Many thanks Greg (sakhkayak.com) for extra photos on this post – his photos are marked as 📷 Greg Beliakov
Prologue | Windbound
We were on Okushiri Island for five days. We paddled for 1 day and 2 hours of those five days. The rest were wind-bound.
You, the dear reader, may read that opening sentence and immediately strike Okushiri Island off your paddling hit-list.
I’d implore you not to be too hasty.
We knew Okushiri Island in early May would be a long shot. We were shooting our shot, with very little chance of success. May on the Japan Sea is still very early as far as paddling conditions go. But it was Golden Week, and we figured just being on the island would be fun in itself – and we were right. We didn’t get much paddling in, but we do feel like we know the island pretty well now.
The original plan right at the very beginning was to circumnavigate the island. We would carry the kayaks onto the ferry, and paddle away from the ferry terminal and execute a perfect rounding of the island. That was Plan A. Given we were visiting in May, we realized it was a very unlikely Plan A.
Indeed, as Golden Week approached, we noted that out of the two weeks prior, there were only two days with winds less than 20 knots ripping across the island. We quickly realized that if we didn’t have our own transport on the island, equipped with kayak-carrying capabilities, we ran the risk of being very wind bound – unable to move from the ferry terminal vicinity.
So, a few days out from our departure date, we committed to taking the van. It would bump up our per-person cost (for our group of four) to just under 20,000yen each for the return ferry, but such was life. The van ended up being an integral part of this ridiculous early May sea kayaking mission to Okushiri.
The crew for this trip was me (Rob), Haidee, Timbah, and Grisha.
Timbah and Grisha were the experienced sea kayakers of the four, and Grisha in particular has a lot of experience with sea kayaking not too far from Hokkaido – his home paddling zone is Sakhalin and the Kurils (see his website here).
For Haidee and me, this trip would represent some of the more challenging paddling conditions we’d ever paddled in.
DAY 1 | Buying up large
Monday, 1st May 2023
Haidee, Grisha and I drove down to the sleepy town of Esashi on Monday to catch the afternoon ferry that day. Timbah drove down separately to meet us at the ferry terminal. We had a full payload on the van – four sea kayaks, four bicycles (two on the external rack and two folding ones in the van), plus all the paddling gear. Realizing that there was a possibility that we might not be able to paddle on the sea at all during Golden Week, we also had the two-person packraft in the van for good measure – should the seas be a no-go, perhaps we’d be able to catch the end of the spring melt river season.
As we made our way out of Sapporo City via Nakayama Pass, there was still a lot of snow above 500m in altitude.
From central Sapporo, there was only a 15 minute difference in time from Sapporo to Esashi when comparing traveling on the expressway and on the low roads. We chose the low roads, and this took us past the Rusutsu Michi-no-eki road stop. This is a favourite of ours – the pizza restaurant is always a treat.
The five hour drive ended in Esashi with us meeting Timbah at the local supermarket to buy up supplies for the five days we planned on being on Okushiri Island. While there is a Seicomart on the island, that’s about it as far as well-stocked stores go. We had a vague menu planned along with our proposed itinerary, so we were fairly efficient in getting what we needed in Esashi.
Boarding the ferry was incident-free, and the second-class sleeping areas were perfect for a nap on the crossing.
By the time we got to Okushiri Island, the sun had dropped below the horizon, and we were setting up camp at the Yamasedomari Beach campground in the dark. According to the weather forecast, tomorrow (Tuesday, 2nd May) was shaping up to be one of the best days in terms of wind for the whole week. Despite all of us only crawling into our tents at around 10:30pm, alarms were set for 4am to try to make the most of the favourable weather.
DAY 2 | Making a dash for it
Monday, 2nd May 2023
The day broke clear and calm. Looking back on these photos now, I now realize just how lucky we were to have such a calm, pleasant morning. We were the only ones at the campground/beach.
The long-range forecast was making it fairly clear that it was extremely unlikely for us to complete a full, unbroken circumnavigation of the island. Therefore, we started talking about strategy and priorities. High on the priority list was the remote north coast of the island. Without any roads next to the coast, rocky capes, and shallow reefs, it promised to be a gorgeous section of coast.
Second-highest on the list was the west coast of the island. There is a one-lane road along the length of it, but once again it promised rocky capes, islands, remote beaches, and reefs. Plus, part way along the coast is the island’s only onsen.
