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Sunday, July 10, 2011
Marvelous Minakami: the great year-round escape
Special to The Japan Times
Face it, you need to get out of Tokyo during the dog days of summer, when it gets like a fetid sauna.
Yeah, you can while away a few hours at an outdoor beer garden and dull the pain, but basically you know you have to escape.
The well-known retreats of Nikko, Hakone, Kamakura, Karuizawa and Izu have their allures, but are often overrun, overrated and already in the "been there done that" heap.
Truth be told, you want something more — the impossible combination of a convenient, comfortable, off-the-beaten track sort of a place that doesn't disappoint. Minakami is that place, and it's a mere 75-minute bullet train ride from Tokyo.
I have been going to Minakami — located at the northernmost point of Gunma Prefecture, where it meets Niigata Prefecture — since 1991, and over the past two decades I've discovered many of its delights in all seasons.
In summer, the best thing about this area is the weather — several degrees cooler than Tokyo, less muggy and the air fresh. Unlike heat-island Tokyo, in the evening it cools off and the breeze from the mountains and off the rivers is refreshing.
Summer is also when the farmers' market near Jomo Kogen Station abounds with fresh produce at reasonable prices. My summer favorite is blueberries. If you rent a car or drive up, you'll see banners on many back roads inviting you to visit farms where you can pick your own, but for the lazy nibbler the farmers' market is a good place to get vine-ripened tomatoes, corn, string beans, edamame (soy beans) and tasty organic eggs.
For outdoor activities amid incredible scenery, Minakami is just the ticket. The hiking in the whole area is outstanding, but it doesn't get much better than on and around 1,977-meter Mount Tanigawa (Tanigawadake).
It's a powder hound's oasis in winter, but in summer the views are also awe-inspiring. You can hike up, and take the ropeway down or zoom to the top and hike along the ridges. Or, near the parking lot at the foot of the ropeway, you can find trailheads such as at Ichinokura, from where breathtaking vistas await.
It is incredible that only two hours from Tokyo you can be far from the madding crowd and in the midst of gorgeous alpine terrain — but be prepared, as the weather can change dramatically very quickly.
In many years of hiking around Minakami, I frequently see kamoshika (serows, which look like a goat-antelope cross), monkeys, bears, raccoons, wolverines, rabbits, iitachi (golden-tailed martens), boars, fox, squirrels, hawks, grouse, pheasants, egrets, blue heron and owls.
Summer is the peak season for bears, so it is advisable to wear bells to scare them off; I average about eight sightings a year, from as early as May right through to November, but I hike a lot, way up in the forested hills.
If you are ever confronted by a bear, never ever try to run away; stand your ground, wave your arms and roar loudly. That was the advice I got from a local hunter and it has worked (knock on wood) for the half-dozen or so close calls I have had when being charged.
In general, early morning and end of the afternoon are the riskiest times. Just try to remember, and convince yourself, that they are as eager to avoid a confrontation as you are — unless it's a mother with cubs. If you are walking through the woods and see one of these impossibly cute, blinking, big-eyed babies clinging to a tree, know that mom is not far and beat a hasty retreat. Also bear in mind that most people who only occasionally hike in Minakami never see a bear — so the odds are on your side.
The Tone River that runs through Minakami is also a great place for rafting and fishing, summer is ayu (sweetfish) season, while a company called Canyons offers canyoning among other adrenaline-pumping activities. Canoeing, mountain biking, golf, tennis and bungee-jumping off the Minakami Bridge are all on offer.
On top of all that, visitors with an urge to see a steam locomotive belching away can join the shutterbugs along the old Joetsu Line around noon on weekends. For those interested in traditional Japanese arts, or just making soba noodles, there is the Takumi no Sato Hands-on Folk Art Village.
As for accommodations, there are good campsites but, for those who prefer their outdoor adventures in comfort, there are a range of excellent options from boutique ryokan (traditional inns) and pampering high-end spas to pensions and minshuku (family-run guesthouses).
Alas, downtown Minakami Onsen is an eyesore that testifies to the exuberant embrace of shoebox concrete architecture and package tourism in the 1970s. Luckily, though, it is blessed with stunning scenery dominated by the looming Mount Tanigawa and the small patch of ugliness is surrounded by verdant hills, with lovely out-of-the way inns and onsen (hot springs) only minutes away by car — but miles distant in atmosphere.
In terms of onsen, the Minakami environs are hard to beat, ranging from the massive rotenburo (open-air hot-spring bath) at Takaragawa (where, sadly, they keep bears in cages), to one of Japan's most charming indoor baths at Houshi Onsen. Each is about a 35-minute drive from Jomo Kogen, and there's a bus service to Takaragawa.
In between, there are hundreds of choices, with a standout of the Kamimoku district being at the venerable Tatsumi-kan Inn ( 72-3055), which has a splendid rotenburo alongside the Tone River — and it's a good place for firefly sightings in summer, too. As well as providing comfortable lodgings, the Tatsumi-kan Inn — just a five-minute drive from Jomo Kogen Station — also serves superb charcoal-grilled dishes prepared in traditional style over an irori (charcoal hearth).
For something special, however, the five-room Yado Kanzan ( 72-3041) high in the hills facing Mount Tanigawa (and with good hiking nearby) is cozy and luxurious yet suffused with family warmth. The owner is a renowned maker of shakuhachi (bamboo flutes), and he and his sons serenade guests over sumptuous kaiseki (sequential seasonal dishes served with artistic flourish) dinners featuring local, seasonal produce. The soft-shell crabs are a signature dish, but don't miss the Joshugyu — top-grade Gunma beef that melts in your mouth.
Meanwhile, Cafe Manna ( 72-5244) close to the train station is a good place for a coffee and/or to partake of its excellent pizza and pasta while gazing out over the Tone River. Owners Phil and Akiko Bennett are also fonts of wisdom about the area, and their friendly dog, Alice, makes visitors feel welcome. They are located just below (and have rental information about) a bucolic international community of 30-odd houses, some of which are for rent year-round.
Autumn is cool and crisp, with colorful leaves and tasty apples, while winter is a skiers' paradise with more than 20 ski resorts within an hour's drive. The cherry blossoms in spring are late compared to Tokyo, so it's a good place for a second round of viewing — and with the snowmelt swelling the rivers, it's the best time for rafting.
Getting there: Take one of the hourly JR Joetsu Shinkansen trains from Tokyo Station to reach Jomo Kogen in about 75 minutes. There are car-rental offices in and next to the station. Or drive up the Kanetsu Highway to Exit 15 at Minakami, less than two hours from Tokyo. Further information: The website of the Minakami Sightseeing Association is www.enjoy-minakami.jp/eng/index.html. Feeling sporty: Canyons ( 72-2811; www.canyons.jp/index_E.html) is an excellent Kiwi-operated outdoor adventure company with accommodations and year-round guided tours in English. It also offers rafting, canyoning, hiking, caving, backcountry skiing, snowshoeing and mini-summer camps for kids.