The Kumano region, Japan’s spectacular “land of the gods”, has won the top tourism award in a poll of GaijinPot readers, who were asked to name their ten favourite places to visit in Japan. The English-language website’s readers chose Kumano’s well-worn pilgrimage routes, unspoiled beauty and the promise of spiritual transformation over Tokyo, which was beaten into second place.

Located in the heart of Wakayama Prefecture, Kumano is best known for the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, which runs through vast, ancient forests that abound in natural splendour. Travellers walk alongside Shinto and Buddhist pilgrims and monks worshipping at mystical forest waterfalls are a common sight. At the end of a hard day’s walking, weary travellers can bathe in the restorative waters of Kumano’s many natural onsen (hot springs).

“We are honoured to have been selected as the number one travel destination in Japan,” says Hideyuki Inamoto, president of the Wakayama Prefecture Tourism Federation. “Kumano has long been regarded as a place where gods live and a sacred place for worshiping nature. It is said that every trip to Japan should begin by making a pilgrimage to Kumano. We look forward to welcoming you.”

The gateway to the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route is Tanabe City, which has a multilingual tourism bureau with an online reservation platform that matches local guides and businesses to visitors. The people of Kumano are famously hospitable and have been making travellers from around the world feel at home for decades.

Many of the region’s farms offer ecotourism homestays. Travellers can also go whale watching in Katsuura, learn about the life of a Shinto priest in Shingu or sun themselves on the white sand beaches of Shirahama. Come at the right time of year and you can also take part in the ume (Japanese plum) harvest.

The 2020 poll is GaijinPot’s fourth annual poll of Japan’s Top 10 travel destinations in Japan. “Our readers love what Japan has to offer because of the sheer variety of experiences awaiting ‘free independent travellers’ (FIT),” says Randiah Green, editor at GaijinPot Travel. “Spiritual travel — like the experiences offered in the Kumano region — is an emerging trend worldwide as millennials search for meaning in far-off lands.”

According to readers of GaijinPot, the third best place to visit in Japan is the Nakasendo Way. Although these days it only runs between Gifu and Nagano prefectures, this Edo-period trail used to run all the way from Tokyo to Kyoto. The quaint postal towns and historic inns that you pass through en route are perfect for anyone wanting to savour the beauty of pre-modern Japan.

The other destinations to make it into GaijinPot’s top ten were Niseko in Hokkaido; Minakami in Gunma; the Seven Stars Railway in Kyushu; Yokohama in Kanagawa; Nikko in Tochigi; Lake Biwa in Shiga and Sapporo in Hokkaido.

Good information to keep in mind for those who are planning to take a vacation once the coronavirus outbreak has subsided and it is safe to travel again.

By - George Lloyd.