We finally got on our way in the van at 6am. We drove north to the northern-most point of the island to scout out the northern coast. If conditions looked good, we’d paddle the north today.
Conditions looked average. A moderate swell of 1m to 1.5m. Adding to our lack of enthusiasm was a stiff northerly breeze. Instead of paddling the northern coast with swell and wind on our beam (hitting us on the side), the western coast could be more favorable with a tailwind and following seas.
We carried on in the van to see what the west coast was looking like.
As we’d hoped, the conditions on the west side of the island were better than the north. Not glassy smooth by a long-shot, but the conditions looked inviting. Plans firmed up around the idea of paddling the entire west coast from Horonai (Yunohama Beach) to Cape Aonae – a solid 25km paddle.
We’d hopefully have the wind at our back for most of the day. The forecast called for a change from northwest to southwest in the afternoon, so we hoped to get most of the paddling out of the way by then.
We dropped the kayaks at the put in, and then drove to Cape Aonae to drop off a bicycle for the shuttle back to the put in once we’d finished the trip. As we drove south, there was no small measure of umming and ahhing…some level of analysis paralysis (are we sure we can’t manage the north coast today?!)…and then a bold decision to make the most of this short weather window the weather had presented to us by committing to the west coast.
It was 9:30am by the time we got on the water.
There was a 1m or so swell remaining from the previous day or so of very strong winds in the area. For Haidee and I, these conditions would be the largest we’d paddled in (which isn’t really saying much). Mercifully, however, there was hardly a breath of wind.
The first destination for us was Byobutate-iwa Rock 屏風立岩, which created somewhat of a cape just before the small settlement of Kamuiwaki 神威脇, a distance of about 3km. All along the coast, the map/chart indicated enticing rock gardens and rocky reefs. With the swell on the day, however, we were confined to paddling well offshore.
On this first 3km section, I was not only getting used to paddling in a swell, but also getting used to paddling in a different kayak. With the team we had on this trip, it made sense to have me in the HokkaidoWilds.org Vogue Evo Expedition kayak. It’s a wonderfully lightweight carbon/kevlar boat, and relatively low volume. I hadn’t tried it out for fit before the trip, however. I found out the hard way that my lanky legs and size 29 booties were not the ideal fit for the kayak. They felt crammed in, and my left foot would cramp up painfully with far too much regularity.
I may have cursed at least once aloud.
Partway though the day’s paddling, I tried paddling it without botties on, and it was like night and day – much more comfortable. Alas it appeared the damage had been done, however, and my left leg groin muscle would give me grief for the remainder of the trip.
It was great having the Grisha, a very experienced paddler, out front in the plastic P&H Scorpio kayak. He scouted out a nice shallow passage between the coast and the towering Byobudate-iwa, radioing in to us that it was passable.
I wasn’t yet fully confident in my kayak to take my hands off my paddle in the swell, so photos from me were few and far between, but the passage Grisha found gave me a rare chance to get the long lens camera up to my eye for a shot.
We were now passing the sleepy Kamuiwaki port. If we’d had more time, we would have stopped in for a break, but we were keen to get as many kilometers under our belt as possible before lunch, in order to avoid any stiff winds out of the south later in the day.
At the very least the skies were blue – not a cloud in the sky.
Beyond Kamuiwaki, once again we were confined to paddling offshore about 100m to avoid sudden breaking waves on just-submerged underwater rocks. The map suggested some interesting rock features closer in to shore, but we resolved to coming back later in the season to paddle the near coast in calmer conditions.
As we approached the 13km mark of the day’s paddling, I was certainly looking forward to a bit of freedom from the captivity of my ill-fitting kayak. It was now just after noon, and we were approaching Hoya-ishi Rock ホヤ石, a spot where we’d noticed a pleasant-looking beach as we drove the coastal road in the morning. From the water, the landing on the beach looked doable, if not a little confused in regards to the waves on the approach.
Grisha deftly landed first, scouting a nice, mostly calm passageway through the chop to the beach.
Timbah’s landing was good also.
My landing was less a landing and more an exit from the kayak and then wade to the beach – my legs had gone on strike, refusing to articulate as I had firmly commanded them to do so.
Haidee’s landing was perhaps the most civilised of all of us.
