We are back in Wakayama!
When we decided to visit Koyasan in the Wakayama area (south of Osaka) we knew we wanted to explore more of this less-known area. Wakayama is really making a strong effort with tourism which I think its paying them off, they have an excellent website to help you plan your visit & their tourism agents are very willing to help. When we rented some activities through them (which is also very convenient) they requested our itinerary to double check it and make sure everything got sense. Big appreciation for their good work!
From all the options available to do at Wakayama we went for the following:
- Visit Hongu Taisha shrine, and the impressive Otorii
- Hike the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, but just a short portion. Keep reading to know if we were lucky with our choice!
- Rent bikes
- Take a traditional boat along the Kumano river
- Visit the famous and impressive Nachi falls (biggest in Japan!) & pagoda
In this post we will be showing you the first two, are you ready? Come hike with us!
Although if you look in a map they are not that far away, it takes around 5-7 hours to go from your Koyasan temple to Hongu Taisha (or directly to Yunomine Onsen) because the only available option is to take a bus. We initially rented a direct bus leaving in front of our temple with Japan Bus Online (Koyasan & Kumano Access Bus). Due to the snow and, as consequence, an unsafe road, it got cancelled just the night before, leaving us with no real options… or so we thought!
Thanks to the kindness of the monks at Ekoin temple we got a solution! They found us a very tight yet doable itinerary that used another road which might not be closed due to the snow. We didn’t actually know if this was going to be cancelled too, our only chance was to find out at the bus stop! This itinerary was quite tricky, we had to take a local bus, a cable car, three trains, and then the long-distance bus to Hongu Taisha. If we messed any commuting times we wouldn’t be able to catch the bus on time, so the field day began!
Our final itinerary (and schedule) was:
- 8:44 – Local Bus from Karukayado mae bus stop (n.9) to Koyasan Cable station
- 9:07 – Cable car to Koyasan station
- 9:16 – Train from Koyasan station to Gokurakubashi
- 10:09 – Train from Gokurabashi to Hashimoto
- 10:09 – Train from Hashimoto to Gojo
- 10:31 – Nara Kotsu Bus Sightseeing from Gojo to Hongu Taisha
The experience was finally a blast (you’ll see!), so I think Koyasan was doing its magic to protect us!
The bus journey was very long, because we had to do 104 stops in 4 hours to get to our destination, but also very fun: it had aesthetic restroom stops along the way!
We were very surprised when during the first restroom stop, all the bus passengers instead of using the restroom fled into the town. At first I thought that they knew other restrooms and were avoiding a queue, but then the driver took me to the side of the bus pointing a big picture of a suspension bridge and told me “go, there, 20 minutes, leave bags here” with a smile in his face. So I started going in the same direction as the rest of the passengers, and yes, there it was an amazing suspension bridge in front of us. The day was super windy, so you can guess that I didn’t venture more than two steps into the bridge (scaredy cat!) but Daniel crossed almost until the middle of it.
This stop felt amazing, all our worries for the bus cancellation were suddenly vanished from our minds. The route was also super pretty, I wish I could have a recording of it, we crossed beautiful scenery, between the mountains, the river and the sakura tree poking in lots of riversides. In fact the second stop was a sakura heaven, check the pictures (above), can’t get any more picturesque pretty!
Since this was a very local-known bus, it was the most endearing adventure as well. Being foreigners we raised lots of interest, specially because 95% of the bus were sweet elderly people that were genuinely excited to know how we have got there (in that bus) and why were we visiting Wakayama and Japan. Lots of the passengers came by to talk with us, and we even learnt that one of them knew a little Spanish.
Kumano Hongu Taisha shrine
Although the bus finally turned out to be the funniest adventure, our Wakayama experience started at Kumano Hongu Taisha.
The Hongu Taisha is the main shrine (from over 3000 shrines!) and has a very impressive structure, with its large staircase flanked with white flags and black lettering. The main building entrance displays a big ema (wood plaque) that changes every year, 2019 is the year of the boar, so you could find any of the 12 possible zodiac animals (Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Boar).
The Kumano Kodo is a pilgrimage route, similar to the Nakasendo route (remember our hike three years ago?). Spanish people might know that there’s a sisterhood between Camino de Santiago and Kumano Kodo. In fact, if you complete two routes from each country you can get a special sealed passport (neat, right?). Santiago de Compostela would be analogous to Hongu Taisha, being the main (in that case, Christian) temple of the Spanish route.
