Have you ever heard of place in Japan called Wakayama? Don’t worry, neither had I until recently. But if I told you about Wakayama’s first-rate ramen, ancient castles and seafront onsens you’d be interested wouldn’t you?
Last week I spent 48-hours exploring one of Japan’s best-kept secrets as part of a project called My Secret Wakayama. Situated just 50 minutes from Kansai International Airport, Wakayama is Osaka’s little-known neighbour with so much to offer. From freshly caught seafood to sneak peeks of cherry blossom, these are the highlights of my 48-hours in Wakayama.
I don’t think this city will be a secret much longer!
The gleaming white Wakayama Castle has sat proudly in the centre of downtown Wakayama since the 1500s. Peaceful gardens and regal gates, which contrast starkly with the present day buildings, surround the three-tiered castle tower.
You may enter the castle and enjoy 360 panoramic views from the top floor – if you dare to climb out the window!
One of the most beautiful spots on the castle grounds is Nishinomaru-Teien Gardens, especially when the autumn maple leaves are in bloom, and the most striking feature is the tilted Ohashiroka Bridge, which was built with walls and a roof to protect the privacy of those coming and going from the castle. It makes me wonder what secrets the inhabitants had to hide!
To find out more about the castle’s history and significance in the region head to the Wakayama Historical Centre. Situated on the outskirts of the castle grounds, your ticket for Wakayama Castle (410 yen per adult) will grant you free entry to the museum. There is also a souvenir shop in this building where you can find all sorts of locally-sourced treats and if you’ve got children pop into the tourist office next door where they can dress up as little ninja warriors for free.
Wakayama is known throughout Japan for its first-rate ramen. The local speciality, known as chukasoba noodle, features noodles soaked in a pork bone and soy sauce broth. After receiving nation-wide fame on a TV show, Ide Shoten on Tanamachi Street is the most popular ramen joint in town but to be honest it’s hard to go wrong when it comes to ramen restaurants in Wakayama.
I decided to go for the easy option and tucked into a bowl of soba as soon as I arrived by heading to Marumi Shoten, which is found in a dining arcade directly under the train station. (The sign is in Japanese but it’s the last place on the right if you’re entering from the main ticket hall.)
I’d never tried ramen before so it took a little for me to get used to slurping it like the locals do. It’s not in my British nature to make a loud noise as I eat and I found that if I slurped too enthusiastically the noodles just splashed all over my face! The dish was absolutely delicious though, with both the pork and egg melting in my mouth.
One of the wonderful things I discovered about Wakayama is that they have taxi drivers who are specially trained in ramen recommendations. Certain taxis will have stickers in their windows showing that they have ramen knowledge and if you hop in they’ll take you to the best restaurant to suit your cravings! You can also eat your way around the city with this handy ramen map that’s been put together by Wakayama City.
Kinetsu Department Store
Another fantastic place to eat your way around is the basement food hall of the Kinetsu Department Store. I was blown away by the variety of fresh foods on offer in this underground heaven and spent my afternoon grazing on dumplings, sushi, pork buns and baked goods. If you’re a fan of fancy packaging you’ll love seeing all the gorgeously wrapped cookies and sweets that Japanese people give as gifts – it’s like a lesson in the art of presentation.
The Kinetsu Department store also sells high-end international and local fashion designers and has a sweet tearoom on level 2. Directly next-door is the MIO mall, which has trendier boutiques and speciality shops including craft and stationery stores.
Kimii-dera Temple is known for its early-blooming cherry blossom so despite being several weeks early for sakura season I crossed my fingers and climbed the steps to this Buddhist temple.
I was distracted at first by the dazzling 12 metre tall golden statue in the Buddha Hall but when I returned once more to explore the Main Hall that’s when I saw it. A singular blooming tree was sporting light pink flowers and it gave me such a tantalising taste of what this temple must look like when the whole complex is covered in cherry blossom.
