Shirahama 白浜 & Wakayama 和歌山 road trip

The journey to Shirahama (within Wakayama prefecture) was the case of a failed attempt to use our timeshare exchange. No, the challenge was not with our own timeshare resort. Rather it was the exchange company (RCI) that had been at issue. At the time when we had sought to make the exchange, we were told that there was no availability. What was offered to us instead was the opportunity to purchase the week’s worth of stay for S$400.Shirahama drive

Now we don’t know about you. We were seeking to do an exchange with one of EKSIV’s resorts. This chain is relatively up-market (post mortem knowledge). But even without knowing, S$400 for 6 nights works out to only S$67/night, clearly a bargain. Sold!

Our start was from Osaka, taking a 2-hour train ride to reach our destination Shirahama. Our first day here would be “car-less”, ie we took a taxi from the station to the resort.

The resort overlooks Adventure World, a zoo cum wonderland. In the summer, the park is full, evidence by the large parking lots (similar to Disneyland). We took photos of the Zoo from the hotel and could see the Deers and Bears from our room! We later found out that the zoo has a pair of Pandas gifted from China though we never made the trip there…

Our resort room was large and had a nice traditional sitting area, which could also be used for sleeping. We had not expected such size in Japan considering how much we paid for it.

One small step for Mel, a giant leap for Suan!

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Remember that for the longest time, we had been journeying to Japan either with packaged tours or on our own but limited to taking public transport. This journey was the game changer in which we started to rent a car for the first time.

Come to think of it, it now baffles us that we had not tried this earlier. First of all, the drive is right handed, similar to Singapore. Renting a car is easy and quick. The signage is bilingual and the GPS (especially now) works superbly. By the way, the GPS is built into the car, so you don’t pay extra! So drive we did for the 5 days during which we had the car.

Mountain drives

The thing about traveling well outside of the cities is that Japan pro-offers a wide range of scenic journeys on the road. Being an archipelago formed by the forces of tectonic plates, mountain ranges criss cross the islands. And Wakayama (和歌山) is no exception. For those who can read the old Han characters, the name itself refers to a mountain, though it really refer to a geographic location.

And we start with Koyasan (高野山), with a route that winds its way to an altitude of 1200m above sea level. Driving here can be a challenge. The roads are winding and head uphill and downhill repeatedly. But this was fun! We were driving along the famous Ryujin skyline road tracks north to south, leading to some major shrines.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKongobuji, located at the end of the skyline road, is the largest shrine in the region. We also walked amongst the ancient tombs of Okuno-in, but did not take any photos.

Of course the same road also leads us to some famed Onsens (spa). One such Onsen was Ryujin spa which we determined to try. It costs just ¥600pp. As it is a public bath, the only thing you need to bring is your own towels. All other amenities such as soap and shampoo are provided to wash up after soaking.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And all along the way we stopped at the numerous scenic spots just for a photo session… This is a stretch of 35km that runs on the ridgeline of the Wakayama mountain ranges.

On the sunny day such as we had, we could see all the way to the northern end of the mountain ranges! At one of the rest stops, we had our lunch. Specialty here is black pig pork. No evidence of pig farms here. Could it be wild boars? Lunch tasted great…

After this sumptuous lunch, we continued our merry drive towards the end of the skyline road. All in, it took us 100km to get back to Shirahama.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Kumano is yet another scenic route of beautiful vistas. It is also dotted with shrines and hot springs. We visited Yunomine, with the “famous” Tsuyu-bo spa, which is enroute to the Hongu grand shrine.

It is a rather small hots pring and did not look appealing to us. It was said that the bath is used by couples seeking fertility… Some people were queuing to fill buckets of the spring water.

We ended up in Wataze, where we used the open-air onsen bath. At about 11am, there was no one in the hotspring and we had it all to ourselves. It sure saved us theembarrassment of walking about in the open stark naked, but then who would want to be in a hot spring close to noon in summer?

