Destinations

A Path Less Traveled

Photographer Alex T. Thomas explores the hidden treasures of Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture.

The resting area in one of the two rooms available at Akiba Nanguan.
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I’VE BEEN LIVING in Japan for almost a decade now and I think of it as my home. Two years ago I was asked to be in a commercial for Wakayama Prefecture, the idea being to connect Tokyo and the Kumano area. Part of the goal of the commercial was to illustrate the amazing contrasts that exist within Japan. You can be in Tokyo, this amazingly futurist city, and then not far away you have all of this incredible natural beauty, which is what Wakayama is all about. It’s like the contrast between robots and ancient shrines. I was scouted pretty randomly to be in the commercial because someone thought I looked cool, which was shocking to me at the time because I had a shaved head and this very intense look. I was like, “Are you sure?” But I somehow got the approval. The premise of the commercial was that I was a photographer — which I actually am — and I was traveling between Tokyo and throughout Wakayama taking pictures. About a year after filming the commercial, the tourism board of Wakayama asked me if I’d like to come back and explore the area a little more. It’s quickly become one of my favorite regions of Japan.

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Rengejoin

When people visit Japan, they typically visit either Tokyo or Kyoto, which itself is a very quick flight from the city. Wakayama tends to get unfairly overlooked, but it’s the place I always recommend. Another thing that foreign visitors sometimes don’t realize is that, while Japan itself is very small — the entire country would basically fit inside of California — it’s also vast in its own way. The country is dense with beauty. Wakayama is considered this very mystical, spiritual place. There’s also an area that is a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site in Wakayama, and home to Japan’s tallest waterfall, Nachi Falls. Nearby is an equally historic place known as Koyasan, all contained in this area where you can do lots of amazing hikes and nature walks that people still follow from centuries-old pilgrimage paths. There is a very famous temple here, which many people refer to as the “holiest place in Japan,” a temple where the most famous Buddhist monk is said to have been meditating for centuries.

Koyasan is full of beautiful little temples, some of which you can stay at. We decided to spend a couple of nights at this really wonderful place called Rengejoin. Each morning we were invited to a 6 a.m. meditation and were then free to go off the premises and explore the surrounding areas. This particular temple is great for tourists because the head priest can speak a bit of English for the morning meditation, and provides you with stories and Buddhist fables to think about to help you start the day.

We were lucky enough to have one of the luxury rooms, which was in this incredible renovated space and included a huge ceramic tub that overlooked a private Zen garden. It was autumn when we stayed there, so the garden was filled with brilliant red and gold leaves. It makes sense that this is typically the time of year when many people visit Wakayama — the fall foliage, the temples — it’s just unbelievable. The temple stays in the area range from the traditional to the fancy, but everything tends to be very simple. Also, most places serve incredible locally sourced food that is vegan and exceptionally healthy and delicious. Regardless of your own religious beliefs, I think it’s easy to feel welcome and have a very spiritual experience there.

At Kongobu-ji head temple, we were given a tour by one of the monks, Kokan Nakamura, who was happy to answer any questions we had about the place and its history. When I asked him what had drawn him to the monastic life, one of the reasons he gave is that he once saw some anime that featured monks, and he thought the monks looked cool. I loved that. Eventually it became the thing he wanted to dedicate his life to.

Akiba Nanguan

After staying at a temple, I wanted to spend a night at a nearby ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese inn. While it’s not exactly a hotel, the ryokan offers a similar experience to staying at one of the temples, where breakfast and dinner are provided. But this particular place, Akiba Nanguan, surpassed all my expectations. The dinner we had there was easily one of the 10 best meals I’ve ever had in my life.

The inn is run by a woman named Chiyoko Shiromoto. She is both the artistic director of the space and the person responsible for doing all the cooking. Akiba Nanguan feels like a bed and breakfast in some ways, but there, the entire space feels very elevated — big open rooms that feel very expansive and austere. The decor in each room is an incredible balance of Japanese aesthetics mixed with modern touches. Every possible detail of your experience has been carefully considered, down to the pajamas provided in the room, which were made from locally sourced cotton, and were quite literally the softest thing I’ve ever put on my body.

Shiromoto’s family has worked in the hospitality industry for generations and her father ran the business until she eventually took over. Under Shiromoto’s care, the entire space was renovated by a noted Japanese architect, who transformed the property from an eight-room inn down to two, both of which are stunning. There are also two separate (and quite large) beautiful bathtubs for guests to switch between. Much like other places I’ve stayed in the area, all the food served here is locally grown and carefully prepared. As with all the other amenities, everything is meticulously curated — every dish, every utensil, even the menus were printed on a special kind of handmade artisanal paper. The place itself is located in a quiet out-of-the-way neighborhood, and it’s the kind of place you visit when you just want to relax, disappear for a little while, and be totally taken care of. I was so sad when it was time to leave.


