Get away from it all in scenic Wakayama with a temple stay, hiking, or sacred fire festival.
Add a “land of water” to the prefecture’s ever-growing list of nicknames. It’s an apt description. Tourists from all over Japan come to Wakayama for water sports like kayaking, diving, and snorkeling. There are white sandy beaches with beautiful turquoise waters, crystal clear rivers, and hundreds of scenic waterfalls, some sacred, some peaceful, and some raging.
For outdoor enthusiasts, kayaking along the Suhara Coast in Yuasa Town, or canoeing down the transparent Kozagawa River in Kushimoto Town will be right up your alley. The inexperienced can book tours with river guides while experts can explore the current at their leisure.
Some of Japan’s best onsen (hot springs) are in Wakayama. You’ll find them nestled in the mountains, hidden on small islands overlooking the ocean, and in the rivers next to hotels. The Sennin-buro River Bath found in the hot spring hamlets of Kawayu, Wataze, and Yunomine are some of the best around.
Yunomine, in particular, is fantastic for history buffs and onsen lovers alike. The small community dates back some 1,800 years and served as a rest stop along the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage. Yunomine’s most unusual hot spring, Tsuboyu Onsen, changes colors several times a day and is an incredible sight to behold.
For a more grandiose experience, take a boat ride to a small islet in Katsuura Bay and stay at Kumano Bettei Hotel Nakanoshima. The views from the hotel’s unspoiled oceanfront baths will leave you at peace.
Wakayama has some pretty quirky train lines. The Medetai train that runs from Wakayamashi Station, for example, is designed to look like a bright pink and red fish. The Wakayama Electric Railway’s furry stationmaster is what you’ve got to see, though.
Kishi Station is operated by Tama II, a cat following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Tama—the station’s enshrined guardian deity. You’re going to want to snap loads of pictures of this cute feline and the station’s cat-themed trains. If you need help finding Kishi Station, it shouldn’t be too hard. It’s the only one shaped like a cat.
Hundreds of years ago, pilgrims wrote about the Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine’s massive torii gate and the unbelievable size of the shrine grounds. Although destroyed periodically by natural disasters, it was always rebuilt. That is until 1889 when it was wiped out by a flood. Today, all that remains are two small shrines marking Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine’s original location, and the largest torii gate on earth—The Oyunohara Otorii.
The Oyunohara Otorii stands 33.9 meters tall and 42 meters wide. The steel used for its construction weighs more than 170 tons. Needless to say, a flood isn’t knocking this bad boy down anytime soon. Built in the year 2000, the torii serves as an official gateway marking the area as sacred. Walking under it feels as if you were David approaching Goliath.
Koyasan, or Mount Koya, is Wakayama’s sacred mountain town and center of Shingon Buddhism in Japan. Founded in 816 by Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai) Koyasan has over 100 temples, 52 of which comprise shukubo, a lodge where visitors can stay overnight. Around 3,000 people live in the surrounding town, and a third of them are either monks or monks in training.
Travelers who opt to do a temple stay at the shukubo participate in the monks’ daily rituals and activities like meditation and sutra writing. You can even eat shojin ryori, traditional Buddhist cuisine that’s delicious and completely vegan. Staying at a temple with the monks is one of our top cultural experiences to try in Japan—one for the bucket list for sure.
Despite being such an influential and hallowed place, the entire town is accomodating to foreigners. Along with numerous temples and pagodas, shops line town’s streets with handmade wares, sweets, and arguably the greatest tofu on earth.
There are dozens of festivals held in Wakayama throughout the year. While some are small-town affairs, others bring in people from all over Japan. One highlight is the Oto Matsuri Festival held on Feb. 6 in Shingu City.
During this energetic fire festival, thousands of men race down the mountain from Kamikura Shrine carrying flaming torches. If you think that sounds dangerous, it is. It’s also a whole lot of fun to see. Unfortunately, as the name literally translates to “men’s festival,” women are not allowed to enter Kamikura Shrine where the festival takes place on the day of the event. Instead, female travelers can watch the procession from the bridge in front of the shrine. We know, we know, but you have to respect the culture and tradition.
Wakayama’s clear blue waters create the perfect condition for sashimi that practically melts in your mouth. Especially the tuna, a Wakayama delicacy. The demand is so high for Wakayama tuna that the prefecture claims the largest catches of the fish in the country.
The best place to try it for yourself is at the Katsuura Fishing Port in Nachi-Katsuura Town. If you want it even fresher, make an early morning visit to their fish market. After seeing hundreds of huge tuna bought and sold, you can gorge yourself at the nearby food court “Nigiwai-Ichiba” and local tuna restaurants.
Kuroshio Market in Wakayama City and Toretore Market in Shirahama Town are massive warehouses devoted to local produce, sake, umeboshi (pickled plums), and of course, delicious tuna. There are also tuna filleting demonstrations held daily.
Koyasan is home to Okunoin, the largest cemetery in the world, with tombstones for more than 200,000 people lining its 1.9km path. Heavenly rays of light beam through the cracks of thick cedar trees stretching into the sky while the moon casts somber shadows during evening hours.
Tombstones shaped like five-story pagodas representing earth, water, fire, wind, and ether give the cemetery a serene yet powerful feeling as if everything around you is emanating energy. At the end of Okunoin is Kukai’s mausoleum. Rather than being dead, followers of Shingon Buddhism believe Kukai is in an eternal state of meditative consciousness. Here he remains, awaiting the future Buddha and praying for world peace.
Next to Nachi Taisha and Seiganto-ji Temple, sits the towering Nachi Falls which is Japan’s tallest waterfall with a cascade of 133 meters! The view of Seiganto-ji Temple’s three-story pagoda with the powerful falls as a backdrop is especially picturesque.
To get to Nachi Falls and the adjacent Seiganto-ji Temple, hikers can follow the Daimon-zaka Slope, a quiet cobblestone path starting from the base of a nearby valley. Though challenging, the trail can be completed in under an hour and is the perfect opportunity for those wanting to explore a short path of the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage. It’s surrounded by century old-cedar trees and bamboo groves, and at the base of the path is Meotosugi, a grand pair of wedded trees.
While walking, hikers might see people dressed in traditional Heian Period clothing and kimono which are available for rent at the Daimon-zaka jaya Teahouse.
South of Koyasan lies the Kumano Region, the origin of spiritualism in Japan widely considered the land of the gods. Three grand shrines in the area—Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha, and Nachi Taisha—grew to be Kumano’s main centers of worship linked by pilgrimage trails known as the Kumano Kodo.
This ancient web of trails takes travelers through pristine forests, near raging waterfalls, and over windy mountain ranges and is easily accessible from Wakayama City. There are four main routes stretching from Kyoto, through Wakayama’s southern coasts, and onto Ise Jingu Shrine in Mie. All walks of life from emperors to common folk took the pilgrimage and today, it’s revered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This article was sponsored by Wakayama Prefecture. For more information visit: https://en.visitwakayama.jp/