Canoeing the Kushiro River – A Complete Guide

釧路川 | Chiu-ash-pe

Posted on Sep 25, 2019
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Posted on Sep 25, 2019

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Reading time: 4 min
104km

Distance

4 day(s)

Time

1.2 mpk

Gradient

5/5

Water clarity

Class II

Difficulty

Jun-Oct

Best season

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. This is Hokkaido Wild's 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.

Last updated Sep 26, 2019

Route Map

Need to know details

Difficulty

Overall difficulty: Intermediate (7/10)

Remoteness: 4/5
Number of portages: 1
Longest portage: 200m
Total portage distance: 200m
Overall portage difficulty: 4/5

River Details

This route is on Kushiro River (釧路川), or Chiu-ash-pe in the Ainu indigenous language. The river is a Class A (一級河川) river, 154km in total length. This section of the river is between 10m and 30m wide , with a normal flow rate of around 0.6m/s to 2m/s. The gradient for this section of river is 1.2 mpk (6.34 FPM).

Weather: Windy.com weather forecast for Kushiro River

Water level: 99.93m and stable. No river level warnings issued. Last updated 2019/12/6 15:0 (Source).

Location

The Kushiro River flows out of Lake Kussharo in far eastern Hokkaido, about six hours drive east of Sapporo City. For this full four-day journey down the river’s entire length, the put-in is on Lake Kussharo. Options on the lake shore abound. We chose to camp the night before the first day at the Wakoto Campground about 5km northwest of the head of the river around the lake – there’s a canoe port in the campground. Greg said he and Mari have stashed canoe and gear at Ike-no-yu, about 5km north of the river. They stayed in Kawayu Onsen the night before their trip down the river. Either way, if you’ve only got one car, the shuttle will involved both taxi and Japan Rail train. For us, this meant the following steps:

  1. Drive to Wakoto Campground on Lake Kussharo, drop gear and canoe.
  2. Drive to the take-out point at the coast.
  3. Walk or take a taxi 2.5km from take-out point to Kushiro JR Train station.
  4. Catch the train from Kushiro JR Station to either Mashu JR Station or Biruwa JR Station.
  5. Get a taxi to Wakoto Campground from either Mashu JR Station (5,500yen – taxis waiting at station) or Biruwa JR Station (4,500yen – need to call for a taxi in Japanese in advance).

Naturally, if you’re traveling with a packraft or folding canoe, then you can just do steps four and five, and then step three at the end of the trip.

General notes

Ask a few hardcore canoeists in Japan what river they most want to make a multi-trip on, and the Kushiro River will no doubt feature high in the responses. “It’s got everything,” Greg explained to me. “Beautiful headwaters, rapids, good camping, and National Geographic level wetlands with so much wildlife it’s almost unbelievable.” After spending our own four days on the river, we can really attest to the appeal of this iconic waterway way out east in Hokkaido.

  • Water levels: When we did the trip in August 2019, we had water levels of 100.05m as measured at the Teshikaga Measurement Station. It appears that this is a pretty standard water level, and since it is fed by a natural lake, the Kushiro River itself doesn’t tend to rise and lower very fast. Water levels tend to stay stable even in the height of summer. Prolonged heavy rain can raise water levels, however.
  • Buying supplies: Once on the river, access to shops is limited. Teshikaga has a large supermarket here.
  • Onsen: There are a number of wild, free, mixed-gender onsen hotsprings on the shores of Lake Kussharo. The pick of the bunch is the Kotan Open Air Bath, here, about 1km north of the head of the Kushiro River in Kotan Settlement. Others include the forested Wakoto Kyodo Baths, the very public Wakoto Hot Spring, and the Ike-no-yu (basically a hot pond).
  • River Length: Officially, the Kushiro River is 154km long. However, it appears that this length has not been updated since extensive straightening work has been done over the last 100 years in some sections. We were on the river from Lake Kussharo to the sea, and recorded only just over 100km.
Route description

Generally speaking, a full four day trip down the Kushiro River will consist of four very unique days.

