Canyoning in Minakami

What is canyoning? To the uninformed layman, the word may conjure up images of going to a canyon and doing something, although exactly what that something is isn`t quite readily apparent. For this reason, I is I am on a one man personal crusade to change the term to “Waterfalling”.

So what is “Waterfalling” then? Well to the uninformed layman, the word may conjure up images of going to a waterfall, and falling off it. In my expert opinion (I am a one-time Waterfalling veteran as of this past weekend) this is a much more appropriate term for said activity.

Wikipedia defines canyoning (cough; waterfalling) – known as canyoneering in the U.S. , as travelling in canyons using a variety of techniques that may include other outdoor activities such as walking, scrambling, climbing, jumping, abseiling, and/or swimming.

Read that last part again. Canyoning, involves travelling down a canyon (waterfall..alright…I`ll stop) by JUMPING off of it. Yes, it is every bit as awesome as it sounds, and I salute the brave men and women who had the gallstones to peer off the perilous edge of a waterfall and decide taking a leap off of it would make for a good team-building weekend activity.

In continuing the apparent tradition of reckless abandon in the quest for fun that JETs are known for, on September 11, about 25 of the Gunma ALTs planned a canyoning trip in Minakami – the outdoor sports haven of Japan. Wide eyed and full of wonder and trepidation, our adventure began when we met in front of the Minakami train station. There, we waited for the comically small busses that would take us to Canyons – the company that would be hosting the events of the day.

While waiting, yours truly took great pleasure in telling wildly exaggerated stories and making fantastical claims about the thrills and horrors that were to be expected.

ME: I was watching videos of canyoning on YouTube all day yesterday, and did you know that all you get for protection is a wetsuit and a helmet? Then you use that to slide down rapids, over waterfalls, trying to avoid rocks, branches and other obstacles.

GIRL: Really? That`s what canyoning is? Is that safe?? I`m sure it`s totally safe right..

ME: Well they make you sign a waiver for a reason. You know, to cover their asses and all. I mean we will probably have to do jumps off 10, 15, maybe even 20m high waterfalls.

GIRL: What?! *converts metres to feet in her head* WAIT, WHAT?!?!

ME: *shrug* Yeah, I mean that`s why I took out another life insurance policy – just in case. After all, we`ll have to travel down those rapids feet first, head first, and even backwards and those helmets are only made out of plastic.

GIRL: Oh my gosh!! Oh my GOSH!!!! You`re joking right?!

ME: I wouldn’t worry about it too much though, I mean it`s best if you just don’t think about it and just jump. Also..be sure to actually jump, because if you don`t, they will actually throw you off the cliff because theres no other way down. I heard last year, they threw some girl because she wouldn`t jump, and on the way down she hit the side of the cliff face.

GIRL: *On the verge of tears and beginning to hyperventilate* Ohmygodohmygodohmygod…

ME: But don`t worry I`m sure you`ll do fine. Just make sure to keep your knees bent to avoid breaking them, keep your arms in tight so you don`t break an elbow against a rock, and tuck your chin in so you don`t break..your neck. That probably doesn`t happen very often though. Probably..

GIRL: *Has turned pale white and begun swaying erratically*

ME: Haha..don`t worry I`m totally kidding, I made all that up.

GIRL: You JERK!!! *flails her fists at my arm repeatedly*

The little Canyoning busses pulled up just as I had finished having my fun. An exuberant Japanese man with long shaggy hair and an unplaceable accent hopped out and asked if we were ready to jump off waterfalls and have a great time. Following a chorus of yelps and cheers, we piled into the bus and putted down the street, up the winding mountain road to the base station.

Once we got there, we were quickly ushered to the changing areas to get our equipment – wetsuits, shoes, gloves, helmets, and life jackets. It took awhile to get everything on because the gear was extremely tight and form fitting.

Finally we were all ready to go. Separated into two groups, we were ushered by the shaggy-haired Japanese guy into an even smaller bus-van thing. Once inside, he introduced himself as Igor and gave us a rundown on procedure and what to expect.

