Last Updated: Jun 25, 2023
Welcome back to yet another one of my Japan area guides. Like with all other installments, we’ll be taking a look at an oft-neglected part of the country. This time, the topic at hand will be Wakayama’s hot spring town of Shirahama. Literally meaning “White Sandy Beach,” this onsen resort has been both extremely relevant historically as well as during the modern era. Located only around 100 kilometers south of Osaka, Shirahama is a great addition to many Kansai region itineraries (especially for those of you looking to tackle some of the Kumano Kodo).
At least as far as we can tell, the first mentions of Shirahama date from as far back as a millennia ago. As I just wrote in a recent article on Oiwa Shrine though, this period of Japanese history is rather problematic for those attempting to study it. You see, the written word only really first entered Japan via the teachings of Buddhism. As a result, we don’t have many reliable references dating from before the arrival of Buddhism that aren’t mytho-history. Likely, Shirahama evolved as a hot spring escape in lockstep with the area’s rise to prominence.
While Shirahama’s historical legacy may indeed be a bit of a question mark, its time in the present-day limelight is well known. Thanks to its proximity to the city of Osaka, Shirahama has evolved to be one of the largest three onsen collectives in all of Japan (an honor that is shared with Beppu in Oita and Atami in Shizuoka). While not the most homely of hot spring towns, Shirahama’s resort vibe is really great for large groups of travelers. Also, should you happen to come during the summer holidays, you’ll get to see an amazing fireworks show too — something Osakans often make day trips for.
All things considered, while I can’t say that Shirahama is my favorite of all of the hot springs (it has too much of a “resort” energy to it to take that title), it certainly is one that is worth visiting if you are planning on exploring Wakayama. Whether before or after a trying trek along the Kumano Kodo, a trip to Shirahama will be a rejuvenating experience. Definitely consider checking it out if you ever happen to find yourself down in this bucolic part of Japan. I promise that it will be a great addition to your travels!
How to Get There
Let’s take a quick second to cover some key logistics. As noted above, Shirahama is located around 100 kilometers to the south of Osaka. This means that it’s pretty easy to reach for those of you already in Kansai. All you need to do is take one of the Kuroshio limited express trains down to the JR Shirahama Station. As always, refer to a service like Jorudan for more accurate schedules but all in all, this leg of the journey from Osaka should clock in at no more than two and a half hours.
If you’re coming from somewhere else, know that the easiest way to reach Shirahama is to just take a flight to the Nanki-Shirahama Airport. Found but a mere stone’s throw from Shirahama Beach, the journey by airplane is far more expedient than any other alternative. Though this does mean that you can’t milk your Japan Rail Pass for all that it’s worth, it will skip a lot of the headaches otherwise involved in getting there. You can just simply start your adventure off from the airport.
Though there may be many ways of reaching Shirahama, my favorite way to travel is to take the Nanki limited express train from Nagoya Station to Kii-Katsuura on the southern part of the Kii Peninsula. From there, you’d want to first visit Kumano Nachi Taisha (and maybe even some of the other Kumano Sanzan shrines) before taking a Kuroshio limited express train all the way over to Shirahama. While this does indeed mean you’ll be on a train for many hours, it also allows you to see much more along the way.
Note that my aforementioned recommendation also combines quite well with a trip to Mie Prefecture. I’ll cover what I would suggest pairing with Shirahama in the Other Nearby Attractions section at the end of this article. For now though, just know that both the JR Shirahama Station and Nanki-Shirahama Airport are about 10 minutes or so from the central areas of the town. Thus, you’ll need to take a quick bus ride to get to where the action is down by Shirahama Beach.
Waltz Along Shirahama Beach
Most of the points of interest in town can be found along Shirahama Beach. The 640-meter-long white sandy beach is considered to be one of the most popular of its kind in all of Kansai. Every year during the months of July and August, residents of Osaka and the like flock to Shirahama Beach. Hot springs aside, this is one of the other reasons why the onsen town is so beloved by the people of western Japan. After all, unlike with Kanto, there are few other summertime alternatives nearby.
Now, many of the large resort hotels in Shirahama can be found within a short walk of Shirahama Beach. As a way of entertaining those spending the night, the local powers that be often hold firework displays. A common way of enjoying Shirahama Beach is to catch a glimpse of the setting sun from the sandy sidelines, crack open a cold one and then sit back and relax while awaiting the show.
In addition to the white sandy beach and souvenir shops, Shirahama Beach is also home to a few public bath houses. The most notable of these are Shirasuna and Saki-no-yu. Shirasuna can be found directly along Shirahama Beach and has an open air bath that is visible from the ocean. Due to being in plain view, it’s necessary to enter in a bathing suit lest you flash your private parts at everyone playing in the sand. Though a bit odd for onsen, this is actually a great way to wash away that salty, post-swim ick (and yes, you need to shower before going in).
