About five minutes by car from Wakayama’s famous Shirahama Beach are the Sandanbeki cliffs, a two kilometre stretch of coastline that towers 50 metres above the sea. Hidden at the bottom of one of these three cliffs is Sandanbeki Doukutsu, a cave where Kumano pirates of the Heian Era (794-1185) once hid their boats.
It is easy for tourists who are not paying attention to miss this amazing cave. Upon arrival by car or bus, there is a short street lined with a few old souvenir shops that leads to an expansive ocean observation point and some walking trails.
There is a larger souvenir shop here, with an onsen foot-bath overlooking the sea. Be sure to check out this shop as the ticket counter and elevators for the cave are inside.
The entrance fee may seem a little expensive; ¥1300 for adults and ¥650 for elementary school children. However, the caves are quite impressive and the price probably keeps hordes of people from visiting. A lift will take you on a 24 second ride that travels 36 metres down through the cliff. Upon exiting the elevator, you enter a large cavern containing a replica of one of the small pirate ships.
Off to the sides are a labyrinth of passageways filled with interesting things to see. The 200-metre pathway is dimly-lit, wet, and gloomy.
There are patterned formations that were created when sea water eroded the rock face, and a blowhole that shoots water into the air whenever the tide rolls in. You can also view the cave’s entry point and view the area in which the ships would have docked.
In a larger section of the cave, decorated with over 100 hanging lanterns, sits a carving of Benzaiten, one of Japan’s seven lucky gods. She is the goddess of everything, and is almost always found near water.
Nearby is the re-creation of a guard house, complete with rusty armour and weaponry. Interestingly enough, depending on the time period and the situation, the pirates sometimes fought battles as members of a feudal lord’s navy.
The caves are open year-round from 8:00 – 17:00, with last entry at 16:50.
For those travelling by car, there is plenty of free parking. The caves can also be reached by taxi or public bus.
Bus access: From JR Shirahama Station, ride the Meiko Bus to “Sandanbeki”.