The beach was idyllic. A beautiful oasis of calm away from the swell.
The perfect spot for a leisurely lunch break.
During the lunch break, Timbah and I swapped footwear. He seemed to have mountains of room in the high-volume Aquarius Sea Lion despite his almost 2m height and 30cm feet.
“This is the first time I’ve ever fit into a kayak and been able to put my feet on the footpegs,” he beamed when he first got into it.
I donned his highlighter pink neoprene socks to see if they would give me a little more room in the compact Vogue Evo. It was like night and day. Previously, wearing the stiffer booties, my feet felt like they were constantly doing a ballerina’s en pointe on tiptoes. This seemed to be forcing my knees into one fixed position in the cockpit against the thigh braces, despite having the footpegs extended as far forward as they would go. Switching to the neoprene socks (to protect the waterproof socks on my drysuit), I was even able to move the footpegs backwards towards the seat, while simultaneously giving my knees more room to breathe.
Once on the water after lunch, we first paddled towards Muen-jima 無縁島 just off the Hoya-ishi cape. There was of course still a hefty swell running, but soon the breeze that had been accompanying us for the morning seemed to peter out to nothing. An almost mercurial surface surrounded us as we made our way south.
As we paddled south from the island, about 200m offshore, some of us in the group thought we felt a change in the water. It was almost as if there was a current somewhere. Some local ladies in the morning at the beach (they were foraging for spring herb shoots) had mentioned we should take care about an offshore current, so we wondered if we had scratched the inner extent of that.
Needless to say, we changed course and headed closer to shore. Not too close though. The swell was still causing steep peaks on waves – sometimes breaking – around shallower underwater features.
We were now paddling towards the southern end of the Okushiri Island west coast. We’d left the circuit road behind now. The coast consisted of soft clay bluffs and flat grassy hills.
It was a windswept landscape.
Here and there we saw horses grazing high on the bluffs.
The final rocky cape before we turned southeast towards Cape Aonae was Kuki-misaki 群来岬. The small-vessel chart data indicated some nice reefs and rocks to explore, as well as a small island about 1km off the cape. Once again the swell denied us access to the reefs, but we did get glimpses of what the Sea of Japan promised the sea kayaker in calmer conditions – under all that wind chop was some beautifully clear water.
Rounding Kuki-misaki cape, we were now on the home stretch. We once again had to paddle about 200m off the beach. A long, shallow reef close to the beach was made inaccessible by a hefty swell breaking at the outer edges of the reef.
We paddled on, now almost 20km into a paddle in conditions that had kept us on our toes.
Soon, we arrived at the shelter of 1.5km or so of breakwater-protected water on the west side of Aonae Cape proper. Despite my general aversion to the megatonnes of concrete that Japan pours into coastal infrastructure in Hokkaido, it was admittedly a welcome reprieve from the swell, and it was nice to just relax and enjoy the last section of paddling.
According to Google Satellite, it looked as though we might be able to sneak around Cape Aonae in the shelter of the breakwaters, but once we got to the cape, we found the small spit had attached itself to the final breakwater.
Given the swell we’d experienced so far, we just assumed that the shallow cape would be too rough to round on the outside of the breakwaters, so we decided to carry the kayaks over the 10m or so of course-gravel spit. My kayak went over first – carried by Grisha and Timbah, because I was crippled due to only wearing thin neoprene socks.
As Grisha wandered back to get another kayak, he had a look over the breakwater.
“This looks fine!” he reported. “We can totally just paddle around this.”
Indeed, the large shallow area around the cape seemed to be sapping most of the power out of the swell. It was a calm oasis on the outside of the breakwater.
We paddled the remaining kayaks around to the east side of the cape and made the final 3km paddle past the great towering concrete fortifications of Aonae fishing port to the small beach north of the port. It was a relaxing end to an interesting 25km paddle – our first on the sea this season!
We pulled up on the idyllic beach, and we considered our options. It was now 4:30pm. The original plan was that Haidee and I would cycle the 20km or so back to the put in to get the van. We did some math, and realized that this would likely put time pressure on the much-anticipated soak in the onsen. So in the end, we just called the sole taxi company on the island to give Haidee a lift to the van. This saved us at least an hour or so of messing about.
“You want to go where?!” said the taxi driver, incredulously.
