Travel in the wake of COVID-19 is going to look a little different. An emphasis on sustainability, experience-based breaks and rural locations, where social distancing comes easily are at the forefront of many travelers’ minds. Venture off Japan’s well-trodden paths and discover vast expanses of extraordinary landscapes rich in culture. Let me introduce you to a new side of Japan.
Action-packed adventure an hour from Tokyo
“The first time I came here, I was struck by its natural beauty,” says Mike Harris, operating a tour company in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture, who set up business here in 2000. “There are flowing rivers and dramatic mountains all around. I was amazed by the rafting here—it is world-class. I’m still impressed by the abundance of natural resources—the Tone River and its tributaries, Dogen Lake surrounded by virgin beech forests. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
Where is Minakami?
Minakami is about an hour from Tokyo by express train making it a popular getaway for those in the Kanto-area—the area including the Japanese capital and surrounding prefectures. Minakami is known for its abundance of outdoor activities, which convinced New Zealander Mike to put together Japan's first authentic canyoneering packages and other adventure-based experiences all over the country. Mike isn’t just one of Japan’s canyoneering pioneers, he’s become an industry leader in putting together snow canyoneering packages and has served as a director for the Minakami Tourist Association since 2017.
“Our mission hasn’t changed since the business was founded,” he told us. “Refreshing the world through adventure experiences and supplying the "wow" to our customers. You can’t do that in the big city, but this is the perfect place. It’s not far from Tokyo and it’s got great transportation and tourism resources, and vast natural surroundings.”
Adventure at every level
Canyoneering takes hiking to the next level. Adrenaline junkies explore canyons in a number of different ways—walking, sliding, scrambling and climbing. These adventures can be technical, involving ropes, a harness and a helmet.
“The quality of the rocks at the waterfalls in Minakami is perfect for canyoneering,” Mike says. There are fifteen packages available that immerse you in the gorges of Minakami at six different levels, giving you more canyoneering options than anywhere else in the country. You can dive into natural plunge pools and experience a thrilling natural waterslide at Fox Canyon, or try some intense rope work at Willow Canyon.
Ride swift, heart-pounding currents in spring when the snowmelt pours down the mountains or enjoy fun family rafting adventures in the gentler-flowing rivers in summer. Pack rafting, a combination of backpacking and rafting, in a one-person boat is another popular way for people to take in the sights.
In winter, try snowshoeing, a sport that’s as easy as putting one foot in front of the other. Guests can go on guided hiking tours and wander around the foothills while fully experiencing Japan’s famous powder snow. There are ski lessons available in English for everyone from novices to experts on either groomed slopes or in the backcountry.
Tours were suspended in mid-April when a state of emergency was declared for Minakami, but they resumed a few weeks later when it was lifted. However, to give peace of mind to visitors, the tour company is taking extra precautions to keep the tours safe. Canyoneering is limited to a maximum of four people pack rafting tours to eight people, and rafting tours have one group per board. The company strictly adheres to protocols based on regulations and guidelines issued by the Swiss Outdoor Association, the International Academy of Canyoning Association, and other industry leaders:
・Regular handwashing and sanitizing
・Maintaining physical distance
・Ensuring well-ventilated spaces
・Sanitizing equipment and contact surfaces
・Monitoring the health of crew members and guests
・Regularly monitoring protocols
The company also offers guests contactless check in and paying options from their devices, separate changing rooms, and tours without face-to-face contact. Steps are taken to maintain social distancing by leaving empty seats between guests on rafting boards.
It is refreshing to know we can still have fun and adventures when traveling, even if we have to adapt to new means and ways when we do. It is also comforting to know that regions and local areas are taking steps to keep visitors safe during their stay. There’s no doubt that these types of adventures, with a strong emphasis on social distancing and safety, will start trending as we enter a new normal in the months to come.
For more information on Canyons and Minakami, visit here.
Enjoy a private eco tour in the satoyama landscapes of Hida
The Hida region is surrounded by the spectacular Northern Alps, a hotspot for outdoor adventurers who enjoy scenic summer hikes and winter sports. It takes around three hours from Nagoya on a limited express train—visitors can use their JR Rail Pass on this route—to reach this idyllic spot. It is an ideal destination for anyone looking for a low-key vacation in satoyama.
What is satoyama?
Satoyama is an environment in which people coexist with nature in the margin between sato (village, countryside) and yama (mountains). It includes farmland, settlements and forests cared for by people. In these satoyama landscapes, the communities have cultivated rice fields, made straw rain-capes and sandals, and built thatched roofs from rice straw after harvesting. After fulfilling its role, the resource is naturally recycled by feeding it to livestock or returning it to the soil as fertilizer. The life of people in satoyama is a sustainable and centuries-old one.
Fewer and fewer people have continued this way of life, due to rapid changes in people’s lifestyles. Satoyama’s aging communities have prompted fears about their survival. To help preserve this fascinating way of life, Satoyama Experience provides enjoyable, immersive experiences in these rural environments.
Shiho Yamada, who runs Satoyama Experience, was born and raised in Tokyo. "Traveling the world made me realize the great things about Japan, especially the countryside. We started the business so that people from overseas could discover and experience Hida Takayama, where the streetscapes still feature expressions of our culture, like historical buildings from the Edo period, and the Takayama Festival, which first started in the mid-1600s."
Satoyama Experience has two offices, one in Takayama and the other in Hida Furukawa. Hida Furukawa is around 20-minutes away from Takayama by train or car. Their popular cycling tour takes in the sites of the pretty town that is home to some historical sake breweries.
Cycle routes surrounded by mountains and beautiful rice fields
Satoyama Experience gives you the opportunity to experience Japanese country life as a local. The most popular experience is a cycling tour of Hida. At an easy cycling pace, the tour explores Hida’s rural villages. The guides have a wealth of experience to inform you about the culture and history of these vast satoyama landscapes.
The standard tour takes about three and a half hours, passing through elegant old streets in Hida Furukawa, through rural villages and, finally, beautiful satoyama landscapes. Explore market stalls lined with locally grown vegetables, see huge old minka (traditional houses), and cycle past expanses of rice fields surrounded by mountains. The 22-km route is designed to immerse you in this sustainable way of life.
A new type of travel—social distancing
“Bookings for next year and beyond have already started coming in”, says Shiho. “The Cycling Tour makes it easy to keep a distance while exploring the streets of Hida.”
A private tour is the best option for visitors wishing to maximize their safety and social distancing. Satoyama Experience can arrange and customize tours to suit your requests and interests. Whether you are staying in the Hida region overnight or in the area on a daytrip, there is plenty to do. Consider a trip to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Shirakawa-go, a hike through the forest, or an experience at a local festival (schedule permitting). You can even do all of these in one day.
For more about Satoyama Experience and Hida, visit here.
Although it is difficult to foresee the future due to COVID-19, tour companies are adapting their original experiences to ensure safety and social distancing for visitors. When the time is right to travel again, why not try this new style of traveling yourself?
About the author
Roy F. is a food culture / travel writer living in Tokyo. At night, he works at a bar at Shinjuku as a side job. One of the things he loves about working in a bar is to hear travel stories from travelers all over the world.