Outdoor ONSEN with cherry blossom view at one of 3 unexplored regions in Japan

There are places called “Japan’s 3 unexplored regions” – SHIRAKAWAGO (白川郷) in GIFU Prefecture, SHIIBA Village (椎葉村) in MIYAZAKI Prefecture, and IYA (祖谷) in TOKUSHIMA Prefecture. Since they had been called “unexplored regions” for a while, there have been more tourists visiting these places nowadays, but still they have plenty of nature, beautiful landscape, and peaceful atmosphere just like being at secret hideaway. The thing is, the access to these places is extremely bad, but this is why these places remain untouched and attractive.

IYA (祖谷) is a village located in the steep valleys and deep mountains which sit on the boarder of TOKUSHIMA Prefecture and KOCHI Prefecture. These steep valleys are called “OOBOKE (大歩危)” and “KOBOKE (小歩危)”, and there are some small villages along these valleys. The height of these valleys is approx. 390m, which is even higher than Tokyo Tower (330m), and because of this steepness, these small villages are lying separately on the hill. Each village is so small, and even the largest village, OCHIAI Village (落合集落), only has 70 houses. Many old houses with thatched roof still remain in this OCHIAI Village, and it was registered as “Preservation Districts for Groups of Important Historic Buildings” in 2005. CHIIORI TRUST, a NPO led by Alex Kerr, has renovated the traditional thatched houses in this area and you can enjoy staying there.

The place where “HEIKE NO OCHUDO” hid themselves

In the 1100s, GENPEI War (源平の合戦), a series of war between MINAMOTO clan (源家), leader of SAMURAI, and TAIRA clan (平家 / HEIKE), military leader of the late HEIAN Period, happened. This series of war resulted in the fall of TAIRA clan and the establishment of the KAMAKURA Shogunate (鎌倉幕府) under YORITOMO MINAMOTO in 1192. Soldiers of TAIRA clan (HEIKE) escaped from Shogunate as fugitives (落人 / OCHUDO) and hid themselves for so many years. Actually there are so many oral traditions of “HEIKE NO OCHUDO” at various places in Japan, and people say that this IYA in TOKUSHIMA Prefecture is also one of them. The place like this surrounded by such steep valleys and mountains might have been the best place for them to hide.

“KAZURA Bridge” and “Red flags”: existing legend of HEIKE NO OCHUDO

In IYA, there are 2 suspension bridges called “KAZURA Bridge” to cross the valley. KAZURA Bridge is one of the Japan’s 3 most unusual bridges, and it’s made of vines of creeping plants. Why was this bridge made of vines of plants? That was because in case enemy attacks village, they cut the bridge so that enemy couldn’t cross the valley and come inside the village. Actually, it is really scaring to cross it.

Moreover, the red flags which used to be the symbol of HEIKE (TAIRA clan) are still kept in the village. The legend of HEIKE NO OCHUDO is still living here.

IYA ONSEN (祖谷温泉) flowing at such hidden village

Many of the places where HEIKE’s legend exists have ONSEN somehow. Once I had an assumption that wherever HEIKE’s legend exits, there also exists ONSEN. In other words, I couldn’t stop feeling that HEIKE’s samurai intentionally escaped to the places where have ONSEN to ease them. However, after researching, it turned out that ONSEN in this village was mined in 1965, and there’s no connection with HEIKE NO OCHUDO themselves. Having said that, I really wanted to try this secret ONSEN in this unexplored regions where surviving SAMURAI hid themselves for hundreds of years.

Finally I visited this village in April. Departing OSAKA Station, it took 3 hours 40 minutes by express bus to reach AWA-IKEDA Station (阿波池田駅). It was much faster than I expected because going via AWAJI SHIMA (淡路島) and seeing whirlpools on the way was really fun.

Transferring to train at AWA-IKEDA Station and took me just 30 minutes to reach OOBOKE Station (大歩危駅). Since this train goes along the valleys, the landscape you can see over the window is really overwhelming. When I reached there, cherry blossoms were in full bloom, stream flowing along the valleys reflected fresh green leaves vividly, and “KOINOBORI” (鯉のぼり / Carp Streamer) which celebrates boy’s festival (端午の節句 / TANGO NO SEKKU) in May was peacefully swimming above the stream.

OOBOKE Pleasure boat

I enjoyed “TOKUSHIMA Ramen” at the restaurant “OOBOKEKYO MANNAKA (大歩危峡まんなか)” for my lunch. I spent time here till the boarding of OOBOKE Pleasure boat. The boat goes on the stream of huge valleys. When I looked up at the sky, the carp streamers were swimming far above me. I also looked up sheer cliff. Such a rugged rocks it’s made of. This would show many faces according to the seasons. I felt this season and this moment with all my senses. I took a deep breath of fresh air.

“Unexplored ONSEN” where I stayed

I reached an inn before sunset. Fog was getting thicker as if mountains was breathing. Trailing cloud over the valleys and mountains. I felt this place looked like IZUMO (出雲) in SHIMANE Prefecture and TAKACHIHO (高千穂) in MIYAZAKI Prefecture. Covered with moist air, I was with natural mist.

I stayed a night at the inn “HIKYO NO YU (秘境の湯)”, which literally means “Unexplored ONSEN”. The reason why I chose this inn was its outdoor bath in a rustic atmosphere. It’s really wonderful to bathe in ONSEN with feeling the season. The spring quality here is Hydrogen carbonate spring. It cleanses your skin as well as makes your skin moisturized. It’s the best spring quality to bathe in spring.

