One of Japan's Three Hidden Valleys, Iya is home to dramatic mountain scenery, traditional thatched roof homes, and historic vine bridges. Supposedly a hiding place for the fleeing samurai of the defeated Heike clan from centuries past, the isolation of the Iya valley has a rich history of being a waypoint for wanderers and a place one could go to be away from it all. The valley was somewhat raised into the Japanese and Western consciousness by outspoken Japanese-culture conservationist Alex Kerr. His book Lost Japan (ISBN 0864423705) presented an idyllic picture of a misty valley stuck in a time warp to days gone by.
The Iya Valley offers a different facet of otherwise urban Japan and is a welcomed reprieve for visitors due to its fresh natural environment, slow country lifestyle, and friendly welcoming inhabitants. Simply put, Iya offers the roots of Japan. If merely listening to the grumbles of Kerr, someone may be inclined to think that Iya (like everywhere else) has been devoured by what he calls the Moloch (aesthetically challenged over-development) since his first encounter here in the early 1970's, but the reality is that most of the valley still remain remote, unspoiled, and traditional. One could say that the lifestyle and environment still maintained are about as far from Tokyo's Shinjuku as one could get yet still remain in the same country. And while sections of the rivers have been replaced by the usual concrete channels to prevent landslides, the single-lane road widened (in parts) to accommodate dual-direction traffic, and some mountainsides covered by uniform cedar for logging, the Iya Gorge section at the start of the valley remains unmarred by development, the overall natural splendor of the valley proves to be a great escape while soaking in the bounty of its hotsprings, the tall peaks offer some of the finest hiking in Shikoku, and many of the less-visited mountainside hamlets offer glimpses into a past way of life that somehow still clings on here even though it has utterly vanished elsewhere in Japan.
The valley is divided into halves (which together can take about 2 to 2.5 hours by car to traverse completely): the more visited and (slightly) more developed Nishi-Iya (西祖谷 West Iya); and the more remote Higashi-Iya (東祖谷 East Iya ), which is also known as Oku-Iya (奥祖谷). There are small settlements going up the mountain sides (some of them abandoned) along the main road that connect the two halves. The 'downtown' section of central Nishi-Iya is the most condensed, and the largest districts on the eastern side (Higashi-Iya) are the town center of Kyojo (京上) and the far off hamlet of Mi-no-Koshi (見ノ越) out near Mt. Tsurugi and the intersection of three main roads. The historic hamlet of Ochiai (落合) in the eastern part of Higashi-Iya is of significance as it was registered as an important national preservation district due to its collection of traditional homes, terraced farm plots, and ancient walking paths.
For anyone coming to the valley, it is highly recommended to get one of the detailed free tourist maps available at any tourist point when entering or within the Iya valley (train stations, restaurants, tourist offices, hotels, etc.). Printed by the local government and available in either Japanese or English, this is not your typical hand-drawn, cartoon-ish, and wildly out-of-scale tourist map so often found in Japan (see below on the right), but a rather accurate road map with clear explanations for points of interest, trail-heads, and other less known landmarks.
Money and Communications
The only banks in the Iya valley are through the Japan Post (JP) bank. There are three JP banks in Iya, which also serve as the post offices, located in central Nishi Iya (at corner of 'old' Rout 32 and Route 45), in the Kyojo area of central Higashi Iya (at the town office building) and a small JP branch office in Ochiai (on the main road). The counters hold regular office hours (Mon-Fri, 9-5pm) but do not do international currency exchange. The ATMs are available 9am to 6pm on weekdays and till 5pm Saturday and 2pm Sundays/holidays. Foreign bank cards are accepted at the ATMs. There are no other ATMs in Iya, nor is there anywhere to exchange cash. The closest currency exchange would be in the major cities (Kochi, Takamatsu, etc) and the closest 24hour ATM would be at the 7/11 in the WestWest rest stop in Koboke.
Most larger hotels accept credit cards, however just about anywhere else does not. So be sure to have yen available.
Practically all inhabited areas in the valley are covered by good cell phone service, however many mountain trails and peaks will have limited or no reception. Pay phones (coin and card) are scattered here and there, usually in the more condensed areas. There are no internet cafes nor library with computers available, and few hotels (if any) offer computers to use. WiFi is sometimes available for use in bigger hotels, and the town has made a push in recent years to start introducing free WiFi hot-spots in common tourist areas.
Getting in no longer requires a week of hiking along misty mountain trails, but it certainly remains a bit more difficult than most Japanese destinations.
