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Friday, Nov. 28, 2003

Peacefulness that's action-packed

A trip to Iya in Shikoku offers more than just nature at its finest

Staff writer

Airplanes are the worst. I hate flying and avoid doing so as much as possible. But to compound my suffering, the day I flew down from Tokyo to Shikoku was also the day a typhoon was heading there, too. So, as the plane was being buffeted in midair, and I sat clutching the arms of my seat for dear life, I found myself wondering -- even if I did make it safely to Tokushima Prefecture, what on earth would I be able to do there in this kind of weather?

News photo
Trippers on the Oboke Gorge glass-bottom boat.

A lot, I was to find out.

After landing at Kochi Airport, the scenic bus trip east along narrow, twisty roads clinging to mountainsides high above roaring torrents was like a rest cure. Finally, an hour and a half later, we reached our destination, the small town of Iya hidden deep in the heart of this forested island.

Stepping off the bus, it was a joy to breathe in the fresh country air with its pleasant scent of wet leaves and moss (then light up a cigarette). There was a light drizzle, but the typhoon hadn't yet arrived and the mist lent an air of mystery and anticipation to the upcoming storm. Looking around, I noticed the stillness of the surroundings, reminding me that this was a far cry from home in downtown Tokyo, suffocated by noise, buildings and people.

Such musings, though, weren't enough for me to forget it was a little after 1 p.m. -- and time to eat. I decided to treat myself to a meal at the Hotel Oboke-kyo Mannaka, where one of the local specialties is issho tofu (one sho is nearly 2 liters), which is also known as ishi tofu (stone tofu) because it's not just firm, but hard -- so solid, in fact, that people used to tie it up with rope to carry it around.

A taste explosion

"Thirt years ago, people would make issho tofu at home," said Iya-born Yoshimi Amano, a waitress at the hotel. "But now only a few people can make it, so we usually eat the normal soft tofu day-to-day, and just have issho tofu on ceremonial occasions."

Though it's said to be very healthy because of the large amount of protein-rich soy beans that go into making it, what you notice first is a taste explosion in your mouth from the concentrated ingredients. And although one serving is only a few pieces, it's definitely filling. Not so filling, though, that I could resist sampling another local specialty. Iya soba contains a lot more buckwheat than normal soba, so it is thick and breaks easily. Like issho tofu, this soba is now also mostly eaten on ceremonial occasions -- except weddings, that is, because its brittleness is considered unlucky for those tying the knot.

News photo
The hair-raising Kazura-bashi (Vine Bridge) over the Iya River.

Suitably fortified, I went down to the small quay outside the hotel, from where a small glass-bottom boat takes visitors on a trip down the Yoshino River. Just as I reached the pier, so did the typhoon, and the drizzle turned to driving rain. The boat trip, though, was still on, so I hopped aboard -- opting for an umbrella instead of the poncho I was offered.

And down the river we went, along the spectacular, 8 km-long Oboke Gorge that has been 200 million years in the making by these currents swirling down to the Pacific. On both sides, the gigantic boulders (called ganreki hengan) that rear up are designated prefectural natural treasures. Above the cliffs behind them, the forested slopes that are a tapestry of greens in spring and summer, in autumn become a breathtakingly beautiful collage of reds, yellows and golden-browns.

According to the onboard guide, because the water is completely clear, on sunny days you can also feast your eyes on all sorts of fish, including ayu, eel and carp. Unfortunately, because of the rain, all I could see was a green murk. It was, though, definitely worth getting soaked just to stand breathless before such natural beauty -- of a kind that urban-dwellers can only dream of (though I did, naturally, regret turning down the poncho).

Back at the quay, the rain was easing up as I got off the boat. This seemed like a good opportunity to take in the Kazura-bashi Bridge (Vine Bridge) which is, apparently, a "designated tangible folk cultural property." There are various theories about why this bridge was built, with one of the most common being that some soldiers who'd lost a battle and were fleeing to Iya spanned the river with a bridge made of vines so that it could be cut down easily if they were pursued. Basically, what this means is that the crossing is very very scary -- even without enemies in pursuit.

Although it's now reinforced by wires, the bridge is still 45 meters long, swings some 14 meters above the rushing waters of the Iya River below -- and shakes with every step you take. And because the logs strapped together by vines to make the walkway are spaced just a little less than the length of a person's foot apart, you have to be very careful to watch your step.

Sympathetic glances

So it was that, rain or no, my umbrella was down within moments as I needed both hands free to cling on while all around was slippy and shaky. About halfway across, with my knees about to give way, I felt like turning back there and then. Unfortunately, though, that wasn't an option, because the bridge is on a one-way tourist route. In the end, after taking more than 10 minutes to cross, I felt proud of myself -- although maybe I should be honest and mention the little boy who almost skipped across, or the elderly man who gave me sympathetic glances as he overtook me.

News photo
Sean Ramsay with one of his lights.

Nonetheless, it was all worth it when I turned around and looked back at the scenery. Once again I marveled at a magnificent view of the valley, the mountains, the river and the trees -- and at the fact that such glorious places still exist at all in urbanized Japan.

That, though, is why 31-year-old American sculptor Sean Ramsay chose Iya as the place to create his artworks. "I was attracted to the peacefulness and isolation of the Iya Valley," he said. "I felt comfortable with the quiet mountain life amid nature."

In Iya, Ramsay spends his time creating floor lamps. Using local materials such as those kazura vines, bamboos, washi paper and stones he picks up by the river, he often takes two or three weeks to craft just one.

"I want people to feel relaxed when they look at my works," he said. "That is why I use natural materials instead of plastic or concrete."

True, Ramsay's lights exude a feeling of warmth and nostalgia, almost bringing with them a sense of being at home, comfortably surrounded by people you know and love. That could be because of the inspiration he's drawn over the last year and a half from the warm relationships between the people in Iya.

"In Iya, relationships among families and nature are important," Ramsay said. "During harvest season, not only the whole family, but also the neighbors all go out and help to dig out the vegetables. Once they are done with one farm, they go to the next farm."

That night, while I soaked in the outdoor hot spring (it was raining, but then it didn't matter), I gazed at the vastness surrounding me. The only sound I could hear was the pattering of the rain and occasionally rustling leaves. The weather was stormy, and all too soon I'd have to take to the air again -- but just for that little while, I was blissfully immersed in the peace and quiet of that little town called Iya.

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