In addition, this inn serves you rustic local dishes such as “IYA SOBA Noodles” and river fish like “AMEGO (AMAGO)”. The portion of each dish is not too big and not too small. It also has full of seasonal vegetables such as bamboo shoots and canola flowers. They are really good with local SAKE (Japanese liquor). After satisfied with these local specialties, I really slept well. My TOUJI (湯治) for my body and mind has just begun again.

KAZURA Bridge in the morning

Next morning, I took bus to move further up into the mountain. Buses don’t come to this area so often, and the slope is much steeper. But I wanted to see the bridge which used to be a part of the lives of HEIKE NO OCHUDO.

Surrounded by loud sound of wild river and creaking sound of suspension bridge. Although vines were perfectly woven and it looked ok no matter how many people crossed at the same time, actually it was super scary as the river far below me was visible while crossing. It is really surprising that SAMURAI in the ancient times used vines for bridge in order that they could cut it and escaped when enemy came. Human wisdom is really unbelievable. There was also falls and moss. Humidity was so high. I enjoyed bathing in negative ions. It is one of the best things of TOUJI to walk inside the nature like this. Thanks to this change of air, I felt my mind and body gradually got relaxed. Leaving my rough mind to nature, and being back to my original self. It started raining. Cherry blossoms drenched with dew was also beautiful. We human beings are made of water, and similarly, nature also lives relying on water. Although we don’t like rain in the town, but during the trip I somehow appreciated this blessing of nature.

Outdoor ONSEN with cherry blossom view

After coming back near the inn, I visited some other ONSEN at other inns. There are 2 fine-view ONSEN at the valley. One is “Hotel IYA ONSEN” where you can reach by going down the valley by cable car, and the other is “Hotel KAZURA BASHI) where you can reach by going up the valley by cable car. At both of them, you can enjoy wonderful view of the valley. Though the former one is more famous, but I chose the latter one because I wanted to enjoy ONSEN privately.

The name of this ONSEN is “TENKU ROTEN BURO (天空露天風呂)” which means “Outdoor Bath in Heaven”! I was really excited to experience it.

The cable car took me up to the upper hill. It went really slowly as if we leave from the lower world to heaven slowly. Once reached to the upper world, the beautiful Japanese garden and outdoor stone bath were waiting for me. In addition, there was a cherry tree beside the bathtub and I fully enjoyed bathing in ONSEN with viewing this beautiful cherry blossoms. And also, panoramic view of IYA Valley is visible from here. Clouds were floating freely as if mountains were breathing. What an amazing landscape this ONSEN has! What a happy moment this is! In addition, as expected, there was no one else but me!

Forgotten culture should never be forgotten

I took bus again to head to OCHIAI Village, the largest village in this region. An old Japanese house with thatched roof is open for public as the regional museum, and I enjoyed a conversation with an old lady who manages this museum. She told me that an American guy, Alex Kerr, renovated old houses and changed them to inns where people can stay with experiencing the culture in this region. I felt like the scales fell from my eyes. What are we Japanese people doing! There are so many things we Japanese people can learn from Alex Kerr. It is not always good to throw away the old things. It is not always good to take new and convenient things. I personally love old things and something handed down from generation to generation, maybe because I have experience living outside Japan or for some other reasons. The reason why I stick to TOUJI (湯治 / hot spring cure) may be also because this precious traditional culture is now forgotten, though it’s Japan-origin medical treatment which is worth handed down and rather introduced to the world.

Moreover, as often seen in many rural regions in Japan, there are only elderly people still living there and most of the local young people shift to metropolitan to seek for more urban and convenient lives. Although some forgotten culture have been re-discovered by tourists, local young people are working in the city. I have been disappointed at this gap for so many years and I have been thinking that I need to do something to change it.

Double KAZURA Bridge at OKU-IYA

KAZURA Bridge where I visited this morning is very famous, but actually there is one more KAZURA bridge at the region called “OKU-IYA”, located further deep from IYA. Since there are 2 KAZURA bridges called “OTOKO BASHI (male bridge)” and “ONNA BASHI (female bridge)”, this pair of bridges is called “Husband and wife bridge”. This OTOKO BASHI is 42 meters long, 2 meters wide, and 12 meters high from the river. Although it’s a bit smaller than the one in IYA, it was so thrilling to cross it too.

On my way to OKU-IYA here, so many scarecrows came into my eyes at a small village. “Village in heaven, home for scarecrow”. It’s NAGORO Village (名頃集落) located at east IYA. Surprisingly, the number of scarecrow is more than the number of people living in this village. Yes, I didn’t see anyone but scarecrows.

Warm hospitality at unexplored region

I remembered that the last bus from OKU-IYA back to IYA would depart around 4pm. How early the last bus of the day departs. This is how it goes in the countryside of Japan. I carefully tried not to miss the last bus, but I was still watching the great nature of this OKU-IYA with a reluctant backward glance. This is what the unexplored region is. I had thought that I would be able to have lunch somewhere at OKU-IYA, but there was no restaurant. Although I found one restaurant but unfortunately it was closed. So I decided to take the bus one earlier and find the place to eat on the way back.

Then, I visited a SOBA noodle restaurant where the bus driver had kindly recommended. SOBA noodle here was really nice. While I was eating, the owner of this restaurant kindly kept watching if bus came, then finally she told me “Now bus has come!” I rushed finishing it, and left there with say thank you to her. Such hospitality and friendliness is also what is special about countryside. I felt happy and peaceful again. It was not only because of that hot SOBA noodle why I became warm.

Finally I came back to IYA. I looked back the mountain with remembering OKU-IYA. There should be so many more worlds and regions which I don’t know yet. Similarly there should be so many more ONSEN generated by this great nature which I don’t know yet. I really want to come back here and discover more.

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