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.

Kumano Kodo, Nakahechi route, Hyakken-gura lookout_4c

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.

Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine gate and kimono-2_4c

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.

Kumano Hayatama Taisha, Grand Shrine3_4cFor 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.

kumano mountains_4c

Heian-Isho

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.

 

Kumano Kodo walkers_4c

 

Kamikura-jinja Shrine, part of Kumano Hayatama Taisha_4c

Kamikura Jinjya Shrine

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.

 


tanabee_4cTanabe-e

【ゆるキャラ】

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.

たなべぇ©T.M

 


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.

Nachi Waterfall 2_4cMarvel at the power of Nachi Falls beside Buddhist and Shinto havens at the Hiro Shrine, one of the area’s most sacred sites.

m_105291_4cTake in the view from the tall tower of Wakayama Castle, which is recognized as one of Japan’s top 100 feudal strongholds.

© Wakayama Prefecture/© JNTO

 


Wakayama’s eats and treats

 

Wakayama’s gruel intentions

 

l_105293_4cWhile 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

大村屋熊野古道弁当_4cWalk 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.

 


Souvenirs

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.

 

Yatagarasu omamori

DSC_9580_4cFootball fans may already be familiar with Yatagarasu; the Japan national team seal features this three-legged crow god. Yatagarasu amulets are believed to call on the deity‘s guiding power.

 

Wakayama ginger ale

【梅ひと雫】1本_4c【生姜丸しぼり】1本_4c

 

Take a summer sip of this perfectly spiced ginger ale. The drink gets its mouthwatering colour and refreshing flavour from a particular strain of ginger root, cultivated here for over a century.

 

Courtesy of Ja-Wakayama

 


 

 


All photos © Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau unless otherwise noted