a traditional costume and participate in the samurai parade at the end of the festival (about 3pm) but to do so requires advanced contact through the city office at least two weeks or so beforehand. (The 2016 Heike Matsuri will be October 23, Sunday, starting 11am)
- Yukigassen (雪合戦) (in Higashi Iya). last weekend of January. ("Snowball Fight Competition") It has become a major event at a time when few visit the valley. Not simply a free-for-all, this event is team-based and participants often practice for months to coordinate their skills in the tightly ruled sport. There are several classes of participation including children, women's, men's, and 'just for fun' leagues, and the winners of the main event get to advance to the national competition annually held in Nagano Prefecture.
Autumn Leaf Viewing
The colors begin to change in the upper valley (Mi-no-koshi) in early October, and won't begin to change until late October in the lower parts, with most of the valley in full splendor the last week of October to mid November. This can be a popular time to visit, especially around the national holidays. Large patches of the valley are filled with cedar and cyprus trees which are green all year, but in between the colors can be brilliant due to abundant maples, chestnuts, and oak. Some of the recommended areas (with fewer evergreen trees) for dazzling autumn color from low to high in the valley are as follows:
- Mt. Ryugatake. Within neighboring Matsuogawa Valley, go about 20 minutes up Rt 140/149 from Deai past the Matsuogawa Onsen (a fairly desolate road through the narrow valley). The huge 4km long Ryugatake cliff face here is famous for its awesome red maples that explode up this impending wall. It begins just past the public restroom along the roadside.
- Iya Gorge. The entirety of the gorge, from Deai to central Nishi-Iya, has lots of brilliant leaves and several viewpoints to enjoy them.
- Manpu Gorge/Ryugugake Park. Drive or walk along the old road here (that bypasses the tunnel) and then stroll across the wire suspension footbridge into the park around Ryugugake Cottages for a splendid autumn view through the valley.
- Ochiai-Toge. The drive up to this mountain pass 30 minutes above Ochiai hamlet overflows with color, and the broad view at the top looking down into the valley is delightful in the autumn season.
- Oku-Iya Kazurabashi. The isolation in the forest here is great for feeling immersed in the colors, and the dual vine bridges lurking in the bounty only add to the other-worldliness.
- Mt. Miune. Known as the local's favorite mountain for autumn leaves, the colors only add to the rewards of the hike.
- Mt. Tsurugi. In early October a week long maple leaf festival is held here (though it isn't much of a "festival"), as the mountainside is the first in the valley to explode with color.
Oku-Iya Monorail Billed as the world's longest monorail of this type (nearly 5km), the small cars putter steeply up the mountainside and through the dense forest for a 60 minute loop of sorts. The view opens up at the top at 1380m, looking far along the valley out to Mt. Tsurugi. It could also be good option for families with children or those who want to experience the mountain scenery yet are unable/unwilling to hike, but not necessarily a super thrilling experience (it's not a roller-coaster). Bring a beer or three for a more enjoyable ride. Leaves on request from the Iyashi-no-Onsenkyo Hotel (see 'Stay') . 2000yen adults, 800yen children, kids under 6 free (ticket includes a free hotspring bath at the hotel)
Tsuzuki's Soba Atelier (古式そば打ち体験 都築) +81 883-88-5625 (in central Higashi Iya, across the river from the Kyojo Tunnel) For a fantastic hands-on experience, 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. Definitely a memorable experience not to be had elsewhere. Two-hour classes are ¥3000 per person, and include more soba than you could ever eat.
Yama Yoga The energetic English speaking instructor offers a variety of scheduled drop-in classes and private classes at the picturesque main studio (located at the Ryugugake Cottages in Higashi Iya, non-guests are welcome to attend without reservations), as well as private lessons at other accommodations in the valley. A unique option is to reserve one of the "Yama Yoga Experiences" ('yama' means 'mountain' in Japanese) where you can go out with the instructor to do yoga within some of Iya's breathtaking scenery, including hidden mountain houses, deep forest glens, and panoramic valley viewpoints. First-time yoga students welcome, as this is also a great way for local interaction that isn't just idle sightseeing.
