Situated in the far south of the Kansai region at the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula, Wakayama is a mostly rural prefecture of abundant nature, dominated by the Pacific Ocean along its coastline, and the remote and sacred mountains of the Kumano Kodo found further inland. Despite being only a couple of hours away by train from the megacities of Osaka and Nagoya, this part of Japan feels an entire world apart and its fabulous beaches, onsen, and cultural sites make it well worth a visit for anyone looking to get somewhat off-the-beaten-track.
Whether it be the ocean or the many rivers and waterfalls which tumble down from the mountains, water is the dominant force which has shaped the landscape and influences everyday life in the Kii Peninsula, and many of the region’s attractions have a close connection to the wet stuff.
Kumano shrines of Hongu Taisha
The Kumano Kodo is a UNESCO world heritage pilgrimage through the remote mountains of Wakayama, and a number of routes follow the ancient trails linking some of the Kii Peninsula’s most sacred sites, namely the three Kumano shrines of Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha. In the olden days it was mostly religious ascetics and devoted pilgrims who walked the trails, but these days the routes are popular with people from all over the world, and the mountains and various sacred spots still retain their spiritual charm.
Nachi Taisha is one of the most important shrines in the region, located just inland from the coastal hot spring resort of Katsuura. The shrine sits high up in the mountains and is home to perhaps the most iconic view in the entire Kumano Kodo region; the pagoda of Seigantoji framed by the towering Nachi-no-taki waterfall in the background.
At 133m high the waterfall is regarded as the tallest in Japan, and the combination of the surrounding stunning natural beauty and refined elegance of the pagoda make for an awe-inspiring sight. Nachi Taisha can be reached by hourly buses from both Kii-Katsuura and Nachi stations (around 30 minutes one-way). It is a ten minute climb up the forested mountainside by stairs to reach the shrine complex and waterfall. For those coming by car there is also parking available.
A few kilometers inland from Shingu is the magnificent Dorokyo Gorge, part of the expansive Yoshino-Kumano National Park and a designated natural treasure. The gorge has been chiseled out by the Kitayama River, creating a stunning vista of jagged rock and azure blue water in a green and mountainous setting, but be aware that for a few days after a typhoon or heavy rains, the sediment in the river may be disturbed. One of the best ways to see the gorge is by taking a boat ride up the river, with sightseeing river cruises for a more gentle approach and kayaking for those with a sense of adventure. The Yamabiko Bridge also offers great views of the river and its clear water.
To get there take a Kumano Kotsu bus from JR Shingu Station and get off at Shiko (50 minutes).
Close to Kumano but just over the border in neighboring Mie Prefecture is the splendid coastal rock formation of Tategasaki, a true natural wonder. This unique cliff face is made up of vertical pillars of rock known as ‘columnar joints’ which appear to jut out of the ocean to a height of around 80 meters. Tategasaki is best viewed from the sea, and the Tategasaki pleasure boat tour offers great close-up views of the geological formations, as well as other points of interest along this rugged and beautiful stretch of coast. You may even be able to spot sea turtles, dolphins and other sea life if you are lucky! Boats depart daily from Atashika and Nigishima ports.