Keeping Safe while Canoeing, Kayaking, or Packrafting in Hokkaido

Posted on Jul 8, 2019
29 3
Posted on Jul 8, 2019
29 3
In this post, we outline some common-sense safety guidelines for exploring Hokkaido's waterways. Hokkaido is a mecca for off-the-beaten-track canoe, kayak, and packraft touring routes, through wild and remote terrain. Winter boating in particular can be a mesmerizing, phenomenal experience. Along with this come objective dangers, above and beyond those that experienced paddlers will already be familiar with.

Last updated Jun 29, 2022

GENERAL ADVICE

  • Don’t trust HokkaidoWilds.org
    We’re enthusiastic amateurs at best when it comes to paddling in Hokkaido. Sure, we’ve got extremely experienced and highly trained paddlers on the team, and we’re experienced with Hokkaido’s wild places in general. But we’re still building our experience and knowledge with Hokkaido’s rivers, lakes and coastal areas. Take our experiences with a very large grain of salt.
  • Hire a guide
    For all of the major paddling routes posted on HokkaidoWilds.org, we make note of local guides available that can accompany you on routes and sections appropriate for your level of ability. If you’re an experienced paddler, we’d recommend preparing a short ‘resume’ with photos that you can include in any correspondence with a potential guide. This will help the guide envisage what level of paddling they can expect from you – most of Hokkaido’s highly experienced guides spend most of their time guiding complete beginners, many of whom have never held a paddle before.
  • Keep dry and warm
    Hokkaido’s waterways and coastal seas are very cold, so outside of mid-summer (where outside temperatures climb into the 30’s of °C), drysuits or thick (3-4mm) wetsuits are par for the course for most paddling.
    • Lakes – Lake Shikotsu’s surface temps are 5°C in April, 10°C in May, 14°C in June, 21°C in Aug, 18°C in Sep, 11°C in Oct (source). Self-rescue skills are paramount in these temperatures.
    • Rivers – River temperatures differ little from those temps above.
    • Sea/ocean – Sea temperatures around Hokkaido range between 3-5°C in winter, 5-10°C in spring, 10-23°C in the height of summer, and 10-18°C in autumn.
  • Always wear a life jacket (PFD)
    While in Japan there’s no law requiring people to wear life jackets on small crafts such as canoes and kayaks, everyone should be wearing one when on the water.
  • Tell someone your plans
    Before setting out, let someone who cares about you know where you are going, and when you expect to be back. There’s no official float-plan submission system in Hokkaido.
  • Check the weather
    Our go-to weather forecast website for the outdoors in Hokkaido is Windy.com. It is a free site/app, but they use a sophisticated commercial forecasting model that is uncannily accurate to within 1-2 days. For sea kayaking and canoeing Hokkaido’s larger lakes, weather is particularly important. Lakes have large fetch, and all of Hokkaido’s best sea kayaking locations are on exposed coasts – if Windy.com is showing anything more than 20km/h gust speed, consider keeping off the water.
  • Get some training
    • Paddling courses – There are a number of good canoe, kayak and sea kayak training schools in Hokkaido – look for Japan Safe Paddling Association (JSPA) accredited courses (see a list here). They’re generally around 12,000 to 15,000yen per day – a worthy investment. Outfits offering courses in English are rare.
      • Canoeing: If you’re looking for canoe lessons in English, then try the Niseko Outdoor Center. If you’d rather cut costs as much as possible, you live in Hokkaido, and speak at least basic Japanese, consider joining a club such as the Hokkaido Wilderness Canoe club.
    • River rescue training: There are a couple of outfits in Hokkaido that offer the accredited Rescue 3 Swiftwater Rescue Training (SRT) qualifications (in Japanese). See the list and dates here.
    • Sea kayak courses: Try contacting H2O Adventure, as they may have guides who can instruct in English.
  • Prioritize travelling in a group
    Where possible, always travel with two or more boats, in order to facilitate rescue if needed. If you live in Hokkaido, and speak at least basic Japanese, consider joining a club such as the Hokkaido Wilderness Canoe club.
  • Carry a navigation device
    On each of the HokkaidoWilds.org paddling route guides, we post a printable PDF map of the route. In addition to printing this out and having it on hand in a waterproof case along with a compass, make sure you have some form of GPS navigation device. Mist can happen, particularly on the Hokkaido coast. PLBs are fine for use on the sea, but cannot be used on land in Japan. Consider carrying a SPOT location device for emergencies. See our deep-dive on PLBs here.
  • Do your due diligence
    Despite Hokkaido’s abundance of paddling zones, there is a real lack of resources out there in English – hence our desire to fill that gap. But don’t just rely on our information. Check websites such as HokkaiCamp.com (Japanese only), and seek out Japanese publications such as the 55 River Touring Routes book, the Canoe Touring Book and the All-Japan Canoe Touring Guide (here’s our full list). Apart from HokkaiCamp.com, all those resources are pretty old though – the newest being over 15 years old – your mileage may vary.

