Decaying villages and a hidden gem

After crossing Kazurabashi (かずら橋), the path winds up the slopes of the valley and eventually passes by a well-maintained camping ground: Iya Kazurabashi Camp Village (祖谷かずら橋キャンプ村). If you want to stay, it's only 500 Yen per night - a real bargain with a scenic view over (almost) unspoilt nature (see picture below).

But I'm out for something else. Since I had read Alex Kerr's book "Lost Japan", I was wondering how it would be: the famous Chiiori House, his longtime hideout in Iya. And if I'd be able to find it. Walking cross-country in the valley and over the hills, it's not an easy task to keep your orientation. There are maps, of course, but precise cartography isn't exactly their strong point. I have to rely on my inner compass - and friendly advice from locals every now and then. Problem is, there aren't many people around, as I walk along the country road that supposedly winds up towards my destination. This part of the valley apparently has suffered a lot from rural exodus over the last decades.

Half way up the (first) hill, a small path leads to an abandoned farm house. Naturally, I can't resist and jump across the provisional fence in order to explore the place. As I approach the old building, a swarm of hungry mosquitoes is starting an attack, but the sanguivorous bugs can't keep me from taking a picture of the interior.

Although vandalism isn't a big issue in this remote part of Japan, what used to be the living room is in a seriously bad condition, and whoever would want to bring this place back to normal would have a substantial task to accomplish. I take it there won't be many people interested anyway, and chances are that the house will remain a destination for haikyo explorers (廃虚), i.e. people whose hobby is venturing through ruins and other abandoned places. In Iya Valley, there is a lot of easy prey for them, as I had found out earlier in a nearby village that was almost entirely depopulated. It should be noted at this point, however, that most explorers stick to the unwritten code to leave "only footprints" at their places of interest.

Abandoned buildings in central Iya Valley. According to information given by local inhabitants, this village has lost more than half of its population over the last 20 years. Photos taken in June 2010.

As a matter of fact, the locals show some concern about the future of their rural dwellings. Authorities have been somewhat reluctant to funding infrastructure improvements in the area, however this is about to change, since the tourism industry has discovered Iya Valley as a potential goldmine. Tourists need transportation and lodging. And better signposts, of course.

As I continue my journey to Chiiori, I suddenly find myself next to the entrance of a mausoleum, where the remains of the members of an old Samurai clan are worshipped. It seems as if every important site in this valley is somehow linked to the past. There are historic and even pre-historic places to see, as well as old Shinto shrines - some being still in use, some being victim of an inevitable, yet slow decay. Iya Valley is a hidden treasure chest for people who are interested in the history of Japan, albeit the gems are not as twinkling as elsewhere in the country.

And especially in this rural part of Japan, many people hang on to the old traditions. In another farmhouse, half-way up to Chiiori, I find an old double-portrait of the 124th Tenno and his wife. The owner of the place, a woman in her mid-fourties, welcomes me with a cup of green tea and some delicious pastries. "That's not uncommon", she says, as I ask her about the picture on the wall. "Although the Emperor had lost a substantial amount of power and influence in politics after the Second World War, many Japanese still value the monarchy."

Despite the fact that Hirohito's role as a warmonger isn't undisputed, I'd want to add, but prefer to lead the conversation into calmer waters, as I begin to sense the special atmosphere in this house: The walls are decorated with a plethora of artifacts from the Showa era, and I wonder if it's only for reasons of historical accuracy. Tradition, methinks, has its unsound connotations sometimes. Quietly, I content myself with finishing my cup of tea and finally toddle off towards Chiiori. It's only another 30 minutes until I arrive at Alex Kerr's famous house. The afternoon sky sends some raindrops and a cool breathe from the mountain range, as I enter the idyllic premises. A farm worker is weeding a vegetable bed and doesn't seem to notice me. It's an unheralded visit - that holds an even bigger surprise for me. For there's Alex Kerr himself sitting in front of the house in the garden, having some light meal with a guest.

I'm overwhelmed by their hospitality. Alex asks me to join their conversation and tells me about his new book "Bangkok Found", which is to hit the shelves as we speak. I would want to stay and talk a little longer with him, but he is already about to leave for an appointment in Kyoto. "Business demands me of being increasingly mobile these days", he says. "Only when I'm very lucky I can come to Chiiori more often than once a month." Seems I've been extremely lucky then to have found him here.

After signing a copy of "Lost Japan" he asks Paul Cato to show me around. Paul is in charge of operations at Chiiori that is run as an NPO and heavily relies on the work of volunteers. He lives here for two years now - and has no plans of leaving, "because I've found my love of the land", as he explains to me while we sit on the wooden floor of the old building. The house is a true gem, in many respects, as it conserves the traditional way of living in this part of the world, and a brilliant example of dedicated restauration work.


Crossing Kazurabashi

The train from Okayama is late, as I arrive at Oboke (大歩危), right in the middle of Shikoku. That's pretty unusual for Japan Railways, who claim to have the most punctual train service in the world, and Nori-san, who picks me up at the station, is already being nervous. "My father came for a surprise visit today", he says, "and he expects me to make dinner for him." A few seconds pass, before he adds: "Would you like to join us?"