White Water Rafting Some of the best rafting in Japan is located just outside the mouth of the Iya Valley, and can easily be included with any trip to the valley (about 15 minutes from central Nishi Iya). See the Oboke and Koboke page for details
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 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 train station at Oboke, but selection would be better at the full sized supermarket in Ikeda near the bus station. (See the Grocery section under Eat for more details on buying food in the valley.)
For those looking for camping supplies, there is a well equip Mont Bell outdoor store at the WestWest rest stop in Koboke, and the home center (hardware store) in Ikeda near the main bus station has some camping gear.
- Michi-no-Eki Nishi Iya (Located just before central Nishi-Iya on Route 45 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.
- Iya Fureai Park (Located just before central Nishi-Iya on Route 45 across from the Hikkyo-no-Yu Hotel as you come from Oboke) A little further from the Michi-no-Eki its hard not to spot the Fureai Park 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 but with a bit more going on, and the view of the river from the parking area is nice. 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 lush hillside. Young children would enjoy, as well as those looking for a tacky photo opportunity (500/300yen adults/children). Within the parking area here is the Nakazo Cafe serving local fried potatos, Iya hot dogs, and drinks (see full listing under Eat). The emerald Iya River below is accessible here if looking to splash about, and on the banks there is an outdoor playground and camping area.
Drink Like a Local
Iya people like to drink, with beers often in hand on weekend mornings (and sometimes weekdays). But for large gatherings (such as banquets, shrine festivals, and weddings) the valley also has a unique drinking style unheard of in the rest of Tokushima Prefecture. This is a very social style of consuming alcohol, and one should feel honored to partake in this tradition if somehow the opportunity arises (but don't expect it in restaurants, regular festivals, or simple home parties).
Though mainly done with sake, if need be beer or even tea can be used so that everyone can partake. After an initial toast, the custom calls for one to give their cup to whomever they are next to, pour that person a cupful, upon which they are obliged to immediately consume it so they can return the cup and fill it for the original giver. This needs to be drunk quickly as the person who just received will then give their cup to the first giver and the process is repeated. This exchange can go on for several times over while a conversation is had, with drinking circles sometimes consisting of five or six people. But above all, it is customary to try to have such an exchange drink (or three) with every person present, so if there are 60 or 70 people there, expect to get very drunk.
Iya has a wide variety of locally produced foods.
The local tofu (known here as iwa-dofu or ishi-dofu, which translates as "stone tofu") is unique in that it is so dense that it was traditionally carried around with a strap of rope. With a rich flavor and hearty mouth-feel, it's unlike any other tofu in Japan. Most large hotels serve it with the course meals and some smaller places have it available as a side dish.
Iya potatoes are a traditional staple grown in the small terraced farm plots seen throughout the valley. The potatoes are small and dense due to the rocky terrain. And for the culinary aficionado, try the locally produced konyaku which is a rubbery gelatin produced with Japanese yams and attains its grey color by being mixed with the ash of burnt cedar tree branches.
Wild game in the form of deer meat and mountain boar has become more common in recent years due to a hunter's butchery being established in Higashi-Iya in 2014. It can be found in some places but may only be available at special request.
Nishi-Iya and Mi-no-Koshi have the usual range of rice and noodle joints for visitors, all a bit on the expensive side by Japanese standards. Try grilled amego (a local river fish) that are encrusted with salt at 500 yen a pop, sold by little stands here and there by the vine bridge. Or opt for a roasted skewer of dekomawashi which consists of the dense local tofu, even denser local konyaku, and the even denser still local potatoes and all slathered with miso paste at about ¥300 each.
Many places advertise the famed Iya soba noodles, made with buckwheat grown in the valley and renowned throughout Japan for its pure flavor. If you've ever been to another mountain in Japan you'll recognize the topping as the same sansai mountain vegetables served everywhere else, but 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 it's usually only for special occasions, but it is available at the Oku-Iya Hotel as well at some of the larger hotels in Nishi-Iya.
Lower Valley Area (Iya Gorge, Nishi Iya)
- The Woody Rest Keiryūkan (ウッディレスト渓流館) (in 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.). 11am to 7:30pm, closed Wednesdays. 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. 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 decent English. This is one of the closest restaurants to Iya-Kei Camp Village and Matsuogawa Onsen.
