Minakami has a reputation as one of the top outdoor and adventure towns in Japan, as well as a place of great natural beauty. In 2017 this was enhanced by being chosen as a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Gunma’s outdoor playground, which is just over an hour from central Tokyo, has it all—2,000-meter-high mountains, deep valleys with rushing rapids, canyons and waterfalls fed by fresh snow, as well as plentiful hot springs.
Each year outdoor enthusiasts descend on Minakami for one of the biggest events in Japan for outdoor adventure sports—the Minakami Outdoor Festival, or “Mofest” for short, brings professionals and amateurs together for three days of competitions, adventure experiences and fun performances.
The festival will include races for the first time this year. Japan’s top white water rafting teams will take part in qualifiers for the World Cup, including the women’s rafting team which won first in the World Cup and the men’s team which came in second last year. The nation’s top SUP athletes will also be competing in a SUP event.
Performances include mountain bike trials by Japan’s top trials riders Kazuki Terai and Fumiya Miyaji. Trials riding is an extreme test of bicycle balance and skill. Gibbon Japan’s slackline masters will also perform dynamic tricks against Minakami’s dramatic natural backdrop.
There’s plenty of fun for all levels too. With the rugged mountains and mighty Tone River, Minakami is the perfect field for trail running, cycling, rafting, kayaking, stand-up paddling, bungy jumping, rock climbing, canyoning, hiking and ziplining. Participants can choose from either “Festival Adventures”—shorter and easier versions of activities based at the main festival grounds—or “Real Adventures,” which are tours at a special festival price. After a full day of outdoor fun, enjoy live music and DJs in the onsengai (main hot spring street), which will be blocked and turned into a beer garden. The 2018 Minakami Outdoor Festival will be held from June 8-10 in Mizukikokan. For more information, visit www.mofest.jp.
Minakami is a spread-out town in northern Gunma with Minakami Station as its center hub. The region’s iconic Mt. Tanigawa is a 1,977-meter mountain bordering Gunma and Niigata Prefecture. Belonging to Joshin’etsu Kogen National Park, the mountain consists of two peaks: Tomano-mimi and Okino-mimi. You’ll still find snow at the top even in June, so hiking is recommended between July and November. From the base of the mountain, you can either take the Tanigawa Ropeway or hike two and a half hours to the ropeway station. From there, it is an additional two-hour hike to the summit. At the eastern foot of the mountain is “Ichinokurasawa,” a must-visit for rock climbers.
The deep powder blanketing the mountain in the winter melts into the Tone River, perfect for thrilling grade-four whitewater rafting in May. In summer, the river calms to a grade one or two. Rafting tours during this season involve playing in and outside the boat.
Deep valleys and crystal clear waters also make Minakami a world-class canyoning spot for all levels. Canyoning, the sport of making your way down canyons by abseiling, jumping waterfalls and cliffs, cascading down natural chutes and water slides, swimming through pools and using special rope systems, is a challenging, rewarding way to discover a hidden side of Minakami.
Onsen Village Culture
At the base of the Tanigawa Range, Minakami genuflects its hot spring towns, Tanigawa Onsen and Sarugakyo Onsen. A half- hour drive away from central Minakami is the famous Takaragawa Onsen, a mixed hot spring with some of the largest rotenburos (outdoor baths) in Japan. This onsen is nested in a valley overlooking Takara River. In the south, the secluded 140-year-old Hoshi Onsen is an architectural delight. Its famous bath boasts a natural spring said to help cure gastrointestinal disorders, burns and arteriosclerosis.
Traditional crafts are preserved at Takumi no Sato, a cultural arts and crafts village sitting among rice fields and fruit orchards. Recommended as one of the best locations for short trips in the Michelin Green Guide Japan book, Takumi no Sato offers straw and bamboo crafts, pottery, woodworking, silk printing and washi paper craft workshops.
The 7th E-Boat Race is held at Lake Akaya near Sarugakyo Onsen every May. Lake Akaya is an artificial lake for irrigation and electricity generation, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful. In the spring, the kenshin no sakasa sakura blossoms around the lake make it a popular destination. Competing on a 10-person inflatable boat, the race is split into two categories: the nature appreciation course and the sprint. Participation costs ¥3,500 for adults and ¥2,000 for kids. This year, the race will take place on May 26-27.
Mt. Tanigawa officially opens for hiking season at the end of June, starting with the Tanigawadake Eco Tour Carnival. Between June 28 to July 4, Minakami celebrates Tanigawadake Week offering hiking and eco education tours, live music, booths and discounted rates for accommodation.
Jomo Kogen Station is a 75-minute shinkansen ride from Tokyo Station on the JR Joetsu Shinkansen line. From Jomo Kogen station, take a bus to central Minakami in the north or Sarugakyo Onsen and Takumi no Sato in the west. It is recommended to rent a car as public transportation is limited and the attractions are spread out.