Are you looking for somewhere different for your cherry blossom viewing? These four places in Wakayama prefecture, Kansai region, western Japan are mainly known to locals with each place having a fascinating story to tell. Plus the sakura is spectacular.
Some say that the gods first descended to earth in Wakayama. Many visit the area to experience the pilgrimage route of the Kumano Kodo along the Kii mountain range, or sit still in one of the many temple stays available in the Buddhist mountain town, Koyasan. Due to a humid subtropical climate, Wakayama is particularly famous across Japan for mikan (like a mandarin) and umeboshi, pickled plums, which in this region are often made with honey.
The capital of the prefecture is also called Wakayama and is an easy 60 minute train ride from Osaka or 90 minutes from Kyoto. Here are four places in and around Wakayama City area to see sakura. The three temple locations listed are a part of the oldest pilgrimage route in Japan, the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage. People walk to 33 temples praying to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy.
The entrance gate to Kiimi-dera Temple
Built in 770, Kimii-dera Temple is located halfway up Mt Nagusa. The name, Kimii-dera, is derived from the three water springs on the grounds and literally means the temple of three springs in Kishu province (Wakayama’s original name). Kimii-dera is home to a Somei-Yoshino tree that is a meteorological indicator for the blooming forecast in Kansai. It has the earliest blooming sakura in the region.
There is a very steep slope of 231 higgledy-piggledy stone steps to climb to reach the main buildings. As in many temples across Japan, the stairs that one must climb are to be walked in reverence. As you ascend these stairs there are little shops run by monks that are a delightful resting place. In 2022 a cable car was opened to commemorate the recent 1,250th anniversary. For a small fee, you can reach the main temple area in about 70 seconds.
Once you reach the top, you are greeted by a spectacular view over Wakanoura Bay, also known as poetry bay, because of the number of poets and painters who have been inspired by the beauty of this area. On a clear day you can see as far as Shikoku. There is a small cafe, Tenku Cafe, where you can rest your weary legs and feast on zenzai (sweet red bean with mochi) and amazake (sweet fermented non-alcoholic rice drink).
Kimii-dera main temple
There are about 500 trees scattered around the different buildings. One building houses a giant Kannon of one thousand hands and eleven faces covered in gold leaf. At 12 meters tall, it is one of the largest wooden statues in Japan. You can climb the steps around the Kannon and see an even greater view of the bay.
Access: From Wakayama Station take the Kinokuni Line for Gobo to Kimii-dera Station. From there it’s a 15 minute walk to the temple gate.
Wakayama Castle was built in 1585 under orders of Toyotomi Hideyoshi to control the mountain range and rebellious groups in the area, as he and his samurai army worked to unify Japan. The castle was destroyed by bombing in WW2 and rebuilt in 1958. Two of the original gates are still standing. In late March to early April, the 600 Somei-Yoshino cherry blossom trees fill the garden with gentle beauty, leaving no trace of the brutal past. At night, there is usually an illumination event during the peak of the season.
Access: From JR Wakayama Station it’s a 30 minute walk or take the Wakayama bus to Wakayama-jo stop (jo is the Japanese word for castle). From there, the castle is a 7 minute walk.
Kokawa-dera was rebuilt in the Edo period (1603 - 1868) after the original 8th century structures and the nearby, equally as stunning Negoro-ji Temple were destroyed by the aforementioned Toyotomi Hideyoshi. A short walk from Kokawa Station, this scenic temple is known for its traditional, dry rock garden which in springtime, surrounded by sakura, is a truly unique sight to witness.
This story of this temple goes a little something like this…
Once upon a time there lived a hunter called Otomo no Kujiko. Every day Otomo no Kujiko roamed the mountains of Wakayama hunting deer, wild boar and other creatures. On one of these ordinary mornings, he saw an extraordinary light shining brightly over the way. Intrigued, he made his way to the light which was rising out of a little river. In that moment, Otomo no Kujiko decided to become a monk and stop hunting animals. He built a hut next to the stream.
One day soon after, a young boy asked if he could rest for the night. To repay the hunter, the young boy began carving a wooden statue. On the morning of the 8th day, the boy could not be found but, in his place he left the carving of a 1,000 armed Kannon. Otomo no Kujiko built a temple to house the statue. His descendants still run Kokawa-dera today.
Kokawa-dera Temple entrance gate
Stunning sakura at Kokawa-dera Temple
Access: From Wakayama Station take the JR Wakayama Line for Oji to Kokawa Station (about one hour).
Negoro-ji Temple was first built in 1132 as a school of learning with the main hall being built in nearby Koyasan. Located in the city of Iwade and surrounded by the sacred Katsuragi mountains, Negoro-ji is also listed on Japan’s top 100 best places to see cherry blossoms. It is the head temple of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism and houses many buildings of cultural significance. In the 1600’s there was an army of 10,000 fighting monks living here, the strongest in the land, which was why Toyotomi Hideyoshi wanted to destroy them.
There are 3,000 cherry blossom trees on the temple grounds and a further 4,000 in the surrounding area. You could easily spend half a day or more here exploring the different areas. During the peak of the sakura season there are also many yatai, food stalls.
Negoro-ji Temple Stupa - the largest wooden Stupa in Japan, a national treasure
Access: From Wakayama Station take the JR Wakayama Line for Oji (22 minutes). At Iwade Station, take the Iwade City Community bus for just over 10 minutes to Negoro-ji stop.