There are four airports on Shikoku Island, and the central location of the Iya valley makes all of them viable options if you intend to include other sights in Shikoku. Cars can be rented at any airport.
The closest airport to the Iya valley would be Kochi Airport (total 1.5 hours to Oboke via airport shuttle bus with express train) though the flight options are limited (mainly just Osaka and Tokyo).
Takamatsu Airport has more flight options, including international routes, and is about 2 hours away by shuttle bus and train to Oboke.
Tokushima Airport, though in the same prefecture as the Iya Valley, is actually fairly far and has only a limited amount of flight destinations. Expect 2.5 to 3 hours by bus/train combo.
And Matsuyama Airport has the most flight options, both domestic and international, but is the farthest of the bunch. Plan on at least 3 hours by public transport or a bit faster if driving and taking the highways.
For real international connections, Kansai Airport near Osaka is the way to go. Buses go from central Osaka to Awa-Ikeda station several times a day (4 hours).
The nearest train station to the main sights of the Iya Valley is at Oboke, which is along the JR Dosan Line between Kochi and Takamatsu. There are several local trains to Oboke throughout the day, and hourly express trains from either Kochi city or from Awa-Ikeda (connecting to Okayama/Takamatsu or Tokushima city.) The hourly Nanpu which runs from Okayama stops here (1 3/4 hours, ¥4410).
From Oboke you can connect to a bus up the mountain and through a tunnel into Nishi-Iya, but services are infrequent: there are up to eight buses per day on weekends only in the high season (April-Nov), and as few as four per day the rest of the time. Taxis from the station can also be arranged but prices are not cheap since the drives to points in the valley can be far.
For those looking to enter into the lower reaches of the valley (Iya Gorge, Matsuogawa Onsen, Iya-Kei Camp Village) one can instead get off at Iyaguchi Station (祖谷口駅) for more direct access, and hitch a ride or take one of the few daily buses that pass through the lower valley from here.
There are 7 direct buses daily from Ikeda's Awa Ikeda Bus Terminal (阿波池田ＢT), which pass by JR Ikeda Station and travel to Nishi-Iya either via Oboke (4 daily) or via Iyaguchi and Iya Onsen (3 daily). See Yonkoh for a timetable, in Japanese only; select "祖谷線" (the Iya Valley line) and then look for Awa Ikeda (阿波池田ＢT) or Ikeda (池田駅前) departure times. Half the buses terminate at Kazurabashi (かずら橋) in Nishi-Iya and the rest end at Kubo (久保) in Higashi-Iya.
From Kubo, there is a connecting service via the Oku-Iya Kazurabashi (奥祖谷かずら橋) to Mi-no-Koshi (見の越) at the base of Mt. Tsurugi. This service runs twice daily during weekends, holidays, and certain vacation periods and does not run in winter. Go to this site (Japanese only) for more information including exact times and dates.
A similar but even more restricted service is provided when coming from the north. Normally, the buses from JR Sadamitsu Station (貞光駅) do not run all the way towards the Iya Valley, but on weekends and holidays during summer there seems to be a connecting service (3 daily) to Mi-no-Koshi at the trail head of Mt. Tsurugi. See this site (Japanese only for more information. At other times, if you are heading to Mt. Tsurugi (剣山) from Sadamitsu (貞光), the regular (non-holiday/weekend) bus service along Route 438 goes only as far as the lower base of the mountain, and is a long way up. Coming from Mi-no-Koshi (見ノ越), figure on a four hour walk down the mountain to the bus stop there.
Having a car for touring the Iya valley is probably the best for flexibility and convenience due to limited public transport. See "Get around" for some rental options.
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 Higashi-Iya if your destination is Mi-no-Koshi (for Mt. Tsurugi), and offer the fastest route if arriving from Tokushima and Kansai. Along the way, try some delicious hand-made udon noodles (手打ちうどん) at the restaurant beside the river. Note that traffic is very light, especially on weekdays, and the roads are quite narrow and twisty.
If coming via Ikeda or Kochi, (or if from Tokushima/Kansai and you are not planning to first go to Mi-no-Koshi/Mt. Tsurugi), then the fastest option is drive north/south along Route 32 to enter the valley via Oboke along Route 45. In central Nishi-Iya Route 45 has a junction near the gas station with 'old' Route 32 (yes, the numbers are the same, but the roads are different), allowing one to turn left for the Iya gorge and Iya Onsen, or turn right for the Kazurabashi and Higashi Iya (Kyojo, Ochiai, Oku-Iya, Mt.Tsurugi).
