Worth a Trip: Chiiori: A Rural Retreat
High on a mountainside in the remote Iya Valley, looking out over forested hillsides and plunging gorges, is one of Japan's most unusual places to stay.
Chiiori is a once-abandoned, 18th-century, thatched-roof farmhouse that has been painstakingly restored to its original brilliance. Unlike many such examples of cultural heritage in Japan, where concrete and plastic have wrecked the architectural aesthetic, here glistening red-pine floorboards surround open-floor hearths under soaring rafters. Set amid steep hillsides dotted by thatched houses and forests strewn with narrow mountain paths, Iya was for centuries an example of an untouched coexistence of humans and nature, albeit one that offered residents little hope of wealth and comfort.
In recent decades, however, the locals' traditional lifestyle and the balance with the environment have been rapidly upset; employment moved from agriculture to government-subsidised and frequently pointless construction, the effects of which – such as paved riverbeds – can be seen from almost any roadside. Part of the project's mission has been to work with residents to promote sustainable, community-based tourism and realise the financial potential of traditional life, which until recently many locals saw as backward and valueless. It is a work in progress – many thatched roofs in the area are still hidden by corrugated tin sheets – but by adding to the growing number of tourists visiting the area largely because of the work of those involved in Chiiori, staying here helps to encourage those conservation efforts.
The house was bought as a ruin by the author and aesthete Alex Kerr in the early 1970s, and he went on to romanticise the Iya Valley in his award-winning book Lost Japan. Chiiori remains a beautiful and authentic destination for sensitive travellers, with its shōji (movable screens), antique furnishings and irori (traditional hearths) – all complemented by a gleaming, fully-equipped modern kitchen and a gorgeous bathroom, complete with hinoki (Japanese cypress) tub. Since the establishment of the non-profit Chiiori Trust in 2005, the local government has approached the trust to help restore several smaller traditional houses in the area. These houses have been renovated to a similarly high standard and aesthetic as Chiiori and are also available as accommodation. All are outfitted with modern kitchens and bathrooms, and even washing machines. Follow the Higashi-Iya Ochiai link on the Chiiori Trust website for information and rates on these smaller houses.
To stay in these extraordinary environs, you must reserve in advance; payments must be made in cash. Because of the remote locations of Chiiori and the other houses, the Chiiori Trust strongly recommends that guests bring private vehicles. Hire a rental car and stock up with food at the supermarket before going, because it's very remote.