Play!By Mitsuko Totani
The Tone River flows swiftly through Minakami, carrying thousands of merry rafters into white water rapids and through scenic canyons. One company, though, has ventured deeper into these same mountains to discover hidden canyons where cool water careens off smooth rocks and down natural shoots, and where weekend adventurers enjoy the spills and thrills of one of Japan’s fastest growing sports – canyoning.
Call of the Wild
Mike Harris first came to Japan in 1992 for summer holiday after studying Japanese in college. Fifteen years later, following a seven-year stint raft-guiding around the globe, he’s the CEO of Canyons, the largest canyoning operation in Japan.
While guiding in Nepal he chanced upon some European canyoners who took him out on days he wasn’t on the river. “I fell in love with the sport instantly,” he says.
Today, Canyons operates out of Minakami and Kusatsu in Gunma, as well as Shikoku and Nagano. All the locations offer exciting canyoning, but Minakami has arguably the widest selection of courses with a bit of everything, from mellow family courses (age 6 and up) to full-on adrenaline pumping courses. There are 24 professional guides hailing from six countries. Mike keeps scouting new places though, and has recently found a couple of amazing canyons in the Kansai area, one featuring a 90-meter waterfall.
The fitness required for canyoning depends on the course. A standard half-day trip is pretty easy going with a 30-minute hike at most.
Full-day courses can have up to two hours of hiking, which doesn’t sound too tough except you’re tramping around in a wetsuit, so it helps to be in somewhat decent shape.
Howling at the moon
While taking a evening stroll, if you hear some primal sounds from deep in the forest, don’t be alarmed; you probably just stumbled onto one of Minakami’s infamous Full Moon Parties.
Mike started DJ-ing in 1994 and the first FMP in 2001 attracted about 100 people. The event was organized to help support local artists (Mike included), bringing music to Minakami, so locals didn’t have to go to Tokyo.
The monthly event now attracts nearly 700 people, many there for the weekend to enjoy various activities at Canyons, such as canyoning, rafting, kayaking, mountain biking and caving. In winter they also offer ski / snowboard instruction, snowshoeing and backcountry tours.
If you build it they will come
In December 2007, Canyons Alpine Lodge officially opened. This impressive riverside complex features a beautiful bar/restaurant with a warm décor and a massive deck.
It's a perfect place to relax and enjoy a BBQ or kick back with a drink. The lodge has 10 rooms (¥4,000 / shared bunk rooms; ¥5,000 / private rooms). If they’re full, nearby accommodations include everything from luxury hotels to affordable family inns.
With not-so-far-flung hopes of becoming Japan’s adventure capital, Minakami welcomes more customers every year. Its close proximity to Tokyo and the quality of adventure options make it an easy sell.
And if Mike has anything to do with it, more and more people will slip out of the city and splash down in Minakami.
CANYONS みなかみ ＆ 草津 : (0278) 72-2811
CANYONS 白馬 : (0261) 72-5150
CANYONS 四国 : (0887) 75-0500
Canyons Alpine Lodge