While Shirasuna is a product of Shirahama’s popularity in the modern era, Saki-no-yu is anything but. Allegedly dating back over 1,000 years, Saki-no-yu has been mentioned in some of the oldest historical texts we have for Japan. Located right along the rocky seashore, Saki-no-yu has a pair of open air baths that look right out on the Pacific Ocean. If you want to experience a piece of Shirahama’s long legacy, you absolutely cannot afford to sleep on Saki-no-yu!
Should you come by Saki-no-yu, be sure not to miss Shirahama Midsea Observation Tower CORAL PRINCESS. While a bit of a mouthful to say, this spire can be found here, 100 meters off of the shore behind Shirahama Key Terrace Hotel Seamore. Via the tower, you can submerge yourself below sea level and peak through as many as 12 portholes and observe the ocean floor. If you’re lucky, you may catch a number of fish and other aquatic critters swimming by.
Nearby Shirahama Beach, you’ll also find the town’s gourmet Ginza street. Not to be confused with THE Ginza back in Tokyo, this part of Shirahama has a mind-boggling number of delicious eateries and other after hours spots. Should you not be staying at one of the all-inclusive resorts, this is where you’ll want to head to get some din din. Unfortunately, I was just coming from my grueling misogi on the Kumano Kodo so I ended up eating nearby Kii-Tanabe before taking the local bus to the Shirahama Bus Center.
By the way, did you know that Shirahama Beach actually shares a sister beach relationship with Waikiki Beach in Hawaii? Given that this Pacific Ocean-beach is so well known, it’s a shame that its partner in Wakayama Prefecture doesn’t have more publicity. Also, the white sand from which Shirahama derives its name came from Australia’s Gold Coast making it quite the international place.
Shirahama’s Rock Formations
There are many a tourist attraction in Shirahama but some of the most scenic spots are the town’s amazing rock formations. Essentially Mother Nature’s works of art, the following three recommendations are what I would consider the highlights of Shirahama’s beautiful scenery. Though you’ll likely need a rental car or bicycle to see all three of them in a reasonable timeframe (unless you really like walking), Engetsu Island is at least reachable on foot from Shirahama Beach.
- Sandanbeki Cave
Comprising a trio of steep cliffs, this large network of caves extends down to the water level. After taking an elevator, visitors will be able to explore the network of multiple tunnels inside of the Sandanbeki Cave and also see a shrine inside too.
Meaning “One Thousand Tatami Mats” in Japanese, this formation takes its name from its appearance. Looking like a thousand tatami mats, Senjojiki is a photogenic spot in Shirahama that many people like to watch the sunset from. All things considered, it’s quite the scenic area to say the least!
- Engetsu Island
Almost iconic of Shirahama, Engetsu Island can be found a few minutes away from Shirahama’s iconic white-sand beach. As can be seen in the photo above, the land mass has a unique shape that attracts all sorts of cameramen. Especially when the setting sun can be seen through the round hole, Engetsu Island makes for great content for the Gram!
While none of the above three are really must visits if you’re just coming to Shirahama for an onsen resort reprieve, they do help to round out the experience. Should you want to wander about and explore what Shirahama has to offer, by all means consider checking out one or more of these magnificent natural masterpieces.
Add-on an Amusement Park
OK, so… Shirahama is oddly home to a number of attractions that you normally wouldn’t find at other hot springs in Japan. Especially for those of you traveling with families though, a trip to an amusement park combined with a soak in a large bath at the Shirahama onsen section makes for the perfect combo. In the spirit of transparency, I’ll be frank that it is a bit scary writing about the following spots as I didn’t opt to check them out myself so do a bit of research on your own if any of these tickle your fancy.
For what it’s worth, know that Shirahama is actually home to more than just one amusement park. Established right in the middle of the Shirahama Onsen area, you’ll first find the quirky Shirahama Energy Land. The entrance fee is pretty steep at 2,000 yen per head and the space seems to have all sorts of interactive options for the kiddos. Though somewhat out of date, Shirahama Energy Land is still nonetheless enjoyable for families visiting this part of Japan.
The real allure in Shirahama is Adventure World. Though a bit removed from the Shirahama onsen area and its famous white beach, this amusement park has everything you could ever want. In addition to the standard rides like a Ferris wheel and roller coasters that you’d expect, Adventure World is also home to an animal section. Quite the rarity, this part of the park boasts some giant pandas as well as a dolphin friendly pool. The price of admission will set you back 4,800 yen per person with the last entry being at before 5 PM.
