The delights offered by Japan extend far beyond the major cities. In the south of the main island of Honshu lies the mountainous Wakayama Prefecture, with gorgeous coastline and beautiful, mysterious forests ready to unlock their secrets for the discerning traveller.
For centuries this diverse and sacred area has been home to hot springs, succulent orchards, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and much more. Today, as a natural, spiritual escape from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the world, its rejuvenating qualities can be profound.
Map of Wakayama Prefecture
Culture and tradition
In 816, the monk Kobo Daishi established Koyasan as the heart of Esoteric Shingon Buddhism. In the Edo period there were over 2000 temples here, meaning that the area has been a monastic centre for over 1200 years. Shinto shrines dot the misty mountains of Wakayama, too, with a network of pilgrimage routes known as Kumano Kodo, providing reverent walks through the spiritual history of Japan, and a wonderful entrance into the slower, more enchanting pace of living that pervades the local culture.
The Fruit Kingdom
Wakayama Prefecture’s reputation as ‘the fruit kingdom’ (kaju okoku) stretches back centuries, with its rich soil and mild climate providing the perfect conditions for fruit-growing of all kinds—especially apricots, persimmons, strawberries, blueberries and mandarins (or mikan), which are major export items. Due to the range of fruit varieties, there is some in season all year round, and there are always orchards in need of fruit-picking. As you’d expect, Wakayama is also a hub of jellies, liqueurs, jams, juices and ponzu (a citrus-infused soy sauce).
With several peaks surrounding an 800-metre-high valley, the topography of the Koyasan monastery complex is akin to a lotus flower; it’s no surprise that the overwhelming feeling is one of peace, grace and transcendence. Between its Head Temple Kongobuji (with its beautiful, innovative architecture and Japan’s largest rock garden) and its many pilgrimage paths (including mountaineering) to Okuno-in, the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, it would be difficult to come away from Koyasan without being transformed.
Of the 117 temples that survive in Kobo Daishi’s Buddhist sanctuary, 52 offer overnight shukubo accommodation, and each of them illustrates Japanese philosophy and culture in a unique way as well as providing peaceful, meditative activities and mouth-watering shojin-ryori, vegetarian food traditionally eaten by monks. This singularly beautiful area of Wakayama Prefecture is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most sacred sites in Japan.
Kumano Kodo is the network of pilgrimage routes stretching across the mountainous Kii Peninsula. It’s one of only two UNESCO World Heritage listed pilgrimage routes in the world. Walking the Kumano Kodo is a great way to experience the countryside, staying at traditional inns and bathing in natural hot-springs (onsen) along the way. While the aim of the pilgrimage is to reach the three Grand Shrines of Kumano, the walk itself is a spiritual journey that will stay with you forever.
In the east of the prefecture is the stunning Dorokyo Gorge, where log rafts (Ikada-kudari) floating down the Kitayama River have served as the backbone for the logging industry for over 6 centuries. In the village of Kitayama, this practice has been preserved and is available for travellers who are looking for a traditional experience that will nevertheless get the heart racing. The surrounding Yoshino-Kumano National Park is a breathtaking vision of old Japan, with crystal-clear waters and thick forests. There might be no better way to see it than being escorted straight through the middle of it by skilled logging river-runners.
Wakayama is home to one of Japan’s three premier onsen resorts: Shirahama. Situated on the southwest coast, the name literally means ‘white beach’ and it certainly lives up to its name, providing sun-seeking travellers with Japanese beach culture at its absolute best … but the real reason to venture here is the hot spring baths.
Saki-no-yu is possibly the oldest onsen in Japan. This rotenburo (or outdoor bath) has existed for more than a thousand years and is even mentioned in Japan’s ancient texts as a favoured therapeutic spot for emperors and their courts. It’s easy to see why: Saki-no-yu overlooks the Pacific Ocean, meaning that cool waves spray your face while the hot waters soothe your body. It’s a blissful and unforgettable experience.
Wakayama Prefecture is the birthplace of bonito flakes, soy sauce and tea congee, but its contributions to Japanese cuisine don’t end there. Wakayama locals have long made use of the wild mountain vegetables and the bountiful marine life, resulting in sumptuous local delicacies that are as varied as the topography.
A true regional specialty is Shojin-ryori, which is Buddhist vegetarian food steeped in seasonal flavours. In addition to avoiding meat and fish, it also eschews garlic, onions and other pungent ingredients, resulting in a beautifully balanced, subtle collection of flavours that can rejuvenate as much as a Shingon temple.
Spiny lobster (ise-ebi)
Since the 1600s, this characteristic lobster was a celebratory dish in Edo and Osaka to ring in the new year. Their natural season is October to April, when the flesh is at its sweetest.
Picked Japanese apricots (umeboshi)
These tasty ume (Japanese apricots pickled in salt) are a staple food of the region, often served with rice or as a snack with drinks. They are thought to be a digestive aid and are even used as a hangover remedy.
A variety of accommodation is available in places like Wakayama city, Shirahama, Koyasan and Nachikatsuura town.
The comfortable Hotel Granvia Wakayama is in walking distance of JR Wakayama Station and serves as a tourist springboard to the rest of the area—where you can find any number of resorts, boutique hotels, Shukubo temple retreats and traditional Japanese ryokan to bed down when exploring the prefecture.
Wakayama Marina City offers a more maritime experience, with rooms that look over the ocean and adjacent to both onsens and wonderful local seafood.
For more information on temple lodging in Koyasan and for bookings, head to the Koyasan Shukubo Association, eng.shukubo.net
TRAIN – Wakayama City is 40 minutes by train from Kansai International Airport on the Nankai Electric Rail line. Alternatively you can take the JR West line from Kyoto (1.5 hours), Osaka (1 hour) or Tokyo (3.5 hours).
Koyasan can be easily accessed from Osaka (either Namba or Shin-Imamiya stations) on the Nankai Koya Line, Limited Express Koya. Take the train from either station to Gokurakubashi terminal station (approximately 80 minutes) and transfer to the cable car which travels to Koyasan in 5 minutes. From Koyasan station, it’s a 10 minute bus ride to the town centre.
Kumano Kodo’s Tanabe station can be reached by JR Limited Express Kuroshio from either Osaka in approximately 2 hours (Tennoji or Shin-Osaka stations) or Kyoto, in approximately 2.5 hours.
Koyasan World Heritage Ticket – this ticket contains a discounted round trip ticket from your boarding station (e.g. Namba, Shin-Imamiya stations) to Koyasan. It also includes free boarding tickets for buses in Koyasan, discounts on admission fees and on souvenirs. Price from Namba station (Osaka), 2,860 yen for adults, 1,440 yen for children.
Throughout the prefecture you can travel by Nankai rail passes, purchased here, or by JR West Kansai WIDE passes, purchased here.
For more information on Wakayama Prefecture visit en.visitwakayama.jp.