Saru River (Hidaka to Mitsuiwa)

沙流川 | Sar

Posted on Dec 14, 2021
0

Posted on Dec 14, 2021

0 0
8.8km

Distance

1 day(s)

Time

4.6 mpk

Gradient

3/5

Water clarity

Class II+

Difficulty

May-Oct

Best season

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.

Huge thanks to Greg for his wise lead on this trip!

Route Map

Need to know details

Difficulty
Grade: II+
Remoteness: 4/5

River Details

This route is on Saru River (沙流川), or Sar in the Ainu indigenous language. The river is a Class A (一級河川) river, 135km in total length. This section of the river is between m and m wide. The gradient for this section of river is 4.6 mpk (24.29 FPM).

Weather: Windy.com weather forecast for Saru River

Water level notes: There are no river level gauges up this high on the Saru River. The closest one is the Horokeshi-bashi Gauge, but this is well below the Iwachishi Dam. This section of river is above the dam. This means the Horokeshi-bashi Gauge is a very poor indicator of water levels this far upstream. For example, when we ran this section of river in September 2021, the river was pumping compared to the previous day, but the Horokeshi-bashi Gauge was showing exactly the same level as the previous day.
Location

The Saru River flows southwest from high up on the western side of the northern reaches of the Hidaka Range, in southern-central Hokkaido. This section of the river starts in the sleepy mountain town of Hidaka, and heads downstream 8km to just above Iwachishi Dam.

Put-in Location: Google Maps

The put-in is easily accessed on the northern side of the river here, just upstream from the Saru River Campground. There’s a gravel road heading east from the main road. There’s a steep drop down to the river, but there’s a man-made slope that makes lowering the boats down to the river easy.

Take-out Location: Google Maps

Once you’re on the river, there are precious few options for getting out of the deep gorge until 8km downstream, just past the Mitsuiwa Bridge 三岩橋, here. There’s a gravel road heading north from Route 237, which hairpins back south under the bridge. In a pinch, paddlers could also possibly take out just after the Mitsuoka Bridge 三岡橋 drop at the gravel-works, here, but note that this is private property.

General notes

This river section easily makes it into our top five paddling locations in Hokkaido. Given the right water levels, it ticks all the boxes: fun rapids, amazing scenery, great access, a feeling of adventure, and a lovely campground and onsen near the put in. The gorge/canyon is one of the best in Hokkaido, perhaps only rivalled by the Shokotsu River in Hokkaido’s far north. Considering this Saru River section is less than a 2-hour drive from Sapporo, this accessibility makes it an appealing weekend paddling destination. There are a number of dams along the Saru River which make it less conducive to long overnight trips, but the dams are well spaced apart. They essentially bookmark a number of bite-sized paddling sections that are perfect for short day trips.

Route description

Put in on the river right upstream from the Usappu-bashi Bridge in Hidaka town, here. Right off the bat is a low-consequence Class 2 rapid, which might push Class 2+ in higher water. For the next 2.5km, there are at least three more notable rapids, most with wave trains to enjoy (or avoid, if that’s your thing). At around 1.5km, you’ll pass through a most impressive rock gate, which indicates the beginning of the Saru River Gorge.

The first scouting-recommended rapids come in the form of a rock garden at the 2.5km point, not far downstream from the gorge entrance. Once again, they’re fairly low-consequence, but a good studying of the river beforehand will increase the likelihood of a clean run. The entry is usually center of the river, but like us, you’ll likely agonize over whether to head left or right after the entry.

Beyond the rock garden is another 1.7km of frequent CII to CII+ rapids, culminating in a must-scout Class 3-4 3m drop below Mitsuoka-bashi Bridge. Adding to the drop’s trickiness is the three sets of wave trains leading up to the drop. The wavetrains on their own are enough to swamp an open-deck canoe in advance of the drop itself. There are good eddies on the river right before the drop, however, so we recommend pulling up to the side of the river and thoroughly assessing your options. The rather narrow rock-lined drop can be nasty, with the real possibility of head injury should you be pushed and flipped in the wrong way.

The river calms down somewhat for a while after the Mitsuoka Drop, but don’t be lulled into too much complacency. The Class 2+ rapids just upstream of Todoroki-bashi Bridge can be squirrely, and there’s a couple more notable rapids beyond there too. Approaching the take out just downstream of the Mitsuiwa-bashi Bridge, you’ll finally have some time to catch your breath and enjoy the last of the beautiful gorge scenery.

Route Timing
Trip time: 5hrs 0min

Allow plenty of time for this section of river. We recommend at least 4-5 hours, due to the frequent stops for scouting. The beauty of the canyon is also not something to be rushed!

Transport

Public transport:

Hidaka Town is accessible by JR train and bus from Sapporo – the trip takes about 3.5 hours (see the route here). From the bus terminal in Hidaka Town it’s about a 10 minute walk to the river. From the take out near Mitsuiwa Bridge, there are a couple of buses per day that stop at the Nakamitsuiwa bus stop 中三岩バス停, here; three in the afternoon headed north to Hidaka Town (source), and three headed south to Biratori (source).