It appeared he didn’t get many requests at this time of the year to drop people off at the remote Yunohama Beach.
Timbah, Grisha, and I spent the shuttling time organizing gear. Out of optimism that we might be able to continue paddling along the east coast the next day, we left the kayaks on the beach.
When Haidee got back to the beach, we all sped north along the west coast for a well-deserved onsen soak in the rustic, well-located Kamuiwaki Onsen. It would be our first of multiple soaks in this onsen during the week we spent on Okushiri Island.
DAY 3 | Tsunamis and gale-force winds
Tuesday, 3rd May 2023
The forecast for Tuesday was for 30kt+ winds out of the southwest. It was a foregone conclusion that paddling anything on the west coast was going to be out of the question. We held some vague hopes that we might be able to paddle something on the north coast. Or perhaps the southern end of the east coast would be accessible, sheltered from the south-westerlies.
The morning certainly broke nice enough on the northeast side of the island where we had set up our base camp for the week. There were whitecaps on the sea, however, and the swell was breaking hard against the beach breakwaters.
After a hearty breakfast of oatmeal, the first mission was to drive down to the south end of the island to get the kayaks. Before that, we made a quick dash to the north end of the island, just 5 minutes up the road from the campground. We wanted to take a look to see if the north coast looked even remotely suitable for paddling today.
We hightailed it south down the east coast, stopping along the way to look wistfully at the water.
“I think this might be a good opportunity to press our skills,” proffered Timbah optimistically.
I was leaning in that direction also. The southwest wind seemed to be wrapping around the southern Aonae Cape, clawing at the surface of the water, causing a short-frequency hefty wind chop.
“If anything goes wrong,” cautioned Grisha, “you’d be in trouble though – the sea is breaking quite hard onto that rocky coast. If I was a guide in this situation, considering the skills and experience of the group, I wouldn’t be taking the group out there.”
To me, it felt like the first serious group decision-making process of the trip, with each member of the group holding onto differing desires in relation to the conditions, our goals for being on the island in the first place (paddling!), and our skills as individuals and as a group.
We decided to keep options open and drive down to Aonae Cape to check out conditions further south.
While the beach where we’d left the kayaks was sheltered, everything else was a windy, choppy mess.
The group slowly resigned to being windbound for the day. On the forecast, it appeared that there might be hope for the northern coast tomorrow, so we decided to make a sightseeing day out of today. First up was the sobering Tsunami Museum. This facility is a permanent reminder of the massively destructive 1996 tsunami that hit the island.
The previous night, we’d decided to skip making our own dinner and ate dinner out at Kanno Sushi, a local sushi restaurant/izakaya. This meant we had an extra dinner’s worth of ingredients up our sleeves. Lunch, therefore, was curry and couscous, cooked up in the park at Aonae Cape. We availed ourselves of the drying sun to dry out our damp paddling gear.
After lunch we loaded the kayaks onto the van and headed back north for a circuitous drive back to the onsen, via the northern Inaho-misaki cape 稲穂岬.
Haidee and I had visited this cape on our Southern Hokkaido cycle tour many years ago, so it was nice to see the atmospheric Sainokawara 賽の河原 again, with its rock cairns.
We still had the bikes on the back of the van, so Haidee and Timbah opted to do the downhill portion of the drive to the west coast on their bikes.
Grisha and I drove ahead in the van.
It all started out nice enough.
And then we hit the high point of the drive over.
The wind was so strong the van was being rocked violently back and forth.
It was difficult just to stand in one place.
Down below on the coast, the fierce gusts pressed themselves hard against the sea’s surface.
Instead of driving all the way down to the coast as planned, Grisha and I waited at the pass for Haidee and Timbah to arrive. It was highly likely they’d be walking with this wind.
Sure enough, about 30 minutes later they arrived around the corner, heads bowed low over their handlebars and they struggled forward, pushing their bikes along the side of the road. The wind was intense.
We collected the wind-bound cyclists, and carried on to the onsen for our second soak of the trip.
It was dark by the time we got back to the campground. We proceeded to huddle in the shelter of an entranceway to a building close to the campground, sheltering from the cold wind as we cooked up a quick pasta dinner.
We didn’t hang around long outside after scoffing down dinner. The forecast was showing the briefest of brief calm weather windows for the east side of the island from 5am till 9am the next day.
