In October, I took a group of 10th graders on a five-day hiking trip to Shikoku, the smallest and least visited of Japan’s four main islands. It was my fifth time leading this particular school trip, which takes in the stunning and remote Iya Valley (祖谷).
The discovery of a “Lost Japan” (or “Real Japan”), like the pursuit of any “authentic” travel experience, really exists only in the mind of the traveler. “Lost Japan” is wherever you decide to find it, be it the sakura-petaled hills of Gion or the cluster of mossy hilltop monasteries on Koya-san or the rugged western coast of Shimokita-hanto. Nonetheless, if you had to decide on one idyllic “lost” locale in this country, the Iya Valley would be a pretty good choice.
The valley itself runs through the heart of Shikoku, sliced deep between columns of monumental mountains as if cut with a single swipe of a giant’s sword. Indeed, the tallest mountain in the area is called Mt Tsurugi (剣山), Sword Mountain, though its domed treeless summit looks less like a katana or a wakizashi and more like the bald pate of a Zen monk’s shaven head.
Lower down, little crumbling villages perch improbably on slopes above narrow roads that creep along the edges of sheer cliffs that drop down into cool jade waters that rush through the valley until they reach the Oboke River. Many of the houses you will see are now empty, abandoned when their owners passed away or moved to the city. The remaining residents are predominantly senior citizens. Quite a few of them have lived in Iya all their lives and some even trace their beginnings much deeper into the region’s past. The inhabitants of the Iya Valley are rumoured to be the descendants of Heike refugees from the 12th century Genpei War (a civil war akin to England’s Wars of the Roses) who fled the ruins of their ravaged capital Heian-kyo (平安京), now known as Kyoto (京都). It may be all a tall tale, but the Iya Valley is so isolated that the thought of defeated Heike warriors hiding out in the mountains for centuries might just be farfetched enough to be true.
On school hiking trips, admittedly, I tend to spent a lot less time discussing interesting things like medieval history and a lot more time answering questions about, well…time. Here’s a fairly representative sample:
“When is this going to be over? Do you enjoy torturing students? Is that why you became a teacher?”
“We have been walking for over an hour! When will we finally get there?”
“How much longer? Do NOT say ‘five more minutes!’”
(I like to think that my trademark answer of “five more minutes” is highly motivational. It is always five minutes to somewhere, after all.)
There was, however, one question from a student this year that did leave me thinking. It was after the hiking was done and we were back at our cabins eating warm pasta. “I love this place,” she said to me. “But don’t you get bored coming on the same trip every year?”
It was a good question. I found myself wondering, What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I get bored? Why do I love coming back here time and time again? Is it just because my dad made me go hiking as a teenager and now it is time for revenge on a whole new generation?
In seven trips to the Iya Valley (five for school, two for pleasure), I have wobbled over bridges made of woven vines, and zipped down a 350-metre cable car to a riverside onsen, and risen with the sun atop Tsurugi-san looking out at mountaintops floating over billowing swirling clouds, a vista that the locals call unkai (雲海), which translates rather beautifully into English as Cloud Ocean. Not that the valley is always so welcoming and hospitable. There was one six-hour descent through the winds of a typhoon when the rain spattered us with drops the size of ice-cubes. There was a harrowing bike ride along the cliff road at night, without lights or a working mobile phone. And of course there was the attack of the suzumebachi, those giant angry Japanese hornets that you have no doubt seen on nature shows, shredding honeybees into spare parts.
Flipping through those memories finally led me to an answer to the student’s question, albeit over a month after the trip was over. What I would have told her if I could have found the words is that traveling to a new place is sort of like opening a birthday gift. It is exciting because what you find is usually surprising and unexpected, even if you don’t like it. But showing someone else a special place – a place you have visited time and time again – is different. It is more like giving a birthday gift, which is an exciting but risky business. Each time the wrapping paper comes off, you sit there, leaning forward, hands clasped, breath sucked in a little. You want them to see something they love, something authentic, something that will stay with them forever. Or, at least, for more than five minutes.