Thursday, July 13, 2006

Paradise Found

When I read about the Kii-Hantou region of Wakayama in the LP, I knew that this was not a place to be missed. As our time was running out, there were compromises we had to make, places we could not see. I was willing to give up a few stops, but not this one. Its combination of mountains, cheap river-side camping, spectacular coastal drives and famous, yet out-of-the-way onsens most definitely called out to me. I thought it would be the perfect way to end our travels. And it was.

We started our day with (sigh) more traffic. We had driven quite off our path to find the love hotel, and we ended up driving back through the city of Wakayama just to get back onto the -toll- highway. We had spent most of our trip avoiding the toll roads as much as possible, both for cost and sight-seeing purposes. However, since the area we were heading into was really mountainous, Jeff had figured it would be best to take the toll roads as far as possible before hitting the windy, curvy roads that take a lot of time and make Joanne feel kinda queasy.

Ah, yes, well...once again, we hit the highway, and we... STOPPED. I mean, when we moved, we generally went no faster than 5 km/hr. Luckily, the sun was up, and we were prepared. We read. Yes, we read. ALL of us. And we thought nothing of it, really. Like I said, when we moved, it was usually only at about 5 km/hr. So Jeff drove with his book open on the steering wheel. Don't worry; we were practicing safe reading. As soon as traffic got moving over 10 km/hr, Jeff put the book down. At one point, I looked up and saw a young Japanese couple in a mini-van peering at us and laughing quite hysterically. I guess it did look sort of funny. And they couldn't even see poor Joanne squished with everything else in the backseat reading her book!

After over an hour of not-really-driving, we saw the sign for the love hotel we had stayed at just that night. "You mean all of that sitting in traffic (not to mention paying for it!) just to get us to where we started this morning??!!" Jeff was not impressed. So we got off at the next exit (the one for the love hotel) and decided to chance the windy back roads. We had no idea what to expect.

Good news, folks. The Golden Week craziness seems to be confined to the highways. We had NO problems. Very little traffic. It was a longer route overall, but worth it. The mountain scenery was spectacular, and we got to stop at some really interesting sights, like this suspended bridge. And Jo's tummy held up too!

Once we got to our destination, we decided to focus on finding a place to sleep first, and then relaxing for the rest of the day, since the previous day's travels had really worn us all down. We drove into the very rural town of Honguu, looking for the onsens and the camping. As we drove along the river, we soon found the camping. Talk about a deal! We had to pay about $6/night/person. In turn, we got to enjoy the exact opposite of Japanese "auto camp." The guy who took our money motioned for us to plunk ourselves anywhere there was room. There were no official "sites," just tents and cars all happily crammed in together. There were no sticky rules about not having fires either. There was a basic wash-up area provided, for cooking purposes, and toilets, but no showers. But who needs showers when the nearest onsen is only a minute's walk away!

A word to lovers of hot springs: You really MUST visit this area. It is SO worth it. There are three beautiful onsens in this area, each very unique, and each within a minute or two (by car) of each other. The one closest to us, which we could walk to, was Watarase Onsen. This onsen features the largest rotemburo (outdoor bath) in the whole Kansai area. At night, it is simply magical. Then, there is Kawa-yu Onsen. This one is really unique. The road through town runs parallel to a shallow river, only about ankle-deep. While the river water is cold, the water bubbling up through the gravel river bank is warm, even hot. You can play here all day! Just bring a little shovel, sit your butt on the river bank, and start digging. Soon you'll have your own private bath. Some ryokans even have staff who "manage" the bathing holes, digging them for their guests. This one is a real hit with young families. One family even had their dog soaking with them! But, as you can imagine, you'll want to wear a bathing suit to this one. It is, after all, smack in the middle of town. Finally, there is Yunomine Onsen, which has a small complex of baths. We went there on our last morning, so I'll save description of that one for later. Oh! And if all that bathing weren't enough, you're only a 40 minute drive from Shirahama Onsen, a super-old and super-famous bath right beside the ocean. More on that one later, too.

Other than finding our destination for the next three days and two nights, we did little else. We had dinner at a small restaurant where we could watch the bathers at Kawa-yu, and then we relaxed at the campsite. It was a gorgeous night. Golden Week was at its peak, and the place was packed. Families sat around fires, lit off sparklers, played by the river. We met a very nice couple who shared their delicious sake with us while Jeff was surrounded by a group of elementary-school aged boys who wanted to practice their English on him. It was a very relaxing night.

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