  • DAY 1 – The Headwaters (Lake Kussharo to Teshikaga) | 17km, 1.2mpk | There’s a deceptively large volume of water flowing out of Lake Kussharo into the Kushiro River, which wends its way mostly unobstructed by human intervention all the way to Teshikaga Town. This headwaters section is known for being crystal clear, teeming with birdlife, and flanked by deep wetland-like forest. Testament to its wild roots, this section is also known for frequent downed trees that must be dodged – paddlers will be busy. There’s not much in the way of rapids beyond some straight forward Class II swifts, but river-wide strainers require constant attention and confident ability to maneuver canoes quickly. This section is not beginner-friendly, but lower-level intermediate paddlers and up will enjoy the challenge.
  • DAY 2 – The Rapids (Teshikaga to Shibecha) | 30km 3.0mpk | This varied and exciting section of river is far from what most people think of when they think of the Kushiro River – Class II+ rapids, a few must-scout crux points, a portage, and plenty of thrilling times, especially when in a loaded canoe. This section is also the most human-impacted section of the river, with a few sections of concrete-walled stopbanks. NOTE: As of August 2019, it is, officially, prohibited to canoe much of this section due to “fast flowing water, construction, and a dangerous spot”. Please see the Day 2 blog post for details about this. In reality, all construction as of August 2019 was complete, and as for the other normal river hazards present, we’re confident that any experienced canoeist making conservative decisions will be fine. That said, make conservative decisions and pay attention to current conditions – there’s likely to be more construction to be done in the future.
    • Hell’s Ladder (地獄のハシゴ, location):  This spot is arguably the crux of the entire 100km of the Kushiro River. For 99% of paddlers 95% of the time, this nasty man-made chute will not be runnable, and will require a scrambly portage of up to 200m. At this point, the entire Kushiro River is being forced into a narrow chute, hardly three meters wide, flanked on both sides by jagged concrete blocks. As of August 2019, some driftwood had lodged itself on one side of the entrance to the chute, making the entry even more sketchy, and forcing the main flow to power into the right hand side blocks. See the dedicated notes and photos on the Day 2 blog post.
  • DAY 3 – The Wetlands (Shibecha to the lakes) | 30-40km, 0.45mpk | From Shebecha the river flattens out dramatically, and thrusts paddlers deep into the Kushiro Shitsugen National Park – Japan’s largest wetlands. Expect a broad, powerful flow winding its way past red crested cranes, deer, eagles, and king-fishers. This is the Kushiro River which makes this body of water so iconic. There are a couple of options for camping on this section – Lake Toro or Lake Takkobu. Why not extend the trip to five days, and stay at both?
  • DAY 4 – To the Sea (the lakes to Kushiro City) | 20-30km, 0.3mpk | After three or four days of gloriously wild paddling, this last day is a jarring and garish return to the reality of industry that keeps Hokkaido’s economy ticking over. Technically, to follow the water downstream, you’ll end up on the Shin-Kushiro River (新釧路川), which is a new, dead-straight monstrosity headed straight for the coast – the actual old Kushiro River is dry and un-navigable for at least 5km past the Iwabokki Suimon gates. At the terminus at the sea, make sure to spend some melancholic time sitting on the beach, watching that tortured Kushiro River flow to freedom, and contemplating humans’ pitiful and fleeting existence.
    • River-wide fishing facility (ウライ, location): This river-wide fishing facility requires a less-than-ideal portage on either the left or right. See the Day 4 blog post for details.
Route Timing
Day 1: 6hrs 0min
Day 2: 6hrs 0min
Day 3: 6hrs 0min
Day 4: 4hrs 0min

This full down-river route from Lake Kussharo to the sea at Kushiro City will take most people at least four days. Conceivably, it could be done in three days in a pinch, or even two, doing massive days (think pre-dawn starts and dusk finishes). Even at four days, though, you may find yourself wanting extra, just to soak in the amazing ambiance of the wetlands at the lower end of the route. Ideally, if we were to do the trip again, we’d allow six days, with one full off day at Lake Toro to relax and see the sights in the small Lake Toro settlement.

