Shiribetsu River Rafting Course (Kyogoku-Kutchan)

尻別川 | Shir-pet

Posted on Jun 18, 2020
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Posted on Jun 18, 2020

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Reading time: 8 min
13km

Distance

1 day(s)

Time

3.55 mpk

Gradient

4/5

Water clarity

Class III

Difficulty

May-Jul

Best season

This is known as the most challening section of the Shiribetsu River (尻別川). Known locally as the Rafting Course (ラフトコース), the rapids can be bony, pushy, and require quick, decisive maneuvering. Depending on conditions the crux of the route, Futamata Rapids (二股の瀬) can top out at Class III. This is a classic drop-and-pool section though. As the route winds its way around the dramatic Yotei-zan (羊蹄山, 1898m), dramatic views of its conical peak await. At the end of the route, tall clay cliffs with spring-water waterfalls give paddlers a send-off.

We visited this route on Jun 14, 2020

Packrafting photos by Chris Auld. Taxi shuttle info by Mari. Thanks to Hugo and Simon for extra beta.

Last updated Jun 23, 2020

Route Map

Need to know details

Difficulty

Overall difficulty: Advanced (7.5/10)

Remoteness: 2/5

River Details

This route is on Shiribetsu River (尻別川), or Shir-pet in the Ainu indigenous language. The river is a Class A (一級河川) river, 126km in total length. This section of the river is between 15m and 40m wide , with a normal flow rate of around 0.5m/s to 3m/s. The gradient for this section of river is 3.55 mpk (18.74 FPM).

Weather: Windy.com weather forecast for Shiribetsu River

Current water level: 167.39m and stable. No river level warnings issued. Last updated 2020/9/19 21:10 (Source).

Location

Shiribetsu River wends its way east to west through one of Hokkaido’s most popular adventure resort areas in southern Hokkaido. It wraps around Yotei-zan, the prominent conical volcano next to Niseko, a bustling in tourist town in winter as well as summer.

  • Put-in: The put-in for this route is here, at the well-maintained rafting entry above the Kanbetsu Hydro Dam outlet (outlet is here), about 4km downstream from Kyogoku Springs. At least three well-established rafting companies use the large carpark – where possible, yield to rafting shuttles in the carpark, and take care entering and exiting the carpark. At the riverside, recreational river users should put in just upstream of the larger put-in area, so as to allow rafting groups plenty of room to do their briefings.
  • Take-out: On the map, we’ve indicated the lower-most take-out used by paddlers on this section. It’s just south of Kutchan Town proper. Note that while this take-out allows for more time on the river, it’s certainly a case of diminishing returns as far as rapids go – there’s about 3km of relatively flat paddling at the end which can be a chore if there’s a head-wind blowing. The approach to the riverside is via a steep set of stairs. The rafting take-out, about 5km upstream, here, may be a better bang-for-your-buck option for most paddlers. Paddlers can park cars on the gravel bar.
  • Taxi shuttles: For taxi shuttles to and from the put-in/take-out, see the ‘Transport’ section below.

General notes

This section of the Shiribetsu River is called the rafting course, because, rafts. At between 9-10am and 1-2pm each day, the put-in will be bustling with tourists and their guides, all wrapped up in their drysuits. Generally you’ll want to avoid these busy times at the put in. Once on the river, however, the twists and turns will mean you’ll feel like you have the river to yourself.

  • Difficulty: At normal river levels, the rapids on this section top out at Class II+. With more water, the Futamata Rapids top out at Class III. All rapids are relatively forgiving. At normal water levels the rapids are followed by relatively calm sections that will aid in retrieving any capsized boats.
  • Water Level: We’ve run this section in civilized water levels as well as very rowdy conditions. Civilized would be 167.25m or so at the Kutchan Measurement Station. We ran this section at 167.25m in a group of three open-deck tandem canoes. Rowdy was about an extra 70cm or so, with no riverside eddies to be seen. We ran that in a two-person packraft, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The benefit of having the extra water is that there’s very minimal rock-dodging required. At normal water levels (around 167.25m), open-deck canoeists will be busy. Particularly at the start of the route, there’s a hefty boulder garden to navigate.
Route description

This route jolts paddlers to attention right from the start, with a 1km boulder garden to navigate, finishing with a decent Class II+ drop at the end of it, here. Open-deck canoes will likely need their balers after the final drop. The boulders in this first section are not massive, but plenty large enough to happily pin and wrap a canoe around. That said, in raised water levels, this section was a no-brainer in our MRS packraft (a two-person Barracuda R2 Pro). At around the 3km point, there’s a great Yotei-zan viewpoint – the iconic volcano. There are multiple Class II drop-and-pool rapids along the way, which experienced paddlers will not need to scout, until the crux of the route – the Futamata Rapid (二股の瀬, here) just before the 5km point. This Class II+ rapid is best scouted from the left side of the river. Most paddlers will find it’s best to take a hard river right line soon after entering the upper section of the rapid. There’s plenty of time to get boats in position before the final funnel. Beyond the Futamata Rapid the rest of the route consists of a few Class I to II spots, and look out for the high clay cliffs at the 7km point. Either take out at the main rafting take-out at the 8km point (here) or carry on for another 5km of mostly flat downstream to the lower Kutchan take out at the 13km point, here.

