- 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.
- 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.
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
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.