After a peaceful night of camping at the gorgeous Shirahama Beach in Mie, we next planned to make our way to some remote World Heritage sites in Wakayama Prefecture. I had never traveled there before, so I was lucky that my driver was well-acquainted with the area. If you ever travel to Wakayama, I recommend skipping the city and heading straight for Nachi Falls. It’s one of the most beautiful waterfalls that I have seen in Japan aside from those in Yakushima and has a bright red pagoda you can climb. Honestly you could spend the whole day wandering through the forests here, but we decided to divide our time between shrines and hotsprings!
For the introduction and full context of this trip, please see Day 1 (From Tokyo to Ise).
The 2nd day began on August 2nd at 4:30am. We packed up our campsite at Shirahama Beach and decided to choose Nachi Falls as our first destination because it was where I wanted to do photography the most. We had booked a ryokan in Yoshinoyama for the night which was roughly 5 hours away from our starting point (with breaks in between). However, we figured that there was a ton of places we could stop at on the way so we wouldn’t get tired. Unfortunately due to heavy rain we had to take refuge at a river onsen and spend the night there, but we still visited 4/5 of our planned destinations so I was happy with what we accomplished.
Our updated map travel map looked like this. Fortunately we had already arrived in Wakayama and seen everything we wanted before it rained:
Nachi Falls is the tallest waterfall in Japan that falls vertically. It also has lovely surrounding scenery and a series of Shinto shrines you can visit. The forest has a mythical feel to it as there are trees, bamboo, and all sorts of plants growing in it. If you look at Wakayama travel websites, the red pagoda is the image that is featured the most! That is why I had to come here and see if it was worth the hype. As most places I put a lot of time and research into, I enjoyed seeing it to its full extent:
Nachi Falls is so huge that you can see it as soon as you enter the World Heritage site. The first viewpoint is marked with a yellow tori and only takes a few minutes to reach. However, the best viewpoints are a little further out. The red three-storied pagoda takes about a 15 minute hike to reach, but you can borrow a walking stick for free to help you climb the stairs (mine looked like a bamboo stick).
This area is completely free to see, but the pagoda costs 300 yen to enter. The top floor is fenced but has a hole where you can clearly view the waterfall and feel a nice breeze. You will also receive a piece of paper with a brief history of how it was constructed. If you climb up the hill next to the pagoda, then you can take the iconic shot of it next the waterfall. Pure aesthetics, baby!
While Shirahama Beach was my favorite destination, this was likely my 2nd favorite. Nachi Falls is much more pretty than anything that surrounds the major cities in Japan. Only temples in Kyoto can compare to it, but there are far less people here in Wakayama!
Kumano Sanzan is another one of the most popular World Heritage sites in Wakayama which consist of a series of shrines. There are tons of Kumano Shrines located throughout Japan, but the three in Wakayama are said to be the originals, or the “headquarters” as my sponsor calls it. The three Kumano Shrines (called Kumano Sanzan) are: Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine (by the waterfall we visited), and Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine.
Since we had already seen the one by Nachi Falls, we decided to travel to the other two by bike. Fortunately they only take 15-30 mins and a simple hike to reach. Kumano Sanzan is actually my sponsor’s favorite series of shrines so that is why it was high on our list of places to go. He even has a custom sticker of the Kumano’s bird mascot on our bike (which I had hilariously left my swimsuit out to dry on)!
The pilgrimage to Kumano Sanzan is extremely relaxing and there is fortunately a lot of shade. I can see why it is one of the most sought-out journeys in Japan. If you only have time to see one of them, definitely go to the Grand Shrine in Nachi Falls!
We stopped for a quick bite to eat at Cafe Alma at the base of the last shrine. I couldn’t helped but laugh because “Alma” is actually the name of my obscure home town…
Since we were making perfect time, we decided to ride for 30 mins and stop at a small hotsprings town in the mountains called Yunomine Onsen. It looks big from the first picture I took, but it’s actually quite small. It’s comparable to the onsen you’d find in Takasaki or Gifu but still has a lot of unique charm. Yunomine has a few public baths but mostly consists of private ryokans. It’s perfect for travelers to stop at for a quick break, however. After some debate, we decided to try the medicine bath with sulfur water from the natural hotspring. It’s extremely hot but it’s supposed to relax and heal your muscles. I lucked out and had a private bath completely to myself for a while!
I spent about an hour in the bath house, and when I got out my driver had bought some eggs for us to boil in the hot water that was flowing through the town. The eggs tasted absolutely delicious! Hotspring-boiled food is one of the most unique dining experiences in Japan.
Then the rain hit…
We packed up all of our things and were about to take off when suddenly it started downpouring. We debated about heading out because we had proper rain gear packed, but since we planned on driving deep into the mountains it wasn’t safe. My sponsor called the ryokan he had booked and was able to change the reservation to the following day, but we were temporarily at a loss of what to do.
We tried to make a reservation at a guest ryokan in Yunomine, but unfortunately they were on holiday. The others were extremely expensive. My phone was dying and I was starving. The rain started to subside where we were at after 45 mins, but it was predicted to fall heavy in our next destination. I suggested that we get a hotel so we would be safe for the night versus camping. Luckily my sponsor was able to find a cheap ryokan near Kawayu Onsen that was just 10 mins away by bike. This was our lucky break.
Though our plans were delayed, bathing at this river onsen actually turned out to be one of the most fun experiences on this trip and made up for the rain:
When we reached Kawayu Onsen, the rain had completely stopped and the town was enveloped in a beautiful white mist. I liked the aura of this place already. We stayed at Sansuikan Kawayu Matsuya for 7500 yen a night (fortunately paid for by my sponsor) and had a spacious ryokan room. We ate some cheap Chinese food that was nearby and decided to go for another bath (because that was really all there was to do). This onsen was ingeniously laid out because the hot bath was surrounded by thick rocks, but you could climb down and swim into the river the cool off. At one point at I got relaxed that I laid down on my back and almost floated away… Just kidding! The river is too shallow to do that but it does get deeper of you enter it from outside the hot spring entrance. My body felt absolutely amazing after this bath and I was ready to take on the next day!
Day 2 Itinerary: 80% Completion
Though the rain delayed us from reaching our final destination, we were still able to go to 4/5 places so it was overall a successful day. By this point I had completely gotten used to riding on the motorbike and fortunately the hotspring visits restored my HP. These onsen villages are extremely hard to reach by public transportation, so yet again I had gotten another rare opportunity to see more of rural Japan. I have many fond memories here in Wakayama and am actually thankful that the rain led us on this path. If we would have skipped Yunomine and left earlier, we could be stranded on the highway or forest. Perhaps the gods of Kumano were really looking out for us…
Please stayed tuned for the next 2 days!