Amazing Adventures in Hokkaido

The abundance of the natural environment, the lifestyles and culture of the people who live there – Hokkaido has many incredible stories that are as yet unknown.
In this column, we learn about the appeal of Hokkaido’s four seasons from the people who guide adventure tours there. We hope such stories will enrich your next visit to Hokkaido.

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Column: Water activities in Jozankei

Water sports during the summer in Japan and Hokkaido are an integral part of life! The Hokkaido locals love to make the most of the short summer season by heading to the many lakes, beaches and rivers on the northern island! Canoeing on the lakes and rivers has always been popular, with many resorts and companies offering guided tours. Activities like surfing and SUP Yoga have become more popular in recent years. Rafting has always been a staple of the outdoor activity world, with many Japanese school trips taking part in rafting tours. Niseko is well known for the river rafting scene, while Toya and Shikotsu are popular lakes for canoe trips, and – for the more adventurous – surfing spots are also found around the island.

What about Jozankei Onsen, where I live? It is a traditional hot-spring village nestled deep in a gorge, located between the city of Sapporo and the mountain pass which leads to the Niseko and Shiribeshi areas. The steep cliff walls have been carved out by the Toyohira River over the ages, and close to 80 hot springs flow naturally from around the banks of the river as it winds through the valley. During the summer, sections of the river can be very warm to the touch, due to the amount of hot spring water runoff, and in the winter, steam rises from the river where the onsen water flows. It does not sound like the ideal place to play in the water to cool off, but as I have discovered over the years, this is a water lover’s haven hidden in the hills!

Knee deep in the water while climbing up the river

What is Sawanobori?

Last year, I had the opportunity to take part in a unique adventure activity called Sawanobori or valley climbing. Sawanobori is a style of adventure climbing, which is said to have become popular in Japan. The goal is quite simple: to start at an access point to a river, which is not too deep and is without a strong current, and climb upstream in the water towards its point of origin. Splashing over rocks and obstacles, climbing over large rocks and maybe even small waterfalls, swimming through deep sections and generally having a great time while getting very wet and staying cool on a hot summer day!

It was over 30 degrees Celsius on the day we took part in this tour, perfect conditions to get in the cool mountain stream water. Sawanobori is more fun and safer with a large group like we had on this day. The sound of the river blocks out most communication with members far away, so it is best to keep an eye on those close to you as you climb. The cold water was very refreshing, and I recommend using the Sawanobori-type shoes, which are sold in outdoor shops here in Japan. It is a combination of a water shoe and a more traditional climbing shoe featuring a hard sole to protect your feet from the rocks and other unseen obstacles beneath the surface.

After about an hour and a half of guided walking up the river, we reached a section where the bedrock is visible and the water had carved out a deep pool. Here we stopped for lunch before taking turns jumping in the water and sliding down a small natural slide! After many years of mountain climbing and trekking, this new style of natural exploration really gave me a new perspective on the surrounding terrain and the depth of nature, here on the outskirts of Sapporo.

Sawanobori specific shoes
Climbing over a small waterfall
Taking turns jumping in the water and sliding down a bedrock waterfall

Canoeing vs Rafting

There are many ways to float down or up a river here in Jozankei! Let me introduce a few different styles of river play!

Canoes are the classic river exploration tool! Even the original people of Hokkaido, the Ainu, carved canoe-style boats out of logs to navigate the lakes and possibly rivers. You can see a replica of this type of boat at the nearby Ainu museum in Koganeyu. I cannot imagine carrying a heavy wooden boat like that to the water! Nowadays we are lucky to have fiberglass and plastic canoes that are light and easy to handle on the water, even for first-timers! In fact, the canoe tours offered in Jozankei are great for those with no experience. The section of the river used is very calm and gentle. After a short lesson on the river banks, you will be led by your guide to the river and set off on a relaxing paddle. Although the starting point is within walking distance of many hotels and the village center, you will feel surrounded by the deep nature from the moment you put the paddle in the water. The high cliffs provide a sense of seclusion and make for a very dramatic view! The peak season for canoeing is mid-September to late October when the color of the leaves change. The orange and yellow colors reflecting in the water as you quietly paddle downstream offer endless photo opportunities! Just make sure not to drop your camera in the water!

