Take a water ride on the wild side of Japan
It was all about sliding, jumping and splashing. And for some, it also was about screaming.
The group of people screeched in excitement as their raft veered into the whitewater rapids. Soaked in sweat and water, they were definitely stoked to be riding the rapids. Later in the day, they could be heard yelling with glee as they jumped off a 60-foot-high waterfall.
Such scenes and sounds are common in Minakami during the spring and summer months.
“I loved it,” said Megumi Takahashi, after her first experience of rafting on the Tonegawa River. “It is so refreshing to raft in cool water in the hot summer sun.”
Minakami, in Gunma Prefecture, is northwest of Japan’s Kanto Plain, about an hour away by a bullet train from Tokyo. It is in an elevated area surrounded by mountains that is well known as mecca of outdoor sports.
In winter, the area is covered in snow and people enjoy skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Come the warmer months, activities include Kayaking from April through November, whitewater rafting May through mid-November and canyoning July through September. There’s also hiking and bungee jumping.
“This area is full of attractions all through the year for nature lovers,” said Eiichi Tatsumi, manager of I Love Outdoors, a company that provides guides and all the gear you need to tackle the adventures in Minakami. “Many people actually move here to work at the ski resorts in winter and to be a rafting guides during summer. This place is very relaxed and special for outdoors lovers.”
A big landslide and a heavy rains in the area just last month created ideal conditions for many of these popular summertime activities here.
“I have been here for 15 years but now is the most beautiful water,” said Damien “Grassy” Chee, the owner of I Love Outdoors. “The rain washed everything clean. Coanyoning spots are just gorgeous now. I think it will last maybe a year or two years. It is the right time to come to Minakami now.”
One of the interesting things about Minakami is that many of the guides are foreigners, who live there because of the natural beauty, the quality of outdoor sports and local culture. Chees guides, for example, include Australians, Brazilians and Nepalese to name a few. So communication is a breeze great because they all speak English. It’s quite neat to see such an international community in an old Japanese mountain village.
Minikami is also a popular hot springs destination, offering outdoor “onsen” baths with beautiful views. There are many hotels with onsen within 10-minute walk from the JR Minakami Station. Believe me, it’s a treat to play all day and then soak in the hot springs at night.
So if you want get away from the city, head to Minikami to climb, jump, splash and soak in the great outdoors.
Watersports in Minakami
Canyoning is a combination of repelling, jumping and sliding to get from the top of a canyon to the bottom. Be ready to get wet! Explore the canyon in a thick, full-body wetsuit, helmet, life jacket, harness and rubber boots. This is the area’s most popular summer activity. The highlight of canyoning in Minakami is the sliding and jumping off a giant 60-feet-high waterfall. If you are looking for the thrill, this is definitely the place to be. Trained guides will make sure you’re safe. There are a half- and full-day tours available.
Price: About 8,000 yen ($65) per half day.
An experienced guide will take you on the rafting adventure of a lifetime down the wild Tonegawa River. You’ll raft down the rapids, play in the water and enjoy the incredible scenery. Dry suits to keep your clothes dry and life jackets are provided. The best season for rafting is May and June because there will be more water. The water during summer can be low at times. But there are still a lot good days left this summer.
Price: About 8,000 yen ($65) per half day.
There is also lake rafting for families or those who just want to relax in nature. This is also great for small children. For two hours can you explore the lake with an experienced guide, jump in if you want play with giant water pistols if you like.
Price: About 4,500 yen ($36) for adults; 3,500 yen ($28) for children middle school age and younger.
Canoeing & Kayaking
The tranquil waters and stunning scenery of Naramatako in Minakami is the perfect place to enjoy canoeing and kayaking with family or friends. Everyone from little kids to Grandma can enjoy a half- or full-day tour with life jackets and fully qualified guides. Enjoy the crystal clear waters, swim and play in Mother Nature’s playground. There are five types of canoe and kayaks to choose from.
