Lost Japan – Chiiori (House of the Flute, a traditional Japanese thatch-roofed house)

Alex Arthur Kerr

Find the dreamy Japan in Iya

It was in 1971 that I first visited Iya. Being located at the heart of Shikoku Iya Valley is the deepest mountain gorges in Japan. It is the most fantastic nature found in Japan and it reminded me of the mountains in China that I have dreamed of in my childhood. The blue Awa stones colors the river emerald green and the towering cliffs look as beautiful as jade. And a white waterfall is falling down straight from the mountain beyond the valley as if it were painted with a brush. Over the centuries refugees from Japan’s civil wars had come and settled in the region of Iya. It is famous as “Ochiudo Buraku (fleeing warriors’ hamlet)’’ where the remnants of Heike warriors fled into after having lost “Gen-Pei War,” the war between the two Bushi warrior clans (Genji and Heike) in the 12th century.

Buying a 300-year-old thatch-roofed farmhouse

I first came to Japan at the age 12 with my family and spent 2 years in Yokohama. Since then I frequently came to Japan. As I was intrigued by Eastern culture, especially Japanese, I fell in love with Iya where I visited while traveling in Japan. I began looking for a house and bought a 300-year-old thatch-roofed farmhouse in 1973. The house had been abandoned for 17 years. It is a typical house of Iya with wooden floors and irori (floor hearth).

As soon as I moved in, neighbors came to see how I was doing. One morning when I woke up, I found that someone had brought cucumbers and left them on the verandah. The next-door neighbor, Omo family has taught me the old customs of Iya. They are great friends who support us even now..

A friend of mine Shokichi Minami, a poet, often came here with me since the early days of living in Iya. One night Shokichi, the village children who were visiting me and I got together and thought to give a name to the house. We found an old kanji character “篪 (chi)” which means a small bamboo flute and brought it together with “庵 (iori)” meaning a thatch-roofed house. Thus Chiiori “House of the Flute” was born. Shokichi wrote a poem to an old piece of music and made the “Song of Chiiori.” And the children of those days used to sing the song.

When it comes to a thatch-roofed house, many would enjoy looking at the exterior of the house during the day. But I think the true charm of a thatch-roofed house can be found when night falls. After sunset, fire is made in the floor hearth and oriental lamps and candles are lit. Then all the floors, the posts and the massive beams that have been smoked black over the centuries start to gleam. This soft and yet stately gleaming is the best part of an old thatch-roofed house that has been living with irori (floor hearth).

Life in Iya

The hardship of life in valley has influenced the cuisine of locals in various ways. For example, it was possible to carry soft tofu or delicate confections in Kyoto where streets were kept in good condition. However, in this region, going up and down on trails and crossing “kazurabashi (vine bridges)” were everyday parts of life for people. And because of such environment, firm tofu was made so that it would not lose shape easily and came to be called iwadofu or ishidofu (stone tofu). And the texture of iwadofu is thick and rather like cheese. The best way to enjoy iwadofu is “dekomawashi (turning a deko dall).” Skewered iwadofu coated with miso is grilled over the fire of hearth. It is said that the name “dekomawashi” was inspired by the action of turning around food to grill while sitting around the floor hearth.

A colorful valley lies underneath white clouds. The mountains of central Shikoku have been rich in all kinds of vines. Over the centuries people have built bridges with vines. Legend says that the fleeing warriors of Heike had used vines to build bridges as vine bridges could be easily cut off to prevent the entry of the Genji warriors when they came to the valley in pursuit. The most famous vine bridge is the “Iya no Kazurabashi” with a height of 14 meters. It is also one of the three unusual bridges of Japan. Going deeper into the valley from Iya, in Higashi-iya-sugeoi, there are two vine bridges found side by side. One is called Otokobashi (male bridge) and the smaller one is called Onnabashi (female bridge). The two are commonly called Niju-kazurabashi.

Maintenance of Chiiori

Today, the presence of Chiiori in Iya is very unique. In 1971 when I first set my foot in Iya, many houses were still making a fire in a floor hearth. But now Ciiori is the only one. The wooden floor without tatami mats, the bare rafters – Chiiori is a precious heritage telling the lifestyle that traces back hundreds of years. It is said that the houses in Iya were already regarded as products of the mysterious times and the feudal lord of Awa described this region as “the paradise of the land of Awa”

Founding Chiiori Trust

Today, Chiiori is going beyond the concept of mere building as my house. It is a community and also a symbol for those who love beautiful Japanese countryside. In 1999, we have founded an organization in order to restore sustainable tourism and agriculture in Iya. In 2005, it was incorporated as a NPO (specified nonprofit organization) “The Chiiori Project.” In 2007, it was renamed “Chiiori Trust” and the operation continues to this day.
Chiiori Trust continues to have its base in Iya and our dream is all the countryside sceneries of Japan will remain beautiful.

Stay the night over at Chiiori

Chiiori welcomes you all. I think the best gift Chiiori can offer is the experience of the traditional life of Iya. Enjoy experiencing the fading profound culture of Japan at Chiiori.

Announcement of temporary closing

Ciiori is currently closed for refurbishment including re-thatching. It will reopen after June 2012 (TBD).


From Tokyo
Bullet Train
Take a bullet train from Tokyo Station to Okayama Station. Take the JR line to Awa-Ikeda Station from Okayama (limited express Nanpu is convenient). Take a Shikoku Kotsu bus for Kubo and get off at the Kojima stop. A 45-minute walk (4.7 km) from the bus stop along a path through a forest
Fly to Tokushima Awaodori Airport from Haneda Airport. Take a shuttle bus from the airport to the Awa-Ikeda bus terminal. Take a Shikoku Kotsu bus for Kubo and get off at the Kojima stop. A 45-minute walk (4.7 km) from the bus stop along a path through a forest

Chiiori Trust

209, Higashi-iya-tsurui, Miyoshi-city, Tokushima
NPO (specified nonprofit organization) Chiiori Trust
(0883) 88-5290 (Main Line)
(0883) 76-7706 (office)