Top 10 River/Lake Paddling Routes in Hokkaido (2022)

Posted on Sep 3, 2022

Posted on Sep 3, 2022

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Over the course of four paddling seasons, the team at paddled over 50 river and lake sections on Japan's northern-most island of Hokkaido. While there are still some rivers yet to document, these are their top-10 picks as of 2022.


This list has a mix of laid-back easy routes, technical routes, and a mix of day-trips and overnight/multi-day trips. If you’re an intermediate-level or higher open-deck paddler, comfortable with running rivers up to Class 3, you’ll be just fine with all of the routes. If you’ve not spent much time on moving water, then make sure you read the detailed information for each route to make sure if the route matches your current level of skill. See our Hokkaido paddling safety tips here.

1. Kushiro River 釧路川

4 days 104km Class 2+ 1.2mpk PRINT GPX KML

Highlights: Diversity in paddling conditions – Class 2+ rapids, crystal-clear headwaters, remote wetlands, and caldera lake paddling. Huge wildlife diversity – red-crested cranes, native deer, eagles, and kingfishers. Good camping options along the way. Options to shorten trip.

The Kushiro River (釧路川, 154km) is one of Japan’s most iconic rivers. Situated in eastern Hokkaido in Japan’s far north, Kushiro River flows south from Lake Kussharo (屈斜路湖), Japan’s largest caldera lake, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. We wrote up a guide to the full four day self-supported journey down the river from source to sea. Paddlers can expect crystal clear headwaters, deep forests, challenging rapids, Japan’s largest wetlands, two national parks, interconnected lakes, and a plethora of wildlife. And of course hot springs! Each of the four days on the river have their own unique flavour, keeping things interesting and engaging.

2. Saru River 沙流川

5hrs 8.8km Class 3 4.6mpk PRINT GPX KML

Highlights: Thrilling rapids flowing through a beautiful deep gorge. Challenging crux – a 3m drop. Great access. Good campground and onsen.

The Saru River 沙流川 is one of Hokkaido’s premier whitewater kayaking rivers, with a number of sections of differing difficulty. These river sections are variously punctuated by large dams, but each section is beautiful in its own right. This section of tight gorge from Hidaka township to just above the Iwachishi Dam is an upper intermediate to advanced paddler’s dream. There’s a number of Class 2+ to Class 3 rapids, and a challenging crux about half way – a 3m drop easily scouted from above on the bridge and from the river side. Paddling down the deep Saru River gorge should be on any Hokkaido paddler’s list.

3. Shokotsu River 渚滑川

7hrs 30km Class 2 3mpk PRINT GPX KML

Highlights: Starts with a beautiful gorge, with beautiful clear water. Far north in Hokkaido on the remote coast of the Okhosk Sea. Beautiful bedrock further downstream. Good seafood options on the coast for a post-paddle feast.

Shokotsu River (渚滑川) is a pristine waterway flowing into the Okhotsk Sea in northern Hokkaido in far-north Japan. This route starts in the stunning gorge section of the river, not far from the foothills of the northern Daisetsuzan Range. The river itself is suitable for confident intermediate open-deck canoeists. The river’s name comes from the indigenous Ainu name for the river – So-kot – meaning ‘many waterfalls’. While this canoeing section of the river doesn’t have waterfalls, there’s walking trails along the upper section of the river. Well worth the walk.

4. Rekifune River 歴舟川

2-3 days 34km Class 3 3mpk PRINT GPX KML

Highlights: Engaging variation in topography – starts with a tight gorge then widens to a braided-style river. Good campground upstream, and fantastic river-bed camping downstream. Good gradient all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Very picturesque river mouth.

The Rekifune River (歴船川) is a pristine, relatively untouched river flowing from high up in the eastern Hidaka Ranges to the Pacific Ocean. The upper gorge section has some challenging whitewater rapids, cloaked on both sides by beautiful cliffs. The lower braided section of the river makes for one of the best riverbed camping of any river in Hokkaido. On, we outline a classic two-night route, starting from the only weir on the river. It’s a trip that will keep experts entertained, and challenge intermediate paddlers keen to test their canoe camping (and loaded paddling) skills.

5. Nubinai River ヌビナイ川

4hrs 11km Class 3 10mpk PRINT GPX KML

Highlights: Wild and remote. Steep gradient with plenty of rapids and drops. Crystal clear water. Curious spherical boulders

The Nubinai River (ヌビナイ川) is a wild, pristine waterway flowing from high up in the eastern reaches of the Hidaka mountains. With a good water level, it is easily one of Hokkaido’s most picturesque rivers, with some enjoyable and sometimes technical whitewater rapids. Most of this section of the river is flanked by high cliffs, adding to a feeling of wilderness. The entire riverbed is made up of almost perfectly spherical mini-boulders, which are nothing short of spectacular when seen through the river’s crystal clear water. This section suffers from a lack of water in the summer season, so it’s best run in spring or after heavy rain in the autumn.