By car: 

There is room at the put in for about up to 10 cars to park, and the same at the take out. Both the put in and take out require a short drive along gravel access roads from the main road to the riverside.

Physical maps
Official Topo Map: Hidaka (日高) – map no. NK-54-8-11-2
Official Topo Map 2: Mitsuiwa (三岩) – map no. NK-54-8-12-1

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 narrow gorge here would be a bad place to be in high water – there’s nowhere for the river to spread out, and the high rock walls in places makes escape options sparse. A number of the rapids are best scouted before running, particularly the rock garden at 2.5km, the rapids leading up to the large drop at Mitsuoka Bridge, and the drop itself. The drop appears to have become a little more wild in the past few years – it’s a must-scout spot, but in the worst-case scenario the river is benign beyond the drop for at least 500m.

Weather forecast

Windy.com weather forecast for Saru River

CampSites

Sarugawa Auto Campground (日高沙流川オートキャンプ場)

The Sarugawa Auto Campground 沙流川オートキャンプ場 is a lovely campground situated next to the Saru River in the mountain village of Hidaka in southern central Hokkaido. There’s plenty of room, and auto camping sites available too. A short walk away from the Hidaka Kogenso Onsen.

Location: 42.87015 N / 142.44081 E | 700 yen per tent | 100 yen per person | Open: Apr-Oct | Staff hours: 9:00am till 5:00pm.
Closest Onsen: Sarugawa Onsen (沙流川温泉) | 500yen | 370km from campground
Onsen nearby

Hidaka Kogenso Hotel Onsen ひだか高原荘 (location, 500yen) is good for a soak in Hidaka Town, but there’s no outside baths. Biratori Onsen Yukara びらとり温泉 ゆから (location, 500yen) is a little more picturesque with outdoor bathing, but its further downstream (about 30km south of the take-out).

Extra Resources

Guide Options

The folk at Hokkaido Outdoor Adventures run rafting trips on the Saru River, from the base further up the river. Their staff are keen kayakers too, so if you’re keen to run the river (and others in the area) by kayak, then drop them a line.

Show Full Route Notes Close Route Notes

Route Trip Notes

HokkaiCamp.com description of the route (translated)

This section is also called the Saru River Gorge, and you can enjoy the beautiful scenery of the gorge as you descend. The large rocky rapids below the observatory were buried under sediment due to the typhoon in 2016, and no trace of them remains. After passing through a rocky gate with rocks protruding from both banks, paddlers finally entered the gorge. The scenery is wonderful, but there are so many rapids that beginners won’t have time to enjoy it. The most difficult part is the rapids at the Mitsuoka Bridge. There is a big drop at the end, but there are a number of rapids before that. In high water in an open-deck canoe, you’ll likely be swamped by the time you reach the last drop. It is possible to portage, so it is better to have a preliminary look before deciding whether or not to take on the challenge. After this point, you will exit the canyon, but near the Todoroki Bridge, you’ll once again enter into a deep gorge. There is another rapid before Todoroki Bridge, and many people flip here. Once past the rapids, you’re were rewarded with a wonderful view of the river. It’s a tough river for beginners, but there are no dangerous spots, and with the support of veterans, beginners will make it down OK. The view of the Saru River Gorge from river level is a privilege that only canoeists can enjoy. As is the case with any river, when the water rises, the current becomes intense, making it a river for advanced canoeists only. Just beyond the Mitsuiwa Bridge on National Route 237, there is a road that leads down to the riverbed, which is a good place to finish.

We’d all camped the previous night at the quiet Saru-gawa Auto Campground, after running a lower section of the river the day before. Greg and Mari were in their double canoe, and Taku was paddling his canoe solo.

The morning started subdued and overcast, a heavy dew over our tents.

There was no small amount of excitement when we saw the river in the morning. It was considerably higher than the day before. We were going to be in for an exciting paddle. We dropped off the canoes at the put in, and headed off to do the shuttle. On the way, we stopped at the Mitsuoka-bashi Bridge to have a look at the crux of the day’s route – the Mitsuoka Drop. From our vantage point high above the canyon, it looked relatively runnable, but we’d need to scout it from the river too.

We dropped the cars off at the takeout, and headed back to the put in.

It was a bit of a scramble to get down to the river from our parking spot at the put in, but the slick rocks on the manmade banks made things easier. Suited up in our drysuits, the only thing left to do now was to get onto the water.

We were all feeling more than a little nervous with what lay up ahead.

Right off the bat, we were paddling a tricky-looking set of rapids. In reality, the flow of the river kept us in the right place though, so it ended up just being a fun warm-up for what would come later.

The autumn colors were just starting to reach their peak. Mellow sections of river between the rapids allowed us time to breathe and take in the scenery.

