In the Kansai area just below Osaka, lies Wakayama, a prefecture famous for its magnificent mountains, connections to Japanese history, roaring waterfalls, and spiritual pilgrimage trails. Many think of it as the natural and spiritual capital of Japan, and this year Lonely Planet’s readers gave credit where credit is due as Wakayama was voted the best sustainable destination in 2021! Sustainability is the art of appreciation and preservation of the environmental, economic, and sociocultural heritage of a place. Rather than adjusting the space to the visitor’s expectations, Wakayama gives you a holistic experience and celebrates its roots while reminding us the importance of soul-fulfilling travel. Step off the beaten path for a minute to appreciate the wonderous nature and follow trails created centuries ago - with both mountains and sea, and a refreshing take on modern life, Wakayama is a treasure waiting to be discovered!
Those searching for peace and a moment to find their footing should definitely add the Kumano Kodo Piligrimage to their list. It leads through primevale forests and spiritually powerful areas that were believed to house gods in the past. This trail was popularised by the Japanese Imperial Household visits during the Heian Period (794-1185) who were searching to enhance their connection to realms beyond our own. The pilgrimage consists of seven stunning routes and, in 2004, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Kumano Kodo houses the thundering sanctuary of Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine, sat alongside a magnificent waterfall - Nachi Falls. Tucked away in an ancient forest, it was the holy ground of mountain gods and their worshippers. At 133 metres Nachi Falls is Japan's tallest waterfall and, due to its imposing presence, has long been revered as the home of a powerful Shinto deity.
Visiting Wakayama, you shouldn't forget Koyasan - a retreat from every day life and an impressive hub of esoteric Buddhism. It's also the final destination of the Kumano Kodo trail! Koysan consists of over 100 temples and 52 of them offer accommodation.
We definitely recommend staying for the night to experience tranquillity through some of the monks' spiritual activities - anything from seated meditation to copying sutras. What is more, staying with the monks will allow you to try the renowned shojin ryori, delicious Buddhist cuisine created using only vegetables and wild plants. Strolling through the stillness of the temple grounds at night when they close the gates to outside visitors is an added bonus for overnight guests.
For those naturally drawn to the sea, Kushimoto couldn't be more perfect. Located at the tip of the Kii peninsula, it offers scenic views both in and out of water. The incredible Hashigui Rocks are a perfect backdrop to a sunset stroll along the coast. And then there's the sea itself, home to a plethora of underwater flora and fauna to keep the even the most experienced scuba diver entertained! In fact, the warm currents sustain vibrant colonies of table coral that houses over 300 varieties of sea creatures!
Wakayama is also where you will find Japan's number one white sand beaches at Shirahama! It's located within close proximity from the start of the Kumano Kodo but could also work as a perfect way to round out a trip. Shirahama is a real gem, with 600 metres of white sand covering a charming bay and a sister beach to Hawaii's internationally famous Waikiki! It hosts a variety of events each year including The Sand Festival which sees the construction of impressive sand sculptures but Shirahama is also a hot spring resort and its healing waters have been popular for over 1300 years! You can either enjoy the freshness of the sea waters or take a dip into an onsen bath with a stunning sea view.
What is special about all of Wakayama's destinations is that they make use of the resources readily available and have reached a kind of symbiosis with the natural world. You can educate yourself through experiencing the rural Japanese life at a local farm - Wakayama is famous as 'The Fruit Kingdom' after all. If you have less time, set yourself down at the table for a sustainable meal at Villa AiDa which only uses ingredients grown in its back garden! An entire world of mindful tourism is waiting at your finger-tips.
Learn more about why Koyasan is Japan's most sacred mountain and all the activities it has to offer here.