Raft down Japan's most thrilling rapids
Rowing is an exhilarating sport to watch—the boats gliding across the waters make for a mesmerizing sight.
Try something similar yourself by hopping into a raft and zooming down some dynamic rapids. Japan is characterized by rivers that are shorter and steeper than those in the West—the archipelago’s mountainous terrains create a network of rivers that flow swiftly into surrounding water bodies.
Rafting is packed with fun and adventure—experience some thrills as you rush down fast currents and enjoy views of canyons, forested banks, pastoral scenes and wildlife when the flow is gentle.
In Japan, you can enjoy river-based activities such as rafting, cruising, and fly fishing throughout the year. It depends on the region, but rafting is generally available from April to November. Some places operate line cruises year-round, like the Hozu River in Arashiyama, Kyoto. In winter, some boats are equipped with kotatsu—cozy quilted heaters.
Thrill seekers can also try nature-packed activities like canyoning and shower climbing over breathtaking mountain streams and waterfalls. Most of these activities take place regardless of the weather, but may be suspended when water levels are too high.
Hot springs and river activities go hand-in-hand. You’ll find them all over Japan and many welcome day visitors, so rejuvenate yourself with a bath after an exciting day of sports.
The Tone River is known as one of Japan’s three most raging rivers. Its source is Mount Ominakami in Niigata, and it flows for a length of 322 km through the Kanto plains and into the Pacific Ocean at Choshi, Chiba. This enormous river also has the largest basin area in Japan, covering 16,840 square km. The Minakami area occupies the upper reaches of the river. It’s located near Jomo-Kogen Station, about 60 minutes from Tokyo Station on the Joetsu Shinkansen Line.
In the Minakami area, you can raft down some of Japan’s best rapids. From April to June, when the water volume rises due to melted snow, you can zoom down rapids ranked grade 4 on the International Scale of River Difficulty. In summer and early autumn, the river is calmer and you can enjoy breathtaking views of the valley as you raft.
There are a number of rafting companies that offer a variety of plans catered to people of all ages and levels of experience. You’ll also find packages that combine rafting with canyoning, shower climbing, and lunch. There are plenty of other things to do in the area throughout the year, for example, you can choose to go fruit picking for apples, grapes, or cherries, or visit one of the 18 hot springs in Minakami—many of them are open to day visitors.
Okutama is a mountainous area in the upper reaches of the 138 km-long Tama River in the northwestern part of Tokyo. Just a 90-minute train ride away from Shinjuku, it’s easily accessible from the city and perfect for a nature-packed day trip.
The volume of water in the Tama River is stable throughout the year. Around the Mitake Gorge, there are plenty of whitewater rafting spots with sharp bends and complex currents, making it perfect for a rafting adventure packed with thrills. There are a number of rafting companies that offer various rafting tours tailored to your level of experience. For example, you can opt to choose a tough course that starts in the upper reaches of the river unaccompanied by a guide if you have adequate rafting experience. There are also tours that start at around 16:00 in the evening, so you can spend the morning in Tokyo and head to Okutama for an afternoon of outdoor activities.
Rafting isn’t the only attraction in the Okutama area—there are also camping and BBQ sites. Its plethora of activities, such as canoeing, fly fishing, hiking, and riverside walking trails, make it one of the best outdoor spots near Tokyo.
The Shinano River spans a total of 367 km, making it the longest river in Japan. It originates from the 2,475 m tall Mount Kobushi and flows through the Echigo Plain before flowing into the Sea of Japan at Niigata City.
Rafting spots are located in the middle reaches of the Shinano River, mainly in Tokamachi City in the south part of Niigata Prefecture. The course features plenty of water, steep gradients, and thrilling rapids combined with slow currents and gentle pools. You can reach Tokamachi City from Tokyo in about 2 hours and 30 minutes by using the Joetsu Shinkansen bullet train and local train.
The middle reaches of the Shinano River offers plenty of other outdoor activities. For example, the 80-km Shinetsu Trail, located on the border between Niigata and Nagano prefectures, is one of the best trekking courses in Japan. The Kiyotsukyo Gorge, located on a tributary of the Shinano River, is one of the nation’s largest V-shaped gorges. It’s created by gigantic cliffs that cut across the river. For some stunning views, pay a visit to the Kiyotsukyo Gorge Tunnel—a 750-meter long walkway that overlooks the gorge (reservations are required during busy seasons).
Tokamachi City is among the many hot spring spots located in Niigata—there are over a hundred in the prefecture. In winter, relax in a hot spring against a stunning snowy backdrop.