- Senkichi, Rt 45 (in Nishi-Iya, a little way up from Hikyō-no-Yu Onsen and Michi-no-Eki towards Oboke). Open for lunch, closed in winter. Closed Thursdays.. If looking for somewhere special, this soba noodle restaurant also serves various other local specialties, including rice dishes, tempura, and fish. Its easily spotted by the ninja climbing up the outside of the building (If coming from Oboke, you see the ninja only after passing the entrance, so u-turn and go back 50 meters). Inside it's beautifully decorated with rustic style furniture, old house beams, and even a traditional sunken hearth. Antique lovers will rejoice. Great views abound down into the valley. The owner can speak basic English to help explain the food or local sights. Now re-opened for spring 2016.
- Nakazo Cafe (Within Iya Fureai Park's parking area in Nishi Iya). 10am-4pm. This small cafe has outdoor seating and serves up local style hot dogs ("Iyahhodog") which sometime include deer meat, as well as deep fried whole Iya potatos, which are acclaimed for their dense texture (the place is run by the family of Nakazo Farm of Higashi Iya, one of the valley's main potato specialists).
- Iya-bijin (in Nishi-Iya. Located about halfway between central Nishi-Iya and the main Kazurabashi vine bridge, 1km either way.). A large restaurant and hotel perched on the side of the valley in a new (but traditional looking) building, offering fine views and lots of local specialties. Known for its soba.
- Onomiya (おのみ家) (Central Nishi Iya, Across from Kazurabashi Hotel). 11am-9pm (or later if customers present) Closed Wednesdays.. This small pub along the main road is instantly recognizable due to being painted like an old style orange and yellow bus (its also the site of the Kazurabashi Taxi and Bus Tour). Though mostly set up as a drinking place with lots of side dishes, there are also some main meals to be had and its open for lunch and dinner. Not your typical tourist fare or clientele, but you'll surely be welcomed. English menu available. (see full listing under "Drink")
Its also worth noting that most of the onsen hotels have restaurants available for non-guests, including Hotel Kazurabashi and Hikyo-no-yu Hotel. See "Onsens (Hotsprings)" section under Do for more info.
Also, food and snacks can be found at Fureai Center and Michi-no-Eki in Nishi-Iya (see: "Buy"), both near the Hikyō-no-Yu Hotel close to the central district.
Within walking distance around the Kazurabashi Vine Bridge are several restaurants, all only open during the daytime (no dinner), mainly serving Iya soba and local specialties (see above). Most look like they haven't been renovated since the mid-1970s, but this just adds to the step-back-in-time experience. However there is a newer soba restaurant inside the parking area's souvenir building if you are seeking a bit more shine, and near the entrance to the vine bridge is a unique restaurant/cafe in that it offers a menu with various treats and is actually without soba! (see below)
- Mori-no Kuma-san (The Forest's Bear) (in Nishi-Iya. Set on the corner overlooking the Kazurabashi, a few meters from the vine bridge's entrance.). 9am-5pm, closed Tuesdays. If you've had your fill of soba, or are just looking for a light snack or creamy gelato, then this is the place to head. With a nice woodsy feel, you'll find a variety of hot sandwiches, fries made with local potatoes, fruit smoothies, and even waffles drenched in Iya honey. Free Wi-Fi brings you momentarily back into the modern world, and the owner can speak a bit of English to help you along (with a menu in English too). Have a seat on the balcony, where tiny local birds are semi-trained to swoop in to pick sunflower seeds out of your hand (if not too busy, the owner will show you how, or just follow the how-to pictures on the wall).
Mid/Upper Valley Area (Higashi Iya)
- Kimura Cafe (古民家喫茶 きむら), 107 Tsurui, Higashi Iya, ☎ . Set in the valley's oldest recorded house (and thus regarded with historic protection) the Kimura family house is a great place to soak up the traditional lifestyle while enjoying some tea. The 300+ year old thatched roof house has twin sunken fire hearths around which you are served and is styled the way of days gone by. Tea sets (or coffee) come with a sweet pastry and cost 700yen. It's tucked away up a hillside hamlet and a bit hard to find, but can be see on a map here It's easy to miss if driving by. On arrival, beat on the large drum on the balcony (seriously) to summon Mr. Kimura to serve you.