It looked like it was the only opportunity we had to paddle around Okushiri Island’s iconic archway rock.
DAY 4 | Rescues and photoshoots
Wednesday, 4th May 2023
Alarms went off at 3am this morning. We weren’t about to miss the seemingly only opportunity we had to paddle around Okushiri Island’s iconic Nabetsuru-iwa Rock (literally, pot-handle rock).
We skipped breakfast, and got away from the campground soon after waking up. The plan was to have a quick paddle, then get back to the campground for a late breakfast.
We got to the put in just as the sun was emerging from the sea haze on the horizon. The sea was confused, but there was, mercifully, no wind. Grisha opted to stay on shore to take some photos of us paddling around the rock.
It was a completely frivolous paddle – hardly even 10m from the beach to the rock. We could have swum out there. But the forecast for the rest of the day was for worsening conditions, so what else were we going to do all day?
With radios on each of the paddlers, and one with Grisha on shore, Grisha made sure to get us lined up for a few photos on his drone.
It wasn’t just all posing though. The swell was pushing through the gap between the rock and the shore, allowing us to catch a few small waves across the shallow reef. We were able to enjoy some extra time in moderately choppy conditions.
Since we were out there in the water, I did a few rolls (the first of the season), and Timbah spent about 45 minutes attempting a self-rescue in the notoriously narrow Sea Lion kayak. It’s a narrow, fast boat that can be tricky to get back into. Grisha, the natural teacher that he is, had plenty of feedback for us when we got back to shore.
We were slightly cold, hungry, and tired by the time we finished up on the water. It was quite the commitment, unloading and loading the boats on the van for such a short amount of time on the water. We gave ourselves a pat on the back, and headed back to the campground for a very leisurely brunch.
Post-brunch, we again consulted the weather to see if we could divine an area of favourable conditions for a more decent paddle the next day. Our optimism, biased perceptions, and desire to actually do some more paddling made it clear to us that our only feasible option was a vague possibility to paddle the northern coast.
The weather forecast for the next day was for strong southerly winds, which might mean the northern coast would be in the lee. The issue was accessing the northern coast. A one-way paddle would see us paddle from Horonai (Yunohama Beach) on the northwest corner of the island to Inaho Cape at the northeast corner. If we were lucky, we’d be able to catch a 4am to 9am weather window, starting from Yunohama Beach.
It became clear that we needed to move our base camp. If we were to get on the water at 4am, we’d need to get up at 2am at the latest if we stayed at our current camp on the east coast. So it was decided. We’d move camp to the lonely Yunohama Beach on the northwest corner of the island, the last inlet accessible by road on the northern side of the island.
Once the decision was made, we first had a post-brunch nap.
And then we packed up and moved.
As anticipated, Yunohama Beach was a gorgeous spot for a wild camp. We were buffetted by occasional wind gusts that would pull at tent pegs – a couple of times strong enough to pull tent pegs out of the sand and send them flying.
To facilitate shuttling the next day, Timbah cycled back over to Inaho Cape to leave his bike at the end of our planned section of coast. He then ran most of the way back, finally hitching a ride to the coast from a local Japan Air Self Defence Force soldier.
In the mean time, after we’d set up camp at the beach, we were graced by the presence of Szylvia and Yosuke, and little Maya. They were cycling around the island for Golden Week. Maya was thoroughly enthralled by the kayaks.
Timbah finally got back to the campsite around 5pm, so we cooked up a quick dinner (curry again), and finished off the day with another onsen soak. We went to bed with alarms set to 2:30am to see what the sea was doing.
When we retired to our tents at 9:30pm, the sea – and surf – was still roaring. As was the wind – it was a fitful sleep with gusts sometimes threatening to flatten our tent.
DAY 5 | An abrupt Escape
Thursday, 5th May 2023
Timbah, Grisha, and I woke at 2:30am to see what the sea was doing.
There was no change. A roaring mess of swell and surf. And it was dark. It was clear it was in no state to set off before dawn as we’d had a marginal hope for. We went back to our tents with alarms set for 4am.
4am came around quickly. And the sea was still marginal. Whitecaps licked the tops of waves. It felt like once we got around the northwest corner, the northern coast might be more sheltered from the residual wind chop. But it felt like quite the commitment to punch through the dumpy waves at Yunohama Beach, brave the whitecaps, for the marginal possibility of calmer conditions around the corner.
