Where am I? Blurry-eyed, having just awoken to twilight from the deepest sleep I’ve had in years, the answer comes to me. I’m tucked in a cozy futon in an old Japanese
kominka (traditional wooden house with a thatched roof), deep in the heart of the Iya Valley on the island of Shikoku.
I sit up and the 300-year-old wood beneath me creaks and groans as I search for my watch by the light of the embers from the irori fireplace (traditional Japanese sunken hearth) — my favorite feature of well-known expatriate Alex Kerr’s restored kominka, which he has named Chiiori, meaning “House of the Flute.”
As if turning on a natural light switch, the new day starts to shimmy over the mountains of the Iya Valley, and through the lodge’s wide, crystal-clear windows, giving me a panoramic view of nature’s morning light show. Dawn comes in stages, a reluctant grey, then a bashful blue, and finally a bold gold hue lighting up the autumn leaves as the sun begins its slow climb into the sky.
I look around at the traditional shoji sliding doors bordered by the handsome wooden pillars supporting the roof frame, the irori fireplace glowing in the center of the wooden floor — all features contribute to a feeling of peace inside this rustic abode. I can see why so many have fallen in love with it.
The Chiiori House is a 300-year-old thatched-roofed farmhouse that dates back to the Genroku Period (1699–1720). Once upon a time, houses like this dotted the valley in abundance, but are becoming rarer as the years pass. Chiiori is spacious, featuring two large rooms with traditional irori hearths. There is enough room to sleep seven people comfortably, or up to 10 if you don’t mind being a little snug.
Equipped with all the modern conveniences, the home has air-conditioning, floor heating, and a recently added wing complete with two bathrooms, the larger of which features a cypress wood bathtub. It’s the perfect combination of traditional Japanese aesthetic and modern comfort.
Chiiori House’s large kitchen also comes equipped with all the modern amenities, allowing guests to prepare their own food. In fact, I was advised to bring what I needed food-wise, as there is not much in the way of shopping or dining-out options if you don’t come prepared. The best approach may be to book Chiiori House’s catering option in advance, that way you can enjoy a special dinner prepared from seasonal ingredients, and get a taste of the best that the Iya Valley has to offer.
Although Chiiori House does have wifi, it is worth putting devices to bed early and enjoying the atmosphere of the kominka. While the daytime is a feast for the eyes, I was deeply moved by the night, it is silent and divine. Savouring my fine sake, and captivated by the dancing flames of the fireplace, I found myself transported a million mental miles away from the day-to-day rigmarole. It is a seductive state of mind, and one that draws people to this place from far and wide.
The Chiiori House project started with owner and author Alex Kerr in June of 1973. Kerr’s love of Japan and the peace and tranquility he observed in this mountainous Iya community led him to purchase a derelict home after an exhausting search to find the perfect muse.
The Chiiori dream may have started with Alex Kerr, but it has been shared by many friends both internationally and within the tight-knit community of the Iya Valley. Over the years, many have helped with the goal of refurbishing and preserving this disappearing cultural asset. The Chiiori dream is to help preserve the original beauty of Japan, building and maintaining an eco-friendly community using Japan’s traditional culture as its foundation.
This location provides the perfect spot to fulfil such a dream. The Iya Valley takes on a mythical feeling, like a living breathing ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock print). Teeming with lush green vegetation; deep gorges cut by clear, turquoise rivers; and cascading waterfalls with mountainous backdrops, the area is referred to as the “Tibet of Japan,” and it is easy to see why. Time moves slower here, and it is wonderful.
Photographs & Text by Jason Haidar