“Tooi inaka!” exclaims the man next to me on the bus from Osaka when I tell him my destination. Even for my fellow Japanese passenger headed to Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, the Iya Valley is considered tooi inaka — deep countryside.
As beautiful as it is remote, the Iya Valley offers a sharp contrast to the neon lights and futuristic feel of Tokyo, or even the traditional splendor of the temples and shrines of Kyoto. If you are searching for the true hidden Japan, you’ll find it deep in the western part of Tokushima Prefecture.
The charms of this tucked-away valley are its untouched wilderness, numerous natural onsen, and soaring mountains that drop hundreds of meters down a steep gorge to the pristine turquoise Yoshino river below. The Iya Valley is divided into two parts; West Iya (Nishi-Iya) which is easier to access — and ever so slightly more developed — than its counterpart of East Iya (Higashi-Iya), also known as Deep Iya (Oku-Iya).
The fact that this area is one of the most unexplored regions of Japan is what enticed me to get off the beaten path and explore it, and the first items on my Shikoku bucket list are the Iya Valley vine bridges. Of the 13 original bridges that were said to crisscross the valley, three remain and are maintained for the general public to experience — Iya Kazurabashi, the largest and most popular, and Oku Iya Niju-Kazurabashi Bridges, a set of two suspension bridges often referred to as the “husband-and-wife bridges.”
I arrive early in the morning at the most easily accessible of the bridges – Iya Kazurabashi in West Iya. Due to its proximity to the nearby town, it is best to get an early start if you want to enjoy the bridge without the crowds.
Stretching 45 meters across the Iya River at the center of the valley, the 150 feet of vine and wood seamlessly blends into the landscape. This is thanks in part to the bridge’s signature look, which is provided by Actinidia arguta, a perennial vine native to Japan and other parts of Asia. It entwines itself around the wooden ladder-like floor and the steel wire supports — a contemporary addition for extra safety.
The modern incarnations are remade every three years, in part to account for the many sets of legs that traipse across them each year. The original craftsmen are said to be none other than the Taira (or Heike) samurai clan who battled for supremacy of the imperial court in Kyoto — and by extension, all of Japan — against their chief rivals the Minamoto (Genji) clan in the 12th century. This conflict became known as the Genpei War, immortalized in the Japanese literary classic The Tale of the Heike. After the defeat of the Taira clan by the Minamoto, it is said they fled here to the remoteness of the Iya Valley, never to recover their power. Their descendants are reputed to live here in the Iya Valley to this day.
Summoning my inner samurai warrior, I begin to make my way across, the bridge creaking and groaning with its first visitor of the day. I can’t help but notice the large eight or so inch gaps between planks, offering a clear view of the Iya River 50 feet below. “Don’t look down,” I mutter under my breath — too late. The bridge begins to swing and shake as the second visitors of the day start their crossing behind me. After scrambling my way to the other end, I’m compelled to reflect on what an excellent form of defense these bridges must have made 800 years ago. According to legend, the Taira made them out of vine so that they could easily chop them down to stave off attackers, or escape the Minamoto pursuit if need be.
My next bridge destination is much deeper inside the valley. The Oku Iya Niju-Kazurabashi Bridges, or “husband-and-wife bridges,” are about an hour’s journey from Iya Kazurabashi — a very scenic but hair-raising drive on narrow roads that twist and turn through the valley. The Male Bridge (Obashi) is the longer of the two at 44 meters in length, and is suspended higher than the 22 meter Female Bridge (Mebashi).
The husband and wife bridges aren’t alone, however. There’s a monkey in their midst — Yaen, or the “wild monkey bridge,” is suspended just a few meters from the Wife Bridge. Yaen isn’t actually a bridge, but a hand-pulled ropeway which used to be an essential means of transporting goods and people across Iya Valley rivers. This is one of the few places in Japan where you can still experience crossing a river via a human-powered ropeway.
Eager to give it a go, I steady myself as the wooden frame of the carriage rocks from side to side as I attempt to climb aboard, at length settling myself cross-legged in the little wooden cubby house. From here, I slowly begin to pull myself out into the open, and over the water. I’m treated to a spectacular view of the Husband and Wife Bridges together as I hang above the center of the river — a gorgeous vista only achievable from here, if you want to stay dry that is. Hauling myself back to the edge, I’m secretly glad it’s not 800 years ago, when this bicep workout might have been part of my daily commute!
While the bridges are a defining feature of the Iya Valley, they are not all it has to offer. As I emerge from the swaying ropeway carriage, I’m eager to set off on my next adventure in this captivating place, feeling fortunate to glimpse a side of Japan that few ever see.
Photographs & Text by Jason Haidar