Route Timing
Trip time: 3hrs 0min

An experienced paddler who knows this section of the river well would knock this route out in around an hour. We ended up spending almost five hours on the river though. This included plenty of ferrying practice at the hydro outlet above the boulder field, a leisurely lunch at Futamata Rapids, and some more eddying-in/out practice along the way. You can really make a day of this otherwise short route.

Transport

Public transport:

This route is not accessible by public transport. For taxis, we’ve been recommended Niseko International Transport Taxis (ニセコ国際交通, website, TEL: 0136-22-1171). When explaining to the taxi company where you are (or where you want to go), the main rafting put-in location is known as “the place where rafters start” (ラフティングのスタートするところ). The main rafting take-out location is known as “the place near Yahata-no-bashi bridge where they do rafting” (八幡の橋のラフティングのあがるところ). A taxi from between the take-out and put-in will cost around 3,000yen.

By car: 

There is plenty of parking in the large carpark at the put-in, here. Park well to the northwestern corner of the carpark to keep the way clear for raft shuttles. There’s plenty of parking at the main rafting take-out on a gravel bar at the 8km point, here. At the 13km-point take-out, there’s also plenty of parking.

Physical maps
Official Topo Map: Kutchan (俱知安) – map no. NK-54-20-3-4

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

This is a canoe route you’ll want a helmet for, as the rapids are bouldery and unforgiving. Despite the river being quite shallow, beware of trying to stand up in the river if you find yourself swimming – there are sections of the riverbed that are full of foot-sized holes waiting to snag you. Swim to the shore before attempting to stand up. Also beware of a strong whirpool in higher water levels on river right on the best just before the Futamata Rapids, here.

Weather forecast

Windy.com weather forecast for Shiribetsu River

CampSites

Kyogoku Three-Yuu Park Campground (京極スリーユウパークキャンプ場)
Kyogoku Campground is a large, open campground in easy access to Kyogoku Onsen, the Kyogoku Michi-no-eki and the Kyogoku natural water spring. It is located just west of Kyogoku Town, on the eastern flanks of Yotei-zan, near Niseko. Location: 42.86207 N / 140.87155 E | 500 yen per tent | Open: May-Oct | Staff hours: 7:00am till 8:00pm.
Closest Onsen: Kyogoku Onsen (京極温泉) | 600yen | 0.2km from campground
Onsen nearby

If you’re headed back to the put-in for the shuttle, then we’d recommend the Kyogoku Onsen (京極温泉, 600yen, location), next to the Kyogoku Springs and Yuyu Campground. They have an attached restaurant, and a Lawson Convenience store over the road.

Extra Resources

Show Full Route Notes Close Route Notes

Route Trip Notes

HokkaiCamp.com description of the route (translated)

Wrapping around the base of Yotei-zan, making its way along the foot of the Niseko Range on its way to the Japan Sea is Shiribetsu River. It is a popular river with rafting tours, and with fantastic scenery one can put it in the top echelon of canoeing locations. Spring water from Yotei-zan flows into the river, so has been certified multiple times as Japan’s cleanest river. Farming is intensive in the area, however, so paddlers might not necessarily agree. Around Niseko, the river is an area suited for advanced paddlers, but this section of the river is not particularly difficult, so is a great place to experience the region’s great scenery.

A Blast in High Water in a Packraft

17th August, 2019 | By Rob Thomson and Chris Auld

Chris and I have done four sections on the Shiribetsu River – the upper Kimobetsu Section, this Rafting Course, a short section in Rankoshi, and part of the lower Shiribetsu in early winter. On this day in mid-August 2019, it had been a mild typhoon overnight, meaning that the Shiribetsu was honking. It wasn’t anywhere near any of the flood standby levels, but it was a solid 70cm or so above normal. We were in the two-person MRS Barracuda R2 Pro with full spray-skirts – we’d definitely need them.

Soon after setting off from the put-in, we were busy keeping the packraft pointing downstream, just going with the flow. At this water level, there were no rocks or boulders to dodge. Just straight down the guts of everything.

All the drops and rapids that would, a year later, require Haidee and I carefully pick our lines, were just a matter of heading head-long into. The packraft would scorpion every time we launched ourselves up and over the massive wave-trains.

There was hardly time to get the camera out, so photos are limited to the calmer spots. The biggest rapid, of course, was the famous Futamata Rapid. This too was a straight-forward raging torrent which funneled us straight into the center, and we ran it without scouting or any issues.

The final 5km or so of otherwise flat paddling was fast and easy. We may even have had a tailwind.

A Civilized Canadian Canoe Descent

14th June, 2020 | By Rob Thomson

While Chris would have killed to have joined us on this repeat of the Rafting Course (in much better weather than last time), travel restrictions have so far prevented him from getting over to Hokkaido this season so far. 

