March 20, 2017
Located on the eastern side of Shikoku Island, Tokushima is home to some of the best natural wonders in Japan, and it is a place I have long wanted to explore.
I took a ferry from Naoshima Island to Takamatsu and then drove on to Mima City. Mima is famous for its remarkably preserved udatsu houses. Udatsu are clay “wings” built on the roofs of merchant houses, separating them from their neighbors, and stopping the spread of fire from roof to roof. While they were created for a practical purpose, they gradually became a symbol of wealth and refinement as builders and homeowners found ways to make them increasingly ornamental. Mima’s main street is lined with dozens of beautiful udatsu homes, many of them still store fronts. The town specializes in indigo dying, among other crafts.
My first stop in town was a local kimono shop, where I rented a kimono for the afternoon. I looked so funny to my local guides that they insisted I kept the kimono on for the rest of the day. As I stepped out of the house, they told me to put on the tiniest pair of wooden sandals. “Too small!” I said. But they insisted they were the right size. Wearing heels in New York City every day did note prepare me for hours on the move in Japanese wooden sandals!
Our next stop was a tour of an original udatsu home. The house was over 300 years old, and had been in the owner’s family for eight generations. This was a fascinating way to learn about the Edo period and the origins of Japan’s complex culture and ancient traditions. The most important part was the meticulously kept garden in the middle of the home. Large windows surround the garden, so that inhabitants can have a view at all times. The deep connection that the Japanese have with nature was quite evident in this home. The funny part of this day was that I had a team of professional photographers following me around and taking pictures of me. 3 months later I got a package in the mail. My pictures had been published in a local magazine, complete with Japanese thought bubbles. It made for a great laugh!
However, the highlight of my journey to Tokushima Prefecture was the incredibly stunning Iya Valley. We drove from Mima up into the mountains. Peering out the windows as the van barrelled around the mountain side on a narrow and winding one-lane road, my heart skipped a beat when I saw that there was only a tiny guard rail separating us from a precipitous drop down the side of a mountain. The breathtaking views of the deep river canyon were well worth the stressful drive. The weather was slightly rainy, which made the soaring emerald green mountains look so vibrant. The river below is a bright turquoise green, due to the emerald color of the rocks. The Iya Valley is absolutely beautiful, but it seems that the local population is rapidly declining. This is a popular topic of conversation, as Japan’s population has been steadily declining for decades and it is most obvious in rural areas. For example, the village of Nagoro used to have around 300 residents. Now it has 30. One resident was so distraught over this, that she started making scarecrows – not to scare away the birds, but to “replace” the people who used to live in this once vibrant community.
The scarecrows are everywhere in Nagoro. Visitors know they have arrived when they see the three “farmers” in floppy hats resting against a telephone pole by the side of the road. The same goes for the man fishing in the creek, the woman working in the potato field and the children waiting at the bus stop. There may only be 30 residents, but there are over 200 scarecrows. The scarecrow village is a bizarre sight to behold, but haunting at the same time. The Iya Valley is famous for onsens, hiking, white water rafting and other outdoor activities. A popular hiking destination are the vine bridges, where three separate bridges with varying heights cross the Iya River. No one is sure who first created them, although a couple of popular theories exist, all of which are steeped in folklore. One tale says that the bridges were originally the work of refugees who built the bridges while fleeing from the Genji Clan in the 3rd century in search of a safe place to settle down. The idea was that the bridges could be easily cut down, turning the river valley into a natural barrier to their enemies.
The bridges are amazing and a lot of fun to cross. The largest is the Iya Kazurabashi Bridge which reaches almost 150 feet across the valley at a height of 50 feet above the water. The wooden planks are not that close together, so you can see straight through the cracks as you step. It is a little unnerving! But watching the people around you hold on to the side for dear life makes it worth it. Once you reach the other side, your reward is a beautiful waterfall.
For lunch, we went to a local woman’s home to learn how to make soba noodles. Soba, or buckwheat, is a staple crop of the area. After grinding the soba seeds into a fine flour, we added water and egg and got to work kneading. The ladies who were helping us were very funny, and told me I was so good at making soba noodles, I should move to the Iya Valley! An interesting thing about the cuisine is how different it is from food you will find in Tokyo or Kyoto. The vegetables are only vegetables that can be grown in mountainous areas. The fish come from the local rivers and streams. The food was different, but fantastic, especially the vegetables! Before we ate, the owner of the home sat on the tatami at the front of the dining hall and asked if we’d mind if she sung us a song. Her voice was beautiful – it was a highlight of my trip! Afterwards, she told us the song was called “Iya Milling Song”. Long ago in the Iya Valley, it was common for women to gather at the end of the day to grind the buckwheat together. The process was a laborious one and singing songs helped to speed the time.
Alex Kerr’s wonderful Chiiori Trust
Finally, I must mention the famous Statue of a Peeing Boy. This statue is the pride and joy of the Iya Valley. It is situated at the top of 700 foot cliff, so it looks like the little boy is peeing into the valley below. Locals find this absolutely hilarious. But the origin is interesting, as local folklore says passing travelers would climb out to pee off the cliff, as a testament to their bravery for climbing the mountain. We can all relate to that! If you are looking for a quiet, relaxing escape into nature, Tokushima is the perfect place to visit. It offers stunningly beautiful scenery, a slow-paced lifestyle, onsens and quaint historical sites.