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Gravity-Defying Farming in Nishi Awa

Deep in the mountainous valleys of Western Tokushima, local farmer Yukio Kojo effortlessly hoists a heavy wooden scythe to gather his crops from the plot of land behind his house. But this is not your typical farm. The Nishi Awa Region prides itself in preserving the ancient tradition of steep slope farming which dates back to the Jomon Era (before 300 B.C.). This farming style is so rare that it’s one of the candidates for the United Nation’s Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS).

Nishi Awa is mostly mountainous; flat land is limited and prone to flooding from nearby rivers so early farmers were forced to settle in the mountains and develop a slash-and-burn agricultural system to grow crops efficiently. Unlike other parts of Japan, Tokushima in Shikoku Island has few earthquakes and landslides, making steep slope farming possible.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s difficult to walk with your back straight—much less farm—on these 40-degree-angled slopes, but the locals seem to have no problem as they easily make their way down, lifting traditional farm tools.

“The only time I’ve fallen down here is when I got drunk and rolled down my farm,” laughs Kojo, who looks far younger than his 80 years. Like most of his neighbors, Kojo grows millet, buckwheat and potatoes instead of rice as the top soil of these mountainous farms is shallow and dry.

A popular dish here is sobakome jiru, a simple clear soup brimming with mountain vegetables and buckwheat groats, which are similar to quinoa when boiled. When flavored with sudachi, a local Japanese lime-like citrus, this warm soup is the perfect lunch on a cold day high up in the mountains. Sobakome (buckwheat groats) from this region are more expensive than soba noodles as it is difficult to operate farm machinery on the slopes and the groats are handpicked and filtered manually. 

Like many Japanese countryside villages, Nishi Awa struggles with depopulation and an aging community. Traditions like steep slope farming are at risk of abandonment. However, educational tour operators like Awa-re are reaching out to global media, international visitors and Japanese people interested in relocating or to launch startups in these off-beaten spots. Access to these farms is difficult but Awa-re connects travelers to steep slope farming experiences as well as cycling and sightseeing. For more information, visit their website.

EXPLORE MORE OF NISHI AWA

Nishi Awa is made up of four towns: Mima, Miyoshi, Tsurugi and Higashimiyoshi. In the Edo Period, it was a thriving merchant trade spot famous for indigo and tobacco production. Its main road, Udatsu Old Street, still stands today with its whitewashed houses bordered with udatsu, clay and bamboo structures serving as firebreak between the houses’ wooden walls. People still live in these houses but some have been renovated as backpacker lodges, co-working spaces and charming cafés. You can also try your hand at traditional indigo dyeing.

Most of your time should be spent exploring the abundant nature Nishi Awa has to offer. Its main river—the Yoshinogawa—is popular for whitewater rafting and kayaking. For something milder, especially during the colder months, try a sightseeing cruise down the picturesque Oboke Gorge with its otherworldly blue-green rocky cliffs and impressive waterfalls, including Biwa and the 85-meter Naru Falls.

Iya Valley has made a name for itself in the last few years especially for its historic suspension bridges constructed of mountain vines. Three of the thirteen kazurabashi remain today, with the most popular being Iya Kazurabashi. Stretching 45 meters across Iya River, this sketchy-looking bridge is a challenge as you balance on wooden planks with a clear view of Iya River fourteen meters below. Forest Adventure Iya Valley operates nearby where you can navigate through treetops and enjoy a thrilling 360-meter zipline fifty meters above the valley. 

On the east end of Iya Valley is the 1,995-meter Mt. Tsurugi, one Japan’s Hyakumeizan (100 famous mountains). Although it’s the second highest mountain in western Japan, there’s a chairlift for those not wanting to walk all the way up.

Shikoku may not be famous for snow, but if you’re looking to get in a few turns check out Ikawa Ski Resort, Shikoku’s oldest ski resort. There are five courses, a 400-meter triple lift and 300-meter pair lift, kids’ slope and night skiing hours.

GETTING THERE

The easiest way to get to Nishi Awa from Tokyo is to fly to Tokushima Airport. From there, rent a car or take the airport limousine bus to JR Tokushima Station (30 minutes). Major regional stations like Anabuki, Sadamitsu, Awa-Kamo and Awa-Ikeda are around 40 minutes to a little over an hour by train from Tokushima Station. For more information visit Nishi Awa’s official website

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