Minakami has gone through something of a revival of late. Back in the day it was a popular little hot spring resort a few hours from Tokyo, so a great destination for a holiday home. (There is even an enclave of foreigner-owned homes close by known as Gaijin Mura.) Its star seemed to be on the wane when outdoor activities took off, and it now has something of a reputation as an outdoor adventure hub.
There are a whole host of activities available so you find yourself a bit spoiled for choice. The good news is that most of the companies in the area work together so you can fit two different activities into the same day (if you have the energy.) Pick from white water rafting, canyoning, bungy jumping, lake canoeing, paragliding, mountain biking or hydrospeeding.
For our first trip we decided to go with Canyons, who run rafting and canyoning, as well as a lodge and café. It is a joint-owned project set up by a bunch of Japanese and Aussie/Kiwi guides who were all working in Minakami, but who had all worked overseas. Their idea was for a company that provided unique and challenging outdoor experiences for customers and a great place to work for the guides and their families. A decade later it is a leader in outdoor activities with several different bases throughout Japan, staff from all over the world and lots of kids running around. The driving force of the company is a giant Kiwi with dreadlocks called Mike Harris who has become somewhat of a spokesman for outdoor sports and tourism in both Minakami and Japan. He’s passionate about his many hobbies (which he is often out enjoying with his three kids) and is happy to sit down and share his deep knowledge of the local area. As someone who moved to Minakami for the “beer, BBQs and onsen” he’ll certainly make sure you get the best out of your time in his neck of the woods.
Minakami is on the Tone River which Mike assures us is the "best place for rafting in Japan in spring." The snow from the surrounding mountains raises the water level, causing high water and plenty of white water rapids from April to sometime in June. Through summer and autumn the water level is a bit lower so it becomes a friendly river suited to families or kids.
We'd never been rafting before so were a bit apprehensive about what would be expected from us. No experience is necessary, we were told; we just had to turn up with a towel and some swimwear. After signing in we met the guides (Japanese, Aussies and Kiwis) with all the other rafters for that morning and were whisked off to get issued with our gear. There was definitely a mood of expectation about, and the guides are full of energy and jokes. Changed into wetsuit, wetsuit socks, rafting boots, lifejacket and helmet, and armed with a paddle we were then bussed to the river. Each raft takes up to 7 customers with a guide, and after a bit of a practise in a pool, we had soon mastered the handful of commands we would need for the trip - ducking down, hanging on, paddling backwards and forwards, and most importantly, splashing other rafts. Once we were good to go, the rafts headed out into the main flow.
It's a great ride down the river. There is a mixture of rapids, some quite easy ones that you paddle through and some where you hide in the bottom of the raft and get bounced around (or thrown out if you are not careful. Flipped boats are not unknown either, but there is a kayak out with the trip to retrieve any stray rafters.) The scenery is stunning, there are some flat parts of the river where you can jump out for a swim (the water is pretty cold but with the exercise and wetsuit a dip is very welcome) and even a big rock you can climb up and jump off. Our guide made us feel very confident and did a great job of keeping everybody laughing as we make our way down the river. Time shot by and the end of the course came all too quickly though we'd covered over 12 kilometres of river.
Once you help drag the raft out of the river and hand your paddle in, it is back on the bus to the base. We stayed in our wetsuits while we had lunch, though for those on the morning tour it was the end of their fun for the day. The Canyons Adventure Center has a large deck where you eat a filling lunch surrounded by guides and customers from other tours.