Lower Biei River Paddling

美瑛川 | Piye

Posted on Sep 29, 2021
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Posted on Sep 29, 2021

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Reading time: 6 min
22km

Distance

1 day(s)

Time

4.5 mpk

Gradient

4/5

Water clarity

Class II

Difficulty

May-Oct

Best season

Biei River (美瑛川) is a gorgeous spring-fed river cascading down from the Daisetsuzan National Park in central Hokkaido. While the steeper upper reaches of the river are best suited for experienced paddlers, the lower half of the river from Biei Township towards Asahikawa City is suitable for lower-intermediate paddlers and up. For the most part, the river flows through quiet countryside, away from any large roads. With excellent rail access to the beginning and end of the route, this is a packrafter's dream.

Thanks to Hokkaido Homes for letting us stay at one of their under-renovation places in Biei.

Route Map

Need to know details

Difficulty

Overall difficulty: Intermediate (6/10)

Remoteness: 3/5
Number of portages: 1
Longest portage: 20m
Total portage distance: 20m
Overall portage difficulty: 2/5

River Details

This route is on Biei River (美瑛川), or Piye in the Ainu indigenous language. The river is a Class A (一級河川) river, 72.2km in total length. This section of the river is between 10m and 30m wide , with a normal flow rate of around 0.5m/s to 3m/s. The gradient for this section of river is 4.5 mpk (23.76 FPM).

Weather: Windy.com weather forecast for Biei River

Current water level: a875cdff-ae6b-4132-a87d-5c4c05efe82aRAW!F26m and stable. Warning: River level is very high (flood control on standby). Last updated a875cdff-ae6b-4132-a87d-5c4c05efe82aRAW!S26 (Source | 10min trend data).

Ideal water level: 134.65m
Water level paddled 134.51m
Location

The Biei River is located in the scenic central area of Hokkaido, near Asahikawa City. Also near Furano City and the Daisetsuzan Range, the river flows through some of the most picturesque rolling hills, farmland, and flower fields that Hokkaido has to offer.

Put-in Location: Google Maps

There are two convenient put-in locations for the start of the route in Biei Town. Put in just upstream of the Midori-bashi Bridge 緑橋 (literally ‘Green Bridge’, location) on the river right to enjoy a short but sweet Class 2 rapid to start the trip off. Alternatively, just up- or down-stream of Biei-bashi Bridge 美瑛橋 (location) on Route 237 is also convenient, and a few hundred meters closer to Biei train station. If you’d prefer to shorten the trip considerably (and avoid portaging around the upper weir), paddlers can put in at the Kaitaku Memorial Park 開拓記念公園 (location), about 10km downstream from Biei Town.

Take-out Location: Google Maps

If keen on a long half-day paddle, then we’d recommend taking out at the Shinkai-bashi Bridge 新開橋 (location), a 1.5km walk from Nishikagura train station 西神楽駅. If the novelty of paddling from Biei Town into the guts of Asahikawa City appeals, then paddle the extra 8km downstream to Heisei-bashi Bridge 平成橋 (location), an easy 10 minute (700m) walk to Kaguraoka train station 神楽岡駅 (location). Note that there is one large weir along this extra 8km section requiring a 150m portage, and there are a number of larger Class 2+ rapids and drops along the way – i.e., just because it’s downstream, doesn’t mean the going gets easier.

General notes

Biei River is probably best known for the deservedly popular tourist attractions far upstream – the majestic Blue Pond 青池 (location) and the mesmerizing Shirahige Falls 白ひげの滝 (location). Minerals in the water keep the river a gorgeous clear-ish blue colour most of the way down to Biei Town, so for at least part of this lower Biei River paddling section, you’ll enjoy an almost glacier-water feel to the river. Further downstream, the water clarity suffers a little due to more urban and farmland development nearby, but it’s still quite nice. For the most part, you’ll feel quite removed from civilization as the river wends its way through the famous Biei rolling hills. In a forgiving packraft or plastic kayak there’s not too much to be concerned about, despite a number of rock gardens. This is a nice section of river to practice picking good lines through a river dotted with boulders.

Route description

Put in at either of the Biei Town upper put-ins, and immediately enjoy being whisked away into a quiet rural waterway away from the madding crowds. There are a couple of sharp blind bends on the upper section of the route before the weir. These may be hiding river-wide strainers, so take care. At lower water levels these will be high enough to duck under without getting out of your boat, but with more water in the river, these might be a little trickier.

