12 Jan Japan Stories: Deep in Shikoku’s Iya Valley
HIGH ABOVE THE VAST BLUE OCEAN of Japan’s Inland Sea, I looked through the window of the train and watched the numerous islands that make up the region go by one after the other. I shook my head in disbelief, reflecting on the fact that a year ago this was simply an idea. The train was moments from reaching Shikoku, one of Japan’s four main islands.
I was headed into the Iya Valley — a remote mountainous region that has long captivated my imagination with its lush fall foliage overhanging craggy mountain gorges. In medieval Japan, the Iya Valley was a refuge for warriors and outlawed clans on the run, most notably the Taira Clan after suffering defeat in the 12th-century Genpei War. I was here with three of my best friends, as if the four of us were escaping into our own modern day refuge. Locals began systematically departing the train as it moved deeper into the heart of the island, until there weren’t many left on board besides the four of us.
The sky was grey and seemingly on the brink of rain. We passed green farmlands settled in the shadows of the surrounding mountains; we crossed over snaking rivers, the water blending with the darkening sky above. I read about the Iya Valley over a year ago when I began researching for my trip to Japan. I was immediately drawn to this rural setting, as the countryside is an integral part of Japan I felt I had to experience in contrast to the bright city lights of its unceasing cities.
After riding through Shikoku for about thirty minutes, we arrived at Oboke Station where we had plans to meet our host. His name is Shino-San, I read, a local who opens up his home in the Iya Valley to travelers like ourselves. I’d gone back and forth with him several times through emails over the past year, usually receiving a one sentence answer next to an emoji of a Japanese and American flag side by side. Over the past year of planning, this never failed to put a smile on my face. After hours of accumulated research on the Iya Valley and its accommodations, staying with Shino-San really appealed to me; I’d found that there’s no better way to experience a place than by staying with a local, and from what I read, this was Shino-San’s domain.
The train pulled up to the station, consisting of a small wooden structure with a meeting room and an office next to the train tracks, seemingly the final threshold of civilization before entering a forgotten epoch. We hopped off, pulled our bags from the train onto the platform and watched the train speed away. I took a deep breath of the cold mountain air. We looked at each other and I knew we all had the same feeling — there was no turning back.
A man and a woman enthusiastically greeted us in broken English as we stepped into the office. “Hello! lets go lets go lets go!” The man pulled out a map of the valley and slapped it on the table, drawing out an elaborate route with a red marker. He was moving quickly, we were just trying to catch our bearings. This must be Shino-San I thought, it had to be.
He wore a hat that looked straight from the Australian Outback, a pair of black speed shades and a jacket with a New Zealand Fire Department patch on the arm. A few of us went to the bathroom before taking off, “this must be him boys!” I said. “I don’t think so,” they replied. “This is probably a guide to take us to his place.” The name Shino-San had a zen master aura to it, so I guess we imagined somebody older and time worn, who after hours of silence and meditation would share with us the meaning of life.
“Are you Shino-San?” I asked as we hurried back to the office, thinking we probably should have brought this up already. “Yes yes yes I Shino-San! Let’s go go go!!” His vibe was one of a modern day explorer, our guide through this Jurassic Park island. We packed into his car, threw our bags in the back as he cranked up the heat and took off into the hills. We did our best to communicate in any way we could, often looking at each other and smiling at his one-word answers, or bursting into laughter to break the silence.
We whipped through the hills which alternated from wide mountain passes to tight one lane roads; the deciduous trees surrounding us transitioned from dark red, green and yellow to bare winter branches. We’d pass others on the road and Shino-San would give two honks and a wave, “Shino-San friend!” We soon discovered everybody was his friend, as though he was the mayor of the Iya Valley.
After about forty minutes we pulled off at a viewpoint where across the valley on the face of a steep hill we could see the Ochiai Village. The ancient village is a collection of thatched-roof houses and plots of farmed land whose methods have remained unchanged for centuries. Shino-San lit a cigarette as we took in the silence of the evening, our breath outlined in the cold before us, the valley becoming darker as the sun set behind the distant mountains.
We passed cultivated land of green tea and sweet potatoes, taro root and squash before pulling into a one road town. Perched on a hill above the town was a cabin with an American flag flying beside a Japanese flag. He pointed to the waving flags as we drove, “to show who staying with Shino-San!” It seemed he truly was the mayor; his home sat like a medieval castle overlooking the residence of the village below. Our home for the next couple days consisted of a a main cabin, an outhouse with a deck and an archaic bathing tub overlooking the valley below, and a small cabin which appeared to be Shino-San’s quarters.
It was time to start prepping dinner, and without any time wasted Shino requested we build a fire in the rice cooker and another fire below the outdoor tub. We began to work under the black sky, the moon illuminating the clouds which gently floated by, covering and uncovering the stars that overlook this foreign land.
One of us tended the rice, one chopped dry wood with an axe for kindling, and two of us built a fire under the outhouse. The wonderful scent of firewood soon surrounding us completely and from all angles.
When the fires were roaring on their own we took turns soaking in the single-person outdoor tub. The fire we built underneath brought the water close to a boil.
Lemons bobbed on the surface of the steaming vat as I stared out into the black mountains across the valley as I soaked my limbs after a day of travel. This was surreal. I smiled and let my mind drift.
The main cabin consisted of a large tatami room where we’d sleep and a central living room accessed through sliding paper doors. Around the room were miscellaneous items — scrolls, statues, hanging komonos, things you’d imagine to find in a Japanese cabin that took in visitors from all corners of the world. In the middle of the room was a large open hearth called an irori, used to cook meals and keep the room warm.
