It’s hot! It’s sticky! It’s summer in Japan and you just want to escape the heat. How about heading for the hills? Well, mountains, actually. With a little elevation, it also gets a little cooler. But, more importantly, there are plenty of fun summer activities out there.
A favorite summertime playground for many who love the great outdoors is the town of Minakami in Gunma Prefecture. Situated in a beautiful river valley, Minakami offers lots of outdoor options.
The town of Minakami is centered on the upper reaches of the Tone River, one of Japan’s three greatest rivers, making it well positioned as a staging area for white water rafting, canyoning and other water sports, as well as a host of other outdoor activities.
There are at least a dozen outfits that offer rafting, kayaking and canyoning adventures—too many for me to identify here. You can find them on the Internet. Most have experienced guides who speak both Japanese and English. In Minakami's early days as an outdoor adventure destination, most guides were Kiwis, but they now seem to be outnumbered by Nepalese, another nationality known for rigorous mountain adventures.
While some tour outfits say that no advanced reservation is required, it’s advisable to book ahead. Some outfits have tie-ups with pensions and onsen hotels, offering a package deal on your tour and accommodation. A half day adventure tour can be done as a day trip from Tokyo, but why not stay over to maximize your outdoor fun?
When booking, try to confirm which area of the river your trip will likely be on. Most outfits will tell you it varies from day to day depending on river conditions—which is completely true—but they all have particular parts of the river they frequent so should be able to at least indicate to you the 2 or 3 possible areas they are likely to use. Some tours are on the parts of the river that flow right through the town, while others are in the river's “upper reaches”. You may have a preference for being in civilization, or not. My pick is the stretch of river between the Sudagai Dam and the Fujiwara Dam. It feels a little "wilder".
While the Tone River's rapids are consistently grade 4 in the spring and early summer when snow melt is at its peak, the river still offers plenty of thrills throughout the summer and even into the autumn, even if the rapids are downgraded to 2 or 3. Even though I went in July, according to the guide, a water release from the upper dam gave us grade 4+ rapids that day.
No matter what time of year you go, the water is bracingly cold, particularly welcome in the heat of the summer.
The tour outfits provide all the gear and equipment (including safety equipment) you will need for rafting or kayaking (expect to wear your swimming suit and put their wetsuit over it) and cater even to complete novices by providing instruction and orientation. After carrying the raft from the road to the river, everyone works together to learn the instruction calls and practice paddling forward and backward before setting out. The guides are quite good at assessing the relative skills of participants and positioning people on the raft accordingly.
Descending the river tends to involve repeating 3 steps over and over: stopping for instructions from the guide, then a burst of very busy paddling to navigate rapids, then a leisurely float during which you can actually enjoy the beautiful scenery.
Whether you’re with a group of friends or randomly traveling with a bunch of strangers, you are soon all pulling together as a team and following the guide's instructions as closely as possible. When the guide says "if we hit that big rock and someone comes out of the raft, they're dead", you make sure you don't hit the big rock.
Various kayaking options are also available, including hard shell kayaks and inflatables for one person or two. For the inexperienced on a kayak, quieter parts of the river are used, giving you more time to enjoy nature, but fewer thrills and spills.
If you’re really into thrills and spills, consider canyoning. For those of you who’ve never done it, it’s basically white water rafting without the raft.
Canyoning tours tend to be on smaller tributaries of the river, often in steep, narrow canyons with the waterway sometimes only a meter across. But you are right in the river, often sliding through the white froth of rapids on the special sheet of black rubber attached to your butt. The tour I did included a drop over a 20-meter waterfall (the guides lower you part way on a rope and then releases you to splash into the pool below and swim to the side). What could be more refreshing on a hot summer’s day?
For those who aren’t that into cooling off in the water, don’t worry. Minakami has fun activities for you, too.
One of the most exciting of these is bungee jumping, an import from New Zealand. Bungy Japan, Japan’s oldest bungee jumping outfit, offers two great options in the Minakami area, and a special deal if you chose to challenge both! (Note, they don’t take credit cards, so be sure to visit the ATM first.)
Jumping from the bridge spanning Suwakyo, one of the Tone River’s three most scenic gorges, is the first option. The jump site is 42 meters above the river. The second jump site, the bridge at Sarugakyo, 62 meters above the gorge at the top of Lake Akagaya, is a 20 minute drive into the mountains northwest of Minakami.
Maybe you’re after a bit of adrenalin, but not quite the blood-pumping burst of bungee jumping. In that case, consider ziplining. Minakami Kogen Forest Zipline offers 8 different ziplines across a small valley above the Minakami Kogen Hotel 200.
And finally, there’s always great hiking to be had in Japan’s mountains.
Some of the most popular hikes in the Minakami area are accessed via the Tanigawadake Ropeway, about 25 minutes from Minakami by bus or car. The ropeway departs from Doaiguchi “station” (elevation 746 meters) on Highway 291 above Minakami, whisking visitors to Tenjindaira (elevation 1,319 meters) over a distance of 2.4 kilometers in about 10 minutes. You can enjoy the beautiful alpine views in air-conditioned comfort while planning your hike for the day.
An even tamer option, though still quite fun, is a walk along the catwalk attached to the sheer stone walls of Suwakyo gorge. This can be a good sunset activity, though earlier in the day you can also enjoy watching the rafters and kayakers -- and bungee jumpers -- as you stroll.
There are several public footbaths in the area, offering respite to foot-weary hikers, too.
Finally, of course, there is onsen. Minakami first gained fame as an onsen town and there’s plenty of rejuvenating hot water in the area. Many onsen hotels/inns offer day bath options, if you’re not staying over. But an overnight stay is highly recommended. And if your inn has a rotenburo outdoor bath, your appreciation of Gunma’s great outdoors will continue to grow, too.
Getting there: From Tokyo Station to Jomo Kogen Station, just south of Minakami by Shinkansen takes 66 minutes. If you have a non-Japanese passport, JR East’s special “Tokyo Wide Pass” covers travel as far as Jomo Kogen. Costing just 10,000 yen and offering unlimited travel within the pass territory for a 3-day period, it’s perfect for a Minakami mini-vacation. Most tour operators and hotel companies offer shuttle bus services, or consider renting a car upon arrival (for a limited time, show your train pass at the “Eki Rentacar” to get a discount on car rental, too). To drive from Tokyo to Minakami takes about 2.5 hours.
Vicki L. Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about traveling in Japan. See her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today