Transport

Public transport:

There are five trains per day running between Kushiro City and Biruwa Station. The trip will take about 1.5hrs, and cost 1,640yen (see the timetable on Google Maps here). From Biruwa Station, it is 14km on the main roads to Wakoto Campground. – expect to pay around 4,500yen for a taxi (route here). To get to Kushiro City, there are a few trains per day from Sapporo City, as well as buses and planes. Kushiro Airport is accessible direct from Tokyo.

By car: 

See the Location section above for details regarding the full 80km+ shuttle. Wakoto Campground has plenty of parking nearby. There’s also some parking at the canoe port right at the head of the Kushiro River at Lake Kussharo (here) – this parking area can, however, get quite busy with tour vans at certain times of the day. As for taking out, if you’re doing the full route to the sea, then there’s a convenient raised gravel parking area near the train tracks in Kushiro City here. If you’d rather avoid paddling the dead-straight Shin-Kushiro River, then the more rational take-out points would be either Hosooka Canoe Port (カヌーポート細岡, location), or the Iwabokki Suimon Canoe Port (カヌーポート岩保木水門, location) – both have plenty of parking nearby. Arguably Hosooka Canoe Port would be the better choice, as there’s the Hosooka JR train station only 250m walk away, which would better facilitate a single-car shuttle.

Physical maps
Official Topo Map: Wakoto (和琴) – map no. NK-55-31-11-4
Official Topo Map 2: Biruwa (美留和) – map no. NK-55-31-11-2
Official Topo Map 3: Teshikaga (弟子屈) – map no. NK-55-31-12-1
Official Topo Map 4: Minami-teshikaga (南弟子屈) – map no. NK-55-31-8-3
Official Topo Map 5: Isobunnai (磯分内) – map no. NK-55-31-8-4
Official Topo Map 6: Shibecha (標茶) – map no. NK-55-32-5-3
Official Topo Map 7: Gojikkoku (五十石) – map no. NK-55-32-5-4
Official Topo Map 8: Shimokuchoro (下久著呂) – map no. NK-55-32-9-2
Official Topo Map 9: Hosooka (細岡) – map no. NK-55-32-10-1
Official Topo Map 10: Toya (遠矢) – map no. NK-55-32-10-2
Official Topo Map 11: Otanoshike (大楽毛) – map no. NK-55-32-10-4
Official Topo Map 12: Kushiroko (釧路港) – map no. NK-55-32-11-3

NOTE: The official 1/25000 topo map(s) above can be purchased for 350yen from Kinokuniya bookstore next to Sapporo Station or online (in Japanese).

route safety

The Kushiro River is an extraordinarily varied route – it is not a walk in the park by any means, and certainly the more popular downstream wetlands areas belie the sporty and technical aspects further upstream. Generally speaking, escape from the river is limited throughout the length of it. Japanese guidebooks we’ve read suggest in particular the upper headwaters section from Lake Kussharo to Teshikaga are suitable for intermediate paddlers an above, or a beginner with an experienced buddy. Commercial canoe tours very seldom go beyond Biruwa Bridge, so paddlers need to be self-sufficient. Make sure to carry a handsaw for river-wide log jams. For the section between beyond Teshikaga to Shibecha, make very conservative decisions – mark Hell’s Ladder on your phone’s mapping app and on your paper map, and portage it to be safe. Canoeing through Teshikaga village itself is generally frowned upon, so make sure you’ve scouted the route in advance (a short 2km stroll). Overall, for a full four-day independent trip down Kushiro River, paddlers need to be self-sufficient, prepared for weather changes, and have the experience to read rivers.

