My job as a guidebook writer dictates that I spend the greater part of each working day on the road inspecting hotels, restaurants, museums, and this is the biggest sacrifice bars, so I’m always happy when I can schedule a few hours enjoying the great outdoors.
Thus it was with some anticipation that I signed up for a boat ride on the Kumagawa River in Kyushu’s Kumamoto Prefecture. After taking a local train from Kumamoto City to Watari, I joined a group of middle-aged Japanese for what is called the Rapid Stream Course. It seemed a more exciting choice than the easier Clear Stream Course, which follows a more placid stretch of the river. In fact, I’d tried to take the Rapids Course on a previous trip to Kyushu, but heavy downpours during the rainy season and a swollen, angry river had cancelled that expedition.
We were herded onto flat-bottom wooden boats, still used on the river today, where we settled comfortably on mats laid out on the floor. The boat was steered by a man standing at the back gondolier-style. I’ve been on many river trips before, both as a canoeist and on rafting expeditions from Colorado to Ecuador, so this trip seemed pretty tame despite its ranking as one of Japan’s three most rapid streams. It was mostly calm waters, punctuated every once in a while by rapids that took some skillful maneuvering. And of course, this being Japan, loudspeakers blared nonstop commentary about every single point of interest we passed, along with local folk songs.
What I liked most about the trip was the chance to relax, take in the passing scenery of a narrow river valley bordered by wooded hills, and join in the camaraderie that develops when strangers are thrown together in an adventure. But maybe next time I’ll sign up for the more challenging Fighting Course, which takes place April through October in rubber rafts and culminates in a soak at an onsen (hot-spring bath). I was a bit surprised to learn that this trip is limited to those over 5 and under 50 years old, but I was assured that people who looked fit could participate to the ripe old age of 60. That gives me some time. Until then, you’ll find me doing my duty, visiting all those bars.