Whoever named Minakami got it right. The name of this small hot-spring town at the edge of the Tanigawa mountain range in Gunma prefecture means “above the water” and that’s where most of the fun happens in this outdoor adventure hotspot; Minakami boasts some of Japan’s best whitewater rafting, canyoning, canoeing and kayaking.
There’s plenty going on off the water too. Minakami draws hikers, paragliders and hot spring enthusiasts from all across Japan. Although there’s enough to do in town to keep you here for weeks, at just over an hour from Tokyo, Minakami makes for a perfect day trip or weekend getaway.
Rafting: When mountain snow starts melting here in spring, the water level in the nearby Tone River rises, and the fun begins. The rapids in Minakami are some of the best in Japan and you’ll find experienced bilingual white-water guides from around the world leading trips with the many rafting outfitters in town. Canyons runs half- and full-day sessions for ¥7,000 and ¥12,000 respectively. www.canyons.jp
Canyoning: If you’re the type to jump into things head first (literally), try canyoning in Minakami. If you’ve never heard of this white-water sport, just imagine rafting – without a raft. On a canyoning trip, you gear up in wetsuit, lifejacket and helmet, but leave the paddles and rafts on shore and jump right into the rapids. Your canyoning guide uses ropes, carabiners and ‘gentle’ encouragement to help you navigate your way down canyons, through rapids and over waterfalls.
Hiking: Whether you go for an easy day hike in the lowlands or make the grueling trek to the summit of nearby Mt Tanigawa-dake, Minakami hiking promises clean air, birdsong and stunning mountain views. There’s also a ropeway on Mt Tanigawa-dake that whisks you up to alpine plateaus.
Canoeing and Kayaking: If your life in Tokyo has you fantasizing about quietly paddling a canoe or kayak across a peaceful mountain lake, you can do that in Minakami. Outdoor outfitters here run half- and full-day canoe and kayak trips on the lakes around the town. The trips are particularly popular with kids. A full day canoeing with I Love Canoe, including lunch, is ¥12,000.
Paragliding: On any clear day in Minakami, look up and you’ll spot paragliders cruising through the sky beneath their arched wings. Minakami is one of Japan’s most popular paragliding spots and expert instructors here offer one-day lessons and tandem rides. Minakami Adventure Club runs a ‘beginner challenge course’ and tandem flights with packages between ¥6,000 and ¥10,000.
Hot Springs: Long before visitors started hurling themselves down the Tone River’s rapids or gliding in the sky, Minakami was famous for its hot springs. Ever since word spread in the 16th century about the sulfur- and calcium-rich hot springs in this mountain town, visitors from Tokyo have been coming here for a good soak.
Accommodation: For a small town, Minakami has a wide range of accommodation options. There are campgrounds, guesthouses, bed-and-breakfasts and luxury ryokan, in the town and on the nearby foothills.
Houdaigi Campground has tents, trailers, bungalows, hot showers and a barbecue area. You can bring your own tent or rent one there. It’s open from April 29 to the end of October and is about a 30 minute drive from Minakami town.
Minakami town runs a guesthouse in the mountains above town called Miharashi-sou. It’s open from April 1 to November 20 and costs from ¥5,560 per person for one night with dinner and breakfast.
Canyons rafting company runs an alpine lodge close to Yubiso hot springs. Rates are from ¥5,000 for a shared room and ¥6,000 for a private room. They offer a range of multi-night packages and tour combos.
Takaragawa Onsen Onsenkaku is an elegant traditional Japanese inn with outdoor hot spring baths by the river. Rooms with dinner and breakfast start from ¥10,000 per person.
Access: You can get to Minakami from Tokyo in less than 90 minutes by bullet train. The Joetsu Shinkansen runs directly from Tokyo Station to Jomo-Kogen station (75 minutes, ¥5750). Or, it’s a 2h 30 minute drive on the Kanetsu expressway from Tokyo.
by Annamarie Sasagawa