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 And while sections of the rivers have been replaced by the usual concrete channels to prevent landslides, the single-lane road widened (in parts) to accommodate dual-direction traffic, and some mountainsides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 Deep Iya). There are dozens of small settlements going up the mountain sides (some of them abandoned) along the main road that connects the two halves. In the western half, the 'downtown' section of central Nishi-Iya is the most condensed as well as the tourist area around the Kazurabashi. The largest district on the eastern side (Higashi-Iya) is the town center of Kyojo (京上) where many of the town's facilities are located. 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. The far off hamlet of Mi-no-Koshi (見ノ越) at the base of Mt. Tsurugi and the intersection of three main roads is popular with hikers but has only basic facilities.
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, 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 several buses daily from Ikeda's Awa Ikeda Bus Terminal (阿波池田ＢT), which pass by JR Ikeda Station (one minute away) and travel to the Iya valley in various ways. Some terminate in Deai (Iya Gorge area), some terminate in Nishi-Iya at the Kazurabashi (かずら橋), and a few continue all the way into Higashi-Iya and terminate in Kubo (久保). If you wish to enter via the Iya Gorge, be sure to take a bus that goes via Deai and continues to Nishi-Iya. There are also four buses on weekends/holidays only (Apr-Nov) that travel between JR Oboke Station and the Kazurabashi only. For a complete timetable, 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.
Bus times into the Iya Valley's main points are as follows:
From Kyojo and/or Kubo, there is a connecting service on a separate bus deeper into the valley in Higashi-Iya (to Nagaro, the vine bridges of Oku-Iya Kazurabashi (奥祖谷かずら橋) and on to Mi-no-Koshi (見の越) at the base of Mt. Tsurugi). With this connection, buses to closer points travel daily, while the deepest spots are on weekends or holiday periods only. See Get around below for more information on this service.
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. It is very much worth the cost of rental, and it may even be cheaper than using a bus if more than one person is traveling. 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 (Kyobashira-toge), which all together can take 30 minutes to an hour longer to get destinations in the valley (though the views are indeed quite pleasant).
Parking is free nearly everywhere in the Iya Valley with the single exception being the main Kazurabashi (vine bridge) in Nishi Iya. The large parking complex charges 300yen.
In the valley itself, public transportation is limited to a few buses a day, particularly in Higashi Iya. If using only a bus you will require much more time than if traveling by car, and since buses can be several hours apart and only along the main road, you may be limited to the number of sights that can be seen in a day. And if finances are a concern, it should be noted that two people traveling by bus in/out/around the valley can easily accrue the same or more in bus ticket costs in a single day as would be the rate for a small car. That said, car rental or even hitchhiking are 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. There would be little if any security concerns. If asked, some hotels offer transportation services to/from JR Oboke station and some local sights.
By public transport
Although options are limited, going deep into the valley is possible by bus, but one must have both patience and an attention to making a realistic schedule. The information center outside JR Awa-Ikeda Train Station has some excellent English brochures including one on exploration by public transport.
For travel by bus within the Iya Valley, the lower reaches (Iya Gorge, Nishi-Iya, Kazurabashi) are serviced by buses to/from Ikeda or Oboke. See Get In for details on these services.
For travel deeper into the valley in Higashi-Iya, the few daily buses from Ikeda terminate in Kubo. But don't despair! It is possible to ride on the community bus (also serving as the school bus) to points deeper and occasionally as far as Minokoshi (Mt. Tsurugi base). Be sure to state your destination to the driver when getting on to be sure that it is the correct bus.
This Community Bus begins/ends in Kyojo and runs daily all year as far as Nagaro (Scarecrow Village). Between April and November some buses continue on to the Oku-Iya Kazurabashi and Minokoshi (on weekends and holiday periods only).
