Haidee and I are relative newcomers to the world of paddling. Unlike HokkaidoWilds.org’s main paddling man Chris, and our friends Greg and Mari, we’ve only got about three full paddling seasons worth of experience – most of that in a Canadian canoe on rivers and lakes. The coastal areas of Hokkaido appeal, however. Haidee grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, and family holidays were always beach-oriented. “My siblings and I were always in the surf, surfing or body-boarding, so we’d always end up holidaying at the sea,” she explained. “Wandering around rock pools, being in the ocean, and being on the beach brings me back home, in a way.”
For me, the coast here appeals due to the remoteness of some of the beaches and coves. Some people mistake me as an extrovert who likes be around people. In retrospect, however, I’ve spent much of my non-working life trying to get as far away from the madding crowds of modern life as much as possible. Sea kayaking here in Hokkaido seems to be another ticket to such endeavours.
So, we shelled out 10,000yen (US$90) each a couple of weekends ago to take part in Blue Holic’s School 1 (スクール１), an introductory day-long instruction in sea kayaking. With no concept of what makes for a good kayak, how to efficiently paddle one, and how to do it safely, we figured some elementary instruction at the very least would be worth it.
Blue Holic is arguably one of Hokkaido’s longest-running sea kayaking outfits. It’s run by Atsuhiro Kato, a prolific sea kayaker originally from Fukuoka, but now a life-long Hokkaido resident. They’re located at Shioya Beach, just west of Otaru City, here. Their location is prime when it comes to Hokkaido summer weather. In summer, the prevailing wind in Hokkaido is southeast, or on stormy days, southwest. On both fronts, Shioya Bay is very sheltered. The bay is also in the lee of swells from the large-fetch Ishikari Bay to the east, due to the large Otamoi headland, separating Shioya Bay from Otaru City. In winter, of course, the bay gets hammered by the north westerlies that bring all that good snow to Hokkaido. But in summer, it’s a paradise for a sea kayaking business that mainly deals with the mass tourism consumer market.
On the way we had our training, we spent the morning paddling the 5km or so return trip from Shioya Bay to the well-known Blue Cave (青の洞窟) – said to have been named such by Atsuhiro himself (source). We were with a gaggle of university students on sit-on-top kayaks. There was a moderate swell. I’m not sure how Atsuhiro keeps such a cool head as he barks orders at stray boats paddling dangerously close to rocks.
Haidee was in a North Shore Designs Buccaneer Polar kayak. 500cm long, 55cm wide. I don’t know much about the brand, but it appears North Shore Designs is (was?) a UK-based kayak manufacturer that exported kayaks to Japan. They also appear to have manufactured some kayaks in Japan (their site is so dated it’s hard to tell if they’re in business now or not). Apparently, the North Shore Designs Shoreline and Fego are manufactured in Japan (source). Their kayaks that mimic somewhat what I’ve seen from Sea Kayaking UK.
Atsuhiro was in a Mystic (discontinued?), also by North Shore Designs.
I was in a Raptor Kayaks Thunderbird (495cm long, 55cm wide); also a foreign brand?
We arrived back to Shioya Bay just as we heard thunder, and saw great large black clouds roll in across the bay. Pointing at the rain radar on his smartphone, Atsuhiro said “look, it should pass over by the end of lunchtime.” There was hope still for our afternoon session.
As soon as we started our afternoon session, I regretted packing and eating such a huge lunch. The surf had grown and we were now definitely getting our money’s worth for our lesson. We did the usual front-in beach launch first. Easy enough.
“But sometimes you might be too lazy and might not want to turn your boat around on the beach,” explained Atsuhiro. “At times like that, the reverse entry is handy.”
I tried it a couple of times, each time capsizing in the surf. Practice required for that one.
We spent a good amount of time focussing on edging and leaning for turning. “You shouldn’t need a rudder,” explained Atsuhiro.
This was music to my ears, as the complexity and delicate nature of sea kayak rudders always irked me. Once we have the hang of edging a kayak without feeling like we’re about to capsize, turning and moving the kayak about is going to be great fun.
It was just as we were getting into self-rescue practice that the skies opened up and the rain started belting down. A nice added touch of excitement to the training.
The increase in waves on the return to the beach was somewhat of a boon for getting experience landing a kayak in less than ideal conditions. We didn’t have time to really get any surfing practice in, but learning to paddle backwards to avoid getting caught on anything too large was helpful, as was timing the approach to avoid large sets of waves.
The day’s lesson was over at 3pm due to the weather. We’d later learn that this weekend was the second-to-last for Blue Holic’s 2021 operating season, so unfortunately we wouldn’t be able to have any follow-up lessons with them this year.
In any case, watch this space as Haidee and I continue to dip our toes in this world of sea kayaking. As a (bold?) conservatively hesitant goal, personally I’d like to get to a point where we can confidently paddle around the Shiretoko Peninsula in 2024. I know Chris is keen!