As much as I love Japan’s major cities, I quite enjoy leaving them as well. Places like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto have played crucial roles in my family’s life, but it has been equally important for the four of us to get out of town and back in touch with the natural world. Now that summer is in full swing, it’s a good time to explore Japan’s spectacularly great outdoors.
For many families, summer is all about the beach, but for ours, Japan’s mountainous areas are where the fun is. We’ve enjoyed plenty of hiking and camping on Japan’s Honshu mainland, but the family favorite activity remains the same every year: white water rafting. All over the archipelago, people are donning helmets and life jackets in preparation for a trip down one of the country’s many tumultuous tributaries. Some boat tours cater to those who want to float leisurely down placid waters, but we’re not going to talk about those. The kids and I always want action, so we head to wherever the rapids are.
There are top-rated rafting courses near most major Japanese cities. The water is clear and bracing, but after paddling for an hour or two on a balmy afternoon, a dip in the frigid waters of a mountain stream is one of the most pleasurable and exciting experiences that the kids and I enjoy each year.
Most white-water tours are for people aged 13 years and up, but different rivers require different skill levels, so ask before you sign up. Most Japanese rafting outfitters have at least one course that younger kids can join, and for those with slightly older and agile children, a higher course can give them a sense of adventure and accomplishment that no neighborhood playground can match.
Don’t worry about getting too much action; while thrilling, most rivers are calmer by July. Many of the harshest rapids have mellowed with the snowpack having melted away over spring to leave deeper water for smoother trips.
It’s best to book ahead, and most reputable companies have a simple online reservation system.
Once you arrive and sign in, you’ll be given life jackets, helmets and paddles. Some tours may also involve wet suits and specialized shoes, but these are mostly for canyoning (recommended for teens) or for rivers that are far beyond the abilities of the average primary school student.
There are few things, however, that are useful to know before you even set out: Make sure that everyone in your family is wearing a pair of shoes that can get wet and won’t slip off — heels, hiking boots and flip-flops should be avoided. As for glasses and sunglasses, there’s a chance you could lose them, so don’t wear anything you can’t afford to replace. For the palest among us, sunscreen is essential. You’ll be on the water for several hours with zero shade, and it’s surprising how much sun can hit your neck, knees and feet while sitting in a raft.
At the riverbank, your guide will go through a safety demonstration and show you the basics of paddling. Make sure that everyone pays attention because the next few hours on the river will be an important lesson on safety, responsibility and teamwork. Rafting trips like this can also help children overcome irrational fears in their lives: If they can raft down a mighty river, you can ask them, then what else are they capable of?
Once you’re on the water, listen to your guide as he or she commands you to direct your craft. Don’t worry if your child can’t row as robustly as the others on your boat — guides are capable of compensating for this. Instead, encourage them to watch the guide and then give it all they’ve got. Be sure to check that their feet are anchored properly (your guide will explain) so they won’t slip when the ride gets bumpy.
One of my favorite places for rafting in Japan is in the town of Minakami in Gunma Prefecture. Just a few hours north of Tokyo, Minakami is surrounded by pristine mountains and emerald rivers, making it feel completely removed from urban Japan. I recommend the rafting company called Canyons because the owners go to great lengths to train their guides above and beyond the latest safety standards. They also provide accommodation and dining options that fit a modest budget and offer free photos and videos of all tours. Another bonus to using Canyons is that it’s close to Takaragawa Onsen, which is one of our favorite Japanese hot springs.
If Minakami isn’t convenient for you, though, Canyons has another rafting center in Okutama, western Tokyo. In Shikoku, look for Happy Raft, while in Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, I recommend Evergreen. In Kansai, we’ve rafted with Big Smile. All these outfits have English-speaking guides and websites.
There is adventure waiting all over the countryside. If you’re ready, then jump right in.
For more information, visit these websites: Canyons (Gunma & Okutama): canyons.jp Happy Raft (Shikoku): en.happyraft.com Evergreen (Hakuba): www.evergreen-hakuba.com/en Big Smile (Kyoto): www.gekiryu.com/en