Looking for an adventure? Boy do I have a tour for you. Ever heard of canyoning? It's a sport that combines mountain climbing, hiking and swimming. Basically one dons a wetsuit and specialized climbing harness, hikes to a small mountain stream and then hikes down in the water. Sounds simple but here's the fun part, mountain rivers often have waterfalls. When a canyonier comes to a waterfall he or she has two options, rappel down on a rope, or better yet, slide down like a water slide!
Sound like your cup of tea? There are several companies in Japan offering canyoning tours, I've been personally been on four, and the best one by a huge margin was the Waku Waku Adventures' Complete Aino Course on the Onotani River in Southern Mie Prefecture. Waku Waku Adventures itself is actually located in the city of Shingu in Wakayama Prefecture, just across the Kumano River from Mie Prefecture. To get to Shingu from Tokyo one needs to get the bullet train to Nagoya and then transfer to the Limited Express Nanki. From Osaka the Limited Express Ocean Arrow or Limited Express Kuroshio will take you straight to Shingu.
Local trains are possible but be prepared for a long ride. Despite being a city of only 30,000 or so people, Shingu does have a good selection of accommodations. Cheapest among them are the Shingu Hayatama Youth Hostel at about ¥3700 per night a/c, taxes and other fees included, and the UI Hotel at ¥6300 per night.
At 8:30 in the morning I was met by Waku Waku Adventures' head guide Satoshi Asano in front of Shingu Station and driven to the Waku Waku base camp, an old wooden building that previously served some kind of agricultural purpose, above some rice fields on the banks of the Kumano River.
After a safety briefing, signing one's life away on the waivers, changing into wetsuits, and locking away valuables in the provided lockers, it was a 20 or so minute ride across the Kumano River, through rice paddy villages and into the mountains of Mie, to a narrow one lane stretch of hardly traveled mountain road where the tour begins. The 20-30 minute climb up the walls of the Onotani River Canyon really is an adventure like no other, especially when you clip yourself onto a rope with two "cowtails" (a short rope with a carabiner on the end that attaches a climber to a fixed rope by way of his/her climbing harness) and scramble across a narrow ledge in a vertical cliff wall.
Climbing in the humid Japanese summer weather in a 5mm wetsuit can be rough, but the reward is well worth it. The bed of the Onotani River at the top of the climb is an amazing spot to behold. The "U" shaped depression in the mountain side is so perfect that it looks like someone cut it out of the rocks with a half-pipe's pipe-dragon. The end of the hike is also the first waterfall of the day, a 6m slide arching smoothly down to a pool of clear blue water. The people on my tour got to slide down the waterfall 2 times, and then we got to jump into the pool from the rock wall opposite the slide. This first blaze of excitement is followed by a slower paced, but no less fun, set of small slides 2~3m in height and several small pools in the rocks perfect for cooling off in. The section was also good for waiting your turn to descend the largest waterfall in the entire course.
At 40m (that's 131ft) tall it's too high, and too rough to slide down, so the guides rig a taught line from the top of the waterfall to the cliff wall at the bottom and you "zip" down this line with your cowtails while a guide slows your descent with another rope. It's definitely not for the acrophobic, but the view it affords is nothing short of spectacular. Once your feet are back down on solid ground at the bottom of the waterfall, it's time for lunch. On my tour Waku Waku served up a home cooked hamburger, a cream cheese pastrami sandwich, potato salad, a piece of corn on the cob, watermelon and a glass of cold oolong tea. The food was quite tasty and gave me more than enough boost to finish the tour.
There are 6 waterfalls in the afternoon leg of the tour, 2 of which are fairly large, 10m and 15m. You'll pick up some big speed by the time you reach the pools at the bottom. It's a rocking good time but if the height and speed has you scared (you big sissy), the guide can lower you about halfway down with a rope before letting you slide the rest of the way. My only regret is that we only got to slide the big ones once. Rats! The final attraction in the tour is a 7m jump off of a dam into another pool of see-to-the-bottom ~3m deep clear blue water. Get ready... Get set... Jump! And once you've splashed down, smile for an underwater portrait. After that you'll get to play around in the pool a little, take a few more pictures, and then head back to Waku Waku Base Camp where the guides will present a slideshow of the pictures they took of you having a ball. They'll also give you (or mail you) a DVD of those pictures and videos. It's included in the cost of the trip.
Waku Waku Adventures is in it's second year of operation. The head guides founded it last year after leaving another company that operates tours on the Oboke/Koboke Gorge in Shikoku. You will have to break out your Japanese to go on a Waku Waku tour, or bring a Japanese speaking friend along with you. Waku Waku Adventures offers 6 canyoning courses ranging from the beginner level Aino Course, to the expert level Zenki Fudó Nanajú no Taki Course which boasts an 80m waterfall, the highest waterfall offered by any commercial outfit in Japan. Depending on when you visit and which course you select, canyoning with Waku Waku will cost between ¥13,000 for the beginner level Aino course in the spring or fall, to ¥30,000 for the Zenki Fudó Nanajú no Taki Course during the summer high season from July to September. The mid-level Complete Aino Course that I did was ¥18,000. These prices include all the gear, lunch, pick up and drop-off at Shingu Station or the meeting point of the selected tour, 2 guides and a DVD full of pictures. It was money well invested in a great experience. I highly recommend it.
A note to all canyoners: As a result of the damage from Typhoon Talas last year, Waku Waku Adventures will not operate any tours during the 2012 season. Email Waku Waku directly or watch their website for updates on their reopening.