Has there ever been a place you’ve dreamed of going to for years? You’ve seen it in pictures, you’ve read about it, you’ve heard about it from other travellers… but you just haven’t been able to get there yourself. Maybe you and your travel buddies just couldn’t align your schedules. Maybe you were waiting for the right weather conditions. Maybe you were saving up enough money to be able to do the trip justice. Weeks turned in months, months turned into years, but you never forgot about this place.
This is exactly how it was for me with one of Japan’s least explored regions, the Iya Valley.
Welcome to Iya
Located in the remote mountains of Tokushima Prefecture on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, the Iya Valley has some of the most beautiful and dramatic landscapes I’ve seen. Wild rivers cut through the valley providing arguably the best white water rafting in the country. Onsens can be found throughout the mountains, perfect for those who want to relax their mind and body. The sides of the valley are so steep in some areas that villages look almost vertical, and the roads are so narrow that if you meet a car coming from the opposite direction, one of you have to reverse back to a wider section of road to let the other pass. It makes for a slow but adventure-filled trip!
The reason I’d wanted to visit this place for so long, though, was for something entirely different.
Carp streamers flying over Oboke Gorge
Ochiai mountainside village
Boy peeing over a 200m drop to show his bravery
The Iya Valley is also famous for its bridges made of vines – kazurabashi – which were once the only way to cross through the valley. These suspension bridges are said to have been made by samurai who escaped to the mountains after being defeated in the Genpei battles in the 12th century. The samurai had hidden huts in the forests and being able to quickly cut the bridges down ensured no enemies could follow them.
After the war ended, settlements began to pop up in the valley and the local people used these bridges for their everyday life, whether to go up to the sacred mountain Mt Tsurugi, go hunting, get wood for building, or even just to travel to other regions of Shikoku island for trading. At the height of their use, there were 13 bridges spread throughout the valley.
Now, just three bridges remain. The most easily accessible bridge is Iya Kazurabashi, while much deeper in the valley are the Oku-Iya Niju Kazurabashi.
Every 3 years, the vines are replaced for safety reasons by a group of locals who follow original techniques used by the samurai 800 years ago – although these days wire and steel are also used for extra strength. A particular variety of vine, that takes up to 20 years to grow to the necessary thickness and length, is collected from the valley during autumn when they are at their driest. They are then steamed and twisted into shape by hand. The thicker vines are used to make the upper main supports, while the thinner ones are wrapped around the wooden planks and the side handrails.
14m above the emerald-green Iya River
Standing on the bridges, it’s surprising how spaced out the wooden planks are. You literally have to take care with every step you take, or else you could easily trip and lose a leg, or a shoe at least. I made sure to zip up my handbag in case I dropped it and the contents went flying into the river below! On top of the unnervingly wide gaps, the bridges shake whenever you move. When there are 15 to 20 other people struggling to walk at the same time, it makes for a hair-raising experience and I can tell you I was gripping that side rail pretty tightly.
Local specialty, Iya Soba
No room for error when driving along these roads
Extremely narrow roads
Between the Iya and Oku-Iya bridges, is a long, narrow winding road that passes through several small townships. Sometimes it feels like you’re driving in someone’s backyard, and at times I swear I could have reached out and knocked on the front door while still sitting in the driver’s seat. Though there aren’t many people wandering about, driving slowly is key and you always, always have to be looking ahead to see if a car is coming towards you, as one of you will have to stop and reverse. It was such an interesting experience! It’s a good thing everyone is patient and considerate. A slight nod of the head or wave of the hand to thank the other driver, and off you both go.
One town in particular has made headlines in the past few years. Nicknamed Scarecrow Village, Nagoro was once home to over 300 people. Over the years, the kids left to study at university and find jobs in the cities, and eventually it was only the grandparents and old couples living here. As of last year, there were less than 30 residents.
Not ready to give in, a few locals decided to ‘repopulate’ Nagoro. Instead of actual people, they made life sized straw dolls and placed them around the town. At first glance, you wouldn’t even know they weren’t real. Some of them are tending to their vegetable field, some are fishing in the river, some are sitting in their classroom. The reality makes it a little sad, but at the same time it’s a fun place to explore and a good excuse to stretch your legs.
Continuing down the road, getting deeper into the valley, we come to the double vine bridges. Unlike the bustling Iya Kazurabashi which has a tourist centre and huge carpark next to it, the Oku-Iya bridges seem to be more of a genuine experience. Nestled amongst the forest, you could imagine Tarzan suddenly swinging by on his vine, yelling out his famous cry as he passed you by.
This pair of bridges, referred to as husband and wife, sit 12 metres and 4 metres above the river. When I went, there were just a couple of families and a small group of hikers coming down from the neighbouring mountain, and I had each bridge all for myself at some points. Not far from here is a campsite which is popular during the summer, but closed in the winter months due to the amount of snow. An interesting wooden cart, called Wild Monkey Bridge, is another way to get supplies across the river. You can even sit in it and pull yourself across, though it’s not as easy as it looks!
View from the ‘female’ bridge
The ‘male’ bridge
Mossy rocks along the Iya River
Wooden cart, an alternative way to cross the river
I ended my trip by staying at a guesthouse on the other side of the valley. After a long day driving down those narrow roads, it felt so good to put my feet up and relax. The guesthouse had an incredible view out over the mountain range, and as I sat there watching the sun go down, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm wash over me. I couldn’t help but think what an amazing hidden corner of the world this is.