- Yanamoto's +81 883-88-2354 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 some excellent hand-made noodle dishes are also available. Beer is on tap, as this is the closest thing that the town has to a pub. Open for lunch and dinner.
- Oku-Iya Hotel Restaurant, +81 883-88-2045 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, this is where Iya people go for lunch. The locally picked san-sai pickles are some of the best in town. They also cook up locally caught deer meat curry and croquettes for lunch time if one wants to enjoy a hearty meal. And hirarayaki is also on offer, though it may need to be reserved in advance. English menu available.
- Nakochi (なこち) http://nakochi.site44.com/ (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) Higashi-Iya in Ochiai, (a few minutes up the path from San-jo Jinja Shrine). Set in a restored farmhouse, Nakochi offers a unique menu using Iya's local ingredients, but not in their traditional form (deer meat spaghetti bolognese, Iya tofu burgers, Thai style rice with minced deer meat, etc). Open every Saturday for dinner and lunch, and every Sunday and holiday for lunch only. Also on hand are traditional Iya set meals prepared with local ingredients (but an advanced reservation is needed for the sets). If not wanting to eat, a large variety of drinks are also available. As Ochiai's only cafe, it's a great place to stop for enjoying the view across the valley. Breakfast is also available but by reservation only. (See the Ochiai Hamlet section under See for more details).
- Soba Dojo (そば道場), Higashi-Iya in Ochiai, (on the main road, near the small bridge and big turn in 'downtown' Ochiai). Have some of the local soba noodles.
Note: The restaurant at the Iyashi-no Onsenkyo Hotel in upper Higashi Iya offers meals for non-guests by reservation only. See the hotel listing for contact info.
For those looking to buy food to prepare themselves, the closest real supermarket is located in Ikeda town. In Oboke a few dozen meters from the JR train station is Boke Mart and has possibly the biggest/best selection outside of Ikeda. Within the valley itself there are several mom-and-pop shops, with some that are so-so in their basic offerings and some that are indeed dismal.
In Nishi-Iya, some of the 'better' ones include one near the post office and another two on the main road near the Kazurabashi (do not take the straight road to Kazurabashi but instead turn left just after the Hotel Kazurabashi as if heading to Higashi Iya. They are located about 200-300 meters further along from here). The offerings are pretty limited. If looking for more than snacks, go back to Oboke or a little further up into Higashi Iya.
- Tani-shoten (in Higashi-Iya, close to the center of town near the intersection of Rt 439 and Rt 32. If coming up from Nishi-Iya, turn right off the main road before entering the Kyojo Tunnel onto Rt 439 towards 'Kyoboshira Pass'. Its on the left about 100 meters along, past a few houses) The best selection within the Iya Valley can be found here, though don't expect a full sized supermarket. However a little bit of everything is on hand including frozen meat and fish, a range of basic staples, snacks, fruit, bread, beer and a variety of sake/shochu. Come early in the day and you may be able to get a brick of fresh tofu or some wedges of konnyaku (or reserve for the following day if sold out). Open daily 7am to 7pm.
There are also shops in Kyojo (near the gas stand) and Ochiai (on the main road) but don't plan to prepare a seven course meal with what's on offer, as its mainly drinks and snacks. Yoshida Tofu shop in Kyojo (on the small side street opposite the town office) makes and sells the valley's famed dense tofu.
If you want swinging nightlife, you are completely in the wrong place! But a beer vending machine is available till about 11pm on the corner opposite the Higashi-Iya town hall in Kyojo, while Yanamoto's in Kyojo also serves as an impromptu pub (see listing under "Eat"). The valley's only real drinking place is in Nishi Iya:
- Onomiya (おのみ家) (In Nishi Iya, Across from Kazurabashi Hotel, near the turn off for the Vine Bridge/Higashi Iya). 11am-9pm (or later if customers present) Closed Wednesdays. The aptly named Onomiya (best translated as "A place to have a drink") is the Iya Valleys only izakaya pub, though it isn't very big. Lots of side dishes are available, though the drink selection is mainly beer, sake, and shochu. Catering mainly to locals, you'll probably be the only tourist, though don't feel put off as they'll welcome you warmly. Some main dishes are also available, but probably best to go for the Days' Special Set if wanting a full meal. A private room can be had for larger groups (equip with a karaoke player). The place is easily recognizable as its painted outside like an old fashioned orange and yellow bus, and a real one is usually parked out front since this is also home to the Kazurabashi Taxi and Bus Tour (which is convenient if one overindulges and needs a ride back). English menu available.