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Chikuhou

Run by head chef Kazuya Takenaka, Chikuhou is one of the best restaurants in Wakayama and one of the first in the area to receive a Michelin star. Takenaka previously cooked in some of the finest luxury restaurants and hotels in Japan before eventually returning to Wakayama, where he’s originally from, to open his own place. The restaurant has been around for nearly a decade, but was renovated and reopened two years ago.

All the dishes here rely on local natural ingredients, and vary depending on the season and whatever happens to be available. Food is served in the kaiseki style — which means lots of small dishes presented together. Like so many other places I discovered in the area, Chikuhou is remarkably unassuming from the outside and located in a very off-the-beaten-path neighborhood near the water. From the outside it doesn’t really stand out, but then you go inside and it’s just this gorgeous dining experience. All the tableware is made by local artisans, who are famous in that area for producing these beautifully lacquered ceramics.

And then there’s the food itself. While we were there, the chef showed us how he smoked a tiny slice of fish by covering it with ferns and brush from outside. Then he would slice off a little piece and dab the perfect amount of sauce onto it and … I honestly don’t know how to describe it. It was just this taste and texture that I’ve never experienced before. Just so incredible. If you’re into food, you need to book a reservation here. It’s just the most amazing, unexpected hidden place with the most dazzling food you’ve ever tasted.


Takada Tawashi

I wanted to seek out some craftspeople and artisans to possibly interview and photograph while I was in Wakayama. And while there is no shortage of artisans making things in the area, particularly ceramics, I became particularly interested in this brand of household brushes called Takada Tawashi. They are essentially simple but beautifully made household brushes for sweeping or cleaning. The brushes are individually made from rare windmill palm fibers, which are sourced from within Wakayama Prefecture. Takada Tawashi makes a variety of brushes, but one in particular, the kitchen brush, was the recipient of a Good Design Award a few years ago and has since become this highly sought-after object. You can use the brush to clean anything, and it’s a great example of Japanese design in the sense that it’s both beautiful and super functional. The local brushes have become so beloved that there is a two- to three-year waiting list to get them.

While we were there, I was able to meet the son of the CEO, Daisuke Takada, who joined the family business a few years ago. He told us that he was initially very reluctant to take over the brush factory and had never intended to follow in his father’s footsteps. It was only after he embraced the role of traveling salesman that he came to embrace business, mostly because it allowed him to see the world. Now the brushes are hotly in demand, particularly in the U.K. since being championed by tastemakers and interior designers.

I didn’t realize what a small operation it was until we were allowed to peek inside the factory to take some pictures. We got to see Takada’s father basically handmaking some of the brushes, which helped me understand what a special — and tiny — company it actually is. Plus, they gave me one of the brushes before I left, and now I understand why people are so obsessed with them.

Kadocho Soy Sauce

There is a town in Wakayama that I was interested in called Yuasa, which is famous because it is known as the birthplace of soy sauce. As the story was told to me, soy sauce was created about 750 years ago when a priest went to China and returned with a very special kind of miso paste. People were experimenting with the miso paste and inadvertently ended up creating soy sauce. Nowadays, commercial soy sauce is made very quickly and involves chemicals that will aid in the fermentation. But true soy sauce — the real deal — is made here by Kadocho Soy Sauce in a factory dating back to 1841 that still does everything the original ancient way.

We were lucky enough to be given a tour of the factory, which has been run by the same family for nearly seven generations. Not only do they still do everything by hand — fermenting soybeans in these big wooden vats — they also have a little museum that shows you the history of the factory and all of the ancient wooden tools that have been used to make soy sauce. The factory rarely gives actual tours, so it felt very special that after tasting the soy sauce, we were allowed to glimpse behind the ancient wooden doors and see people working in these dimly lit rooms, tending to these huge pots of fermented soybeans with long wooden poles. It gave me a renewed appreciation for soy sauce, seeing all the care and dedication that went into making it.

I’ve been back to Wakayama at least three times now, but there is always so much more to see and discover. Tourists visiting Japan often get directed to the same places, like Tokyo and Kyoto, but there is so much more of Japan to explore. Aside from all the shrines and temples, Koyasan really is like nowhere else. There are huge moss-covered cemeteries and this landscape that creates a very “Spirited Away” feeling; you can really take in the magic of Japan surrounding you. Also, most people probably don’t realize that in addition to the mountains and the forests, not far away in Wakayama there are beautiful white-sand beaches. Not only can you experience a little bit of everything there, you can go back again and again to the same area, never quite having the same experience twice. It’s what I love about Japan.

Off the Beaten Path in Wakayama Prefecture

A traveling photographer shares her favorite spots in one of Japan’s less-traveled areas.

  • Rengejoin Temple

    At this temple stay you can enjoy meditative gardens, morning and evening prayer services, shojin ryori cuisine, and a calming, reflective space that is geared toward making you feel both calm and restored.

