Overshadowed by the neighboring city of Osaka, this humble Japanese prefecture is home to arguably Japan’s most delicious ramen, a 1,700-year-old fire festival and a giant open-air bath fed by a hot spring.
You’ll find much of what you need for the complete Japanese experience on this little crescent of land on the southern coast of the country’s largest island, Honshu.
Here are some ways to begin to get to know this little Japanese secret.
1) Kumano Kodo
Japan’s best unknown hike, Kumano Kodo is the perfect Kii Mountain getaway.
Made up of seven routes of various difficulties through the south of Wakayama prefecture, the hike was originally an ancient pilgrimage leading to three major Japanese shrines: Hongu Taisha, Nachi Taisha and Hayatama Taisha.
The easily navigable routes are dotted with numerous onsen (hot spring) towns, scenic valleys and restaurants serving rustic Japanese cuisine.
2) Best Ramen
Ever since Ide Shoten’s Wakayama ramen was voted “Japan’s most delicious” by a Japanese food show, this humble noodle shop has become sacred ground for ramen lovers.
Wakayama ramen has a unique soup base, made with an extremely savory pork bone and soy sauce broth.
But it’s generally known to locals as chuka soba — not ramen — which means “Chinese noodles” in Japanese. These steaming bowls of soup with their satisfying pork and lard flavor can fast become an addiction.
3) Fire Festival
Wakayama’s Nachi Fire Festival, held every July, celebrates the homecoming of the Nachi Waterfall’s god.
The 1,700-year-old event is considered one of the most sacred festivals in Japan.
Tucked away on Nachi mountain, home to the Nachi Taisha shrine and 133-meter-high falls, the festival involves dozens of young Japanese men carrying 12 gigantic torches up and down the stone staircase that leads to the falls, shouting enthusiastically all the way.
It’s quite a sight (and sound). Each torch weighs about 50 kilograms and youngsters have to take a turn carrying one.
Locals sit near the stairs on the mountain to cheer on teams. Be there early to secure a good view.
4) Hot Steam Baths
Wakayama has plenty of ancient onsen spots. Saki-no-yu in Shirahama, south of Wakayama, is a public bath right on the shore of the Pacific.
Sennin – burr in Kawayu, southeast of Wakayama city, is a giant 73 C pool right in the river. It’s also Japan’s biggest open-air bath.
The city of Katsuura has a few onsens with amazing views — Hotel Nakanoshima, on a small island off the port, has onsens looking over the ocean and Hotel Urashima has an ancient bathing site in a cave.
For a less exposed onsen experience, you can soak your feet in hot spring water while you dine at Ashiyu Yokocho, a Japanese restaurant/feet onsen in Shirahama.
5) Wakayama Castle
You’ll find the best view of Wakayama Castle from the hotels across the road.
Daiwa Roynet Hotel Wakayama and Wakayama Tokyu Inn are two of the best options. Ask for a castle-view when making a reservation.
Explore the peaceful castle gardens and the panoramic views from the top once you’ve checked in.
The castle also hosts exhibitions about the history of the city. There’s a small entrance fee (JPY150, or $1.5) but the rest of the park is free to the public.
6) White Water Rafting while Standing
Think sitting in an inflated raft while rushing down white-water rapids is hardcore?
You haven’t tried Japan’s wildest rafting experience.
Kitayama village offers tourists a chance to sail down the swift currents of Kitayama River on traditional logging rafts.
Here’s the kicker — you’re not even seated.
Riders stand in a line on the sturdy, long wooden rafts, clutching only the metal/wooden handles that rise from the base of the rafts.
The adventure sport was inspired by Japan’s traditional lumber industry, in which felled wood was assembled into rafts then sent down the river — a transport method used for more than 600 years.
Game? The rafting season lasts from May to September, with reservations accepted from April 1. Days and times vary depending on month.
So go ahead and discover these hidden secrets in Japan!