In This Coastal Japanese Airbnb, Guests Are Given a Bed—and a Mystery to Solve

In a town in the Wakayama Prefecture, popular for hiking on the Kumano Kodo trail, this Airbnb invites guests to be immersed in a gripping mystery novel.

Small wooden desk and chair with bookshelf at Kamikura hideaway, in corner next to windows

There’s more than what meets the eye at this vacation home in Japan.

Photo by Jessie Beck

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Location: Shingū, Wakayama Prefecture, Japan

Sleeps: 2 people (1 bedroom/1 bath)

Book now: airbnb.com

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This past spring, my husband and I embarked on a trip I had been dreaming of for years: hiking the Nakahechi route of Japan’s Kumano Kodo trail, a multi-day pilgrimage trek along the country’s Kii Peninsula, just south of Osaka. At the end of each day’s journey, we would stop in a small town or village, to spend the night at a charming ryokan, bed-and-breakfast, or guesthouse. Among the memorable places we stayed, the Airbnb we chose for our final night in Shingū (Wakayama prefecture) stood out as a truly unique experience. Little did I know when booking [Kamikura-Hideaway] that I had just signed up to stay in an interactive novel.

The AFAR take

Most of the accommodation options in Shingū and along the coast are large, nondescript hotels—but not [Kamikura-Hideaway]. Tucked away on a quiet alley, this cozy two-story apartment is styled with retro, grandma-chic decor. Yet what makes this place truly special is that it’s more than a place to stay. The house and its contents are clues to a fictional mystery that guests are invited to help solve.

Who’s it for?

Book lovers and hikers who want to feel completely immersed in Japanese folklore.

The house . . .

The top floor study of Kamikura Hideaway in Shingu: table with book open on it at left and a brown leather armchair at right next to window

The top floor study is both an inviting place to read . . . and a source of clues.

Photo by Jessie Beck

When we arrived at the house, we were greeted by our host and given a typical tour of the space. At this point, I actually still had no idea what I had signed up for. But I took note when, just before leaving, she insisted that we really, really should take a look at one book that “tells the story of the house.”

After she left, we settled into the space. On the first floor, there’s a warm, modern, wood-filled living room and kitchen. Vintage mugs lined the shelves of a petite but fully equipped kitchen, complete with complimentary coffee and pour-over setup. The living room has a comfortable futon and shelves lined with interesting trinkets, rocks, and bottles. The bedroom is set up with two comfortable futons on traditional Japanese tatami mats. (Note that tatami mats often have a distinct, earthy smell to them. It’s nothing to worry about.) Upstairs felt like stepping back in time: Vintage furniture filled out a study and reading room, complete with books, papers, maps, letters, and other knickknacks that at first glance seemed like little more than decor.

. . . and its story

Open spread of large book, with handwrittten text and watercolor illustration

Guests embark on a magical quest to solve the mystery of a missing tenant who supposedly used to live there, using clues from around the house.

Photo by Jessie Beck

But once I settled into the old leather armchair and began to dive into the book, I began to realize I had just opened a full-on novel. Told from the perspective of the grandson of the woman who used to live there, it was indeed about the house but also an odd, but kind, tenant she took in after her husband died.

The more I read, the more I realized that these knickknacks and trinkets weren’t just decoration but clues from the story. They began to take on a new meaning, helping to unravel a fantastical mystery about the disappearance of one of the story’s characters. While I won’t spoil the story for you (you’ll have to spend the night to find out what happened in this magical house), I will reveal that the story was so gripping, we quickly ditched all our original plans of exploring the town and instead hunkered down to read and clue-hunt until we discovered what happened. While fun, what I loved most was how it drew in references from Japanese folkore, Shinto traditions, and the local geography, allowing us to feel immersed in—rather than apart from—the surrounding area while reading.

The location

Large red gate entrance and paved pathway through trees at the Kumano Hayatama Taisha (temple)

One of the three Taisha, or temples, on the Nakahechi Route of the Kumano Kodo Trail, Kumano Hayatama Taisha is a short walk from the Airbnb.

Photo by Jessie Beck

A night or two in Shingū really only makes sense if you’re hiking the Kumano Kodo. This large port city is more residential than touristic, and the main attraction for visitors is the Kumano Hayatama Taisha, one of the main Taisha, or Shinto shrines, along the trail. It’s also where you will end if you opt to take the boat from just south of the Hongu Taisha to Shingū, rather than finishing the final leg of the trail (a popular option for time-crunched hikers).

The house itself, though, is set in a lovely, quiet part of town next to a smaller shrine and abutting a large mountain. The scenery makes it a nice transition from the quietude of nature and the trail and re-entering urban Japan. Although you could easily stay in and cook (and I wouldn’t blame you if you do), the nearby restaurant Kaihami Carne (reservations recommended) is an excellent place to try Itameshi cuisine, which is basically a Japanese take on Italian food. We loved the sweet potato pizza.

The next major shrine on the trail is the Kumano-Nachi Taisha, which is also home to the largest waterfall in Japan, the Nachi waterfall. That shrine takes about an hour to reach by train and bus from Shingū, though there’s also an option to hike part of the way up. If you spend two nights at [Kamikura-Hideaway] (which I’d recommend), it’s close enough to visit as a day trip. Whether you visit as a day trip or on your way back to Osaka, be sure to stop for a soba noodle lunch at Morimoto-ya, which is close to the Kii-Katsuura train station.

If you love books, stay here

Overhead view of open book and cup of coffee at [Kamikura-Hideaway]

Prepare a cup of coffee and get ready to read.

Photo by Jessie Beck

It may not be the fanciest Airbnb out there, but it’s certainly one of the most creative. Additionally, it’s clear that the hosts—a kind and welcoming husband and wife duo who live nearby—put a lot of love into the house, and the story it tells. If you love books or enjoy a good story, don’t miss a chance to stay here.

Jessie Beck is a San Francisco-based writer and associate director of SEO and video at AFAR. She contributes to travel gear, outdoor adventure, and local getaway coverage and has previously lived in Washington, D.C., Malta, Seattle, and Madagascar.
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