Minakami or Minakami Machi is a resort town and mountain area in Gunma prefecture. It’s best known as being the adventure capital of Japan, with various outdoor activities for every season.
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Located just a few hours northwest of Tokyo, it feels like a million miles away with a very different vibe from the bright lights of the city.
Minakami is set at the source of Tone River, known for its thrilling whitewater rafting in Spring. Summer and Autumn in the area bring warmer weather for hiking, canyoning, and taking in the incredible mountain views. In winter, it’s home to world-class skiing with one of the longest running snow seasons in the country.
We visited Minakami during our recent trip to Japan and got a chance to sample just a few of the adventure activities in this region. Given that Minakami offers almost every type of adventure, it’s a must-visit region for any adventure junkie (or adventure softie) planning a visit to Japan.
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How to Get to Minakami
Minakami is located 150km (93.2 miles) northwest of Tokyo. You can reach it by car in just 2.5 hours. Otherwise, there are many public transport options, including train and bus. The journey to Minakami by public transit can take between 2-3 hours.
JR Joetsu Shinkansen (bullet train) runs from Tokyo to Jomo Kogen Station with daily departures at least once per hour. One way trip takes around 70 minutes and costs about 5500 yen. From Jomo Kogen Station, you’ll have to take a 30 mins bus or transfer to reach Minakami Station or another destination in the Minakami area.
JR Takasaki Line (local train) runs from Tokyo to Takasaki Station with the journey taking around two hours. From Takasaki, you’ll need to transfer to the JR Joetsu Line and take the train for another hour to reach Minakami Station.
Best Time to Visit Minakami
The best time to visit Minakami highly depends on what you plan on doing in the area. It’s home to adventure activities in every season, so you’ll never pick a bad time to visit.
Minakami is known for its long ski season, lasting from early December to early May. Outside of these months, the region is ideal for hiking, mountain biking and white water rafting.
Spring (March-May) is best for rafting down the raging Tone River after the snowmelt. While Summer (June-August) and Autumn (September-November) are the best times for hiking and exploring the mountains by bike.
Top Adventures in Minakami
It’s no surprise that Minakami is the ultimate adventure capital in Japan. There are so many activities to choose from, including rafting, hiking and skiing. And while we didn’t get a chance to try them all during our visit, we wanted to compile a comprehensive guide to help you plan your own adventure in the region.
Here are the best experiences to have in Minakami:
First and foremost is canyoning! Minakami is the epicentre of canyoning in Japan. In fact, the very first canyoning tours started in Minakami back in 1998. Since then, the region has grown into one of the biggest canyoning destinations not just in Japan but in the world.
Several companies offer canyoning tours in Minakami, but not all have the same safety standards and credibility. The best and most reputable of them all is Canyons, the oldest operator in town. The company offers canyoning experiences, rafting adventures, hiking, and more.
When it comes to canyoning itself, there are several canyoning courses to choose from, depending on your desired thrill level. Fox Canyon, the course we experienced during our visit, is a half-day adventure and the perfect introduction to the world of canyoning. The course was easy enough to be perfectly suitable for beginners (and adaptable for real scaredy cats), with a little dose of thrill to give you that buzzing feeling at the end.
Experienced canyoners can try their hand at Willow Canyon, a more technical route with more challenging sections and plenty more thrill.
Rafting on the Tone River
With over 12 km (7.5 miles) of whitewater for a half-day trip or over 25 km (15.5 miles) on a full-day adventure, this is one of the ultimate thrill-seekers’ experiences in Minakami.
Rafting tours are also offered at Canyons and can be booked through their website or at the Canyons base in Minakami. All tours pass through three incredible gorge sections and offer plenty of thrill. Quieter river sections are filled with chatter, with the guides sharing many insights about the town and its history.
If you’re visiting in the Spring, prepare for some world-class grade 4+ rapids. If you prefer something more mellow, visit in the Summer when the water levels are higher, and the rapids are classified as class 2.
Hiking around Mt Tanigawa
Mount Tanigawa (1,977 m / 6,486 ft) is the highest mountain in the Tanigawa mountain range straddling Gunma and Niigata prefectures. Known for its dramatic weather changes, Mount Tanigawa is covered in snow for around half of the year and is a popular skiing area.
However, from July until November, it transforms into one of the best hiking destinations in Minakami.
You can opt to ride up the Tanigawadake Ropeway, which will get you up the side of the mountain to Tenjindaira at 1,319 meters (4,327 ft). From here, you can enjoy panoramic views across the area and embark on a two-hour hike to the summit. You can either return the same way or continue for another six hours or so into Niigata.
Autumn, especially in mid-October, brings fall colours as the leaves change in the surrounding valleys and is the most beautiful time for hiking around this area.
If white water rafting seems too intense, you can try the more relaxing activity of stand-up paddleboarding or SUPing. Soak up the pristine waters and untouched surrounding forests as you gently float along the water.