The photo above would be one of the last I would take from the water on my big camera. From here on in, the big camera (Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mk2 plus 7-14mm and 40-150mm lenses) got stowed away securely in its Pelican case (1400 case) for the rest of the time we were on the water. Just as well too – we would spend a lot of time bailing water, despite having our spray deck on the canoe.

The first substantial rapid/wave-train came soon after I took the photo above. It was a long Class 2 rapid culminating in a Class 2+ wavetrain. All the while Haidee and I were trying not to gain too much ground on Taku in his solo canoe.

This rapid well and truly set the stage for the rest of the trip.

And just like that, we passed through the regal ‘gates’ to the Saru River Gorge. It was a peaceful transition to arguably the jewel in the Saru River’s river-running crown.

The more experienced boat in the team – Greg and Mari – took the lead for the rest of the way. This took the edge off things for Haidee and me. Taku seemed to be holding his own in his solo boat.

Adding somewhat to the excitement of the trip was a timing deadline for Greg and Mari. They needed to be off the water by 2pm at the latest, in order to get back to Sapporo for a 7pm work commitment. 

The route for the day was only 8km long, but we were spending plenty of time scouting lines on some of the more tricky-looking sections. The rock garden soon after entering the gorge was one spot that took up a lot of time.

“Surely we enter from the right and stay right,” most of us were saying as we walked towards the rapid on the shoreline.

“Oh wait,” said Greg as we got another look at the rapid from further downstream. “The right is looking pretty boney from this angle, so maybe we need to enter at the center,” he opined.

We were soon mostly in agreement that a center entry was the best course of action. Beyond that, however, it was difficult to decide whether to head left or right.

“The left looks like it’s where the water wants us to go,” I suggested.

“The right looks like more water though,” said Haidee.

“That flow-over rock in the middle looks tricky,” proffered Taku.

In the end, we all agreed on a central line, with a last-minute slide to the river right, keeping as close to the left of the flow-over rock as possible. It was a tight line.

“There’s always a line!” declared Greg, beaming.

Greg and Mari went first, and ended up a bit more center at the end than they’d planned, sliding over some rather sparsely-covered rocks at the end.

Haidee and I went next. Our line worked as we’d hoped, and we managed to get to the river right without too much drama. See that line below.

Play Video

Taku brought up the rear, and nailed the line perfectly. The elation we all felt after so much analysis was clear on his face.

The Class 2+ rapids didn’t let up though. They were punctuated by sections of calmer water, but they were all decent enough to require frequent bailing out of water.

Haidee and I were jealous once again of the others’ three-layer plastic boats. We hit a number of ledges along the way, resulting in what we’d later find was quite substantial damage to the stern of our tough but stiff and crack-able composite canoe.

The mighty Novacraft Prospector 16 (in TuffStuff regular layup) is a great canoe to paddle though. Despite the rather wonky-looking frame-grabs below, we never capsized on this trip. 

Arguably the spray deck saved our bacon a number of times though, not least of which when we paddled to the must-make eddy above the crux of the route, the Mitsuoka Drop. Greg and Mari had already pulled up well above the drop, after the first wave-train.

“We were already almost swamped,” explained Greg. “We had to grab this eddy before we ended up going over that drop sight unseen!”

With us all pulled up well above the drop, we wandered down to the drop to take a look. Up to this point, our scouting from far above on the bridge suggested we might be OK to run the drop. Many canoeists do indeed run it, so we were thinking we’d be fine.

One look at the drop from close up, however, put to rest any ideas of running it today.

“That’s an instant flip,” mused Greg.

It was a roaring mess of a drop, with a number of opposing, jet-like currents pushing up, left, right. Gnarly granite on either side of the torrent seemed to beckon the impacts of hapless paddlers’ heads upon them.

The next weekend, Hokkaido Wilderness Canoe Club  – infamous in Hokkaido for running Hokkaido’s gnarliest waterways – paddled this same section of the Saru, and only one paddler in their 20-strong group was game enough to try it.

“Usually with this water level, most paddlers would run it,” wrote Takahashi-san. “Today, it seems as though something has changed – the drop looks much gnarlier than previously.” 

Below is some footage of that day from Takahashi-san, of the one lone paddler game to hit the drop.

Play Video

We opted to portage the drop, lining our canoes down the rapids.

“We really need to get out of here without incident,” Mari wisely reminded us all. “We have a deadline to meet!”

Beyond the Mitsuoka Drop, the river did not let up, neither in excitement nor in beauty. The gorge just kept delivering.

Like all good things, however, the paddling had to come to an end. Timing was good too – just before 1pm. Plenty of time for Greg and Mari to whisk themselves back to Sapporo.

We decided that next time, we’d take it a little easier. And a next time there will be! A new favourite paddling spot for all of us.

Comments | Queries | Reports

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

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Saru River (Hidaka to Mitsuiwa) 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.