Hiking in the Iya Valley

IYA VALLEY

Friday, November 27, departs by train at 9am from Minami. Direction the Valley of Iya. Located in the heart of the mountain, with deep gorges and thick forests, the place has returned to history since at the end of the 12th century, following the war of Gempei, the last members of the Heike clan (large Japanese historical family) after their defeat against the Minamoto, found refuge in the valley. Apparently their descendants would still live in the valley.

Six hours of driving (with a stopover of one hour), 3 different trains and almost half of Shikoku traveled. The landscape unfolds before my eyes. Alternating traditional small huts, newer homes and agricultural plantations. The train ride follows a large valley where most of the surrounding villages are concentrated.

It’s really hot on the train and the journey is a bit long, I end up dozing. Around 2.30pm we leave the plain to engulf us in the mountains. The places are steeper. I sometimes feel like the train is hanging in the air. At 3pm I finally arrive at Oboke station, one of the gorges of the Valley of Iya, my terminus.

A few houses are hung in the mountains, concentrated around the station and the two main roads. The sun has given way to the clouds. After a little discussion with the lady holding the information point at the station, I head to Lapis Oboke about fifteen minutes walk. It is an information center, souvenir shop and museum dedicated to the geology and youkai of the area. The trip gives me a taste of what I will see these next two days: small huts perched in suspension above the river below, stairs rattling, small shrines everywhere … and the mountain.

I arrive at Lapis Oboke and O miracle, it offers free wifi !! I take this opportunity to check my emails, my reservations and retrieve information. I ask the two ladies at the reception if there are hiking maps in the area, but the only maps they offer me are not very detailed and show only the small roads leading to the various tourist sites. I wanted to go hiking in the mountains on small roads, I think it looks a little compromised.

The Oboke Lapis is a very nice place, with a small souvenir shop and especially a museum dedicated to local yokai (supernatural creatures in Japanese folklore) and stones from around the world. I do not have time to visit it tonight but I will come back in the next few days.

A few houses around Oboke station - Oboke - © Claire Blumenfeld

Oboke Valley - Oboke - © Claire Blumenfeld

I return to Oboke Station to call the hostel where I am staying so that the owner can pick me up by car, as agreed. But it’s a difficult task! The lady I have on the phone does not understand me and me either! I phone Michiko who calls the hostel (Thanks Michiko !!). Fifteen minutes later, arrives by car a smiling little gentleman who takes me to the hostel, on a small path on the mountainside.

Arrive at the hostel, put on slippers, then find my room. Superb !! As in Minami, tatami floor, sliding doors, but in addition the room is huge and there are decorations everywhere: carved walls, drawings on the walls, decorative objects, a beautiful drawing pot and … A JAPANESE ARC! A gigantic Japanese arc, very simple but beautiful with a quiver where I discover arrows. The set was used. I do not know when it dates but I would like to know.

The hostel is actually a kind of brand new ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). It’s like being in a former home. On the other hand, as it is pair doors everywhere, zero sound insulation! Believing I’m dealing with a cupboard, I pull one of the paper wall to find myself in the room next door! Fortunately, I’m the only customer! When there are people, bye bye intimacy! The gentleman and the lady holding the inn provide the meals for me. I find myself in a room next to their kitchen, typically old with tatami mats on the floor, coffee table and an alcove in the center used to make fire to heat the tea kettle hanging from the ceiling! All that’s missing is kimonos, removing the TV that is sitting in a corner, lighting the fire and you’d think you were back in the past.

On the table is waiting for me a dozen different dishes: a cooked fish, meat, a bowl of rice, an orange, miso soup, salad, cucumbers and other dishes that I have no idea what they contain. I told myself that I will never be able to swallow everything but it turns out that yes. I eat everything! (Except for a kind of little pink cream, much too spicy for me, which turns out to be after asking, the seasoning for the salad (I also told myself that leaves of salad without seasoning, was a little harsh. The sauce is made from salted plums or “umeboshi” which is macerated in salt.

After the meal, the gentleman and the lady ask me what I plan to do tomorrow. I tell them I want to go to Kazurabashi Bridge (one of the last creepers bridge in the area). It turns out that it is a good twenty kilometers on foot. It’s far! So I will have to make the bus ride. They then start planning the whole trip, show me bus schedules, surround me the departure (8:56 to Oboke to arrive at 9:25am) and the return (3:05 to be returned at 3:32pm to Oboke) and tell me to call them once arrived at Oboke Station to pick me up by car to take me back to the hostel. It’s very nice of them but I planned to walk quietly in the mountains. Well, I’ll see tomorrow. I will probably walk part of the walk (to go to other places a little less touristy) and do the other with the bus. I have the bus schedules in my pocket and their phone number (the very nice gentleman told me to call him whenever I want).

Next comes bath time. The gentleman leads me to a small building outside (my god, it’s cold!), Where is a traditional Japanese bath! A mini onsen for me alone! He shows me the inside: the place to shower and a kind of small well where one plunges to relax (hula but it looks deep this thing). He lights the fire under the well and tells me to return in about twenty minutes, the time that the water heats. The little “well” is actually called “ goemonburo”  (it’s a round tub with the bottom part made of cast iron and whose fireplace is just below). Back to my room, where it is freezing (fortunately there is the air conditioning that serves as heating) where I unpack my stuff. I then go to the bath. Flash wash because it’s not hot despite the heat coming out of the well. Clean here I am ready to immerse myself in the hot water, to experience my first Japanese bath, but impossible to enter the water! It’s way too hot. I feel like I’m going to faint. I can not even put my foot down! I add some cold water, it’s still way too hot. How are the Japanese doing ??? I tell myself that if I leave the cabin immediately, the owners will think that I did not appreciate. So, I’m there shivering for a good fifteen minutes to dip the tips of the toes. Even after fifteen minutes, the water is still too hot for me. With a little feeling of failure and frustration, I put on my clothes and leave the cabin. The gentleman from the hostel was staying out all the time to make sure everything went well and to take care of the fire! Fortunately, I did not come out right away. He shows me the stars. First time I see them since I’m in Japan. And I’m going back to my room.

