The Kii Peninsula, incorporating Wayakama and Mie prefectures, is located in the central belt of Japan’s main island, Honshu. There are plenty of wonderful things to do here. An abundance of spellbinding natural beauty means outdoor activities aplenty, and it’s here that you’ll find some of the country’s best diving, trekking and cycling. Check out Rough Guides top 12 places to visit on your first trip to the Kii Peninsula.
The Kii Peninsula in Japan has plenty to recommend it, from adrenaline-fuelled hiking and biking to serene shrines and spectacular sunsets. Glorious landscapes and seascapes make the perfect backdrop for a number of outdoor activities, especially in Mie and Wakayama prefectures. The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail and the diving experience at Kushimoto are sure-fire highlights, while traditional onsen and fresh local eateries will cover your down time. With an endless selection of lesser-known spots to explore, travellers to Wakayama and Mie prefectures will never want to leave.
Hiring a car will give you the freedom to explore the best of the Kii Peninsula region in Japan at your own pace. That said, you can easily navigate the region by using local or shinkansen trains. Travelling by train is also a great way to appreciate the glorious scenery of the region: it’s a romantic way to go.
There’s an array of delightful places to stay in Wakayama and Mie prefectures, from traditional onsen inns to sprawling international resorts. If it’s a quiet ryokan you’re after, check out Irukaonsen Seiryusou, a gorgeous fusion of Japanese and Western design. A kaiseki dinner and Japanese breakfast is included for each night’s stay, while the charming Yumoto Sanso Yunokuchi Onsen is just a ten-minute ride away via an old trolley car once used by local miners. In the hotel itself you’ll find Western-style beds – a nice change for anyone who doesn’t like sleeping on the floor – and an omiyage store selling a range of local snacks, crafts, produce and souvenirs.
If a big resort is more your style, check out seafront Hotel Urashima. It’s a huge complex, perfect for families with kids in tow. The buffet dinner takes inspiration from the West as well as Japan, with favourites on offer from sushi to Irish stew, with a drinks list showcasing some delectable local sake. Sea-facing rooms look out over the craggy coastline and the onsen caves located inside the complex. These hot springs, built in natural caves in the rock wall, are reason enough to book a bed at Urashima. Taking a dip at sunrise is sublime.
If you’re wondering what to see on the Kii Peninsula, the good news is that that’s loads on offer, from stellar hiking to relaxing in bubbling hot springs.
A resort town on the southern shores of Wakayama, Shirahama is a fantastic spot to kickstart your exploration of the Kii Peninsula. The best way to explore this compact town is by bike, though note that some parts of the path are hilly. Check out the striking coastal rocks in Shirahama, such as Engetsuto Island (where the sunsets are dazzling), Senjojiki Rock Plateau (the “thousand tatami mats” headland) and Sandanbeki Rock Cliff, as well as cycling up to the hilltop viewpoint overlooking town. You can see all the sights in a single afternoon, and if the hilly terrain feels too daunting, plump for an electric bike instead. These are available to rent at the Giant Store Nanki Shirahama, a bicycle rental shop located next to the Shirahama Key Terrace Hotel Seamore. The latter is a great accommodation choice, fusing Western comforts with traditional Japanese styles. After all that cycling, you’ll be wanting a hearty meal – get a table at Pizzeria Pescatore. This authentic Italian joint has an outdoor terrace overlooking the sea, with classic pastas and stone-baked pizzas on the menu.
The Kumano Kodo is not actually a single route, but a network of UNESCO-inscribed pilgrimage trails to Kumano Sanzan – Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine, Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine and Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple. Kodo means “old ways”, and true enough, the routes have been in use for well over one thousand years. The spectacular pilgrimage routes connect the area’s sacred Shinbutsu-shugo shrines (literally the convergence of Buddhism and Shinto) and spiritual spaces, and tracing the ancient pathways is one of the best things to do in the area. Hongu, Hayatama, Nachi and Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple make up Kumano Sanzan and comprise the centrepiece of the area.
The Kumano Kodo is, without a doubt, one of the best treks in Japan. Steeped in history, tradition and mythical intrigue, the paths themselves are stunning, cobbled walkways weaving through moss-covered shrines and primeval forests. The trails themselves vary in difficulty, so you can pick one to suit your fitness level and ability. Some trails are hilly and take several days to navigate steep forests with few rest stops; others are well marked and manageable, even for families with children or older hikers. There are also some bigger roads – particularly on the Ohechi and Iseji coastal routes – making it possible to drive to visit the three grand shrines.
The Takijiri-oji is an important entry point into the sacred precinct of the Kumano Kodo. In itself, it’s not particularly special – especially when compared to the grand shines that most travellers flock to Kumano Kodo to visit. Nevertheless, stop to get a stamp book at the Kumano Kodo Kan next door, which also provides sections for its sister trail in Spain, the mighty Camino de Santiago. Get your first stamp and be on your way.
The Kodo Kan makes an interesting place to kick off the Kumano Kodo, especially if you’re keen to gain some historical insights into the hike. At Kodo Kan you’ll find replica diaries and outfits from the Heian Period (794–1185); though there’s information in English, hiring a guide will be infinitely more rewarding, as you’ll get a complete overview of the area’s political and spiritual history.
The Wakayama World Heritage Center is a short walk from the most spectacular shrine of them all, Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine, so it’s a good place to stop if you’re just visiting the shrines rather than hiking the trail. Alongside comprehensive materials on the trail and the wider Kumano region, there’s a replica mandala, which shows how pilgrims are supposed to approach and pay respects at the shrine, based on the worshipping practices of Heian Period aristocrats. Hikers may want to pick up some supplies at the nearby omiyage (souvenir) shop.
