Once in a while, we all have the urge to drop everything and head somewhere to relax and get away from the things that bog us down. Traveling is not just about taking in the sights, having fun, and eating delicious food all the time. There are some places that may not offer you much in tangible terms, but the tranquility and healing atmosphere they provide might just be what you need to refresh your mind and soul.
In Japan, there are three places jointly known as “Nihon Sandaihikyou (日本三大秘境),” which literally means the “Top 3 Untrodden and Most Secluded Places in Japan.” To be considered a hikyou, the place must be located in a very inaccessible place, such as in the depths of a mountain, and there must be very few people who would go or are living there. Usually, places that are very inaccessible tend to suffer less damage due to heavy foot traffic, thus making them even more beautiful. And to get to such beautiful places, you need to spend more effort which in turn works out to be more gratifying since the beauty you get to see will be unrivaled.
Of course, with advancements in transportation networks, these places are no longer as inaccessible as before – which also means that more tourists are able to visit them. Nonetheless, this doesn’t reduce the charm and appeal of these beautiful and peaceful sanctuaries, so read on to find out more about them and visit them during your next trip to Japan!
At the mention of Shirakawa-go, the first image that usually pops up to mind is the winter night scene where the thatched-roof houses are lit up amid a deep sea of pristine white snow. For those who have an aversion to the bitter cold and don’t fancy walking in knee-deep snow, autumn may be your preferred season to see a different side of Shirakawa-go’s beauty in hues of gold, yellow, and red.
For those who may not be aware, Shirakawa-go actually does not refer to a single place but is a collective term used to refer to three villages, namely Shirakawa-mura (白川村), Shoukawa-mura (荘川村), and Kiyomi-mura (清見村). Of these, Shirakawa-mura is known as Shimo Shirakawa-go (下白川郷) i.e. Lower Shirakawa-go, while the other two, which are part of Takayama City now, are known as Kami Shirakawa-go (上白川郷) i.e. Upper Shirakawa-go.
Other than admiring the unique thatched-roof houses and observing how the locals live in Shirakawa-go, don’t miss out on their local produce and souvenirs. These include suttate nabe (すったて鍋) made from the local Hida beef, rice flour waffles made from Koshihikari rice, shiso monaka, Kobo tea which is said to be brought by Kobo-Taishi (弘法大師) to the area, and mayoke taka no tsume (魔除けタカの爪) which is red chili peppers stringed together as a charm to ward off evil.
Famous for its local rice, soybeans, and soba, there are also many related products which you can savor in Shirakawa-go or bring home for your family and friends.
Depending on where you are coming from, there are various bus services (normal and express) that would suit a variety of budgets.
On Shirakawa-go’s website, there are five routes listed wherein the fastest trip is from JR Takayama Station (高山駅) i.e. 50 minutes, while the longest is from JR Nagoya Station (名古屋駅) i.e. 2 hours and 50 minutes.
Some of these bus services require prior reservations and the schedules can be more infrequent during the cold winter months, so it is always best to check in advance rather than take a chance on the day of your trip.
Also, please take note that many of the bus services to Shirakawa-go stop at Shirakawa-mura only, so you might want to keep that in mind if you are making accommodation plans in Upper Shirakawa-go.
Iyayama i.e. Mt. Iya is located in the northwestern part of Tokushima Prefecture where the Iyayama-mura (祖谷山村) i.e. Iyayama Village is literally cut off from the outside world, thanks to a deep valley called Iyakei (祖谷渓) i.e. Iya Valley and a mountain pass at more than 1,000 meters above sea level, which people must cross in order to get to the village. However, thanks to the old Iya Gaido (祖谷街道) that opened in 1920, accessibility to the village had greatly improved and it brought about the modernization of its lumbering industry in the Meiji era.
At one time, there were many outsiders who moved to the area, but the subsequent declining popularity of its swidden agricultural industry led to an outflow of its population, resulting in the area becoming more elusive and secluded. It was only until the development of Ooboke (大歩危) as a tourism area that a direct road was established between the village and Ooboke in 1974. This allowed the outside world to gain access to the village and discover its charm as a place of untouched beauty featuring scenic mountain valleys, thatched-roof farmhouses, and old vine bridges.
Take note, however, that while the western part of the valley known as Nishi-Iya (西祖谷) is very accessible and hosts various tourist facilities, the eastern part, known as Higashi-Iya (東祖谷) or Oku-Iya (奥祖谷), is still difficult to reach with vine bridges being the sole way of crossing the rivers and valleys.
