My recent trip to Wakayama encapsulated the ease and convenience of visiting Japan’s off-the-beaten path destinations. I have so far been to Japan for five times prior to this trip and had not known about Wakayama until I was invited to participate in the “My Secret Wakayama” project. It is an initiative to uncover this little known destination in the southern part of Kansai region brimming with resorts, historic attractions and some of the best ramen in Japan.
Despite being little known to foreign visitors aside from Mt. Koya which is also located within Wakayama’s namesake prefecture, the city is surprisingly easy to get to. From Kansai International Airport, it is slightly less than 1 hour away which makes it practical to combine with a trip to Osaka and Kyoto.
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The sights within Wakayama are quite spread out and there are around 5 districts that are of note to tourists. These are the downtown area where you can find Wakayama Castle as well as hip bars and restaurants, Kimiidera which is home to one of the most important temples in the city, Marina City which has a theme park and the famous Kuroshio Market, the coastal area of Wakanoura with its hot springs and historic temples and finally, Kada in the western coast where you can find beaches and outlying islands. To get around, you will most likely use the train which is efficient and inexpensive. However, places like Wakanoura and Marina City are not near any train stations and you’ll need to travel by bus to reach these areas. Alternatively, taxis can be hailed with a flag-down rate of 620 Yen.
Lording over the city center, Wakayama Castle (Admission: 400 Yen) originates from the 16th century and has been ransacked and destroyed several times – the most recent during World War 2. The historic site has since been rebuilt and now houses a number of other attractions within its grounds including the Momijidani Garden and the Ohashirouka Bridge.
At the time of my visit, access to the Ohashirouka Bridge was free. It’s quite a delight to pass through this covered bridge with its roofing that shelters you from the sun as well as its polished wooden floors. You will need to remove your shoes when walking through.
Located also within the castle grounds is the Momijidani Gardens. With part of the castle moats as its center, the gardens are a beautiful sight even under the punishing heat of summer. Make sure to catch the view from opposite the gardens near the Ohashirouka Bridge to see the main pavilion against the stunning foliage. It is said to look its best during autumn with reds and yellows contrasting against the pavilion’s wooden construct.
You can also glimpse the Koshoan Tea Room (9am to 4:30pm daily, 450 Yen for a cup of matcha tea) from the gardens as you walk towards the parking lot. It was closed at the time of my visit but you can participate in the tea ceremony which occurs at certain times.
Located in the southern part of the city in an artificial island, Wakayama’s Marina City is a playground for kids and adults alike. I was greeted with condominiums and plenty of yachts by the harbor as my taxi made the dramatic entrance to the island. Here, you’ll find Porto Europa, a theme park made to look like a Mediterranean coastal town. Entrance to the theme park is free but you need to pay for rides. There’s also a helpful English-speaking receptionist by the entrance who assisted me with bus schedules back to the city.
If you are coming to Marina City, make sure to time your visit for the tuna-cutting show at the Kuroshio Market. There are three tuna cutting shows each day, at 11AM, 12:30PM and 3PM daily. I visited at around 4:30pm and regrettably missed the show but the market is still a fascinating place to buy fresh sea urchins, crab, seafood and other Wakayama specialties. Do note that the market closes at around 6PM so this place won’t make a good dinner venue unless you’re willing to have dinner extra early.
Taking a rough 10 to 15 minutes walk from Kimiidera Station, the namesake temple of Kimiidera (Admission: 200 Yen) is one of Wakayama’s most important. It is also a popular tourist attraction especially during spring due to the cherry blossoms that can be glimpsed in the complex. The temple dates back from 770 when it was founded by a Chinese priest called Iko Shonin. One of the highlights here is an 11 meter tall statue ofthe thousand-armed Kannon (Avalokitishvara).
Kimiidera is located on a hill and requires a climb of around 231 steps to reach the top. If you’d rather not climb, you can hire a taxi from Kimiidera station to take you up.
Another major reason to visit Wakayama is for its distinct type of ramen. During a nationwide poll conducted in 1998, a modest and nondescript shop called Ide Shoten (open daily except Thursday, 1130am to 1130pm) was catapulted from obscurity when it was named as the best ramen in Japan. Until now, this restaurant still regularly gets cited as among the best ramen places in Japan with its flavorful tonkotsu shoyu broth and thin noodles.
Outside of Ide Shoten, there are a couple of other notable ramen shops to explore and the best way to check them out is by hiring one of the city’s Ramen Taxi. Drivers are licensed to operate the ramen taxis and are trained to suggest venues based on passenger’s preferences.
There are several places that serve takoyaki in Wakayama but my personal pick is the Takoyaki Teppan Bal en located in the Motoderamachi shopping street. The friendly owner is a surfer and her interests are reflected in the laidback interiors. This is no ordinary takoyaki joint. At night, the venue transforms into a bar with the owner serving up some alcoholic beverages from Wakayama itself. While here, make sure to go for the yuzu-soaked takoyaki which are made upon ordering.
Tomogashima and Kada
For a taste of the beach life in Wakayama, head west to Kada and Isinoura. The area is also a jumping point to the outlying islands of Tomogashima where you can see some military infrastructure that date back from the Meiji period in the 1800s. If you don’t have time to make it to the islands, you can also appreciate the view from one of the elevated view points at Miyama or better yet, stay for a night at Kyukamura Kishu Kada.
Where to Stay in Wakayama
Without a doubt the most scenic place to stay in Wakayama, Kyukamura Kishu Kada is a resort located within a national park in the far west of the prefecture. The resort boasts of an “infinity onsen pool” overlooking the sea and the Tomogashima islands. All rooms here come with a sea view and a balcony allowing for a unique resort vibe with tropical features – something visitors don’t usually associate with Japan.
The hotel is located around 4km from Kada, the nearest station. To get there, you’ll need to wait for the free shuttle bus that goes between the resort and train station at scheduled timings. Kyukamura Kishu Kada is not near the city center but is well worth at least one night or two for a different perspective of Japan. The resort also has a suggested walking trail that takes you through old military forts as well as gorgeous views of the sea.
Within the city, I stayed one night at Dormy Inn Premium Wakayama Hot Spring, one of the few hotels in the city that has the capability to house foreign travelers. Staff members can speak English quite well and are able to help on transport matters. The hotel is just a 7 minute walk from Wakayama Station. Facilities include an onsen bath as well as complimentary supper in the form of noodles in late evening.
Suggested Itinerary for Wakayama
Train from Kansai Airport or Osaka to Wakayama (you can leave your bags at the bag lockers in Wakayama Station)
Wakayama Marina City (tuna-cutting show and lunch in Kuroshio Market)
Wakayama Castle, Momijidani Gardens, Ohashirouka Bridge
Temple tour around the castle
Check out the kushiyaki places or Teppan Takoyaki Bal en in Motoderamachi Street
Check out the hip bars and restaurants at the nondescript alley at 3 Chome Shimazakicho
Take the bus to Wakanoura and explore the temples such as Wakaura Tenmagu Shrine, Shiogama Shrine and Kishu Toshogu Shrine
Take the train to Kada. Stop by for some sunbathing at the beach or do an excursion to the islands of Tomogashima