By Sandra Isaka
About five minutes by car from Wakayama's famous Shirahama Beach are the Sandanbeki cliffs, a two kilometer stretch of coastline that towers 50 meters above the sea. Hidden at the bottom of one of these three cliffs is Sandanbeki Doukutsu, a cave where Kumano pirates of the Heian Era (794-1185) once hid their boats.
It is easy for tourists who are not paying attention to miss this amazing cave. Upon arrival by car or bus, there is a short street lined with a few old souvenir shops that leads to an expansive ocean observation point and some walking trails. There is a larger souvenir shop here, with an onsen foot-bath overlooking the sea. Be sure to check out this shop as the ticket counter and elevators for the cave are inside.
The entrance fee is a little expensive; ¥1300 for adults and ¥650 for elementary school children. However, the caves are quite impressive and the price probably keeps hoards of people from visiting. We were able to board the elevator immediately for the 24-second ride that travels 36 meters down through the cliff. Upon exiting the elevator, visitors enter a large cavern containing a replica of one of the small pirate ships. Off to the sides are a labyrinth of passageways filled with interesting things to see. The 200-meter pathway is dimly-lit, wet, and gloomy. There are patterned formations that were created when sea water eroded the rock face, and a blowhole that shoots water into the air whenever the tide rolls in. Visitors can also view the cave's entry point and view the area in which the ships would have docked.
In a larger section of the cave, decorated with over 100 hanging lanterns, sits a carving of Benzaiten, one of Japan's seven lucky gods. She is the goddess of everything that flows, and is almost always found near water. Nearby is the re-creation of a guard house, complete with rusty armor and weaponry. Interestingly enough, depending on the time period and the situation, the pirates sometimes fought battles as members of a feudal lord's navy.
The caves are open year-round from 8:00 - 17:00, with last entry at 16:50. For those traveling by car, there is plenty of free parking. The caves can also be reached by taxi or public bus.
As an intercultural consultant & Japan travel specialist with 20 years in Japan, I love sharing my favorite places with others.