CITY GUIDE: MinakamiFiled Under:
In the valley of the Japanese mountains in Gunma prefecture lays a small, unassuming mountain town called Minakami. Just jump on a Shinkansen from Tokyo for an hour and a half and you’ll be transported from the metropolis jungles of downtown districts to a lavish land of natural splendor and vitality.
Engulfed by mountainous peaks, much of Minakami is situated within the borders of Joshin’etsu-kogen National Park, formed around several active and dormant volcanoes, encompassing some of Japan’s most serene environmental landscapes. When translated from Kanji form it means “above water” – the name taken from the popular Japanese book, The Traveler’s Journal of Minakami, which describes the spectacular beauty of the Tone River, and glorious basin, which runs through the middle of the town providing a flowing source of livelihood year round.
Minakami will gob-smack you with beauty every season. It’s got it all, man. There’s four lakes; a handful of dams; six mountains to climb; thin roads coiling up monkey-inhabited peaks with death-defying panoramic views; naturally preserved caves and canyons; the biggest river basin in Japan; pastel leaves of orange, gold and yellow slowly falling in the autumn; fields of fruit blooming in summer; seventeen spa and onsen resorts; countless ski resorts; and backcountry tracks in the winter with the softest white powder you’ve ever seen.
Like any other country mountain town, the economy in Minakami is seasonal and heavily dependent on tourism. Primarily known across Japan as the destination for onsens and natural Hot Springs (there are seventeen across the town, and Lonely Planet list Takaragawa as the best riverside onsen in the country), Minakami has also quickly become a holiday hotspot in Japan and a party pit stop for travelers, due to its range of seasonal high-thrill adventure activities.
It’s where Minakami embodies its “above water” translation: the mountains provide hiking tracks, cable cars, epic snow sport in winter and a million insta-worthy views; the river and basin, a foundation to the summertime outdoor adventure destination Minakami is becoming known for.
In the summer, don a helmet, a wetsuit, grab a pair of flippers and a blow-up bodyboard then go hydrospeed down the river for an entire morning. Refuel with a Japanese BBQ feast and when you’re ready to spend the afternoon repelling down waterfalls, exploring canyons or rafting down the white waters of the Tone River at one of the outdoor adventure companies in town. Watersport ain’t your thing? All g – what about mountain biking; a relaxing canoe ride at sunset; paragliding off a cliff; or bungee jumping off a suspension bridge?
When the snow comes, spend your days on the slopes buried in powder; take a snowshoe tour; or test your skills (read: bravery) with some of the best backcountry snowboarding runs in Japan. Then kick back, grab a beer, head to an onsen, get naked and relax in the cool mountain night.
We spent a summer living in Minakami; taking long meandering walks in the forest, reading books, indulging in adventure and earning coin where I could as a part-time canyoning guide. While there is only a population of about twenty thousand people (that’s 25 people to every square kilometer. Picture that compared to the human car-park of Japan’s metropolis) it’s still a lively place, and the prominence of seasonal travelers (and young locals) hunkered down working in outdoor adventure make for a ravenous social spirit and a chill party vibe. Venues include a basement-dwelling traditional Japanese Izakaya restaurant and a dive bar with so much style that walking in leaves you nonchalant and draped in cool.
Whether it’s the peace and harmony of the mountains you want, autumn leaves, awesome snow conditions or sunny day adrenaline adventure, Minakami should be a high priority destination on your itinerary. You’re welcome – that’s for the thanks you’ll give me when you get there.
Hitchin’ a Ride: Transport
Just ‘cause it’s only an hour and a half from Tokyo by Shinkansen (or for a longer, cheaper and more picturesque ride, take this route), don’t fall for the old two-card trick and assume that Japan retains world-class transportation even in its less populated mountain towns. Unlike main cities across Japan, Minakami has your fairly standard small town public transport.
At the bottom of the mountain lies the towns central train station (not to be confused with Shin-Minakami Station), and it is the hub of Minakami. Close to the Tone River and main shopping centre, and a short drive from surrounding hotels and lodges. Trains run once every hour (sometimes more often if you’re heading back towards Tokyo) but the good thing is you don’t need them much in Minakami. Unless you wanna visit Doai Station – the lowest train station in Japan that houses lost mountain souls – for some ol’ fashioned ghost-bustin’ or an extreme stepper workout (you got to take 486 stairs to get to the top), trains aren’t the ideal way around Minakami.
The lodge or hotel you’re staying should help you out transport wise in the morning if you have an epic daytrip planned; likewise, if you’re thinking about canyoning, rafting or hydrospeeding, the outdoor adventure companies will usually be sweet to pick you up and drop you off.
The tricky part comes if you want to leave you’re hotel or go out for dinner, maybe sink a few drinks downtown, and the trains and buses have stopped. Luckily, Minakami is pretty equipped with cabs. Sure it’s expensive, but it’s a small, tourist mountain town – so whaddaya going to do? They tend to congregate in bunches outside the train station, conveniently always there right around the time of the last train and bus.