As you can probably imagine, most of the attractions and facilities are in the Ooboke and Nishi-Iya areas.
- The Iya-no-Kazura Bashi (祖谷のかずら橋) is a vine bridge measuring 45 meters long and two meters wide, perched 14 meters above the river. It has been named an Important Tangible Folk Cultural Asset. Besides seeing the natural scenery spread around the bridge and beneath, don’t miss the light-up of the bridge between 7:00 PM and 9:30 PM every night.
- For those who want to admire the valley up close or have a fear of heights when crossing the vine bridges, the Oboke Yuransen boat tours lasting 30 minutes on a four-kilometer river course might be a better choice.
- Many people will also be keen to check out shonben kozou (小便小僧) i.e. the Statue of the Peeing Boy which overlooks the valley. It is said that the statue was put there based on the legend of how young children and tourists tested their guts by standing on the edge.
- If you are willing to venture into Oku-Iya, you might want to give the monorail tour a try which takes about 65 minutes to complete a 4.6-kilometer long route featuring inclines up to 40 degrees and reaching a height of 1,380 meters above sea level. As the monorail is operated by electricity, it does not pose any side effects to the surrounding environment. However, do note that the number of trips is limited and only two people can ride in one monorail carriage, so there is a likelihood that you may not be able to take this in the event of huge crowds or adverse weather. In addition, this service is not available during the winter months, so if you want to try this before the end of 2017, the operation hours for October and November will be from 8:30 AM to 3:30 PM.
Despite the village being in the middle of the mountain, one of its signature produce is the ayu (鮎 / あゆ) i.e. sweetfish caught from the clear river. Although there is limited farmland on the terraced plots on the mountain, their soba and dekomawashi (でこまわし) featuring local produce like potatoes, tofu, and konnyaku on skewer sticks are also worth checking out.
Shiiba-son i.e. Shiiba Village is located in the northeastern part of Miyazaki Prefecture and surrounded by mountains such as Kunimidake (国見岳). Although the village boasts a land area that makes it the fifth-largest village in the country, its liveable area is only four percent and largely limited to places around the river or on terraced plains of the mountain. Due to its unique landscape, Shiiba-son also has the nickname of “Japan’s Machu Picchu.” This area is also the only place remaining in Japan where swidden agriculture is still practiced.
Much of Shiiba-son’s charm lies in its beautiful landscape of mountains, valleys, and waterfalls, along with its rich and long-standing culture. If you are looking for the nostalgic feel of old Japan, this is a place that you shouldn’t miss. While there, you can also take part in experience workshops (Japanese only) such as making soba, mochi, manju, konnyaku, or tofu.
Shiiba Heike Festival (椎葉平家まつり)
The biggest event at the village will have to be the Shiiba Heike Festival. This festival celebrates the legendary love story between the Heike clan’s Princess Tsurutomi and Genji clan’s Nasu Daihachiro – who apparently, over 800 years ago, was ordered to destroy the Heike clan. This 2017, the festival will take place from 10 November to 12 November.
Besides a series of events and performances held during the festival period, stalls selling food, drinks, and souvenirs will also be set up. The highlight of the festival will be the Heike Parade where the male locals will dress up as samurais from the Genji clan and walk with the person playing Nasu, while the female locals will dress up as maidens to follow the person playing Princess Tsurutomi. Adding to the festivities are the appearances of the famous orchestra from Miyazaki Gakuen and Shiiba-son’s mascot, Otsuru-chan (おつるちゃん), which was modeled after Princess Tsurutomi.
Due to the lack of train stations in the village, there is only a limited bus service from the coastal Hyuga City (日向市) which takes 2 hours and 30 minutes. The only alternative is to travel by car and this website (Japanese only) states the estimated traveling times from various nearby cities.
For example, if you are traveling from Miyazaki City (宮崎市), it will take you three to four hours, while driving from Kumamoto City (熊本市) will be faster and will only take two to three hours. However, if you are not confident about your driving skills and the route, it might be best to take public transport instead as there is the danger of adverse road conditions and rockfall from the mountains during certain periods of the year.
Now that you’ve read so much about these three beautiful places in Japan, are you eager to check them out for yourself and embark on an invigorating trip to refresh your mind and body?