“Chiiori” (House of the Flute) is the name of an Edo period minka farmhouse in the Iya Valley, western Tokushima, Japan. Purchased by Alex Kerr in the 1970s, the house is now home to staff members of Chiiori Trust, a non-profit organization based in Iya Valley that is working toward solutions to the problems surrounding depopulation in rural Japan.
The Japanese know the Iya Valley for its remoteness, alpine scenery and vine bridges and for being the fabled 12th-century refuge of the Heike clan. Americans are unlikely to know it at all, but if they do, it’s probably because of Alex Kerr.
At the tourist information office near Tokyo Station, I tried to explain this to the two very nice women behind the counter. They were visibly surprised that a foreigner was planning to visit the valley, which nestles in the mountains of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands.
Kerr, a writer whose study of Asian languages and culture began as a 9-year-old in Bethesda, discovered the Iya Valley in 1971, when he was a college student. He soon bought an unoccupied farmhouse there and renovated it, painstakingly restoring the thatched roof. He named the place Chiiori, or “House of the Flute.”
I gave a brief account of this, which I’d read about in Kerr’s 1996 book, “Lost Japan.” The women smiled and shook their heads, as if this was the sort of thing only Westerners could possibly know about. Then they handed me two brochures produced by the area’s tourist boards. On the cover of one was a picture of Chiiori.
Visiting the Iya Valley last summer, I didn’t make it to Chiiori. It’s far off the main road and is now a rather expensive hostelry, managed by a nonprofit group Kerr founded. But I was glad to see that picture, just to prove that someplace I’d read about in the region actually existed. I’d found little other evidence that there was anything there, except the history reflected in the name Iya Valley, which means “Ancestor Valley.”
In the age of crowdsourced data, there’s little uncharted territory. Yet in 2015, Google Maps showed nothing in most of the Iya Valley save mountains, the Iya River and a few twisting roads. (Cursory information on a few more places has been added since, but the map is still largely empty.) When I arrived at Oboke, the closest train station, I had only a vague sense of what awaited me.