In the land of the rising sun
As the season here in Japan draws to a close, it’s time to look back on the past 6 months…
Things don’t always go to plan. After a busy three months spent kayaking in Australia and New Zealand it was time to return to the UK and unemployment. Unfortunately, nothing came of the job offer that I had been relying on for so long and so began the all too familiar hunt for seasonal work.
Salvation finally came in the form of a Facebook post, advertising for raft guides in Hokkaido, Japan. A flurry of emails, last minute flight booking and a dash north to my brother’s wedding saw me ready to leave for the land of the rising sun. After 3 days of travel – most of which was spent trying to memorise a Japanese safety brief – I arrived in the sleepy town of Niseko.
In the shadow of Mount Yotei, the Niseko area is a booming ski resort, famous for its world-class powder. In winter, it’s heaving with ski and snowboard enthusiasts from all over the world. When I arrived in May however, the snow was melting, the tourists gone and all of the shops closed. So what draws so many foreign guides to this ghost town?
Reliable white water.
All that snow-melt has to go somewhere and that “somewhere” is the Shiribetsu river. For most of the summer season a 9km section of the river is commercially rafted by more than 10 companies in Niseko alone. During the short spring run-off season though, another section opens up offering big-volume class 3 rapids. Jet lagged and trying to stay awake, I had enough time to put my bags down and change in to my river gear before getting amongst it for the first time.
After guiding in Australia, the water temperature came as a shock to me. “Snow-melt” should have been a hint that it wasn’t going to be warm, but this was something else. Even with a drysuit and layers of thermals on, it was literally breathtaking. Time to toughen up.
The main event for the customers on the Spring course is the dam rapid – a slide down the side of a dam, followed by a long, bouncy wave train.
As spring gave way to summer, we moved upstream to the “Kutchan course” – a section that flows all year round at class 1/2. Perfect for beginner rafting customers, but technical enough to keep the guides on their toes. Although there are few real dangers on this section, the river is incredibly shallow for most of the run. Getting pushed off line brings with it the embarrassment of getting hard stuck on the boulders just beneath the surface of the water.
May-June marks the start of the school group season, with hundreds of Japanese school children travelling north to Hokkaido on field trips. This was my first experience of mega-train rafting – trips with 40 or more rafts on the river, for one company alone. Looking back up river, there seemed to be more rubber than water.
The school children proved the perfect guinea pigs for us “gaijin” (foreign) guides to try out our ropey-at-best Japanese on. My only Japanese lessons were a couple of rushed chats over Skype and a few pages of useful phrases, so there were a few teething problems at first… Mixing up the words for left and right, as well as the difference between “hold on” and “let go.” But as every Englishman knows, the key to language learning success is perseverance. By which I mean the tried and tested “talk louder and point more” approach – never fails. Somehow we got there in the end…
Luckily, the company that I worked for rafted a number of rivers in the Hokkaido prefecture, allowing me to get out on lots of different sections. One of my favourites was the Toyohira river, near the spa town of Jozankei. Although I only guided this in training, I was lucky enough to safety kayak it a number of times on commercial trips. There I found big, bouncy class 3, with waves to cartwheel over and holes to dodge round. The best kind of fun!
But for me, the real prize was the Mukawa river. Near the town of Shimukappu, Mukawa is one of the best – if not the best rafting runs in Hokkaido. The spring melt water turns the river in to raging class 4+, with massive wave trains and terrifying holes to punch through. For most of the summer though it runs on a low level, technical class 3 with plenty of continuous boulder garden rapids. It’s fun, but can be tough to guide on when the water drops as it’s easy to get a raft hard stuck in the many shallow sections.
We were lucky enough to have one week of heavy rain fall, bringing Mukawa up to a medium/high level, which will stay as my best memory of Japan. As a guide I was challenged on the inner edge of my comfort zone and I came off the water buzzing with adrenaline each time.
I didn’t manage to get much time in a kayak this summer, but luckily did get the time off work to head to this year’s freestyle kayak festival. After watching the competitors throw down in the final, I managed to borrow a boat to get on the water myself. I felt pretty rusty, but happy enough just to be carving back and forth on a perfect wave, before heading back to work.
Now, after over 6 months and over 150 rafting trips, the season is coming to an end. The first snow is starting to fall and the locals are gearing up for the onslaught of another busy ski season.
As for me, it’s time to head home. I’ve got three weeks of down time in the UK, before heading out to Finnish Lapland for another season of snowmobile guiding in the Arctic. From there I have a loose plan of going back to Nepal next April for more rafting training and personal paddling, before re-applying for my Canadian working holiday visa. As experience has shown before though, anything could happen…