Price: About 6,500 yen ($52) per half day; 12,000 yen ($95) per full day.
- Information provided I Love Outdoors
On getting there:
On I Love Outdoors tours:
Damien “Grassy” Chee, owner of I Love Outdoors, has lived in Minakami for 15 years. Here are his expert tips on how to make the most of your visit there.
… Wednesday? Fuhgeddaboudit!
In Japanese, the first kanji character used to spell the words “Minakami” as well as Wednesday (“Suiyoubi”) literally means water. Because of this – and to maintain an even playing field for all – most business in this watersport haven adhere to the local tradition of not opening shop on this day, Grassy says. It’s something to bear in mind when planning a visit.
… Try these shrooms
“Maitake” mushrooms are a favorite in Japan, and Minakami is renowned for producing them. They go well with soba and udon noodles and Grassy says Kubota is a great noodle house is the best place in town to try it. Their sanshoku kinoko soba (1,050 yen) includes three different kinds of local mushrooms. The chilled tenzaru soba (1,300 yen) is also worth a try.
Address: 70-15 Kanosawa Minakamimachi, Tonegun, Gunma
Hours: Weekdays: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; till 6 p.m. weekends;
closed on Thursday
… Sample this sweet
Grassy says Isagoya makes really good “nama daifuku” by adding fresh whipped cream to the sweet bean-jam filling inside the Japanese rice cake. It makes a beautiful combination of both Western and Japanese flavors. It’s definitely worth a try. You can also buy them online. The price is 875 yen for six.
Address: 200-1 Yubiso, Minakamimachi, Tonegun, Gunma
Hours: 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. Closes Wednesdays
… Take a bath
Suzumori No Yu “onsen” spa is clean and the owner is very nice to Grassy. They offer both outdoor baths with a great view and indoor wooden tubs. It costs 650 yen for adults and 500 yen for elementary school students and younger. Grassy says if you’re seeking a good soak, this is the place. They also have a beautiful food and locals go there just to eat. Grassy’s favorite is the steak steak bowl (1,280 yen).
Address: 1009-2 Anougawa Minakamimachi, Tonegun, Gunma
Hours: 10 a.m. - 9 p.m. (Last entrance is 8 p.m.) Closed every second Wednesday (except in August).
… Check out the aquarium
If it is too hot outside, Grassy says you can bring your kids to a small aquarium in Michinoeki Mizukikokan. It features river fishes living in the Tonegawa River, the main river in Minakami. Admission is 300 yen for adults and 100 yen for children. This facility also has an “ashiyu,” or hot spring foot bath, as well as a restaurant and souvenir shop. It is to next a Seiryu Park.
Address: 1681-1 Yubara, Minakamimachi, Tonegun, Gunma
Hours: 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily (Closed on second and fourth Tuesday from June to November.)
… Eat my burger
I love Outdoors also runs I Love Nature Café. Grassy says their giant homemade Grassy’s Mega Burger (1,200 yen) is sure to satisfy. After working up an appetite with a watersport, you can savor your meal while looking at the pics and videos from your tour. Chatting with super friendly English-speaking staff about your recent adventure will make your meal complete.
Address: 169-1 Kanosawa Minakamimachi, Tonegun, Gunma
… Be a happy camper
Grassy says there are two great options for camping in Minakami: Hodaigi Campground is a huge site offering tent grounds, auto campsites (to park and pitch a tent), trailer houses, cottages, bungalows and a lodge. Tent sites are 410 yen for adults, 200 yen for children, plus 720 yen per tent if you bring your own. (Tel: 0278-75-2206; URL: hodaigi-camp.jp.) Naramata campground is at an altitude of 2,953 feet fronting a big lake. They rent all the camp gear you need and are ideal for beginner campers, families or the just plain lazy. Auto campsites are 1,000 yen for adults, 500 yen for children, plus 3,500 yen per tent. (Tel: 0278-75-2700; Website: www.norn.co.jp/camp.)