The best things to do in Wakayama, Japan
I recently took a whirlwind trip to Japan, a country I've never visited before but always been curious about. You'd think I would have made it over when I was living in South East Asia, but nope, apparently, we consistently avoid visiting the countries most conveniently located to us. Case in point - I've barely even been to Ireland.
Pin this for later:
Anyway, back to Japan. If you're a regular reader, or follow me on social media you'll know I jetted into Osaka Kansai airport heading straight for Wakayama City - somewhere totally off the beaten path but a serious hidden gem.
I'm not gonna lie, speaking zero Japanese isn't easy when you leave the main cities but people are so incredibly friendly it's easy to work things out. Somewhere off the tourist trail filled with some really cool things to do.
WHAT TO DO IN WAKAYAMA
Despite a longer than expected journey to Japan, getting to Wakayama was simple. We caught the train from Osaka Kansai, changed once and caught a fast train to the city. In total it took less than 40 minutes, and once we got to the train station we managed to catch a cab (1200 yen/£8) to our Ryokan which was a little bit out of the main city.
From there we spent a divine evening in true Japanese style eating a traditional tasting menu of fresh, raw fish and delicious ramen style dishes. I honestly couldn't tell you what anything was, but I can say it went done a treat after 14 hours of mediocre plane food ;)
The Art of Onsen
if you've never heard of the Japanese bathing ritual known as 'Onsen' you are in for a treat. I'd heard about it years ago when I worked as a sub-editor for an online travel-zine. The post was titled 'The Art of Onsen' (plagiarism!) and after reading it about 3 million times to edit, I wondered if I'd ever have the opportunity to try one out.
So, what does it entail? Similarly to a traditional Swedish sauna, you enter a public bath-style room naked. Yep, completely naked, bar a very beautiful Japanese robe. Prior to stepping into a deliciously hot bath (some are outdoor, some indoor), you rinse yourself sat on a little stool vanity station. After your first dip, you return to the little shower and scrub yourself clean with a flannel, then head back into the hot spring, and repeat!
Our room had a private onsen, but we chose to use the hotel onsen which was spectacular. We actually used it twice, squeezing in a blissful night bathe as well as starting our morning with one too.
It's worth noting that tattoos are banned in public onsen, so you either have to cover them up or (if you have too many to cover up, like me) use a private onsen or go when nobody else is around, to save causing offence.
And to top off the relaxation, we enjoyed a cheeky massage in the chilled our massage chairs. Let me tell you, these were nothing like the ones you find at the airport or your local nail salon -- this was as good as a REAL massage and sorted our jet lag right out. As a new mum, I've never felt more pampered or more well rested!
Autumnal Glory at the Castle
Because Wakayama is small, we were able to see quite a lot of it really easily. Although to be honest, 36 hours is tight for the round trip we did you could definitely see the sights on a two day trip from Osaka or Kyoto.
First up was a wander around the epic Wakayama Castle. Call me ignorant but I'd never imagined Japan to have such autumnal vibes, so I was a wee bit blown away when I caught sight of the shock of Japanese maple leaves. The cherry reds, browns and golden hues were a perfect backdrop to such an ornate castle. (Entry is free, except to the museum which costs
Instagram tip! Make sure you walk outside to get a shot of the bridge with the backdrop of the castle
where to eat
Food, glorious food
No trip to Japan is complete without sake right? RIGHT! We indulged in sake at every stage of our trip, from traditional Waunoshuko sake, local to Wanaka to simple sake at a Yaki Tori bar where no-one spoke English, but they knew what we wanted!
In all seriousness, Wayanaka isn't a place where you can expect everyone speaks your language. I mean, you should never expect that but as privileged Brits we so often do. I didn't find this to be an issue at all, as Japanese people are crazy friendly and, as experienced travellers, it was more of an adventure than anything else. But it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the things I'd recommend others do before coming to Japan.
Our beautiful Ryokan spoke some English, but sitting down to dinner there was no English menu at all. Although we loved this, and it was basically a bit of an epicurean adventure -- it's worth noting.
In downtown Wayanaka, a couple of absolute must-do eateries are Ide Shoten where the family restaurant has been serving up wholesome bowls of rich ramen for over 30 years. We had three bowls for 2100 yen (£14). And we loved grabbing some traditional Japanese treats from Fukufuku Dango and eating them with some green tea.
We ate at a few places in the city, with varying degrees of ease (although all were delicious) and to make things particularly easy, all of the below are in the same area. So you can pick and choose and even do a little restaurant crawl.
Mihanami: 2-1-25 Kuroda
Otsuki: 46-1 Kuroda
Where to stay
We were lucky enough to stay in a traditional Ryokan, which is essentially the Japanese dream! Away from the main city, with spectacular views of the castle and harbour, our room had traditional bamboo beds on the floor (comfier than my own at home!) and a balcony with our own private onsen.
The hotel itself had an incredibly atmospheric restaurant where we ate a delicious tasting menu (nine courses of pure bliss) as well as one of the most unusual breakfasts of my life! And even though we felt as though we were staying in a luxury spa away from it all (take me back to the luxury onsen, and those massage chairs please.....) we actually got the best of both worlds, in that we were about 30 minutes from the city (the hotel provides a shuttle bus to the Wakayama central station).
The following night we stayed in the city at the Comfort Hotel, which was super comfortable as well as incredibly convenient. If you're in town for a short amount of time, or you need all the convenience of a business hotel this is a great choice...but I would encourage you to up sticks and move into the Ryokan! I was fairly close to locking myself in my room and refusing to leave!
Booking.com accommodation options
Fly to Tokyo & catch an internal flight to Wakayama (1.5 hrs approx) Fly to Osaka Kansai and catch a bus/train to Wakayama JR station (both take around 40 mins).
Instagram tip! Kansai airport is one of the most spectacular landings and worth a window seat!
Japanese yen is (as of 2017) 1488 = £10 & you can get cash out easily via ATMs which are plentiful!
Don't give tips! It's not customary to do so and you might be chased down the street to give your money back (this happened to us!)
Take your shoes off inside, and make sure you bow (just a nod is fine).
Konichiwa, Sayonara, Arigato: Hello, Goodbye, Thank-you
Ahhh what a short, but oh so sweet trip. Although I will never stop pinching myself for the opportunities afforded me in this crazy, silly job -- the trip was bittersweet purely because I fell a little in love with Japan and did NOT want to leave!
It's super easy to travel to Wakayama as part of a bigger trip, given the insanely efficient public transport and ease of access from big cities like Kyoto and Osaka. In fact, if you're interested in that, make sure you sign up to my newsletter (below!) because I'll be publishing a two-week itinerary post for Japan soon.
Many thanks to My Secret Wakayama for hosting me on this trip. I also have some affiliate links in the post, which mean that I earn a small commission if you book through them (at no extra cost to you.) As ever, all views are my own and I promise I wouldn't recommend anything I wouldn't do myself! See my full disclaimer here.