Funny thing: I once wrote a Lifestyle article for Challenge Magazine on Eco-Tourism, and one of the places featured was Minakami in Gunma Prefecture. After the long back and forth I did to get publishable pictures, most of the images left an indelible impression. Which explained why when we decided to go rafting, I ended up going to the Canyons site instead of the other place M had found online, because the picture that had been provided to me by Responsible Travel were all images of Canyon's, well, rather spectacular-looking canyoning sessions.
Also, Canyon's half-day package was still ¥8000, while the other operator was going to tack on an additional ¥1000 surcharge since it was a weekend. It was only logical.
We were picked up from Yado Kanzan at 8.30 am, and driven to the Canyons base. After placing our luggage in the office and our valuables in the free lockers provided, we were introduced to our guide Ben from New Zealand, who then gave us the grand tour of the premises and got us kitted out in wetsuits. The entire process was undeniably far more professional than our experiences in Bali, where we just needed not to mind getting our clothes a bit damp.
Wetsuits are a pain. There were two layers to get on over our swimming gear, then a pair of shoes. The guides were surprised we managed to get ours on so quickly, and as they got us strapped into our life vests and helmets, told us horror stories of people who'd broken fingers trying to squeeze in. We then had to wait for another seven people who were going down the river with us (Albeit in separate boats), and slowly began overheating under the sun. After that, we endured an acutely miserable ride down to where the river level was deeper, all the while sweltering in the thick rubber suits.
So, when our guides told us to go splash about the crystal clear river, we ran for it. At the first touch of cold water leaking in though, we were massively glad for the suits. After a bit of swimming about, we got together and formed a trust circle in the river, and floated for a while, getting used to the water.
This time around, we received a far more extensive safety briefing than what we got in Bali. Ben went through a whole bunch of instructions we'd heard before (Forward Paddle! Backward Paddle!), and a lot we hadn't (Keep a hold on the T-Grip before you accidentally take someone's eye out!). We paddled upstream to a small rapid where we practised everything we'd learned, then Ben got our boat to 'surf' (Where the boat is basically trapped by currents, bobbing about the edges of the rapid).
With the water from the Tone River coming mainly from the run-off of melting snow, the seasons affect the rafting experience. The thaw that occurs in Spring makes it the best time to go rafting, because the river runs much deeper and the rapids are wilder. Summer's the season for canyoning, where you float, swim and rappel down rivers and waterfalls. In Autumn, caving (Or spelunking) is much more popular. Since we were there at the tail end of Summer and the beginning of Autumn, the river was much more placid. While there were still dips and bobs to be enjoyed, the calmness of the water gave us the opportunity to do other exciting things like swimming and jumping off massive rocks.
After almost 30 years of marriage, this was the first time M found out about D's slight fear of heights. To this revelation, she went "Don't be a coward. Go." M would have loved to do the jump, but the scramble to the top of it was fairly difficult and not her area, so she sat in the boat and wistfully watched us go while bemoaning the lack of proper step access.
At the top of the rock, we were given another round of safety instructions on the best way to jump without injuring ourselves or getting water up our noses (Land feet first, and on impact, breathe out hard so the water won't rush in). Then, we all posed for Masu, our designated photographer of the day, to snap some shots. We're the two awkward figures on the right - D afraid of heights and me afraid of accidentally falling off the rock before it was my turn to jump.
We let everyone else go first, since we'd been the last boat to climb up, and we watched and clapped and cheered for everyone who jumped before us. The three guys who were there in a group all went for outrageous and spectacular leaps off the rock, while the three girls who were together all did the standard 'Grab your life vest and step off the rock' routine. I tried for a good jump, but really all I remember was a brief fall before hitting the water. 7 metres isn't all that high.
I made a bigger splash than D, who was silently panicking behind me. Only when he heard the countdown from the Japanese guide who'd gone up with us all did he manage to overcome his nerves and jump, since there was no backing out by then. He emerged out of the water all smiles though.
The rest of the journey was pleasantly relaxing, and the wetsuits didn't pose that much of a problem on the ride back. They only emerged once we'd got out of the car and dumped our helmets and life jackets. We had to sit on benches and yank off our wetsuit shoes. I'd managed to slip mine on fairly easily, but now that they were all waterlogged and squelchy I found myself at a loss to yank them off. One of the guys from the other boat offered to help, but I managed to tug one boot off and declined the offer. I had more of an issue with the next one though, and ended up practically begging him to help. I pushed and he pulled and everyone giggled at the absurd reverse Cinderella position we found ourselves in.
Eventually though, the shoe came off, and all of us went to change out of the wetsuits. After a quick shower we came out and bought the CD with all our pictures on it, and arranged to have our return transportation take us to Mt Tanigawa.