Why Wakayama is Japan's best-kept secret
Wakayama Prefecture - World Heritage 15th Anniversary
When hardworking Japanese wish to put the modern world on hold and realign their spirits they take a trip to Wakayama Prefecture. Easy to reach but often overlooked by visitors from overseas, Wakayama’s mystical vibe and sacred forests offer a soul nourishing journey to the spiritual origins of the Japanese nation.
Japan’s Spiritual Heartland
Located on the west side of the island of Honshu, Japan’s main island, Wakayama Prefecture is known for spiritual legends that date far back. To this day visitors to the mountainous regions marvel at the massive cedars, the misty and mysterious terrain, and take part in immemorial, incense-laden religious rituals that revere the gifts the gods bestowed upon the “land of trees.” Buddhism, Shintoism, sacred pilgrimage routes, dramatic landscapes and architectural wonders converge to touch one’s soul to its very depths.
Misty and mystical mountains, encompassed by iconic coastal vistas
Rejuvenate in History
In Wakayama one can feel the weight of time, yet easily shrug off the stresses of everyday life. Enjoy a deep soak in an isolated hot spring rich in rejuvenating properties, serene moments tickled by the spray at the base of Japan’s tallest waterfall, or a relaxing river boat ride down a sacred river as it perennially winds its way through lush green slopes and steep rocky bluffs. From mysterious mountains with walking paths and legends that date back forever, to vibrant coastal cities with an endless variety of things to see and do, Wakayama rivals any region of Japan and resort havens worldwide. Yet it excels in moving one’s spirit like nowhere else, as the past remains just as alive today as it ever was, which in turn inspires and informs the future.
Nation’s Legacy, World’s Heritage
Twelve hundred years ago, early in the Heian Period (794-1185) in the year 816, the Buddhist monk Kukai made his way to the primeval forest of Mount Koya, or Koyasan, in the land then known as Kishu, and today called Wakayama. He chose a site resembling a lotus—an 800-meter high valley nestled between eight peaks of the ridge—at which to establish a monastic center for the study and practice of Esoteric Shingon Buddhism, a faith that was subsequently to gain a devout following throughout all of Japan.
Now revered by his posthumous name, Kobo Daishi, the great monk’s physical legacy is a university dedicated to religious studies, 117 temples scattered throughout the Koya area—some 50 of which offer lodging—and a network of sacred pilgrimage routes trod by hundreds of millions of the faithful across the eons. Kobo Daishi’s metaphysical legacy is eternal, as his spirit is believed to live on in Koyasan. In recent years his impact has extended to the entire world. In 2004 UNESCO designated Koyasan as a World Heritage Site, called “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.”
Holy Ground, Healing Waters
Head south from Koyasan and into the wilds of Kumano, home to a significant part of Japan’s ancient Shinto and nature-worship traditions, that extend far back into prehistory. Known as the “holy ground where the gods dwell,” the spirits of the devout departed are believed to eternally inhabit the forest. Beckoning believers are three Shinto shrines collectively known as the Kumano Sanzan, also part of the World Heritage Site, as is the network of pilgrimage routes that connect these shrines called Kumano Kodo.
The Kumano Kodo features long revered healing spots and are accessible today through casual 30-minute walking tours or challenging treks that take an entire day. Storyteller guides can be called upon, who describe Kumano's history, nature, and legends along the way. There are also Kumano’s abundant onsen—hot springs. Yunomine Onsen is renowned for its healing powers and Tsuboyu, a rustic cabin with an onsen bath in a creek bed, is the only hot spring in a World Heritage Site.
Whatever the time of year, Wakayama has something special to offer. Local traditions, festivals, and methods of enjoying the bountiful harvests from the land and the sea never fail to satisfy. In springtime one can pick giant strawberries, picnic beneath the fleeting cherry blossoms, and partake in the traditional Hina Nagashi ceremony for girls held on March 3, where dolls dressed in scarlet and yellow kimono are placed in little boats and released to drift out into the sparkling ocean. Summertime is open to sunbathing on the white sands of Japan’s most beautiful beach in Shirahama, thrilling to the dramatic fireworks displays of the Minato Festival in Wakayama City, and transporting oneself back into the Heian period at the Yata Fire Festival in Kumano.
Fall is the time for the annual Mifune Festival, which features a riverboat race that includes nine rowboats leading beautiful floating shrines—a 1,000 year-old tradition carried out beneath autumn leaves that paint a palette of brilliant reds and golden pastels. Wintertime is ripe for a soak in the Sennin Buro, an immense natural open-air river hot spring, and for sampling tuna dishes at the Maguro Festival in Katsuura, where more fresh fish are landed than anywhere else in Japan. Anytime is right for enjoying the exquisite gardens and architectural splendors of Wakayama Castle, the unique charms of Japanese ryokan inns, or to savor every type of seafood imaginable, fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the region, the delicacy of Wakayama Ramen, the rich flavors of locally made spirits, and fresh soy sauce from nearby Yuasa—the birthplace of this quintessential Japanese condiment.
Feel Imperial—Be realistic about your physical capabilities
Pilgrims on the quest for enlightenment are sure to find it along the Nakahechi stage of the Imperial Route. A five-day hike through demanding terrain marked by rocky footholds, twisting mountain ridges, and steep slopes will leave devotees breathless. After the physical demands of the pilgrimage, hot baths for soaking and sweeping cinematic views await. Come enjoy the ecstatic experiences of Wakayama where spirituality, friendly locals and the serenity of nature merge to transport visitors to a divine state of being.