It’s time for ‘Japan by Prefecture‘ again! This is the series that aims to provide the highlights of each prefecture of Japan, along with my personal favourites and suggestions from readers. This week, we’re looking at Wakayama (和歌山県).
Wakayama Prefecture is part of the Kansai Region (関西地方) and the capital is Wakayama (和歌山市). Wakayama is one of my favourite prefectures, as it is home to the wonderful, sacred Mount Koya. More on that later! I’m also very excited to say I will be travelling to parts of Wakayama towards the end of the year when I am in Japan, so watch this space for plenty more photos in the future! Thanks also to Japan Australia and Zooming Japan for their great suggestions for this week’s post!
Let’s start with perhaps the most obscure thing to be found in Wakayama Prefecture: a train station looked after by a cat! At Kishi Station (貴志駅) on the Kishigawa Line (貴志川線) in Kinokawa (紀の川市), Wakayama Prefecture, you will find a stationmaster cat. Up until June this year, that cat was the very famous Tama (たま), but unfortunately Tama passed away on 22nd June.
After an elaborate funeral, Nitama was named as Tama’s successor. Both Tama and Nitama are calico cats, and both very cute. I don’t think I would travel all the way to Kishi Station to visit the stationmaster cat, but if I happened to be passing through I’d have a peek.
The only time I have visited Wakayama Prefecture so far was on my very first trip to Japan back in 2006. Inspired by an article called ‘Tofu soup for the soul‘ in the Independent, I planned that first trip around the idea of spending a night in a temple on sacred Mount Koya (高野山), also known as Koya-san. I’m pleased to say that after 9 years I will actually be going back to Mount Koya for one night in November this year, and I couldn’t be more excited!
On that first trip to Mount Koya I stayed at a temple called Muryokoin. The whole point of visiting Mount Koya is to have the experience of staying in temple lodgings (a ‘shukubo’ / 宿坊) and eating Buddhist cuisine (‘shojin ryori’ / 精進料理). It was such an experience! That was my first time sleeping on a futon on tatami, and my first time to eat a really fantastic meal made entirely out of vegetables and tofu.
Mount Koya is the centre of Shingon Buddhism, which is a Buddhist sect introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi (弘法大師) (also known as Kukai / 空海). Mount Koya is the site of Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum, and is also the start and end point of the 88 Temple Pilgrimage (八十八ヶ所巡り), which I would love to complete one day (even if I have to do it in bits). The pilgrimage actually covers 88 temples in Shikoku, but Mount Koya is still considered to be the starting point as that is where pilgrims would traditionally go to prepare.
There are a number of temples of note on Mount Koya, but the most interesting place to visit in my opinion is Okunoin (奥の院). Okunoin is home to the mausoleum of Kukai, and is surrounded by the largest cemetery in Japan. This place is epic. I remember walking around on my own, surrounded by ancient grave stones and giant cedar trees, and just feeling like it went on forever.
If temples and pilgrim’s paths are your cup of tea, another place that absolutely has to be visited is the Kumano Kodo (熊野古道). The Kumano Kodo is a series of ancient pilgrimage routes that cross over the Kii Hanto (紀伊半島), or Kii Peninsula (Japan’s largest peninsula). The routes lead to the ‘Three Grand Shrines of Kumano’ (Kumano Sanzan / 熊野三山), which are: Kumano Hongu Taisha (熊野本宮大社), Kumano Nachi Taisha (熊野那智大社) and Kumano Hayatama Taisha (熊野速玉大社). I’ll be visiting here in November for three nights of hiking and temple hopping, and I’m really looking forward to it. The area is very well-preserved and maintained by the local tourist board and by local businesses, and this seems to me to be a truly unspoilt part of Japan.
One of the many highlights of the Kumano Kodo is Nachi no Taki (Nachi Falls / 那智滝), which is the tallest waterfall in Japan. This waterfall is located by Kumano Nachi Taisha, so it’s an absolute must-see.
The Kumano Kodo just looks incredible, and I’m so excited to be visiting there! The hiking will be a bit of a challenge, but also a fantastic experience.
Finally, Wakayama Prefecture is also known for its beaches. Shirahama (白浜) is an onsen resort town on the south coast of Wakayama Prefecture, known for its white sand beaches (‘Shirahama’ means ‘white beach’). As well as the beautiful 500 metre long sand beach, Shirahama is also home to hot springs, or onsen (温泉), making it the perfect Japanese resort town. As with all Japanese beaches, Shirahama will be a lovely place to visit when the beach is ‘open’ (in the summer, probably July to mid-September), but I suspect it is rather quiet the rest of the year.
Wakayama Prefecture, for me, is home to some of the most sacred spots in Japan. I’m so excited to be exploring there later this year and hope you have a chance to visit some of these places too!
The Omiyage Section
There aren’t that many famous souvenirs (or ‘omiyage’ / おみやげ) from Wakayama Prefecture that I know of, but according to the Wakayama tourism website Wakayama is known especially for plum wine and umeboshi (pickled plums). There is also a claim that Yuasa (湯浅町) in Wakayama Prefecture is the ‘birthplace of soy sauce’. As with many rural areas in Japan, traditional crafts are popular in Wakayama Prefecture, including lacquer ware, plates and bowls, and ‘Kishu temari’ handballs. The temari are were apparently ‘made for the princesses in Kishu’, which is the old name of Wakayama Prefecture.
Next week I will be writing about Tottori (鳥取県). Have you been there? What’s good to eat there and what omiyage should I buy? What are the best sightseeing spots or hidden gems? Please do share your thoughts below, and join me next week for Japan by Prefecture!