Outdoors in Japan’s spiritual heartland
Wakayama Prefecture - World Heritage 15th Anniversary
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An air of mystery clings to the ancient trails of the Kumano Kodo in Wakayama. Gnarled tree roots claw at the pathways. Towering cedars filter soft shards of sunlight. Listen to the creaking calm of the woods and it’s not hard to understand why for more than 1000 years pilgrims have felt there is something magical here, hiking the Kumano Kodo’s wide network of trails to reach some of Japan’s most spiritually significant sites: the three great shrines of Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha, and the temples of holy Koyasan.
The Kumano Kodo is where Japanese spirituality is said to have first emerged, and its importance in both Buddhism and Shintoism is why in 2004 the Kumano Kodo was granted UNESCO World Heritage status. But the Kumano Kodo and Wakayama are not only for pilgrims. The natural surrounds of Wakayama – the mountain rivers, rugged coastline and natural hot springs that have seen the region labelled Mizu no Kuni (Land of Water) – are scenic venues for all sorts of outdoor activities, from white-water rafting and sea kayaking to cycling and soaking in mineral-rich hot spring waters.
Yet for all its serene natural beauty, Wakayama is not far. For travellers to major destinations such as Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo, the Land of Water is an easy addition to any itinerary: it’s just an hour-long train ride from the unrelenting hustle of central Osaka and an hour-and-a-half from the ancient capital of Kyoto, while direct flights from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Wakayama’s Nanki-Shirahama Airport take 75 minutes.
On the river
The tranquillity of the Kumano Kodo’s trails, which forms part of Yoshino-Kumano National Park, is matched by the rivers that flow through the region’s lush gorges and mountains; most of the time. In Wakayama’s mountainous heart, you may hear the occasional holler and yelp as thrill seekers take to the Kitayama River for white-water rafting, canyoning and other adventurous pursuits.
Like hiking the Kumano Kodo, riding the rapids in Wakayama is not a modern pursuit. For centuries, the Kitayama River was used to transport lumber, the felled trees being tied into bundles and then punted downstream to the river mouth by pilots who would balance precariously on these makeshift log rafts. Keeping that 600-year-old tradition alive today are log rafts for purely entertainment purposes, where travellers stand (clutching a handrail) as their pilots guide them through foaming rapids.
If that sounds a bit too adrenaline heavy, head down to southern Wakayama, where in the clear waters of the Kozagawa River play time can be a little calmer, and perfect for kids. The local adventure centre runs half-day and full-day programs that include canoeing, kayaking, paddle boarding, and simply just splashing about in the river.
Soaking in the mountains
As ancient as pilgrimages, but far easier on the legs, hot spring bathing has been recorded in Japan for millennia. Even today, the many thousands of onsen (hot springs) across Japan play an important role in Japanese culture as places not just to unwind and soothe tired bodies, but also to socialise. Tucked away in the sacred Kii Mountains – and near the Kumano Kodo – Wakayama boasts a collection of rustic hot spring hamlets steeped in history.
Tracing its roots back about 1800 years, Yunomine Onsen once served as a rest stop for pilgrims o their way to the three great Kumano shrines. There, amid the new hot spring inns that now provide traditional pampering for modern-day travellers, the hamlet has at its centre the tiny Tsubo-yu bath – just big enough to fit two people – which legend has it once cured an ailing samurai.
The nearby Kawayu Onsen is another hamlet perfect for experiencing a night at a traditional inn, or ryokan, where guests stay in tatami mat rooms with classical Japanese features such as sliding paper-screen doors and futon for sleeping, not to mention beautifully arranged multi-course dinners with seasonal ingredients. However, Kawayu’s star bath, the open-air Sennin-buro (December to February only) in the middle of the Otogawa River, is on an entirely different scale to Tsuboyu – it fits 1000 people. And unlike most communal baths in Japan, the Sennin-buro is an ideal option for the more reserved visitor as bathing suits can be worn here.
Along the coast
Down at the rugged southern tip of the Kii Peninsula, Wakayama offers both action and serenity. For the former, the town Kushimoto is the place to go for ocean adventures such as diving, snorkelling and sea kayaking – or cycling, if water isn’t your thing. For something more mellow, try the seaside town of Shirahama, where the arc of white sand that forms Shirahama Beach is regarded as one of the finest stretches of sand in the Kansai region for sunbathing and swimming.
Away from the beach, Shirahama is also famed for hot spring bathing, with about 90 of the hotels and inns in town having their own communal mineral-rich onsen baths. Thanks to Shirahama’s numerous oceanside public baths, however, you are not limited to inns to enjoy a good soak. In the historic Saki-no-Yu bathing pools, which are documented to be at least 14 centuries old, a dip in the outdoor rotenburo bath comes with expansive views of the Pacific, the sound of waves crashing on the rocky shore and the occasional invigorating salty spray. And along the coast, Wakayama delivers more treats with wonderfully fresh seafood; whether that’s seared bonito in spring, flying squid sashimi in summer, salted and grilled barracuda in autumn or lobster in winter. The Ajikoji Food Entertainment District in Tanabe City is home to more than 200 restaurants, making it the ideal location to enjoy Wakayama’s delicacies.
Even in a country with as much natural charm and spiritual history as Japan, Wakayama stands out with its unique variety of sights and activities. Mountains and ocean, hot springs and history; memories waiting to be made.
Yoshino-Kumano National Park
The park rises up high into mountain peaks and dips down into dense woodland valleys. Rapid rivers, beautiful beaches and grand shrines bursting with abundant flora and fauna along the World Heritage Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range make the park a natural playground offering abundant opportunities for wild adventure and spiritual enlightenment.