Minakami’s central bus stop is also next to the train station and buses run about as often as trains: once or twice every hour, stop early evening and are normally pretty quiet. Buses in this town are actually pretty good; super reliable and can take you all the way to the Tanagawa Ropeway, Takaragawa Onsen or the local shop. But man, you sure pay for it. Each trip cost me anywhere between ¥400 – ¥700, so keep an eye on your wallet if you’re constantly hitchin’ the bus.
Fork It! This’ll Do: Eating
Tripping in Minakami is an adventurous experience and when it comes to food, your courage doesn’t have stop. Japanese cuisine is on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list and while Minakami may be a small town with not as much choice, the choice you do get is mouth-watering, baby. And it’s still relatively easy to keep it cheap and healthy.
A day on the grub in Minakami will cost between ¥1500 – ¥3000 for average traveller, all depending on how and where you eat. But a word of warning to the shoestring cheapskate backpacker: stock up at the town shop or make sure your accommodation serves affordable meals. You’re staying in the mountains, man. There isn’t a Sukiya rice bowl available at every corner at any hour. While there are a handful of ubiquitous convenience stores scattered around town, there is no cheap chain food available ‘round the clock.
Food is still everywhere though, just not at all times. Downtown there is an udon and soba store across from the Laundromat; La Biere Pizzeria serves up authentic, Italian style pasta and wood-fired pizza (along with some frothy Japanese brews) for a fair price and there’s an anachronistic old Japanese izakaya restaurant buried in a basement called Daruma, not a far walk from the main train station. The “master” who owns it serves up the most delicious and hearty potato and pork belly – boy howdy, I’d recommend ordering it if you’re ever in this part of the world.
Being an outdoors enthusiast town, snow destination and national onsen hotspot you’re also going to find local onsens serve food on site (general stuff like udon, tonkatsu and Japanese curry), adventure companies can supply an afternoon or evening BBQ to conclude your adventurous activities and accommodation like Tenjin Lodge will hook you up with in-house home-made breakfast and dinner for a reasonable payout.
Cruisin’ for a Boozin’: Drinking
If I learned anything in my three month Minakami tenure, it’s that there is never a party happening too far away. Canyons, an outdoor company in Minakami, often holds parties and BBQ’s in summer for locals, live-ins and occasionally customers and visitors. Likewise with Big Wave Rafting. It’s a social and interactive vibe – especially considering the young locals that live here are a bit more adventurous than your average Japanese businessmen in a suit.
Some accommodation houses might host parties; promoters used to come and use the vast land as an ideal space for an all-night booze cruise. It all depends what’s happening when you’re here, who you meet and where you’re staying. Outside of that, downtown there is an izakaya called Daihachi and indie bar called Ruins. It’s a dive bar, but trademark Japan, so its got so much style that walking in leaves you draped in cool and nonchalance. If it wasn’t the only option outside of buying booze from 7 – 11 or the grocery store it would be a hip, upperclass establishment .
Things We Wish We Knew in Minakami
Some vital information to keep in mind, and things we wish we knew before we went. So listen up!
Learn the Language and the Culture:
Japanese culture and language is layered and complex. The more you think you understand the less you actually know. They’re beautiful and kind people but without being able to communicate it’s hard to completely immerse yourself. Although Minakami is somewhat of a hub for travellers and you’ll be able to find someone who speaks at least some English, a sense of knowledge and understanding for the culture and language, all the way out in this mountain town, will provide heighten the experience. Even just a little will go a long way. Do a bit of research, or better yet, check out this guide for an easy lesson on all the important words and phrases.
There are literally no bins in Japan and Minakami is no different. In fact, it’s probably worse. It’s insane, and very hard to believe once you realise how exceptionally clean the place is. Apart from out front of convenience stores and next to vending machines you will very rarely see bins in public places, so be ready to carry your rubbish around for a while until you spot one. Don’t be that guy who litters; the place is immaculate, which is a rarity in Asia, so don’t ruin it. It’d be like killing a unicorn. Locals who live here have to store there trash bags and run them to a community cage to be picked up once a week. Talk about a commitment to cleanliness.
The most reliable places to fetch money from your card is CitiBank. Regardless of Visa, Mastercard or Cash Passport, CitiBank ATMs always worked for us, likewise with post office ATMs (every post office in Japan will have at least one ATM in or around the building). There are also cash points inside every convenience store, which worked on the occasional basis depending on your bank. I didn’t have much success with Minakami Family Mart, though the 7-11 in town always accepted my international cards.
If I were you, I’d be loading up every time I saw a post office or found a machine inside a convenience store that accepted your international card. There is a post office in Minakami town, a 10 or 15 minute walk from the station, and one further up the mountain in Yubiso – both accept all cards. Also keep in mind that most stores will take Visa or MasterCard, simply requiring a signature.