Chasing whitewater and culture in the land of the rising sun
Words by Brittany Parker
Photos by Zach Mahone
Paddling the Mitake River on the main island of Japan brought the crew all back to zero. The tension built up in our bodies from missing our connecting flight and having to stay the night in Beijing dropped from our shoulders, moved through our hands and into the water. We had arrived, we were present.
Our first teacher was Masayuki "Yacu" Takahata, an adventure racer, turned raft racer, turned standup paddle competitor. The waters of the Mitake are his training grounds and he knows every eddy, rock and drop. We paused above a technical rapid I was trying to run clean. The currents met each other rather abruptly, making entry angle and paddle placement crucial for setting up the rest of the rapid.
"Every stroke is like I'm shaking hands with the river," he said to me.
"Shake hands with the river." I'd never thought of it that way. That was my "eureka" moment, the instant I was finally able to catch a fly with chopsticks, in Karate Kid parlance. I switched my approach from fighting with the river to working with it.
When I tried the next time, my angle was perfect and my blade placement calculated. The move that felt so aggressive before now felt smooth and fluid. After that, I knew our trip to Japan was going to teach me way more than how to politely pour sake, use a bidet or a squat toilet. We were going to learn how to standup paddle in Japanese.
I'd first met Yacu on the river in Colorado. When he heard about the SUP scene there and the GoPro Mountain Games specifically, he booked a ticket. The crew for this trip, Nadia Almuti, Joey Seputo, Bradley Hilton, Jason Barber, Zach Mahone and Paul Clark all met him during the summer competition circuit in the Rockies and had jumped at the chance to paddle with him on his home court.
Yacu and Olympic canoeist Taro Ando made the Mitake River their paddling home base, in part because of its proximity to Tokyo and in part because of its accessible whitewater. Their mission? To get as many people on the river as possible.
Unfortunately they're fighting an uphill battle. Fear of the river is something instilled in the Japanese at an early age. Rivers are sacred; not places for recreation. Although the growth is slow, Yacu and his partners are showing people the risks of the river can be managed and enjoyed. This November the team will be holding the first-ever whitewater standup paddling event in Japan.
They purchased the Halau house, located only feet from the river, to act as ground zero for their operation. The house was a simple place, unburdened of clutter, with only a single piece of furniture, a waist-high table with no chairs. The floor, a traditional soft woven straw mat called a tatami deems a couch and chairs unnecessary. The only real luxuries were the heated toilet seat and a huge rack system on the porch for kayaks and SUPs, which seemed larger than the apartment itself.
Off in the distance, looking down on us from the headwaters of the river was the Mitake shrine. It was built to honor the river and give the people of the towns it feeds a place to pray and express their gratitude for the life it brings them. After spending time enjoying its waters, Yacu took us to give thanks.
There are a series of rituals to follow when visiting a shrine. I found them therapeutic, a way of bringing your attention back to the present. A grand arch called a torri, marked the entrance to the sacred grounds. We removed our hats and bowed to show respect. A fountain flowing into a stone basin sat at the base of the shrine, placed there to purify one's self before entering the offering hall. Yacu walked us through the systematic act of rinsing both our hands and mouths.
One person at a time walked up to the offering halls, allowing space for each other during prayer. We each tossed a coin in the offering box, followed by two deep bows, two slow hand claps and one more deep bow. All of this was done before moving into prayer, where you introduce yourself, state where you're from and communicate whatever you would like to the god.
During my prayer I realized how removed many of us are from our natural surroundings. We often take for granted the things we see and use every day. I wished to be more like the Japanese people, regularly praying to and expressing my gratitude towards the natural world.
After four days on the Mitake getting our feet under us, we cut the umbilical cord and left the comforts of Yacu's wisdom and guidance. We stacked our luggage and gear in a Tetris-like manner in the back of our rented van, making seats in the back with rolled-up inflatable boards in an attempt to make the travel experience a little more comfortable. All seven of us, a mess of crushed knees and elbows, loaded in and headed south to the island of Shikoku.
Japan is one of those complex countries you shouldn't go to without preparing—but that's what most of us did. Bradley was the only one smart enough to get a Japanese travel guide and actually read it before the trip. As a result, he had the only traveler's driver license and was saddled with the task of navigating the very confusing roadways from what Americans think of as the wrong side of the road.
While Bradley wrestled with the steering wheel, we searched for a place to sleep that night. With our phones in airplane mode we navigated without the comforts of Google Maps, depending entirely on a GPS in Japanese. We're river paddlers and we're perpetually on a budget, no strangers to the gypsy life. Paying for a hotel was not even an option. Luckily for us, Japan is camping friendly and it's legal to camp almost anywhere as long as it's not private property.
We zoomed out of our route on the GPS, scanning for any patch of green. This green zone could signify a park, a random open field or someone's farm…we weren't sure. But we decided to head toward the one and only patch we could find. The gravel road wound into the night and the streetlights faded in the rearview but we found no gentle meadow. We settled on a 50- by 30-foot dirt shoulder off the side of the road. Using the van to barricade us from the road, we laid out our inflatables as beds and settled in for the night, falling asleep to power lines buzzing overhead.
Breakfast in Japan is hard to come by, 7-Elevens are not. We were surprised by how popular these convenience stores were in the Land of the Rising Sun. 7-Elevens in Japan are as frequent as Starbucks in America and they quickly became our daily breakfast, coffee supplier and WiFi source. There were no Slurpee's or rolling grills with glistening hot dogs, though. Our breakfast choices consisted of sushi, boiled meats, rice squares wrapped in seaweed and hot dog buns filled with spaghetti. Each morning you could find us standing like statues on our phones or laptops outside a shop while sipping from our hot cans of coffee (yes, Japan has hot coffee in a can).