Weather forecast

Windy.com weather forecast for Kushiro River

CampSites

Wakoto Campground (和琴野営場)
Wakoto Campground (和琴野営場) is a gorgeous new campground facility on the eastern side of the Wakoto Peninsula (和琴半島) at the southern end of Lake Kussharo in eastern Hokkaido. It doesn’t offer the sandy lake-shore camping that the Wakoto Peninsula Campground (和琴半島キャンプ場) offers just across the road, but it is much more fully featured, with a new center house, showers, laundry, and just as easy access to the lake via the dedicated canoe port. Location: 43.57669 N / 144.31108 E | 1000 yen per person | Open: Jun-Sep | Staff hours: 9:00am till 4:00pm.
Closest Onsen: Kohinso (湖心荘) | 450yen | 0.3km from campground
Canoe Port Mashu-Ohashi (カヌーポート 摩周大橋駅)
This unofficial wild campspot at the Mashu-ohashi Canoe Port (摩周大橋カヌーポート) at the western reaches of the Teshikaga township (弟子屈町) on the Kushiro River is in easy reach of the Mashu Onsen Michi-no-eki (摩周温泉道の駅), with access to public toilets and water. The Birao-no-yu Onsen, with a small but nice outdoor bath, is also just across the bridge. Location: 43.49242 N / 144.44443 E
Closest Onsen: Borao-no-Yu Onsen (ビラオの湯) | 400yen | 0.25km from campground
Shibecha Kawa-no-eki (標茶町川の駅)
Fuji Canoe Port (カヌーポート 富士駅) in the middle of Shibecha Town (標茶町) is designated a Kawa-no-eki (川の駅, ‘River Station’), with a well-sheltered pagoda and wild camping area. It’s not officially a campground, but there’s a clean public toilet about 200m walk away, as well as access to mains water. There are convenience stores, restaurants, and onsen within easy walking distance. Location: 43.29695 N / 144.60216 E
Closest Onsen: Fuji Onsen (富士温泉) | 360yen | 0.2km from campground
Toro Moto-mura Campground (塘路元村キャンプ場)
The Toro Moto-mura Campground (塘路元村キャンプ場) is a basic but clean campground on the shore of Lake Toro (塘路湖) in the Kushiro Shitsugen National Park in eastern Hokkaido. Nearby is the Ministry of Enviroment information center, local museum, canoe tours, and some restaurants a moderate walk away. Location: 43.15297 N / 144.51009 E | 370 yen per person | Open: May-Oct | Staff hours: 9:00am till 6:00pm.
Closest Onsen: None
Takkobu Auto Camping Ground (達古武オートキャンプ場)
Takkobu Auto Campground is a very reasonably priced fully-featured campground with coin showers, laundry, a small shop, and amazing access to the Kushiro Wetlands. There’s a small canoe port at the campground itself. Location: 43.10906 N / 144.48907 E | 320 yen per tent | 100 yen per person | Open: May-Oct | Staff hours: 9:00am till 5:00pm.
Closest Onsen: None
Onsen nearby

For a post-paddle soak, the nearest onsen to the river mouth take out in Kushiro City is the large Fumizonoyu (ふみぞの湯, location, 450yen) – they’ve got a huge number of pools, saunas, and an attached restaurant.

Extra Resources
  • The Book of Leisurely Hokkaido Rivers (北海道ののんびり下れる川の本) by Ishimoto (2009, p. 24-27), in Japanese.

Guide Options

If you’d like to paddle the length of the Kushiro River with a guide, try contacting any of the guides on this page: http://kushirovalley.com/en/sightseeing/canoe/. There are a plethora of guides of varying skill, experience, and qualification. While we’ve not paddled with any of them, the qualified folks at Somokuya come highly recommended by our friends at Canoa. Somokuya offers a 3-day downriver trip from the lake to the wetlands. Send them an email at info@somokuya.com to inquire.

Photo Gallery

Show Full Route Notes Close Route Notes

Route Trip Notes

Distance: 22km | Gradient: 1.2mpk (6.34 FPM) | ↓ GPX file

The headwaters of the Kushiro River (釧路川) on the edge of the Akan-Mashu National Park live up to their reputation as a gorgeous stretch of untouched river, but also as a place to test paddlers’ skills. Haidee and I were pushed in our paddling, communication, and problem-solving skills; it was ‘only’ about 16km worth of paddling on the river itself, but it took the better part of a whole day, including having to saw through two downed trees blocking the entire river. We were also joined on the river by more crested kingfishers than we’ve ever seen, and treated to some stunningly clear spring-fed tributaries.

