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Sunday, April 8, 2001

A white river runs through it

Japan's rivers offer international-grade rapid thrills


Staff writer

White-water rafting is more than an aquatic roller-coaster ride. Surging torrents and treacherous whirlpools threaten, while riverbed rocks bump violently against the small rubber boat. And there is always the chance that you could be thrown overboard and into the merciless current.

But just as danger is always around the corner, spectacular scenery is never far away. Look over your left shoulder and you might see a magnificent gorge covered with spring blossoms. To your right, you might catch sight of wild monkeys or a mountain goat.

Already a popular sport in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States, white-water rafting in Japan has recently been increasing in popularity.

Many experts agree that some areas of Japan, such as Minakami in Gunma Prefecture, are of world-class caliber. The steep and rapid Tone River is a powerful white-water magnet that attracts some 40,000 rafters a year to the small town of Minakami located 150 km northeast of Tokyo.

Sections of the river's current are ranked at grade 4 or 5 rapid on an international scale of 6, and preliminaries for international rafting championships often take place on this river.

The rafting season in Minakami opens later this month and ends in October. Kaoru Mogi, president of the Minakami Rafting Association, recommends May and June as the best time to go because melting snow from Mount Tanigawa raises the water level and, by extension, rafting-tour thrills.

Japanese-language ability is not essential in Minakami, Mogi says. Native English-speaking guides from Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. are employed by several of the area's rafting agencies.

Rafting tours cost between 8,000 yen and 11,000 yen, depending on the agency, and the fee usually covers rental of gear such as a paddle, wet suit, life jacket and helmet. You'll need to bring a bathing suit and a pair of shoes that can get wet. Tours usually last 90 minutes to two hours; the journey length is determined by the water level.

After you've changed, a bus will take you to the starting point. Before you actually launch into the river, your guides will briefly teach you how to paddle and what to do if you fall into the water.

Most rafts carry from six to eight people, including one or two guides. Since the guides are at the helm and know how to navigate the currents, you only have to follow their commands.

Even if you don't fall into the water, you will most likely be sopping wet by the time you reach your destination. The good news is you can always take a relaxing bath at a nearby onsen afterward.

The following Minakami rafting agencies have English-speaking guides:

Uncle Bear (0278) 72-8986, 8,000 yen, from April 20

Great Outdoors (0278) 72-8731, 6,500-10,000 yen depending on the course and date, from April 7

Granpy (0278) 62-0828, 9,000 yen (weekdays) including lunch, from April 26

Max (0278) 72-4844, 10,000 yen, from April 21



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