Photo:cotaro70s on Flickr

Wakayama: Sun, Sea and... Pandas??

Being based in the Kansai area is certainly not without its advantages for an avid adventurer such as myself.

Not only can one bask in the urban magnificence of sprawling cities like Osaka and Kobe. One can also bask in the historic charm and rich cultural heritage of places like Kyoto, Nara and Himeji. But what if you’re tired of the temples and sick of the city?

What if you want to just get away from it all, reconnect with nature and take some time for peace, quiet and reflection? Once again, Kansai has got you covered. It’s time to head out of the city and into the wilderness, as we embrace the tranquil beauty and rural sleepiness of Wakayama.

Wakayama’s position, less than one hour by train from Kansai International Airport belies just how different the place is from nearby urban hubs like Kobe and Osaka. Indeed, characteristically, Wakayama feels almost like a different planet from my home of Osaka. Despite covering more than 4% of Honshu island’s land mass, the population of Wakayama is a rather modest 989,000. To put this into perspective, the adjoining prefecture of Osaka, despite being around half the size, has a population of 8.8 million.

Photo : doronko on Flickr

Sprawling forests, waterfalls, dotted intermittently with small, family-run onsen hotels cover much of the prefecture. You’ll also find plenty of good beaches in the summer, where you can relax and unwind as you top up your tan.

Photo : inga on Flickr

If onsen is your thing, then you’ll definitely want to make a trip to Shirahama. Alongside the usual onsen resorts, you will also find small inns, where you and your family, or your significant other can relax and enjoy a private hot spring bath together. As I mentioned in one of my previous articles, there is a very definite science behind onsens and their composition. Shirahama has a variety of such hot springs to cater to your needs. Early booking is advised though, especially if you plan on visiting during the weekend or one of the peak holiday times like Obon or Golden Week.

It may not be at the top of everyone’s list of must see castles of Japan, but Wakayama castle, situated in the prefectural capital of Wakayama city, has enjoyed a rich and colourful history and cuts an imposing presence over the city.

Photo : hiroaki on Flickr

The castle originally dates back to the 14th century, when it was known as Ota Castle. However, in 1585, at the height of Japan’s intensely bloody feudal period, the castle was seiged by Osaka-based warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi. The story of the siege itself serves to highlight ingenuity, gallantry and tragedy of pre-modern warfare.

Prior to Toyotomi’s occupation, the castle was held by the Saiga Ikki, a noble clan of Buddhist warrior monks. Rather than engage the direct conflict with the monks, and risk losing large swathes of his forces, Hideyoshi instead utilized the local geography and weather patterns to his advantage. He built makeshift dams on 3 sides of the castle, which served to funnel the rainwater as well as diverting a nearby river into the base of the castle, causing widespread flooding. This led ultimately to most of the civilians within the castle surrendering to Toyotomi’s forces and to his credit he showed them mercy. However, for the brave and noble monks, surrender was not an option and they instead opted for a final, suicidal charge. The last remaining 50 monks of the Saiga Ikki were savagely cut down by Hideyoshi’s vastly superior numbers as they surged bravely towards their enemies one last time, earning their final rest among the honoured dead of their brothers.

With the battle over, the castle became the longterm residence of Hideyoshi’s brother Hidenaga Toyotomi. Ota Castle was in complete ruins at this point, and Hidenaga along with his trusted general Todo Takatora, oversaw construction of a completely new castle giving us what we now call Wakayama Castle.

Photo : Kazuhisa OTSUBO on Flickr

The castle was the scene of many battles after coming under the control of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1615. Throughout the Tokugawa period, the castle underwent numerous alterations and changes. Its current design was first devised by Tokugawa Yorinobu, the 10th heir to the Tokugawa name, sometime shortly after the conclusion of the siege of Osaka in 1615. It went through a number of alterations, but remained under the control of the Tokugawas until the time of the Meiji restoration in 1868. It was at that time that the system of feudal lordship finally came to an end, and the castle became open to the public for the first time. Tragically, most of the castle was obliterated during an allied bombing raid during the second world war. The current castle was rebuilt from concrete in the 1950s and serves as a strong symbol of Wakayama’s post war recovery. It may not be the original structure, but with its 17th century design taken directly from the Tokugawa’s original plans, what Wakayama Castle may lack in physical history, it more than makes up for in atmosphere and ambiance.

Of course, if you read my headline to this article you could be forgiven for thinking I was being a tad deceptive. Yes, Japanese onsen, countryside and castles are all well and good, but where are the pandas??

Have no fear dear reader, I have not forgotten our beloved black and white friends. Wakayama Adventure World is the place to go for all your Panda related needs.

Not only does Shirahama have great hotels, great onsen and wonderful views, it also houses the Adventure World theme park and animal centre.

Here, you can sample all the joys of a modern theme park: rides, restaurants and numerous other attractions. You’ll also get to see polar bears, and various other exotic wildlife alongside those cutest of the cute, the pandas.

Photo : pelican on Flickr

In recent months, adventure world was blessed with the birth of two new panda cubs. The cubs are fast approaching 3 months old and continue to make good progress.

So, whether its creature comforts, opulent onsen or castle culture, Wakayama has something for everyone. Please be sure to visit soon.

Photo : 顔なし on Flickr

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