Venture out of Japan’s big cities to Oboke-Iya, the verdant mountainous interior of Shikoku Island, where nature and tradition soothe the soul.
The thickly wooded mountainsides of the Iya Valley and the emerald green Yoshino River that cuts through the Oboke Gorge are the green beating heart of Shikoku – the least known and visited (even among the Japanese) of Japan’s ‘big four’ islands. This Oboke-Iya region of the Tokushima Prefecture was once the haunt and hideout of Heike Clan warriors fleeing defeat in the 12th century, and nowadays offers off-the-beaten-track adventures that few would connect to a Japanese holiday – mountainous scenic drives (yes self-driving in Japan is achievable – more on that later), river boating and white water rafting, walking and hiking, and revitalising body and mind in the open-air natural hot spring onsen baths.
The region can be done as a self-drive in a day from Takamatsu or Matsuyama cities; or you can train it from Takamatsu to Awa-Ikeda Station and catch the Tourist Bonnet Bus – a refurbished retro school bus that tours the main attractions (Japaneseonly commentary); but the beauty of this serene landscape is best appreciated by selfdrivers who plan at least an overnight stay. Many come just to stay at a traditional onsen hot-spring ryokan inn or mountain hotel. Most inns also welcome day visitors to soak in their onsen natural mineral baths during the day and sample homestyle local dishes cooked on an open fire hearth. Try the chicken and buckwheat porridge, bamboo skewered salted river trout and dekomawashi – skewers of potato and tofu basted in miso paste. Hotel Kazurabashi has three outdoor baths perched on a cliff, offering stunning mountain views. Do read up on onsen etiquette, so you know the drill and are not thrown by the `no bathing suits’ rule! Weather permitting (May to November), you can see and feel the seasons change amid cherry blossoms in spring or stunning leaf displays in autumn by pitching a tent or staying in a cabin at Oky-Iya Campgrounds overlooking the Iya River. Bed linen, camping and cooking equipment can be hired.
Float your boat
A must-do is floating down the crystal clear waters of the Yoshino River in the Oboke Gorge – either bobbing about in an Oboke Yuransen Pleasure Boat – on the snaking calm reaches or whitewater rafting the rapids with Happy Raft.
And don’t leave without plucking up the nerve to cross Iya-Kazurabashi – a traditional vine bridge – it’s a 45 metrelong, two metre-wide, five tonne thrilla- minute balancing test suspended 15m above the Iya River. It’s reconstructed every three years – so fear not!
Also recommended is hiking Mount Tsurugi, made easier by catching the Kanko Tozan Lift, which lets you off to complete a 40-minute climb to the top. Be sure to do the winding but beautiful drive to see the Kita Clan Samurai House – built by the Lord of Awa in 1763 – it features a traditional thatched roof, an internal open hearth fire cooking pit and an 800-year-old cedar tree in the garden.
Exploring this unexpected and delightful Iya- Oboke region is easier than you think. Just go with the furo – that’s Japanese for flow!