Canyoning makes a splash in Gunma

Kyodo

Foreign tourists are making their way to Minakami, a town in Gunma Prefecture where a New Zealander, charmed by the nature there, promotes canyoning expeditions in English.

“Tone River’s torrents are world-class,” said Mike Harris, an outdoor adventure guide from New Zealand who provides the excursions. “People can experience great adventures here.”

Originated in France, canyoning is an outdoor activity in which participants, wearing only a helmet and life jacket, are carried down a fast-flowing river. Popular in Switzerland and Nepal, participants can enjoy canyoning in places where the water level is low, unlike rafting.

Harris, 40, came to Japan to study on an exchange program and spent a few years on the slopes in Nagano Prefecture, working as a ski instructor.

In 1995, he moved to Minakami, where he started to work as a rafting guide.

Harris was the one who brought canyoning to Japan from France to promote outdoor activities in the summer when the water levels are low.

“The rocks in Minakami are of high quality and there are many beautiful valleys,” said Harris, who established his own outdoor activities company in 1997. “Good accessibility with well-maintained roads is another of its charms.”

About a third of Harris’ 50 employees are Australians or Americans, so the company also offers tours in English. About 20 percent of his customers are from overseas. International schools in Singapore and elsewhere send students on school trips, said Harris.

A Kyodo News reporter joined a canyoning tour one sunny, humid day in June at the Ano River, a five-minute drive from Minakami Station on the JR Joetsu Line.

Wrapped in a wet suit and a life jacket, the reporter stepped ankle-deep into the Ano River, which is a branch of the Tone River. As she waded in, the river became narrower and the water level rose to her waist.

Ten minutes later, the participants arrived at a 20-meter-high waterfall, which they were told to slide down.

Just after she shouted “No way!” the guide let out her lifeline and down she went with a big splash.

According to the Minakami Tourism Division, the town, which is known for its hot springs, is suffering a decline in the number of tourists. The figure has dropped by half since its heyday in the 1990s. Despite this drop-off, more than 800 tourists are expected to visit Minakami for outdoor activities on weekends in August.

The area also offers other types of activities.

In winter, Igor Ikemori, 39, a Brazilian guide, works nearby as a snowboard instructor.

“In the summer, there is the Tone River. And in the winter, there is Mount Tanigawa,” said Ikemori. “In Japan, there is always something to enjoy in every season.”

There are 13 tourist companies in Minakami offering canyoning excursions. In 2008, one man on a tour was swept away and died, prompting the town to establish a new ordinance on safety standards.

Translated by The Japan Times