However, maybe the thing that caught more our attention was the big torii (Otoriii in Japanese). The Hongu Taisha shrine was originally located in these grounds, but was moved uphill during the 18th century due to a typhoon. The otorii is a modern construction built to commemorate the old entrance of the shrine.
It was amazing in person, one those grand sights that put a smile on your face thinking how small we are. It is the largest in the world (look at how little the people are in the picture) measuring 34 metres tall.
I think spring was a good season to visit since there was all the sakura around the torii, however I’ve seen some summer pictures with all the green rice fields surrounding the torii and a little mist that are impressive.
Nakahechi route, Dainichi goe trail
After visiting the shrine we walked towards the beginning of the Dainichi goe trail, in 2.2km Yunomine Onsen was waiting for us!
The Kumano Kodo has 4 main routes, being Nakahechi route, also known as the Imperial route, the most popular amongst them. The Nakahechi route has a total 68km, going between Tanabe and Nachi Taisha (Nachi falls), that can be walked in 4-5 days. Since we weren’t planning on walking so many days we decided to select a short trail called Dainichi-goe to walk directly to Yunomine Onsen through the mountain.
The Dainichi-goe was a very (very!) steep trail. It’s true that we aren’t trained, but this was too hard for us since 3/4 parts of the trail was completely uphill with stone uneven stairs (as you can see in the picture) and not a chance to catch some breath. During rainy season in Japan (June-July) I wouldn’t recommend at all to take this trail since it can be really dangerous to climb the moss slippery stairs.
Compared to the 8km we did in Nakasendo, this seemed worse because there wasn’t any change of dynamics in the hike, always up, always very hard. Also, the mountain was indeed beautiful and so was the light, but also very monotonous. I much prefer to walk longer trails but with different type of roads and scenery.
We don’t recommend doing this trail unless you love the mountain very much and have trained legs. In fact, you can enjoy and get a better glimpse of the Kumano Kodo in another part, at Daimonzaka slope to get to Nachi falls (future post!), which is similar and less hard (although it’s not easy neither).
If I was doing this itinerary again I would do one of the following:
- Choose another part of the Nakahechi route, maybe starting at Tanabe for the first stage and then going to Yunomine Onsen directly by bus.
- Alternatively, it would be an excellent choice to rent bikes at Hongu Taisha and bike to Yunomine Onsen (see second next post to see how awesome it was!)
Yunomine Onsen is a little town in a valley around a thermal stream that looks like out from a Ghibli film.
It was discovered more than 1800 years ago being the oldest onsen in Japan. The color of the water changes 7 times a day, and the most characteristic is its sulfur steam water. Just by the stream, there’s a a cooking basin with water running at hot 90 degrees; people can buy eggs and edamames to boil them in the water. They are very popular, in fact at our ryokan we were served those onsen eggs, yumm!
Yunomine was absolutely adorable, it makes the perfect headquarters location!
The most special place to stay in Yunomine is hands down the ryokan Adumaya, not only for its facilities, but specially for the super fine dining service. We booked our two nights here because we decided to splurge a little bit in order to have a very nice place after our hike and activities around the Wakayama area.
Our room had views to the river, and we had just a sakura tree in the middle of our room windows. Most rooms (like ours) only have a toilet because then you have the ryokan onsen baths to shower (and of course enjoy a thermal bath!). We used the onsen both days; there’s a rotenburo bath (open air onsen) that switches every day between women and men (quite the norm in all ryokan’s onsens), thus the two of us were able to bath in it! It was super nice.
Our previous experience with onsens so far was only with private onsens, so this time was truly a change! We even had to learn some onsen protocol on the go. There was a funny story with Daniel & the towels. If you have visited an onsen before you’ll know that they usually give you two towels, one of which is a small but very large one. Daniel didn’t know what the small towel was for and thus decided to skip it and went downstairs to the bath without it. Well, once inside the bath he wasn’t alone, but with a Japanese father & son, both wearing the long towel to cover their body in the front, while Daniel, well… he was showing off all his body parts. Not bad for a first-timer that was shy to share the bath with strangers, ha!
The food was beyond amazing and we were lucky to try two different menus, all of them using season an high quality ingredients. They let you decide between eating it on your room or in the dining room (if you are more social), we went for the first one though because it’s such a change from what we could get anywhere outside Japan.
In case you would like to save some of your budget, consider instead the Adumaya Minshuku, which is the little sister of the ryokan but with simpler dining option and lodgings. Also, an even more affordable option is the JHoppers guest house, that’s is not located just in by the riverside like Adumaya, but in such a small town, location is not really a strong point.
Keep tuned for three more post in Wakayama!