Every day, hundreds of people enter Japan through the Kansai International Airport, hop on the train and zoom up to the concrete metropolis of Osaka.
But if they went the other way, south, within 40 minutes they would be in Wakayama city, which on the surface is perhaps an uninspiring portal to a prefecture that has as long a history as long as Nara’s, vibrant festivals that rival any in Japan and, I would argue pretty vehemently, the best natural onsens anywhere.
Here are 10 reasons why Wakayama should be added to all Japan trip itineraries, written in a 4 part series.
Shirahama, for domestic tourists, is synonymous with Wakayama. It was a popular beach resort area for a time, with gleaming white sand imported from the Gold Coast, Australia, and a clutch of pandas at their safari park, Adventure World.
For me, Shirahama means Saki no Yu onsen.
Hot rock pools by the ocean, the wall separating the males and females a lush garden of salt-crystal flowers, view wide open to the sky, for 400 yen. What more can you want from an onsen?
Well, you’re going to also get 1300 years worth of history, in perhaps the oldest onsen in Japan, and a chance to bathe as ancient Emperors did and they, coming from Nara with all their wagons and hand maidens and such, took WEEKS to get here. For a bath!
Unlike most onsen, washing with soap or any chemical is prohibited. Instead there are some buckets provided to rinse away the road dust before bathing.
There are three pools to choose from: two pools carved from the rock and a square, wooden framed bath with the best view of the ocean. The water temperature in the two natural pools varies, and can be quite hot, or cool, especially the lowest bath when the waves are up. An old woman enters occasionally to stir the waters with a long wooden oar.
Wednesdays are holidays, and there is no night bathing with the onsen closing at 5pm and on rough weather days. Weekends can be busy, though I’ve never seen it packed. Going in at 9:30 am on a Tuesday morning, I had the whole place to myself for an hour.
For those who might reconsider traveling several hours south of Wakayama just for an excellent onsen, Shirahama has a wide array of activities, all well documented by Lonely Planet and Japan Guide. For kids (and bigger kids), Energy Land is a lot of fun, cheaper and less packed than Adventure World (though no pandas). For those who like their eggs partly boiled, a small shop on the access road leading to Saki no Yu, with a large concrete turtle out the front, sells cheap, tasty Onsen Tamago.
For those who are all about MORE baths, or if Saki no Yu is closed, Chousei no Yu is an excellent alternative, accessible by bus from Shirahama station, with a large, ceder-aroma indoor bath, a large outdoor ‘rotemburo’ surrounded by a garden, a fridge full of cold coffee milks and a great ramen shop right next door.
Yunomine, Kawayu, Ryuujin onsens and the Kumano Kodo road between them
One day, hopefully this year, I will be fit, healthy, crazy enough to walk the Kumano Kodo, an ancient pilgrimage route through the centre of Wakayama, full of shrines and history and steep, steep mountains.
When I go, I will no doubt blog about it, but my main interest are the onsens that dot the path. Onsens, that defy even the road’s history. Oldest of all being Tsuboyu, in Yunomine.
This image pretty accurately shows what inside the hut is like. A deep natural indent, the bottom covered in smooth river rocks, while river water flows through a large crevice which is a bit creepy to extend your legs into. There is room enough for two adults, at 750 yen per turn of 30 minutes (there is a clock inside).
There are two other baths that are part of the public onsens at Yunomine. I’ve been in the Kusuri Onsen (medicine bath) is a small, indoor, ceder bath with very hot water.
My other reason for going to Yunomine is the 90 degree pool set aside for cooking food, like eggs!
These eggs tend to be more hardboiled (if you let them) than the Shirahama onsen tamago. (I kind of prefer them this way). The difference with onsen tamago and regular boiled eggs is there is a richer, sulphury taste.
The shops nearby sell little kits with a dozen or so eggs, netting, rope and salt. We’re cheap and bring our own which is ok too.
5 kilometres from Yunomine, is Kawayu Onsen, where hot water mixes with a river. In winter, a huge shared, public bathing area is dug out using heavy machinery. There are small huts for changing and everyone is meant to wear swimmers, though, if you go early in the morning don’t be surprised if you share the (really wide) space with naked old men.
The sight of a (bathing suit clad) foreigner suddenly emerging from the changing hut ended the enjoyable morning soak of one, younger naked man a few years ago (he grabbed his small towel and fled), though the second time I went early there was a considerably more comfortable, naked man edging around the baths, which was creepy, but not badly threatening. When less people are about it’s probably better to take friends, and onsens are always more fun in a group.
Because quite hot water bubbles up through the rocks to mix with the cold river, pockets of both really scalding and also chilly water exist, sometimes on top of each other. Nice pockets exist, but it’s a good idea to swirl the waters about regularly.
Outside of the winter months, Kawaya reverts to a normal river bed. Hotels have dug out small bath areas for their patrons (which I unwittingly enjoyed one quiet Tuesday, though no one complained), and normal visitors can dig out their own pools (maybe bring energetic children)
Between March and May, a string of colourful koi no bori carp flags are strung across the river, in preparation for Boy’s Day.
Final recommended onsen, of which I sadly have no photos, is Ryujin onsen. A bus runs directly from Koyasan to this onsen and it’s worth the trip. In a large, traditional looking building, Ryujin overlooks a river, though the baths are less open to the elements than the other onsens I’ve shown (though it has a lovely rotemburo). The waters are slightly muddy, leaving your skin feeling very smooth on exiting, and the spring is known as one of the three ‘bijin’ or beautiful women baths in Japan.
I would probably highly recommending renting a car to visit these onsens, as buses are tricky and mean a long trip down to Shingu.
Coming up in Part 2: Shrines, temples, graves of dead samurai