I had a reservation at Kul-nel-asob, which means ‘Sleep, Eat, Play’. Since my guidebook says they include meals, I at first thought ‘nope, can’t stay there’. I’m a vegan, and the vast majority of guesthouses/ryokan in Japan don’t offer vegan meals. However, I decided to look at their website to see if there was some kind of no-meals option … and I was shocked to find that it is a vegan guesthouse. In rural Japan. And it’s not a Buddhist temple. Again, it is a vegan guesthouse, in rural Japan, and it’s not a Buddhist temple. I couldn’t believe it.
Well, I put in my reservation, even though it was much more expensive than most of the places I had stayed at in Japan, partially because I thought it was my best option for the night, and partially because I would finally be able to go for a meal plan at a Japanese guesthouse.
The owner of the guesthouse grew up in one of the big metropolises of Japan, and as a young man lived in Botswana for a couple years. He didn’t want to live like a salary man, which is why he bought a historic building (now over 90 years old) between Oboke and the Iya Valley and opened a guesthouse. He’s also a vegan. He says that when he opened the guesthouse there was little tourism in the Iya Valley, and practically all foreign tourists would stay at Kul-nel-asob. In fact, as soon as any foreigner appeared at JR Oboke station, taxi drivers would call him to tell him that he had a guest. Now, he says, there’s more tourism in the Iya Valley.
One of the other guests is from Osaka. He came to Shikoku just to spend a night at this specific guesthouse, because his friend said he should.
There were only three guests that night, so I got my own room – with tatami mats, painted screens, and views over the river, in a historic Japanese house. Since I was mostly staying at budget accommodation in Japan, I really wasn’t used to having such a nice place to myself for the night.
The guesthouse doesn’t have a bath/shower, so the owner offers all guests a trip to a local onsen at no extra charge every evening. Since I was the only female guest – and apparently the onsen hotel wasn’t doing much business at that hour – I was the only one in the female baths, which felt lonely. I like sharing onsen with people. It was an okay onsen (I have been to a lot of onsen in Japan, so my standards are pretty high). There was a bath made out of hinoki wood, which was a nice touch. The views over the river gorge, alas, were marred by the hulk of steel bridge and bright green lights.
Dinner? To quote my diary “DINNER was PHENOMENAL!’. It was by far the most delicious meal I had in Shikoku, in fact it was the most delicious meal I had in Japan west of Kansai, and I have spent about two months in west-of-Kansai-Japan.
The guesthouse also had a bookshelf. I flipped through a book of photographs of Botswana, and I also noted Eat Sleep Sit (which I still haven’t read, but I’d like to read it some day). The book I did end up reading was Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr.
Alex Kerr bought a historic farmhouse in the Iya Valley in the 1970s, and now it’s a guesthouse which charges over 20,000 yen (about 200 USD) per night, is on an obscure side road, and does not offer pick up from JR Oboke. The owner of Kul-nel-asob knows Alex Kerr personally, but says that Alex Kerr rarely comes to the Iya Valley because he’s so busy.
I didn’t read all of Dogs and Demons in one night, but it definitely left an impression. It explained a lot of things I had seen in Japan, and confirmed things about Japan which I had suspected but didn’t know how to put into words. For example, I had felt that there was something wrong with the cedar forests in Japan, and I could tell you things like ‘the forest is too quiet, and there are hardly any understory plants’, and that there were some landslides around cedar forests before I read the book, but the book explains that, yep, the cedar forests are an ecological void, they destablize hillsides, and the book explains how zombie cedar forests came to dominate more than 25% of Japan’s land area. I disagreed with some of Alex Kerr’s conclusions, but even when I disagreed the book still provoked my thinking.
I asked the guesthouse owner what he thought about the book. He said that he agreed with a lot of what Alex Kerr says, and that Japan has a lot of problems, but he thinks the younger generation in Japan is different, and that things will get better.
That evening, it was raining. Between the food, the wonderful old Japanese house, the food, the weather outside, the books, and the food, I was very, very glad that I had not gone camping out this night.
The next morning, the owner drove me to JR Oboke station so I could catch a train to Kotohira. JR Oboke is the last station on the Dosan line in Tokushima station – just past the station, there is a tunnel, and on the other side of the tunnel is JR Tosa-Yamada station in Kochi Prefecture. I wanted to go to Kochi, and in my original Shikoku plan I was going to take the train to Kochi immediately after visiting the Iya Valley. If it weren’t for the fact that my 90 days in Japan were almost up, I would have probably taken a southbound train down to Kochi. However, I couldn’t see everything in Shikoku in just six days, and I had to cut Kochi prefecture out of my plans. Instead, while waiting for the northbound train, I thought about just how close I was to Kochi, and how I wasn’t going there.
On the train, I looked out at the Yoshino river below.
And that is how I left Tokushima Prefecture.
In the next post, I will describe the town of Kotohira, which, among other things, has the oldest kabuki theatre which is still standing.