  • Chikuhou

    This Michelin-starred restaurant is truly one of Wakayama’s hidden gems. The locally sourced, seasonally inspired menus are prepared with incredible attention to detail.

  • Kadocho Soy Sauce

    Located in Yuasa, a town credited with being the birthplace of soy sauce, this humble factory produces what is widely considered to be the most delicious (and authentically produced) soy sauce in the world.

  • Niusakadono Shrine

    This smaller, off-the-beaten-path shrine features a giant 800-year-old ginkgo tree with bright yellow leaves, and a fabled horrific-looking sacred tree full of rusted sickles, which is behind the now-protected shrine.

  • Kadohama Gomatofu

    Every day there are lines around this building waiting to get in for lunch. Everything on the menu is made out of ground-up sesame seed with arrowroot, but is served in the form of what looks like tofu. Perfect for vegans, people with soy allergies (no soy!), or anyone who loves to eat delicious food with a jiggly texture. A Wakayama-region specialty dish.

  • Akiba Nanguan

    This Japanese inn provides a deeply restorative and exquisitely curated experience — two austere rooms with massive soaking tubs, incredible views, and incredible food offer a total retreat from reality.

  • Takada Tawashi

    For those who appreciate functionality paired with impeccable design, the household brushes created by Takada Tawashi — made famous for their use of locally sourced palm fibers — are highly sought-after and almost too beautiful to use.

  • Awashima Shrine

    This unique shrine, expressly for women, is located near the ocean. The shrine is known as being a place for discarding old dolls, and the entire premises is decorated with dolls and figurines.

  • Koyasan Guesthouse Kokuu

    A cheap and stylish way to stay in Koyasan, this guesthouse has precise and minimal architecture with cubby beds. (Three spacious private rooms are also available.) Don’t miss the owner’s delicious homemade curry for dinner, served in beautiful pottery.

  • Okuno-in

    Wakayama is full of many beautiful and large temples and shrines, but if there is only one place to go in Wakayama, do not miss Okuno-in in Koyasan. This moss-covered cemetery is filled with centuries-old trees surrounding the holiest place in Japan, where the monk who brought Buddhism to Japan, Kobo Daishi, eternally meditates.

  • Rengejoin Temple

    At this temple stay you can enjoy meditative gardens, morning and evening prayer services, shojin ryori cuisine, and a calming, reflective space that is geared toward making you feel both calm and restored.

  • Akiba Nanguan

    This Japanese inn provides a deeply restorative and exquisitely curated experience — two austere rooms with massive soaking tubs, incredible views, and incredible food offer a total retreat from reality.

  • Chikuhou

    This Michelin-starred restaurant is truly one of Wakayama’s hidden gems. The locally sourced, seasonally inspired menus are prepared with incredible attention to detail.

  • Takada Tawashi

    For those who appreciate functionality paired with impeccable design, the household brushes created by Takada Tawashi — made famous for their use of locally sourced palm fibers — are highly sought-after and almost too beautiful to use.

  • Kadocho Soy Sauce

    Located in Yuasa, a town credited with being the birthplace of soy sauce, this humble factory produces what is widely considered to be the most delicious (and authentically produced) soy sauce in the world.

  • Awashima Shrine

    This unique shrine, expressly for women, is located near the ocean. The shrine is known as being a place for discarding old dolls, and the entire premises is decorated with dolls and figurines.

  • Niusakadono Shrine

    This smaller, off-the-beaten-path shrine features a giant 800-year-old ginkgo tree with bright yellow leaves, and a fabled horrific-looking sacred tree full of rusted sickles, which is behind the now-protected shrine.

  • Koyasan Guesthouse Kokuu

    A cheap and stylish way to stay in Koyasan, this guesthouse has precise and minimal architecture with cubby beds. (Three spacious private rooms are also available.) Don’t miss the owner’s delicious homemade curry for dinner, served in beautiful pottery.

  • Kadohama Gomatofu

    Every day there are lines around this building waiting to get in for lunch. Everything on the menu is made out of ground-up sesame seed with arrowroot, but is served in the form of what looks like tofu. Perfect for vegans, people with soy allergies (no soy!), or anyone who loves to eat delicious food with a jiggly texture. A Wakayama-region specialty dish.

  • Okuno-in

    Wakayama is full of many beautiful and large temples and shrines, but if there is only one place to go in Wakayama, do not miss Okuno-in in Koyasan. This moss-covered cemetery is filled with centuries-old trees surrounding the holiest place in Japan, where the monk who brought Buddhism to Japan, Kobo Daishi, eternally meditates.

Our Contributors

Alex T. Thomas Writer and Photographer

Alex T. Thomas, a freelancer originally from Seattle, now calls Tokyo home. Thomas lives in Japan for access to the extreme contrasts of the urban Tokyo vibe and the spiritually filled countryside, and is always finding the magic in the mundane.

T. Cole Rachel Writer

T. Cole Rachel is the managing editor of Departures. A Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Interview, and the Creative Independent.

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