It is highly recommended that you make a reservation before arriving in Iya. Some places can fill up on busy weekends, while some smaller places may not be able to handle on-the-spot arrivals (often there is only a single staff on hand who may be unable to prepare a room without notice, and if no rooms are booked that night, there may even be no staff there at all).
Also, it is customary in Japan to state the time you plan to arrive when reserving (as in "about 4:00pm"), so if you foresee arriving later than planned, you should call to say when you will come, even if calling the same day as arrival. Not doing so can lead to problems, the worst of which would be that you are considered a no-show, and if no other guests are there, the staff may go home for the night, leaving you alone in the dark without a place to sleep.
There are no youth hostels in Iya — the nearest are in Oboke and Ikeda, outside the entrance to the valley — but it's an excellent place for camping. But be sure to understand weather conditions of Iya before pitching your tent (see Climate at the top of this webpage). For finding camping supplies, see the Buy section.
- 1 Iya Kei Campground (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. It is also called "Iya Valley Campsite" on some signs. Sites ¥1000, 5-person bungalows ¥3600, 8-person bungalows ¥6100.
- Iya Fureai Park Campground (Across the street from the Hikyo-no-yu Onsen Hotel and directly across the Iya River from central 'downtown'.), ☎ . Easily accessed by bus and instantly recognizable for its giant gray 'concrete rainbow' bridge, the quiet campsites are located down below the parking area near the river and set among some shrubs and grass. A very convenient walk to either the hotsprings at Hikyo-no-yu or all the thrills of downtown. Sites ¥1500.
- 2 Iya Kazurabashi Camp Village (祖谷かずら橋キャンプ村 Iya kazurabashi kyanpu-mura) (In Nishi-Iya on the south side of the river, 20 minutes uphill from the vine bridge.), ☎ . A campground. 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. Reservations absolutely required. ¥1000 for a site plus ¥200 per person; cabins ¥5200.
- 3 Oku-Iya Kazurabashi Campground (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. There is a separate cargo pulley system, so you can shift your supplies across the river without carrying them across on the precarious vine bridge. Picnic tables and BBQ pits are here, but 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). Reservations recommended. ¥300 per person, plus ¥500 bridge fee.
- 4 Tsurugi-san Campground. Above Mi-no-Koshi, there are a few camping sites available along the side of the trail to Mt. Tsurugi peak, just below the upper chair-lift station. They are high (about 1,700 m) and somewhat exposed, and not advisable if the weather outlook is less than fair. (Head to one of the huts at the summit if the weather turns sour, or retreat down to a minshuku in Minokoshi.)
- For info on staying in a minshuku (inn) at Mi-no-koshi, see the offerings in Mid-range.
Camping in the woods
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 and forced to move 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. (See Climate to have an idea what to expect)
- Mountain Huts (yama-goya 山小屋) For those doing multi-day hikes in the mountains, there are several mountain huts along the highest ridge line in Higashi Iya, 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, but they are rarely full. The recently renovated Mt.Tsurugi Hut has paid bunks and simple meals available (4800yen sleeping only, meals extra), 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 free huts (Maruishi and Shiraga) lie along the trail from Tsurugi to Miune; the Miune free hut is located just below the summit next to the pond; and the very nice free hut near Tenguzuka Mountain is 20 minutes before the peak just off the trail heading from Mt. Miune. There is also a small, dusty free hut located along the road close to Ochiai Pass. Reservations are not possible for the free huts (choose your sleeping bag space on a first come basis) so allow for the possibility that you will be sharing with strangers and early risers. 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 good info about the huts can be found in English here.
There are several great options (including onsen) for those not looking for top-end luxury nor the price that comes with it. Whole cabins can be quite affordable (in most other parts of Japan the prices would qualify as 'Budget'), most offering kitchens which allow for self catering. On the other hand, those looking for a 'classic' experience can try one of the several 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.
Iya Gorge Area At the bottom entrance of the valley, this area has an immediate sense of remoteness.
