Why not spend a weekend enjoying both for a distinctly Japanese experience
Volcanic islands, mountainous terrain and earth-shifting quakes are all part of Japan’s volatile natural landscape. Short, swift, arterial rivers snake through the land and swell with heavy rain from strong monsoons and typhoons, making them prone to flooding. Japanese people have a long history battling nature while at the same time striving to live in harmony with it.
A great example of this harmonious acrimony is the great number and variety of soothing, healing hot springs created by the volcanic activity deep below the earth. Above the surface, swollen rivers flow down through valleys, producing some exciting rapids for white water fun. Combine the two, and you have yourself the perfect green season getaway.
Three Generations Dig Deep in Minakami
Suwanoyu Onsen Center, Minakami, Gunma
A fairly recent “onsen boom” has even seen people digging deep wells in Tokyo and setting up fancy hot springs spas and theme parks. However, there are still many hot springs throughout the country which forego the glitz and let substance dominate style.
It’s 9 a.m. and cars already dot the Suwanoyu Onsen Center parking lot, as regulars start their day with a long soak. Suwanoyu is not your typical hot spring resort. It boasts only a small sign on the highway and doesn’t even maintain a Website. The rock baths are divided into men’s and women’s with four to five people filling the small tubs. As you are drawn into the hot waters, you can sense the warm, family atmosphere.
And it truly has been a family affair. On March 3, 1983, Hajime Otsuka and his younger brother Tamotsu finally hit the spring for which they had been searching. Hajime, the manager of a local bowling complex, and his brother chipped away at the task during their time off work to fulfill their grandfather’s dream.
Kinzou Otsuka had begun drilling for the spring back in the 1930s but had very little to show for his effort. “Apparently he had drilled 2,400 meters in five years, but then gave up,” explained Hajime. “I recall seeing the hole when I was a young child.”
Kinzou passed on the mission to his son, Ichiei, who started a family drilling business and continued to search for the hot spring during his downtime. “Several times we hit spring water, but the temperatures were too low for a hot spring,” Hajime recalls.
The third generation turned out to be the charm, as the brothers finally found the hot spring for which the family had searched for 50 years. It took a year for them to receive authorization as a “hot spring proprietor,” so the family opened the doors to the public for free during that time.
The popularity spread quickly by word of mouth and some coverage in newspaper media. The clear, colorless waters are high in calcium sulfate, maintain a temperature of 42.6 degrees and flow naturally with the aid of any pump system.
Because the water is routed naturally and directly to the baths, there is some daily fluctuation in the water temperature, but in general the bath stays plenty hot. The water is drinkable and said to contain half the calcium of milk. For years people have drunk the Suwanoyu water for medicinal purposes, and word has spread of its healing properties.
Hajime’s wife, Emiko, was diagnosed with a tumor and told she’d need surgery. However, after regularly drinking the hot spring water, Emiko found the tumor decreased to half of its original size. Hajime himself has not visited a doctor in more than 30 years, and their son thanks the soothing waters for helping him overcome eczema.
Sufferers of breathing disorders have made similar claims. Suwanoyu’s popularity has steadily grown, so that cars from far and wide fill the parking lot, while ardent locals walk up, towel in hand for a relaxing dip in the healing waters it took the family half a century to find.
Suwanoyu Onsen Center
448-30 Takahinata, Minakami-cho, Tone-gun, Gunma-ken 379-1613
Tel: (0278) 72-2056
Closed on Friday
Shigeto Asano and the Teikei Rafting Team
Team Teikei is Japan’s only professional rafting team. Its manager, Shigeto Asano, started the team from scratch in 2002 with the goal of reaching the top of the sport by continuing to improve skills and teamwork.
At the age of 19, Shigeto set off for Australia on a working holiday visa. He jumped in a raft for the first time during a short trip to New Zealand, and his watershed moment came in Queenstown when his raft flipped and he found himself in the throws of a Grade 5 river.
No roller coaster in Japan had prepared him for the inherent danger of rafting and, although the experience was jolting, it inspired him to apply for a rafting guide position when he returned to Australia.
