The Iya Valley in Tokushima is a dramatic gorge carved by the Iya River, which rises on Mt. Tsurugi, and meanders for fifty-four kilometres before joining the Yoshino River. Members of the Taira clan and the boy-emperor Antoku took refuge in this remote valley after losing the Genpei War to the Minamoto clan in the late 12th century, and their ancestors still reside here.
Mt. Tsurugi, the second-highest mountain on Shikoku, is at the east end of the Iya Valley known as Oku-Iya, “Deep Iya”. The sword of Emperor Antoku is said to be buried on the mountain like a Japanese Excalibur—the mountain’s name means “sword”. There’s also a legend that the Ark of the Covenant is buried here, protected by an enormous snake, and excavations conducted but abandoned early last century are said to have unearthed tunnels and even perhaps a mummy. Mt. Tsurugi is the only place in Shikoku where bears are known to live, although they’re seldom seen. There’s a convenient chairlift up the mountain, making mountain-top hiking easy and pleasant in the warmer months. If you’re going to Mt. Tsurugi, don’t miss the beautiful Tsurugi Shrine.
Three suspension bridges made of vines span the Iya River in two locations. These were originally built by the Taira clan (also called ‘the Heike’), the idea being that they could easily be cut down if their enemies, the Minamoto, tried to cross them. Today, the bridges are made of steel wrapped in vines, which need to be replaced every few years. There are several other places with dramatic, modern wire suspension bridges over deep gorges, which most visitors never get to see.
Other attractions of the Iya Valley include a statue of boy bravely urinating from a rock projecting above the horrible abyss (the Peeing Boy Statue), and a dramatic bend in the river that resembles the hiragana character for ‘hi’ (the Hi no Ji Bend). Then there are traditional old buildings associated with the Heike survivors and various museums dedicated to their heritage.
Nagoro in Oku-Iya, the Village of the Dolls, is now famous for its lifelike scarecrows which are replacing the declining human population. Even more freaky are the legendary monsters that inhabit the valley, devised in olden times to frighten travelers away from real natural hazards. You can encounter vivid and entertaining representations of these monsters in the valley today.
The Iya Valley and its environs offers a wealth of outdoor adventure too. You can raft the white water of the Yoshino River, canyon and canoe down hidden streams and waterfalls, hike major mountains and remote villages, and walk through a pathway of rope bridges suspended high in the forest and zipline over the Iya River.
Traditional life in the valley was supported for thousands of years by crafts such as basketry and indigo dyeing. You can try your hand at these crafts, as well as culinary arts like making soba noodles from scratch, from soba grains.
Accommodation in Iya varies from luxurious ryokan with rotenburo outdoor baths accessed by funicular railway, to cosy kominka farmhouses where the resident family cooks wonderful meals for you and shows you the life of the valley first-hand.
Since rice can’t be grown on the steep hillsides of Iya and its surrounding region, a unique, sustainable form of organic agriculture was developed using wild grass as mulch. In place of rice, various grains and tubers are grown, and they still form a delicious part of the local diet. Sweet river fish, and wild meats such as venison and boar are also on the menu.
This is a vast area and the various attractions are spaced far apart along steep, winding, narrow roads. Plenty of time is required to enjoy everything that this unique region has to offer in each season. Shikoku Tours offers a range of tours enabling you to experience both the slow life of Iya and the adventure of this natural treasure.
Name in Japanese: 祖谷渓谷
Pronunciation: iya keikoku
Address: Nishiiyayamamura Tanouchi, Miyoshi, Tokushima Prefecture 778-0101