The last time I’d heard from Antoni, a friend of a friend, was in a Facebook post where he announced that finally, his colleagues had been released from the Myanmar prison they’d been incarcerated in for 18 months. This was a huge relief for all involved, as they’d originally been sentenced to seven years. Then, just last week, Antoni got in contact with me asking if I had any advice for Wa Lone, one of those Burmese reporter colleagues of his, who was going to be visiting Hokkaido on vacation for a couple of days.
So I moved a few things about and cleared up a Thursday afternoon, and suggested we go for a paddle on the Toyohira River in Jozankei. “Sounds great!” was Wa Lone’s reply.
The weather forecast for the Thursday afternoon was not great. It was a swelteringly hot afternoon, with heavy rain and thunderstorms forecast for the early evening. I put the canoe on the car anyway, and went to meet Wa Lone at Makomanai Subway Station. We’d play it by ear. If the weather was too rough for canoeing, we’d just go sit in an onsen for a soak.
After meeting Wa Lone, I asked if he’d paddled a canoe before. “I did just yesterday,” he replied. “At Lake Shikotsu, with a guide from Canoa.”
Small world. Canoa Guide House provided the two canoe’s Hokkaido Wilds is using for our canoe route documentation project.
After a bit of driving around in circles, I finally found the put in location for our short paddle down the gorge on the Toyohira River in Jozankei. I’d paddled this section of the river a few years back with a bunch of friends on a guided tour. At that point I never imagined I’d be doing it on my own with someone I’d only just met (least of all a man who’d just been released from prison – being there due to trumped-up charges – two months ago), in my own canoe.
As soon as we were on the water, I remembered that this section of river is over before it has even started. It really is a quick blat. So we took our time. We braved the very shallow gravel bar, staying in the canoe, no doubt adding some more scratches along the way. And then we were just cruising along through that beautiful gorge.
As expected, despite relatively taking our time, we were at the large ‘clearing’ at the end of the gorge in the blink of any eye. So I suggested we go for a bit of an adventure, and see if we could get a ways up the Shoroi River, which flows into the Toyohira River at this point. A fine mist was clinging to the river’s surface, as it brought super-cooled air down with it. As soon as we paddles out onto the flow of the Shiroi River, it was like walking into an air-conditioned room. Soon enough the flow was too strong to paddle, so we got out of the canoe and started lining it up the river. “This is the coldest water I’ve ever experienced,” exclaimed Wa Lone.
He wasn’t exaggerating. My feet were getting numb.
Compared with the Toyohira River, this river was pristine, ultra clear.
We didn’t get too far up the river before jumping back in the canoe for a short but thrilling ride down the swifts. With a bit more ferry gliding and towing the boat, it would be possible to get a bit further up the river – I’ll leave that for another sweltering hot day.
Once we were back in the lake-ish area of the Ichi-no-Sawa Dam, we weren’t quite ready to jut paddle back to the car and call it a day. So I gave Wa Lone some basic paddling instruction – the forward stroke and the draw. He got the hang of it quickly.
After this, Wa Lone took the canoe out for some solo paddling. “It’s much trickier to keep the boat straight on my own!” he exclaimed upon his return.
We made a slow final return to the car, taking in the scenery of the deep gorge as we went. I couldn’t help feeling the poignancy of this moment – I’m paddling with a man who was a political prisoner, still in a prison in Myanmar, only two months prior. At that point, he still had the prospect of another five years in prison, while his daughter – born while he was behind bars – grew up during the most formative years of her life.
And here he is now. Free and paddling in Jozankei in beautiful Hokkaido.
Just before the gravel bar where we’d parked the car, we had to get out of the canoe and pull it up and over a small shallow section of the river. We’d clattered and slid down this on the way down, adding some more scratches to the boat as we went. How we were doing the same in the opposite direction.
It was now about 6pm, so we stopped in at an izakaya restaurant nearby for dinner (here). We both had the hokke-hiraki teishoku – a set consisting of rice, miso soup, and grilled Okhotsk Atka mackerel. On the way back to Sapporo, we had a soak at Matsu-no-yu in the Kogane Onsen area.
It was great to get out for a break from the desk with some weekday paddling. See you in Hokkaido again some time, Wa Lone!