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The misty mountains of Wakayama


By SPP Reporter


The entrance gates to Koyasan temple complex, with the author showing his official armband allowing photography
The entrance gates to Koyasan temple complex, with the author showing his official armband allowing photography

Kiri no Yama, or the misty mountains, describes the inland area. It is row upon row of green mountains, with winding narrow valleys and small towns. The main road and railway skirts along the coast, past beaches and small fishing ports. There is lots to explore in this Prefecture, with a total population of just over 1 million people, of whom 364,000 live in Wakayama city.

Wakayama city suffered, as so much of Japan did, from carpet bombing by the Americans in World War ll. With the traditional Japanese house being made of wood, in close proximity to its neighbours, intensive incendiary bombing destroyed whole towns and cities. With the city being flattened, post war reconstruction had to use speed and concrete, so the city has no old town centre or ancient buildings - apart from the famous castle.

This castle was started in 1585, and built on a natural hill with a river to divert to provide a moat, which is a maximum of 73 metres wide. The castle has been enlarged, burned, rebuilt, over the centuries. In 1871 the feudal system was abolished and around 1901 the castle was opened to the public, being classified as a historical monument in 1931. It suffered badly from WW2 bombing but was rebuilt again as close to the pre-war condition as possible. Today it is a wonderful place to explore. As you walk up the stone paths to the castle, you can pass the small zoo, the lake and the ornate garden, which has typically Japanese elegant trees and plants. In the autumn it is a riot of pink Maple leaf blossom, in the spring a dense carpet of cherry blossom.

The author inside the ancient tea room - unable to sit cross legged, I was given this box to sit on
The author inside the ancient tea room - unable to sit cross legged, I was given this box to sit on

The main part of the castle is a series of rooms connected by corridors form-ing a hollow square, with great views out over the city. The different periods of construction are visible in the massive stone walls. The earliest ones are made from rubble, just piled up, then come stones roughly shaped and held in place by small stones, then finally the stones that were cut to precise shapes and fit together perfectly without mortar.

One unique feature is the Ohashiroka bridge. This is a covered wooden bridge that is diagonal and sloping, over part of the moat. This bridge was designed to let the Lord and his Ladies pass from one side to the other with-out being seen by the peasants. The bridge was rebuilt in 2006. When you cross it now, you have to remove your shoes. Plastic bags are provided for you to carry your shoes across. Hygiene is assured by walking through disin-fectant mats at each end.The floor is wooden planks placed one on top of the edge of the other, so that it can be difficult walking if you don't keep within the plank area!

The entrance to Wakayama castle
The entrance to Wakayama castle

An interesting feature in the park outside the Okaguchi - mon gate is a tram car plinthed under a protective roof. This is one of the tram cars that used to run in Wakayama, it is a pity that the system was closed down. Next to it is a preserved massive steam engine. This used to operate from Wakayama de-pot. It is in excellent condition and it would be great to see it in operation! However, at least the two machines are well looked after.

Nearby is the typical Japanese restaurant Agura, see www.agura.jp/en/ The wood decor is typical, and the food excellent.

The lord of the Kishi domain, Harutomi Tokugawa, in 1818 decided to have another garden built with a tea room for his private use. This is at Yosui-En, on the edge of the city, beside the sea. The 33,000 square metre garden con-tains 10,000 square metres of pond, all extremely carefully shaped to give restful views.The tea house is the oldest in the Prefecture, and is classified as a national monument. The Shogun could sit here and the view is just so peaceful and beautiful, facing exactly the right direction to have the water, trees and distant mountains in perfect harmony. The water is sea water! The water level therefore rises and falls with the tides, but not to any great de-gree. There are grey mulletin the pond, and at one edge I saw shoals of oysters. It is an oasis of calm, harmony and tranquility in the city.