The weir at around the 10km point is a little awkward to portage around, but it’s doable on the river left. At lower water levels you may be able to sneak into the water-sluice entrance on the far left, and clamber down the concrete embankment. If the water is up, you may need to clamber up the large sandbags on the left just before the weir, and bushbash down to the river beyond the weir. Greg and Mari reported they lined their canoe down the weir, and shimmied down the concrete ‘pillar’ in the middle of the weir. Either way, it’s a classic, sketchy, all-together inconvenient manmade monstrosity of the Hokkaido wilds that is best scouted before even getting on the river, if possible.

Beyond the weir, the boulder gardens continue, before the second large weir at the 20km point. This weir is very often open, so you can just paddle straight through. If portaging, portage on the river right. About 30m downstream of the weir is a messy concrete-block drop of about 70cm or so. Make sure to scout this before running it. We were able to run it left of center, but on either side were old, exposed, jagged, eroded, sharp concrete blocks, not visible from water level. Beyond that, there’s just one long, large boulder garden with a wave-train exit just before Shinkai-bashi Bridge, the half-day-route takeout point. The remainder 8km stretch to Asahikawa City proper does have a couple of rapids that are best scouted before running. And there’s a very large weir/dam at the 25km point that must be portaged.

Route Timing
Trip time: 5hrs 0min

A relatively leisurely four hours is a good amount of time to aim for, for the Biei to Nishikagura section of this route (marked in red in the route map above). If paddling all the way to Asahikawa City, add on another couple of hours at least, making it a solid full day out.

Transport

Public transport:

Biei River from Biei Town to Asahikawa City has to be one of the most accessible river runs in Hokkaido. The JR Furano train line allows access to Biei Town (Biei station 美瑛駅, location), and then offers a number of options for escape at the lower end of the route. Just pick a station near the river and you’re guaranteed about one to two trains per hour to take you either to Asahikawa City, or back to Biei Town. Also note that Asahikawa Airport 旭川空港 (location) is only 5km from Nishikagura JR Station, the takeout location for the half-day-route option.

By car: 

There is river-bank parking near the Biei-bashi Bridge put in (here). At the half-day-route takeout at the Shinkai-bashi Bridge 新開橋, there’s parking under the bridge accessed via a gravel road down to the river (location). At the far lower end of the route near Heisei-bashi Bridge, there’s a large paved parking area on the riverside, here.

Physical maps
Official Topo Map: Biei (美瑛) – map no. NK-54-7-11-1
Official Topo Map 2: Nishikagura (西神楽) – map no. NK-54-7-10-2
Official Topo Map 3: Ubun (雨粉) – map no. NK-54-7-10-4
Official Topo Map 4: Asahikawa (旭川) – map no. NK-54-7-10-3

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

At normal water levels, the lower Biei River is fairly placid, but paddlers should watch out for strainers on blind corners. Some of the larger rocks in the boulder gardens might also be large enough to pin a canoe, so take care. The weirs are classic drowning machines, so take extra care when approaching and portaging.

Weather forecast

Windy.com weather forecast for Biei River

CampSites

None
Onsen nearby

At the downstream end of this route, there’s the Goryo-no-yu Onsen 御料乃湯 (location, 600yen), not far from the Nishi-Goryo JR train station. This would be a perfect destination to set your sights on for a longer extended paddle down the Biei River than we did (an extra 5km plus one more portage). In Biei Town, there’s a local sento public bath, Matsu-no-yu 松の湯 (location, 440yen) not far from the Biei JR train station. If you’re in a car, we highly recommend Mori-no-yu Hanakagura 森のゆホテル花神楽 (location, 650yen), just opposite a large campground.

Extra Resources

The Book of Leisurely Hokkaido Rivers by Ishimoto (2009), p. 62-63 (in Japanese).

Show Full Route Notes Close Route Notes

Route Trip Notes

HokkaiCamp.com description of the route (translated)

Biei River – that lovely waterway that wends its way through the beautiful rolling hills of Biei. Once you’re through that area, it flows almost completely straight all the way to Asahikawa City. As such you’d think it an easy river for beginners, but there are a few strong rapids here and there.

Haidee and I had just finished an 8-day trek along the Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse and were keen to decompress by hitting some of the rivers in central Hokkaido. For a long time we had intended to paddle the Chubetsu River, and we’d heard good things about the Biei River too. 