IGOR: Okay you guys all signed the waiver right? Good, just checking. Make sure you guys all have your helmets because that`s very important. You don`t want to bash your head in while you`re sliding headfirst or backwards down rapids and waterfalls, trying to avoid rocks, branches and other obstacles. Keep your hands out in front of you though because those helmets are only made out of plastic. But make sure to keep them slightly bent so you don’t risk breaking them! Now when you jump off the 20m high waterfall, make sure you keep your knees loose, arms tight, and chin tucked so you don`t break your legs, arms, or neck. And you better jump – because if you don`t, we`ll throw you! Haha – just kidding, but actually not really, so seriously, you should jump. Last year, there was a girl who – well, nevermind. Okay we`re here, everybody out!

I shook the girl in front of me who appeared to have fainted, and we all piled out of the bus-van and waddled down the beaten path, towards the stream at the top of the river. After explaining the signals one more time, some last minute checks and final preparations, we were off down the stream.

The way you travel down a river while canyoning is to simply lean back and let the lifejacket keep you afloat and let the current carry you downstream. You avoid rocks and obstacles by steering yourself with your body and using your hands and feet as rudders. Although the suits are lightly padded, It`s not the smartest idea to hit anything head on or with your knees and elbows. Or face.

Once we were past the stream and into the actual river rapids, the pace quickly picked up and we went from one checkpoint to the next, on our backs, headfirst, or bracing against rocks and hiking along the rapids.

Finally we approached the big jump. The 20m high waterfall. As we peered over the crest of the falls and down into the abyss below, there was a feeling of excitement, fear and absolute dread in the air.

After the first person went over, our guide asked the group who wanted to go next. Since I was the guy who was talking smack all morning and I was the only one with a waterproof camera, I was volunteered for the job.

The way it worked was that they attach a rope to your harness and slowly lower you out into the actual waterfall. Then once you`re ready (you can never be truly ready for what happens next), the guide releases the rope and you shoot down the waterfalls, riding the torrents of water, like a waterside without an actual physical slide. It was an absolutely incredible experience.

As one by one, everyone completed the big drop, there was a genuine sense of camaraderie and fellowship that formed among the group. When you complete something as insane as sliding off a 20m high waterfall together, that is a pretty intense shared experience.

Spurred by the confidence the Big One gave us, we approached the remaining jumps with less apprehension and enjoyed the leaps, spills, flips, and flops. Together we conquered huge waterfall jumps, flipped off ledges 15 feet up, and deftly navigated between moss covered rocks and granite walls smoothened by thousands of years of cascading water.

By the end of the tour, we were exhausted but wished we could do it all over again. As we walked down the path towards the waiting bus, shoes squishing with water and wetsuits beginning to chafe, I turned around and looked back at the final waterfall one last time. I stood there and reflected on just how incredible of an experience that was and how lucky we all were to have had the opportunity to try something like this in Japan. I breathed a sigh of relief that I didn`t bash my face into a pile of jagged rocks and turned around to catch up with the group.

After we got back from canyoning, the night was made even more legendary by the inclusion of a BBQ and live music dance party. People came up from Tokyo to this event, and the clubbing event that took place was one of the most intense nights I`ve ever been out at.

We also found an amazing swimming hole right around the corner from the ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) we stayed at. You can see it in the video posted above.

Thus concluded the epic, no, glorious, 2010 Canyoning excursion of the Gunma ALTs. I would like to thank all the people who were involved, especially GAJET and in particular Jessie Zanutig and Thom Schumacher who took the initiative to organize the event. Much love also goes out to the staff of Canyons, the company that took us on the actual tour. In addition to my slightly inflated (but not really) allegations from before, they were not only a bunch of cool guys, but consummate professionals as well, who took the greatest care to ensure that we all had a fun, safe trip. At no point did I fear for my safety, and I was confident that they knew exactly what they were doing.

For anyone interested in going Canyoning (or Waterfalling, as I still insist on calling it), if you are in Gunma, and in particular – Minakami, definitely give it a try. It is an incredible experience, and definitely should be part of your bucket-list. Minakami itself is a beautiful place; ensconced within the beautiful mountains of Gunma, steeped in history and with lots of things to do and see like hot water springs (onset), hiking trails, kayaking, and winter sports in the winter.

Here`s a video I made of the experience:

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