I gladly accept his offer and put my baggage on the backseat of his Toyota. It takes about ten minutes to get to Ku-Nel-Asob, a converted farmhouse in Nishi Iya (西祖谷), high above the banks of Yoshino river (see picture below), that now serves as an eco guesthouse and is widely known as a backpacker's paradise. KNA, as it is dubbed even by Nori himself, was uninhabited for 20 years, when he bought it some seven years ago. The owners had lost interest in farmlife. Since then, he's put every Yen he can spare into renovation and uphold. Not an easy task, given that eco tourism in Japan has only just started.

"Ashita o tenki ii desu, ka?" I try to break the ice, while we drive up a steep country road that abruptly ends in front of Nori's house. "It's gonna be sunny all day", he replies with an almost accent-free pronounciation, very much to my surprise. In this secluded region of Shikoku people usually don't speak foreign languages. But Nori has served a couple of years with the UN peace corps in different countries and "there was no way around learning English", he explains to me during dinner, as we talk about occupations.

I spend the night in one of the dorms of KNA, and as I wake up next morning, Nori's father has already prepared some breakfast: rice and soup, of course. The usual diet. I skip the meal, since the bus that shall take me to Kazurabashi won't wait. And there are only three per day. After I finished studying the map of the valley, Nori gives me a lift to the bus stop.

Talking about bus services: Getting from Oboke to Higashi Iya, the eastern part of the valley, takes about two hours, if - and only if - you manage to get the connecting bus, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Sounds like fun? Right. I missed it the other day - and was lucky only, because a friendly couple in their mid-fifties felt pity and let me jump in their deluxe limousine, despite being wet all over after I had been surprised by a heavy shower.

Kazurabashi is a magnificent view. Legend has it that the old vine bridges - there are three in the valley, the other two being further east and yet more difficult to reach - were built some 800 years ago by Samurai warriors of Tosa prefecture, who fled from their Tokushima-based opponents that had been chasing them on behalf of the emperor. Truly a remarkable escape route! And probably the only one, since roads were not available in this area at that time. There aren't many these days either, albeit some people are concerned that, as a result of recent attempts to provide a better infrastructure in the region, Iya Valley one day will become a "valley of concrete", as Alex Kerr had coined it in "Lost Japan".

Would you dare to cross it, even without having to wear heavy armor or ride on horseback? Don't worry: It's pretty safe. The wooden construction is strengthened by steel cables (as you can see in the picture below). Provided you're free of fear of heights, it shouldn't be a problem to arrive in good shape on the other side. And the swift waters of the river are so far below that you won't even get wet feet.
On the other side of the bridge, there are small shops that sell refreshments and Iya Soba, a local specialty: buckwheat noodles in a soup with vegetables and/or meat. Delicious!
However, most of the shops are closed, and I wonder if it's due to off-season or rather because of the rural exodus, being commonplace in Shikoku's remote regions.
Over the past 30 years, the villages in Iya Valley have lost roughly one third of their population. Says Alex Kerr: "Mostly young people have moved away. There are villages that make a graveyard look fresh and healthy." It is a strange mix of sarcasm and serenity that are amalgamated in his words, and he adds a pinch of melancholy to it, when he says that he still has "hopes that the traditional way of country life in Japan will not be lost forever". At least from what I have seen while traveling cross-country in Japan, those hopes cannot be high enough! ---- Part 2 of the story will take you to Chiiori House, a five-mile walk uphill, and to an abandoned village deep in the valley. Stay tuned.


Fishin' the sun in Uwajima

Along the south-eastern stretch of Shikoku's coastline, in Ehime prefecture, the discrepancies between modern and traditional Japanese society are not as visible as in the big cities on Honshu and Kyushu. The area is quite rural, and many people who live on the coast still work as fishermen. Even the architecture of Ehime's urban settlements is largely dominated by functional industrial-era buildings, very much in contrast to megacities like Tokyo or Osaka.
When I arrived at Uwajima, one of the larger cities in the prefecture, I didn't spend much time in the center of town, but headed straight to the port, of which I knew it was a substantial base for the fishing industry. Strolling through the port, I couldn't believe how many old houses are seemingly still intact and inhabited. A few miles away from the coast, where the island's landscape gets rougher, at least every second village suffers from the exodus of the young people, and thus a good portion of older buildings are destined to rot (see my upcoming post about Iya Valley).

Where the traditional structures of society still work, depopulation is not an issue. In several fishing villages along the Uwajima sound, I witnessed flourishing communities - although the infrastructure is far from optimum.
Hiromi, a woman in her thirties, whom I met on the ferry that connects a number of villages with Uwajima, is working as an instructor for the local administration. When asked about the quality of living in the area, she smiles and says: "Most people in this part of the country lead a modest life. You can't get rich from being a fisherman or tea-planter."

