Nara, Koyasan, Wakayama, Kii and Ise Peninsular and Kyoto.
Kansai is Japan’s ancient heartland, with thousands of years of religious and political history. You can step back in time at Bhuddist temples of Nara and Koyasan. Relax in nature and breathtaking beauty of Wakayama and Mie Prefecture Ise Peninsular coast and mountains. Be charmed by historical capital Kyoto’s culture and food.
Note: This guide starts in Osaka but it is possible to start in Nagoya and it’s just a short drive to Ise from there.
Starting from our Osaka office drive to towards Nara. It’s only about 30 minutes by local road. Nara is centre for Buddhist enlightenment has many temple.
Gango-ji Temple is located to the south of the Sarusawa-no-ike Pond. It was founded in the late 8th century. It has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. The buildings of Nara feature white stucco walls and wooden lattice windows providing visitors with a warm impression of daily town life. This area, with its modern shops and cafes renovated from old houses is popular.
To the east is Nara Park and Mt. Wakakusa. The park contains Todaiji Temple and the Great Southern Gate plus many other buildings, lakes and wild deer that graze on the meadows.
Todai-ji Temple was built in the beginning of the 8th century and the current building is the worlds largest wooden construction. It is a World Cultural Heritage Site and head of 68 branch temple in Japan.
The center of worship is the statue of the Great Buddha was completed in 752AD and is a national treasure. At 14m tall it is the largest metal statue of the Buddha in the world.
From Nara take the Kyoto Naritai Expressway South for 1 hour towards Koyasan.
Drive up the mountain to Koyasan. Use Route 480 or Route 370 and then Route 480 for about 40 minutes.
The history of Koyasan dates back to the 8th century when monk Kobo Daishi studied Buddhism in Tang-dynasty China. He built Kongobu-ji Head Temple on Koyasan when he returned in 816AD. Many monks gathered as the place for learning the teachings of the Shingon-shu sect of Buddhism.
Surrounded by mountains on the peak of Koyasan there are more than 100 temples scattered throughout the area and other structures such as the 25 meter high Dai-mon Gate at the entrance.
Lodging facilities are provided by temples for the pilgrims and also for visitors. The meal served is Shojin-ryori. Consist of small plates of food using only vegetables, cereals and seaweed.
Caution: Mountain pass Route 480 and 370 has tight corners steep inclines. During bad weather expect fog, rain and snow. Drive with care at all times.
After spending the morning in Koyasan drive south east on Route 480 towards Aridagawa River valley. The road follows the fast flowing and blue waters down to coast and along the way watch locals pole fishing for Aiyu (freshwater fish) and working their terraced rice fields. Be sure to stop and take in the famous Aragi-jima Island rice field.
Follow the river towards the coast. As you get closer there are many fruit orchards growing mandarin (mikan) and plumb (ume). The area is said to be the starting place for production of soy sauce in Japan.
Use Route 480 and 42 for 1 hour and 30 minutes. Take a rest on the ocean at Shirasaki, a white cliff headland with natural sea caves and also a popular diving area. Shirasaki is on the Kii Peninsular and looking to the south you can see western most point, Hinomisaki .
The Enju Coast Nature Park covers the whole of the cape at a height of 200m above sea level. The area is a great place to watch sunrise and sunset or hike to Kii Hinomisaki Lighthouse .
Head south towards Shirahama. Use the Hanwa Expressway for a faster trip of 1 hour 15 minutes or 1 hour and 30 mutes on Route 42.
Shirahama Spa Park
Shirahama is known for its onsens but also natural beauty and is visited by a large number of tourists throughout the year. The white sand beaches and Sandanbeki Rock Cliff with 60 meter high walls extend 2 kilometers from south to north. Visit Engetsuto Island, an uninhabited rock isle with a round sea cave open in the middle of it and Senjojiki Rock Plateau, a huge multi-tiered rock that looks like a thousand “tatami” mat.
After a morning at the beach drive south along coastal Route 42 towards Kushimtoto and Cape Shionomisaki. The drive will take 1 hour and 40 minutes but is very scenic. The clear blue water of the pacific ocean meet rugged eroded coastline.
At the southern most point of the Kii Penisnular there is a warm ocean current that brings with it an abundance of sea life. Corals and tropical fish can be seen by glass bottom boat or at the Kushimoto Marine Park. Diving and fishing are of course popular activities.
From the tall cliffs of Cape Shionomisaki the lighthouse built in 1873 warns ships of the danger. This southern most point of Honshu is also a meeting point place of great ocean currents and watch the ships steam through the rough seas.
At Hashigui-Iwa parking area you can see another unusual rock formation. On the edge of the rock plateau in the ocean tall rocks stand in a row like piers of a bridge giving their name.
Stay at seaside free parking area with nearby hot spring bath house:
Continue on rugged coastal Route 42 through Taiji, famous for its history as whaling port and continued small scale whale and dolphin hunting activity. These days you can take a sight seeing boat from Kii-Katsuura to see whales and dolphins in their natural habitat. Best time to see whales is from spring to autumn.