After breakfast, we made the agonizing decision to strap the kayaks back onto the van and drive over to the northeast corner to see if conditions were favourable for a out-and-back paddle from Inaho Cape, along the north coast for a bit, and then back again. We left the tents set up to save on time, and headed back over the hills in the van.
At a high point on the road back over the hills, we stopped to take a look at the north coast. Close to the coast, we could see the water was affected by residual swell. Not far out from the coast, the southerly started catching the sea, driving offshore with a vengance, whitecaps clearly visible. It didn’t look like a safe place to be.
The view of the ocean from up high wasn’t giving us great confidence in the north coast. On the way down the hill in the van, we found an old foot trail to the coast. We had a wander and took a look. Sure enough, the sea was a choppy, confused mess, with some small whitecaps. We spent about two hours on that rocky beach, clearly more or less giving up on the prospect of paddling the north coast.
We’d woken up early though, and it was only 7am when we arrived at Cape Inaho.
We were on Okushiri Island to paddle, so we decided we’d try to make the most of the remaining time in the 4am to 9am weather window to paddle at least part of the east coast.
We went back to our original campsite at Yamasedomari Beach, and hurried to put in.
By the time we put in, it was almost 9am. The plan was to paddle from the campground to Inaho Cape, 8km north. Our window of opportunity, however, was closing. The conditions were looking dicy, with wind swell starting to build up from the east.
“Let’s paddle to the cape just north of the campground, check in with how we’re feeling, and make the call to either continue or turn around,” offered Timbah.
We all agreed and pushed off the beach.
In the 15 minutes it took us to paddle to the cape, conditions deteriorated.
“How are we feeling about this team?” Timbah’s voice crackled into the radio.
“I’m not feeling good about this,” Haidee called out to me. She was too busy keeping in control of the kayak to take her hands off her paddle to make the comment on the radio.
In the more stable kayak, I relayed this on to the others by radio.
“It does seem quite marginal,” Grisha echoed.
It seemed like an easy decision. So we turned back towards the beach, now with the swell and wind on our front quarter.
As we paddled hard back along the beach, a larger wave broke over Haidee’s bow from the side. She deftly kept upright thanks to a strong brace.
“Nice save Haidee!” I shouted into the radio.
As we were paddling into the shelter of the breakwaters off the beach, we were followed in by a dense mist that seemed to come out of nowhere.
In a few minutes, the sea was whipped up into a frenzy. We’d just got out in time.
Okushiri was officially closing the weather window.
It was still early – only 10:30am.
We weighed our options for the rest of the day and studied the forecast for the next day. Tomorrow’s forecast was more of the same – strong winds that would likely affect every square inch of the sea around Okushiri. It appeared we’d managed to get some snippets of weather windows so far, but Okushiri was firmly returning to May weather mode.
“Why don’t we just escape the island and go river paddling instead,” suggested Haidee.
We were booked on the return ferry for the evening the next day, but a quick online reservation change meant we were now going back to the mainland today!
Our tents were still set up at the beach on the other side of the island, so Haidee, Timbah and Grisha jumped in the van to retrieve them. I stayed behind and organized the paddling gear, making sure it got a good drying out, and ensuring nothing blew away in the wind.
Just like that, by 2pm we were boarding the ferry back to the mainland.
We arrived at Esashi in the late afternoon. Onsen, campground, sleep.
DAY 6 & 7 | Multisport Finish
Friday/Saturday, 6th/7th May 2023
With an extra couple of days now up our sleeves, we availed ourselves of Chris’s cabin in Rankoshi (near Niseko), and capped 2023 Golden Week off with a spot of packrafting down the Shiribetsu River and cycling a portion of Chris’s gravel route in the hills around his cabin.
The Shiribetsu River was pumping. 168m at the Kutchan guage. Certainly the highest we’ve ever paddled this section of the Shiribetsu. Haidee and I managed to flip the packraft on the second run :-/
(Haidee would like you the dear reader to understand that Rob flipped the raft – he was going for all the big waves)
The next day we went on a 20-minute bike ride for 2 hrs…that is, it was supposed to be a 20-minute bike ride, and we just kept on going.
And with the bike ride, 2023 Golden Week was a wrap.