Japanologist Alex Kerr // © 2015 Japan National Tourism Organization
Feature image (above): Kerr founded Chiiori Trust in an effort to promote rural, untouched Japan to visitors. // © 2015 Tourism Shikoku and the Japan National Tourism Organization
Although born in Maryland, author and Japanologist Alex Kerr has considered Japan his homeland for more than 50 years.
As a military brat, Kerr spent his childhood living on a naval base in Yokohama before moving to Tokyo for college. It was in these critical years that he discovered Iya Valley — a remote region in the Tokushima prefecture of Japan filled with steep mountain valleys and some of the country’s deepest ravines.
Nicknamed “The Grand Canyon of Japan,” Iya Valley is often covered with a layer of mist and is sparsely populated. However, it is emerging as a tourism hot spot, thanks to a cluster of thatched houses reminiscent of centuries past.
It was in these old homes that Kerr first saw an opportunity. He bought one of the larger properties in 1973 (which he named Chiiori) and later founded Chiiori Trust, a nonprofit that gives visitors the opportunity to stay in Iya Valley’s preserved houses — some as old as 300 years — and experience authentic, rural Japan while surrounded by modern amenities.
Kerr has outfitted each of the eight residences of Chiiori Trust with modern comforts, such as underfloor heating, Western-style toilets and wood-framed glass doors. Despite the modern luxuries, Kerr said he also tried to blend in traditional Japanese style. For example, each home has a room with traditional Japanese-style eating areas, in addition to a table and chairs.
“We value, respect and preserve what is wonderful about the original house, but then we brought in modern amenities to make it livable for modern people,” Kerr said. “You can actually come to a very old house that might be 100 years old and look up and see thatched roofs, but it’s totally comfortable.”
Although 80 percent of his clientele hail from Japan, Kerr said that there are a fair amount of American tourists. Each house varies in size, from a two-person residence to a house that fits larger families and groups.
While many visitors may come for the peace and quiet that the region offers, Kerr said there are several activities available for families and groups.
According to Kerr, one such activity is a soba noodle-making class. There are also opportunities for hiking in the mountains or learning about the history of the area within the meetings and incentives sphere.
Unlike America, where industries are often scattered throughout the country, Kerr said that Japan’s rural areas have suffered tremendously, and tourism has become increasingly important to protect its heritage. This ideology inspired Kerr to create Chiiori Trust in the first place.
“Tourism can revive these places,” Kerr said. “If you go to Kyoto or Tokyo, it’s all mobbed. When visiting the Zen temples, there is always a line of people. Iya Valley is a release from all that. It’s also touching the reality of something very ancient — a very old Japan that precedes everything we see today.”