It is also possible to drive the entire length of the Iya valley from Iyaguchi along 'old' Route 32 (turn off main Route 32 to follow the signs for Deai). This road is not for the faint of heart, as it is mostly one lane, very twisty, and often on the side of steep cliffs, though the scenery is breathtaking and the gorge here is almost completely undeveloped. Until a generation ago, this was the main way into the valley. About half-way you can also stop at the famous Peeing Boy statue, or ride down to the bottom via cable car for a riverside bath at the Iya Onsen.
For travelers from Kochi, it is not necessarily advised to take Route 439 from Otoyo, as the road is very twisty and goes over a mountain pass, which all together can take 30 minutes to an hour longer to get destinations in the valley (though the views are indeed quite pleasant).
In the valley itself, public transportation is limited to a few buses a day. Car rental or hitchhiking is probably the fastest way of getting around, but hitchhikers beware: at times the main road may see only a handful cars per hour on a weekday. However the locals are friendly enough (expect little to no English) and are inclined to pick up a hitcher when they occasionally appear. If asked, some hotels offer transportation services.
By public transport
Although options are limited, going deep in the valley is possible by only bus. The information center outside Awa-Ikeda Train Station has some excellent English brochures including one on exploration by public transport. A summary of the recomended routes (notes Bus 1 refers to bus to Kazurabashi (West Vine Bridge) via Deai [3x day], Bus 2 refers to bus to Kubo via Oboke [4x day, +4x on weekends/public holidays from Obokekyo to Kazurabashi only], Bus 3 refers to bus from Kubo to Mt. Tsurugi [2x day]):
For latest bus timetables for bus 1 and 2 look at  (in Japanese but google translate works well enough)
By rental car
Car rental is available in Ikeda at the Awa-Ikeda train station. Ask at the tourist office just outside for information on rentals. Descent English is spoken by staff here.
For online bookings with larger agencies, one would have to go to the airports or major cities on Shikoku. One unique and flexible option is Budget Rent-a-Car's Shikoku Pilgrimage Passport (四国巡礼パスポート) allowing 9, 12, and 15-day rental plans where you can either use all the days at once, or split the rental days into various trips within a one year period. Better still, with this plan cars can be picked up and dropped off at any Budget office in Shikoku or Okayama (on Honshu) for no additional cost. Nine day plans start at 37,800yen for a small car. Though Budget Japan's website offers English service, the page for this option is in Japanese only, so for English it would be better to call and reserve by phone.
It is also possible to join the Tour de Nishi Awa, which is a large bicycle ralley held every spring that traverses different sections of the Iya Valley and its mountain passes. http://tour-de-nishiawa.com/index.html (Their webpage has plenty of photos and videos showing what kind of road conditions to expect).
Distances are far in the Iya valley, so it may be best to try your luck at hitchhiking along the main road. As there are practically no sidewalks, be careful of vehicles barreling around turns. There are plenty of footpaths both through the hamlets and up into the mountains so one does not need to walk only on main roads. Most hamlet paths are for open pubic use even though many seem to go through people's property. Be sure to use courtesy if walking along a path close to someone's house, and only photograph people and homes with permission. As the roads up mountains are steep, there are many switchbacks and sharp curves, but these often have shortcut footpaths that bisect the hair-pin turns.
Single-day or multi-day ridge-line hikes are rewarding, allowing one to begin/end in different areas, though accessing and exiting trail heads can be tricky due to limited public transportation. (see Do for details.)
Though the Iya Valley is located in southern Japan, the temperature can be significantly lower than the rest of Shikoku, especially as one gains elevation.
Spring comes later to Iya than to the rest of Shikoku, but the clear air allows for long views. Daytimes can get pleasantly warm, allowing for great hiking weather, but the temperature drops considerably in the evenings, with freezing temperatures not uncommon overnight into early May on higher mountain tops. Trees begin to sprout leaves by mid April in most parts, but Mt. Tsurugi won't gain leaves till a month or so later. Rain is somewhat infrequent in the spring, but by early June the rainy season will begin.
The lower reaches near Iyaguchi can have almost the same hot, heavy humidity in the summer as anywhere else, but by the time one gets to Nishi Iya (and more so in Higashi-Iya) the air becomes noticeably more pleasant and less thick/humid during the daytime, allowing for a welcomed escape from just about anywhere in Shikoku. Evenings are often markedly different in the summer from the coastal cities in the region, as the forests and mountain breezes drop the temperature, making one enjoy being outside and offering great sleeping weather. A light jacket may even be needed if camping. June and early July are often rainy (though the moisture can bring fantastic fog formations that whisk up from the bottom of the valley), and the increased humidity through the season sometimes limit the extent of mountain top views. Mid-July and August have only sporadic rain, but by the end of the summer and early autumn the chance of a typhoon hitting increases, which can wreck havoc in the valley. Landslides are not uncommon during downpours, winds are ferocious, and hiking can be very dangerous in forests due to falling trees. If a typhoon is coming, its time to buckle down in a safe place and wait for it to pass.
