rustic homes on the mountainside
At the crossroads of Shikoku
From ancient times, the Nishi-Awa district was the crossroads of Shikoku Island with its four domains (‘shi’ = four, ‘koku’ = domain). Located in the mountainous heart of Shikoku, anyone travelling between the domains would pass through this area. Today, roads have been cut along the low-lying river valleys. But in olden times, human pathways travelled high up, over the tops of the mountains, and with good reason. The valley bottoms were rocky and prone to flooding. Dangerous wild animals lurked. The hours when sunlight falls in the valleys are short, making it impossible to grow crops. And so human communities developed on the heights, where all the necessities for life can be obtained.
Since there’s no flat space anywhere on the steep mountainside, platforms had to be created using stones as the foundations for houses and paths. These walls are made without mortar and cement, using only careful placement of the stones to keep them in place. But once built, these walls have lasted for centuries.
Ancient sustainable farming methods
With no flat ground for growing food, the farmers of the hills developed ways of coping with the challenges of cultivation on slopes. The rows of crops follow the curvature of the hillside to prevent erosion and trap water rolling down the slope. Farmers collect wild grass and store it in stooks. This nutrient-rich organic material is then used to mulch food crops, in a completely natural and sustainable process. Not surprisingly, food produced in this way tastes wonderful too.
Since rice can’t be grown on slopes, the grain known as soba is a staple in these parts. It’s an attractive plant with beautiful white flowers. At Sarukai you can wander among the soba fields, and enjoy the wild flowers that grow around the fields.
“ The hours when sunlight falls in the valleys are short, making it impossible to grow crops. And so human communities developed on the heights, where all the necessities for life can be obtained. ”
A village populated by dolls
In one village, all the people are motionless. This is Nagoro, the village of the dolls, where the vanishing population is being replaced by life-sized mannequins, and the visitors who come to photograph them.
Enjoy the slow life in a comfortable kominka
The hamlet of Ochiai is one of the representative mountain communities that maintains the centuries-old way of life. Today, you can stay in one of eight dwellings built over a hundred years ago, and refurbished with every modern comfort. The windows are doubled glazed, there’s underfloor heating for the winter, and air conditioning for the summer, and the futons are thick and fluffy. You have a choice of a luxurious shower, or a bath with an amazing view.
These houses, collectively known as Togenkyo-Iya, were restored by Alex Kerr, whose other vacation rental kominka project, Chiiori, is known worldwide. Besides these old houses for private rental, you can stay in the homes of farming families across the region and take part in the slow life.
For dinner, you can eat meals prepared by local women using vegetables taken from the hills around you, and wild meat such as boar and venison. People from countries where potatoes are the staple may be surprised at how deliciously different the potatoes here can be. Lunch can be enjoyed at an old thatched samurai residence, or pleasant little roadside soba restaurants.
The sound of wild animals
At night, if you stroll around the paths of the hamlet at night under the stars, you’re likely to hear large animals and tanuki moving around in the woods, and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch glimpses of them too.
When you wake up in the morning and open the curtains, expect to be stunned by the view – sunlight slanting down through dense clouds, which flow like the sea through the valley and between outcrops of trees. Everything looks fresh and bright and moist. Suddenly you’re hungry again. When you visit one of the other houses where breakfast is served, you may be treated to a folk song accompanied on the shamisen.