As it happens, with some associates, HokkaidoWilds.org author Chris had recently acquired an old house in Biei, apparently to eventually become part of the StayNorth (website still under construction) network of Hokkaido accommodation. The cabin was very much under renovation at the time, but to our surprise, it was about a 2-minute walk from a common put-in point on the Biei River. Talk about location perfection.

“If you don’t mind a lack of hot water and a bit of mess,” said Elsie, the manager of the renovation, “you’re welcome to stay.”

We promptly availed ourselves of the invitation and stayed for a few nights so we could thoroughly examine the paddling offerings in the area.

First on the list was, of course, the Biei River. We didn’t have our Canadian canoe for this trip but did pack our double packraft (the mighty MRS Barracuda R2 Pro). So we packed all our stuff into a couple of large backpacks and wandered down from the cabin to the river via the deserted park golf course.

Ideally we would have put in on the river right side of the river, but the river left was doable at this water level. The Nishikagura gauge, about 20km downstream, was showing 134.51m. Ideally it would have been nice to have at least an extra 10cm or so, but in the bouncy packraft, a little bit of scraping on the river bottom was going to be OK.

We opted to put in just upstream of the Midori-bashi Bridge, because there was a fun looking rapid just under the bridge. It was a nice way to start our jaunt down the Biei. The classic Biei Blue was visible in the water – the Biei River is well known for its beautiful blue color.

From there it was relatively smooth sailing until the weir at the 10km point. Plenty of bends in the river kept things interesting and a couple of downed trees across the river kept us on our toes. There were frequent Class 2 rapids, but at this water level they all felt pretty benign. 

We had scouted the 10km-point weir the day before, so knew what to expect. We had debated whether it would be better to portage around the right side through the forest, rather than clamber up the high concrete bank on the left. From the water, however, we figured it would be easier to sneak into the small water intake area and just climb down on the left. At higher water levels this wouldn’t be feasible, but it worked for us.

We were now in the boulder garden zone. Greg had warned us about this. “The boulder gardens can be challenging at low water levels,” he said.

Of course, he had paddled the river in a Canadian canoe…we were in the packraft, which is much more forgiving. It almost felt like cheating. We zigzagged and slid through gaps, turning on a dime…clean line? What’s a clean line?

The second weir of the route was the one that’s usually open. It’s only closed earlier in the summer when the rice fields are being irrigated. We found it to be open in August when we were there, and could just paddle straight through. The concrete block drop just after the weir, however, was a different story. We pulled up on the river left to scout it. After some deliberation, it seemed clear that we’d be able to run it just left of center. Or perhaps just left of left of center. Either way, it was next to impossible to actually see the gap from the water when in the packraft. We’d need to line things up and hope for the best.

Indeed, we held our breath, and only at the very last minute we realized that we were right on target, and would not be sending the packraft across sharp, jagged concrete blocks. “Manmade monstrosities of the Hokkaido wilds,” Chris calls this sort of inexplicable intrusion on the riverscape in Hokkaido.

This wasn’t the only spot with inexplicable intrusions. A few km upstream of the second weir were two concrete-block weir-like obstructions. Both were runnable – the first on the hard left, and the second on the hard right. For a moment we allowed us the absurd thought that perhaps the designers of these monstrosities had spared a thought for river users.

The river continued to be dotted with small swifts and rapids, nothing much above Class 2. Personally, I was a little bit bored by the end of the route. A little more water in the river would have made things a bit more exciting perhaps. Also, we’d been plagued somewhat by a distinct greywater smell for much of the paddle since Biei Town. Perhaps the lack of rain recently was contributing to less dilution, as Greg and Mari don’t recall the river having that smell when they paddled it.

There was, however, one last bit of excitement just before Nishikagura, our take-out point for the day. A 300m long boulder garden followed by a very nice double wavetrain. I sent the drone up for some aerial shots.

The beauty of the Biei River partly lies in its accessibility. We took out at the Shinkai-bashi Bridge near Nishikagura, and walked the 15 minutes or so from the river to the train station, and were back in Biei in no time. The beauty of a packraft and a good train line system!

Back at Biei train station, we took the lazy option and forked out 700yen for a taxi ride back to the StayNorth cabin.

With the Biei River ticked off the list, we started planning for a paddle down the more wild and rowdy Chubetsu River the next day…

Comments | Queries | Reports

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Lower Biei River Paddling 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.