First time Wakayama: a guide to Japan's spiritual heartland
From its winding mountain trails to its charming, pristine beaches, Wakayama Prefecture is an ancient gem waiting to be discovered. Steeped in history and culture, the area is abundant in unique charm, and has much to offer a first time visitor. Here’s an easy-to-follow guide to help you plan your adventure.
A prefecture like no other
South of Kyoto and Osaka, in the Kansai region of Honshu is Wakayama-ken, where beauty and nature reign supreme. Rugged and vastly mountainous, it’s a must-visit destination for any outdoor enthusiast travelling to Japan. The Kii Peninsula that the prefecture calls home boasts extraordinary pilgrimage routes, picturesque port towns, sprawling hikes and natural hot springs. Despite its closeness to Osaka (the second largest metropolitan area in the country) the prefecture allows visitors to truly immerse themselves in a tranquil, unspoilt world. The city itself presents a glimpse into feudal era Japan, while the nearby monastic mountain settlement of Kōya-san gives visitors the opportunity to stay at a functioning Buddhist temple, where they can rise at 6am to meditate with the monks before gathering in the breakfast hall to sample their unique vegetarian cuisine. Further south along the coast, travellers can stay in Shirahama, one of the best known areas for natural hot springs in the whole country, before venturing onto the Kumano Kodō pilgrimage routes, a series of scenic nature trails that have been in use for over 1000 years.
If you’re travelling to Wakayama Prefecture, be sure to pack your hiking boots and swimsuit – you’ll need them. The Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes of the Kii Mountain Range enjoy Unesco World Heritage status, and today, travellers can trace the same ancient paths once used by emperors and samurai. The Kumano Kodō is not one route, but a network of trails through dense woodland and forested mountain peaks. It is here that the Kumano Sanzan (three Grand Shrines) and Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple were established, all of which can still be seen along the Nakahechi route (also known as the Imperial Route), the most popular and action-packed trail in the area. The breathtakingly rugged Yoshino-Kumano National Park is also often noted for its amazing distant views of Mount Kongou and Mount Katsuragi, as well as sites such as Odaigahara Plateau, where a scenic route takes visitors near the summit to offer hiking, mountain climbing and nature walks.
At the southern tip of the peninsula are Kushimoto and Shirahama, beautiful coastal towns where visitors can dive amongst coral reefs, bathe in historic onsen, sample fresh seafood and lie on some of the best beaches in all of Kansai. In Japan, taking time out to soak in an onsen is a way of life, with the hot springs being cherished for their rejuvenating qualities. Wakayama has plenty of choice, from relaxing foot baths while you dine (Ashiyu Alley in the restaurant district of Ginza Alley in Shirahama) to a small two-person bath built on a creek (Tsubo-Yu in Yunomine Onsen, Tanabe), as well as large river-cum-onsen baths said to fit up to 1000 people (Sennin Buro at Kawayu Onsen, which is only open from December to February). Top choices include Saki-no-Yu in Shirahama, one of the oldest hot springs in Japan, which has stunning views of the Pacific Ocean from its rotenburo (open air baths) and Bokido Cave, an onsen located inside a naturally formed cavern at Katsuura Onsen in Nachikatsuura Town.
Immerse yourself in culture
Built in 1585 under the command of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and once the base of the Tokugawa Clan, the family linked to re-uniting Japan and helping to usher in the Edo period, Wakayama Castle still dominates the city as a historic and eye-catching landmark. Having been badly damaged during World War II, it was rebuilt in 1958, and now serves as a symbol for the city, housing historical artefacts as well as a traditional tea house where visitors can relax and enjoy a cup of Japanese green tea. The grounds are also home to over 600 cherry blossom trees, and the castle is a favourite spot to partake in hanami (cherry blossom viewing) during springtime. One of the city’s more unique attractions is Fusion Museum, which celebrates Wakayama’s commercial knitting heritage. Located in a shopping mall, visitors can even knit their own scarf on a bicycle-powered machine. On the west coast, in the town of Yuasa, travellers can call into Kadocho, a functioning soy sauce brewery that is over 170 years old and still operates the traditional way. Near the most southerly point of Honshu is Kushimoto Marine Park, first established to conserve the natural underwater world off the coast. With an onsite aquarium and a centre that offers diving lessons, it’s well worth a visit.
Unmissable seasonal events
The Japanese people take great pride in celebrating the unique qualities of every season. The cherry blossoms of springtime are perhaps the most famous example of this, and they never fail to attract large crowds. Thanks to its abundance of trees, Wakayama is a great choice to appreciate the bloom, which usually occurs from late March to mid-April. Spring festivals include the Suna (sand) Festival Contest at Shirahama Beach, where participants make ornate white sand sculptures, and the Kumano Hongu Taisha-Reitaisai Festival, held over three days from April 13 at the Grand Shrine. On the final day, the shrine's former grounds come alive with rituals, dancing, and the throwing of rice cakes. In summer, visitors can enjoy elaborate fireworks displays off the coast of Shirahama, while the Mifune-Matsuri Festival in Autumn sees nine ceremonial boats transferring the divine spirit enshrined at Kumano Hayatama-Taisha along the Kumanogawa River.
The freshest produce
Thanks to its warm climate, Wakayama produces more premium fruit (including peaches, mandarins, Japanese persimmons and ume) than anywhere else in Japan. It also boasts thriving farming and fishing industries.
Ramen or Chuka soba (Chinese noodles) as the locals call it, saw a surge in popularity in the years prior to World War II, and is still a favourite dish today. Ideshoten on Tanaka-machi in Wakayama City and Marumasa Ramen in Shirahama serve up especially delicious, steaming bowls of noodles and broth, but really, most places you come across will offer a great take on the dish. As can be expected, the seafood in Wakayama is exceptional. Otsukuri Gozen in Wakayama City is an excellent lunch option, offering set meals with the freshest fish procured daily from nearby Arida. Tuna-filleting shows are held at Kuroshio Market in Wakayama City and at Toretore Ichiba-Mae Market in Shirahama Town. Depending on the season, most restaurants will offer raw, fresh bonito, pot-boiled whitebait, fried sweetfish, succulent sea bream and warming wintery hot pot. In more rural parts of Wakayama, restaurants may close early if business has been quiet, so try to call ahead if possible. In bigger cities, it is also advised to make a reservation, as popular spots can fill up quickly. When the sun goes down, hitting the streets of Tanabe City to enjoy a cold beer or a tipple of sake with the locals is a must. Packed full of small bars and restaurants, Ajikoji Food Entertainment District is an especially unique spot that offers a slightly retro slice of Japanese nightlife.
Travellers can reach Wakayama in just one hour and 30 minutes by plane from Tokyo. Domestic airlines fly into Nanki-Shirahama Airport, allowing visitors to be on the white sands of Shirahama Beach in a matter of minutes. The Prefectural capital is one hour from Osaka and one hour 30 minutes from Kyoto by train. Train passes can offer discounts specifically for international visitors, and special offers are available from time to time from Japan Railway and the Nankai Electric Railway companies. Another solid choice is the Koyasan & Kumano Access Bus, which offers unlimited ride passes and connects the Koyasan area with the Kumano Sanzan heritage sites. Traveling to Wakayama’s most remote areas can take more time. More than 80 percent mountains, the Kii Peninsula's main access routes (rail and highway) are located along the coast, but offer exceptional views. Renting a car is a good option, and in the city, biking is also popular. Battery-assisted and conventional bike rental services are typically located near train stations and information centres.