I watch the steady flow of emerald water – rugged monochrome boulders lining the far riverside, a serene bamboo forest just behind me – and battle a moment of doubt. When I stop and listen (no mean feat with my daughters, aged six and eight, racing around in wetsuits and helmets) I hear a low-key rumble: the sound of distant rapids.
As if reading my mind – and before I mention that my youngest is perhaps not the strongest swimmer – Taro Ando gives me a champion smile, dazzling and reassuring: “The girls are with me. They will be safe! Let’s go!”
If I’m going to entrust the lives of my children to anyone while paddling through the wintry waters of a wildly remote Japanese river on canoe-like inflatables known as “duckies”, Ando-san is, admittedly, a pretty safe bet.
Not only is Ando-san forever bright and smiling, with that gift of balancing calmness with enthusiasm, he’s also the real deal when it comes to sporting credentials: you can’t argue with a former Olympic canoe slalom athlete who’s now coach for Japan’s national team.
Today, Ando-san is among an impressive team of sports champions (Olympians among them) that takes care of guests at Zenagi, a “wellness and expedition” hotel, located among the ink painting-perfect forests, rice fields, rivers and mountains of Kiso Valley in Nagano Prefecture.
From paragliding to canyoning-like “shower climbing” via remote waterfalls, an array of bespoke activities are offered throughout the seasons. It takes under three hours by train to transition from Tokyo’s skyscrapers to Kiso’s peaceful tableau. Here, beneath blue wintery skies, we arrive at an idyllic valley cocooned in mountain folds, with tiered rice fields, persimmon trees and flowering camellias.
And then there is Zenagi: an elegant, centuries-old wooden kominka country house, backed by a hinoki cypress wood forest so sacred its trees are used to restore Japan’s most important shrine. The building, wrapped in a stone garden with moss-covered boulders, is exquisitely restored (the perfect showcase of the Japanese architectural techniques Unesco recently added to its intangible cultural asset list).
Zenagi’s grand doors slide open to reveal an open-plan interior of black timber floors and intricate exposed timber joinery (without a single nail). The space is softened by warm panels of copper-infused washi paper, a contemporary bamboo chandelier and modernist-inspired rattan chairs, plus a saw-toothed wooden table beneath a trio of Tom Dixon’s copper-hued glass lights. After slipping off shoes in the genkan entrance, we meet Muneyuki Okabe, the friendly owner, who guides us around the three-room property, which – ideal in coronavirus times – we have to ourselves.
Wandering through minimalist interiors, design-loving Okabe-san (who plans to open 20 hotels by 2030) explains, “I made TV documentaries for around 20 years but increasingly felt a sense of crisis over Japan’s regional decline, with everyone leaving to work in cities. I wanted to do something good for Japan.”
Dinner that night – served at a Zelkova wood counter – is described as “Kiso wellness food”, with many ingredients sourced from mountains, rivers and forests within a couple of miles. Among a cornucopia of treats are river salmon sushi, bear with ginger sauce, lily bulbs, red snapper and smooth local sake. After soaking in wooden baths, my husband, the children and I climb into a row of beds pushed cosily together beneath the sloping wood rafters and fall into a deep sleep.
The next morning, our adventure begins with some “forest bathing”. We visit a stretch of the Nakasendo Way, an ancient route connecting Tokyo to Kyoto via mountains, forests and valleys, which teemed with pilgrims, samurai and merchants in its 17th-century heyday. Today, it’s chilly but blissfully green and quiet. Our destination is Tsumago, guided by Kazunori Ukisu (“Call me Uki!”) “Are you ready to time-travel?” asks Uki-san.
One of only three still-preserved post towns of 69 that once lined the route, Tsumago is the stuff of time warps: we wander along a narrow street lined with perfect wooden houses and shops, against a film-like mountain backdrop. A wilder experience, however, awaits.
After a quick drive to another remote spot, we wander down a bank before, to the delight of the girls, we find ourselves in a light-drenched bamboo forest, an emerald-green river flowing just beyond. Among the vertical bamboo we spy a chic wood log-burner and, as if by magic, a table set for lunch (warming curry with tiered jubako boxes of grilled vegetables). After the girls play hide and seek and try climbing the bamboo, we step inside a white tent and put on high-tech wetsuits and helmets. The girls go with Ando-san on one “ducky”; I’m with Uki-san on another. My husband, clearly keen for some rare solitude, takes a SUP board.
After being politely corrected for holding my oars the wrong way round, we have a short test row in front of the bamboo forest. Then, as we start journeying down the river, I mentally prepare to exert Olympian levels of stamina for a strenuous rowing-through-rapids session (in between quick glances to check on the girls). At that moment, Uki-san surprises me. “OK, time to relax,” he says. “Mothers can’t relax very often. The children are fine. Maybe lie back and sleep, or look at the sky. Leave the rowing to me whenever you like. This is your time.”
Suddenly, the experience evolves. I feel myself shifting down, rather than up a gear. The river ebbs and flows in speed, expanses of stillness mixed with bouncing among rocks and frothy waters. At one point, there’s a sudden splash and two cold little hands appear on the side of the canoe along with a happy gasp of “Hi, Mama!” – it’s my eight-year-old, whom we haul on board. The girls are incapable of staying out of the water and (under the ever-professional supervision of laughing Ando-san) slip in and out with high-octane adrenaline.
Another time, I swap with my husband and, while wobbling inelegantly on the SUP as Ando-san shouts instructions, find a new level of calm, paddling solo in peaceful proximity to the water. Eventually, without having seen any other humans, the journey ends on a remote rocky bank – where smiling Okabe-san is waiting, smoothly assisting us to shore.
There are, full disclosure, some tears and a brief riverbank strike from my blue-lipped six-year-old who does not want her adventure to end – before we pile in the car to Zenagi where, in true luxury adventuring style, the wooden baths in all three suites are already filled with hot water.
The rest of our stay continues in a haze of warm hospitality. That night, after a spectacular dinner of miso-pickled Hida beef with beetroot, bear pate and hinoki ice cream, there is star gazing, night shadows dancing on walls; the next morning, a lacquerware workshop at a generations-old atelier.
When it’s time to say goodbye at the train station, the farewell says it all: the children run back and forth between a laughing Ando-san and the ticket gate for high-fives approximately 30 times. And it’s clear they’re not going to forget their new Olympian friend – or their river adventure – any time soon.
Zenagi (zen-resorts.com) from £967 pp/pn, including three meals and one activity. InsideJapan (0117 244 3380; insidejapantours.com) offers a nine-day trip with stay there, from £5,537 pp (includes stays in Tokyo and Kyoto). Overseas holidays are currently subject to restrictions.