On Maguro & Museums
In addition to the beloved, open-air baths of the Shirahama onsen part of town and the quirky amusement parks mention above, there are still a few more spots worth mentioning in Shirahama. Like with the rock formations, these are by no means “must visits,” not by any stretch of the imagination. Remember, this is first and foremost a resort getaway. Still, if you’re hankering for something else to do in Shirahama and don’t have kids to entertain, I have a few more suggestions for you.
The first of these is Toretore Market Nanki-Shirahama. Found closer to Shirahama’s train station than the parts of town by the sea, this giant fish market is run by the local Katata Fisher’s Cooperative. Hard to match its size in Kansai, Toretore Market Nanki-Shirahama is one of the largest establishments of its kind in western Japan. Inside, you can shop for all sorts of seafood and even watch a tuna carving show if you’re lucky. Since it’s too far to walk to, be sure to take a local bus over if you’re interested.
If seeing the day’s fresh catch get chopped up doesn’t do it for you, know that you can also swing by any one of Shirahama’s museums. I’ll leave a short blurb along with a Google Map link below in case any of these are your shtick…
- Minakata Kumagusu Museum
Situated to the north of Shirahama’s famed beach, the Minakata Kumagusu Museum curates a number of displays on Minakata Kumagusu, a renowned writer and scientist from Wakayama Prefecture. Admission will set you back as much as 600 yen so I’d only ever recommend the facility for hardcore fans of his work.
- Onsen Shiryokan
This one is only for the Japanese speakers out there. The various displays, exhibits and videos explain the science and history of hot springs in Japan. While interesting, the language barrier will likely mean that it isn’t worth the time for most international visitors.
- Kishu Museum
During Japan’s past, Kishu was the name of the province that roughly overlaps with Wakayama Prefecture today. This small museum exhibits a number of prints, personal artifacts and other such treasures that are related to the Wakayama of old. Consider swinging by if you want to learn more about the prefecture’s past.
Personally, I elected to skip the museums entirely this time. Normally, I am a sucker for learning more about the history of Japan but none of these really did it for me. Instead, I just spent more time aimlessly trodding about the town and taking in the vibe. That said, I wouldn’t fault you for checking out one or two of the above options while in Shirahama.
Other Nearby Attractions
When it comes to other things to see and do near Shirahama, know that you are truly spoiled for choice. Here, I need to be really careful that this section doesn’t turn into an area guide of its own. There are simply so many spots that pair well with Shirahama that the number of suggestions could easily spiral out of control. So, in the interest of keeping this as brief as I can, I am going to rely on you, the reader, to follow up on my one liners with your own research. Where possible, I’ll link to my prior work to make it a bit easier for you.
First things first, know that no mention of add-ons to Shirahama would be complete without highlighting the Kumano Kodo. In fact, two of the five routes that comprise the network have their terminus point near Shirahama. From ancient times, pilgrims going to the trio of Kumano Sanzan shrines have descended from the Kansai region to Shirahama before embarking on their journey. Should you wish to follow in their footsteps, I suggest taking the Nakahechi which cuts through the mountainous core of the Kii Peninsula.
A full deep dive into the Kumano Kodo and its various routes is far beyond the scope of this article on Shirahama. That said, if you want to take it slow, the route via the Nanki limited express trains that I mentioned above is a great way to cross off the iconic Kumano Nachi Taisha. Found way down on the southern part of the peninsula, this shrine with its iconic falls is a bucket list item for many returning visitors to Japan. If you’re willing to put up with a bit of time on the train, you can easily pair it and Hayama Kumano Taisha with Shirahama.
Additionally, the Nanki limited express trains also pass through many of the notable parts of Mie Prefecture. Thus, you could in theory make use of a go-stop-go style of traveling whereby you take the train from Nagoya to Toba to see the ama divers and Ise Jingu before continuing on to Kii-Katsuura. The only thing you need to be mindful of is that there are only four of these trains per day with the final one for Kii-Katsuura leaving Nagoya as early as 12.58 PM.
Due to the comically early last train, I suggest that you look to do Mie’s attractions on day one and then either overnight nearby or take a Nanki limited express to Shingu Station (where you can see Kumano Hayatama Taisha). Unlike with the ones that go all the way to Kii-Katsuura Station, the last train going as far as Shingu leaves Nagoya much later at 7:47 PM. So, you can catch this down to Shingu Station after exploring Mie, crash at the hotel and then head off to see the Kumano Sanzan in the morning.
Regardless of what you end up doing in addition to Shirahama though, one point that I absolutely need to hammer home is that you need to be mindful of your connections when traversing the Kii-Peninsula. I’ve laid out some tips for countryside travel here but you absolutely must plan your trains ahead in advance. Missing one by just a few minutes can easily cost you upwards of an hour on a good day. So that you don’t end up in a logistic pickle, do yourself a favor and spend that time on the train planning!
Until next time travelers…