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, as a quick glimpse around the boats that are moored at Uwajima's pier reveals. "No, no", says Hiromi. "The owners of most of those yachts don't live around here. But Uwajima offers cheap mooring, so many people chose it as a home port for their ships." That explains, why Uwajima is also port of registry for a number of vessels of the Japanese fishing fleet, as I learn while strolling around the pier, where the stench of scruffy fish gets in my nose. Hungry birds, some as big as hawks, are fighting over some snapper or tuna, as they accidentally crash into a pile of empty crates outside the auction hall.

The hall is right next to the pier, and I can wander freely around. Nobody seems to be there at this time of day. It's early evening, almost sunset, and the people who work in this place are normally gone by 2 pm each day. Only a few truck-drivers are around, playing some obscure dice-game and discussing life in general. It's about time to sit down on the pier and wait for the sun to dive into the sea beyond the cone-shaped islands off the coast.
Reiko had told me about the spectacular scenery, when I stayed at her youth hostel in Ozu, some 30 miles north. "If you make it to Uwajima, make sure to take pictures of the sunset", she suggested, when I left the place. I followed her advice - and was not at all disappointed.

The picture to the left is "out of cam", but I must admit that I used a Neutral Density filter (0.9) on the lens - and needed more than ten attempts to finally get the perfect shot. However, this one is only second best. Here's my favorite. For additional views of Uwajima's islands, here's a small slideshow.


Gunkanjima's future remains uncertain

Off the coast of Nagasaki, the bustling city on Kyushu in the south of Japan, a mere one-hour boatride from the harbor, time seems to have come to a complete standstill, as I set my foot on the pier of Gunkanjima.

An urban explorer's dream, I had read and heard a lot about the island, which once had the highest population density in the world, and today, some 36 years after all its inhabitants were evacuated, is only a cluster of ruins atop of a rock that's hardly bigger than a modern super tanker.

Talking about ships: The shape of the island indeed resembles a battleship, hence its name. During World War II, Battleship Island even came under attack by an American submarine commander, who fired a torpedo at the rock - very much to the surprise of the inhabitants, who thought the island would be invaded and repelled the attacker with some rounds of gunfire.

Today, the island is a peaceful place. Too peaceful, as some former citizens say, who had to leave Gunkanjima in 1974 - within just two weeks. Mitsubishi Electric, the company that ran the underwater coalmine beneath the island, had decided to shut down the mine, when it eventually became unprofitable. "No work, no money, no reason to stay." This is how Yuka Tsushida, 44, remembers how her father, who worked as an engineer for the company, told the family, why they had to pack their belongings and board the ferry to Nagasaki, for the last time. In other words: No perspective. Thus, the once praised model city was abandoned, its destiny left to the vagaries of the sea.

Yuka's family lived in a cosy apartment block on the cliff. She would have liked to see her former home again, but the Nagasaki Prefectural Authorities have set up strict rules for visitors of the island - no matter if they once were inhabitants or not: There's a small perimeter of paved and fenced walkway that's accessible from the pier. And there's no chance to get to the inner district of the city from here, since the official tour guides won't let anyone leave the group. Says Yuka: "It's ridiculous. Under the guise of alleged health risks the authorities prevent me from seeing my family's home. But Hashima (the island's original name, before it was dubbed Gunkanjima; ed.) is not Chernobyl!"

She may be right in her comparison with the wasteland around the nuclear reactor in the Ukraine. Still, venturing in the ghost city of Gunkanjima is not without risk, as I learn from talking to a fisherman, who happens to sit on the pier of the island. "I witnessed at least four people who had accidents here", says the guy who doesn't want to tell me his name, since fishing on the island is illegal. Crumbling concrete walls, cracking wooden floors, slippery surfaces - there are many ways to get injured in the ruins of the city.

On the other hand, after three and a half decades of uninhabited isolation there's not much left to see in a rotten flat, as Michael Gakuran's pictures clearly show. So I wonder, what Yuka is expecting to find here. Or is it just her melancholic mood that drives her back to the place of childhood? For one, the island's fame mostly stems from the fact that it has been the blueprint for a mediocre video game and the set of a Japanese B-movie. What's more?

"Gunkanjima is a treasure of our cultural history", says a representative of Nagasaki Prefecture. He is pointing out that, some 100 years ago, Japan's first multi-storey concrete apartment block was built on the island. As such, "we are putting a lot of effort into obtaining the status of World Cultural Heritage for the site." However, this project is still pending. Yet for the moment, visitors are not allowed beyond the fence: "We don't want anybody to manipulate the original condition of the ruins", the official says in a strict voice.

So much for urban exploration romance - and about time to mount the tele-lens on the camera, in order to be not too disappointed at the end of the day. Here are some pictures I took on Gunkanjima, for your viewing pleasure:

Remnants of coal-transportation conveyor belt.

Looking through a ruined house.

The good thing about the recent efforts to make the island accessible for tourists is that you don't have to find a daring fisherman anymore who would be willing to let you come on board, chug to the forbidden city and cast anchor at a remote place that is likely to be out of view for the Japanese coast guard. But then, that's what a good part of the adventure was, when people like Michael Gakuran or Yuji Saiga, whose photo documentation and story are simply brilliant, set sail to Gunkanjima a few years ago.