The Iya Valley

The Iya Valley is a beautiful, ragged region in the heart of Shikoku where clear blue rivers cut down steep, wooded gorges, and homes perch up on the hillsides, linked only by winding switchback roads. It’s the antidote to the bustling neon-clad streets of Tokyo or Osaka.
It is also, as I found out only after arriving there, quite famous – thanks mostly to Alex Kerr’s book Lost Japan (or, in its original and better title, Utsukushiki Nihon no Zanzou, which means something like “A last glance of beautiful Japan”). More prosaically, we went after a friend recommended it in the pub.

Arriving and Transport

Getting to the Iya Valley isn’t particularly easy. By train, it’s on the line between Kochi and Takamatsu – stop at Oboke. If you’re coming from Tokushima, like us, you’ll need to head West, then change onto that line – it’ll be a few hours of travel. But once there, you’ll need to get around somehow – for which, to be honest, I’d recommend a car.
And with that in mind, we drove in from Tokushima, down the old route 192, which is slow and not particularly scenic but not as expensive or dull as the nearby Tokushima Expressway. Drive as far as Miyoshi, then left down route 32, which runs into the valley.
Or rather, that’s what we should have done.
Wanting to visit the more rural Higashi Iya (East Iya, and the location of Kerr’s famous book), and also just to get off route 192 after following it for hours, we decided to cut down routes 438 (pictured above) and 439, which head south and then west across mount Tsurugi. We’d stopped and consulted a local shop owner, who assured me that there shouldn’t be any snow, and it should be passable.
He was, shall we say, wrong.
The drive up and across Tsurugi is beautiful, entertaining, and on occasion slightly terrifying. After well over an hour, an ear-popping climb and around 500m away from the Tsurugi Ski Area, we found it impassable due to the huge piles of snow and ice, some of which are pictured above, and had to go back. Even in March, you’d need snow chains to attempt this.

Things to See

Once you’ve arrived in the valley via the main road, you’ll notice that it has become a bit touristy – there are omiyage shops, a 7-11 and a river cruise company, for example. But get away just a short distance and there’s much beauty to be found – not to mention the river itself, which is a stunning, clear azure blue.
Having failed to get to Higashi Iya, with its two vine bridges, we decided to make for the more Western, and more touristed one. To get there, you need to take the old Iya valley road – it branches off south near Iyaguchi station, running mostly along a single track that winds around the cliffs. Along the way you pass a perilous drop, with a strange statue:
.. and also a small onsen, perched on the cliff. We also found that the road is sometimes closed for hours at a time while they make repairs – we sat, alongside a few other cars, staring at the valley until we were allowed to move on.
And on to the bridge, Kazurabashi: although now the site of a huge car park and the single biggest omiyage shop I’ve ever seen in my life (the size of a supermarket, I’m not kidding) this really is worth the trip for the incredible view down the gorge. Crossing the bridge itself, which is not for the faint of heart of the small of feet, costs a few hundred yen.
.. but it’s well worth it for the view.
Up behind the bridge is a small but pretty waterfall, which is worth a look, and you can buy all manner of Japanese sweets (dango, etc) to nibble on. From there, we doubled-back into the valleys, and spent some time walking down the river tributaries – you’ll find some lovely quiet spots to sit and rest.
In March the river is absolutely freezing, so we admired it from afar. If you visit in the warmer months, however, there are several rafting companies that can take you on a white-water tour – most notably Happy Raft, an independent based in a neat new building just behind Tosainahara station.

Staying and Eating

And speaking of Happy Raft – that’s where we stayed. Although there are one or two hotels – you can stay at the onsen, or in a rather formal looking place near the Kazurabashi bridge – it seemed more appropriate to spend the night in the countryside. As well as their rafting business, the Happy Raft team own a couple of small guest houses – we stayed up in the valley, at one called Teruya.
This large house looks down over the river valley (off that photo, to the right), and used to be the home of one of the owners, Teru, hence the name; getting to it is a scramble down tiny mountain roads, mostly in the owners’ van. It’s big inside, with two bedrooms, but also a huge tatami room that could sleep four or more. The living quarters include a full kitchen with a gas hob, hot water and a fridge, as well as a big lounge area:
.. which, we discovered as we were packing to leave, even has WiFi. After a very, very long day on the road, we lit a barbeque, cooked up some curry udon, cracked open some beers under the (amazing, if like me you live in a city) starlight and got a great night’s rest.
The Happy Raft guesthouses are also inexpensive (3500yen a person, when we stayed), and the hospitality and help from the hosts, Teru and Kana, was amazing – they even helped me out through an incredibly long and confusing conversation with the local police after we pranged our car on a valley-side guardrail. If you want a place to stop in the valley, I couldn’t recommend it enough; you can book via email, in English.
In the morning we drove back down into the main valley, and after Kana had helped us file another report with the Tokushima-Ken department of transportation, we had to bid a sad farewell to the valley. Someday I hope to go back in warmer weather – I might even make another attempt at getting over Tsurugi-san to Higashi-Iya.