Ahhhh! — that’s the sound an overheated urbanite makes after cooling off in midsummer at Japan’s finest whitewater rafting location, Tokushima Prefecture’s Yoshino River. Its two gorges, the Oboke and Koboke, draw day-tripping beginners as well as more experienced enthusiasts, with their long stretches of cool, dark-green water lined with white limestone cliffs and large sections of frothy white-water action. I met Australian Mark Treston, operator of Happy Raft and 12-year resident of Japan, to learn about the area. “It’s the best river in Japan by a long, long way,” he said as we drove along winding roads high above the torrent.
“We have a really good rainy season and the rapids here rival any in the world,” said Treston — great praise indeed, considering his guiding experience in Nepal, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The river’s headwaters are deep within Kochi Prefecture, held back by the Sameura dam, and while dams typically ruin rivers for rafting, Treston argued to the contrary.
“The Sameura dam actually improved the river for rafting,” he said, pointing out previous high-water marks as we drove along the river. “In the past it used to get really high or low, but now we have daily releases, which means we have guaranteed water all through the summer.”
Stable water levels also mean that the Yoshino River has consistent Class 3 and 4 rapids in the Oboke and Koboke gorges. Rapids classification varies by country, Treston explained, but on the Yoshino River, Class 3 basically means big waves, and Class 4 means big waves plus obstacles that should be avoided. The Koboke’s more difficult rapids shouldn’t deter beginners though, as each raft is led by a certified guide and customers are given thorough safety instructions.
“Many people are interested in enjoying nature,” said Satoshi Asano, one of Happy Raft’s senior guides. “But if you don’t know how to kayak or trek alone, it’s difficult to start. That’s why rafting tours are popular.”
My one-day Koboke gorge-tour group consisted of two boats of thirty- and fortysomething beginners. At the Happy Raft base camp, we were equipped with wet suits, helmets and life jackets, plus an extra fleece top to ward off the cold of June waters. Later in the season, customers can opt for short-sleeve wet suits or go without as water temperatures rise. A short drive later we arrived at the day’s launch spot. Our large and colorful PVC rafts were waiting, pulled up against a small limestone landing at the confluence of the Yoshino River and a smaller creek. Once we had settled in, Treston went through safety and the different orders he would give to steer the raft. My group was all Japanese, so the orders were in Japanese, but it was pretty easy to remember the short equivalents for “forward,” “back,” “take the paddles out of the water,” “get in the bottom of the raft,” “lean left,” “lean right,” and “splash the people on the other raft.”
I hadn’t expected to start off with a water fight, but silly games became the best part of the long smooth stretches of river. One game involved everyone standing on the rim of the raft, holding hands and trying to lean backward over the water, which ended when someone let go and everyone fell in. Another variant of “dump the rafters into the drink” was a balance game where we all sat in the back of the boat and tilted it as close to 90 degrees vertical as possible, although someone, most likely Treston, shifted the balance and spilled everyone into the river.
Elsewhere, we jumped from 7-meter cliffs into the deep water below, or floated down minor rapids in our life jackets, bobbing like corks. The first time we came up spluttering and laughing from one of these games, some poor city-dweller remarked, “The water is delicious!” And while I wouldn’t recommend swallowing great mouthfuls as there would be time for that in the rapids, the water was cool, clear and a stunning shade of green.
Game time was over when we hit the first serious rapids. The rock walls hemmed in close and our boat seemed to hesitate a moment at the edge of the smooth river before suddenly dropping and crashing through a huge white wave that blinded us with bubbly water.
“Forward!” shouted Treston, and we paddled furiously to stay on course, splashing through another large swell in the river. “Get in!” came the next order, and we crouched low to slip past an intimidating boulder. Just as quickly we were back in calm water, turning to look at what we had gone through and giving each other paddle high-fives.
After running a few more rapids, we were ready for “surfing,” a popular activity where two or three people paddle back up river with a guide and try to slip the raft into a “hole” — that is, a depression in the river where the current reverses and flows back upstream, halting, bucking and spinning any boat that is trapped within. The object is to stay there as long as possible, and though the raft often flips, guides stand by to throw ropes to the rafters before the current takes them too far downstream. Two young women had the best luck, riding the wave for about eight seconds before the raft tilted nearly vertical and flopped forward, launched out of the hole with a splash.
When we tired of surfing, it was time for lunch: an all-you-can-eat fresh bagel-sandwich pig-out. Go easy though, as one of my companions ate several, then laughed weakly during the first patch of rough water after lunch, groaning, “The bagels are coming out!”
Despite stuffed stomachs, we got back into our paddling rhythm and tackled the remaining rapids. Too soon the Yoshino River widened and slowed, and after 5 hours of alternating relaxation and exhilaration we hauled the rafts ashore, heading back to base cooled off, tired out, happy.
Mark Treston’s Happy Raft offers full-day courses for ¥12,500 (mid-season: July 1-18, September weekdays) and ¥15,000 (high season: July 18 till Aug. 31, September weekends). Half-day courses cost ¥6,500 (mid-season) and ¥7,500 (high season). Large groups should reserve as soon as possible, while individuals and pairs can sometimes fit in at short notice. Consult happyraft.com for more information. While Happy Raft has the only native English-speaking guides on the Yoshino River, other rafting companies have comparable rates and welcome foreigners.