Like Takijiri-oji, this shrine carries real spiritual significance, despite being a fairly basic structure. It stands as the official entry point into the Kumano Hongu Taisha precinct, and you can collect another stamp here. Though there’s little information in English, a guide can help illuminate the shrine’s importance. Hosshinmon-oji is a popular starting point for the Nakahechi Route, perfect for a day hike and one of Kumano Kodo’s most well-trodden trails.
One of the best views of Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine actually comes from the Fushiogami-oji viewpoint, where the first pilgrims originally caught sight of the shrine, stopped to pray and were moved to tears. The name Fushiogami literally means “kneeling down in prayer” for this very reason.
No one can travel to Japan without taking a steamy dip in one of the region’s famous onsen (hot springs). Home to one of the country’s oldest hot springs, Yunomine Onsen is a quiet town located near the Kodo. The spring itself is thought to be close to 1800 years old; take a dip in its waters – at the public baths or World Heritage Tsuboyu, or buy eggs and fresh vegetables in a nearby grocers to boil in the vents of scalding water near the riverbed. The scenery itself is magical, with colourful mineral deposits, steamy springs and a babbling brook that runs through the town centre.
If you’re after an onsen hotel, look no further than nearby Kawayu Onsen Midoriya, in the town of the same name. This traditional Japanese inn has outdoor onsen baths connected to the river, which gives a real sense of freedom while you’re bathing. This means you can’t bathe outside naked – as is common in Japanese hot springs – and the baths are unisex, another rarity in Japan. The rooms themselves benefit from awesome views down to the valley below, while the breakfast buffet and kaiseki dinners are something to write home about.
Nanki Seamans Club offers excellent diving in Kushimoto, a tremendous underwater playground for first-time and experienced divers alike. It’s possible to dive here year-round, and the centre provides all the necessary equipment, including drysuits in winter. Some of the instructors speak English, and visitors are fully briefed before taking the plunge. There’s an array of colourful wildlife around the Kushimoto Pacific coastline, from neon damsels to sea urchins, clown fish to crabs, bioluminescent sea slugs to lionfish. Instructors communicate with divers using underwater drawing boards (resembling Etch A Sketches), meaning they can provide detailed commentary (e.g. indicating what type of fish you’re looking at) and ask direct questions (e.g. “would you like to take a picture?”). It’s diving heaven.
A highlight of any visit to the Kii Peninsula, Japan, is the food. And being an island nation, it’s frequently seafood we’re talking about. Bodai is a small seafood restaurant a stone’s throw from Kii Katsuura Station. Its speciality is maguro katsu – lightly seared tuna fillets battered in panko breadcrumbs. The dish is absolutely delicious: searing the tuna brings out the flavours, while the buttery texture runs through the raw centre. The set meal comes highly recommended, with rice, miso soup and Japanese pickles, washed down with a draft beer.
Situated at the mouth of the Kumano-gawa River, Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine is the easiest of the three grand shrines to access, with a car park nearby – which is good news for anyone with no desire to hike. Within the complex you’ll find a noble, 1000-year-old Nageia Nagi tree; nature is greatly respected in the region, and endowed with spirituality. Architecturally, the attractive shrine shares several features with Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine.
Another of the grand three shrines, Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine is an essential stop on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail. There are several beautiful buildings at Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine, including Nachisan Seiganto-ji Temple, a striking three-storey pagoda set against the stunning backdrop of Japan’s highest waterfall. The waterfall was the original holy site; the temple complex was later built beside it. The existence of the shrine and temple side by side represents the harmonious relationship between Shintoism and Buddhism.
Though the three grand shrines of Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine, Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine and Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine are the most instantly recognizable on the Kumano Kodo, one of the most interesting structures is Kamikura, as important as Kumano Sanzan. Kamikura-jinja Shrine marks the spot where the Kumano deities were said to have first descended to Earth. To access it, you must brave a series of steep cobbled steps – a feat not recommended for the very old or very young, nor for the faint of heart. But climb to the top and you’ll be rewarded with staggering views of Shingu, a star among Kii Peninsula cities, spilling down towards the sea, and of the sacred rock that sits brooding over the shrine. If you come at the start of the year, try to coincide your visit with February’s fire festival, when Shinto worshippers run down the hill in their hundreds with torches ablazing.
For a hidden hot spring in serene natural surroundings, make for Yumotosanso Yunokuchi Onsen. Huge outdoor baths cover multiple levels and bubble at different temperatures, all amid a dense forest of towering evergreens. Lean back and let your troubles melt away as the mist descends.
Taking their name from the Japanese “oni”, a kind of mythological troll-demon, the Oniga-jo rocks cover a one-mile stretch along the Kumano-nada Sea. Walk along the footpath etched into the cliff face and marvel at the fractured rock formations. There’s a handrail protecting visitors from the cliff edge, and the scenery is spectacular. The impressive Shishi-iwa, meant to resemble a lion, towers over Mie Prefecture’s Shichirimihama Beach. A nearby lay-by affords good views of the structure, but better still walk along the beach and under the rock itself.
The Kii Peninsula is filled with fantastic sights to explore, from the mystical shrines of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail to authentic eateries and steamy onsen. With superlative hiking, biking and diving opportunities, adventurous travellers will be spoilt for choice here, guaranteeing that your first trip to Kii will certainly not be your last.
Top image: Kii Peninsula coastal scenery © David McElhinney
This article was created in partnership with Chubu District Transport Bureau, Mie Prefecture, Wakayama Tourism Federation.