- Iya Kei Campground (祖谷渓キャンプ村), ☎ . Cabins available starting from ¥3600 for up to five people. No restaurant, so bring your own food. See the full listing under Budget "Camping" for more info.
- 5 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 included (there is a separate cafe for lunch), but a large shared kitchen is here for guest use. At 3200 yen per person which includes the bath, this simple but beautiful place is a bargain indeed, and for stays of 3 days or more there are reduced rates. The river is easily accessed here for swimming or splashing about. A hike of about 30 or 40 minutes from here brings you to Kurozo Marshlands, a famous place for flower lovers and bird watchers.
Central Valley Area (Nishi Iya / Kazurabashi) -Though in the center of the Iya Valley, the compact area around the popular Kazurabashi is comparably built up, with several classic style minshukus (the much nicer hotels are a couple minutes by car farther out, see Splurge) as well as a collection of souvenir shops, snack stands, parking areas, and ramshackle buildings (some occupied and some abandoned). A convenient area if this is your final destination (especially if using the bus), but if you plan to venture further up the valley, consider accommodation somewhere less frequented.
- 6 Minshuku Iya-sou (民宿いや荘), ☎ . Just a few dozen meters on the road down from the Kazurabashi bus stop on the way to the Kazurabashi bridge. Looks like a house, with a yellow sign out front. Nice, welcoming owners.
- 7 Iya Kankou-ryokan (祖谷観光旅館), ☎ . Nicer than most, this homestay-like place is located just around the bend a few meters from the Kazurabashi bus stop.
Upper Central Valley Area (Higashi Iya / Kyojo) This area around the sleepy "downtown" section of Kyojo in Higashi Iya is a good central base for exploring the more remote and certainly more rewarding parts of the valley. No group tours here, so if you're looking for charm and a sense of seclusion, this is a good place to find it.
- 8 Ryugugake Cottages (龍宮崖コテージ) (within the Manpu Gorge across from the Ryugu Tunnel in central Higashi Iya, 10 minutes after Kazurabashi, 5 minutes before Kyojo), ☎ . This collection of seven 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 eight 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, great for parties, bring your own meat) and yoga classes are also offered (in English) in the main building most weekends.
- 9 Oku-Iya Hotel (旅の宿 奥祖谷), Kyojo, Higashi-Iya (In the far-from-bustling "downtown" area of Kyojo along the river near the gas station.), ☎ . Basic but charming rooms. 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. Guest meals are usually served in one of the stylish banquet rooms, but there is also a classic-looking cafe along the roadside offering a variety of meals. English menu available. The food is delicious. ¥4500 without meals, ¥7000 and up with dinner and breakfast.
- 10 Kajiya Iya Romantei (カジヤ祖谷浪漫亭), Kyojo, Higashi-Iya (just up the hill above the gas station), ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Located on the hillside overlooking Kyojo, this homestay is one of the most interesting places in the valley. The main building is a traditional wood house uniquely and beautifully restored and run by a quirky but very welcoming man who loves to talk about (in Japanese) his vast collection of antiques, tell stories of the valley life, and explain whatever local culinary treat he is cooking up for the evening (however he will do his best to speak in his very basic English as well). Meals are cooked over the large irori (floor hearth) around which drinks are also drunk well into the night. He has also built a rather neat outdoor/indoor bath house with valley views and an adjoining chill-out balcony, for which it should be noted that this is one of the only places in town (or even most of Japan) where one can take a traditional goemonburo bath from days gone by, which is essentially a large iron pot heated from below by wood fire. Bring your own alcohol if desired. Only one set of guests (up to 6) stay at a time. ¥10,000 including meals.
Mi-no-koshi area (Mt. Tsurugi base) -At an elevation of 1400m and the point where the trails and chairlift for Tsurugi-san begin, Minokoshi has several minshuku on offer during the hiking season (early April to late November. All closed in winter). Far and away from most other valley sights, the main reason to stay here would be if one wants an early start (or late return) for climbing the mountain. For info about sleeping in huts atop the summit, see Budget / Camping.
- 11 Minshuku Matsu'ura (民宿 まつうら), ☎ . Bed & breakfast located 100 meters from the Minokoshi lift station. Enough room for groups. ￥6500~ (including 2 meals); ￥3500~ (without meals).
