What exactly is canyoning? To the uninformed layman the word may conjure up images of an adventurous trip exploring a canyon, although the details are not readily apparent. It sounds interesting, but uninformative. In my expert opinion (I am a one-time canyoning veteran as of this past weekend) I would more appropriately name it, “waterfalling” because that is precisely what it is — jumping off rushing waterfalls!
Wikipedia defines canyoning as “travelling in canyons (waterfalls) using a variety of techniques that may include other outdoor activities such as walking, scrambling, climbing, jumping, abseiling, and/or swimming.”
Read that last part again; canyoning involves traveling down a waterfall by jumping off of it. It is every bit as awesome as it sounds, and I salute the brave men and women who had the gallstones to peer off the perilous edge of a waterfall and take the plunge for the first time.
In continuing the apparent tradition of reckless abandon in the quest for an awesome experience during our time in Japan, about 25 Gunma ALTs got together on September 11th for the annual GAJET canyoning trip. It was a sunny fall morning in Minakami, one of the prime destinations for outdoor activities in Japan, and a perfect day for canyoning!
I brought along my waterproof camera and made a video of the trip, which is the 7th video in my vlog series called The JET Experience. Check out my other videos and subscribe to my channel if you enjoy this one.
Wide-eyed and full of wonder and trepidation, our adventure began when we met in front of the Minakami train station. There we waited for the comically small busses that would take us to the Canyons lodge. While waiting, yours truly took great pleasure in telling wildly exaggerated stories and making fantastical claims about the thrills and horrors that were to be expected:
The little Canyons busses pulled up just as I steadied the girl to prevent her from fainting. An exuberant Japanese man with long shaggy hair and an unplaceable accent hopped out and asked if we were ready to jump off waterfalls and have a great time. Following a chorus of yelps and cheers, we piled into the bus and putted up the winding mountain road to the Canyons Lodge.
Once we got there, we were quickly ushered to the changing areas to put on our equipment – wetsuits, shoes, gloves, helmets, and life jackets. Dressing ourselves in tiny wetsuits would prove to be quite the challenge and was arguably the hardest part of the day.
Finally we were all ready to go. Separated into two groups, we were ushered by the shaggy-haired Japanese guy into an even smaller bus. Once inside, he introduced himself as Igor and gave us a rundown on procedure and what to expect.
IGOR: “Okay you guys all signed the waiver right? Good, just checking. Make sure you guys all have your helmets because that is very important. You don’t want to bash your head in while you’re sliding headfirst or backwards down rapids and waterfalls, trying to avoid rocks, branches and other obstacles. Keep your hands out in front of you though because those helmets are only made out of plastic. Now when you jump off the 20m high waterfall, make sure you keep your knees loose, arms tight, and chin tucked so you don’t break your legs, arms, or neck. And you better jump – because if you don’t, we’ll throw you! Haha – just kidding, but actually not really, so seriously, you should jump. Last year, there was a girl who – well, never mind. Okay we’re here, everybody out!”
I shook the girl in front of me who appeared to have fainted, and we all piled out of the bus and waddled down the beaten path towards the stream at the top of the river. After final preparations, we were off.
The way you travel down a river while canyoning is to simply lean back and let the lifejacket keep you afloat, letting the current carry you downstream. You avoid rocks and obstacles by steering yourself with your body and using your hands and feet as rudders.
We eventually approached the big jump – the 20m high waterfall! Peering over the edge was a mix of excitement, fear and absolute dread. The guide attached a rope to our harness and slowly lowered us one-by-one out into the waterfall. Once we were ready, the guide released the rope and we shot down the waterfall, riding the torrents of water like a water slide. It was an absolutely incredible experience.
As one by one everyone completed the big drop, there was a genuine sense of camaraderie and fellowship that formed among the group. When you complete something as insane as sliding off a 20m high waterfall together, that is a pretty intense shared experience.
Spurred by the confidence the Big One gave us, we approached the remaining jumps with less apprehension and enjoyed the leaps, spills, flips, and flops.
By the end of the tour, we were exhausted but wished we could do it all over again. As we walked down the path towards the waiting bus, shoes squishing with water and wetsuits beginning to chafe, I turned around and looked back at the final waterfall one last time. I stood there and reflected on just how incredible of an experience that was and how lucky we all were to have had the opportunity to try something like this in Japan.
And so concluded the epic 2010 Canyoning excursion of the Gunma ALTs. I would like to thank all the people who were involved, especially GAJET and in particular Jessie Zanutig & Thom Schumacher who took the initiative to organize the event. Much love also goes out to the Canyons staff. In addition to my slightly inflated (but not really) allegations from before, they were not only a bunch of cool guys, but consummate professionalism as well, taking the greatest care to ensure that we all had a fun trip that was as safe as possible.
For anyone interested in going Canyoning in Minakami I definitely recommend giving it a try. It is an incredible experience, and one that should be on your bucket-list. Minakami itself is an amazing place; ensconced within the beautiful mountains of Gunma, steeped in history, and with lots of things to do and see like onsen, hiking trails, kayaking, and winter sports in the winter.
They run other events like more challenging canyons excursions and river rafting in the summer, caving throughout the year, and snowshoeing and back country ski and snowboard trips in the winter. There are numerous events and concerts held at the Canyons lodge throughout the year.
Check out the Canyons Website for more information.