Step off the beaten path and wander where gods dwell….
From gainfully employed cats to a thousand-year-old pilgrimage, Wakayama Prefecture has it all.
For years, cities such as Tokyo and Osaka have tickled the ears of travellers everywhere, but savvy globetrotters are beginning to drift from the beaten path, lured toward a rich region long known to native Japanese: Wakayama Prefecture. Perched at the western end of the Kii Peninsula, Wakayama offers stunning coastal and mountain scenery, cute regional commodities and ancient spiritual journeys.
The cosy capital, Wakayama City, sits at the mouth of the Kinokawa River. Now known for camphor trees and azaleas, it was once home to a powerful samurai clan with close ties to the ruling Tokugawa family. Though Wakayama Castle was destroyed during the Second World War, visitors can still head into the heart of the city to visit the reconstructed stronghold, along with a neighbouring garden and rustic teahouse.
For a dose of contemporary cuteness, hop on the Wakayama Electric Railway to nearby Kish- igawa Station. In 2007, the struggling company appointed a local calico cat named Tama to the position of Super Stationmaster, rocketing the tiny trunk line to national fame. Tama’s stardom saved the railway and produced an adorable array of tourist goodies and attractions, including the station’s cat-shaped roof and the Tama Den, a train plastered in feline figures, from upholstery to window decals. Tama, who passed away this June, was dubbed a Shinto goddess and sent off in a grand service attended by 3,000 mourners. Today’s travellers can board the train to honour Tama’s memory and meet her successor.
Sweet as the furry goddess may be, she’s a new- comer to Wakayama’s rich spiritual history, which stretches back more than a millennium. The region has long been known as the dwelling grounds of the gods. Everyone from the imperial family to common folk travelled here on an arduous journey of worship and purification, using a series of routes collectively known as the Kumano Kodo, the Kumano Ancient Trail. In 2004, the Kumano Kodo was recognized as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.” This “Ancient Trail” is actually a network of five trails offering over 40 kilometres of stunning coastal and mountain vistas to rival the world’s most impressive natural wonders.
The routes are marked by about 100 oji (small subsidiary shrines), which house the area’s “child deities.” Pilgrims should stop at the oji, drop a slim 5-yen coin inside, bow, clap twice, then offer a prayer and a final bow. In Japanese the 5-yen coin is called goen, a homonym for good relations—in this case, our ties with the gods. While pilgrims of the far-flung past spent weeks hoofing these trails, today’s visitors benefit from a well-developed infrastructure and optional guided tours. Hiking enthusiasts can cover the full Kumano Kodo in about five days, while less experienced travellers can bus or train their way to trailheads and enjoy shorter walks. Visitors of all fitness levels will enjoy the route’s countless statues of Jizo, a Buddhist deity who protects travellers and empowers the weak.
No trek across the Kumano Kodo would be complete without a rejuvenating trip to Yunomine, a collection of inns deep in the Kumano Mountains clustered around the legendary Yunomine onsen, a hot spring discovered 1,800 years ago. Pilgrims perform purification rituals in its healing waters, which are said to change to seven different colours daily. Yunomine is also home to Tsuboyu, a World Heritage onsen just big enough for two.
Wakayama is easily accessible by train, bus or rental car. It’s just 40 minutes away from Kansai International Airport, an hour from JR Shin-Osaka Station and 90 minutes from JR Kyoto Station.
Born where ocean riches meet lush mountains, this local cutie is a warrior monk who loves to chow down on dishes from his hometown, Tanabe City.
A spiritual journey on an ancient trail
Try your hand at boiling your own “hot spring egg” in the Yuzutsu, a cooking basin located in the pictur- esque Yunomine Onsen District.
© Wakayama Prefecture/© JNTO
Wakayama’s eats and treats
Wakayama’s gruel intentions
While you’re in Wakayama, check out chagayu, a staple here and in nearby Nara Prefecture.A bowl of rice porridge or gruel made with hot tea, chagayu is a nourishing meal carefully prepared in line with the Buddhist concept of non-violence. Vegetarians rejoice! This cruelty-free food is eating at its ethical best.
Kumamo Kodo Bento: Picnic on pilgrimage
Walk up an appetite on your journey across the Kumano Kodo, and don’t forget to stop for lunch on the road. Traditional bento (lunch boxes) can be found all over Japan, but the Kumano Kodo bento is lovingly handmade to feed you on your spiritual quest. Included in the all-natural woven box are onigiri (rice balls), mehari-zushi (rice wrapped in a pickled mustard leaf, a local specialty) and seasonal side dishes like mushrooms and bamboo shoots. With regional flavours and clean lines, the Kumano Kodo bento is perfect for pilgrims looking to nourish both body and soul.
Reward yourself for exploring one of Japan’s best-kept secrets, for exploring a road less taken by international tourists and get a little something for family and friends while you’re at it. Wakayama omiyage (souvenirs) will satisfy a range of tastes. For the serious soul-searcher, there are carefully crafted religious talismans and cellphone straps. For the history buff or the art appreciator, the region offers traditional crafts and keepsakes, from feudal stamps to shiny lacquerware. And for the epicurean summer lounger, Wakayama takes your tastebuds on a tour of local edibles, from pickled plums to fizzy ginger ale.