A Honshu ferry mission to get sea kayaks

Posted on Jan 31, 2022
Posted on Jan 31, 2022
0 2
We just returned from a whirlwind 70-hour ferry run to Honshu to pick up four sea kayaks for our planned three-year Hokkaido sea kayaking documentation project. 42 hours of that was on the ferry round trip from Tomakomai (Hokkaido) to Tsuruga (Fukui Prefecture) and back. A huge thanks to Biwako Canoe Center for the generous discounts on two new kayaks. Thanks also to Kentaro Kodama for driving 10hrs return from Tokyo to drop off the two second hand kayaks. Enduring thanks also to HokkaidoWilds.org author Chris Auld, who remains stuck outside of Japan, but whose van we've commandeered since! We still don't have paddles or other sea-kayaking specific gear, but we're getting there!


The mission was clear. HokkaidoWilds.org needed two kayaks suited for lighter, smaller paddlers, and two kayaks for larger paddlers.

However, buying any recreational watercraft in Hokkaido can be a hair-pulling ordeal. The second-hand market is scant. New canoes or kayaks come at a somewhat premium price tag due to shipping from overseas. Domestically made kayaks are very high quality but can be a challenge to fit lanky, voluminous non-Japanese bodies. Add to all that the fact that shipping a single sea kayak from Honshu (where there are more purchase options) to Hokkaido can cost just as much as the kayak itself.

So, when it came to getting our hands on sea kayaks for our Hokkaido sea kayaking documentation project, it became clear quite quickly that we’d need to do a ferry run down to Honshu if we were going to have much of a choice of kayaks.

All this effort of a ferry run was not for want of trying, mind you. We’d kept our eyes on the second-hand market in Hokkaido via the usual suspects: Yahoo Auctions, Jimoty and Mercari. We’d put out requests on the national Kayaks for Sale Facebook group. We’d put out requests on our own Facebook page.

To be sure, there can be some screaming bargains to be had second-hand. But we were being fairly picky. We wanted good, reliable touring kayaks, between 5m and 5.4m long. Two sized to fit light, short paddlers, and two sized to fit larger paddlers. After keeping our eyes on the Hokkaido second-hand market for about 6 months, it was all but inevitable that we’d have to commit to the ferry run…the pilgrimage that all hardy Hokkaido sea kayakers must make.

After our second-hand search came up blank early on in the hunt, I caved in and agreed to buy a brand new P&H Scorpio MK2 MV (medium volume) in their three-layer Corelite X material. Online reviews were good, and a few people I follow on Instagram paddle it (@sakhkayak and @mikebearprout in particular). Biwako Canoe Center, a 1hr drive from the Tsuruga Ferry Terminal in Honshu, had one in stock at a winter discount price. Ideally, we would have picked up a low volume one for Haidee too, but alas they didn’t have one in stock.

At least this gave us some direction. To pick up the canoe from the Biwako Canoe Center, we’d need to take the 21hr ferry from Tomakomai to Tsuruga. Now we could narrow down our second-hand search to the greater Kansai area.

After putting the call out for second-hand canoes on Facebook, we got one bite from Kentaro from Tokyo.

“I’ve got a couple of canoes I’d like to sell,” he messaged me. “A Vogue Evo Expedition and an Aquarius Sea Lion HV.”

Vogue Kayaks (@voguekayaks) is a Japan kayak brand. Some of their kayaks are OEM copies of existing or out-of-production kayaks. They claim to be ‘Japan’s smallest kayak maker’. They’re a bit quirky. Their kayaks are pretty. Sometimes a little gaudy. The second-hand Evo Expedition kayak Kentaro sold us I think falls into the latter category. Silver metallic gelcoat. But hey, it floats, and it’s apparently a fast boat. Carbon/kevlar reinforcements, and it’s very light. Most importantly, it would be a good fit for a smaller paddler.

Aquarius is a Polish kayak brand with good reviews. The Sea Lion is carbon/kevlar throughout. It’s ridiculously light. And this one was the high volume version – just what we were looking for.