The rafting company he signed with was known to recruit guides from across the globe who spin tales of faraway rapids that only increased Shigeto’s fascination with the sport. He heard accounts of the mighty Zambezi River in Zimbabwe and was speechless when he studied a photo that showed the scale and power of the Zambezi.
The river is to rafters what Hawaii’s “Jaws” is to surfers, and Shigeto jumped at the chance to attend a race there that year. It was his first trip to the Zambezi as well as his first glimpse of rafting racing. One of the organizers implored him to “bring a team from Japan,” and the fire was lit under him. At age 25, he returned to Japan and began building Team Teikei which is now among the elite rafting teams in the world.
Now 35, Shigeto is still having fun running rapids across the globe. Yet he states, “The thrill of the rapids is something I still definitely love, and it’s a lot of fun, but just floating down the river and taking in the countryside, visiting with locals sometimes carries even deeper meaning. In Japan, the rivers run alongside rice fields and homes and is the livelihood of some towns.”
Indeed, the thrills and spills are just part of the rafting experience in Japan, but not the only enjoyment that can be found floating down the river.
Tone River (Tonegawa)
Nestled in the northernmost corner of the Kanto Plain, Minakami became the largest village in Gunma after several municipalities merged in 2005. The area is famous for local hot springs, such as Minakami and Sarugakyo, as well as the Tone River (Tonegawa), which has the largest river basin in Japan and is a popular white water playground. The Tonegawa begins deep in the hills of Mt. Ominakami and flows through towns and valleys until it hits the ocean near Choshi, Chiba.
In years past, the Tone flooded through into Tokyo Bay. Worries of flooding led Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa to undertake a 60-year project changing the course of the river to what it is today. Because of the river’s strong will, it became known as the “bando tarou,” in which “bando” means the Kanto area and “taro” for eldest son. The river is not afraid to cause a ruckus and is known to give visiting paddlers a rough ride.
The river’s three canyons of Momiji, Minakami and Suwa, feature the most excitement, and when Momiji is at high waters it is truly world-class. During the spring melts in May, you can raft 25 kilometers from Momiji all the way to Iwamoto, although not all rafting companies run trips to Momiji. In summer, water levels are lower and perfect for family outings.
AT A GLANCE
River: Tone River (Tonegawa)
Location: Minakami, Gunma
Season: Late April to early November
High Water Season: Mid-May
Grade: 4 during high water (4+ in Momiji) 2-3 during other months
Season: April 18 to Oct. 30
English Assistance: Available by request. Part-time staff with English ability available.
Directions: (Train) 75 minutes from Tokyo to Jomo Kogen on the Joetsu Shinkansen. Free shuttle service from Jomo Kogen and Minakami Station. Ten-minute ride to Kappa Club and guests are asked to arrive at the station at least 15 minutes prior to registration. (Car) One-minute drive from the Minakami exit on the Kanetsu Expressway.
Other Activities: Hydro-speed: This sport started in France and has users slip on flippers and use a body board-like inflatable to surf, spill and ride through the waters.
Kappa Club Specialty: Guests rave about the free homemade lunches and desserts on the tours. The on-site condominiums allow you to BBQ on the terrace and enjoy an overnight stay.
Tel: (0278) 72-1372
Season: April to November
English Assistance: At least half the staff is non-Japanese.
Directions: (Train) 75 minutes form Tokyo to Jomo Kogen Station on the Joetsu Shinkansen. Three hours from Ueno to Minakami Station on the Joetsu Line express train. Free shuttle from Minakami Station; reservation required. (Car) Exit at Minakami I.C. on the Joetsu Expressway and take National Highway 291 toward Minakami, then follow signs to Canyons Alpine Lodge on the Yubiso River.
Other Activities: Canyoning: Guides lead hikers up waterfalls and through the sprays, then slide down the falls. The relaxing waters and the excitement of the ride down make for a great day outdoors.
Canyons Specialty: Canyons specializes in “après-rafting” at its riverside base, the Canyon’s Alpine Lodge and Café, complete with showers, a giant wood deck, café/bar, BBQ grills, comfortable lodge, pool table, shop and a mechanical bull. Large rental sizes are also available.