The air clears up nicely as the leaves begin to change (though typhoons still occur, see above), allowing for long views through the valley. Leaves in the upper reaches near Mt. Tsurugi start to change around early-October, and the majority of the valley is in full splendor through much of November. This is a popular time to visit, and the weekends and public holidays then bring an increased number of visitors to the valley. On the mountain tops, snow will begin to fall as early as the beginning of November.
Winters in Iya are cold. From central Nishi-Iya upwards snow can occur anytime from December to March, making roads difficult to drive on for those inexperienced in snow. In the central valley (Nishi-Iya area up towards Kyojo) the snow is usually not so heavy and melts within a day or two. As one gets farther east moving past Kyojo and/or up into the hamlets along the valley sides, the amount of snow will increase noticeably during and just after storms. By Nagaro and the Oku-Iya double vine bridges the the snow will linger through most of the winter, with the mountain tops (above 1200m) continually blanketed through the season. Most roads are not plowed, including the main road, so be ready to drive on snow if a storm has just occurred. The roads to Mt. Tsurugi are usually passable, and hikers will still blaze a trail to the summit and other popular mountain tops year-round. Most campgrounds close for the winter, and some facilities in the Oku-Iya area (including practically everything in Mi-no-Koshi) close for the season as well. Check ahead for time tables.
Vine bridges (Kazurabashi)
Iya's best-known attractions are the precarious-looking vine bridges (かずら橋 kazurabashi), which used to be the only way to cross the river.
The lower area at the mouth of the Iya Valley between Iyaguchi and central Nishi-Iya is mostly undeveloped and simply stunning. A twisty, mostly one-laned road meanders through this section ('old' Route 32), and allows for sweeping vista views and a Mario-Cart driving experience. From Iyaguchi the road snakes closer to the river, then after the tiny hamlet of Deai (turn here for Matsuogawa Onsen) you begin to ascend the valley wall. After a few more minutes you will pass the entrance to the Iya-Kei Camp Village, then it starts to get steadily higher and more intense. Panoramic view points are here and there, and when the autumn leaves are changing it is quite spectacular. Stop by the precariously perched Peeing Boy statue for a near vertical view of the turquoise waters a couple hundred meters below, and pass by the middle-of-nowhere Iya Onsen before heading into the central part of Nishi-Iya. Expect about an hour with viewpoint stops when driving from Iyaguchi to central Nishi-Iya. Three of the daily public buses also take this route (Awa-Ikeda Bus Terminal to Kazurabashi route via Deai).
Registered as a national historic preservation district in 2005, Ochiai's collection of traditional farmhouses dates back to the middle Edo era. Climbing up the side of a mountain, the hamlet is a weave of stone footpaths, terraced farm plots growing the famed Iya soba (buckwheat) and Iya potatoes, and welcoming local residents who are proud to show off their heritage and lifestyle. In recent years an effort has been made to restore the buildings here and several of these thatched-roof homes are now available to stay in overnight for a fee with Tougenkyo-Iya. On the opposite mountainside across the valley, a viewpoint has been built (equip with sparkling new public toilets) where one can take in the whole view of Ochiai. This can be accessed by road or hiked.
Scarecrow Village (aka Valley of the Dolls)
This is one of the more extreme oddities of Japan, and a reflection of the realities of rural life in the country. Local artist Ayano Tsukimi, who was born and raised in Higashi-Iya, moved back to her house in the early 2000s after years away, only to see her once active hamlet nearly deserted, as is the case with many country-side towns. She began making life-sized dolls on a fluke to help "re-populate" her neighborhood, but it has now become her life's obsession. One can see examples of her dolls throughout the whole valley at tourist spots here and there, but for the full blown mind-bending experience one needs to head out to the remote hamlet of Nagaro along the main road on the way to the Oku-Iya double vine bridges and Mi-no-Koshi. Here one can see her extensive work of hundreds of humanoid dolls which at first glance may be mistaken for actual people as they are waiting at bus stops, working in fields, and even attending the now defunct elementary school.
Hiking in the valley, especially the eastern end, is quite popular and there are many trails of various lengths mapped out.