- 12 Kiri-no-mine Minshuku (霧の峰), ☎ . Bed & breakfast type located close to the chair lift station. ￥6500~ (including 2 meals); ￥3500~ (without meals).
- 13 La Foret Tsurugi (ラ・フォーレつるぎ山), Tsuzuro-6198-2 Ichiu Tsurugi, Mima District (On Rt. 438 1.5km north of Minokoshi), ☎ . Just north of Mt. Tsurugi base area (7min by car, 30min by walk), this cozy yet very pretty hotel is a nice upgrade from the standard minshuku offerings of Minokoshi. Set in deep forest on a peaceful little pond, the rooms are tidy and well appointed, and meals feature local specialties. There is also a hot spring bath available, very soothing if having just hiked. Per person room rates with dinner and breakfast are 7700, dinner only is 6800, breakfast only 5500, and just the room without meals is 4600. Definitely an excellent value for what you get. Expect lots of peace and quiet. (closed in winter)
Even though the places listed here are the valley's top-end in both price and offerings, they aren't all break-the-bank expensive, and some can even be in the realm of mid-range with per person rates less than 10,000yen per person. If looking to reduce the price, dig a bit through their website to find different options regarding meal plans, room type, and number of people per room/cabin.
Central Valley Area (Nishi Iya / Kazurabashi) -All the places in this part of the valley include their own hot spring baths (onsen). They are also all set up to accommodate large group bus tours, which are quite popular here among Japanese and other East Asian tourists.
- 14 Hikyō no Yu (秘境の湯), ☎ . A large and lavishly appointed onsen (hotspring) hotel near to the Michi-no-Eki (道の駅) in Nishi-Iya. The valley views mostly look out across to quaint, tiny central Nishi-Iya. The rooms are modern and plush, and the meals are elaborate with local specialties. It's easy to access via public transport and walkable to points nearby. About 15 minutes by vehicle to Oboke and 5 minutes to the vine bridge. Prices start at about ¥9000 per person without meals, ¥12,000 with. Transport service also offered. For non-guests, entry into the baths costs ¥1000.
- 15 Hotel Iya Onsen (ホテル 祖谷温泉), ☎ . Feeling like you're about as far away from it all as you can get in Japan, this precariously placed hotel is located within the Iya 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.
- 16 Iya Bijin (祖谷美人) (On the valley side between Kazurabashi and central Nishi Iya), ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a relatively newly built but traditionally styled hotel with a view of the forested mountain directly opposite (nicely lit with spotlights in the evening). Rooms are stylish and include a private onsen bath on the room balcony overlooking the valley. The food is an excellent selection of local delicacies. ¥20,500 and up, including meals.
- 17 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 ¥1300). Dinner and breakfast are top-end kaiseki cuisine using local ingredients. About a 2-minute drive or 10-minute walk to the Kazurabashi. ¥15,000 per person with meals.
- 18 Iya-no-Yado Kazura-Ya (祖谷の宿 かずらや) (A few minutes past the Kazurabashi Bridge Parking Area), ☎ . This traditionally styled hotel with hotspring baths is on quiet set of isolated grounds. Meals include several of the unique Iya dishes. The baths are made with the local river stones, and include outdoor and indoor pools, both with lovely forest views. ¥12,000 and up, including meals.
Upper Central Valley Area (Higashi Iya / Ochiai) -Bus tours are few to non-existant in this part of the valley (mainly due to insurance restrictions for the sometimes single-laned roads), so if looking to get away from the crowds and a chance to stay in some of Iya's famed thatched roof farm houses, this is where to head.
- 19 Tougenkyo-Iya (桃源郷祖谷の山里), Ochiai, Higashi-Iya, ☎ . Located within the historic Ochiai hamlet, these half dozen or so 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. Modern 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 (additional fee for meals). Prices vary on season or day of week, but can be quite affordable and start from about ¥8,000 to 10,000 per person (based on at least two people) and reduce with increased number of guests or longer stays. Local guides are also available for various courses.
- 20 Iyashi-no-Onsenkyo (いやしの温泉郷), Sugeoi, Higashi-Iya (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, providing 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 to stay in. 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, meals, and number in group. Transport service offered to Oboke if reserved. Two additional thatched roof homes are also on display here and open free to visitors. Rooms ¥8000 per person, hot springs ¥500.