After leaving the temple a sign for acai bowls caught my attention in window of Kissa Wako. Kissa Wako is a family-run business with a 50-year history so it was a surprise to discover its theme is Hawaiian.
It all became clear however when the manager, Hazuki Iwasaki, introduced herself to me as the third generation of her family to manage the café. After discovering a love of Hawaii during her studies, Hazuki introduced smoothies, acai bowls and surfboards to the family-run café. I enjoyed tucking into a plate of acai that was complimented with fruits from Wakayama and caught up on emails using the free wifi.
Kuroshio Ichiba Market
Kuroshio Ichibia Market in Wakayama Marina City is the place to come and try all of the region’s amazing seafood. This foreigner-friendly fish market has enough sushi, sashimi and fresh seafood to keep you smiling for days. You can pick whatever you fancy from day’s catch at the market and then take it to the seafront BBQ area to cook it over coals there and then.
For a little taste of Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Market there is a free tuna cutting demonstration 3 times a day. The show is not for the fainthearted – the tuna is so big it has to be filleted by a sword! – but it’s fascinating to watch and if you’re a fan of tuna you can queue up to buy a steak straight after.
Another free attraction in Marina City is Porto Europa – a European themed amusement park with rides, restaurants and themed souvenir shops.
The rides (priced individually) are aimed at a younger demographic but tweens (and bloggers!) will love the opportunity to get travel-themed Instagram photos.
Kishu Kuroshio Onsen
I couldn’t leave Wakayama without soaking in one of the seafront hot spring bathhouses. Kishu Kuroshio Onsen is a modern onsen with indoor and outdoor baths that overlook the ocean. I’m a big fan of outdoor baths and it was wonderful to soak in the steaming water while feeling the cool ocean breeze on my shoulders. There’s also an indoor pool with wood-clad ceilings that suit the beachfront setting.
Everything you need is supplied by the onsen including towels (a small one for use in the bathhouse and large one to dry off with after) and bath products – I was delighted to see the body wash, face wash, moisturiser and hair products were all made by Shiseido. Entry to the onsen costs 1000 yen with towel rental and it’s such a relaxing way to pass a few hours, especially if you try the massage chairs in the lounge afterwards.
Where To Stay
I stayed at the Dormy Inn Premium Hot Spring Hotel, which is a cosy and modern property just a few minutes walk from the train station. The hotel has its own onsen on the 2nd floor, the female section of which is protected by a daily changing pin code. Wifi is free throughout the property and so is a midnight snack of Yonaki Soba noodles! (Head to the 1st floor restaurant between 9 and 11pm.)
It takes approximately 50 minutes to reach Wakayama JR station from Kansai International Airport. I took the local train which costs just 890 yen and requires only 1 change at Hineno station.
You can explore most of the city centre easily on foot.
To get to Kimi-dera Temple take the train to Kimiidera from Wakayama Station (7 mins, 190 yen). You’ll see the temple from the station footbridge so it’s easy to head in the right direction.
You’ll need to catch the bus to Wakayama Marina City for Kuroshio Ichiba Market and Kishu Kuroshio Onsen – it takes approximately 15 mins from Kimiidera or 30 from the city. Unlike the trains Google Maps doesn’t have any bus information available so visit the tourist office or information desk at the train station for a timetable.
Also note that the bus ticket system can be a little tricky (or it was for clueless foreigners like me!). You’ll need to board the back of the bus and grab a ticket but you don’t pay until you get off as the fee depends on how far you ride. I found the locals to be very friendly and quick to jump to the rescue if you can’t work out what’s going on – a kind young man from Tokyo actually bought my first bus ticket for me when I accidentally put 500 yen in the machine upon boarding!
For more information about things to see, do and eat in Wakayama visit mysecretwakayama.com.
I was invited to explore Wakayama as part of the My Secret Wakayama project in association with Wakyama City. I travelled to Wakayama on my own and everything recommended here was chosen and vetted by me personally. Please leave a comment below if you have any questions about this itinerary.