Tel: (0278) 72-2811
LOCAL HOT SPRING
Takaragawa Onsen, Osenkaku
The 470-tatami sized pools of Takaragawa are some of Japan’s largest outdoor baths. While most pools are “mixed” (konyaku) there are some “ladies only” areas as well. Relax next to the gurgling stream and stay the night in the big Japanese-style lodge.
Hours (Day Visitors): 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Open year-round
Price: ¥1,500 (¥1,000 after 4 p.m.)
Web: www.takaragawa.com/index.html (Japanese, English, Chinese)
Directions: From Minakami Station on the Joetsu Line, take either the bus bound for Takaragawa (35 minutes to the Takaragawa Onsen stop for ¥1,100) or the bus bound for Yunogoya (30 minutes to Takaragawa Iriguchi stop for ¥1,000 and board the shuttle bus). (Car) Exit at the Minakami I.C. on the Joetsu Expressway and take National Highway 291 for 18 kilometers toward Fujiwara/Takaragawa.
Oven-baked Pizza at LaBiere
Locals all love the Napoli-style tastes of LaBiere.
Hours: Lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. (Closed on Tuesday)
Tel: (0278) 72-2959
Web: http://labiere.seesaa.net/ (Japanese only)
Nagara River (Nagaragawa)
Gifu sits nearly at the center of Japan, and the river that runs through it is the scenic Nagaragawa (Nagara River). With headwaters flowing unimpeded by any dams, unusual in Honshu, the Nagaragawa has crystal clear waters that nourish the iwatsutsuji (a local plant), Gujo ayu (sweet fish) and salamander-like osanshuo. Although much of the Nagaragawa is great for leisurely floats, there are several good rapids that offer some white-knuckle thrills.
AT A GLANCE
River: Nagara River
Location: Gujo, Gifu
Season: April to November
Season: Mid-April to early May
Outdoor Support System (ODSS)
Season: Year-round (Winter trips from Dec. 1 to March 31)
English Assistance: Applications and tours available in English
Directions: (Train) Shuttle service to/from Gifu Station. (Car) Exit the Tokaihokuriku Expressway at the Mino exit and head north for 25 kilometers (20 minutes) on highway 156, or take the Minami exit and drive south on highway 156 for six kilometers (10 minutes)
Other Activiities: Shower climbing (half-day courses in summer only), mountain biking (day-long courses from fall through spring), and canoeing (half-day courses from spring through fall), cabling (half-day courses year-round).
ODSS Specialites: Popular one-day canoe tour includes a BBQ lunch. A stay at a local accommodation gives you more activity options (coupons available).
Tel: (058) 248-4711
LOCAL HOT SPRING
Directly connected to the Minamikodakara Onsen Station on the Nagaragawa Railway, this hot spring offers expansive views of the river, and the waters boast a high alkali content which causes the water to feel “silky smooth.” ODSS is only steps away, as well.
Directions: (Train) Chichibu Line to Minano Station and transfer to Minano-cho Bus bound for Nichinozawa. Get off at Chichibu Onsen (15-minute ride). (Car) Exit the Kanetsu Expressway at the Hanazono I.C. and drive toward Chichibu on highway 140 for 30 minutes.
Price: Over 12 years old for ¥500
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (entry until 8:30 p.m.), closed on Fridays, or the day before if Friday is a national holiday.
Tel: (0575) 79-4126
Web: www.chichibuonsen.co.jp (Japanese only)
Enjoy Gujo Hachiman’s third generation, family-run soba hot spot, which has been in business since the Edo Period.
Hours: Weekdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Weekends/Holidays, 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Closed Wednesdays unless a national holiday. Open every day in August.
Tel: (0575) 65-2004
Web: http://hirajin.com/ (Japanese only)
Yoshino River (Yoshinogawa)
The Yoshino River runs through Tokushima and Kochi Prefectures and is to Shikoku what the Tone River is to the Kanto Region. The Oboke and Koboke peaks provide the backdrop for what is one of Japan’s most scenic regions and the year-round consistency of the river levels makes the Yoshinogawa one of Japan’s most thrilling rafting rivers. Yet while the rapids may be rough, there is not much dangerous terrain here. The Koboke area of the river features eight white water sections and, when this area is closed due to high waters, the Oboke has more big water rafting than most can stomach.