Note: *Buses to the Oku-Iya Kazurabashi run from April 1 to the end of November, and **buses to Minokoshi run from mid-April to the end of November. These buses are on Saturday, Sunday and national holidays only during this time. However, they do run daily during the Golden Week period (usually around April 25 to May 10), during the summer holiday period (usually around July 21 to August 31), and the autumn leaf viewing period (usually October 5 to November 6). But these dates are subject to change each year so be sure to check the official site for accurate listings. http://www.city-miyoshi.jp/docs/2013091900072/ (Japanese only, updated each March)
By rental car
To get the most out of your experience in the Iya Valley, it is highly recommended to have your own vehicle.
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.
To Coo! in an English language online rental service that works in accordance with many major car rental agencies and offers good discounts beyond what one my find from the actual agency websites. Car rental is available from the major Shikoku cities and airports, with prices starting about 4000-5000yen per day.
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.
The Kazurabashi Taxi Company ( tel: 0883-87-2013 [email protected] ) is based in Nishi-Iya and can provide service to/from Oboke Station or to/from other sights anywhere in the valley. Prices start at 4300yen per hour.for up to four people and 6500yen for up to nine people. They also offer tourist route courses, with a Nishi-Iya course starting at 7800yen (2.5 hours) and a Higashi-Iya course at 20,300yen (6 hours).
It is also possible to join the Tour de Nishi Awa, which is a large bicycle rally 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 public 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. There are two sets, a single bridge in Nishi-Iya and a double bridge in Higashi Iya.
The lower area at the mouth of the Iya Valley between Iyaguchi and central Nishi-Iya is mostly undeveloped and simply stunning, and it is known as Iya-kei (祖谷渓 Iya Gorge). 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), or for those looking for a hike, you can take a bus as far as Deai and walk along the winding one-lane road to Nishi-Iya in about 2 to 3 hours. See Get In for bus options.
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. Several of these thatched-roof homes have been beautifully restored and are now available to stay in overnight with Tougenkyo-Iya (See Sleep for details on staying in one of these traditional homes). 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 Nagoro 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. For information in staying at the mountain huts see details in the 'Budget' section of Sleep.
There are several options for day-use hot springs to soak away your troubles, mostly at the major hotels. Admission fees for non-guests usually run about ¥1000 (other prices noted). Soap/shampoo is provided, but bring your own towels. A quick run-down from lowest in the valley to the upper end near Mt. Tsurugi:
There are several festivals of various size held throughout the year.
Most local Shinto shrines host their own festivals for the surrounding neighborhood, usually once or twice a year according to their own traditions. In these events, local customs often call for a group of men to carry a small (70-150kg) portable shrine around the shrine grounds while accompanied with drummers, people in costume, and sometimes pairs of people throwing long bamboo staffs. Each shrine and neighborhood has its own customs (one or two even have the attendees engage in sumo wrestling), but unfortunately, due to an ever dwindling population, many of these traditions are being lost. (See "San-jo Jinja" under the Ochiai Hamlet section of See for more specific information)
The largest festivals in the valley are the summer festivals, one each in Nishi-Iya and Higashi-Iya. They are held at the middle-school grounds on the in the weeks before the national Obon Holiday (August 15) as this is a common time for family members who've moved away to return home for a visit. These events are open to anyone and include food tents, games, performances, and fireworks, so if visiting the area at this time, ask around or look for promotional posters. Usually the Nishi Iya festival is the first Sunday in August, and the Higashi Iya festival is on August 13.
The Heike Matsuri festival is held the final Sunday of October and celebrates the tradition of how the defeated Heike samurai came to the valley eight-hundred years ago in order to hide from the victors in the Genpei War. This is held at the Kazurabashi grounds in Nishi-Iya and includes various performances including a theatrical re-enactment of how the warriors arrived in the valley.
A Bunka Matsuri (Culture Festival) occurs throughout the valley during the month of October, and aside from including the Heike Matsuri, there are also several special events happening, mainly on weekends. These include a jazz concert/dinner in the Bukeyashiki samurai house (usually first or second Saturday night of October), a Scarecrow festival in Nagaro (mid-October), singing and puppet performances, and various shrine festivals. For info, check at tourist offices in town.
