Wakayama is just fun to say, isn’t it? Wakayama. Gets me every time. Want to know what else gets me every time? Finding a hidden gem in one of my favorite countries, especially when it just so happens to offer most of my favorite things as well!
Beaches, scenic landscapes, hot springs, sushi, ramen, and lovely Japanese people who bow their heads and greet you even if you’re just entering a 711. My secret Wakayama city has all of that, but what makes it even more unique than some of the well-known cities in Japan, is that it’s not crowded or touristy AT ALL! In fact, I basically felt like I lived there!
But unless you’re actually trying to move to Japan, I’d recommend doing at least a three day visit like I did to Wakayama. There’s a ton of things to see and do, and since Wakayama isn’t insanely spread out, you can probably get to all of it in just a few days.
Although, if you’re a fan of soaking in natural hot springs that overlook the ocean, and eating some of the freshest high grade tuna around, you may want to extend your trip a little longer!
So here’s everything you need to know about Wakayama, in case you’re thinking about adding a hidden gem to your Japan trip’s itinerary!
Wakayama is located about an hour south of Osaka, along the central coast area of Japan. It’s shaped kind of like a round nose that sticks into the ocean, meaning it has a ton of different beach areas, as well as mainland attractions as well.
You can actually fly straight into Kansai International Airport (KIX) in Osaka, then take a 45 minute train straight to Wakayama. Depending where you’re coming from, that flight might actually be cheaper than a flight to Tokyo. If not, there are options coming from Tokyo and Kyoto as well:
From Osaka: 40 min. 890 yen (~$8.90). JR Line or Nankai Railway from Kansai Airport to Wakayama Station
From Tokyo: 2 hours 30 minutes. JR Tokaido Shinkansen Line to Shin-Osaka from Tokyo Station. Then switch trains at Shin-Osaka Station to the JR Hanwa Line Limited Express to Wakayama Station (1hour).
It’s the staple icon of the entire area. You really can’t miss it once you get there, and it may be hard not to stare at it for a while.
Your inner-college-student will definitely appreciate that Wakayama is famous for its Ramen! There actually was a “Ramen craze” a few years ago that led to people lining up down the streets just to eat it! It’s died down a bit, I mean, how much Ramen can one person eat, amIright?! But it’s still a staple of the area, which even has its own Ramen maps and professional Ramen taxi guide drivers!
The traditional, and most popular type of Ramen consists of those delicious wavy noodles in a pork bone broth, topped with a ton of green onions. And when i say “a ton”, I literally mean, A TON. So come hungry and save your smooches for later!
An “Onsen” is a traditional Japanese public bath, which means, YUP! Everyone gets naked and bathes in the same tub! As odd and awkward as that might sound to you, it’s actually totally normal in Japan, and is what you’d find in any “Japanese style” hotel!
Yep. You read that right. Wakayama has a place where a famous cat named Tama is the official Train Station Master. Adorable mini-Station Master hat and all. If that doesn’t peak your interest, maybe the fact that this little cat in a hat solely tripled the touristic revenue for the quiet area will! Go see that cat!
As per usual, I did a ton of research on Wakayama, and carefully planned out my trip so that I saw everything that there is to offer in my secret little Japan gem. Here’s what I’d recommend according the each of the areas, which you can also see a map of above!
This is the main, downtown area, which is where most people work and go to school. It’s also where the main JR train station is (JR Wakayama) and likely where you’ll be getting off first.
Who doesn’t love visiting a castle?! You can’t miss this castle even if you try, because it’s perched atop of Wakayama’s Mt. Torafusu where it looks stunning both during the day, and lit up at night. Walk, bike, bus, or take a cab to get to one of its entrances, and follow the signs for the “New Back Path” to the castle.
If you’re going to see the Wakayama Castle, chances are your going to walk through the massive park that surrounds it, so you might as well stop at the cute Momijidani Gardens as well. There’s a cute pond, with an even cuter little tea house looking thing that sits atop of it, and the historic Ohashi Roka bridge over it.
I actually bought some food at the 711 across the street (HIGHLY recommend the packaged stack of pancakes, it’s actually two pancakes sandwiched together with syrup and butter in between) and ate my “breakfast” in the gardens before heading up to the castle.
The good news is that this place had the best sashimi I’ve probably ever tasted in my life. The bad news is that it’s mad expensive. I also stumbled into this place on accident without looking up the price or menu though, but still can’t complain because the food was so good! If you have the chance to wine and dine yourself, definitely check this place out!
This was another place I stumbled into on my initial search for a traditional bowl of Ramen, even though I had no clue what most of the menu said. The good new is that, in Japan, most of the menus include photos! So all you have to do is point, nod, smile, and say “Arrigato!”
Shopping Street: Even if you aren’t much of a shopper, Shopping Street is still worth taking a stroll (or bike ride) down. It actually reminds me of the famous shopping market in Kyoto, except of course, without the crowds. It’s literally across the street from the JR Wakayama station, so you can go before or after your visit. There’s also another little restaurant here I really liked called Watami, which had pretty much every food you’d ever want to try there, as well as reasonable prices.
A cozy little coastal area that slightly even reminds me of the PCH in Malibu, California! Go here for a relaxing stay at a hot spring hotel, and some always-needed beach time. There’s tons of quiet parks and neat looking shrines in this area too!