The 194-km long Yoshino River is another of Japan’s three most raging rivers. It originates from the 1,896 m tall Mount Kamegamori, flows left through the Shikoku Mountains before pouring into the Kii Channel. The most popular rafting spots along the river are the Oboke and Koboke gorges in the Iya district on the border between Kochi and Tokushima prefectures. Expect a course packed with variety—some points are known for thrilling currents and rapids. These leading locations have even hosted the Rafting World Championships in 2017. There are plenty of rafting companies in the area, so you’ll be able to find a course suited to your level.
The Iya region is incredibly secluded, just like the World Heritage Site of Shirakawa-go. Pay a visit to the Kazurabashi Bridge made with vines, stroll around the gorge, or soak in an open-air hot spring with spectacular views. At Ochiai village, thatched-roof houses dot the mountainside, and you can stay at accommodations converted from traditional houses.
The Kurobe River is one of Japan’s greatest rapids. It spans a total of 85 km, originating from Mount Washiba in the soaring Hida mountain range and flowing all the way through the Kurobe Gorge into the Sea of Japan. The Kurobe River has the highest average annual precipitation among all of Japan’s class A river systems.
The upper and middle reaches of the river are a series of deep gorges, so rafting spots are located in the lower reaches. You’ll find courses geared to people of all ages. You can try waterfall diving and canyoning at the river’s tributaries combined with your rafting expedition.
Depending on the season, you can also try whitewater rafting—the volume of water surges in spring because of snowmelt.
In the past, the incredibly steep Kurobe Gorge was secluded and inaccessible. Thanks to the development of the Kurobe Railway, visitors can now take a trolley train to enjoy the region’s spectacular nature. It’s particularly beautiful in the green season, which begins in May, and in late October when the leaves start changing color.
The 229-km Mogami River is counted as one of Japan’s three most rapid rivers. Its headwaters are located in the 2,035-m Mount Nishiazuma, from which it flows north through a series of basins and gorges before pouring into the Sea of Japan. The rich array of landscapes and terrain around Asahi Town in the middle reaches of the river makes it a particularly fun place for rafting.
From spring to early summer, expect dynamic currents due to the rise in water levels from rain and melted snow. Water levels are relatively calm from summer to autumn, so you can have a leisurely rafting experience paired with river bathing. You’ll find glamping facilities and camping sites in various spots around Mogami River, as well as a plethora of activities such as canoeing, kayaking, cruising, and fishing. Alternatively, you can choose to relax at Ginzan Onsen—a mountainous hot spring resort with a traditional vibe.
The Yamagata region is famous for its rice and fruits—you can pick cherries, strawberries, and apples, or savor some delicious locally-brewed Japanese sake. For those interested in Japan’s literary culture, you’ll find plenty of spots associated with the master haiku poet Matsuo Basho.
Cruising gives you all the fun of exploring a river without having to row or change into a wetsuit. You’ll find river cruises all around Japan, in both urban areas and secluded gorges. For example, in Osaka, the Osaka Suijo Bus connects Osaka Castle Park to Dotonbori and Namba, the busiest local shopping areas. It’s a great way to enjoy the lush greenery and bustle of Osaka from unique vantage points and it also serves a convenient means of sightseeing around the city.
Arashiyama in Kyoto is the perfect place to experience all four seasons. Take a cruise down the Hozu River*, which connects Arashiyama and Kameoka, to admire cherry blossoms, lush greens, autumn leaves, or stunning snowscapes.
In Kitayama Village, Wakayama Prefecture, you can try a traditional form of log rafting that has been handed down for over 600 years—when the forestry industry was at its peak, trees were cut down and assembled into rafts. They were then sent down to the lower reaches of the Kitayama River. A boatsman skillfully controls the rafts, which can be over 30 m long. Listen to bird songs and enjoy views of the rugged valley as you take a unique journey down the river.
Since about 400 years ago, feudal lords and wealthy merchants had parties on roofed boats called yakata-bune to enjoy viewing cherry blossoms in spring, fireworks in summer, and moonlit nights. You can enjoy this tradition even today.
These boats usually come with tatami mats and heated tables, but you can also find some with western-style tables and chairs. Some can fit as many as 120 to 130 people, and serve meals depending on the time of day. Yakata-bune boats are operated throughout the year at various locations. For spectacular cherry blossom views, take a cruise on the Sumida River in Tokyo, Ooka River in Yokohama, the Okawa River in Osaka, or the Shiraishi River in Miyagi.
You’ll also find plenty of beautiful routes in Tokyo—sail around the Tokyo Skytree and Odaiba area, or enjoy beautiful night views throughout the year.
There are other kinds of boats as well, from which you can enjoy cherry blossoms, lush summer greens, or fall foliage depending on the time of year.