Soaking in a pool of hot spring water just a couple of meters above a river, engulfed in darkness and surrounded by the sound of water and faintly rustling trees is a wonderful way to commune with nature.
But in Iya Valley, on the island of Shikoku, the hot springs around the Iya River lie deep at the bottom of a rocky gorge, which makes them fairly inaccessible to all but the most determined of bathers.
Not to worry. Hotel Iya Onsen has come up with a thoroughly modern solution to make it easier for guests to enjoy both the river and the hot springs – it has built a cable car, which transports bathers down 170 meters into the valley and up again.
We stayed at Hotel Iya Onsen one night in early November, when the surrounding mountains were cloaked in the fiery hues of autumn and the clear, country air had turned distinctly chilly.
After an easy five-minute descent on the cable car, which departs right from the hotel’s lobby, we were able to soak in the open-air hot spring baths (rotenburo) perched just above the quietly flowing river at the bottom of the valley.
Although the cable car ride slightly mars the experience of being close to nature, there is no question that it is an infinitely preferable alternative to descending the perilous footpath to the bottom of the valley — especially in the cold.
Iya Valley, which is often referred to as a “hikyou,” or “hidden place of beauty,” is counted among the three great hidden places of beauty in Japan, along with Shirakawago in Gifu prefecture and Shiiba village on the island of Kyushu.
In his seminal book, “Lost Japan,” Alex Kerr, an American writer and expert on Japanese culture and art, wrote that when he first saw Iya he felt that the landscape “was the most fantastic in all of Japan’s countryside.”
“Even now, when I travel back to Iya, I feel as though I’ve left the world behind and entered a magical realm,” Kerr wrote in his book subtitled “Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan.”
Kerr’s book, which was first published in 1996 and revised and republished in 2015, alerted the world to the growing threat that modernization posed to Japan’s unspoiled natural beauty and traditional way of life, particularly in pristine places such as Iya Valley.
The cable car at Hotel Iya Onsen is just one of several features that attest to Iya Valley’s induction into the modern age, along with massive concrete and steel structures, traffic jams and hordes of tourists.
Tourists are arriving in Iya from all over the world – something we noticed as we waited in line for nearly an hour to take the Oboke sightseeing river cruise on the mighty Yoshino River.
Known as one of the wildest rivers in Japan, the Yoshino River with its swiftly-flowing deep green waters is also a popular place for white river rafting.
Despite the influx of tourists, Iya Valley still feels relatively untouched and remote, which is exactly what attracts tourists to Iya. It is a mixed blessing – and sometimes a serious problem — for local residents.
The perils of such isolation are on stark view at Nagoro, a tiny hamlet in east Iya known as Kakashi-no-sato, or the “hometown of scarecrows.”
In an eerie reminder of Japan’s greying society, Nagoro has more scarecrows than people.
The 150 or so scarecrows, which are made by local resident, Tsukimi Ayano, fill empty homes and abandoned fields and way outnumber the local population of about 35.
In Oku-Iya, not far from Chiiori, a 300-year old farmhouse, which Alex Kerr has lovingly restored as a guesthouse, is Kazurabashi, one of three remaining vine bridges in Iya.
There used to be 13 vine bridges in the area, which served as an important conduit for local residents, who needed to cross from one side of the valley to the other in order to trade their wares or go hunting.
Kazurabashi is a popular tourist site, but less crowded (and therefore more enjoyable) is Nijyu-Kazurabashi, a “husband and wife” pair of vine bridges located further north.
A short walk from the “wife” bridge, which is the smaller of the two vine bridges, is a hand-operated ropeway, known as the Wild Monkey Bridge.
For safety reasons, all the vine bridges have steel cables hidden within the vines and are re-built every three years.
With its growing number of tourists, and the comforts and conveniences of the 21st century that they require, Iya Valley may no longer be the magical place of untouched beauty and simple way of life that has been lost to much of Japan.
But even after a short overnight visit, we left feeling that it still comes very close.
Getting there : Iya Valley is on the island of Shikoku, south of Okayama. It is best visited by car, but driving is not easy as the roads are narrow and there are many blind curves. Rental cars are available at nearby airports, such as Tokushima and Takamatsu, or at Awa Ikeda. For further details see this site : http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e7826.html