Deep in the mountains of Shikoku, an island southwest of Kyoto, you’ll find a picturesque minka, or old-style, farmhouse. Perched atop a misty ravine, it looks like a hermit’s cottage in an Edo-period ink painting—though this isn’t the dwelling of a recluse, but of a team of ecotourism volunteers who welcome visitors.
The thatched-roof home is called Chiiori, or House of the Flute. Constructed around 1720, it’s one of the oldest houses in the Iya Valley, a remote zigzag of ravines settled by samurai defeated in a civil war. Modernization left Iya behind, and when American Alex Kerr found the house in the 1970’s, it had been long abandoned. Kerr, author of the acclaimed memoir Lost Japan, has spent decades restoring it—the roof has been re-thatched, the cedar frame replaced, and electricity and a toilet added. But though the place now operates as a nonprofit organization, the house remains basically as it was when shoguns ruled Japan.
“Chiiori is a place of magic. It has this grip on your soul,” says Kerr. “It’s finally become what I dreamed it would be—a beacon for people to appreciate nature, culture, heritage and architecture.”
Guests can experience that magic themselves from Fridays to Tuesdays, when Chiiori welcomes up to seven visitors overnight. Expect to prepare your own meals with vegetarian ingredients like soba noodles, daikon (radishes) and organic rice, then dine by the sunken hearth and trade stories with other travelers under the ancient, cathedral-like rafters. At bedtime, futons are laid on the red-pine floor of the living room, punctuated by cozy floor lanterns. After drinking in the morning mountain views—along with the delicious homemade bancha green tea, harvested locally from a steep mountainside—it’s easy to forget the outside world.
Restful as it is, there’s plenty for visitors to do. Volunteer by cutting thatch in high mountain passes or working on nearby soba fields. You can also learn how to make soba noodles and straw waraji sandals (usually worn by Buddhist monks) or how to use mountain herbs in cooking. Hiking opportunities include tripping your way over footbridges fashioned from vines, or ascending 1,954-meter Mount Tsurugi. Inevitably, you’ll descend to the modern world, but you won’t soon forget the House of the Flute.
NPO Chiiori Trust, 209 Tsurui, Higashi Iya, Miyoshi City, Tokushima Prefecture; +81 883 88 5290; chiiori.org; call for rates.
HOW TO GET THERE
From Kyoto, a four-hour train or bus ride will take you to Oshima Tunnel (return tickets ¥22,000), about 5 kilometers downhill from Chiiori, where staff can pick up guests for ¥1,000 fee. For other transport options, visit the Chiiori website.