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Friday, July 4, 2008

Plunging into the abyss

The sport of canyoning offers a thrilling reminder of the dangerous beauty of nature


Special to The Japan Times

I'm hanging from a rope, high above the churning froth of an ice-blue river. My friends are waving and shouting out to me, but the roar of the waterfall muffles their voices. I pull myself off a wooden seat and lower my legs. Now there's nothing between me and the water below but crisp mountain air. Then I remember my guide's advice: "When you let go, the key is to look straight up," he says with a wink. "That way, you'll fall straight down." I squint at the sky, let go of the grip and plunge into the foaming pool below.

News photo
Speed racer: An urban adventurer drops from Inaritaki Waterfall. JASON JENKINS PHOTOS

By the end of the afternoon I will have dodged boulders, careened through natural stone chutes and dropped from one of Gunma Prefecture's many massive waterfalls.

It's my first try at canyoning, a hybrid sport that combines swimming and rock climbing with the thrills of rappelling and rafting. One of the world's fastest-growing outdoor activities, canyoning claims enthusiasts from Switzerland to South Africa. Clad in wet suits, life jackets, helmets and climbing harnesses, practitioners work their way downstream, negotiating rocks, whirlpools and waterfalls. Think of it as being like white-water rafting, but without a raft.

The history of canyoning as a sport is vague, but most agree that it first caught on in Europe around 30 years ago, with New Zealand following a decade or so later. Japan had its first advocates near the millennium, and now canyoning is beginning to rival its outdoor cousins, rafting and rock climbing, in popularity.

It's easy to see why. Canyoning is arguably more interactive with nature than rafting — instead of riding atop a river, you are literally neck-deep in it — yet it does not require the skill and fitness level that rock climbing demands. For example, the same course I take is available for 13-year-olds, and my downriver companions consist completely of self-described office ladies, none of whom can do the single pullup required for "superdrop," an optional jump from a handmade contraption above the river, Yet there they are, hurtling through naturally formed corkscrew chutes and leaping, noses pinched, off small cliffs into the drink.

Inaritaki's 20-meter drop
Go team: Adventurers can choose to be released from the top or lowered halfway down Inaritaki's 20-meter drop.
Inaritaki's 20-meter drop

Dangerous? It sure feels like it, but like sky diving, bungee jumping and other activities that flirt with risk, the key is the right gear and skilled guides. You may feel like a fugitive in a Hollywood action movie as you leap into the depths, but like in the movies, the danger is predominantly in your mind, thanks to those working behind the scenes. In this case, it's the guides: at every obstacle along the river, one guide gives you instructions in Japanese or English while another tightens the guide rope and secures your harness. A third waits downstream, ready to lend a hand if needed. "When I saw that waterfall, I thought, 'There is just no way I can do this,' " says Kanako, a twentysomething office worker from Tokyo. "But the guides made it possible."

The guides are from an outfit called Canyons, which is based in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture. I chose Canyons because they've been doing it longer than anyone in this country (New Zealander owner Mike Harris is responsible for over 40 canyon first-descents throughout Japan), but most importantly, they require a strict regimen of safety certifications for full-time guides. Each year they fly in instructors from Europe to train new guides and update staff on new equipment and techniques.

When you think about it, these guys have essentially turned search-and-rescue protocol into weekend entertainment. Instead of whisking us away from peril, they've mastered how to keep us safely near it, repurposing skills once reserved for evacuating avalanche victims to make urban dwellers like me feel like we've lived a little.

"Sure, it can be dangerous, and we take it very seriously," one of my guides says. "But at the same time, it's not so risky when done right. We do this every day. For us, it's part assembly line, part vaudeville act. It's a performance, really. The tricky part of our job is to maintain the illusion of danger while reassuring people that they really can do it."

And people really are. I met bankers from India and school nurses from Saitama, waiters from Tokyo and travel agents from Yokohama, all squeezing into wet suits and clambering into a van headed for our starting point: Fox Canyon.

A guide rappels down Inaritaki
A guide rappels down Inaritaki to secure a safety rope.

Ten minutes later, my group and I were knee-deep in the river. The water was freezing (it is snowmelt, after all), but the wet suit and my own body heat kept me surprisingly insulated from the cold.

Each obstacle along the river has its own nickname and specialized navigation. There is The Abyss ("Hands up. Push off the ledge on the far side") and the Wall ("Feet up; stay on your back and use the force of the water to walk across the wall below"). And of course, there was Inaritaki, the 20-meter waterfall ("Lean your left shoulder out and we'll let go of the rope around 10 meters"). Perhaps the most important advice, however, was given before we even left for the river: "Go to the bathroom now," we were told, "That wet suit is not coming off for three hours." More than a few people wished they had heeded that advice.

News photo
Keeping your hands out helps avoid hitting the rock face-first.

By the end of the day, my arms were sore and I had drunk a pint of water through my nose, but I was already plotting my next tour. Canyoning reminded me of how beautiful and dangerous nature can be, and that sometimes the best way to conquer fear is to jump right into it.

More Info: Canyoning season lasts until October, but the highest water flows run from May to July. Canyons is located in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture. For directions and more information, check www.canyons.jp


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