White Water Rafting in the Tama River- Paddles Up, Heave Ho Hooray!

  • Being stuck in the concrete jungle that is Tokyo was unforgivingly wearing down on us. ‘I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity’; I was becoming exactly that. I was not looking for a place of serenity and tranquility, but on the contrary, my emotions had taken a life of their own and were ebbing and flowing intrinsically back to the open, boundless ocean. Could I turn this insanity from a means of escape into a reality?

    Summer was coming to an end in Japan. Just as time and the proverbial tide wait for no man, it was now or never to open the flood gates to.. White Water Rafting! Japan is a treasure trove of islands, mountains, forests and rivers, that, fortunately, are not far from the larger cities.
    River flows are high during spring, making it the supposed best time to go (other than all year round of course). Summer flows are slower but still plenty fine to douse the sweltering balmy heat with. A brief search on the internet turned out more than a dozen whitewater rafting companies that provided rafting and canyoning services at Minakami and Tamagawa. We decided on the Tama River as it was half the distance away from Tokyo than from the Gunma prefecture. The subsequent elimination process was easy: cluttered and headache-inducing Japanese website layout, out! Less than competitive pricing, out! Out to have fun, in (they all looked awesome actually)! We opted to go with the Big Wave Rafting company. The decisive factor that tipped us in their favor was a video of a rafting guide telling a joke about a bunny riding a motorbike. I don’t know what else you would call a kooky sense of humor if not this!

    The same five silly gaijins who sat upon the highest peak in Japan together had lost a member, gained a new one, and were off on another silly quest. We were received by Big Wave at 9 am at Hanno station in Saitama prefecture, north-west of Tokyo, and then brought to their premises nearby Tama River. It was a big cosy hut with a wooden swing outside, and also a barbecue area for rafters after their run on the river. There were many more people than I would’ve thought, who were mostly Japanese. It is very amusing how they are always dressed to the nines (gaiters and alpine poles for summer hiking?). Some of them looked like they had stopped by on their way to Shibuya. After signing the indemnity forms, we were introduced to our rafting guide for the day, Gordon, who hails from New Zealand. He was very assuring of his credentials and river cred, being from the Mecca of rafting and all. He could also pass off as a sheep with his waist-length dreadlocks. As all but one of us were rafting virgins, Gordon was very accommodating and promised us with all 16 years of experience under his belt, that we would be in for a good time, provided he could trust us as a team. As luck had it, September had woken not only us but Mother Nature. There were typhoons passing by that would cause the river’s water levels to bank rocket. During the safety briefing (which a little praying mantis buddy joined in), we were told what to do and avoid, mainly maintaining the T-grip on the paddle, how to bring a man overboard back on board, to react with lightning quick reflexes to his commands, and to hold on tight!

    The current looked quick even from a distance. All excited and raring to go, we hopped into the magic vessel that Gordon single-handedly carried down (he’s a ram, not a sheep). Our raft was the sweeper raft, which stayed at the back and swept any outliers up front. Team front! Left side back! Two to the front! Relax! Paddles up heave ho hooray! We navigated the waves deftly like a water spider, turning the raft into or against the flow to get over and past rocks. This was definitely not as simple as rowing or dragon boating where mainly synchronization and speed were crucial. The river was a playful beast trying to flip us over all the time! I was just wondering how much instinct or physics, in particular, go into steering when all of a sudden we saw Gordon’s head swiftly drifting away. A-RE あれー?!

    It was all blurry and our captain was back on the raft despite the raging waters. Aye aye! We were having a hell of a time with the river splashing in our laughing faces one moment, and composed minds admiring the surrounding beauty the next. Sadly we skipped the river rock jump because the water levels were too high and visibility of the bottom was poor. We did engage in splash duels with some of the neighbouring rafts. Even though we failed to capsize, we did go for a dip in the calmer stretch of the river. Digital copies of the photos that the guides took throughout were for sale when we got back to the hut, but we didn’t buy any.

    Overall, it was a superb experience for me (it just flew by, I want more!) and I would definitely go back. Steering and guiding are certainly not an easy task, even with a flock of fit birds like us. Flowing through the lifeblood of the mountains, we had an epiphany. This was not an escape but a return. The river flows in us, back to the vast ocean of life and endless opportunities.

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