Wakayama is a great place to use as a base to explore. The main railway station has several platforms, and the farthest one, number 9, is where the colourful trains of the Wakayama Electric Railway run to Kishi. The little two car trains are refurbished to a wonderful extent. The end station at Kishi (around a relaxing 25 minute ride) became famous for its cat station master. The train I rode on is painted to look like a cat! There are over 100 cats painted on the outside, and cat themes inside. The original cat passed on, to-day there are two, one at Kishi and one at the half way station too! They are so popular. The station building at Kishi even looks like a cat! It says "Tama" (the name of the cat) on the roof rather than the name of the place, and the shop and cafe sell cat souvenirs. The other trains on this line are also colour-fully face lifted and are a pleasure to ride in.

People come from miles to photograph the famous cat station master on the Wakayama Electric Railway
People come from miles to photograph the famous cat station master on the Wakayama Electric Railway

There is another station, Wakayama Shi (meaning town station). Here yet another railway has trains painted up in bright colours - this time featuring fish - sea bream! The grab handles are shaped as crabs, shells, and fish! The upholstery is different shades of blue with fish motifs everywhere. The interi-ors are to a very high standard. The doors have shoals of small fish painted on them, and as they slide open, it looks like the wee fish are being swal-lowed by the big sea bream on the coach side! This train, also around half an hour journey, takes you to Kada.

Kada is a quaint old Japanese fishing town. There are small shops and nar-row streets. There is a Shinto shrine, Kada Kasuga - Jinja, from the 16th cen-tury. This is wooden, carved in intricate details and a national heritage site. Closer to the sea is another shrine, Awashima-Jinja. This is famous through-out Japan. It is popular for women who have gynaecological problems. Dolls are brought here, or sent, with prayers. The dolls are everywhere, thousands of them. Once a year they are taken out to sea, but these days, not cast adrift, but returned to land for ceremonial burning.

The harbour is still used by fishing boats, so the fresh fish restaurants are very popular and one of the best is Inasa.

From the port, regular boats (about 40 feet long) go to the island of Tomoga-shima. It takes about half an hour. The island was used for military purposes, but today is a wild life haven. (Including poisonous snakes, or so it says, I never saw one!) The old fortifications and gun emplacements are massive. It is a peaceful hike over the hills of the island, and you come across a very British looking lighthouse - built by Richard Henry Brunton who came from Muchalls, Fetteresso, in Kincardineshire! He built a great many lighthouses all around Japan in the 19th century.

After a day at the sea side and a boat trip, it was good to return on the train to my hotel Granvia, www.granvia-wakayama.co.jp/english/index/html It is actu-ally part of the man railway station and shopping centre. These hotels are throughout Japan, usually at railway stations and are top quality and good prices too. For my evening meal I went to a typical Japanese sushi restaurant, excellent quality and the price was very good indeed. It was packed with locals and families, which is always a good sign.

There are so many interesting places to visit. Koyasan was next on the plan. This is a 1200 year old Buddhist temple complex high on a mountain. It can be reached by train and bus, bus all the way, or by a winding road that seems to go uphill for at least half an hour. Koyasan is a flat area surrounded by eight hill tops, like the petals of a lotus flower, with plenty of water running down from these hills. It was an ideal place to build temples and shrines. In 815 Kobo Daisha was granted permission to build here. It is a peaceful place, far from centres of population. Today there are 117 temples here. 52 of them provide accommodation. This comes in various forms, from simple dormito-ries to western style bedrooms. See www.shukubo.net for details. Koyasan is the world centre for Shingon Esoteric Buddhism. There are many monks liv-ing and working here today, a thriving community, and visitors come from all over the world. There is a bus park for the many day trippers, and all the facilities you would expect. However, this doesn't detract from the peace, clean fresh air, and tranquility of the majestic temples and ancient trees.

Awashima shrine at Kada, with its amazing collection of dolls
Awashima shrine at Kada, with its amazing collection of dolls

There is so much to do and see in Wakayama Province. There is white water rafting on the rivers that rush down between the green mountains, and hot water "Onsen" to experience too. These are natural hot mineral springs. Ja-pan sits on the junction of three tectonic plates, so is prone to earthquakes and has these hot springs in many places. You can sit in them, or even boil eggs in them! They are a great purifying experience for many Japanese. Then there are some super beaches with sea bathing and islands to explore. There are gardens and shopping centres, parks and markets. There are festi-vals throughout the year, and everywhere wonderful food.

Wakayama is a great place to visit, check out here.



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