The Yukigassen (Snowball Fight Competition)  is held on the final weekend in January in Higashi Iya, and has become a major event at a time when few visit the valley. Not simply a free-for-all, this event is team-based and participants often practice for months to coordinate their skills in the tightly ruled sport. There are several classes of participation including children, women's, men's, and 'just for fun' leagues, and the winners of the main event get to advance to the national competition annually held in Nagano Prefecture. Team sign up takes place in the autumn and usually registration ends about Dec 1.
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 drop-in classes and private classes 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 one of the "Yama Yoga Experiences" ('yama' means 'mountain' in Japanese) where you can go out with the instructor to do yoga within some of Iya's breathtaking scenery, including hidden mountain houses, deep forest glens, and panoramic valley viewpoints.
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. Within the Iya Valley, Tani Shoten in central Higashi Iya is probably the best bet for buying groceries/drinks. (See the Grocery section under Eat for details on buying food in the valley.)
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.
Iya has a wide variety of locally produced foods.
The local tofu (known here as iwa-dofu or ishi-dofu and translates as "stone tofu") is unique in that it is so dense that it was traditionally carried around with a strap of rope. With a rich flavor and hearty mouth-feel, its unlike any other tofu in Japan. Most large hotels serve it with the course meals and some smaller places have it available as a side dish.
Iya potatoes are a traditional staple grown in the small terraced farm plots seen throughout the valley. The potatoes are small and dense due to the rocky terrain. And for the culinary aficionado, try the locally produced konyaku which is a rubbery gelatin produced with Japanese yams and attains its grey color by being mixed with the ash of burnt cedar tree branches.
Wild game in the form of deer meat and mountain boar has become more common in recent years due to a hunter's butchery being established in Higashi-Iya in 2014. It can be found in some places but may only be available at special request.
Nishi-Iya and Mi-no-Koshi have the usual range of rice and noodle joints for visitors, all a bit on the expensive side by Japanese standards. Try grilled amego (a local river fish) that are encrusted with salt at 500 yen a pop, sold by little stands here and there by the vine bridge. Or opt for a roasted skewer of dekomawashi which consists of the dense local tofu, even denser local konyaku, and the even denser still local potatoes and all slathered with miso paste at about ¥300 each.
Many places advertise the famed Iya soba noodles, made with buckwheat grown in the valley and renowned throughout Japan for its pure flavor. If you've ever been to another mountain in Japan you'll recognize the topping as the same sansai mountain vegetables served everywhere else, but 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 as well at some of the larger hotels in Nishi-Iya.
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.
Within walking distance around the Kazurabashi Vine Bridge are several restaurants, all only open during the daytime (no dinner), mainly serving Iya soba and local specialties (see above). Most look like they haven't been renovated since the mid-1970s, but this just adds to the step-back-in-time experience. However there is a newer soba restaurant inside the parking area's souvenir building if you are seeking a bit more shine, and near the entrance to the vine bridge is a unique restaurant/cafe in that it offers a menu with various treats and is actually without soba! (see below)
For those looking to buy food to prepare themselves, the closest real supermarket is located in Ikeda town. In Oboke a few dozen meters from the JR train station is Boke Mart and has possibly the biggest/best selection outside of Ikeda. Within the valley itself there are several mom-and-pop shops, with some that are so-so in their basic offerings and some that are indeed dismal.
In Nishi-Iya, some of the 'better' ones include one near the post office and another two on the main road near the Kazurabashi (do not take the straight road to Kazurabashi but instead turn left just after the Hotel Kazurabashi as if heading to Higashi Iya. They are located about 200-300 meters further along from here). The offerings are pretty limited. If looking for more than snacks, go back to Oboke or a little further up into Higashi Iya.