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After a short drive, we reached the end of the scenic road. The Kumano Grand Shrine is not as large as Kongobuji, but nonetheless beautifully constructed. To access it, you need to climb up more than 150 steps! At the shrine, there are prayer donation boxes. You can pick up an amulet/charm for ¥300. Suan got an amethyst rough, together with some description of her luck and other divination. You can guess her wishes have been coming true almost every year since!

In days gone by, pilgrims walk the entire length of the Kumano mountain trails to get to the various major shrines. As if emulating these pilgrims, we set about walking along a small section of the trail. But within 15 minutes, we decided that it was far better to drive. And so ended that expeditionary trek.

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The road trip continues towards the coastal town of Nachi and view the falls that is said to be highest on Honshu island.

All along, we found beautiful views of the river that flows through the Kumano region. It is not just the large rivers that we found interesting.

At Kawayu, we found the river beds bubbling with spring water seeping up from the ground. You basically dig into the gravel and form a little bath area for yourself. At this time of the year, not many people come, as it is warmer. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the photos of the place in Feb/March show it’s full! Water is also piped from the ground. But all along the riverbed one can just wallow out an area to enjoy the hotspring water.

Over the course of 2½ days we had enjoyed the scenic splendor of the mountains. However Wakayama is a prefecture that faces the pacific ocean. So, it was only logical to go

Coastal tripping

Sandanbeki07Shirahama is a coastal town. We actually started by driving from the resort to Sandanbeki, home of rock formations and large caves facing the ocean. When we were here, it was terribly windy. A typhoon was veering close to Japan and had whipped up rather turbulent winds. But it also meant there were few tourists around!Tore Tore Fish Market2

We stopped over at the renown Tore fish market, which also sells local produce such as plums. We saw an auction in progress, as the fisherman slices off parts of a freshly caught Tuna. Prices are fixed. The bidders outdo each other using “scissors, paper, stone” to win rights to buy. A large variety of seafood can be bought here. There is a restaurant in which one can order live seafood to BBQ on the spot! Suan had freshly grilled scallops as we walked in the cavernous hall decked with pools of fish, crustaceans and all manner of shellfish that we do not recognize.

Further afield would be Kushimoto, yet another coastal town. It was a nice and leisurely drive and we reached the marine park at 10am. We had originally planned to take a whale sighting trip from here. As the typhoon is expected to bear past the coast, all sea trips were cancelled. We decided to visit the aquarium with its various tropical and deep-sea fishes. While there is not an enormous number of exhibits, the variety is good. We saw numerous moray eels being fed using long sticks. There is an observatory that juts out to sea from the coast.

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It is approximately a 3-storey decent to the bottom to a lot of pothole windows. This part of Japan has some of the largest formations of table corals, which can be viewed, from this observatory. We could view the corals and the fishes that live in them from the potholes. In fact, the proliferation of sea life goes to the point of sea Anemones growing on the rims of the potholes!

What beautiful red color as they sway in the currents, clinging on to the outer walls. There were also schools of fish swimming by, attracted by tourists throwing bait into the sea.

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Just a little further down would be Shionomisaki, where a lighthouse stands. Entry to walk to the top = ¥200. Being cheap, no deal. Instead, we decided to stroll around and saw that numerous bonsai trees. There are also Shinto shrines in the area near to the coast, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANearby, a plaque commemorating this point to be the southernmost point of Honshu stands.

As we drove on, we came up to the Hashigui rocks. Figure this would not be something really out of the ordinary we drove on to the old whaling town of Taiji. It is now no longer a regular hunt even though Japan continues to hunt whales for “scientific” reasons. And so the town has fallen on hard times. Instead, it more likely that the fishermen of the area turned to rearing fish, crustaceans and shellfish in the bay. You can see the pens all along the coast.

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We were told that Wakayama and specifically Shirahama was a resort area for Osaka folks. Perhaps it is still too early in May, but the place was largely quiet with few other tourists. In the height of summer it will be very crowded our hotel resort concierge claimed. May be this is the reason we got to stay here for 6 nights for just S$400!

PS: we only managed to do one real exchange for a EKSIV resort in Karuizawa (read here) and never had the opportunity ever again as this chain was shut out from exchange via complex rules over the “level” of the resorts.

May 2008

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