When it comes to travel in Japan, there are many “top 3” lists, like the 3 most scenic locations, 3 best Japanese gardens, 3 most unusual bridges, and in today’s case, Japan’s 3 most secluded regions. These lesser-traveled locations are Shiiba Village (Miyazaki), Shirakawago (Gifu), and Iya Valley (Tokushima), the last of which we got the chance to visit. Read on as I take you along with me on a unique cycling tour through Iya Valley and uncover all the gorgeous sights and cuisine the area has to offer.
Iya Valley is located in the Nishi-Awa area in north-west Tokushima Prefecture and consists of two cities and two towns: Mima City, Miyoshi City, Tsurugi Town, and Higashimiyoshi Town. It’s an incredible region covered almost entirely by mountains, as the Asan and Shikoku mountains take up 80% of the area. In the taxi I witnessed steep slopes and winding roads, and passed through many small villages, which helped me understand the isolation of this area and exactly why it is considered one of Japan’s most secluded regions. I was excited to cycle through this place where time seems to stand still, meet the local people, and eat like a local, too.
Pottering with Brompton Bicycles: A Unique Way to Adventure!
I was unfamiliar with the term “pottering” before the tour, but learned that it refers to moving about in a relaxed or pleasant way without being in a hurry. It’s the perfect way to describe this type of tour, where we will take our time enjoying all of Iya Valley’s sights without rushing from place to place.
The tour is conducted on Brompton bicycles, a popular brand originating in London. The bikes are not only stylish; they’re lightweight, compact, and can be folded for easy storage. They are surprisingly easy to maneuver, so even those who are not used to cycling long distances will be able to use them comfortably.
It’s also possible to bring them on public transport. Although it’s not uncommon to see people bring full-sized bikes onto public transport in other countries, in Japan I’ve never seen that unless the bike is foldable, so with Brompton bikes you don’t have to worry about disturbing other riders on the train or bus.
The meeting point for the tour is JR Awa-Ikeda Station. From there, the group took the train for about 19 minutes to Oboke Station where we were greeted with the amusing sight of the “Love Love Bench,” a bench that makes people slide together in the center from either side. Just the time to take a couple of adorable pictures of this one-of-a-kind bench and my bus to the unique Iya-no-Kazurabashi bridge arrived!
Iya-no-Kazurabashi: A Vine Bridge Perfect for Thrill Seekers
In the distance I could see what appeared to be the trees interlocking, but as I got closer, I realized it was a bridge, the one we were planning to cross.
When Iya-no-Kazurabashi was first built, it was the only way to cross over the canyon. Some say the bridge was made by the legendary Taira clan – their story immortalized in The Tale of the Heike, a Kamakura- period (1185 – 1333) classic – who fled from Kyoto to this area and took refuge here. The clan strategically built this bridge with vines, so it would have been easy to cut down if the enemy had found and pursued them.
These days, without any enemies to flee from, the 45-meter-long (~147 ft) suspension bridge is a National Important Tangible Folk Cultural Property. It has concealed steel cables for more stability, but the vines are replaced every three years. I was comforted knowing the steel cables were in place, but I was still quite nervous to cross. As it is suspended 14 meters (~46 ft) above the Iya River, it looks quite steep and the bridge is very shaky, but the adrenaline made for an incredibly exhilarating and thrilling experience! I was surprised at how much space lay between each plank. I paid close attention to where I was placing my feet each time.
I don’t recommend crossing in sandals or heels, as it would be easy to slip and get your foot stuck in the gaps. It should only take about two minutes to cross, though probably longer if you stop for photos. Hold on to your phone tightly!
Iya-no-Kazurabashi has also earned the title of one of the 3 most unusual bridges in Japan. The others on the list are the Kintai Bridge in Yamaguchi Prefecture and the Saruhashi in Yamanashi Prefecture. I think “unusual bridge” is a very fitting title. I have been on suspension bridges before, but none quite like this. The bridge is technically open year-round, but it may be difficult to cross in the winter if it snows.
Biwa Waterfall: An Ethereal View
After about 30 seconds downhill on the Brompton bike, I found myself looking at the 50-meter-tall Biwa Waterfall, located just a short walk away from Iya-no-Kazurabashi. “Biwa” refers to a traditional Japanese lute. Members of the Heike clan were said to play their biwa while overlooking the waterfall in hopes of comforting each other when they missed their old home. Witnessing the beautiful waterfall and taking in its relaxing atmosphere myself helped me realize why members of the Heike clan chose this spot to reflect. Our guide showed us photos of Biwa Waterfall in February, when the water had frozen over. I can’t imagine how gorgeous that would be in person!