Goemonburo - Inn - Iya Valley - © Claire BlumenfeldWALK ACROSS THE VALLEY

Saturday 28 November, waking up at 7am for a traditional Japanese breakfast, which looks like a normal meal: tea, rice, miso soup, fish, dried seaweed, other dishes unknown to the battalion, mandarin and yoghurt. Early morning, I have a little trouble swallowing everything.

One of my breakfasts - Inn - Iya valley - © Claire Blumenfeld

Then I take the bus to Kazurabashi Bridge (The bridge made of woven creepers is 45 meters long and hangs 14 meters above the water. The origin of its construction is uncertain. A history tells that this are members of the Heike clan who built liana bridges in order to be able to cut them in case of enemy pursuit.The other tells that it is Kobo Daishi, Buddhist at the origin of the pilgrimage of the 88 temples of Shikoku who built the bridge to help villagers move more easily). Arriving at the bus stop, I expect to have to walk a bit in the forest on the mountainside to reach the bridge but no, it is right next to the road. The place is completely landscaped: parking, souvenir shops, restaurants … This loses a lot of its charm. Especially since the weather is cloudy. Disappointed, I decided anyway to buy a ticket to cross the bridge. Fortunately the crossing cheers me up. The bridge is very beautiful and the crossing is very impressive: the structure seems fragile, the boards of the bridge are spaced (we can see the river below) and the bridge sways under the movements of tourists. Better not to be dizzy! I stay on deck for a while, trying to imagine what the place used to be like. I’m trying to visualize the people wearing kimono and geta ( traditional shoes) cross the bridge every day. It should not be easy.

Ithen take a look at the waterfall Biwa-no-taki, cascade of 50 meters height, which is nothing special. Everyone gets their picture taken in front of them. I walk a little around. I’m cold, it’s ugly, I’m disappointed and I have a kind of feelings of lack stuck in the mind: where is Hayao Miyazaki’s Japan movies? Where are youkai and other folk monsters? The only thing that reminds me of ancestral Japan is the small huts of foods that cook yakitori (chicken skewer), yakisakana (skewer), dango and even potato skewers.

 Fish fries - Kazurabashi bridge - Iya Valley - © Claire Blumenfeld Next step, an old samurai house (belonging to the Kita family) further down the valley and on the mountainside. A bus travels from Kazurabashi Bridge to a bus stop in another village down the gorge. From the bus stop it takes forty-five minutes to get to the house. The next bus only goes in one hour. After discussion with another driver who told me that it takes me about an hour and a half to walk to the village, I start at a good pace. Finally a little hiking. By cons, I walk on the road. A small mountain road, but with cars passing every five minutes. Not terrible.

At the turn of a bend, I stealthily see a dozen monkeys crossing the road and moving in the trees! These are the famous macaque Japanese with the red face. It had been a while since I heard strange cries that I thought it was a bird but no it was monkeys. Apparently the forest seems to shelter a lot.

I continue my journey which is much longer than expected! There was in fact a good fifteen kilometers to go! After 3:30 hours of walking I finally arrive at the small village around 2pm. Having still not eaten, it is with happiness that I come across a tiny stall as a konbini corner. Sandwich sausage-mayonnaise, cakes and tangerines. Happiness.

The last bus to take me back to Oboke station is 4:40 pm. Do not miss it or I’ll be stuck in the middle of nowhere. I attack the climb to join the old samurai house, 4.5 kilometers higher. An hour later, I finally arrive at my destination. It’s still cloudy, I’m cold and tired. Nobody in sight, not a single noise, the place is really austere and sad. I am greeted by a little granny, a little surprised to find me here. The house is very beautiful (but it is freezing cold). The roof is thatched with a structure made of bamboo. Tatamis, shôji  (sliding doors), hearth in the main room, carved wooden beams, samurai armor, old tools and pottery, the visit is not very long but interesting!

Old samurai house - Iya Valley - © Claire Blumenfeld

Coming out of the house, I am greeted by some rays of sun! It’s crazy how the vision of the sun can cheer you up. Being a little pressed for time, I decided to run downhill. I arrive at the bus stop with a fifteen minute advance (phew) but with the thighs in pain.

Iya Valley - © Claire Blumenfeld

Back to the hostel where a Japanese family came to spend the night. They are lodged in the room next to me. Goodbye intimacy. Fortunately they are not noisy at all. Evening meal (vegetables in tempura (fried donuts), miso soup, fish, meat …)

Second attempt in the goemonburo. This time the water is less hot and I can get into the bath! I bask surrounded by yuzu (mandarin and lemon hybrid). Completely warmed and tired, I go back to my room.

To read the rest of the article, click on page 2.

2 comments

  1. Hey hey hey ! ça y est, c’est l’aventure ! Et le sport ! Je t’imagine trop descendre la montagne en courant (vite ! vite ! le bus ! ). Et c’est vrai que par rapport aux autres Konakijiji a pas l’air bien méchant (c’est peut-être en ça qu’il est fourbe finalement).
    Je l’attendais la photo en Yukata ! Superbe !

    Bisous ~

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