6. Shisorapuchi River シーソラプチ川

2.5hrs 6km Class 3 7.4mpk PRINT GPX KML

Highlights: Home to regular rafting tours which keep sweepers to a minimum. Gorgeous moss-covered rocks. Challenging drops and rapids. Lush native bush. Nationally well-known natural slalom course at the end. 

This lower section of the Shisorapuchi River (シーソラプチ川) is one of the most well-rounded intermediate to advanced whitewater runs in Hokkaido. It’s got technical but relatively safe drops, plenty of named and un-named rapids, crystal clear water, and the river is lined by moss-covered bedrock. Where the river officially becomes the Sorachi River (空知川) there’s the option to run the famous Kokutai Course (国体コース), a Class III- run through a low gorge. This section of river, flowing straight from the depths of the Daisetsuzan National Park, is one that will beg you to return to test your skills.

7. Lake Shikotsu 支笏湖

2.5hrs 6km PRINT GPX KML

Highlights: Close to Sapporo. In calm weather, a great place for beginners to practice. Ultra-clear water. Volcanic scenery and floating pumice stone. A number of picturesque campgrounds.  

We’ve written up a few Lake Shikotsu routes, all of which require a good calm weather forecast to complete safely. All routes keep close to the shoreline. The Northwest Arc route allows relatively safe access to the remote abandoned Okotanpe Campground and derelict hotel. A more remote, higher-risk access to the Okotanpe Campground is the less accessible Northern Shoreline, via a secluded lakeside wild onsen. If keen to try out an easy loaded overnight camping trip, try the Village-to-Morappu overnight trip.

8. Shiribetsu River 尻別川

3hrs 13km Class 2+ 3.6mpk PRINT GPX KML

Highlights: Close to Niseko – the international ski resort. Good challenging rock gardens and solid rapids. Great views towards the Fuji-of-the-north, Yotei-zan, a beautiful conical volcano.

This is known as the most challening section of the Shiribetsu River (尻別川). Known locally in Niseko as the Rafting Course (ラフトコース), the rapids can be bony, pushy, and require quick, decisive maneuvering. Depending on conditions the crux of the route, Futamata Rapids (二股の瀬) can top out at Class III. This is a classic drop-and-pool section though. As the route winds its way around the dramatic Yotei-zan (羊蹄山, 1898m), dramatic views of its conical peak await. At the end of the route, tall clay cliffs with spring-water waterfalls give paddlers a send-off.

9. Chitose River 千歳川

4hrs 12km Class 2+ 2.6mpk PRINT GPX KML

Highlights: Very close to Sapporo City. Accessible and popular with canoeists and kayakers. Ultra-clear spring-fed water. Good for relative beginners to hone skills, but still plenty of flow to keep experienced paddlers entertained. Only a stone’s throw from Chitose International Airport.

The pristine Chitose River (千歳川) is a mainstay for Sapporo-based canoeists keen to get away from it all, and to hone one’s skills. This long-run route on this beautiful spring-fed river is only possible before the beginning of July each year. It takes in a full, unbroken 12km of the river, including the exciting Class II+ drop just above the Indian Wheel installation at the Salmon Information Center in Chitose City center. From the second weekend of July, the Indian Wheel is installed, and river users have to make a long portage. Get in early, and enjoy a full run along one of the clearest, cleanest rivers in Hokkaido.

10. Teshio River 天塩川

6 days 175km Class 2 0.7mpk PRINT GPX KML

Highlights: Japan’s longest uninterrupted river journey. Steeped in early Hokkaido settler history. Far north feel of remoteness. Lots of wildlife including deer, kingfishers and eagles. Easy access to campgrounds. Riverside onsen. Relatively non-technical paddling.

The Great Teshio River Journey (天塩川旅) is one of Japan’s most iconic multi-day canoe trips, located in northern Hokkaido. With 160km of dam- and weir-free paddling, it’s the longest uninterrupted canoe trip in Japan. Paddlers can expect to see native Hokkaido deer, plenty of kingfishers, and white-tailed eagles along the way, as they re-trace the steps of Hokkaido’s earliest Japanese settlers. With small towns along the river, camping is easy and re-stocking is a breeze. There’s also hot-spring facilities en route, easily accessible on foot from canoe ports on the river. Daily distances are around 20km and the rapids are easily navigable even for beginner paddlers.

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REGION: The general mountain/geographical region the route is in.

BEST MONTH(S): Time of year a route is suited to visiting. Some pop all season, some are more limited.

DIFFICULTY: How strenuous a route is, and how technical it is. Full details here.

FREERIDE/SKITOUR: Very subjective, but is a route more-of-a-walk-than-a-ski or the other way around? Some routes are all about the screaming downhill (freeride), some are more about the hunt for a peak or nice forest (ski-tour). Some are in between. 

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Top 10 River/Lake Paddling Routes in Hokkaido (2022) Difficulty Rating





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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.