Kazurabashi Yumebutai: Showcasing All That Nishi-Awa Has to Offer
Near the vine bridge is a gift shop and museum called Kazurabashi Yumebutai. We popped by for a short period of relaxation and to browse the local goods the facility has to offer. This large building showcases local foods, sake, and crafts from the Nishi-Awa area, making it the perfect place to purchase souvenirs like Kazura soba noodles or locally-dyed indigo goods. The mini museum also features information about the bridge and how it was made.
Iya Bijin: The Wonders of Iya’s Cuisine!
After having worked up an appetite on the pottering trip, we headed to a local restaurant called Iya Bijin to try some local cuisine. I couldn’t wait to try Iya’s most famous dishes: “dekomawashi” and “amego.”
“Dekomawashi” is a skewer made up of a selection of Iya’s main specialties: konjac, iwa-dofu (a type of firm tofu made in the Iya region,) soba dango, and Iya potato. The skewer is coated with a sweet miso paste and slowly grilled over an “irori” hearth. The second dish, “amego,” is small river trout cooked the same way. It would not be a complete trip to Iya Valley without trying either of these two local delicacies.
I ordered a lunch set which included both of these dishes, along with seasonal vegetables, pickles, miso soup, and a small bowl of soba noodles. My personal favorite was the dekomawashi, as the slow charcoal grill really brought out the best of the miso paste and allowed the ingredients to soften to perfection.
I also ordered a “sudachi” citrus cider which was incredibly refreshing. Iya Bijin has both indoor and outdoor seating, and the weather was too gorgeous not to sit outside on the deck. It offered a splendid view of the valley.
There was also a little “tanuki” (raccoon dogs that are commonly depicted in folklore as mischievous creatures who play tricks on humans) statue, which was a charming surprise. The tanuki statue is reminiscent of “Manneken Pis,” a famous Belgian statue.
Manneken Pis: a Statue to Remember Your Childhood and Test Your Courage
About 6 km from Iya Bijin is Iya Manneken Pis statue which is inspired by the famous Manneken Pis statue in Belgium and shows a small boy peeing over the mountainside. It is based on a story about local children standing on the rock and relieving themselves as a way to test their courage.
Personally, I’d be happy just to look at the grand view of the valley without standing on any ledges, but as Iya Valley has this recreation of the original statue located in such a scenic spot, I visited it soon after finishing my lunch at Iya Bijin to test my courage as local children used to do in the past.
Hotel Iyaonsen: A Hot Spring Only Accessible by Cable Car
Our next stop was Hotel Iyaonsen, which has a unique open-air hot spring experience. The bath, which is available to both hotel guests and day-trippers, is only accessible by cable car. Overlooking the Iya River, the bath allows guests to fully immerse themselves in Iya’s lush nature.
In the hotel’s gift shop, I found an interesting ice cream flavor: “soba” buckwheat, which was definitely present but not overpowering.
I took my ice cream to the deck to enjoy while watching the cable car that connects the entrance of the hotel to its hot springs go up and down. A simple joy of mine is to find unique ice cream flavors, and this did not disappoint.
The Pottering Tour Comes to a Close
The tour sadly came to a close after Hotel Iyaonsen. If you have time, I recommend staying a while at the hotel and using the hot spring. You might even catch the sunset!
The tour takes about 8 hours and costs 12,000 JPY per person. Other fees include transport for around 1,680 JPY, a 550 JPY entrance fee for Iya-no-Kazurabashi, lunch, and 500 JPY for optional insurance. A minimum of two participants is required for the tour to run.
Though the journey around Iya Valley primarily consists of soft, downhill slopes, it can be quite dangerous to cycle these roads in the winter, so tours run between March and December. The tour is usually held in Japanese but the guide in charge of our tour that day spoke English quite well! He lived in the US for some time, and even took some road trips while he was there. We really appreciated his friendly nature and deep knowledge about the area!
Iya Valley Is a True Hidden Gem
As Iya Valley is labeled one of the most secluded areas of Japan, I’m so grateful to have seen this region with my own eyes. It’s quickly become one of my most favorite areas of Japan. Iya Valley is the perfect place for anyone who loves mountains, lush forests and rivers, small villages, and traditional local cuisine. The pottering tour was such a fun way to explore many of Iya’s sights while getting fresh air and exercise. I know I will be back again soon!