Nudity, pandas and a beautiful beach

Story highlights

Shirahama, Wakayama, is one of the most popular beaches in Japan's Kansai region

More than 1,300 years old, Sakinoyu Onsen is one of Japan's three oldest hot springs

Other popular Shirahama sites include caves, fish markets and a famed panda center

CNN  — 

If you’ve never been to a Japanese onsen, there’s one tiny bit of protocol worth knowing before you plunge into those steamy waters. Nudity isn’t just the norm. It’s the rule.

A testament to the shock some of us first timers experience upon learning we have to doff our skivvies to take part in the country’s favorite holiday past time, multilingual signs are frequently posted outside the more popular hot springs to outline onsen etiquette.

The best ones have hilarious cartoon depictions for added emphasis. Things are no different at historic Sakinoyu Onsen, a gorgeous hot spring facility right on the coast of Shirahama Wakayama prefecture.

One of the three most revered onsens in Japan and more than 1,300 years old, it’s mentioned in historic Japanese texts and was once visited by emperors and noblemen.

But you still have to get naked.

Nowhere to hide

At the entrance of the wooden building, visitors enter through the men (blue) or women’s (red) doors to reach changing rooms which open up to a series of beautiful stone pools filled with natural mineral waters, edged only by the Pacific Ocean.

A high wooden wall divides ladies and gents. The manager of Sakinoyu says that on the days when the sea is rough, waves are known to crash over the rocks, giving bathers a refreshing cool down.

“We’ve had foreign tourists get too hot and decide they want to take a naked dip in the ocean, only to be pulled away by the current and in need of rescue,” he says with a laugh, adding that this actually isn’t allowed.

A wall of huge rocks keeps the women safe from outsiders’ eyes, but the men aren’t so fortunate.

Their pools are easily viewed from several rooms in the nearby Hotel Seamore, as well as a viewing platform, where I find myself barely an hour later. Did I dare look across the shining waters to “see more”? Of course.

Admittedly, I’m not much of a voyeur. At the first blurry glimpse of naked male flesh, I direct my eyes anywhere but that onsen.

Aussie sands, chilly waters

Shirahama isn’t just about historical hot tubs and naked humans.

It’s beautifully compact, centered around a long, blindingly white beach – the sand was imported from Australia – book ended by impressive rock formations, fishing piers, free onsen foot baths and a few kitschy attractions.

Dotted with aging hotels, Shirahama Beach has a seaside resort vibe that takes off in the summer, with street vendors and nightly fireworks.

As I walk across its white sands, I’m floored by how unexpected it feels to find such a beach outside of semi-tropical Okinawa. The beach is so pristine I feel I could be in the Caribbean.

That illusion is shattered by dipping my feet in the ocean to be reminded with a jolt that Japan’s coastal waters are still chilly in May. Nonetheless, proving yet again my theory that children possess underdeveloped thermoreceptors, many kids splash about happily nearby.

Back up on shore, the open-air Shirasuna beachside onsen – swimsuits permitted – is a nice way to warm up post swim.

Made for breeding giant pandas

Shirahama is a hot spot for Japanese families, due in part to the presence of Adventure World. No ordinary theme park, Adventure World also has a zoo that is home to five giant pandas – the most of any zoo in Japan – including twins born in 2010.

It’s credited with having one of the the most successful panda-breeding programs outside of China, and is the Japanese branch of China’s famed Chengdu Panda Research Base. References to the local celebs can be found all over the town, in the form of kawaii (cute) souvenirs and signage.

Pirate hideaways

Another top attraction is Shirahama’s Sandanbeki cliffs and caverns. Up to 2 kilometers of steep cliffs, some 50 meters high, make up this stunning site, where birds of prey regularly circle overhead.

Visitors can take an elevator down 35 meters to the underground caves (open daily, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.) to see where the ocean rushes in.

There’s also a small exhibit showing how Kumano pirates of the Heian era (794-1185) used the caves as hiding spots.

Nearby is Senjojiki rock. Eroded by thousands of years of sea action, the rock’s name loosely translates to “1,000 tatami mats,” supposedly because it resembles the popular Japanese flooring material.

Engetsu Island