AT A GLANCE
River: Yoshino River
Location: Tokushima and Kochi Prefectures
Season: February to December
High Water Season: Late May to mid-September (dams throughout the region help maintain consistency)
Tour Season: Late February to mid-December
English Assistance: English-speaking and Japanese staff on hand.
Directions: (Train) Awaikeda Station on the JR Shikoku Dosan Line is the closest station. (Car) 10 minutes from the Ikawaikeda exit on the Tokushima Expressway.
Other Activities: Canyoning in the secret streams of the Iyakei area with crystal clear waters and expansive waterfalls, as well as relaxing river rides and lakeside hiking for families.
Unique to Safari: A full range of gear is available as well as on-site changing rooms and meeting rooms. Tours are captured on film and video with everything being presented on Safari’s 100-inch screen, so guests can enjoy the ride a second time.
Tel: (0883) 76-0745
LOCAL HOT SPRING
Due to minimal volcanic activity on Shikoku, there are few good hot springs; however Iya Onsen manages to draw its waters from a hot spring bubbling up through the Iyakei River and is a definite “don’t miss” spot on any trip. Access to the valley is provided by cable car.
Directions: (Train) JR Dosan Line to Awaikeda Station. Bus bound for Kazurabashi (50 minutes). (Car) From Kansai, Hiroshima, Okuyama and Ehime, take the Tokushima Expressway to the Ikawaikeda exit, then Highway 32 for approximately 50 minutes.
Entrance Fee: ¥1,500 (includes cable car ride)
Daytime Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Tel: (0883) 75-2311
Web: www.iyaonsen.co.jp/index.html (Japanese only)
Iya Soba Momijitei
In the land of the “heike no ochudo” legend, Iya Soba is legendary in its own right boasting 100% pure soba flour for a very healthy and delicious soba noodle.
Hours: Open Every day 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tel: (0883) 84-1117
Nagatoro River (Nagatorokawa)
Halfway up the Arakawa River from Tokyo, in northwest Saitama, lies the village of Nagatoro. The “rock tatami” and protruding crystalline schist formations found along five kilometers of the riverbank are of such prominence that 800 meters have been designated as a national natural monument
The deep midstream waters make for a gentle ride and lend meaning to the second character “toro” (meaning “quiet”) in the river’s name. Yet the river has flooded the surrounding plains often over the years, so perhaps the character “ara” (tumultuous) in Arakawa would be appropriate as well.
AT A GLANCE
River: Nagatoro River
Location: Nagatoro, Saitama
Top season: May to October
Outdoor Center Nagatoro
Tour Season: Year-round
English Assistance: “Yes, of course!”
Directions: (Train) Tobu-Tojo Line from Ikebukuro for Yorii connecting through Ogawa. Chichibu Line from Yorii to Kami-Nagatoro Station. Walk straight through the ticket gate and left at the river. Located inside the River Park Kami-Nagatoro RV Park. (Car) Exit the Kanetsu Expressway at the Hanazono I.C. and head for Yorii. Left at the 7-Eleven after the Nagatoro Station crossing, followed by a right at the river. The meeting spot is 200 meters down river on the right.
Other Activities: Kayaking, “river-boogie,” canyoning, mountain biking and more.
Tel: (0494) 66-4165 / 0120-66-4162 (toll-free)
LOCAL HOT SPRING
Chichibu Hot Spring, Mangan no Yu
As the Japanese name suggests, perhaps all your wishes (gan) will be fulfilled (man) at this more than 1,000-year old hot spring which boasts world renowned levels of alkali.
Directions: (Train) Chichibu Line to Minano Station. and transfer to the Minano-cho Bus bound for Nichinozawa; 15 minutes to the Chichibu Onsen stop. (Car) Exit the Kanetsu Expressway at Hanazono I.C. and take highway 140 toward Chichibu for 30 minutes.
Tel: (0494) 62-3026
Web: www.chichibuonsen.co.jp (Japanese only)
Fresh local homemade soba is on the menu, with the Tenzaru set being a favorite in this modern looking coffee shop-style joint.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed on Thursdays
Tel: (0494) 66-1569