January 31, 2020

Mountainous Minakami

Found at the northernmost tip of Gunma, Minakami is without a doubt Japan's top spot for adventure tourism and other outdoor activities.

A man goes canyoning in Gunma Prefecture's Minakami

When you confine yourself only to Japan’s urban settings, it’s easy to forget just how much of Japan is defined by its mountains. In fact, approximately twenty-seven percent of the country is considered flat. Put simply, the conditions in the vast Kanto Plain (where Greater Tokyo resides) are actually the acception to the rule. Elsewhere in Japan, mountains, not flatlands, are the norm. Now, I am a pretty well-traveled guy and always game for visiting new remote destinations. Yet, given the distance I’ve covered, I’m repeatedly floored by the sheer majesty of Japan’s sweeping mountains.

On that note, I’d like to introduce today’s topic of Minakami. Located in the farflung northwestern reaches of Gunma, on the border of Niigata Prefecture, Minakami is like heaven on earth for outdoor enthusiasts. Well renowned for years for its hot springs and ski resorts, this slice of Japan has also recently seen a boom in adventure tourism. For example, my good friend Mike Harris runs the company Canyons and is always taking both foreigners and Japanese alike on some sort of suicidal-looking undertaking. If you have a serious deathwish, I highly suggest checking out what Mike has on offer.

Anyway, after having visited Minakami not too long ago, I must say that the area is a bit of an enigma. This subsection of Gunma Prefecture feels much more like a hodgepodge of hobbled communities rather than a single unified entity. This is because the current incarnation of Minakami is actually a recent concoction. Historically, this region has been more of a collection of semi-independent pockets that took up residence in their own respective valleys. It was merely a decade and some change ago that all of these various villages were aggregated into the current amalgam of Minakami.

All in all though, if you’re into nature and the outdoors, you can’t really do much better than Minakami. It’s a welcome reprieve to the endless concrete jungle of the Tokyo megalopolis. While you certainly don’t need to go as far as willingingly flinging yourself from a bridge clinging to a bungee rope saving you from death, there’s ample opportunities for adventure. Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie or a newbie to the outdoors, Minakami has something that will excite just about anyone.

Getting to Minakami

A Niigata-bound bullet train in Japan

Given Minakami’s mountainous description, I wouldn’t really fault you for incorrectly thinking that it was hard to reach. Luckily for you though, getting yourself to Minakami is about as easy as it gets. Thanks to the ever-convenient bullet train, you can reach this outdoor wonderland in a little over an hour. All you need to do is take one of the Joetsu bullet trains bound for Niigata from Tokyo Station to Jomo-Kogen Station. As always, refer to Hyperdia or a similar service to calculate the best routes. Assuming you don’t have a JR rail pass, the entire trip will cost around 6,000 yen.

Once you’re in Minakami, you’ll want to snag yourself a set of wheels. This isn’t the type of destination that you can navigate by public transportation. While there are a few interconnected bus routes, divining the arcane schedules without the ability to read Japanese will prove difficult. What’s more, much of Minakami is spread out meaning that much of your time will be wasted on transportation to and fro. If you’re like me and cannot drive, you’ll probably want to reconsider visiting unless you can get your ryokan or an adventure tourism company to help with the logistics.

During my stay, I had the luxury of having the previously mentioned Mike Harris, the CEO of Canyons, drive me around. I honestly can’t imagine how painful of a trip it would have been if I had to do it myself with only the buses to cart me around…

Minakami’s Creepy Doai Station

13,490 meter-long decent down to Doai Station’s platform in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture

As can be seen in the shot above, Doai Station is a bit of a spectacle unto itself. The platform for northbound trains to Echigo-Yuzawa Station is located 70 meters underground. To reach it, you’ll need to descend as many as 486 steps from the ticket gate. The 13,490 meter-long walk takes even experienced hikers as much as 10 minutes to descend. Note that Doai Station is unattended. While you normally need to purchase a ticket before entering in more populated areas of the country, Doai Station can be explored without doing so. As such, you’re entirely free to pop in and get a shot for the Gram.

