After a quick change-over in Shin-Osaka, we took a panda-themed train to Wakayama. Across the platform, ready to depart was an African wildlife themed train. So pretty compared to the graffiti-scrawls, we are used to on our trains in South Africa. The city of Wakayama welcomed us with decorated stairs showing a hint of the Wakayama Castle. It was a pleasant change of pace to be in a city that feels like a midsized town! We spent some time with another helpful lady at the J R service desk where she patiently reserved our seats from Kiikatsuura to Hiroshima as well as from Hiroshima to Fukuoka.
Like many Japanese stations, there was an intriguing complex of shops, grocers and restaurants.
We orientated ourselves on a ‘You Are Here’ map of the city and located our hotel, a straightforward 5-minute trundle away. The Dormy Inn is perfectly located. We were too early to check in, but they stored our luggage and we sat in comfy seats in reception and charged our phones, googling the area. Geoff suggested that as it was a lovely sunny day and because we had time to make an early train, we could fit in the activity he’d planned for the following day.
We dashed back to the station. I was so excited. We were off on an adventure to meet a cat who is in charge of a railway station. You can read more about our visit here.
Tama was a female calico cat who gained fame for being appointed station master and operating officer at Kishi station on the Kishigawa Line and revitalising the operation through a surge in tourism.
The station was near closure in 2004 because of financial problems on the rail line. Mr Koyama, the informal station master, pleaded with Mitsunobu Kojima, president of Wakayama Electric Railway, to allow the cats to remain living inside Kishi Station. Kojima, seeing Tama as a maneki-neko (beckoning cat), agreed to the request. “Nekonomics” refers to the positive economic impact of having a cat mascot. A study estimated that the publicity surrounding Tama has contributed 1.1 billion yen to the local economy.
We visited Kishi station and the shrine and museum to the late Tama and then tracked down his successor, Nitama, who was “on official business” at a nearby station. We enjoyed riding around, switching between the themed strawberry and the plum train and laughing with the children in the Tama “cat” train.
We were back in Wakayama by sunset.
We decided to explore the food offerings in the inspiring food halls of the station complex. The one that appealed the most was called K’ntetsu. We entered through the glossy, scented perfume and makeup counters, which made me think nostalgically of our grand old Stuttafords department stores.
The range of goodies and value for money excited us so much that we were determined to buy some treats for our brunch the next day. But first we needed to establish if our room had a refrigerator.
We were overwhelmed by three things: the quality, the variety and the affordability. Fresh crab, salmon, prawns, sushi in the chilled section and bao pork buns, gyoza, shrimp shumai being produced for lengthy queues in exquisitely packaged takeaway boxes. You could also buy crumbed or tempura anything!
We decided that we would select some things for brunch the following day, if our room had a bar fridge.
Once we had checked on to our lovely room, we saw that Yes! We had a bar fridge. We headed for the station shopping complex in order to stock up on the enticing goodies we’d seen earlier.
Our eyes were bigger than our tummies. I had a craving for potato salad and ordered a ready made portion.
On closer inspection it turned out that I’d ordered prawns 😂. Fortunately, I am not one to turn my nose up at a portion of prawn mayo. We also picked up some dim sum and a crumbed asparagus, ham and cheese roll thingy and some fresh tomatoes. We walked back to our hotel (it was finally raining!) and popped the cold items into the fridge for the following day.
Geoff’s research for the perfect dinner led us to seek out Ide Shoten, a ramen noodle place that famously won the accolade of Best Ramen…Out of tens of thousands of ramen restaurants, it was picked as the country’s most delicious during a high-profile New Year’s Day broadcast of the popular television (According to www.livejapan.com). The name “Wakayama ramen” was first used in 1998 when the Ide Shoten ramen shop won TV Tokyo’s New Year’s “TV Champion Japan’s Best Ramen Decision Battle.” The winning entry was introduced as “Wakayama ramen” causing a boom in the dish’s popularity.
Ide Shoten’s ramen is made with pork bone and soy sauce broth, and although many other shops also sell the characteristic brown soup, this one is known for it’s own unique flavour.
It was a short walk around 6 blocks from our hotel.
Ide Shoten is a very small family run restaurant with amazingly fast service. When we arrived around 6h30, the place was already packed and running a queue, which quickly lengthened behind us. But it didn’t take long before we were ushered in to sit at a counter, side-by-side. We ordered the famous ramen with extra pork and extra noodles to share for Y900. We also ordered an egg each. Around us everyone was slurping noisily from their big bowls of ramen. Before long we joined them and pronounced the dish – delicious!! The restaurant supplied us with water but no alcohol is offered here.
We decided to take advantage of our hotel Onsen (hot spring).We were provided with pajamas for lounging around the hotel and up to the Onsen. It is such a funny thing how quickly it becomes normalised to wander around a public building in your PJs.
