There is so much more to Japan than just the typical tourist hot spots. Wakayama, the mountainous prefecture on Honshu Island, epitomizes this. Located in southern Kansai, Wakayama is celebrated for its historic shrines and as the birthplace of Shingon Buddhism.
Most domestic and foreign tourists travel there to trek the famous Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route—known for its hiking trails and temples. But if you follow the unbeaten path, Wakayama can yield some truly unique and breathtaking sights that most visitors will never experience.
From hidden pirate bases to hot water rivers, here are five of the most overlooked locations in Wakayama Prefecture.
1. Sandanbeki Cliff and Dokutsu Cave
Shirahama is a well-known Japanese domestic tourism hotspot. Its beaches and restaurants attract huge crowds of locals every summer. However, for those looking for a change of pace from the beach, a quick trip up the road will reward travelers with the scenic Sandanbeki cliffs and caves.
The Sandanbeki cliffs stretch for two kilometers around the headland, providing excellent views of Osaka Bay and the Pacific Ocean. On calm days, turtles, sharks and marine animals will take a peek at the surface, making for entertaining “i-Spy” subjects for picnickers. The smooth limestone is warm but cools slowly as the day progresses. Only pleasant breezes will disturb anyone looking for a lazy afternoon away from the bustling beach, thanks to the relatively mild winds. Hidden at the bottom of these cliffs is Sandanbeki Dokutsu, a secret, Heian-era pirate hideaway.
You’ll be transported through the solid rock via elevator from the ticket counter to an underground labyrinth of passages. While the entry fee (¥1,300) may feel expensive, it ensures that the caves are never overcrowded with tourists. It’s great for amateur explorers looking to enjoy preserved artifacts, limestone mazes and hidden shrines connected to the history of Wakayama.
2. Wataze/Watarase Onsen
Yunomine Onsen is a great place to visit. It’s one of Japan’s only UNESCO-listed onsen (hot spring). Unfortunately, it’s pretty small, so there isn’t much room for visitors. But, don’t be discouraged if you arrive there and find yourself turned away at the door. Wataze (also called Watarase) Onsen is just around the corner, and it’s the largest open-air onsen in Western Japan, with several luxurious private outdoor baths to soak in.
While I had my heart set on enjoying a private onsen, located in small huts outside the main hotel, these are only available to hotel guests without any prior reservation. This means that despite going to the public rotenboro (open-air bath) for over an hour, the private onsens were still in use and I was unable to get in. However, I found that being able to relax in the wasters of Wataze, whilst another bather unexpectedly serenaded us with his rendition of Over the Rainbow, my disappointment was significantly diminished.
You can reach Watarase onsen from Tanabe JR station via the Ryujin bus. Admittance to the public baths is ¥900 for adults. If you’re lucky enough to find a free slot at the private baths, an hour is ¥1600.
3. Kuroshio Seafood Market
South of Wakayama city, in a town called Kainen, is a theme park called Porto Europa. This Medieval-themed park is a great day trip attraction from Osaka. However, most tourists might not realize that the renowned Kuroshio Seafood Market is right beside it. The market’s layout is reminiscent of an old-fashioned Japanese shopping alley, and shoppers are bombarded with an enormous variety of foodstuffs. Visitors can eat BBQ’d sea bugs, grilled unagi, steamed scallops, fresh sashimi and the more standard fare like yakisoba.
The Kuroshio Seafood Market also offers the opportunity to buy some fresh otoro bluefin tuna. Otoro is the fattiest cut of tuna available and is considered the best part of a bluefin tuna. I didn’t know any of this until my girlfriend came back from picking out some sashimi and proudly proclaimed she’d bought the most expensive cut. It’s difficult to describe how otoro tastes to a reader as it instantly melted in my mouth and in my hubris I neglected to commit the taste to memory.
It’s also worth mentioning that when visiting the Kuroshio Seafood Market, you simply cannot miss the Tuna show. Each day at 11:00 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 3:00 p.m., expert seafood chefs will cut up an entire bluefin tuna until nothing remains but its head and bones. This display of knife work is not only morbidly impressive but painfully appetizing as the cuts are put on sale immediately. So my advice, get in early on the otoro, you won’t regret it.
4. Kushimoto Diving Park
When travelers think of underwater worlds, diving and diverse marine life in Japan, they think of Okinawa. But most don’t know that Wakayama is one of the best diving locations in Japan, especially Kushimoto. Due to a warm ocean current, tropical coral is supported all year round. Even in the midwinter, divers can spot over 120 different species of coral growing in vast, floral reefs.
The diving park (and school) is in a cove where jagged rock formations rise from the seafloor. It also has a lighthouse and aquarium, Kushimoto Marine Park. While many aquariums focus on dolphin and orca shows, the morality of which I’m still unsure about, Kushimoto shares the world beneath the waves to guests via their underwater tunnel.
After an entire day of listening to scuba diving instructors and spotting sea life, I enjoyed sunset drinks at the lighthouse and thought fondly of the reefs that hide beneath the waves of Wakayama’s jagged coastline. Losing an entire day here is frighteningly easy. But, if you have time, you can take a quick 15-minute trip from Kushimoto Marine Park to Shionomisaki Cape and Lighthouse, the most southern point of the Honshu region, and catch a breathtaking view.
5. Kawayu Onsen
Directly translated, Kawayu means “hot water river” and serves as a literal description of this geological wonder. Here the hot spring water bubbles to the surface of this shallow body of water, mixing in with the cool river water. Visitors are encouraged to dig holes in the riverbed, where the hot water can percolate, then add some cool river water to balance this out. However, pre-dug basins are available if you’re not in the mood for digging. Another wonderful detail is how close it is to the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, making it a perfect resting spot for those road-weary pilgrims.