Perhaps one of the best highlights of my secret Wakayama, are the hot spring hotels that are located on the Japanese shores. I splurged for a night to experience Manpa Resort in Wakanoura, which sits atop a cliff overlooking the ocean. Also overlooking the ocean are the public and private baths (AKA onsens); meaning that one is for both men and women, and the others are separated.
Here’s a cute and peaceful little lake that makes for a perfect break if you’re riding your bike to Wakanoura! I rode my bike from the Wakayama Castle all the way to Manpa Resort, and stopped here for some photos and rest!
No matter which mode of transportation you use, you will definitely see the Kimiidera shrine as you pass it! It’s nestled in the side of the mountain, standing out in bright red amongst the dark green forestry. It’s a little bit high up, about 200 steps or so, but totally worth it for the view!
As the name implies, this area of Wakayama is basically a little island that’s one big marina and amusement park. It actually reminds me of Singer Island, Florida a little bit with its few colorful condo buildings (not sure who lives there though since the place was pretty quiet). There’s also a super scenic bridge that adds to the bright skyline from the beach across from it!
All of you Europeans may get a kick out of this (and Americans will probably love it), there’s a Europe-themed amusement park in an area of Wakayama called Marina City! The actual park is called Porto Europa, and it really only consists of a few little rides, a ferris wheel, a giant Pokemon, and adorable little furry animal-carts you can insert 200 yen into to ride around on.
Like a mini Tsukiji Market except you get three chances to see what I call the “tuna slaying” shows instead of just the one you have to wake up at the crack of dawn for. Yes, prices are still as expensive for a couple slices of tuna as they are at Tsukiji…but you’re in freaking Japan, so you might as well eat all the expensive high grade sushi you can get your hands on!
You can get a free sample of all of the locally grown fruit in the area at this little fresh fruit and grocery market in Marina City! Did I mention the word free? Who doesn’t love free samples?!
There’s a hot spring onsen right in the heart of Marina City, and you don’t even have to be staying at the hotel it’s located at to take a dip in it! After a full day of activities, you can simply purchase a day pass and relax your tired muscles in some warm mineral water. Disclaimer: You should be comfortable being naked (although the baths are separated for men and women), and unfortunately, you’re not allowed to go in if you have a tattoo…(ahem, me).
This is the area of the beach where I found the pretty blue mosaic tiled sidewalk! The shore was relatively clean and well kept, and there were several people out on kayaks, paddleboards, or wind kites.
Tama is a super quiet and quaint area that’s mostly popular because its station master is a cat named Tama! But the whole experience of getting there and visiting the feline celebrity makes is a fun little adventure worth taking!
These three trains are the only electric railway cars in the area, and each of them has a different theme and decor! I took the “Strawberry Train”, and as you can guess, it was decorated with strawberries, but there’s also a “Toy Train”, and the infamous “Cat Train” as well!
Yup. Tama the Station Master cat really does exist! She even lives at the train station behind a glass wall, and for special occasions she’ll even put on her Station Master hat! The entire Tama station is dedicated to this calico cat; from the museum and gift shop with Tama merchandise, to the entire cat design of the station!
Tama is also known for its strawberries, hence why that’s the theme of one of its Fun Trains! The strawberry field is just a short walk from Tama Station, in a rural area where you can also see the unique landscaping of Japanese houses! It wasn’t strawberry season when I was there (October), so I’m not entirely sure what the cost would be to pick them.
Tama also has a couple of cute parks that you can relax in, or have a bite to eat. There’s a couple cafes and restaurants sprinkled about the area, and even a riverfront park you can hang out at!
To be COMPLETELY honest with you…Japan can be expensive to get around in anywhere you go. Unless! You take local transportation and/or get savvy.
By Train: During my first trip to Japan, I learned how to use the rail system and it ended up saving me a lot of money, and actually being a lot of fun. There’s a few different train lines you can take in Wakayama depending on where you want to go, with the main ones being the JR line, and the Nankai line
By Bike: I noticed that my hotel offered free bikes when you stay there, so I spent most of my time in Wakayama exploring by bike!
By Bus: There are several bus stations throughout the area, and it only costs a couple dollars to use them. Grab a bus route map from the train station or your hotel, or use the Public Transit option on Google Maps to figure out which bus to take!
Walking: Walking is always the cheapest way to get around when things are close enough, and also the best way to really see the city!
As I mentioned before, staying in a hot spring hotel can be a reason itself to head to Wakayama, and there’s quite a few of them to choose from! But there’s also some cheaper options too! Since I was on a budget, I stayed at the cheaper hotel for three nights, then splurged on one of the fancy onsen resorts for one. The first two are where I stayed, and the rest are some local suggestions:
Smile Hotel Wakayama: So the name might sound a little sketchy, especially when you see it online for only about $41 a night! But I was actually EXTREMELY shocked with what (yet another) little gem I found! Aside from the free bicycle rental and fast wifi, this hotel is also literally across the street from the Wakayama Castle! I mean, check out the view I had from my room! They also offer breakfast on the rooftop with same view, and the whole staff was extremely friendly and helpful.
Manpa Resort: If you really want to feel a true Japanese experience, book a night at this hot spring resort. It’s not insanely expensive; one night for a huge room including tea room, plus balconies overlooking the ocean and a private bathroom was $200. It also included a welcome drink, seven course dinner, breakfast, and access to the natural hot spring onsens.
Disclaimer: This post is in collaboration with Wakayama City, Japan, however all thoughts, opinions, content, and photos are my own!