I was provided with a security code for the women’s onsen. Men and women are separated as you are required to be naked. It takes some getting used to, but once you have completed the ritual of showering (more or less in full view of everyone) before sliding into one of the steaming pools, you can’t help but relax. My skin felt amazing afterwards. No need for creams and lotions. So there might be a lot of truth in the restorative nature of the water.
Afterwards we relaxed and ate far too many of the complimentary ice cream lollies on offer. Despite this we slept like babies!
After an evening of rain, it was deliciously cooler when we emerged from our hotel and headed for Wakayama Castle. For the first time we could see the autumnal leaves swirling around and began to think that perhaps we might catch a bit of Fall. We managed to catch a bus to the castle, saving our steps for the substantial grounds.
Watching high over the city from a hill, Wakayama Castle was originally built in 1585 and was the residence of the lords of Kishu in the Edo period. The castle was destroyed by fire when it was bombed during the Pacific War and was reconstructed in 1958.
The astounding curved stone walls are original, and were designed to fit the contours of the hill.
The gardens are extensive and beautifully designed around the waters of the moat and lake.
A lot of the museum displays and information are only in Japanese so Google lens came in handy to get the gist of what was being explained.
The slanted bridge is actually a wooden corridor that was built so that only the feudal lord and his attendants could go back and forth between Ninomaru and Nishinomaru, and not be seen from the outside. As part of the Wakayama Castle development plan, Wakayama City has been conducting historical material research and excavation surveys since 1999 to restore the Ohashi Corridor, and rock stones and roof tiles have been unearthed from the bottom of the moat. We had to remove our shoes to shuffle across the smooth wooden floor of the corridor.
During the Edo period, Wakayama Castle was called Kaki-jo (Kaki Castle). When seen from the sea, the layout of the buildings resemble a tiger lying in wait. This bronze statue, named after Wakayama, was built in 1965. 🐅
By this time of the (late) morning we were beginning to mourn our stash of food in our fridge. We had underestimated how long we would spend simply strolling around and enjoying the peaceful surroundings. We were having so much fun admiring the old trees and the stone staircases leading up the castle walls. What a perfect place it would have been for a picnic!
We came across a magnificent display of chrysanthemums. This is the national flower of Japan and a symbol of Autumn. There were representations of all the art-forms. You can read more about the significance of the humble chrysanthemum here.
We finally dragged ourselves away from the castle grounds after watching the cute antics of some children who were clearly on a school outing visiting the castle.
By now we were starving. We decided to head back to our favourite shopping complex near the station and get ourselves an early lunch. It was doing a roaring trade as always. Ironically we chose many of the items sitting in our hotel fridge, but we knew they would not be wasted. Besides, steaming hot shrimp shumai and freshly baked pork bao buns with broccoli and scallop salad and fresh orange juice….could not be improved upon.
After lunch, we strolled home, excited to see that thunder clouds were building and that rain could be anticipated. We noticed some Christmas lights being installed. Back at the hotel we enjoyed a relatively lazy afternoon, we did a spot of washing, had an Onsen and ate more chocolate-coated ice lollies , relaxed, blogged, and organised photos, before heading out into the damp evening in search of dinner.
Geoff had done some googling and found a restaurant that was recommended by someone who hadn’t managed to get into Ide Shoten.
It was raining as we left our hotel and we were able to use our recently acquired umbrellas.
Sarashina Honten restaurant had fake food window displays with prices. Google lens didn’t shed much more light, other than to clarify “chicken” or “pork”. It was vey hard to tell what the dish would come with in terms of rice or noodles and sauces. There were no new-fandangled menu ordering machines in sight here! Sarashina Honten is classic, local Japanese restaurant. It seemed to be a family-run operation. There were a couple of ladies chopping and slicing ingredients. An older gent on the opposite side was frying something that smelt delicious. And a younger gentleman stirring some pots and plating orders.
We were warmly received by a young lady, who welcomed us inside, dripping umbrellas and all. She showed us to a booth and brought us some green tea. We observed the locals, slurping heartily over enormously loaded plates. We stared at the menu and attempted some further Google lens translations, but they weren’t hugely enlightening. Our waitress went outside with Geoff to help him choose from the replica meals displayed in the window. We ordered beer and I had the Oyakodon (chicken and egg bowl). Geoff chose the katsedon pork cutlet. As always the meal came with a bowl of delicious miso soup and a tiny side of pickles. We decided to have a Kirin beer.
I think I made the best choice of meal as it was delicious. Geoff pronounced his not bad and instead salivated over the neighbour’s curried beef dish, which seemed to be the house speciality given the number of people who ordered it. Maybe next time!
We strolled back to the hotel, and enjoyed a delicious onsen. We’re becoming accustomed to the idea of soaking our muscles in the hot water and relishing the silkiness of our skin thereafter.
Last night in Wakayama, some packing to do and to remember to take our stash of goodies from the fridge so that we can breakfast in style on the next leg of our journey!