by Natalie Paris, The Telegraph, March 11, 2019
Hooomph. My husband was on his knees, huffing into a bamboo pole. The embers beneath flickered into life and lit up an open hearth, cut into dark wooden floorboards that had been polished as smooth as marble by decades of slippered feet.
I settled back on a cushion and stared up at the huge timbers supporting the soot-blackened, thatched roof. A previous visitor had joked that the only thing this beautiful old Japanese house needed was an armchair and it was true that the cavernous room was empty except for the sunken fire, a couple of lanterns and sliding doors made from paper.
These exquisite but delicate paper screens were adorned with the painted characters: chii and ori, meaning “House of the Flute.”
As smoke drifted up into the naked rafters, the bare floorboards became a stage for my imagination to fill with domestic scenes from the 300-year-old house’s past.
Before arriving at Chiiori, we had stayed in a similar, though less magnificent, kominka, which is what the Japanese call a traditional house. It was in Ochiai, a village further along the Iya Valley, one of a handful of old farmhouses that had recently been restored.
There, an elder took me on a tour one morning of the rocky, 200-year-old mountain paths that crisscrossed the valley. At a simple shrine, in front of a clutch of straw streamers, we clapped a couple of times and gave a quick bow. “Now make a wish for your family,” he said.
Ochiai is a state-protected village and the location of eight Edo period (1603-1868) houses that have been rethatched in order to be rented out.
Soon, you will be able to find such houses elsewhere on Shikoku Island, as the regional Setouchi tourism board is encouraging kominka restoration and has set itself a target of 100 completed houses by 2020.
So, while rural history is being preserved, visitors get the rare opportunity to self-cater and experience life outside of Japan’s hectic urban centres.
In the Iya Valley, everything is green. Villagers used to farm potatoes and cultivate tobacco here until the Sixties, when most began to leave for the cities. Now the few young residents that remain work for Chiiori Alliance, the company that rents out the kominkas. One young employee is raising a family – the first baby the village has seen for decades.
Chiiori is the largest kominka that can be rented out in Iya and it stands alone, on a ridge away from the village. It was painstakingly restored by its owner Alex Kerr, an American whose 1993 book, Lost Japan, described his concerns over Japan’s loss of traditional culture.
When we found the house, at the top of a twisting road, it was subsumed in cloud, just as it was when Kerr first lay eyes on it in the Seventies.
“It’s a special romantic landscape,” Kerr said, “straight out of a painting.” In other parts of Japan, the scenery is of rice paddies and people clustered at ground level. The mountains are empty except for temples and shrines, as this is where gods dwelled.
“But in Iya people lived in the hills because there was no flat ground,” Kerr said. “When you sit and look at the hills you are experiencing something that you can’t find in any other village.”
Not that the Iya Valley is completely unspoilt. These days there are roads up to the top of villages, electric cables slung between houses and a few banks of concrete holding together hairpin bends. Nonetheless, the quiet and the views of villages clinging to the valley’s steep sides are bewitching.
“Chiiori is a time capsule of a Japan that disappeared hundreds years ago,” Kerr said.
As well as traditionally eating soba (buckwheat) rather than rice, people in the Iya Valley are reputedly descended from fugitives. Members of the defeated Heike clan fled here in the late 12th century and there is an impressively tall, old clan house not far from Chiiori.
Clansfolk are also said to have built the gnarled and knotted vine bridges nearby. You can cross them, Indiana Jones-style, tiptoeing between boards that offer an all-too-clear view of the river rushing beneath.
White water rafting and gorge cruising are offered further up the valley, while a bronze of a boy peeing over a cliff near the Iya Onsen hotel (iyaonsen.co.jp/en) reveals how local children once got their kicks.
The hotel’s onsen (hot spring) is one of the most spectacular I’ve seen: a set of open-air baths sit, steaming, above an icy, turquoise river. They are reached by taking a cable car to the bottom of the gorge and we booked a delicious private bath for £22 an hour.
The bathtubs back at the kominkas were deep and luxurious too, and the houses came equipped with high-end, modern kitchens (although beds are futons). This meant we could mostly self-cater, which is unusual in Japan.
One lunchtime we took a soba noodle-making class. Another night, an elderly lady cooked for us while we counted stars, bringing out appetisers of dense little potatoes smeared with sweet miso paste, which she called “beer snacks”.
Visitors to Iya will need a car. We hired ours in Takamatsu – a city that is two and a half hours from Osaka by train – for the drive to Ochiai. Takamatsu is well worth stopping at, as it is the jumping off point for islands home to fascinating contemporary art installations.
Outside of the main cities, driving in Japan is refreshingly civilised, with clear signs in English. From Iya, we made it to another kominka, a lattice-fronted, merchant’s town house in Uchiko, a three-hour drive further west.
Uchiko is a middle-class town with a fine old kabuki theatre and an excellent farmers’ market. It grew prosperous from the production of wax and its historic main street is lined with small museums.
The most interesting person we met, however, lived deep in the Iya Valley.
This woman had, for the past decade, been making human-size scarecrows and dotting them about her now almost-empty hamlet. If you’re passing through – and not many people do – you can see them in various poses: up trees, “fixing” power cables or slumped on benches.
“It’s totally ridiculous but it’s a cry from the heart,” Kerr told me when we were in Ochiai. “She is repopulating. We’re trying to do the same in our village, but with real people.”
Chiiori Alliance offers houses through Tougenkyo-Iya (0081 883 88 2540; tougenkyo-iya.jp), including Chiiori (from £207 a night, sleeping up to six) and others in Ochiai (from £138 a night).
Times Car Rental (timescar-rental.com) offers compact cars in Takamatsu from £320 for a week and can help programme sat navs, but be sure to print off a zoomed-in map of Tougenkyo-Iya’s location too.
Cathay Pacific (cathypacific.com) has flights into Osaka from £658 return.
For more information see Setouchi Finder: setouchifinder.com/en.