The home of the gods
Wakayama prefecture is the spectacular, spiritual heart of Japan.
Just a couple of hours south of the electric city of Osaka, there’s a place where ancient pathways lead to hidden shrines shrouded in mist; where monks worship waterfalls and mystical forests float. The mountains here are a sacred dwelling for the gods and known for their restorative powers, while along the saw-tooth coast healing onsens (hot spring baths) merge with the clear waters of the ocean.
Located on the remote Kii peninsula on the southern coast of Kansai, Wakayama prefecture makes up a large part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range, linked by the ancient Kumano Kodo.
Mount Koya is the easiest to access from Kansai’s major cities, though reaching Koya’s misty mountaintop you’ll feel as if you’ve entered another realm. Among the collection of ancient temples nestled along the wooded slopes, many offer overnight stays where you can experience life as a monk, attending the morning prayers and eating Buddhist meals.
All of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes lead to the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano in the mountains of southeastern Wakayama; the Hongu Taisha, the Nachi Taisha and the Hayatama Taisha. You can visit all three shrines within a day but it’s worth staying longer for a chance to heal your body and mind in Kumano’s holy waters.
A 1,800 year old discovery, Yunomine is thought to be one of Japan’s oldest hot spring towns and a key stopping point on the Kumano Kodo route – pilgrims would come here to purify themselves before worshipping at the shrines. Tsuboyu is the world’s only UNESCO World Heritage bath; it’s in a small wooden cabin on the river and has healing waters said to cure all manner of ailments. A little way downstream there’s a pool of natural hot water where you can boil eggs and vegetables with the locals.
The incredibly atmospheric Nachi Taisha shrine stands in front of the deified Nachi waterfall which shrouds the shrine in its godly vapour. You’ll struggle to take a bad photo but make sure your camera is waterproof. The Hayatama Taisha in the town of Shingu is home to a 1000 year old tree and a large floating forest that you can feel moving underneath you as you walk.
Katsuura along the coast leading down to the Shionomisaki cape is onsen galore. Katsuura is also famous for its seafood, especially its huge tuna said to be the biggest in Japan. Following the coast round, Shirahama is another popular onsen resort with a gorgeous white sand beach and plenty of places to stay.