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Iya Valley (???? Iya-keikoku) is a mountain valley deep in the heart of the Japanese island of Shikoku.
One of Japan's Three Hidden Valleys, Iya was raised into the Japanese and Western consciousness by Alex Kerr?s book Lost Japan (ISBN 0864423705), which presented an idyllic picture of a misty valley of thatch-roofed houses, stuck in a time warp to days gone by.
These days, Iya is rapidly being devoured by what Kerr calls the Moloch, with the silence broken by the sound of jackhammers as multi-lane highways and ghastly concrete hotels spring up to serve people flocking to see the view. Still, while Shangri-La it isn?t, particularly the less-visited eastern reaches remain beautiful by any definition. (For a true taste of a Hidden Valley, Yagen Valley might be a better option.)
The valley can be divided into halves, the more populated and developed West Iya (??? Nishi-Iya) and the more remote East Iya (??? Higashi-Iya), which is also known as Oku-Iya (???). There are small settlements (many of them abandoned) along the highway connecting the two, but the largest on the east side is the hamlet of Mi-no-Koshi (???), near Mt. Tsurugi and the intersection of three small highways.
Getting in remains a little difficult. An online bus timetable (http://www4.ocn.ne.jp/~yonkoh/rist2/route/tr03.htm) for services to and in the valley is available, but in Japanese only.
The nearest train station is at Oboke, which is along the JR Dosan Line between Kochi and Takamatsu. The hourly Nanpu which runs from Okayama (a Shinkansen station) stops here (1 3/4 hours, ¥4410).
From Oboke you can connect to a bus through a tunnel into West Iya, but services are infrequent: there are up to eight buses per day on weekends only in the high season (April-November), and just four per day the rest of the time.
There are 7 direct buses daily from Ikeda, which travel to West Iya either via Oboke (4 daily) or via Iyaguchi (3 daily).
If you have your own set of wheels or want to try your luck hitchhiking, Route 438 from Sadamitsu and Route 439 from Anabuki connect directly into East Iya, and offer the fastest route if arriving from Tokushima and Kansai. Note that traffic is very light, especially on weekdays, and the roads are quite narrow and twisty.
In the valley itself, public transportation is limited to a few buses a day. Hitchhiking is probably the fastest way of getting around, but beware: even the main highway sees only around three (3) cars per hour on a weekday, and forget it if it's raining.
Iya's best-known attractions are the precarious-looking vine bridges (???? kazurabashi), which used to be the only way to cross the river.
- The most popular vine bridge is in West Iya, quite close to the main village. This is a rather large operation and not particularly scary, entrance costs ¥500 and the bridge's operating hours are officially defined as sunrise to sunset.
- The more atmospheric Oku-Iya vine bridges (?????????) can be found at the eastern end of the valley, before the final ascent to Mi-no-Koshi. There are two of them, namely the Husband's Bridge (??? Otto-no-hashi), the longer, higher up and thus evidently manlier of the two, and on the left the Wife's Bridge (???, Tsuma-no-hashi). These are a bit closer to the Tarzan kind of vine bridge and best avoided if you have a fear of heights, although even here there are steel cables hidden inside the vines. On the other side is an excellent campground (see Sleep) and a beautiful waterfall. Entrance ¥500, but getting here can be a problem as buses usually don't come this far.
- Chiiori House, 1 (http://www.chiiori.org/). The very house restored at exorbitant cost and described in loving detail in Lost Japan. It's a private residence, but open to visitors who are expected to work and contribute ¥6000 per night for lodging and basic meals. Check the schedule to see what's happening. Reservations required.
- O-Tsurugi Shrine (????). 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.
View from Mt. Tsurugi towards Jirogyu
Hiking in the valley, especially the eastern end, is quite popular and there are many trails of various lengths mapped out.
- Mt. Tsurugi (?? Tsurugi-san, also known locally as Ken-zan, 1955m) is the most popular hiking destination and the 2nd tallest in Shikoku (#1 being Mount Ishizuchi). The name may mean "Sword Mountain", but this is a singularly inaccurate description of this gently rounded fell, and you can even take a chairlift up most of the way (¥1000). From the chairlift terminal, it's a half-hour climb to the summit. Alternatively, if you choose to hike up or down the long way (2 hours or so), you can stop at O-Tsurugi Shrine (????) along the way for a free sip of holy sake and a quaff at a clear mountain spring with drinkable water.
- Trails radiate from Tsurugi in a number of directions, one of the most popular being across Jirogyu and Maruishi and down directly to the Oku-Iya vine bridges and campground.
- Miune (??) is another popular trip, but less crowded than Mt Tsurugi. Locals say it is the best hike to see the autumn foliage. The trail starts at the hamlet of Nagoro and takes about 2.5 hours up. The area is currently the focus of much construction with a hot spring resort, cable car and even a monorail being carved into the mountainside.
West Iya and Mi-no-Koshi have the usual range of rice and noodle joints, all a bit on the expensive side by Japanese standards. Try grilled amego (a local river fish) at a few hundred yen a pop, sold by little stands here and there.
Many places advertise Iya soba noodles, but if you've ever been to another mountain in Japan you'll recognize the topping as the same sansai vegetables served everywhere else.
- Senkichi, Nishi-Iya (a little way up from Hikyo-no-Yu Onsen). A soba restaurant easily spotted by the ninja climbing up the outside of the building, inside it is decorated with rustic style furniture, and even a traditional sunken hearth.
If you want nightlife, you are in completely the wrong place!
Camping at the Iya Kazurabashi Camp Village
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.
- Iya Kazurabashi Camp Village (??????????? Iya kazurabashi kyanpu-mura). An excellent little campground in West Iya, on the south side of the river a 10-minute walk (mostly uphill) from the vine bridge. ¥500 gets you a patch of grass for the night, with beautiful views of the valley. Toilet facilities are provided, but no showers — you can pop into the nearby ryokan and borrow theirs for a small fee.
- Oku-Iya Kazurabashi Camping (???????????). An equally excellent campground located across the Oku-Iya vine bridges at the eastern end of the valley.
- There are no camping facilities in Mi-no-Koshi, but just ask nicely for permission to borrow a patch of lawn from one of minshukus — and show your gratitude by eating a meal or two there. Alternatively, the nearest official campground is at Meoto-no-Ike (????), 2 easy kilometers up Route 438 with some stunning valley views along the way and the chance to use La Fôret Tsurugi's herbal baths (¥500).
There are a number of simple minshukus in West Iya and Mi-no-Koshi, charging ¥6000 and up for a bed.
- Hotel Iya Onsen (??? ????), tel. 0883-75-2311, 2 (http://www.iyaonsen.co.jp/). About as far away from it all as you can get in Japan, located along a small ravine branching off from the west end of the valley and famous for the cable car that takes guests to the hot spring baths. But there's a price to pay: ¥14000 and up per head, to be precise.
- Hikkyo no Yu (????), tel. 0883-87-2300, 3 (http://www.hotel-hikyounoyu.co.jp/). A large and lavishly appointed onsen hotel right next to the tunnel entrance to West Iya... but it might as well be anywhere, there aren't really even any valley views. For non-guests, entry into the baths costs a steep ¥1000.
- East Iya (http://www.east-iya.com/) (in Japanese)
- West Iya Village (http://vill.nishiiyayama.tokushima.jp/kanko/index.html) (in Japanese)