We bundled up and sat crisscross around the irori waiting for Shino-San, sipping green tea from a large kettle that sat on a continuous boil off to the side. Shino-San opened the curtain for his grand reveal. He placed a covered wooden container on the hearth in front of us, as well as a deep bowl of the rice we’d been cooking. The smell was amazing and filled the room. Before we could dive in there were a couple ceremonies, as Shino-San called them, to initiate.
We were given a large notepad, a set of coloring pencils and a notebook. Before we left, we were to write a note to Shino, something to remember us by and for other travelers to see when they visit. We put it aside to complete before we left in a couple days. Then came the sake ceremony.
We were told to bring sake: this was honestly a driving reason I was so intrigued to stay here. I went to the tatami room and grabbed the two bottles we’d picked up from Osaka. Shino gave us two small wooden blocks and a pen to write a message, to then hang on the neck of the bottles. Behind us was the mysterious sake room, still closed by a sliding shoji door. I got up holding the bottles in my hand as Shino played a song on his phone, building up the anticipation of the moment. We couldn’t help but all burst out laughing.
I slid open the delicate door and carefully looked around the room; the dry cold felt similar to a wine fridge. On each wall were bottles and bottles of sake categorized by different regions of Japan, a sake trove, bottles big and small, all with the wooden messages hanging from their necks. We had full access to the entire room and were given a blessing to try any bottle; there’s only one catch — you can’t finish a bottle that’s near empty. We placed the bottles we brought on a shelf that had a couple open spots. Who knows what visitor will venture to try them, a piece of us left in this far reaching corner of Japan.
I chose first, a bottle from Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island known for its monster seafood and unearthly depths of snow. We poured the sake into each other’s glass, never our own as is custom, clinking them together as we let out a deep kanpai! At this point we were starving. Steam flowed out of the wooden container in the middle of the irori as we took off the cover, revealing a beautiful roasted chicken and richly colored vegetables, still boiling from the hot grill.
The food was amazing: chicken and venison, rice, vegetables, and miso soup, we were ravenous and hadn’t had a home cooked meal in weeks. Throughout the meal Shino would point at one of us and then to the sake room, the signal that it was your turn to choose. He tore off the day’s date from a calendar and placed it on the floor, setting each bottle that we’d try by the date as a reflection of the damage we’d done, the collection of bottles growing throughout the night until we ostensibly covered all regions of Japan.
Almost immediately Shino-San became our friend, laughing with us and making fun of us in a convoluted mixture of Japanese and English. We soon discovered we were the first visitors from Los Angeles.
It was barely 7am when we were called in for breakfast, rubbing our heads as we stumbled out of the tatami room. “Wow, new sake record!” laughed Shino-San. If this was an accomplishment or a hindrance we would soon find out. The sun was just visible over the mountains, and a thin coat of frost still covered the trees.
We looked at the collection of bottles in front of yesterday’s date, it hurt just to think about what we’d done. After we had finished the breakfast that Shino had prepared — miso soup, fruit and rice — we felt slightly better, at least that’s what we told ourselves, ready for the day’s adventure.
Shino-San was a master navigator of the narrow mountain roads, as though we were a toy car zipping through a remote controlled track. “Ninja route!” He’d exclaim as we’d pass what we’d think was the turn off, instead taking us down a secret side road that he had clearly driven thousands of times. These mountains were his playground, we were lucky to have him as a guide.
The Iya Valley felt prehistoric, as if we were scientists sent to to research the beasts that call these dense forests home. We crossed intricate vine bridges from the 12th-century overlooking pristine mountain gorges. Hiking through the damp trees and along the Iya River brought a sense of peace; the still water freezing and refreshing, where a splash to the face would wake up my soul. We were out all day, Shino-San was determined to show us every site before the sun set. In the evening before the journey back to the cabin, we visited one of the valley’s natural onsens.
It was dusk, we were exhausted. This was our last stop before turning into another wonderful home-made meal at the cabin, but Shino urged us that it was worth it. From the summit of the hotel which operates the hotspring, Hotel Iyaonsen, we would take a cablecar down to the bottom of a mountain gorge. As we piled into the tiny cable car and heard the squeaking of the rusted wheels against the tracks, we looked at each other with panic in ours eyes. If this was how we were going out, then so be it. One of us pressed the blinking red button to unclasp the brakes and the cable car released with a sudden jolt.
Gliding along the 75 degree track through the rich autumn trees, we reached the bottom of the gorge. We sat in silence, listening to the gentle lapping of the spring, in awe of the clean mountain faces created from centuries of rushing water. The sound surrounding us was of true silence, that of our healing planet.
Shino-San prepared an incredible last dinner: oden, a Japanese stew consisting of tofu, hardboiled eggs and fishcakes, rice with mushrooms, pickled vegetables and miso. We drank green tea and sat on fold-up-chairs on the deck outside, talking to one another, listening to the depth of the world. As we stared up at the moon, Shino-San pointed out the bright light of Jupiter shimmering beside it. The smell of firewood provided a sense of comfort and home; this had felt like our home. We were sad to leave.
The next morning we took down the American flag while Shino-San played the national anthem off his phone. The next visitors would raise their own national flag. It was a hilarious and inspiring moment which truly represented Shino-San; he’s a guy who loves everybody no matter where they come from — if you could laugh with him, you’re a friend.
We didn’t have to speak the same language, but for some reason we felt comfortable with him. That’s what travel does: it isn’t our commonalities which connect us all, but the curiosity to dig deeper into our differences. Shino drove us to the train station and saw us on. The site of him standing on the platform waving an American flag became smaller in our wake as we looked back. We were now heading back to our familiar world.