Niikappu River

新冠川 | Ni-kap

Posted on Nov 3, 2021
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Posted on Nov 3, 2021

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Reading time: 6 min
23km

Distance

1 day(s)

Time

3 mpk

Gradient

4/5

Water clarity

Class II

Difficulty

May-Oct

Best season

Paddling the Niikappu River 新冠川 is a dreamy, relaxing, unique experience. It flows through one of Japan's most intensive thoroughbred horse breeding locales, giving the whole area a remarkably other-worldly atmosphere. If you're lucky, you might see horses being moved across the river as you paddle. At the very least, there are a couple of river-side paddocks with curious horses keen for a tickle under the chin. You might also see cattle meandering along the river-banks, being led along by bell-ringing milking boys. Not to mention an abundance of salmon running in the autumn, and a pletora of birdlife throughout the season. It might have just made it to our favourite chill-out river list in Hokkaido.

We visited this route on Oct 10, 2021

Route Map

Need to know details

Difficulty

Overall difficulty: Beginner (4/10)

Remoteness: 2/5
Number of portages: 1
Total portage distance: 75m
Overall portage difficulty: 3/5

River Details

This route is on Niikappu River (新冠川), or Ni-kap in the Ainu indigenous language. The river is a Class A (一級河川) river, 77.3km in total length. This section of the river is between 12m and 40m wide. The gradient for this section of river is 3 mpk (15.84 FPM).

Weather: Windy.com weather forecast for Niikappu River

Current water level: We are having trouble fetching the current water level. Take a look at the raw level data here, or the 10min trend data here.

Ideal water level: 17.75m
Water level paddled 17.61m
Water level notes: At 17.61m, we were scraping the bottom of the canoe fairly regularly on the upper half of the route. Never enough to come to a complete stop or need to walk though. Another 10cm on the gauge would have made a world of difference.
Location

Niikappu River flows southwest from high up in the western side of the wild Hidaka Range. This relaxing section of river still has a decent flow to it as it winds its way to the Pacific Ocean coast at the small town of Niikappu.

Put-in Location: Google Maps

Put in here, about 200m downstream of a weir. Access to the river is a bit of a grass-whack/bush-bash, and the entry is a bit fast-flowing, but it’s doable. Grab fist-fulls of grass and you’ll be fine. There’s no parking at the put in, so you’ll need to park on the verge of the main road, here.

Take-out Location: Google Maps

The take out is much more civilized than the put in. There are plastic-ish, boat-friendly steps down to the river, a large parking area, and public toilets. It’s also convenient for calling a taxi, as the take out is next to a municipal youth center (青年の家, seinen-no-ie).

General notes

We’d heard the Shin-Hidaka region of Hokkaido was a popular area for horse-breeding. We didn’t quite realize just how intensive it is. It seems people in Niikappu Town don’t do anything else. Horse motifs around town, and out of town, the farmland appears to be 100% thoroughbred rearing land. Hopelessly aesthetic, and lots of curious horses out and about. The river itself is fairly relaxing, with rapids and swifts that max out at Class II. The only issue we encountered with the lower water levels was some very tight manoeuvring required to avoid strainers and low-lying branches close to the riverside when squeezing down the deeper flows on some of the swifts. In this sense, while this route is billed as a ‘Beginner’ route, it still requires good canoe manoeuvring skills.

Route description

After putting in, strap in for some tight manoeuvring down swifts if water is low, avoiding minor strainers and low-lying branches close to the banks. The swifts are followed by stretches of slower moving water, but overall, the river has a good flow to it for the entire way. At around the 5km point, there’s a noticeable concrete slab reinforced stopbank on river right. Cows are sometimes led along the top of this stopbank. At the 9km point there’s a weir. Portage on the river right, but note that while it’s easy to pull up on the side of the river, it’s a bit of a bush-bash and/or a high-ish scramble down the dry concrete spill-over section of the weir. The weir is open at certain times of the year – we’ve lined the canoe down the open portion of the weir before. At around the 20km point, there’s a nice spot to pull over on the river right and walk 20m up to a horse paddock. If there are horses in the paddock, they’ll probably muster up the courage to come and check you out. The river flow on the final 1km or so to the takeout is quite slow, almost flatwater slow. The flow is slow enough to paddle all the way to the river mouth and then back up to the takeout – highly recommended as the wild Pacific Ocean is a sight to behold.

Route Timing
Trip time: 4hrs 0min

With all the shuttling and horse-viewing involved, this is best thought of as a leisurely day-trip of about four hours of on-the-water time.

Transport

Public transport:

There is no public transport to the beginning of the route. There is a public inter-city bus to Niikappu (Niikappu Bus Stop, 新冠バス停, location) however, and from there it’s a 6,500yen taxi ride for the 20km up to the put in. In the past, there was a JR train line running to Niikappu, but the train line was mothballed after damage due to the 2016 typhoons.

By car: 

There’s limited parking at the put-in. If parking near the put-in, you’ll be on the road verge somewhere, so make sure to park well to the side and don’t block access to any gravel roads. There is plenty of parking at the take-out at the Youth Center (青年の家, seinen-no-ie).