There are also shops in Kyojo (near the gas stand) and Ochiai (on the main road) but don't plan to prepare a seven course meal with what's on offer, as its mainly drinks and snacks.
Yoshida Tofu shop in Kyojo (on the small side street opposite the town office) makes and sells the valley's famed dense tofu.
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, while Yanamoto's in Kyojo also serves as an impromptu pub (see listing under "Eat"). The valley's only real drinking place is in Nishi Iya:
It is highly recommended that you make a reservation before arriving in Iya. Some places can fill up on busy weekends, while some smaller places may not be able to handle on-the-spot arrivals (often there is only a single staff on hand who may be unable to prepare a room without notice, and if no rooms are booked that night, there may even be no staff there at all).
Also, it is customary in Japan to state the time you plan to arrive when reserving (as in "about 4:00pm"), so if you foresee arriving later than planned, you should call to say when you will come, even if calling the same day as arrival. Not doing so can lead to problems, the worst of which would be that you are considered a no-show, and if no other guests are there, the staff may go home for the night, leaving you alone in the dark without a place to sleep.
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. But be sure to understand weather conditions of Iya before pitching your tent (see Climate at the top of this webpage). For finding camping supplies, see the Buy section.
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 several great options (including onsen) for those not looking for top-end luxury nor the price that comes with it. Whole cabins can be quite affordable (in most other parts of Japan the prices would qualify as 'Budget'), most offering kitchens which allow for self catering. On the other hand, those looking for a 'classic' experience can try one of the several simple minshukus in Nishi-Iya, Kyojo and 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. It also is worth checking the 'Splurge' section for accommodation as well, as several there offer rates of less than 10,000yen per person depending on what you're looking for.
Iya Gorge Area -At the bottom entrance of the valley, this area has an immediate sense of remoteness.
Central Valley Area (Nishi Iya / Kazurabashi) -Though in the center of the Iya Valley, the compact area around the popular Kazurabashi is comparably built up, with several classic style minshukus (the much nicer hotels are a couple minutes by car farther out, see Splurge) as well as a collection of souvenir shops, snack stands, parking areas, and ramshackle buildings (some occupied and some abandoned). A convenient area if this is your final destination (especially if using the bus), but if you plan to venture further up the valley, consider accommodation somewhere less frequented.
Upper Central Valley Area (Higashi Iya / Kyojo) -Not nearly as uninspiring or touristy as the Kazurabashi area in Nishi-Iya, this area around the sleepy "downtown" section of Kyojo in Higashi Iya is a good central base for exploring the more remote and certainly more rewarding parts of the valley. No group tours here, so if looking for charm and a sense of seclusion, this is where to go.
Mi-no-koshi area (Mt. Tsurugi base) -At an elevation of 1400m and the point where the trails and chairlift for Tsurugi-san begin, Minokoshi has several minshuku on offer during the hiking season (early April to late November. All closed in winter). Far and away from most other valley sights, the main reason to stay here would be if one wants an early start (or late return) for climbing the mountain. For info about sleeping in huts atop the summit, see Budget / Camping.
Even though the places listed here are the valley's top-end in both price and offerings, they aren't all break-the-bank expensive, and some can even be in the realm of mid-range with per person rates less than 10,000yen per person. If looking to reduce the price, its worth digging a bit through their websites to find different options regarding meal plans, room type, and number of people per room/cabin.
Central Valley Area (Nishi Iya / Kazurabashi) -All the places in this part of the valley include their own hot spring baths (onsen). They are also all set up to accommodate large group bus tours, which are quite popular here among Japanese and other East Asian tourists.
Upper Central Valley Area (Higashi Iya / Ochiai) -Bus tours are few to non-existant in this part of the valley (mainly due to insurance restrictions for the sometimes single-laned roads), so if looking to get away from the crowds and a chance to stay in some of Iya's famed thatched roof farm houses, this is where to head.