You can join a tour or rent a SUP board and float on the manmade lakes of Lake Naramata or Lake Akaya. However, you’ll need a permit for Lake Naramata, so joining a tour is more convenient.
To see the Tone River from a different perspective, try bungee jumping from the Suwakyo Bridge, towering 42 meters (138 ft) above the water. Bungy Japan is one of the longest-running bungy operators in the country, so you know you’re in safe hands — the first jump costs around 12,000 yen.
Suwakyo Bridge is located just a 5-minute drive out of Minakami town or in 10 minutes by bus from Jomo-Kogen or Minakami stations.
As mentioned before, Minakami is home to a variety of winter activities, with several world-class ski resorts in the area.
The Tanigawadake Tenjindaira Ski Resort caters to beginners and intermediates with an abundance of powder snow, but the real draw for experts is the world-class backcountry skiing opportunities.
The more built-up Minakami Kogen Ski Resort caters to families, beginners, and intermediates. Many of the resort’s ski slopes are mellow and are great for snowshoeing, sledding, and snowmobiling.
Norn Minakami Ski Resort is one of the closest ski fields to Tokyo, which means this is often one of the busiest. It’s popular for skiing, snowboarding and even night skiing, with illuminated slopes on weekends.
Other Things to Do in Minakami
If you’ve outdone your appetite for adventure and are looking for other more chill things to do in the region, then here are some suggestions.
Glamping at Canyons
Minakami Riverside Oasis Glamping is ideally located at the entrance to Joshinetsu National Park and is the perfect place to spend a few relaxing nights in the region.
Designed as a haven retreat after a day of adventures, this is a great place to base yourself while exploring the canyons, rafting down rivers or bungee jumping. The resort has a very social vibe with a hostel feel but offers private accommodation. You choose from cozy riverside safari tents or smaller bell-shaped tents. Bathroom and shower facilities are shared, and meals are served at the on-site bar and restaurant. They have a cool DIY BBQ set on offer, so you can cook up your own meal and eat it while sitting by the fire enjoying a panorama of stars.
The glamping resort often plays host to concerts, events and other activities, making it a hub of activity in the region.
Stay at Hoshi Onsen Chojukan
For something a bit more traditional and sophisticated, consider spending a night or two at the Hoshi Onsen Chojukan Ryokan. Located by the Hoshi River, this beautifully designed traditional Japanese-style hotel is surrounded by nature. It’s located just a kilometer (0.6 miles) from Akasawa Ski Area and 21 km (13 miles) from Jomokogen train station.
The large rooms feature tatami (woven-straw) floors, futons and traditional short-legged dining tables. Some rooms offer balconies, fireplaces and river views.
The prominent feature of the ryokan is their beautiful communal hot springs (onsen). With 3 different onsens on site, there is an opportunity to soak in a variety of settings, ranging from traditional wooden bath to new modern bath offering stunning views of the gardens.
The means onsite are another highlight, with fantastic kaiseki, traditional Japanese meal on offer nightly. It’s an incredibly special place to spend a night or two in Minakami.
Soak at Takaragawa Onsen Osenkaku
Located about 27 km (16.7 miles) north of Minakami, this serene hot spring hotel is another popular place to spend the day. There are indoor and outdoor onsens dotted along the riverbank and spacious mixed-gender baths on offer. Bathing suits are allowed at Takaragawa Onsen, a rarity in Japan, but a great spot for a more modest traveler to get a taste of onsen culture in Japan.
Gaze at the autumn leaves or watch the snow falling as you relax in the hot waters. The hotel also has a restaurant that specializes in mountain cuisine, including locally caught river fish and mountain vegetables.
Located outside of Minakami on the way to Akaya Lake, is the charming town of Takuminosato. This town is great to explore on a bike with streets lined with arts and crafts shops, restaurants and coffee shops.
You can rent a bike in town and spend the day cycling around. Pop into shops, participate in art and craft experiences (there are lots to be had on a walk-in basis) or look for unique Japanese crafts and souvenirs for sale. You’ll find everything from bamboo objects to Japanese washi paper art.
Is Minakami Worth a Visit?
Minakami is the ultimate outdoor adventure playground in Japan. Home to some of the country’s best ski resorts, raging rivers, and spectacular mountains, the hot spring resort town offers endless opportunities for outdoor activities.
From thrilling experiences like whitewater rafting and bungee jumping to hiking up mountains and soaking in hot springs amongst the forest, it’s easy to see why it’s become a popular weekend destination for Tokyo residents and foreign visitors alike.
If you want to uncover a different side of Japan, a Minakami trip is definitely worth it.
Disclaimer: Our visit to Minakami was made possible courtesy of Kodo Travel and Gunma Prefecture. But as always, all opinions expressed in this article are our own.