Towering mountains covered in forests and cloud-filled valleys hide one of Japan’s most unexplored regions, Nishi-Awa, and its ancient hamlets perched amidst untainted scenery. Imbued with the atmosphere of old Japan, this mountainous region treasures a traditional and simple lifestyle in harmony with nature. Counting among its charms are scenic spots both natural and man-made that were preserved through the centuries, unique farming methods inherited from the past, and welcoming locals eager to share the beauty of their genuine way of life with the world. Touched by such enriching culture, I joined Nishi-Awa’s extraordinary people to discover more!

Discover Japan’s Original Landscape Through the Beautifully Preserved Nature and Culture of Nishi-Awa

As the panorama gradually became narrower and steeper, I knew I was entering the valleys of Nishi-Awa. This region, which is also often referred to as Japan’s “togenkyo” hidden paradise, is a place where natural and cultural landscapes have been perfectly preserved through time, allowing me to feel the original atmosphere and scenery of Japan. The more I ventured deep into Nishi-Awa, the more I felt like I was stepping back in time, with hamlets of traditional buildings surviving perched on mountaintops, thick greenery, and rough gorges filled with pristine waters keeping me company throughout the day.

Located in north-west Tokushima Prefecture, Nishi-Awa consists of two cities and two towns: Mima City, Miyoshi City, Tsurugi Town, and Higashimiyoshi Town. Blessed with abundant nature, over 80% of the region is covered in forests, framed by the Asan Mountains in the north and the Shikoku Mountains in the south.

Nishi-Awa is also crossed by the Yoshino and Iya Rivers which are renowned for their majestical natural environment. It boasts many places of scenic beauty such as the Iya-no-Kazurabashi suspension bridge, which is made of vines and is thought to have existed since the late Heian period (794 – 1185), and the spectacularly steep Iya Valley, as well as the fascinating Oboke and Koboke Gorges, so beautiful that their rocky, jagged walls look like soaring sculptures! Thanks to the presence of the rivers, Nishi-Awa also prospered during the Edo period (1603 – 1867) as a transportation hub and renowned production center for refined indigo dyed products.

Locals have learned to harmoniously coexist with Nishi-Awa’s wilderness in many ways. The area has been recognized as a “Scenic Spot for Food and Agriculture” by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and its Steep Slope Land Agriculture System has been recognized as a “Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System.” Steep Slope Land Agriculture System, which has been practiced in the region for over 400 years on slopes as steep as 40 degrees by plowing thatch collected from Nishi-Awa’s grasslands into the fields to minimize soil runoff caused by wind and rain and using the same thatch as a sustainable alternative to normal fertilizer.

Sora no Sato: Immerse in the Good Old Lifestyle of Past Japan

The activities and lifestyle changed so little in Nishi-Awa that it was also certified as one of Japan’s 13 “tourist zones” by the Japan Tourism Agency. Representing the uniqueness of Japan to the world through tour and stay programs that make the most of its untainted nature and unique farming culture, Nishi-Awa allows high-quality interactions with the local people and contact with traditional culture that visitors wouldn’t be able to experience anywhere else in Japan.

Kominka Yado Koya

Promoting this new, genuine type of experience-based tourism is the Sora no Sato Tourism Board which takes the inspiration for its name from the fact that people living in Tokushima’s urban areas used to refer to the prefecture’s highest areas using the word “sora” meaning “sky” in Japanese. Valuing rural treasures that have almost been forgotten by modern-day people, Sora no Sato wants visitors to experience Nishi-Awa as is and feel the positive effects that the local simple lifestyle has on the souls of those who come in touch with it.

By utilizing Nishi-Awa’s traditional agricultural culture, Sora no Sato was able to create a space of exchange where visitors can be involved in learning about the mountain villages and fields of Sora no Sato by experiencing farm stays, educational tours, and seminars guided by Nishi-Awa’s residents.

Kominka Yado Koya: Become Part of a Local Family at This Farmhouse Inn Hidden in the Mountains

It was in Nishi-Awa’s Iya Valley that I joined a local family, the Nakayamas, for a traditional farm stay. Their farmhouse, Kominka Yado Koyaーset on a mountainside among the sparse houses of a hidden sloping hamletーis an around 100-year-old folk house with solid wooden walls, thatched roof, and interiors shining in a black luster.

Unused for a period of time, the magnificent house was revived by its current owner, Shinsuke Nakayama or Shin-sanーas he insisted I should call himー who inherited it and carefully renovated it to maintain as much as possible the old-day atmosphere exuded by this precious family heirloom. His hope was that people could casually visit it like they would with a friend’s house while absorbing the peace emitted by the old building and its untouched surroundings.

