5 Reasons You Must Visit Japan’s Spiritual Heartland
Find out what secrets Wakayama holds and why you need to visit.
Wakayama Prefecture's sacred heartland stretches across the Kii Peninsula in the southern Kansai region. Known for its sacred sites and pilgrimage routes in the Kii Mountain Range, Wakayama has much to offer visitors looking to get off the beaten path.
A cycling trip through Wakayama promises an abundance of fresh air, good food, and culturally significant stops. In fact, Wakayama has identified over 800 kilometers of prime cycling roads.
We selected two cycling course options that differ greatly in theme and difficulty. One takes us into the mountains in "Kuchi-Kumano" known as the gate town area of the Kumano Kodo on a moderate ride, and the other takes us to the coastal city of Shirahama on a casual course that covers a piece of Wakayama's extensive coastline. Read on as we take you on a ride through Wakayama.
For an experienced cyclist in Japan, this is the course to take. The 50 plus kilometer Kumano Course combines the best of Japanese nature and culture with great exercise, an amazing lunch, and beautifully maintained asphalt roads through the mountains.
The combination of the Japanese countryside and mountain cycling emanates the picturesque image of Japan and is exactly what most tourists will be looking to get out of a ride in Wakayama. Combined with breaks to hike Kumano Kodo and enjoy sightseeing from mountain peaks, this trip is sure to provide unforgettable memories.
Our cycling group (more information below) provided electric-assist bikes that give riders the option to turn up the power when climbing. There is a tough climb (even with the power) that goes up over 1,000 meters in one stretch that would not be suitable for beginners although active and adventurous travelers will be able to take on the challenge.
Ichigan-ji Temple makes a great stop for snacks and drinks along the way. The temple here is filled with beautiful outdoor artwork and the monk will welcome you inside for a quick history lesson as you rest your legs while visiting with the local guides.
Takahara Kumano-jinja Shrine and Takijiri-oji are gateways to Kumano Kodo as it's one of the first stops along the route. Depending on the course, you may spend a bit of time here hiking the path. Nearby you will also find the Kumano Kodo Information Center where you can buy supplies and get all the information you need on setting out on a hike.
Key points include low-water crossings, temple and shrine visits, and more. There is also a great place to stop for lunch along the ride.
Note: Kumano Kodo, the old pilgrim road does not allow bikes, especially the off-road and stone pavement areas registered by UNESCO World Heritage. Cyclists should follow local rules to protect the natural environment and local culture, and we recommend joining a cycling tour with local guides for the Kumano Course.
This mountain lodging is a lunch experience that shouldn't be missed. The combination of the high-altitude Japanese countryside, foreign-friendly service (English materials in abundance), and excellent food makes this the perfect selection for a memorable meal. The dishes on offer are made, in part, with local ingredients and will help to recharge the body and get you going again after the climb.
The Shirahama Course is a great option for those looking to catch some waves and water on a more casual cycling experience. The pace and distance of this course (around 30 kilometers) are accessible for even the most basic of cyclists. Keep in mind that this course is more about the stops and the seaside scenery and you will be sure to have a great time.
The course starts from the same starting point as the above (Kamitonda Cycle Station "KMICH"), but after a few minutes, the scenery quickly changes. As the course progresses it runs into the coastal roads where much of the cycling happens. Throughout the course, we were pretty close to the sea and we passed beaches, viewpoints, cliffs, and even got to a lookout point up high where we can see nice views of the coastal city of Shirahama below.
Engetsuto Island is the ideal photo spot. As you cycle along the coastal road, this memorable island and cliff formation immediately catches the eye. The island opens up in the middle allowing for the perfect sunset photo opportunity for those lucky enough to catch the right timing.
Shirarahama Beach is filled with white sand and Japanese pine trees dot the area. Though you may not have time for a swim, this is a place where we can get off our bicycles for a few minutes and walk along the beach.
Senjojiki Rock Plateau is a large formation of cliffs and sandstone bedrock pointing out towards the Pacific Ocean. The rocks have been eroded by the rough waves that crash over them, creating a scenic landscape. Another nearby cliffside spot to get off the bicycles is Sandanbeki Rock Cliff. Here the cliffs rise up over 50 meters from the tempestuous waves below.
Although most tourists will not strongly associate the course with a strong image of Japan, it still has some great locations and interesting points that dive into the local city and culture. Be sure to check out the amazing cafe as well!
This cafe is one of the highlights of the Shirahama Course and would be recommended to anyone passing through Shirahama (on a bicycle or not). The harbor view on the back patio is especially tranquil and the seating is comfortable.
The specialties and dessert culture of Japan are on display here with many distinctive options that will appeal to anyone with a sweet tooth. The choices in sweets are abundant (the namesake Kagerou is a soft cream dessert), but there is also a variety of standard fare. The recommended cutlet sandwich is one of the best sandwiches you will ever eat or if you prefer egg, try the egg sandwich. Drink options include a selection of sweets, juices, teas, and coffees.
Japan has long been known as a top cycling destination with highly tended roads and a culture that encourages bicycles as a common means of transportation. Our cycling base for both courses this trip was the Kamitonda Cycle Station (上富田サイクルステーション) KMICH (kumicchi).
While the station is primarily set up for Japanese, there are some English-support materials and the staff are friendly and professional when it comes to guiding and safety. The station is set up with excellent cycling equipment and the bicycles here are electric-assisted which will come in handy on the tough climbs of the Kumano Course.
The Hotel Seamore is an excellent all-around package with a wonderful location, refurbished interior, and excellent meal selections. The seaside location provides a short walk to nearby Shirarahama Beach, and the infinity pool in the back offers beautiful coastal views. The views from the rooms are amazing, and the rooms are comfortable.
The Marriott Hotel here is modern with great views and a top floor onsen experience. The sights from up high are incredible and the rooms are modern and well-kept. There is a large outdoor area in the rear of the hotel with beautiful gardens, a chapel, and a long walking path that makes for a leisurely morning walk. There is a nice tourist shop and good deals on a few different types of rental bicycles to help tourists get around the city and down to the nearby beaches.
The quickest way into the area is by taking a domestic flight into Nanki - Shirahama Airport (南紀白浜空港). From here it is only a few minutes into Shirahama by car or taxi.
An alternative is to fly into Kansai International Airport (just north of Wakayama Prefecture) and take the train or rental car down the coastline of Wakayama. This will add an additional 90 minutes of transportation time but allows you to stop in Wakayama City and enjoy some scenic views on the ride down.
From Shirahama, the neighboring city of Tanabe City is the birthplace of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido. In the Aikido Tanabe Dojo, you can experience an Aikido training session. The Ueshiba Morihei Memorial Museum is a state-of-the-art center where visitors can fully explore the Japanese martial arts and the history of Aikido.
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