The two sounds occur almost simultaneously: Just as my cellphone alarm begins its melodious chime to rouse me from sleep, the dark clouds above my guesthouse in the town of Tanabe on the Kii Peninsula burst forth with a pounding rain. Within minutes, it's clear that my plans of spending three days hiking the Nakahechi branch of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail have quite literally gone awash.

A quick post-breakfast consultation with my fellow hiking partners, James and Felicity, confirms our cancelation. With rain running in rivers in Tanabe's streets, we quickly re-evaluate our long weekend. Luckily, Felicity has visited the area before and it's not long before we're steering her car south in search of Wakayama Prefecture's best onsen (hot spring).

Our first stop is along the coast near Shirahama, where we veer off down a tiny alleyway before braking just in front of a seawall. Only a small sign on the cement wall indicates that this is Saki-no-yu, a 1,300-year-old onsen that was once the beloved destination of the eighth Tokugawa shogun, as well as several emperors from the Asuka (538-710) and Nara (710-94) periods.