As only one group per day can stay at Kominka Yado Koya, my time there was full of beautiful moments spent with the Nakayamas. Immersed in the family’s daily life and activities typical of a farmhouse, I learned first hand how the locals are able to live a lifestyle that places little burden on the natural environment and how they applied the wisdom passed down from their ancestors to contemporary times while making the most out of the harsh yet bountiful environment of Nishi-Awa’s mountains.

The stay provided many contemplative moments as well. At night, when surrounded by complete silence, I learned that stars shine with unparalleled brightness in the crisp air of Nishi-Awa and, before bed, that freshly picked “yuzu” added to a warm bath emitted the sweetest fragrance, letting me soak in the healing embrace of Nishi-Awa’s nature!

Activities at Kominka Yado Koya follow the pace of the changing seasons. From harvesting vegetables and fruit to tea picking, there is a multitude of different farm works that visitors can help with. As many were activities I had never tried before, each and every of them was extremely precious to me.

I also had plenty of occasions to replenish my energy, as just by sitting in the front garden and taking in the majestic scenery of the valley spreading below tinged in autumnal hues left me instantly refreshed! There, Shin-san showed me how the little birds living in the surrounding greenery enjoyed exploring the garden for treats. Curious and friendly, they were brave enough to fly on my hand which was a heart-warming moment I could have never experienced in the city.

Focusing on learning new simple tasks felt extremely liberating – the shoulder relieved as I was chopping some wood for the fire, the lungs lighter as I was blowing through the bamboo cane used to prepare the “irori” sunken hearth the traditional way, the soul finally completely at ease when we all sat together around the hearth savoring moments of connection.

Amazing hospitality wasn’t the only thing I relished around the irori as I was also treated to some amazing traditional Iya cuisine, some of which I also got to cook myself from scratch under the guidance of my hosts, such as the Iya “soba” buckwheat noodles. As the land in Nishi-Awa is unsuitable for rice farming, buckwheat and millet which are easier to cultivate on steep land have been cultivated since ancient times, becoming staples in the local diet.

Presented on the irori was the “hirarayaki,” a regional dish passed down through generations, which offers a wide variety of Iya’s delicacies such “amego” freshwater fish, Iya potatoes, handmade “konjac” yam cakes, and Iya tofu on an iron plate garnished with an abundant portion of “miso” fermented soybean paste that perfectly complemented, with its slightly sweet taste, the rustic flavors of the ingredients. Also slowly grilled on crackling charcoal for two hours were perfectly crisp amego skewers and juicy “shiitake” mushrooms I picked from the garden myself.

Dinner cooked on the irori came with a set full of Nishi-Awa’s delicious specialties cooked by the Nakayamas: mouth-watering roasted venison meat thinly sliced, wild vegetables personally picked and preserved by the family, and a bowl of fluffy and fragrant rice steamed the traditional way in a “hagama” cooking pot, which is rare these days. My personal favorite was the soba porridge which adds delectable mouthfuls of savory buckwheat grains to your usual Japanese soup.

Trip Shikoku no Kawa no Annainin: Explore the Vast Nature of Nishi-Awa With the Locals

Through the guidance of the locals, I also got to connect with Nishi-Awa’s vast nature and explore one of the area’s most eye-catching features: the abundant Yoshino River. With one of the largest volumes of water in Japan and reaching around 1.3 kilometers in width, the river before my eyes was intensely blue and crystal clear, offering an incredible spectacle. As the outstanding scenery and change in currents along its route make it one of the best places in the world to try rafting and kayaking, I couldn’t wait to board my kayak and enjoy its charms for myself.

I was glad I could count on Trip Shikoku no Kawa no Annainin’s professional guide Takeshi Ushio, who added unique local insights to the fun outdoor activities and let me fully appreciate the role rivers played in the local history and environment. I felt like kayaking down the Yoshino River and listening to his explanations about the fauna and flora encountered along the way was like a valuable unveiling of the heart of the region.

My adventure started on a tiny strip of sand that forms at the center of the river, changing shape depending on the currents. There, supported by my guide, I familiarized myself with the kayak and the territory and learned a few tricks to enjoy a day in the wilderness such as making a bonfire and brewing some delicious coffee on top of it. As I was sipping my coffee surrounded by the Yoshino River, sitting and chatting around the fire, I felt for a moment like one of those explorers ready to live some thrilling adventures in an unknown land!

Kayaking always gives me a profound sense of satisfaction and freedom as you just have to paddle and can focus on clearing your mind soothed by the many scenic sights along the way. The Yoshino River is characterized by ever-changing scenery, so it was easy to abandon the burdens of modern-day life and immerse myself in nature while enjoying the quiet and relaxing atmosphere of the river.

Spend a Day With Locals Among the Traditions of One of Japan’s Most Untainted Regions

Exploring the Nishi-Awa region will allow you to discover a unique way of life preserved through the centuries. Enriched by simplicity and appreciation for nature, the local traditions will guide you through ancient hidden hamlets, scenic spots in nature, and the rediscovery of yourself!