Viewing traces of rediscovered Japan in the mountain ranges of Shikoku*
The Shikoku mountain range is a series of incredibly steep slopes. The coniferous forest looms before you like a towering wall. Weaving through the mountains is a winding path slipping in and out of view. The trees tightly grip the steep ground and stretch straight up toward the sky. While the natural landscape of the Iya region of Tokushima Prefecture seems almost too precipitous for humans to access, people have lived and settled here since ancient times. About 50 years ago, a young American named Alex Kerr, seeking a primordial Japanese landscape, visited the area and recognized its allure.
Alex Kerr, born in the United States, spent his youth in Yokohama because of his father's work. After graduating from Yale University with a bachelor's degree in Japanese Studies, Kerr went on to study the same subject at Keio University in Japan from 1972 to 1973. During this time, he came across a very attractive old thatched house in Iya in the mountains of Shikoku, and named it Chiiori. He and his friends worked hard to restore it and then resided there. From 1974 to 1977, he studied Sinology at Oxford University in England, and returned to Japan, where he has been deeply involved in projects related to the beauty of Asia and the restoration of old houses.
The Japan that Kerr loved was something unique, unlike any other culture in the world. However, in its pursuit of economics, Japan treated the archipelago like a factory, not recognizing the attendant environmental destruction and decline of its own culture, and lost many of its cultural assets such as traditional Japanese houses. He despaired to witness up close the attitude toward the environment that resulted in the encasing in concrete of mountainsides and riverbanks. He bitterly criticized this state of affairs in his books, "Dogs and Demons" and "Lost Japan: Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan".
The restoration of Chiiori in Iya was a difficult task, starting with securing a field of thatching grass for the roof, but young Mr. Kerr successfully accomplished it with the help of friends and villagers. Over time, the area began to attract various cultural figures. A traditional Noh stage was set up in a traditional wooden-floored room. On the curtain was a painting not of pine trees (the symbol of Noh) but of mitsukashiwa oak leaves (a traditional family crest). Various dances were presented here, as well as performances of cello and the traditional Japanese instruments, shakuhachi, shamisen, biwa and koto. Mr. Kerr recalls that it was a special place where people discussed the future of beauty in Asia over sake.
I stayed at Chiiori, which is a 300 year-old Japanese-style farmhouse. Guests dine gathered around a sunken hearth glowing with a charcoal fire. Having a meal while gazing over the spacious wood floor, now doubling as an empty Noh stage, certainly provokes one's imagination. I heard that one night during a typhoon, with the sliding storm shutters closed tight, Mr. Kerr read Moby-Dick by candlelight in the deep black space. These days, the inn serves boxed meals of local delicacies, delivered to guests at just the right time. The house is enveloped in silence, and on a fine night, the sky is filled with bright stars.
There is a hamlet called Ochiai in Higashi Soya, about half an hour drive from Ichiiori. The area is known for the legend of the defeated soldiers of the Heike clan and their cultivation of the land, but above all, the settlement spreading out along the slope of the mountain is a magnificent sight. The entire area is about 300 hectares, but the difference in elevation within the precinct is as much as 390 meters (almost 1280 feet). Forming the borders of the village are two main roads, one running down the slope and another following east to west along the contour line. More roads intersect these, stretching out to houses and fields. Crops are mainly for self sufficiency, and buckwheat and potatoes called "Goshi Imo" are planted on the slopes.
In Ochiai, a village that has been suffering from depopulation, nine old houses have been restored. Eight of them are managed by the Togenkyo Iya no Yamazato (Shangri-la Iya Mountain Village) project. Mr. Kerr led the project and helped renovate the homes. The aims of the project are preserving the traditional landscape and revitalizing the village community. There is a certain sense of freedom and luxury in renting a traditional house that differs from both ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and minshuku (guest houses). A two-and -a-half-hour drive from Takamatsu Airport, the mountain village lies at the end of a winding mountain road and rather than a secluded, unexplored region off the beaten path, it is a place where one encounters Japan’s future: a place to experience the pride and potential of traditional wooden architecture.
I would also like to mention Iya Onsen, a hot spring 30 minutes by car from Chiiri that features a 2spectacular view. From the recently renovated bath, the dense canopy of trees on the steep slope of the mountain across the valley emerges as if in a picture frame over the mirror-like surface of the hot water. It is truly a majestic sight unique to the Shikoku Mountains, and the way in which it has been created is superb.
The lukewarm open-air hot spring bath, accessed by cable car, was also perfect for the early June weather.
*Shikoku (四国, literally "four countries") is Japan's fourth largest island, southwest of Japan's main island Honshu.