Rafting Through Rural Japan in Shikoku’s Oboke Gorge
“Today is a really rough four. Our intensity scale goes to five, and we’ll only raft up to four,” the leader announced to the awaiting group of assistant language teachers zipped in lumpy wetsuits, “so I hope you’re all good swimmers.”
Oboke Gorge, deep in the secluded mountains of Tokushima and Kochi, has some of the clearest waters in Japan. The winding stretch of the Yoshino River has a rocky bottom that the bright blue-green water runs through creating—given ideal weather—an incredible rafting experience.
Arguably the best place to experience rafting in the Oboke Gorge is at Happy Raft. Happy Raft was established in 2004 by Mark Treston, an Australian expat, and as such is a foreigner friendly location. All the guides I’ve interacted with spoke English, some even coming from abroad to populate the sleepy mountain villages for the season.
During high season the waters are fierce after heavy rain but myself and the group of foreign ALTs, with the help of the guides, decided to tackle the gorge back in September. As we finished our safety briefing and were zipped into wetsuits the van brought us to the starting point. After reviewing how to react when you fall out of the raft (something that became increasingly important as we spent the day tackling larger and larger rapids), we were brought to the first rapid.
“You should jump in the water for the first one and swim. Get a feeling for it,” our guide said. I threw myself over the raft, not one to miss out on a full experience. Within the first two seconds as my head went under the first of many times I realized, in the immortal words of Gob Bluth from Arrested Development, “I’ve made a huge mistake.” During peak season most of the rocks are submerged and the water is brutal, dunking you under as you come up for air unless you can time your breathing just right. My lifeguard training meant nothing to the rapids at Oboke Gorge.
After my near death experience, our leader engaged us in genuinely fun team building exercises and brought our boat through more and more rapids. After a lunch of homemade bagels at the halfway stop, there was standing, kneeling, and even surfing along the bottom of the rapids. After all, guides are aware people usually get cocky around this time. They challenge you near the end with the biggest rapid in Japan.
Most of the time in the rapids is spent ducking inside the boat and tossing bodies back and forth across the boat to keep it from tipping. Overall, for a group of foreign expats newly arrived in Japan, it was a great way to start forging friendships fast.
The rafting was a wild experience and jumping from the nearby white rock cliffs was also a rush, but what really made the trip was the scenery. The entire gorge is framed by the mountains which are lush and green during peak season. During breathers between rapids it was relaxing to float through the crystal clear river bracketed by cliffs, small towns nestled on the edge of mountains, and a parallel train tunneling through the rock.
During the start of this year’s season I visited a second time with my father. The water was an easy level two and resembled more of a leisurely (but still very enjoyable) river cruise. Mark himself took us out along with his daughter and two tourists from Germany who were as stupidly brave as us to wear two layers of wetsuits to combat the frigid water. The feeling of the gorge was different without the tourists—the river was our own to wade through.
Mark pointed out the tracks left by animals along the edge and the frog-shaped rock that was only visible during the low season. What was most fascinating was as we paddled by one particular mountain village, Mark lifted his paddle and pointed towards it.
“We live up there, near the house with the white roof. My wife, my daughter, and me. Guess how much we pay for rent?”
My father, not yet initiated to the prices of Japan’s rural “inaka” (countryside) guessed six hundred dollars.
Mark laughed. “No. All these houses are abandoned. No one returns from the city, let alone raises a kid. They asked us what we wanted to pay. I said one hundred but in hindsight I should have said fifty.”
What Mark had said illustrated what makes a region like Iya and the Oboke Gorge so special. Kyoto, Tokyo, and other big cities might have amenities and popular cultural monuments, but due to these things most people tend to move into the big cities. Japan’s countryside is shrinking every year. Places like the Oboke Gorge are an incredibly special look into Japan’s untouched regions that without amazing places like Happy Raft, would all but disappear off the map.
Oboke Gorge might be secluded but thanks to Japan’s extensive train system there is fairly straightforward transit connecting it to Tokushima City, Takamatsu, and Kochi City in Shikoku. Although to enjoy the entire region it’s definitely recommended to rent a car.
While the regular rafting season runs from mid March to mid October, there are also canyoning tours available and special events throughout the season. There are options for half or full day rafting at 10,000 yen and 5,500 yen respectively. Happy Raft even has a guesthouse for those looking to stay in the region!
Whether you go during low season and receive a warm welcome with free tea or you tackle the rapids during the exhilarating higher season, Oboke Gorge and Happy Raft is worth the time.
Yoshino River Rafting Canyoning
Happy Raft Co, Ltd.
221-1 Ikadagi, Otoyo-cho, Nagaoka-gun
Telephone: +81 887-75-0500