It is midmorning and the sun is just warming the day as we approach the entrance to Lake Kussharo, in eastern Hokkaido. The water is cobalt blue, and the surrounding mountains mirror off the calm surface. The sun glistens off the water, too, forcing me to put on my sunglasses with building anticipation.

The owners of North East Canoe Center, Kazuaki and Ai Hiratsuka, and their guide and friend Kaname Nagumo, work to unpack the vans with a practiced efficiency that showcases their many years of canoe guiding in eastern Hokkaido. Off the top of the vans come three canoes, followed by an assortment of homemade food, first-aid supplies, spare gear, life jackets and paddles. They stow everything in the boats in such a way to balance the weight, all while speaking rapid-fire Japanese, little of which I understand.

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