Enjoying the colors and reflections from the lake
The rafting team is all smiles

If you are visiting Jozankei earlier in the year, perhaps in the spring between March and early May, you will have the chance to take part in a hidden gem of a rafting tour! As the snow melts in the high mountains, water levels rise in the valleys and the conditions are great for wild-river rafting! This spring I was able to take part in such a rafting experience for the first time here in Jozankei Onsen, even though I have lived here for 16 years! While the canoeing takes place on the Toyohira River cutting through the village center, this rafting tour takes place on a smaller river, which joins the larger river just past the village. Hidden from view and without a hiking trail nearby, this section of the river is only accessed and seen by those who join the rafting tour! With high cliffs on both sides and dramatic sections that twist and turn between those narrow cliffs, it is an exciting ride!

Everything you need for the tour will be provided by the tour guide company, including a dry suit. This is a loose-fitting suit, which will keep you dry as its name suggests. I recommend wearing some warm clothing underneath the suit as the water temperatures will be icy cold during the spring season! The experienced guides were great, providing lots of thrills as we bumped off rocks and dropped off small waterfalls on the way down! No one fell out of the boat during our tour, but be prepared to get wet! The tour ends at the mellow slow-moving river section used by the canoe tours, and there is even the opportunity to do some cliff diving! A rock outcropping offers the chance to climb up to a maximum height of seven meters and jump back into the clear river water!

Stand up and paddle on the river.

Now for my final water sports activity and currently my favorite piece of outdoor gear! The inflatable “Stand-up Paddleboards’ usually referred to as an inflatable SUP! A few years ago, after reading many reviews, I finally decided to buy an inflatable SUP kit that includes the board, a pump, a leash, a paddle, and a carrying case! When rolled up in the case, it is the size of a very large backpack (80 liters) or a big tent. It fits easily in the trunk of a car and it has provided many hours of fun over the last few years. I have used it at the beach with my kids to catch tiny waves together. I have paddled out at many lakes, my favorite being Lake Shikotsu known for its clear water. The SUP is paddled from a kneeling or standing position. When standing and paddling over the clear water, it is amazing what a great view you get. It is easy to spot rainbow trout swimming in the water and the sparkle of many fishing lures that have been lost in the water.

Here in Jozankei you will be able to find several SUP tour opportunities. If you are looking for something more active and exciting than canoeing, or maybe you want to jump in the water and get wet to cool down, the SUP option is the perfect one for you! The combination of enjoying the relaxing atmosphere of nature on the river, while still being physically active and working on things like balance and strength is what I love about the SUP sport. Plus, it is great fun with friends or family. Watching your buddies laugh and fall into the water can be a blast, as well!

The vibe on the water here in and around Jozankei is definitely one of my favorite aspects of summer in the valley. Tourists enjoying their first canoe ride, locals fishing, Sapporo day-trippers swimming and having a BBQ, and the adventurous types exploring the hidden valleys on a Sawanobori mission. I hope to see you on the water this summer!

Self portrait while SUP on the lake

Written by Neil Hartmann;
During his 30-year Japan career, he has been a director, photographer, editor, cafe owner, Airbnb host, Youtuber, Instagrammer and, always, a snowboarder. This father of three girls is the creator of the snowboard movie series “Car Danchi.” He was the MC at the Nagano Olympic snowboard halfpipe competition in 1998, and a DJ on Hokkaido’s FM radio station Air-G from the early to late ’90s. Now Neil jumps from one project to the next, directing TV commercials for Hokkaido resorts and promoting tourism across Japan, and has a long history working with brands like The North Face, Burton Snowboards, Niseko Grand Hirafu and more. You can follow Neil through his YouTube channel and Instagram!

Instagram @neilhartmann
YouTube Chanel: Neilhartmann


Jozankei Onsen

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