by Mike Harris
After working as a rafting guide in Japan for nine years, the monotony of “pushing rubber,” as we say in the business, became too much for me. I needed something fresh and exciting to renew my interest in outdoor adventure and retain my dwindling sanity. Enter canyoning.
In a land where waterways are synonymous with “river beautification projects” (a government euphemism for concrete), Japan has a surprising amount of virgin canyons, untouched and virtually unseen by human eyes. These lost fields offer us a glimpse of a tune gone by and give us the opportunity to retreat from the hassles of every-day life to a secret sanctuary. Very Zen.
Canyoning originated as a sport in Europe about 30 years ago. Climbers and cavers practicing techniques, and looking for new playgrounds, pioneered canyoning using the steep canyons of the European Alps.
In the last 10 years it has become a truly international sport from the lukewarm canyons of the tropics to the glacier-fed valleys of Europe. In Japan, shower climbing, the sport of climbing up placid canyons, has been around for decades, but real canyoning has only appeared in the past three years.
What is canyoning?
Canyoning is about negotiating your way down a steep canyon using a variety of techniques. A standard canyon trip involves cascading down naturally-carved chutes and waterfalls, abseiling and jumping down waterfalls and cliffs into pools and swimming or floating through crystal clear mountain water.
The techniques employed will depend on the difficulty of the canyon and the experience of the group. More experienced groups can tackle more challenging courses with higher jumps and bigger waterfalls.
For me, canyoning is about two things. The first is being close to nature. Introducing people to the sheer beauty of our natural environment and increasing awareness about ecological concerns.
The second is the rush! The dictionary defines a rush as: The intensely pleasurable sensation experienced immediately after use of a stimulant or a mind-altering drug.
Adrenaline is my drug of choice. The natural high from jumping off a 20-meter cliff or sliding down a 30-meter chute is incredible.
Where can I do it?
Minakami Onsen in Gunma Prefecture boasts more than 100 waterfalls within a 20-km. radius, making it the ideal location for budding canyoners in the Tokyo/Kanto area. Many of the established rafting operators are jumping on the canyoning bandwagon, and there are now five companies offering varying degrees of canyoning tours. (Note that some operators only run shower climbing.)
Elsewhere in Japan, with an abundance of unexplored canyons, canyoning is still in the development cycle. It’s only a matter of time before operations emerge in new areas.
Who can do it?
Ninety-five percent of customers have never canyoned before, so no experience is required. It is recommended that customers have an adequate fitness level and sense of adventure. More advanced canyons require some abseiling experience and a higher level of fitness. Children can participate from the age of 13.
When is the best time?
Most companies in Central Japan will start canyoning around June and continue until early October. July-August is the best season, straight after the frequent ram during Isuyu (rainy season), when the water and air temperatures are at a more comfortable level. Canyoning before June is possible but reserved for hardcore adventurers.
Is it safe?
As with any outdoor adventure sport, there is always an element of risk. My best advice is to be careful in choosing an operator. As canyoning is a relatively new sport to Japan, there are few experienced guides around. Make sure the company you book with has experienced guides and good warm equipment. (As yet there is no canyoning guide license in Japan, but as of 2004 there should be a license issued by the mountain guides association.)
So next time you go to turn on your air con, think about escaping the heat for a day of bliss. Refresh your mind, body and soul with an adventure into the realm of nature – and get amongst it!
(Writer’s Note: Every spare day I have is spent on pioneering missions to new canyons; for the thrill of the first descent, and assessing the viability of being able to take friends and customers into a unique and pristine canyon. If you have info on canyons, or pictures of canyons or waterfalls, let me know. If the canyon is doable, you will be invited to the first commercial descent!)