RIVER/LAKE-SPECIFIC ADVICE

Below, we give some Hokkaido-specific canoeing advice. We assume paddlers know they should be carrying whistles, knives, rescue kits (slings, carabiners etc), spare paddles etc.

  • Wear a helmet in whitewater
    If you are paddling in whitewater, then it’s a good idea to wear a helmet. Hokkaido’s rivers have relatively less water than many popular rivers overseas – contact with rocks in a capsize is common.
  • Watch out for obstructions in rivers
    In Hokkaido, and Japan as a whole, you’ll particularly need to look out for the following.
    • Downed trees – Hokkaido is seeing more and more typhoons head up this way, which has increased the amount of wood in rivers.
    • Tetrapods – Japan spends a massive amount of time and money dropping concrete blocks of all shapes and sizes into the rivers in a futile attempt to protect river banks. These make their way into the river after floods – take care.
    • Weirs and dams –  There are a ton of these on Hokkaido rivers and they can be drowning machines. Man-made weirs often create uniform hydraulics and keeper holes that are almost impossible to get out of.  Hence the term ‘drowning machine’.  The portages around Hokkaido weirs tend not to be very user-friendly, require a little scouting and usually some bushwhacking.

SEA KAYAK SPECIFIC ADVICE

Also see the ‘General Advice’ above.

  • Hokkaido sea kayaking is exposed-coast sea kayaking
    There are very few attractive sea kayaking locations in Hokkaido that do not expose paddlers to the open sea/ocean. Hence, almost all of the sea kayak routes on HokkaidoWilds.org are rated as Intermediate and above. Paddlers need to have the skills, knowledge and gear to deal with changing sea conditions.
  • The sea is cold
    Hokkaido is an outlier in Japan when it comes to climate and sea temperatures. It’s cold enough even in the height of summer that an extended swim without a wetsuit or drysuit will lead to hypothermia.
  • Fixed-net fishing gear: The entire coast of Japan is notorious for large numbers of fixed-net fishing gear – Hokkaido is no exception. In Hokkaido, fixed net fishing gear is most commonly encountered between September and November (most often salmon nets), but some are set as early as May. These pose a real danger to sea kayakers. If there is a considerable swell, surface ropes can lift a kayak up if you’re unlucky enough to paddle over one without noticing. Similarly, if you’re unlucky enough to happen to paddle under a rope at the trough of a swell, the rope could crush a kayak. We try to make note of set net locations on our printable PDF maps, but these only include nets registered on the Prefectural database

HOKKAIDO FIXED-GEAR FISHERY LOCATIONS

Courtesy of the excellent Umi-shiru System

  • Charts
    The Japan Hydrological Association (JHA) publishes detailed nautical charts for the entirety of Japan. For physical charts, consider the W-series of English-language charts, or the Japanese-language Yachting Charts (Y-Chart). The JHA also publishes a series of S-Guide charts for small-craft coastal navigation, available for download as PDFs (also in Japanese – Hokkaido S & E, Hokkaido N & W). All official electronic charts are published in Japanese – consider the excellent newpec smart smartphone app (Android | iPhone; 960yen per month subscription) or newpec for PC.
  • Fishing ports are off-limits to kayakers
    A Hokkaido-specific bylaw prohibits the use of fishing ports by small recreational crafts, including kayaks and canoes. The bylaw was updated in April 2022 to allow some recreational craft to apply for exemptions at some ports, but this update does not include sea kayaks, canoes etc. (see p. 2, Item 2 of this document).
  • Fishing operations have right of way
    As a staunchly fisheries-first nation, Japan’s recreational users of the sea are expected to not interfere with fishing operations. For sea kayakers, this applies to not getting in the way when landing and setting off near fishing ports (even the small ones), not blocking access to fishing ports, keeping out of the way of small fishing craft close to shore, etc.
  • Illegal fishing is a crime in Japan
    This point needs its own blog post, but suffice it to say, any unauthorized harvesting of sea-urchins, mussels, abalone, octopus, lobster etc is strictly and heavy-handedly prohibited in Japan. Fishing for fish (whether by live bait, lure etc) is not as heavily regulated.