- 21 Chiiori Trust (篪庵), 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 Iya Valley is one of the safest places in Japan, and the local people will go out of their way to be of assistance if necessary, even though they may not speak any English.
- Crime The Iya Valley has a very low to non-existent crime problem, however locals feel that 'outsiders' coming into the valley have increased the chance of problems in recent years. With that in mind, remember to lock up valuables in tourist areas, or avoid leaving things unattended.
- Driving Local drivers tend to know the roads well and know how to handle a higher speed. Tourists behind the wheel do not, and are usually a bane to the locals. Drive any non-visible turns on single-lane areas with caution (use the mirrors). If an area is single-laned and you see someone coming, try to pull over in a wider area before meeting to allow them to pass (or vice-versa). If you do end up stopped face to face with another driver on a single-laned section, it is often better/faster/safer for one of the drivers to reverse to a wider point instead of inching towards each other and trying to squeeze by (however, most tourist drivers do not realize this).
- Typhoons are large storms occurring between early July and the end of November. Do not hike when one is coming. Winds on exposed mountain tops could literally blow you away, otherwise dry hiking paths often become raging streams, landslides can happen anywhere, and falling branches and/or trees are a risk in any forest area. The valleys often funnel the winds, so a wind forecast for a neighboring area (Kochi city, Tokushima city) has a likely-hood of being magnified here. And the mountains often harbor the rain clouds, creating heavy downpours even when the typhoon center is far off in Kyushu or even Korea. Go to the Japan Meteorological webpage for current weather info in English, and click on the 'Tropical Cyclone Information' heading (also found here) for typhoon forecasts.
- Hornets (スズメバチ suzumebachi) are dangerous. Usually they will not bother you unless you disturb their nests, which may not be easily visible (in bushes, or between large rocks). Their nest building occurs in late August/early September, which is when they are most active and sensitive to loud noises. If bit it will really hurt and swelling can last a couple days. Immediately pull out the stinger (if there is one). Though not a major danger unless you are allergic, people who are allergic to bees will probably also be to hornets. Seek help immediately if allergic, or if the swelling extends far beyond the sting (particularly up to the face), or if stung multiple times (especially more than five).
- Please see Hornets for further details
- Centipedes These look evil, with the worst of the local ones growing up to 15cm with black bodies and bright orange/red legs. They often appear and attack without warning. Their bites are painful, though not necessarily life threatening.
- Please see Centipedes for further details
- Bears Unlike other mountains in Japan, there are few if any bears in the Iya Valley, with 'sightings' as common and reliable as those of Bigfoot. However this does not stop hikers from carrying the obligatory and annoying little bear bells on their packs.
- Snakes There are several species of snake in the Iya valley, some poisonous and some not. It's probably best to avoid any snake, so be watchful on paths (the biggest danger of stepping on one is if you are moving quickly downhill on a path and they don't yet have a chance to move away). If bitten, try to take notice of the colors and patterns on the snake, and then seek help immediately. Anti-venom is carried in the town offices and by emergency crews. Call 119 for emergencies.
- Please see Dangerous animals for further details on Bears and Snakes
- Raccoons Not necessarily dangerous, but they will go after your food if it isn't secured when camping. It may be best to hang food from a branch at least one meter above the ground when asleep.
- Japanese Encephalitis (日本脳炎 nihon-nouen) Though Japanese by name since this is where it was discovered, it is found throughout East Asia, with Japan now being one of the places with the least number of reported cases. It is found mainly in pigs and wild boar and can be passed through mosquito bite to humans, mostly the elderly or very young. Though treatable, it can result in death or permanent disability, but the number of cases is now extremely rare in Japan, about 50 total in the past 10 years. The Iya Valley has no pig farms but wild boar are present, however it should be noted that no cases have been reported here in recent memory. A vaccine is available, but questions arise to its effectiveness as one has a potentially greater chance of contracting the disease via the vaccine shot than through a Japanese mosquito since the disease is so uncommon. If overly concerned, just be sure to use insect repellent.
- The gorges of Oboke and Koboke, with more of the scenic views and world-class rafting, are just outside Nishi-Iya along Route 32.
- Check out Ikeda for access info to the Iya Valley area.