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Article written by our resident explorer and 35mm film enthusiast, Caitlin.
The secluded, mountainous Iya Valley (Iyakei) sits along the stunning turquoise Iya River, right in the heart of Shikoku in Tokushima prefecture. Misty gorges and thatched-roof houses offer a glimpse into an idyllic lifestyle that somehow still clings on here, despite having utterly vanished elsewhere in Japan. The valley offers an alternative to the bright and bustling metropolises of modern Japan. Here you can find reprieve from the city in the untouched nature, slow country lifestyle, and warm welcoming locals. The Iya Valley is one of Japan's three "hidden" regions (Sandaihikky), along with Shirakawa-Go in Gifu prefecture, and Shiiba in Kyushu's Miyazaki prefecture. Whilst not all of the "top three" lists composed in the 17th Century still stand, Iya Valley truly is a hidden gem of Japan. Here are four places in the area you mustn't miss during your trip to Shikoku:
The remote landscape of Iya Valley once served as a secret hideout to fugitives and masterless samurai. Historically, the area was difficult to enter and even harder to navigate. This allowed bandits on the run to easily escape anyone pursuing them. To get across the deep ravine, these refugees created vine bridges to cross the river.
Although the origin story of these bridges is as misty as the deep valleys they cross, local folklore claims that the bridges were created by the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kobo-Daishi. During his travels, he needed to cross the river and built a vine bridge as an impromptu measure, which then became popular with the locals. Another, more plausible theory is that the bridges were made by the infamous Heike outlaws, who built the bridges while fleeing from the Genji Clan. As the bridges could easily be cut down, they could turn the river an impassable barrier to their enemies.
The bridges are built with wisteria vines: a fast-growing and hardy vine that attaches to any host. The vines were grown from both sides of the river and once they'd grown long enough they were woven together with planking about 30cm apart. The result was a highly unstable bridge that bounced wildly as it was crossed. Only those with the determination and courage could make it to the other side.
Once there were up to 13 bridges in the area, however, now only three bridges remain; the Kazurabashi bridge being the most well known. The bridge spans 40 meters across the valley and is suspended about 15 metres above the rocky river. The bridge is now reinforced with suspension safety wires and handrails, but it's still nerve-racking to cross. With planks about 10-15 centimetres apart, you must be careful where you put your feet, while not looking too closely at the rushing river below. It costs ¥550 to cross the bridge. As this area is quite popular you can grab a snack from a variety of food stalls, such as mochi, grilled Sanma, and ice cream. There is also a huge omiyage (souvenir) shop to stock up on local produce and snacks for the rest of the journey, as you won’t be seeing a convenience store for a few hours!
Positioned on the towering peaks high above the river, connected by a winding and unbelievably narrow mountain road, is one of the most dangerous places in the valley, Nana Magari (seven curves). Here you'll find a small, sheer cliff with a 200-metre drop. While most would never dream of getting close to the edge of this cliff, for some, it was a chance to show off their courage; by peeing off the cliff. Legend has it that travellers and local boys would climb up to Nana Magari to prove themselves to anyone that cared to watch. These death-defying boys would stand right on the precipice; only a steady stance meant the difference between satisfaction or sudden death. Now, the cliff is home to a statue of a young boy peeing into the void below, a symbol of courage in local folklore.
After the adrenalin of crossing the bridge and peering from the cliff, take the time to relax in a beautiful hot spring. Iya Valley Onsen is home to one of the most unique rotenburos (outdoor baths) in Japan. While the hotel is located on the mountain above the valley, the onsen is 170 metres below, almost in the river. A retro cable car plunges down the steep mountain through trees, which look most spectacular in Autumn, to the river below. The baths have a constant flow of fresh hot spring water that spills over the bath's edge into the river below. You'll find yourself feeling at one with nature, surrounded by the sound of the rushing river and towering mountains around. The onsen is located at a hotel, but it's also open to day guests. This onsen is more on the expensive side (¥1700) for a day visit, but it's well worth the splurge.
While many rural towns in Shikoku are shrinking due to an ageing population and loss of industry, one town is managing to slowly increase its population. Although you might be mistaken for thinking they are humans at first glance, the population of Nagoro village is almost entirely made up of scarecrows. Welcome to Japan's uncanny valley. The scarecrows are the efforts of Japanese artist, Ayano Tsukimi, who was disheartened by the dwindling population of her hometown. She started with a scarecrow for her garden that resembled her late father, and the project took off from there. Now there are over 350 lifelike dolls placed around the town in various states of action. The school is full of quiet, attentive pupils. The fields are tilled by scarecrow farmers. Old ladies wait eternally at the bus stop for a bus that will never come. The more you look around, the more you'll see. This unique little village, as unsettling as some may find it, is well worth passing through.