We had a nice crew nonetheless, however. Haidee and I were piggy-backing on Mari, Greg, Mibo and Taku’s plan to paddle the Rafting Course in Canadian canoes. Haidee suggested we all camp the night before at the Yotei-zan campground in Makkari, and thus a nice overnight adventure was hatched.

On the Sunday morning, we got away from the campground at just before 9am. Frightfully early by Greg and Mari’s standards, apparently. But this did mean that by the time we’d completed the shuttle of two cars to the end of the route, we were all ready to set off in the boats by 10am. Gaggles of tourists and their rafting guides peeled off in front of us, and we never saw any of them again all day.

Seeing that this was Haidee and I’s first paddling trip for the season, the others mercifully allowed some time to practice ferrying and eddying-in/out at the hydro power station outlet (less scary than it sounds).

“You’re keen to come on this technical route for your first paddle of the season,” quipped Greg.

“Ignorance is bliss,” I replied.

This trip would make it day 10 for Mari and Greg so far this season, and it showed. They were moving gracefully as a well-oiled team in their Esquif Pocket Canyon.

This would be our first time paddling with Mibo and Taku, the duo behind Namara Hokkaido. They’d been on multiple trips with Mari and Greg, and had been paddling for the last three seasons. 

After about 20 minutes playing in the easy, boulder-free outlet, it was time to face the music.

“Shall we keep practicing for a bit longer?” asked Greg.

“The boulder garden will still be there if we do,” I replied, definitely feeling pre-paddling jitters.

So we set off. True to every write-up I’ve read of this section of the Shiribetsu River, the first 1km was a busy – but very engaging – paddle. We bumped into a few submerged boulders along the way, but managed to get down unscathed. The final Class II drop at the end was a thrilling accent to a great start to the route. Albeit requiring some bailing out for the non-spray-decked boats.

The next few kilometers were a relaxed interlude before some more minor rapids on our way towards the crux of the route – the Futamata Rapids. Along the way we passed the first of the two good Yotei-zan viewpoints, but alas the mountain was shrouded in thin bands of cloud.

The tranquility would not last long before we arrived at the top of the famed Futamata Rapids. When Chris and I had paddled this in almost 1m extra water, we couldn’t have scouted this even if we’d wanted to. We careened over it, the packraft almost folding itself in half on the crests of the waves. Today it was much more civilized, with many more only-just-submerged rocks to dodge. We sat by the rapids on the rocks, ate lunch, and talked strategy.

“Last time, Mari and I nipped through that small gap on the left,” proffered Greg.

“It looks like we’d have enough time to get over to the river right side if we go through the middle,” I countered.

In the end, we all followed the same basic line – enter the top of the rapids in the middle, haul the canoe to the river right, duck under the foliage, and hit the wave head-on.

Just as Haidee and I were getting ready for our run, our favourite tall, English, mask-making female Niseko adventure buddy Geraldine appeared out of the bushes with her friends, carrying an inflatable kayak.

“Oh hi you two,” she yelled, waving.

It was a pleasant surprise. We watched with curiosity as they jumped into the kayak and immediately sent themselves hurtling down the rapids. Whereas we’d spent the last 20 minutes agonizing over our line, they were gone in an instant. Oh the joys of being in a vessel that bounces off things.

In the end, out group of six resulted in much less carnage that I’d psyched myself up for. The last report I’d seen of someone canoeing this was from the good folk at HokkaiCamp.com. They’d taken a left-hand line and came in hot into the opposite bank at the bottom of the rapid.

Take a look at that footage below.

Shiribetsu River Rafting Course Footage by HokkaiCamp.com

We had the distinct advantage of having more water in the river, so we all cleared the rapid with narry an issue. Apart from when Mibo and Taku went for a swim, courageously attempting an s-turn at the bottom of the Futamata Rapids (a maneuver Haidee and I chickened out of). They were a little bit early in their upstream lean, and the current tipped them over. 

The capsize was a minor one, but it ended up washing Taku and the canoe down the next set of rapids before Mari and Greg were able to nudge the canoe into an eddy. Mibo had managed to clamber up on the opposite bank soon after capsizing, so I threw her a line and she pendulum-ed her way across to us on our side. She picked her way along the shore to the others, and we were a happy troupe of six again.  Hardly worse for wear save for some wet clothes.

The rest of the route was relatively uneventful. Curiosities along the way included a troupe of squirt boaters

Being overtaken by some of Geraldine’s friends in the inflatable again…

More epic views of Yotei-zan…

And the gorgeous high clay cliffs, running with spring-water waterfalls.

The final 3km or so of the route were a bit of a chore. We’d decided to take out at the lower take-out point just south of Kutchan township proper. While Chris and I had flown along this lower section in high water, today it was markedly slower going, and we had a headwind. In hindsight, for a playful day out, taking out at the main rafting course take-out is most certainly the better way to go.

Overall a great introduction to the paddling season this year! Many thanks to Greg & Mari and Taku & Mibo for allowing us to come along!

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Comments | Queries | Reports

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