Frankly put, Doai Station feels like something that belongs in a Silent Hill game. The entire time I was there, I could feel the tiny hairs on the back of my neck standing up. As Instagrammable as the station is, I really wouldn’t have been surprised to see a few zombies pop out of the shadows…

Minakami’s Dangerous Mt. Tanigawa

The snowy and ever-dangerous Tanigawadake in Gunma Prefecture’s Minakami

Known as Tanigawadake in Japanese, this craggy and rugged peak is basically iconic of Minakami. Located right on the border of Gunma and Niigata, this 1977 meter-high mountain gets absolutely buried come winter. The deep and powdery snow is perfect for winter sports like snowboarding and skiing. About halfway up the mountain, there’s a ski resort known as Tanigawadake Tenjindaira. Though it’s comparatively small with only six chair lifts, this ski resort more than makes up for it by having one of the longest seasons in all of Japan. Most years, you can ski or snowboard as late as May.

In addition to enjoying the slopes, Mt. Tanigawa is sure to guarantee abundant trails to enjoy. That said, I absolutely have to mention that Mt. Takigawa is actually one of the most deadly mountain in the world. Since its initial exploration in the early 1930’s, a total of 805 people have died. To put that in perspective, Mt. Everest, the tallest peak in the world, has claimed approximately 200 lives. Mt. Tanigawa’s location is what makes it so deadly. The mountain sits right at the junction where the weather systems from the Asian continent and the Pacific meet. This conflux gives rise to conditions that are quite different from Mt. Tanigawa’s surroundings.

Needless to say, unless you’re highly experienced, please don’t do anything stupid while trekking around Mt. Tanigawa. The weather can change in a heartbeat and you can quickly go from smokin’ and jokin’ to fighting for your life. What’s more, these changes often come with no warning. In a mere instant, whatever conditions are brewing on the Niigata side of Mt. Tanigawa will wash up over the mountain and wreak havoc on the Gunma side. To make matters worse, there are also frequent avalanches to boot. If that’s not enough to scare you into following the rules, I don’t know what is…

Minakami’s Heavenly Hot Springs

The riverside Takaragawa Onsen in Gunma Prefecture’s Minakami

As mentioned, Minakami is actually a popular onsen destination. Given the prevalence of numerous colossal crags in the vicinity, this really shouldn’t be all too surprising. Strewn about Minakami’s valleys, you’ll discover as many as a dozen distinct hot spring sources. What’s more, a good number of these springs are actually quite famous throughout all of Japan. Relaxing in any one of Minakami’s many baths is just what the doctor ordered and especially so during the winter months following a long day on the slopes,

Note that most of the hot spring resorts in Minakami are centered around the small town of Minakami Onsen. As you go deeper into the mountains though, you’ll encounter more one-off rustic ryokans. Of these, two really stood out to me as being must-sees if you’re in Minakami. These are…

  • Takaragawa Onsen
    Onsenkaku, the singular ryokan in this area, sports some really legendary outdoor baths in all of Japan. These mixed gender springs huddle alongside a picturesque river that flows through the forested hills. Open for both day use and to guests staying overnight, this is not the onsen you want to miss if you enjoy a good soak!
  • Hoshi Onsen
    Nestled deep into the mountains of Minakami, this is the kind of place you go simply to escape it all. Like with Takaragawa Onsen, you’ll only find a single ryokan here at Hoshi Onsen. Known as Chojukan, this facility has a few mixed gender wooden baths that quite honestly feel like they were ripped from the pages of a history book.

As an onsen aficionado, I have been to many hot spring towns and I must say, Minakami’s facilities are really top notch! If you do visit, be sure to add an onsen experience to the itinerary. You won’t regret it.

Attractions Near Minakami

Minakami’s Takumi-no-Sato in Gunma Prefecture

Like with a place like Miyakojima way down south in Okinawa, Minakami isn’t exactly a destination that you choose because it has a number of options for cultural experiences. That said though, while Minakami’s main draws are certainly adventure tourism and the outdoors, there are a few options for the die-hard history buffs out there. Of these, Takumi-no-Sato is probably the most alluring to overseas visitors. This picture-perfect village features several workshops where you can try your hand at creating traditional Japanese arts and crafts.

You’ll find Takumi-no-Sato in the western reaches of Minakami. Set against the rustic backdrop of rice fields, apple orchards, and Minakami’s ever-present mountains, Takumi-no-Sato is nothing short of Gram worthy. What’s more, the town is actually a former post-town on the Mikuni Kaido, an important highway that once connected Niigata and Gunma. If you’ve had your fill of canyoning endeavors and find yourself yearning for less suicidal adventures, I highly suggest you give Takumi-no-Sato a try!