TT-992 (Tourism Edition) -- Iya-Otoyo: One of the 3 Most Famous, Least Visited Places in Japan

Japan Travel
* * * * * * * * TERRIE'S (TOURISM) TAKE - BY TERRIE LLOYD * * * * * *
A bi-weekly focused look at the tourism sector in Japan, by Terrie
Lloyd, a long-term technology and media entrepreneur living in Japan.

Tourism Sector Edition Sunday, July 08, 2019, Issue No. 992

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+++ Iya-Otoyo: One of the 3 Most Famous, Least Visited Places in Japan

Four years ago, an Australian friend and I decided to do a cycling
road trip together that would culminate with our participating in the
Shimanami Kaido "Cycling Taikai" out of Imabari, Ehime, in Shikoku.
The Shimanami of course being an amazing string of suspension bridges
that island-hop the Seto Inland Sea between Honshu and Shikoku, and
which was engineered to have a cycling lane all the way across.
Whomever thought of appending that cycling lane was a genius, because
now the Shimanami Kaido route is probably the most famous Japanese
cycling course for foreigners (Lake Biwa is the busiest course for
Japanese) and it attracts tens of thousands of inbound riders every
year. Those riders are injecting millions of dollars into local
economies that otherwise would never see them stop, because the
impulse when you're in a car is to keep driving.

Anyway, for no particular reason other than that Jetstar had a cheap
flight from Narita to Takamatsu, we decided to ride from Takamatsu
airport, and to add some miles to the week of riding, we'd take a left
turn at Miyoshi and go down into a valley called Iya, in Tokushima. As
it turns out, this was an amazing ride to an amazing part of the
country, and among other things we discovered an onsen hotel (Hotel
Kazurabashi) where you take a funicular from the hotel up to the baths
(fantastic view from the ofuro); a Japanese version of Brussels'
Mannekin Pis - a "Pissing Boy" statue - that pees out over a
vertigo-inducing chasm; and best of all, meeting and having tea with
Aya-no-tsukimi (her adopted name), who has since become famous for
sewing life-size scare crows to repopulate her dwindling village of
Nagoro. [Kazurabashi Hotel] (Pissing boy] [Nagoro, home town of Aya-no-tsukimi]

Although this was only four years ago, the whole region was quite
bereft of tourists and an old man local to the area told me that Iya
was one of the three most famous, least visited places in Japan.

My, how things change.

Now that the Nakasendo has become so crowded with foreign tourists
trying to connect with their inner samurai, repeat travelers to Japan
are looking for the next uncharted destination, and in so doing they
are creating new human traffic jams in even more remote spots around
the country. One of those spots is the Iya valley, where there are now
bus loads of wide-eyed visitors walking the vine bridges and marveling
at the traditional homes perched up on the steep hillsides. So how did
Iya get discovered so suddenly? My personal opinion is that the search
for remaining genuine historical locations around the country has been
pushed by major foreign (mostly UK) tour operators over the last 5
years, and this coupled with the recent coverage in major
international media such as the UK's Telegraph, the Washington Post,
and Bloomberg, about Alex Kerr's wonderfully renovated "Chiiori" farm
house in the Iya valley, has spurred a fascination with this remote
part of the country. [Kerr's Chiiori NPO site]

[Continued below...]

----------- One-time Unique Noh Performance ---------------

Admit it now. How many years have you been in Japan and never been to
a Noh performance...? Well, now is your chance!

The National Noh Theater in Sendagaya is ramping up for the Tokyo
Olympics by preparing a Noh "potpourri" for foreign audiences in
Japan. As part of their preparation, they are doing a full dress
performance (far more than a rehearsal) next month and are offering
group discounts to any foreign residents and friends interested in
attending. Work groups and families are particularly welcome. The
National Noh Theater is just a couple of minutes walk from the main
Olympic stadium now being built.

Title: Noh and Kyogen Performance - "Essence Noh"
Time/Date: 04 Aug 2019 (Sun), 16:30-18:20; Theater opens at 15:45
Program: Kyogen FUKURO (Owl)/Noh TSUCHIGUMO (Spider), * With
multilingual subtitles (Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean)
Venue: The National Noh Theater (3-5 minutes walk from JR Sendagaya
Station, Chuo-Sobu Line)
Admission: All seats reserved but still available on request: 3,500yen.
For groups:
- Groups of 10-19 people - JPY3,000/person (JPY500 discount/ticket)
- Groups of 20-29 people - JPY2,500/person (JPY1,000 discount/ticket)
- Groups of 30+ people - JPY1,500/person (JPY2,000 discount/ticket)

Ticket Purchase:
- [Tickets Today]
- [Confetti]
Or, for groups over 10 people, contact Japan Travel directly at

For further inquiries, contact the The Nohgaku Performers' Association
at e-mail:

[...Article continues]

