A secret pirate cave hidden next to Wakayama Prefecture's most iconic beach
The coastline of Wakayama Prefecture has a great deal of impressive scenery, but one of the most interesting spots are the Sandanbeki Cliffs in the popular resort town of Shirahama. It takes its name from its historical use as a lookout point for fishermen watching for boats or shoals of fish. The first two kanji that make up its name Sandan (三段) can also be read as midan, which means viewing platform.
It was also used during the 8th Century to watch for pirates that made this stretch of coast very dangerous. A particularly notorious pirate called Tagamaru used to sail out from Kumano Fort, just to the south, and raid shipping and coastal villages.
While the view from the clifftop is impressive, taking the elevator down through 36 meters of solid rock to sea level reveals the real secret of Sandanbeki. Here you will discover a small cave network that was once a hiding place of the Wakayama pirates, and also occasionally, the powerful Kumano Navy whose job was to hunt them.
The caves are a mixture of natural erosion and manual labour and have recently had some restoration work now features a restored navy guardhouse and some good information about its history. It also houses an impressive shrine to Benzaiten, a deity of all things that flow, including the sea. Though the most popular spot is the path just inside the cave mouth where you can watch (and feel) the waves crashing in.
The elevator to the cave can be quite easy to miss. It sits inside a souvenir shop on the cliff top and is surrounded by a few older souvenir and ice cream shops.
A seaside resort town
Shirahama is probably most well known as an Onsen town with a very popular white sandy beach with nightly firework displays during summer. A little further north from Sandanbeki is another interesting rock formation called Senjojiki (1000 tatami mat floor), a wide open range of sandstone, worn smooth by the ocean.
Just a few minutes away by car or bus is Adventure World, a huge aquarium/safari/theme park famous for its pandas. You can also find Tore Tore Ichiba, a vast fish market and souvenir shopping complex that also feels a little bit like a theme park.
Love Japan’s countryside? Explore more of its natural wonders.