For a total of 300,000yen, Kentaro was happy to part with the two kayaks and drive them the 5hrs from Tokyo to Lake Biwa to coincide with our visit to the Biwako Canoe Center. Good keen man!


We were now all set for three kayaks. One for a smaller paddler, two for larger paddlers. Considering how difficult it had been to find these three kayaks, finding one more smaller-paddler-specific kayak was going to be a headache for sure.

Just as we were about to get on the ferry, however, Kamiyoshi-san from Biwako Canoe Center called me.

“I’ve been thinking about that one other kayak you need for Haidee,” he said. “I’ve got a Valley Avocet that would be perfect for her, in stock. It’s much pricier than the Scorpio though because it’s composite. Have a think about it.”

Online reviews confirmed that the classic, now out of production Avocet would indeed be a perfect boat for Haidee. Discussions with Grigory from Sakhalin also suggested it might be a good option. But how much would Kamiyoshi-san want for it? Our HokkaidoWilds.org operational budget was already being stretched at the seams. We kept an open mind and headed down to Honshu on the ferry. 

The ferry ride was classic Japanese ferry amazingness. Japanese-style tatami room, onsen hotspring-style baths. It also felt like we were the only ones on the ship. With a capacity for 746 people, the Hamanasu ferry was eerily empty.

21 hours later, we arrived in a bleak, cold, mostly snow-free southern-central Honshu.

Ian asked me how the trip down south was going. I had to be honest with him. “There’s nothing down here but COLD,” I replied.

Lake Biwa was nice enough though.


I’m terrible at selling myself. People I know apparently think otherwise. But I hate it. I like the idea of receiving discounts and sponsorship for gear if the relationship is genuinely mutually helpful. But I loathe the process. Our time at Biwako Canoe Center became, unexpectedly, one of those times.

Kamiyoshi-san wanted, quite rightly, much more for the Avocet than HokkaidoWilds.org could possibly pay. But we’d come a long way, and over the course of the ferry ride, I’d become quite attached to the idea of an Avocet in the HokkaidoWilds.org quiver. When Kamiyoshi-san asked how much we’d be willing to pay, I was honest with him. It was much less than Biwako Canoe Center was wanting for it. I felt bad instantly. This was a classic piece of kayaking history. The last of its kind, built in 2013. Brand new. 

In our previous emails regarding the Scorpio (the kayak intended for me), I had passed on details about what we were buying the kayak for. So he was aware of the project.

We got on to talking about how HokkaidoWilds.org was a non-profit. I mentioned that we’d happily promote Biwako Canoe Center on HokkaidoWilds.org (note – they import some of the best sea kayaks in the world).

I liked Kamiyoshi-san. His reputation preceded him. Hokkaido’s own canoeing legend, Kobayashi-san, spoke highly of him. “He’s a legend of the Japan kayak industry,” Kobayashi-san said.

Kamiyoshi-san had graduated from Hokkaido University. He has completed numerous crossings – Japan to South Korea, Taiwan, Sahalin, Honshu to Hokkaido, among many others.

“Let me look at some figures,” Kamiyoshi-san said. “I’ll need to look back on our records, so please give me some time.”

While Kamiyoshi-san worked on the figures, we sat down to chat with other staff members at the multi-faceted operation that is the Biwako Canoe Center. They not only import kayaks. They run kayak tours. They run outdoor education sessions for school kids. They also spend time in the outdoors themselves in their time off. We chatted for about 2 hours, all the while Kamiyoshi-san ran the numbers and pulled staff members aside one by one.

Eventually he came to where we were sitting, with a picture book in hand. “This is a picture book created by an artist from Tokyo. It’s all about Lake Biwa. Consider this thanks for the Hokkaido souvenir you brought for us,” he said. 

We’d brought a box of Yubari melon jelly snacks from Hokkaido for him and his staff.

“I’ve considered your offer, but the best I can do is this,” he said almost apologetically.

