After a lengthy bus ride beginning at seven in the morning, a bus full of TUJ students arrived at Nagatoro Outdoor Center. After a quick briefing, we all scattered to change and get ready for the trip. The center offered rentals for a variety of gear, including wetsuits (which they recommended, saying a number of times how cold the water would be), waterproof jackets, water shoes, straps to keep glasses on, and the mandatory helmets and life jackets. Personally, I only opted for glasses straps: it was a hot day, and I figured that the water would be cold and refreshing.
After getting ready, the first thing we did was drag the boats down to the river. Each group of six rafters helped lug a heavy rubber boat down a narrow forest trail which ended up at the shore. To “acclimate” us to the water, our guides had us wade out into the water, stand in a circle, then just splash each other with the river water. That’s about the time I started regretting just wearing my t-shirt and shorts under the safety gear.
The actual safety briefing (aka “Learn how to whitewater raft in five minutes”) was, disconcerting, mostly about what to do when you fall into the water. Not “if,” when. And with that assurance, we set off down the river.
The actual journey was beautiful. It was a scenic ride past jagged rocks, stony beaches, and waterfalls cascading out of the forest. Periodically along the way, our guide had us jump out and swim in the river. It was freezing cold, but the current made actually swimming pretty fun and easy. At the halfway point, we all pulled our boats off to the side and made makeshift diving board out of them.
Really there was only one instance where the safety training was necessary. My group was in the lead boat, and several of us hopped out to swim. After a few minutes, our guide said to get back in the boats and said something about upcoming rapids, which prompted a panicked, struggled to swim back upstream and climb into the boat. We all made it back in, but it was a nice little adrenaline rush.
After making it to the stopping point, we all loaded up into a bus filled with plastic-covered seats and headed back to the outdoor center for a lunch of yakiniku.
After the morning’s strenuous activities, everyone was ready for the next activity: a trip to a Japanese onsen, a hot spring bath. Usually described as a uniquely Japanese experience, I was interested in seeing what it was like. And it really was the sort of experience you could never have in America.
After changing in a locker room, you go out into the public bath, donning nothing but a towel (if that). There, you wash off in a designated shower area in preparation for entering the baths. The onsen we went to had three primary parts: an indoor bath, an outdoor bath, and a sauna. I mostly spent time in the outdoor bath, since it was along the river and had a nice breeze. Really, there are few experiences as unique as hanging out with a bunch of naked Japanese men in a hot spring bath along a river.
I briefly tried the indoor bath, which in my opinion wasn’t as nice. I also took one step inside the sauna, and then immediately backed out after nearly drowning in the 100% humidity and billion-degree heat. Fortunately, afterwards I was able to take a cold shower and have some ice cream.