Unknown Japan; Iya Valley

Driving into the Iya Valley (you must drive, the remoteness of the place makes public transport an almost impossible option), you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d driven onto the set of the latest Jurassic Park or King Kong film. Largely unpopulated, mountains rise from the land, their forested facades hiding many treasures.

Historic minka houses are secreted away in the hills, accessed only by tiny, winding mountain roads whose hairpin bends require pinpoint precision when navigating. Sitting on the sides of mountains, villages are propped up on stilts, many of them precariously positioned over deep gorges, cobalt waters shimmering below.

Ochiai village, surrounded by forest and peaks, calls to those with a sense of adventure and a penchant for isolation. Something that describes me down to a tee. Japanese mountain scenery is the landscape of which my dreams are made and somewhere that I yearn to go back to whenever I stray too far. Ochiai’s houses appear to cling to the mountains, their manicured thatched roofs seemingly pop against the wildness of the forest behind them and it’s here I chose as a base for two nights for my Iya Valley exploration.

Tougenkyo-Iya, a collection of beautifully renovated minka farmhouses in Ochiai, is a quiet countryside retreat providing an elegant setting to enjoy the great outdoors of Iya. Staying in the Udoku house, I was hit by how light and spacious the place was. Floor to ceiling windows in the living room offered majestic mountain views and the open thatch of the ceiling was mesmerising to gaze upon. The interiors mirrored the surrounding countryside; dark wood floors, original farmhouse doors and Japanese sliding paper shutters (shoji), came together to create a stay that is nourishing for the soul.

The house had all the modern amenities you’d expect of a luxury stay; underfloor heating, locally roasted drip coffee and comfy furniture. Japanese futon are stored away for you to put out at your leisure in the evenings (but beware, they are slightly thin and the pillows rock solid, so not conducive to the best night’s sleep, but the rest of the stay was so good that it can just about be forgiven). Udoku has a separate bathhouse, set out to mimic that of an onsen, with a giant tub and wall of showers, each one warm and powerful and perfect to wash away the day’s aches and pains from hiking the neighboring braes.

There’s the option of having a locally-made dinner brought to you during your stay. An option I’d highly recommend. Locally-produced soba noodles, onigiri, pickles and a plethora of seasonal sides and barley soup appear in cute little bento boxes, the unwrapping of which stirs the same kind of excitement that my Christmas stocking always brings. Only this is edible, so really it’s much more enjoyable.

The morning after a night in the wilds awakens the intrepid explorer inside and so calls for investigating the various activities and sights that the area has to offer. By far the most famous in the area are the ancient vine bridges of Iya. Cutting across river gorges, Iya used to be filled with these beautiful woven bridges, but now only three remain. The Iya Kazurabashi attract visitors who are brave enough to take on the somewhat uneven (and slightly unnerving) slats that form the bridge. Like something from a fairytale, the remaining bridges can often be busy with tourists but their natural charm and glimpse into the history of the area (they were thought to have been constructed in the 10th century when vines provided an easy-to-cut escape route from warring clans) are definitely worth a trip.

The most well-known of the three bridges (Iya no Kazurabashi) has at one end a small café whose owner keeps bees and makes the most wonderful honey cakes – the perfect accompaniment to the café’s lush river views. After devouring the sweet treats on offer, there’s the chance to feed the local fauna; a tiny yellow bird who is far from afraid of fighting for a sunflower seed or two from clenched fingers.

Another of Iya’s famous sights is the statue of the peeing boy. Yes, really. At the end of a 200m high gorge, a vertiginous succession of green crests carved by the river below form the backdrop for this almost insignificant statue. So small in size, it’s a wonder why it was put there in the first place. Apparently though, a symbol of innocent courage, the statue of a peeing boy seems to grow once the reasoning behind it is discovered.

This stunning scenery is also home to the Iya Valley Hotel. Mere meters from the Peeing Boy, the hotel is famed for its remote onsen at the bottom of the gorge over which the boy looks, only accessible by cable car. Sexes separated, as is the norm in Japan, there are two baths that switch daily between male and female bathers. Bathing nude is a pre-requisite, as it is in any onsen, but any shyness is soon washed away with the relaxing waters of the hot spring. Warm enough to while away an hour or so in serene settings overlooking the river below, the waters here are cooler than any other onsen I’ve visited in Japan. Fed continuously via freshwater spring means a fresher temperature and no need to wash before entering.

From one stunning gorge to another, Oboke, an ancient landscape carved from the bedrock by the power of the river, the azure waters are the ideal setting for a boat ride down the rapids for a different perspective on the beauty of the Iya Valley. Two options, one for the thrill-seekers and the other for the laid-back lovers, there’s rafting or a pleasure boat cruise. I opted for the cruise as it was a chilly day and my trainers were no more than a millimetre of material covering my toes, a part of my body that I was sure had frostbite even at the end of the ‘dry’ option. I soon forgot about my frozen toes with epic gorge views and the calming sounds of the river running along the rocks.

It’s no understatement to say that Iya Valley is a trip of a lifetime. Bringing about the swift realisation that Japan is so much more than the sprawling metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka, and even the ancient temples of Kyoto, it is, overwhelmingly, endless nature. Rugged mountain landscapes thick with virgin forest, Iya is a part of Japan where I left a piece of my heart. I’m sure I’ll be back, but as an archipelago with over 6,500 islands, each offering something new to experience, I’ll leave the Iya exploration to you for now.

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