The counter-offer was still a bit more than we had been hoping to pay, but we’d come this far. We agreed on it, and thanked Kamiyoshi-san for his kind contribution to the project. I felt the weight of yet more responsibility to make it worth Biwako Canoe Center’s while.


At around the time that we finished up transactions with the Biwako Canoe Center, Kentaro arrived with the two second-hand kayaks. All the way from Tokyo, a 5 hour drive. Legend.

Now the mission was to get all four 16ft kayaks onto the Chris-mobile.

It was suddenly all stations go.

I once again felt like a complete novice, this being the first time in my life to strap sea kayaks to a vehicle. It felt like a classic “too many cooks” situation, but we got there.

At the end of it all, we felt completely shattered. We said our goodbyes and most sincerest thankyous (and made sure to hand over the Shari shochu and six-pack of beer to Kentaro for his stellar effort getting the second-hand kayaks to us). Haidee and I then drove around the block to the nearest conveyor belt sushi place to decompress and re-fuel. We’d been at the canoe center from 10am till 2pm, with no lunch.

Mission accomplished. Four kayaks. Sorted.

After lunch we started the drive back to the ferry terminal, via Lake Biwa. We would be back on the ferry that very night.


It was sweet relief to get back to Hokkaido another 21 hours later. The ferry ride had been a bit rough. I managed to devour the second half of Blazing Paddles, but Haidee spent most of the ferry ride in a sea-sickness-drug-induced haze, dozing for most of the trip.

It wasn’t just getting off the ferry that was a relief though. It was being back in snowy Hokkaido. It was -20°C the morning after our arrival. The snow squeaked under our feet. The drive back to Sapporo via Lake Shikotsu just reminded me why we’ve made this place our home. 

If Hokkaido isn’t a part of paradise, I’m not sure what is.


We still don’t have paddles or spray skirts, so we weren’t able to fully christen the new kayaks into their new home. But, we were able to welcome them a little to our favourite place on earth, with a bit of pointless, gratuitous, posey playing with them on the snow next to Lake Shikotsu.


Before committing to getting these boats, I’d measured, re-measured, and measured again the length of our ground-floor garage at the HokkaidoWilds.org headquarters in Sapporo City. I was confident they’d all fit in. It was with no small amount of nervousness, however, that I hoisted them off the van and into the shed.

Thank the stars. They fit.

Now we just need paddles. And spray skirts. And sea kayaking safety gear.

Comments | Queries | Discussion

2 thoughts on “A Honshu ferry mission to get sea kayaks”

  1. Loved this account!!

    I first sea kayaked in Hokkaido (a trip around the Shiretoko Peninsula) 25 years ago when I was living as a university student and grad student in eastern Hokkaido for 6 years – back in the days when there were hardly any 外人 to be seen (1993-1999). I am now live on Pender Island, one of the Gulf Islands in between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. I work primarily as a natural builder/timber framer/finish carpenter but do some work as a Japanese-English translator and a have my SKGABC AOG guiding licence and so do a bit of guiding when I can work it in and get out in the surf and for touring as often as I can as well as the mountains of Vancouver Island and the West Coast.

    My family of 5 is wanting to get back to Japan for the first time in a very long time in 2024 and spend a year living and working in Japan, with a good chunk of that in Hokkaido, my second home (in my heart). I was wondering how access to decent sea kayaks would be should we want to get out. I also have friends wanting me to help coordinate a tour of some either backcountry skiing or 沢登り while we are there. I think I will drop you a line to see if we can somehow coordinate,

    Love your site and organization. I was an avid backcountry climber/hiker/ski-mountaineer during my time spent in eastern Hokkaido (Kitami and Abashiri). I had to pull all my info out of grizzly, often アル中山岳会climbing friends and my own research. Good for you guys for this initiative.

    1. Thank you for the kinds words Mark! The site is certainly a labor of love. Great to hear you’re keen to get back here for a bit. Sea kayaking gear here appears second hand every now and then, but for sure there are more options down south (hence our sojourn down there).

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A Honshu ferry mission to get sea kayaks Difficulty Rating





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