Comments | Queries | Discussion

3 thoughts on “Keeping Safe while Canoeing, Kayaking, or Packrafting in Hokkaido”

  1. Pingback: Top 10 River/Lake Paddling Routes in Hokkaido (2022) | HokkaidoWilds.org

  2. A few suggestions I will throw out. I started canoeing around 1975 in college and taught canoeing in the USA for many years.
    Lots of people drown their phones using ziplocks. Drybags may fail if submerged in a rapid.
    Invest in a small dry box to store phones and first-aid kit/headlamp/ductape. Get a couple of real carabiners and a short cord to tie it to a thwart. Anything you want to keep, needs to be tied into the boat on the river.
    For a long trip or in cold weather, bring a fire starter and hypothermia prevention kit.–Extra clothes, emergency shelter/large trash bags, calorie snacks. Hokkaido water is usually cold, making the danger level higher for river running. Like I read in Alaska, a class 3 can be a class 4 if it is severely cold.
    Plastic hand pumps are way easier to use than bailing buckets. You can find deals online.
    Practice swimming rapids in a controlled environment to prepare for a unexpected flip later on. Good chance to practice throw rope use too. Practice throwing the throw rope often. Practice flipping at the lake and dumping the water out, on a hot day so you can be comfortable when the going gets tough.
    Keep boats close together and make it a habit to watch your partner boat. An accident can happen quickly and going upstream 100 meters to assist can take some time, for example. Keep withing visual and audio range. Learn basic visual signals for river running. Example: https://www.paddleeducation.com/whitewater-kayaking/getting-started/paddle-signals/
    Do not tie water bottles or other items to the end lines of a canoe. They will snag on things if the boat flips and can make the painter like a bolo, wrapping your leg after a flip. Long endlines are useful for letting your canoe float through shallow water or unreasonable rapids while you walk on the shore. You can steer if you can hold both ropes. They also help if a canoe gets pinned on a rock. They are less accepted in Japan than in the USA from what I have seen, but I think they are necessary, especially in rivers.
    Stay up stream of your boat if you flip in moving water. Don’t get caught between a rock and a hard, heavy boat full of water. Hold onto your paddle if you swim and stay with your boat if its safe.
    High water levels often cause accidents. If inexperienced, do not go when the water is high/flooding. If in doubt, retreat for another day.
    Get a PFD/life jacket that is appropriate for your style of paddling. A basic lake PFD is not good for whitewater and some are designed for certain body weights. PFD needs to be tightened to work properly. After putting it on, pull up from the top while on shore, if the collar comes up toward your ears, its too loose.
    Floatation/airbags are necessary for strong currents/rapids.
    Like a hiking trip, leave a trip plan with someone dependable. If you do not call or return by a certain time, they should know your general route and names of party members.
    Get good straps and instruction on how to tie down your boat on your vehicle. At highway speeds, they can be quite a hazard if they fly off the roof. I usually use at least 2 straps, one as back up.
    Pay attention to the weather. A storm or strong winds can make it impossible to make head way to return to your starting point on a lake. Wind can create waves quickly.
    Just for comfort and safety, I will mention that I found great knee pads in the gardening section of a 100 yen shop, flexible rubber with 2 straps, great for canoes, not needed for kayaks.

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Keeping Safe while Canoeing, Kayaking, or Packrafting in Hokkaido Difficulty Rating

Category

Grade

Points

Strenuousness

Vertical Gain

D

25

Time ascending

D

0

Technicality

Altitude

D

0

Hazards

D

Navigation

D

Totals

25/100

GRADES range from A (very difficult) to D (easy). Hazards include exposure to avalanche and fall risk. More details here. Rating rubric adapted from Hokkaido Yukiyama Guidebook 北海道雪山ガイド.