Wakayama prefecture is not among the most known ones across Japan. It stretches north-south from Osaka and is part of the Kii peninsula, the same one where Nara, the famous Ise shinto shrine and mount Koya are. Still, there are several sights and places that definitely will leave visitors in awe. Here below is a short, essential to-do list for those who want to take some trips off the beaten paths.
1. Stay in a Monastery at Koya mountain
Photo by alq666 on Flickr
Mount Koya is one of the most, if not the most, sacred mountains in Japan as it hosts the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism and is a key location for religion studies, meditation and soulful experiences. It is possible to spend the night in the monastery of Koya temple, at the top of the mountain, in order to experience the Buddhist lifestyle of simple meals, meditation and prayer that the monks practice every day.
Reaching the temple is already a journey itself, as one needs to hike up for about 800 meters. Along the way worshippers and non-worshippers can enjoy a spiritual path, surrounded by nature. Some parts of the hike go along paved paths that cut through forests of tall trees immersed in the mist, some parts are just a series of challenging stair steps, some other parts are plain terrain.
2. Wakayama Castle
The city of Wakayama may not be known to many, but it boasts a castle that sits on higher grounds, emerging from green tick vegetation, and offers very nice views of the city that extend all the way to the river mouth and the bay. The castle is built on top a small mountain named Torafusu, and actually there is a statue of a tiger by the main entrance. Most of the citadel walls and buildings were destroyed during the war, and are now kept to testify the tragic events, while the main body and some annex buildings of the castle were rebuilt entirely. The outside walls, instead, have survived until present day without a scratch. One nice thing about this castle, visible everywhere around the city and in the castle museum, is the "Kishu Temari" (handball) manufacturing. It is said that it was the castle's women who started to craft such balls by hand, stitching colored threads to create beautiful patterns on the balls princesses would later play with.
3. See Temples in Wakayama City
Kimiidera Main Gate
Wakayama is not only a castle town, but it also features three big temples that are as hard to get as they are beautiful. They are built on some hillside, partially hidden thanks to a lot of vegetation around them. The one that's a bit further from the city is Kimii-dera. The main shrine sits at the top of 231 stair steps and once the climb is over, the view from the top is stunning. This temple is famous also for its cherry blossoms, and attracts a lot of visitors every spring. It is also the number 33 in a pilgrimage around Kansai temples dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy.
Entrance to Wakaura Tenmangu
A second temple is Wakaura Tenmangu, which is a Mecca for students who have to pass important exams. There are steps to reach the gate of this temple, too. A little bit below one hundred. But there is also a nicer, longer detour that takes a twisting walking path on both sides of the main entrance. Again, the view from above is really beautiful. I remember that I also signed the guest book there, when I first visited in September 2009.
Kishu Toshogu Temple Main Gate
Next to Wakaura Temple is the Toshogu Shrine, sitting on what's called "Samurai Hill", which is considered like the Nikko of Kansai. There are 108 steps to get to the main gate here as well. The entrance faces the bay area and the Wakaura Tenmangu.
4. Nachi Falls
Nachi falls from the temple. Photo by David Z. on Flickr
The waterfalls in Nachikatsuura, south of Wakayama not far from Taiji, are very famous in Japan, as they are the tallest waterfalls in the country. They were so revered and worshipped by the people that temples grew around them. Nowadays the Nachi Taisha temple, built not far from the waterfalls site, is one of the Kumano sacred shinto temples, also a pilgrimage destination. The beauty of the waterfalls and the overall natural scenery, together with the views of the temple's pagoda, is timeless and astonishing. Any trip to Wakayama should include this spot.
5. Shirahama beach
Say it's summer and all we want is a refreshing swim in the ocean. The best place to head to is definitely Shirahama beach. It is located in the center of Wakayama prefecture, a moon arc shaped stretch of white sand that was transported there directly from the Australian sandy beaches. It is so white that on a clear day it can be undoubtedly recognized from an airplane. It is also good for families with small children, because the beach opens up inwards, so it's protected from the big waves of the open ocean.
6. Kushimoto's Rocky Coast
The city of Kushimoto is at the south tip of Wakayama prefecture. Its coastal area is rocky, made of sharp and high cliffs of volcanic granite. The one place every traveller must see in Kushimoto is the famous stone bridge of Hashigui Iwa. A legend tells that a demon didn't want the people of Kushimoto to build a bridge to get to the nearby island. So, one monk made a deal with the demon and said he would either finish the bridge over night or the bridge would never be. But the demon tricked the monk who was working frantically, by faking a cock-crow. What stands now is half of the bridge the monk managed to build until tricked to finish before the time. Anyway, the flat stone under the water and the tall pointy rocks make this part of the coast a must see. Shionomisaki cape, not too far from Kushimoto is also not to be missed, as from there one can see the earth's curve on the horizon.
7. Scuba dive
Another good thing of Kushimoto is that its waters host the world's northernmost coral reef. Since its waters are warm enough for tropical fish to call them home, scuba diving has one of its best spots on the entire mainland. In Kushimoto, especially, diving schools and tours are arranged for people willing to admire the reef and its colorful inhabitants.
8. Visit Kushimoto Aquarium
If diving is not your thing, then Kushimoto City has a big aquarium, whose best attraction is a submerged observation tower. Visitors can go down the spiral staircase and stand at one of the round windows to be able to watch the fish swimming freely in their natural environment.
9. Hiking in the Mountains of Wakayama
Most of the prefecture is mountainous. That means that hiking lovers will surely find what they are looking for. There are plenty of hiking routes in the Kumano area, which is the most beaten because hikers can combine nature and traditions by stopping by the temples for a little pilgrimage. Other routes are in the Koya area, again famous for its temples, and in general, as soon as one leaves the major urbanized areas, all that's left is mountains, forests, ferns and moss.
10. Learn About Whale and Dolphins Fishing in Taiji
The town of Taiji, in the south of Wakayama is a fishing town. Of a special kind. Controversially, they do hunt whales and dolphins. Fishermen have always faced problems and obstruction from pacifist and pro animals rights groups, such as Greenpeace. Anyway, these people, whether we agree or not, whether we like it or not, they still slaughter dolphins.
I am not recommending you see that, but there is a museum, the only one of its kind, where visitors can learn more about whaling and dolphin fishing, how whales have evolved and how they live. Oddly enough, dolphin shows are held at the museum too. These dolphins are only kept there until the moment they are sent to the various dolphinariums in the world.
Of course, while you are there, it is highly recommended that you try the seafood.