Oku-Iya Monorail Billed as the world's longest monorail of this type, the small cars putter steeply up the mountainside and through the dense forest for a 60 minute loop of sorts. It could be good option for families with small children or the disabled who want to experience the mountain scenery yet are unable to hike, but not necessarily a super thrilling experience. Bring a beer or three for a more enjoyable ride. Leaves on request from the Iyashi-no-Onsenkyo Hotel.
Tsuzuki's Soba Atelier (古式そば打ち体験 都築) +81 0883-88-5625 www.iyjiman.com (in central Higashi Iya, across the river from the Kyojo Tunnel) Learn how to make the famous Iya soba noodles yourself, from grinding the buckwheat by hand in a stone mortar, to rolling out and chopping the noodles, and then chow down on what you've made. Also be entertained as Ms. Tsuzuki sings a traditional soba-making ballad, and be overwhelmed with the hospitality. Two-hour classes are ¥3000 per person, and include more soba than you could ever eat.
Yama Yoga www.yamayoga.weebly.com The energetic English speaking instructor offers a variety of scheduled classes both at the picturesque main studio (located at the Ryugugake Cottages in Higashi Iya, non-guests are welcome to attend without reservations), as well as private lessons at other accommodations in the valley. A unique option is to reserve a "True Yama Yoga Experience" ('yama' means 'mountain' in Japanese) where you can go with the instructor and a local guide on various mountain hikes and do yoga within some of Iya's beathtaking scenery.
White Water Rafting Some of the best rafting in Japan is located just outside the mouth of the Iya Valley, and can easily be included with any trip to the valley (about 15 minutes from central Nishi Iya). See the Oboke and Koboke page for details
Iya doesn't have even a single chain convenience store (one of the only places in Japan?), but there are some mom-and-pop type grocery shops throughout the valley, and quite a few more souvenir shops (particularly near the main vine bridge in Nishi-Iya). It's best to bring along anything even remotely exotic. You can get good supplies of groceries from Boke-Mart, the local grocery by the station at Oboke, but selection would be better at the full sized supermarket in Ikeda near the bus station.
For those looking for camping supplies, there is a well equip Mont Bell outdoor store at the WestWest rest stop in Koboke, and the home center (hardware store) in Ikeda near the main bus station has some camping gear.
Nishi-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 500 yen a pop, sold by little stands here and there by the vine bridge, or opt for a skewer with the dense local tofu, even denser local konyaku, and the even denser still local potatoes at about ¥300 each.
Many places advertise Iya soba noodles, made with buckwheat grown in the valley, but if you've ever been to another mountain in Japan you'll recognize the topping as the same sansai mountain vegetables served everywhere else. With luck, you'll stumble upon a local place that pickles their own sansai, which grow in abundance here but require effort to cure.
And only available in Iya, hirarayaki is a dish made from many of the local specialties such as tofu, potatoes, konyaku, and amego trout. Traditionally cooked on a large flat rock and heated by fire below, more commonly it is cooked on an iron griddle where thick walls of miso paste encircle a mixture of sake and miso, such that it cooks the ingredients like a stew. However, finding this on offer can be a challenge as its usually only for special occasions, but it is available at the Oku-Iya Hotel.
Also, food and snacks can be found at Fureai Center and Michi-no-Eki in Nishi-Iya (see: "Buy"), both near the Hikkyo-no-Yu Hotel close to the central district.
If you want nightlife, you are completely in the wrong place! But a beer vending machine is available till about 11pm on the corner opposite the Higashi-Iya town hall in Kyojo.
If hiking, it is not advised to camp in unmarked spots nor should tents be pitched along trails. Some may wish to do some commando-style camping secretly out of sight, but this is not recommended and one would be scolded severely and forced to move if caught. Japanese hikers often rise very early to see the sunrise from peaks (note to those sharing the free mountain huts), so it would be hard to ensure that one could get away with such camping. However, if one doesn't mind being exposed to the elements, just rolling out your sleeping bag and maybe covering it with a waterproof cover (a bivouac, not a tent) then it is possible to crash out on a peak for the night and enjoy the stars. Japanese hikers may find exception to this minimalist option, though one should be ready to get up if people arrive at sunrise. But be warned, summits get chilly overnight and/or freezing for much of the year, winds can be constant even on clear nights, and storms sometimes move in quick.
There are a number of simple minshukus in Nishi-Iya by the vine bridge, in Higashi-Iya at Kyojo, and in Mi-no-Koshi. The basic bed-only sudomari (素泊まり) rate starts at around ¥3500 per person, higher with dinner and/or breakfast.