After a heavy powder season, the snowpacked mountains have fed Japan’s rivers with fast-flowing rapids for some great whitewater rafting action.
Whitewater is classified into grades from 1 (nearly flat water) to 6 (so rough it is considered too dangerous to navigate). Grade 3 rivers or higher require participants to be 12 years old or older. There are plenty of mellow areas in Japan for first-timers to test the waters and bond with old and new friends on the raft. With organizations such as the International Rafting Federation and River Guide Association of Japan maintaining high guiding levels and safety standards, whitewater rafting is becoming increasingly popular and accessible for riders of all ages.
The Tone River is Japan’s second longest river and is famous for high water in late spring, starting from May to June. The source of the river is near Minakami Onsen, making it the perfect place for an adventurous rafting session during the snow melt period with almost 30 kilometers of whitewater. “There are rumors the Tone River’s Grade 4 and 5 sections will open, which would make the mighty Tone the highest grade river to have commercial whitewater rafting in Japan,” hints Mike Harris of Canyons Japan. During the summer, the Tone River decreases to an easy Grade 2, and Minakami is a very family-friendly town with plenty of other activities on and off the river. Although most visitors opt for full-day or half-day tours, outdoor operators such as Canyons have begun offering five-day excursions from Minakami to Tokyo for serious rafters. Also with single-person “pack rafting” entering the scene, there will be more opportunities to explore waters difficult to access with a multi-seat raft. Keen whitewater enthusiasts can join the Minakami Extreme, a professional whitewater race held in the second week of May, while Riverbend is great for amateur rafters.
Raft down the waters of the 128-km. long Fuji River in Shizuoka Prefecture with iconic Mt. Fuji in clear view. Although the Fujikawa is noted to be one of the three fastest flowing rivers in the country, this winding river that stays within Grade 2 and 3 isn’t too extreme. The views are stunning and feature waterfalls, arches and cliffs off which you can dive. Rafters tend to flock to this river in late July to early autumn, when the whitewater is strongest, but operators such as Natural Action offer professional guided tours, making rafting leisurely even for those who may not necessarily be super “outdoorsy.”
Okutama’s lush forests and deep valleys make it hard to believe that you’re still in Tokyo. Just a little over an hour away from central Tokyo, the Tama flows through Okutama’s mountains at a constant Grade 2 year-round. Starting this spring, Canyons Okutama will be holding pack rafting tours down Tamagawa and will be the only tour operator offering pack rafting in the region. The section for rafting starts in front of Mitake Station, a popular bouldering area. Okutama makes a great quick escape from Tokyo. Arakawa River Another easy day trip from Tokyo is the upstream section of the Arakawa River in Saitama Prefecture. The river has a relatively stable whitewater flow throughout summer, staying at a Grade 1.5 to 2 with its peak season being in August. Appearing in the Michelin Green Guide Japan, the Nagatoro area is famous for its mirror-like azure streams, beautiful valleys lined with cliffs, and iwadatami (literally translated as rock tatami mats) that are naturally formed rock layers. After a day of working out your arms in the boat, soak in a hot spring bath. MOC and Nagatoro Nature Navigator offer tours in the area.
Further south, Shikoku offers some exciting spring and summer rafting. The season starts earlier than in most areas in Honshu, so rafting enthusiasts can start rafting as early as March. During typhoon season in late August to early September, the Yoshino River has arguably the most thrilling rapids in Japan. The World Rafting Championships are expected to be held there in 2017. “The Japanese men’s and women’s teams have been very competitive in recent years, so it’s a very exciting time,” says Mark Treston of Happy Raft. He recommends the Yoshino River’s Koboke section as Japan’s prime whitewater run, not just for the size and scale of the river, but also its clear emerald warm water and stunning canyons.