Of course there is no shortage of seafood restaurant in the area and Kii-Katsuura is also renound for it abundance of onsen. Travel time from Kushimoto to Kii-Katsuura is about 40 minutes.
Another few more minutes drive is Nachi port. Turn into the mountains on Route 43 and to Nachisan . Nachi Waterfall is only another 10 minutes drive. The waterfall is the longest single drop fall in Japan at 133 meters high. The fall and surrounding forest have been a place Shinto religion worship for over 1,200 years and there are several shrine in the area including the Seiganto-ji Temple.
Drive back to the coast road and continue north to Shingu. It will take 20 minutes to get to this regional centre and from here drive into the mountains again on Route 168. Following the beautiful clear water of the Shingu River it will take about 40 minutes to reach Kawayu hot spring.
Kawayu is one of 3 onsen on these sacred mountains. Hot waters from deep below the Kii Mountain Range bubble up in the cool water. You can dig your own hot spring bath for warming up.
Yunomine Onsen was discovered over 1800 years ago and is famous for its healing powers. The small Tsuboyu Onsen is the only World Heritage registered in the world that you can bath in. Watase Onsen is one of the largest outdoor baths in Japan.
The rugged mountains of south eastern Wakayama have been a place of worship of nature for Shinto religion for thousands of years. The Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine is World Heritage registered. It is the head shrine of over 3,000 Kumano Shrines across the country and part of the Kumano Sanzan, the Three Grand Shrines of Kumano.
In the 11th century these Grand Shrines became a pilgrimage destination for the imperial family and aristocrats. From prehistoric times until now the Kumano area has been considered a place of healing and place of the gods.
Return to the coast via Route 168, 169 and 311. After 1 hour you will arrive at 22 kilometre long Mihama Beach. Smooth and rounded stones on the beach are called “Mihama koishi” and used for various purposes including go stones, accessories and garden stones. At the northern end of the beach the coast becomes rugged again and close to Kumano city is the remains Onigajo (Demon castle). Named from a legend that military commander Sakanoue Tamuramaro in 800AD concoured pirates feared as demons and later the castle was built. Caves of various sizes and strange rocks carved by the sea over many years look like contemporary artworks.
You have now entered Mie prefecture. Continue north on coast Route 42 and then Kisen Expressway for 1 hour to Kihoku city. From here start driving east on Route 260 towards Shima and Ise Peninsular. It will take about 2 hours on the scenic rural road, so stop at one of the many fishing cove village or sandy beach along the way for a break.
Turn onto Route 16 just after Minami Ise and then onto Route 167.
Shima Hanto Peninsular is separated from Ise by Ago Bay. The area is considered the Aegean of the east and there are some 90 islands. Famous for its pearling and lobster fishing industries, the blue waters, white sands and warmer than average temperatures make for a great getaway.
You can take short boat cruise from Kashikojima to a pearl processing factory.
Less than 1 hour drive north from here is Toba, also famous for it pearling history and abundance of fishing including abalone. Pearl Bridge connects the town and Mikimoto Shinju-to Island, the place where in 1893 Kokichi Mikimoto succeeded in culturing pearls for the first time in the world. There is a model factory and a pearl museum where you can watch a demonstration on collection and processing of pearls.
If you have time there is also the Toba Aquarium with more than 1,200 kinds of marine life.
Drive to Kyoto. Take Route 167 and 32 northbound for 30 minutes and get on the Ise Expressway for 1 hour. Then briefly on Higashi Meihan Expressway to Shin Meishin Expressway for 1 more hour to Kyoto.
Kyoto is the historical capital of Japan. From 794 to 1868AD it was the home of the imperial family except for a few periods. The city has been destroyed and rebuilt countless times but even now it is possible to find pieces of its past hidden away and today is still considered the cultural centre of Japan.
Park at the Times 24h parking area in central Kyoto. It costs 200 JPY per hour or 800 JPY 24 hours and you can walk to the Tobakaido train station in just 10 minutes.
From this one train line you can easily access all of the major attractions including Fushima-inari Shrine, Kiyomizu Dera, Gion and Kyoto Imperial Palace. There are so many places to see you can spend all day in the city.
Stay the night in the car park and bathe at hot spring bath house just a few minutes drive away,
Times 24 Parking Area
Warning: Do not park on the street as large fines will be given by the police.
If you prefer, there are campgrounds and free camping area at Lake Biwa. It is less then 1 hour drive from Kyoto east via Route 1.
Free parking area at parks along the east shore of the lake with toilet facility only. But you do not have to go far to find a hot bath.
Continue to explore Kyoto and surrounds. Return to the rental office via the Hashin Expressway and Second Keihan Road. No need to rush as it is only a 45 minute drive. Reflect on a great adventure and tell all your friends.