After that bike trip, Andrew and I have gone on to cover other parts
of the country, and I thought I might not get back to Iya again. But
as fate would have it, in April this year I became Kochi Prefecture's
official inbound travel advisor and have started visiting the
prefecture every month. My job is to try to understand Kochi's natural
resources and see how these can be matched to foreign tourists. Until
now the Kochi marketing effort has been the same "we have nature and
delicious seafood" patter as many other more conveniently located (to
major airports) prefectures and this has relegated them to a humbling
46th place out of 47 prefectures, in terms of visiting foreign
tourists. One of the things I have discovered about Kochi is that
while the Iya valley is more famous and sits in Tokushima, the rift
that becomes the Oboke Gorge and which merges with Iya valley,
actually starts at the headwaters of the Yoshino River in the
highlands of Kochi, at a place called Otoyo. And if there is one place
in Shikoku that is "more Iya than Iya" it's Otoyo.

As you drive up into the Kochi highlands the same dramatic terrain
that Iya (and Kerr's Chiiori) is so famous for, starts to open up.
Plunging, forest-clad mountains, joining at a white-capped Yoshino
river far below. An area previously impenetrable to ordinary travelers
but which is now semi-tamed by public roads on both sides of the
river. I say "semi-tamed" because landslides are a common occurrence
in the area. At the top of the spectacular mountains are old-world
farm houses just visible through the mist. The local communities are
private but welcoming of outsiders contributing to their economy.

It is here in this mountainous refuge that it is rumored the Taira
Clan retainers fled with one of the surviving family members after
their defeat by the Minamoto in the Genpei War of 1180-1185.
Apparently Otoyo was chosen because of a cunning plot to fool Minamoto
spies at Kochi port. It is said that they first boarded ships and set
sail for the east, ostensibly bound for Wakayama or Ise where they
could meet up with local sympathizers. But in fact, the ships
re-landed and the clan members and retainers trekked inland to Otoyo
and disappeared forever. A local drove me recently around the back
roads of Otoyo, and pointed out one of the houses that is said to have
been the home of one of the original clan members. It's amazing to see
how those ancients managed to seek out and establish villages on the
safest, most stable areas of a region that otherwise sees regular land
slides and erosion.

Otoyo has for the last fifty years been depopulating as young people
have left for the cities, and locals reckon the average age of farmers
there is 80+. This of course is nothing unusual in rural Japan, where
as many as 300 municipalities around the country are so de-populated
they can't even field enough candidates to run their town assemblies.
Okawa Town just 10km to the West is one of these.

Instead, what is saving Otoyo from a similar fate is foreigners and tourism.

The Yoshino river is particularly well suited for rafting and similar
water sports, and about 20 years ago a pair of Australian and Japanese
mates decided to start Happy Raft, today one of the leading operators
on the river. The Australian is happily settled with a "almost local"
girl (nearby city) and their off-spring have melted the hearts of the
local community and have created a base for other foreigners to do the
same. In fact, Otoyo has become a fascinating example of
tradition-meets-intermarriage, and today there is a Canadian carpenter
helping locals with their home maintenance projects while learning
Japanese traditional building techniques; an Indian fellow who has
started the first authentic Indian restaurant (perched up in the
hills) for at least 50km in any direction; and a number of foreign
rafting hands who have decided to buy places in the area. [Happy Raft website - great rafting experience]

[Continued below...]

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[...Article continues]

So here, among the mists and the history, a second outsider "invasion"
is taking place which will change the area forever. Half kids are now
a common sight and the locals are embracing them as the future of

Getting to Otoyo is not so convenient by public transport, although
there are buses and trains. The easiest way, and certainly the best if
you want to explore, is to get a rental car at either Tokushima or
Kochi airport. Or, if you have the energy, go by bike - but be warned
that there are some serious hills in the area, as I can testify! Once
there, you can get Airbnb-type accommodation with local landlords,
some of whom are the foreign arrivals that I mentioned earlier.

Apart from rafting, canyoning, and driving on tiny roads with sheer
cliffs and amazing river valley views, the Otoya area is also famous
for its flowers and teas. The carpenter in particular, is also taking
up tea-growing as a new income stream, and this remote mountainous
area is renowned among tea aficionados for its double-fermented
Goishi-cha tea - the one that is produced in mats that look like
seaweed laver and which is then cut into squares and sold for probably
5-10 times the cost of regular sencha.


BTW, many thanks to those readers who emailed me wondering if
everything was OK. After 22 years of religiously putting out the
Terrie's Take newsletter, they were concerned that I'd suddenly gone
quiet. Was I sick? Actually, no. Pressure of work, thanks to a
thriving travel business, has been part of my slow-down. But the other
part has been the arrival of my second grandchild and having mother
(my daughter) and her daughter (my granddaughter) living with us at
home. They are both headed off to Africa shortly as my daughter has
taken up a two-year JICA posting, and I realized that I wanted to be
part of their lives during the short time they are with us. All quite
unexpected but an extremely welcome interlude. So, the "Take" will be
back, but probably a bit less frequently as we head for the big "one
thousandth" issue.

...The information janitors/


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