In the center of Shikoku there’s a remote, narrow valley where defeated warriors of the Heike clan (and other random people hoping to disappear) have hid out through the centuries. Today it’s marginally easier to get to, but that’s not saying much. After driving from Kochi, we wound our way down a series of river valleys, crossed over a gorge, and then entered the valley proper.
The first thing you notice in Iya Valley is that you are facing imminent death every minute you are on the roads. They were about six inches wider than our tiny Japanese rental car, and curvier than a bowl of spaghetti. Some of the corners sport helpful mirrors so that you don’t have to blindly hurtle into potential oncoming traffic, including a steady flow of logging trucks which don’t look like they’re going to squeeze through without gouging the houses that perch on the edges of the road.
The valley is narrow, deep, and wiggly, like those tracks that insects make underneath the bark of trees. And the whole valley is not so much growing green as being drowned in the green. It’s the kind of place where if you stopped watching the vines, bushes, and trees for a few minutes, they’d creep a few feet closer.
The locals are a fascinating combination that is familiar to any good Vermonter — summer labor who can’t advise us at all regarding the sights farther down the valley, mostly kids who seem appalled that they’ve been stuck so far away from civilization, and also a sad corps of leathery locals, mourning the way things used to be and happy to share those memories with strangers. Our first interaction with the locals was a little confusing — trying to order lunch, we were told that the soba was not available for lunch, so we asked for the fish, which was also “dinner-only” although the restaurant closed at 3pm. Finally we asked what was available — two things, which we ordered, one each. Then she asked us if we wanted soba with them… but when Jen verified that she was asking if we wanted soba, she once again said, soba is only for dinner. So…? Fairly typical as confusing-international-interactions go, but we still can’t figure out when on earth you’re supposed to order the soba…
At any rate, we continued up the valley to a number of the local sights — the valley got a lot of tourist attention in the 90s because of an American who visited, fell in love with the place, and did a lot of work to promote and develop it for tourists. Since then, however, the tourist traffic has fallen off, so the valley has an abandoned feeling, despite being littered with attractions. The locals feel the same abandonment — an old lady who was caretaker of a thatched old samurai residence was only too happy to tell us about her childhood, when they lived in a house with the paper screen windows, which the cats ran straight through sometimes. She, and lots of other children, would walk down what she called the “mouse paths” across the paddies and down to the school lower down the valley. There were lots of children then, but now there are very few, and what used to be a village is now just two houses, inhabited by two pairs of grandparents.
At any rate, we drove all the way up to the far end of the valley to visit a set of vine bridges which are called the husband and wife. These bridges would have been used traditionally to cross the river, although nowadays they’re reinforced with steel cables and just for tourists. They also had a cargo box on a couple of cables, that you load up with your things, and pull yourself across the river. The bridges were a little nerve-wracking — the vines under-foot are uneven and disconcertingly far apart. But the cargo-box was good fun.
We visited a number of old thatched houses, preserved, or moved from elsewhere into the valley for the tourists. Most of the non-tourist buildings were covered in metal sheeting, but not too long ago many of them would also have been thatched. Our waitress at dinner was a middle aged woman who grew up in a thatched house, sitting around an irori hearth in the evenings with her family. One of the houses we visited was way up high on the mountain, and it took us a half hour of extremely tense driving on the smallest, steepest road imaginable. The little old lady caretaker there actually touched my arm and said “you’re so white!” At any rate, once we got back down into the valley those six extra inches of pavement seemed like a god-send. There was a museum of local history (not much was in english, except the sign explaining that the relics are “shy” and don’t like flash photography.) and some pretty temples. There were also some random sights — a whole “village” of scarecrows, which is apparently very popular with the Japanese tourists, and some random kiddie amusement park rides. Mostly we just appreciated the mountains and the gravely sort of people that inhabited them.
Our hotel turned out to be wonderful. We had an onsen-bath right in the room, which looked out over the valley, with the river below. We soaked for a while, and then headed out to dinner. I went in the yukata (a light cotton kimono) which the hotel provided (most hotels with onsen offer yukata, and when you visit somewhere with lots of public baths, you can spot where people are staying by the pattern of their robe. Usually I end up wearing a men’s one, so it’s big enough, but unexpectedly this one was quite girly.) Many ryokan also encourage you to bath before dinner and come to dinner in your robe, so I followed local custom. Dinner was amazing — lots of courses, an irori in the middle of our table (there’s nothing more satisfying than the feeling of sitting around a fireplace AND having gourmet food), and everything was delicious. We tried several of the local specialties — sweet smelt, and some other river fish, and soba of course. And then we slept like babies! I don’t usually sleep so well on the futons, but I think the combination of the mountain air, hot bath, and full belly did the trick.
And that brings us to the conclusion of our Shikoku adventure. Next up — Tohoku, where we visited in July. In other news, we are beginning to pack up our apartment, and I have only a few more weeks in Japan. Eeek! As most of you probably know, I am returning to UMD to advise the Environmental Science and Policy Program, as well as managing the department’s website. So I will head back to the States a bit before Jen to start that, and she’ll follow a few weeks later. I suspect she has hare-brained schemes involving train trips to distant castles planned for my absence, so stay tuned right to the end!