Wakayama - Something Different

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April 16th 2018
Published: April 16th 2018
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Off we go to the Pacific Coast once again...zipping through Osaka to the unsung city of Wakayama. Our Japan Rail line gives us a view of a peninsular town surrounded by waterways. It looks like a port town, and that working end is connected by several bridges to the core.

The train station is shocking to our systems for its lack of people, the streets and traffic likewise. Not many tourists have this spot on their itinerary and we’re asked more than once why we came here.

Our hotel has given us the gift of a ‘castle-view’ on the 15th floor - gazing over a pretty re-creation of another legacy of my favourite shogun, Wakayama Castle. Built on a hill in the middle of the city in the 1500s, it has a similar moat and sloped stone wall separating it from the town at large as did the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The result today is a peaceful and welcoming well-treed park and walking trail around the grounds, leading to the peak where the castle sits. We are struck in comparison with how little greenery we saw in Kyoto, except for the temple grounds.

As is the unfortunate shared history of these grand buildings, Wakayama Castle was hit with lightening and burned down centuries ago; was rebuilt with white plaster cladding in 1798 to protect against flames, but again burned in 1945 as the result of an air raid. The community rallied to have it rebuilt in 1958. No smoking or bombing please.

Not only is it a whimsical presence at the center of the city (as Emma calls it - a Kungfu Panda Palace), but it also has a outdoor walkway on its top floor giving a terrific view of the city, the ocean and the rivers. At six a.m. a group of people gather to do Tai Chi together on the grounds. Late afternoon a small group gathers to play drums and some string instruments together, and a women stops her bike to smell the latest blossoms. And at night, the flood lights elevate it even more. One of those historical places that has become a lively place for community.

Searching out how we should spend our only full day here - two good options are ruled out for practical reasons. One is Koyasen, a 1200-year-old centre for a sect of Buddhism. Out of town and with a climb up a mountain, you can stay overnight and taste the spiritual culture of the area. Second is one of the more famous onsens in Japan - one that is so close to the ocean the waves can spray you. Closed Mondays. Drats.

Instead, we take a bus a bit down the coast to visit Marina City, a odd collection of quirky ideas. A replica of European streetscapes, villas and bridges is there to meander around...a few stores at street level, but mostly like a movie set or a Vegas mock up. Behind that we find a permanent amusement park, with a log flume, a huge Ferris wheel and roller coaster - all on slow mo in this off season. A fruit market is there too, letting us load up on local oranges.

The most pleasant surprise there was the Kuroshio Fish Market. Known for demonstrations on how tuna, weighing hundreds of pounds, are cut down by skillful cutters, into sushi-sized pieces. We plant ourselves by the demo station to watch it unfold. Speaking only in Japanese, the knife-wielder explains his technique and holds up the most succulent pieces. When he lifts the slab that would be considered a side fillet on a small fish, the whole crowd gasps at the beauty and size of the meat. John picks up some tips for any bass filleting in our future.

The fish market itself stands elsewhere in the building. Stall owners were flogging their sea wares, some recognizable, some not. And one whole aisle had raw fish and veg on skewers or mixed in shells. Overhead a sign read, ”BBQ yourself”. Outside were picnic tables with a grill built in the table top. We picked out our choices, took our tray outside and barbecued with the best of them. One little girl came over and offered us a rice chip.

We have learned a few phrases that have received an inordinately warm welcome. One is ”thank you for your care of us”, another is “after you”, and our oft-used ”no problem” . Twice in the last few days, I was asked if I speak Japanese. Riotous. Several times people have turned around after our attempts at their language to dig out a small gift for us - twice a little origami piece, another time a nifty little thing to peel oranges. The kindness of people has been very special.

So, a castle, a tuna, a grill, no temples and some unexpectedly warm people moments. A most special off-the-track stay.

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