Yacu had set us up to meet with some of his paddling friends. One of them, Tsuyoshi Miyake, helped us break up the drive and took us paddling through the Kitayama Canyon. Bamboo forests lined the top of the jagged canyon walls and mossy waterfalls fell from all sides. It was remote and one of the most beautiful canyons I'd ever paddled through—I never knew paddling like that existed in Japan.
As we rolled on, Japan continued to prove itself as one of the best dirtbag countries in the world. In addition to the free camping and prolific 7-Eleven locations, each day ended with a soak at an onsen, or Japanese hot spring. The affordable and luxurious bathhouses surrounding the springs are scattered all over the country. For between three and five American dollars you get a shower and soak—and a cultural experience.
The Japanese believe there's virtue in the "naked communion," and the men and women generally have separate soaking areas. Everyone showers before they soak with little stools lined along the wall, all the soaps provided, the women chatting as they rinse the suds from their hair. Our first onsen experience was a little awkward but soon Nadia and I began to look forward to our daily "naked communion."
Every day we learned something new, either about the culture, ourselves or our connection to the world. Soaking in the onsens allowed us the opportunity to reflect on all that we had experienced. The minerals, the heat and stripping down seemed to bring us down to our rawest form where we could talk about anything and connect with each other and our thoughts.
Suggoi means awesome in Japanese. Suggoi Sports on the south island lives up to the name. Owners Rangi, a punk-rocker raft guide, and Q, a Silent Bob-type, graciously opened their headquarters for us. For five blissful days we moved out of the van and slept in beds. Miyoshi, the area where they operate, is remote, with houses sprinkled into the mountainous landscape and Japan's most notorious river, the Yoshino, weaving through it all.
We arrived during low-water season and the river was still exciting and technical, starting off with a dicey Class IV rapid. At the base of this rapid sat a life-threatening hazard, one that Nadia and myself were not willing to take the chance of running into. We sat on the sidelines while the guys ran it, lapping it over and over again determined to figure out the puzzle. Yacu met us again to get in on the fun, since the Yoshino is his favorite river.
It quickly became our favorite too. The rest of the stretch is filled with great Class III rapids, one portage and one more Class IV. The water was so clean you could see straight to the bottom, boulders hid underneath like sleeping giants and the water was so blue it could be mistaken for that of a tropical ocean. Every day we took in the beauty of the river anew; we never got used to it.
After many days communing with nature, we were ready for some civilization. The Suggoi crew took us out on our last night there to the major city of Kochi where the sake flows like, well, sake. The first restaurant was a narrow space sandwiched between two buildings like most businesses in Japanese cities. At that point we'd been in Japan for a couple weeks and were fairly used to turning the heads of entire rooms when we entered. This establishment was no different. We took off our shoes at the door and sat down cross-legged on pillows around tables no more than a foot or two off the ground, smiling at the curious glances.
Behind the bar a glass bottle filled with a snake resting in a yellowish liquid caught Zach's eye. The waitress poured us all a shot of the snake wine known as habushu. The spirit is infused with a type of pit viper, extremely venomous snakes, believed to have medicinal properties that can help men with sexual dysfunction.
That was only the beginning of the strangeness. The next bar was all-you-can-drink: for an hour you can put down as much alcohol as you want. With our sake came a live python, which Nadia kept draped across her shoulders while we were there.
Apparently, a 'normal' night out in Kochi isn't complete without a karaoke session. Rangi took us to a small, secret, hole-in-the-wall karaoke bar that was barely big enough to fit the whole group. We paid 4,200 yen (about $40) for all-you-can-drink—and sing—for an hour-and-a-half. As we belted it out on stage the bartender kept reappearing, arms filled with wigs, light sabers and costume glasses. It only got weirder from there, in the best possible way.
Nursing our hangovers in the hot, cramped van we headed towards Mt. Fuji, our last destination before catching our flight in Tokyo. To ease our pain and break up the long haul, we found a nice sea wall to lay our sleeping bags near for the night. I awoke the next morning to a man standing on top of the wall looking down on us, puzzled. Apparently, it's a popular place for morning walks.
"Ohio!" ('good morning') we said in greeting. He broke into a smile, then into laughter. He only made it a few feet before turning around and laughing again. It's not every day that you see a bunch of Americans sleeping atop paddleboards on the beach.
After a 7-Eleven stop, we pulled into the gravitational pull of Mount Fuji. The volcano towered over everything. It seemed more of a shrine than a terrestrial landmass. I had seen pictures of it in textbooks and in paintings but none of them do even the smallest justice. I was taken aback by its majesty and stared at it for hours.
We picked a campsite at Lake Motosu, one of the five Mt. Fuji lakes and by far the most scenic. The placid lake offers a crystal clear reflection of the volcano, intensifying an already extraordinary scene. Some of us woke with the sun the next day, the lake covered in fog and Mt. Fuji still sleeping behind the clouds.
Myself, Nadia and Bradley grabbed our boards and paddled out along with several fisherman in their paint-chipped dories. We didn't say much and paddled off in different directions to enjoy the peace of the place. I headed into the fog, only able to see five feet in front of me but feeling calm and comforted knowing Mt. Fuji was there looking down on me.
Yacu always visits Mt. Fuji before leaving the country. He either climbs to its peak or visits the shrine to communicate with the mountain about where he's going, why and what he hopes to accomplish. After his travels he returns to the mountain to report on his trips. I've never known someone that felt so connected to nature that they confided in it like a close family member.
I stopped paddling, looked up to the emerging Mt. Fuji, introduced myself and began to speak with the volcano. The mountain felt as alive as I did. I gazed around at the rest of the group, Bradley sitting on a rock, Nadia meditating on her board, Joey and Jason looking up in awe. I knew we were all feeling the same thing: we're connected. To each other, and to Japan.