By Konstantin Gridnevskiy
After a short flight from Tokyo where I was staying the previous night, I arrive at Memanbetsu airport and meet my friend Satoru Higashitani (a.k.a. Gum) and his son Todjiro (a.k.a. Monkey). Getting to know each other through Instagram, we met to paddle together during my first visit to Japan three years ago and, since then, became friends. This year I am joining them on their holidays in Hokkaido and the first river we plan to paddle is the upper section of the Kushiro river, which we also paddled last year.
Starting from the Kussharo Lake, which is a famous paddling destination on its own right, this part of river is very popular among canoeists and tourists and there are several companies which organize canoe tours here. We inflate our packrafts at the lake shore (some of the guides showed a lot of interest in them) and follow one of such groups.
Though there is a noticeable current, the river is not difficult but there are a lot of low overhanging trees that you need to avoid while navigating the bends. Another danger are the ever-present ‘abu,’ Japanese horseflies. They seemed to choose us as their target, while leaving the paying tourists and the canoe guides alone. Poor Monkey is suffering the most. He even tries to hide under some extra clothes or shoot them with his water gun, but it is to no avail – they still manage to find a way to annoy him. “Kuso abu,” says Gum (which roughly means – ‘shitty horseflies’) and I completely agree with him.
But it is not all that bad. The weather is great and the water in the river is so clear that you can see everything there – the bottom, the water plants, the fish. But I am looking for the crawfish, which Gum told me that he had seen there before. “They like slow moving water and branches on the bottom,” he tells me. And indeed, in one of the bends, we see a group of tourists in their canoes looking into the water and one of the guides holding a big crawfish on the blade of the paddle. I also want to try that. So, I spot another crawfish, lean over trying to pick it up and, before I know it, I fall into the water. I have learned too far and instead of me pulling us that crawfish, I join it in the river. Laughing, I climb back into the packraft and we paddle on.
The river is gradually changing and the last part before out putout next to the Covo Cafe and Bal (which serves really good Italian food with the Japanese take on it) is wide, straighter and the water is less transparent. But there is a small but a very nice rapid that will put a smile on your face. And if you are early enough and arrive at Covo before their afternoon break, you can enjoy a very tasty lunch there. “It’s a very famous restaurant in this part of Hokkaido,” Gum tells me when we’re are eating there.
We finish the day by going back to the Kussharo lake, putting a tent at a camping ground on its shore, cooking a dinner on a grill and enjoying a free, open air onsen (Wakoto Hot Spring), which is one of many around this volcanic area. Just before calling it a day, I go to the water edge and shine my headlamp over the shallow waters. There I see some freshwater shrimps and a small crawfish that came to investigate the light. I pick it up from the water, show it to Monkey and let it go again. When in my tent, I think if that was my ‘friend’ from earlier that day, who came to say hi to me. And with this thought, I fall asleep.