Physical maps
Official Topo Map: Meiwa (明和) – map no. NK-54-9-10-1
Official Topo Map 2: Misono (御園) – map no. NK-54-9-10-2
Official Topo Map 3: Shizunai (静内) – map no. NK-54-9-10-4

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

There are plenty of swifts and Class II rapids on this river, and a number of them tend to push towards the twiggy, low-lying-branch-ridden riverside. Inexperienced paddlers should take care and make conservative decisions.

Weather forecast

Windy.com weather forecast for Niikappu River

CampSites

None
Onsen nearby

The nearby Niikappu Onsen Re-cord-no-Yu 新冠温泉レコードの湯 (location, 500yen) is a great place for a soak. There are nice outdoor baths, as well as an attached restaurant and hotel.

Extra Resources

The Book of Leisurely Hokkaido Rivers by Ishimoto (2009), p. 77.

Show Full Route Notes Close Route Notes

Route Trip Notes

The horses. Oh the horses. We felt as though we’d been teleported to a completely different world. This was the Shin-Hidaka world we’d vaguely heard about, but never actually experienced till now. We felt like typical obnoxious tourists, stopping by the side of the road, taking photos of all the curious thoroughbreds. 

We had plenty of time to gawk at the horses, as we would drive this stretch of road three times – once to get our canoe to the put-in, once to drive back to the take-out, and another time in a taxi back to the put-in. Quite the palava, this river padding business.

Once we were finally on the river, we were a little taken aback at how busy some of the swifts were. We were paddling the river at a fairly low level, and this meant that in order not to scrape the bottom of the canoe too much, we had to stick to the deepest flow part of the swifts. These would often be flowing close to the side of the river. This inevitably meant getting a bit close for comfort to low-hanging branches on the sides of the river. 

Overall, however, we soon eased into the relaxing, pristine feeling of the river. The hairy swifts were soon few and far between, and we were simply paddling along a good solid flowing river. The water was quite clear. The salmon were running.

We’d heard rumours that if canoeists were lucky, they’d see horses being led across the river from one paddock to another. We kept our eyes peeled.

“Hey! Are they…? Ah, no, they’re cows,” said Haidee as we rounded a bend. Along with the cows, we heard a bell ringing. Peering along the bank, we saw a person with a hand bell, ringing it every now and then. The cows appeared to be happily trotting along the top of the stopbanks towards their human, presumably to be milked. Curious beasts as they are, a few paused here and there to peer at us. Clearly we were a novelty in their day.

Soon we came upon the single weir of the trip. We pulled up on the river right and had a scout. Mercifully the weir was lowered. Had the water level been just a little higher, we would have been game to run it. As it was, there didn’t seem to be quite enough support directly after the small drop to stop the stern of our canoe from hitting the concrete bottom. We opted instead to ferry our gear across, and then line the canoe down.

At some point in the trip, we started to feel the grind. At almost 25km, this is a pretty hefty river trip. The surroundings were nice, but it was a bit of a dull, grey weather day that was putting a somewhat subdued vibe to the trip.

But then the horses once again made the trip more interesting. We saw a wooden fence from the river. Hoping to perhaps have some interaction with the horsey locals, we pulled up on the riverside and walked up the bank to the fence. Way off in the distance, we saw two fine-looking horses. They also seemed to notice us. They seemed a bit skittish and not immediately keen to come over our way. They took a few steps towards us, and I gave them a whistle. They stopped. “Let’s just pretend not to notice them,” suggested Haidee. This seemed to do the trick. They started cautiously towards where we were next to the fence.

They inched their way over to us, stopping every now and then to observe what we were doing. 

Soon enough, they clearly decided that we weren’t a threat, and quite confidently walked right up to the fence. Chin scratching ensued. Great massive beautiful horses. We were thoroughly friends by the time we left to get back on the water.

It wasn’t far from the horses to the take-out point. Mercifully, there was a decent flow in the river until quite close to the take-out, only grinding to a halt as we entered the large pond-like area just before the outflow into the Pacific Ocean. We paddled past the take-out to a small beach just inside the river mouth. We pulled up, dragged the canoe a decent way up the beach (or so we thought) so as to not have it dislodged with one of the larger waves, and went to take a look at the ocean.

It was a rough, wild sea. Waves crashing up on the beach with great ferocity. Haidee took the camera and took some photos as my feet got washed by the sea.

A few moments after Haidee took this photo, I heard her scream.

“The canoe! It’s floating down the river mouth!” she cried.

She was already running back to intercept the canoe. I followed, watching the canoe slowly get pulled down the river towards the raging waves, wildly chomping at the river mouth.

Haidee dropped the camera and without hardly a hesitation launched into the river and swam out to the canoe. Being the ex-competitive swimmer that she is, she quickly had the situation under control, pulling the canoe back into shore using one of the attached painter lines.

An exciting story, happily for us with a wet but positive ending. Looking back at the photo of where we left the canoe, we were clearly naive about how much the ocean swell was causing swell inside the river mouth too.

We paddled back to the take-out upstream, and got on our way back to Sapporo. Via the onsen, of course.

Comments | Queries | Reports

Done this route to Niikappu River, or other waterways nearby? Thinking of doing it? Please post any feedback, reports, or queries here. Thanks!

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Niikappu River 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.