The Iya Valley, located in western Tokushima prefecture had been on our Japan bucket list for a long time and it did not disappoint! Located in a steep mountainous valley and only accessible by narrow, winding roads, it is said to be one of the most secluded and remote areas in Japan.
It became home to the Heike clan 900 years ago after they lost the Gempei war (1180-1185) and some descendents of the clan still reside in the area.
We recommend having a vehicle to explore the region but there is public transport available for those who don’t drive or have access to a vehicle.
We spent 3 incredible days exploring The Iya Valley in our camper van and will share our favourite experiences below.
1. Koboke Gorge & Oboke Gorge
At the entrance to the Iya Valley region when arriving from Kagawa, the Koboke Gorge and the Oboke Gorge are two narrow neighbouring gorges found along the Yoshino river.
There is not much parking available on the road alongside the river so the best place to stop and take a look is at one of the two roadside stations. There are also boat trips available along the river if you are interested to take a closer look at the gorges.
2. Iya-no-kazura Bashi
Before access to modern day building materials, inhabitants of the Iya Valley made suspension bridges using tree vines in order to move people and goods throughout the region. There is also a rumour that members of the Hieke clan made bridges with vines in order to easily cut the bridges down and restrict access to the valleys in case of an attack.
There were once 13 bridges in the valley but today only 3 remain with the largest and most famous bridge being Iya-no-kazura bashi. Spanning 45m and suspended 15m above the river, the bridge can only be crossed in one direction due to safety reasons. The bridge is rebuilt every 3 years and has metal cables hidden within the vines to meet modern day safety standards.
After paying ¥550 to cross the bridge, you can also take a nice walk to a nearby waterfall. The bridge is probably the most popular spot in the Iya Valley so if you would prefer to avoid the crowds, head there around the time it opens at 7am!
We made a video about the bridge, check it out below!
Located on the side of a steep valley, the Hotel Iya Onsen is home to one of the most spectacular onsens in Japan. Before going to the Iya Valley, we had seen a photograph of this beautiful onsen on Instagram and knew we had to visit!
Although most people using the onsen are hotel guests, it is possible to pay for day access to the onsen for a ¥1700 fee. Once you enter the hotel you need to take a 5-minute cable car down the side of the mountain. In the 1980s, there was a period of 2 years where there was no cable car and hotel guests were required to hike 30 minutes down the mountain if they wanted to use the river-side onsen.
There are two separate onsens for male and female which alternate each day and a private onsen is also available if you would prefer to bathe without strangers. There is no showering facility here since the water is constantly changing and shampoo and soap are prohibited. Once you take the cable car back up the mountain, you can use the showers and changing facilities inside the hotel.
4. Ochai Village
Ochai Village, otherwise known as the steepest village in Japan, is a picturesque village of traditional Japanese houses located on the side of a mountain located east of The Iya Valley. Rather than driving through the village itself, you can head up the hill on the opposite side of the village to a wonderful viewpoint which provides panoramic views of the valley and the village.
5. The Peeing Boy
Near the Iya Onsen Hotel, on the windy road which meanders through the valley, you can find a small statue of a peeing boy which resembles the famous “manneken piss” statue found in Brussels, Belgium.
It’s said that many years ago, travellers and locals would climb up this mountain and would display their bravery by peeing at such a height. The statue was erected to deter youngsters from engaging in this dangerous act and has come to symbolise courage in local folklore.
6. Nagaro Scarecrow Village
All over Japan, the populations in rural communities are slowly declining, sometimes to the point where entire villages are completely abandoned. Nagaro, located in the west of the Iya Valley, has gained international fame in recent years for it’s collection of 160 handmade dolls which are on display around the town.
Tsukimi Ayano started making dolls when she returned to her hometown to take care of her elderly father after living in Osaka for many years. When she lived in the town as a child, the population of the town was 300 but now only around 20 residents remain with most former residents having died or moved away.
Each doll has its own unique characteristics and some are based on former residents of the town such as a man who liked to drink sake and tell stories or the man who regularly waited at the bus stop.
The town is known to produce mixed reactions in people when they visit and for us it was a feeling of sadness because we could imagine how busy and lively this town used to be back in its heyday.
7. Hiking Mt Tsurugi
Mount Tsurugi, sitting at 1955m, is the second highest peak in western Japan and one of the 100 famous Japanese mountains. It’s a popular hiking route and its name, which translates as “sword” in Japanese, was given because the summit resembles the edge of a sword.
The hike is not too strenuous since the elevation gain from the car park is only around 560m. It is possible to reach the summit in around an hour and a half.
From April to November, there is also a chairlift operating from the carpark which will drop you off 30 minutes from the summit. At the top of the mountain, there are boardwalks and benches where you can enjoy the fabulous views before heading back down again. During the winter months, snow shoes are recommended since there can be snowfall near the summit.