We opted to start this 4-day trip down the Kushiro River at the Wakoto Campground, about 4km around the lake’s edge from the head of the river.

Onsen: Birao-no-Yu Onsen (ビラオの湯) | 400yen | 0.2km from accommodation

Kushiro River Multi-day Canoeing Trip (Hokkaido, Japan)

Distance: 30km | Gradient: 3.0mpk (15.84 FPM) | ↓ GPX file

Rapids are not the first thing that come to mind when most people think about the Kushiro River (釧路川). Wetlands, Kussharo Lake, beautiful clear headwaters, cranes, deer? Yes. But rapids? Not so much. However, the section of the Kushiro River between Teshikaga and Shibecha is a gloriously varied section with plenty to keep experienced canoeists awake and alert. It also includes the infamous must scout Hell’s Ladder – a barely canoe’s width concrete block chute that is best portaged.

  • Canoe Restrictions: Officially, according to out-of-the-blue signage at the Teshikaga Canoe Port, as of July 2019 it is prohibited to canoe the majority of today’s route (23km from Yukari Bridge 湯香里橋 in Teshikaga to Sebunbira Bridge  瀬文平橋 in Shibecha) . Reasons given for this prohibition are 1) construction work and 2) fast-flowing rapids, including one dangerous section (the above-named Hell’s Ladder). We ignored this prohibition not out of disrespect, but simply because we had no idea it existed until we arrived in Teshikaga, in our canoe, with no other mode of transport but our canoe. We opted to to carry on cautiously. In the end, there was no longer evidence of construction work being done on the route. Signs requesting canoeists ‘be careful when passing construction’ indicated that construction had ended on the 17th of August. Furthermore, the very well sign-posted dangerous chute – which we named Hell’s Ladder – was indeed very well sign-posted, and required not much more than a 200m portage. The other Class II rapids were perfectly runnable after some precautionary scouting. Our recommendation is if you attempt today’s route, please do the following.
    1. Download the GPS file we’ve provided, and make sure to scout those sections we’ve marked as needing scouting.
    2. Walk the Teshikaga Town section before canoeing it, taking note of any concerning spots.
    3. Under no circumstances attempt to run Hell’s Ladder without scouting first – that chute is nasty.
    4. Understand that running the prohibited section is 100% under your own responsibility.

Onsen: Hotel Teleno Onsen (ホテル・テレーノ) | 500yen | 1.1km from accommodation

Kushiro River Multi-day Canoeing Trip (Hokkaido, Japan)

Distance: 40km | Gradient: 0.45mpk (2.38 FPM) | ↓ GPX file

The Kushiro Wetlands (釧路湿原) are the largest in Japan, home to red crested cranes, deer, and acres of untouched wetland wilderness. Today’s route on the Kushiro River (釧路川) would take us into the heart of the vast Kushiro Shitsugen National Park (釧路湿原国立公園). With numerous accessible lakes and tributaries, we wished we’d allowed more time here. But we were treated to numerous up-close wildlife and birdlife sightings, and some of the most stunning lake scenery we’ve seen.

Accommodation: Takkobu Auto Camping Ground (達古武オートキャンプ場) | 650 yen per tent | 100 yen per person

Onsen: None

Kushiro River Multi-day Canoeing Trip (Hokkaido, Japan)

Distance: 20km | Gradient: 0.5mpk (2.64 FPM) | ↓ GPX file

We opted to end our Kushiro River (釧路川) four-day trip at the sea. Along the way, the river would actually cease to be the Kushiro River, with this gorgeous body of water being re-directed into the dead-straight and mostly characterless Shin-Kushiro River (新釧路川 – the “New” Kushiro River). This would take us through the heaving industrial city of Kushiro, expose us to solemn coastal Japanese traditions, and allow us to stand on the beach to bid farewell to this grand body of water we’d called home for the last four days.

Kushiro River Multi-day Canoeing Trip (Hokkaido, Japan)

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Comments | Queries | Reports

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