AJET: Shikoku Whitewater Rafting

One group of rafters on the trip

by Greg Beck and Jonathan Fisher

In the first week of October Hiroshima AJET set out to Otoyo, Kochi in Shikoku for a whitewater rafting experience! This was our first big trip out of the prefecture this year, brought to us by the amazing new leaders of AJET: Myia, Brandon, Alex, and Jennie.

There were nearly 30 of us altogether and half met to board our chartered bus at Hiroshima Station. In Fukuyama, we had a restroom break, bought some more supplies, loaded everyone else on, and set out for our hotel. Maybe our old, curmudgeon driver was just trying to get us off his bus (or maybe he always drives like a maniac), but we got to the hotel before we knew it; a beautiful, high-class ryokan. Even though it was around 10 pm when we arrived, three attendants in penguin suits waited to greet us and show us to our rooms, which the lovely Myia had been kind enough to carefully plan as well.

Heading off to Shikoku!

The people in our room had a great time, but decided we wanted to keep the party going a little later, so we joined forces with some more friends to go searching the sleepy town for a convenience store. On the way we saw some dodgy-looking yakuza-type guys who seemed to be wearing some kind of festival clothing, but we steered clear of them and kept going until we eventually found our way. Our group of seven got back to our hotel room safely and after a few drinks, songs, and stories, finally hit the hay.

The next morning, a few people got up extra early in order to use the hotel’s awesome baths before joining everyone for a huge, traditional Japanese breakfast. Then it was back on the bus for a nap on the way to Happy Raft, the company in charge of guiding us down the Yoshino River that day.

The Part of the Yoshino River system that we were navigating that day, also known as 祖谷 (Iya) or the “Valley of the Ancestors,” is one of the most isolated parts of Shikoku, an island already somewhat off the beaten track. Straddling the border of Kochi and Tokushima prefectures, the only trains that stop at the station adjacent to Happy Raft are lonely ワンマン (“one man,” or single conductor) cars. However you get there, though, you’re in for some beautiful scenery – dangerously steep gorges, precarious foot bridges (some of them famously made of interwoven vines), and the magic of the pristine emerald green river water.

Sporting some “Happy Raft” safety gear

The Valley of the Ancestors, while isolated, is definitely a tourist destination in the summer months. Adventuresome foreigners and Japanese tourists alike go there to enjoy a quiet riverside onsen soak, an overnight camping trip, or, like our AJET group, a more adrenaline-soaked river run in a rubber raft. Even some of the river guides themselves admitted to “taking the season off” to spend time paddling alternatively frightened and enthusiastic groups down the river for pay.

It became obvious immediately that the guides were going to be a lot of fun. Most of them were from New Zealand, Australia, or Japan, and they wasted no time in ribbing us, joking around the way you would treat an old friend. Everyone had crazy nicknames on a piece of tape on our helmets that were supposed to be used to identify us. Mine said “Dick,” but others on my raft included “Shorty,” “Bluey,” and “M.” Most of us put on wet suits provided by Happy Raft, and it only took being in the river for about five minutes before I was overwhelmed with happiness at my decision to “bee one of the hive,” as our guide instructed us. The water wasn’t ice cold, but the wetsuit was most definitely a life-saver.

After hearing the safety talk three times and splitting up into teams, we got on our boat for one last bit of training in how to follow our guides’ commands. Finally, as our guide Adam (who at first introduced himself as “Schmiegel”) tightened down our life jackets one-by-one, he shoved or asked us, depending on his whim, to jump in the water. From there we had to learn how to climb or be lifted back in. Then we were finally ready to go!

Our guide Adam was really friendly and open. Before we knew it, it seemed like we had all shared our life stories, and he even started teaching us the ins and outs of working for Happy Raft as a guide (in a nutshell: any time you screw up, you have to buy the other guides beer). Adam is only twenty-four, but has already had many years experience as a river guide in both Japan and New Zealand. It was obvious he knew what he was doing and, as the day went on and other rafts got stuck and people flung overboard, our raft remained almost completely unscathed. It was definitely thanks to him.

“Adam’s boat” heading through some rapids

Adam kept mixing up the seating order so everyone got to try being at the front of the raft while going through some rapids. We even sat backwards a couple times and watched him take charge, face screwed up in concentration. Whenever we hit a patch of calm river it was acrobatic diving time. He started it off by doing a running, full gainer dive off the nose of the boat, and we all tried our own flips, jumps, and dives as well. This went on for the entirety of the day, and after watching just a couple guides sneak up and ambush the other guides, it quickly turned into all-out pirate battles whenever anyone could surprise attack another boat!

Just before lunch we pulled up at some rock cliffs and almost everyone climbed up and jumped off. One climb was about ten meters up, but I was plenty satisfied with the five-meter fall I chose to try. Then, we got back on our boats, rounded a bend, pulled over on the opposite shore of the river, and climbed up another cliff to where fresh baked bagel sandwich awaited us!

The “Happy Raft” picnic lunch

At that point we were almost two-thirds of the way done with our 10k adventure down the river, but taking a break to get warm, dry, and fed was a double-edged sword. I felt both immensely more comfortable and incredibly tired. However, I knew that once we got back on the boat and got our adrenaline pumping again everything would be fine and, sure enough, it only got better.

Each boat had a different guide, so everyone had different stories to tell on the bus ride home. This was only one of them, but from what I could tell everyone was able to see a different side of themselves and each other, all the while getting soaking wet and wild. So, that was our Saturday! Before we left we got dried off and changed at the Happy Raft headquarters, and they gave us some tea and cake. We had a considerably quieter bus trip home to Hiroshima, but it was fun nonetheless. Thanks to Hiroshima AJET and everyone who took part. I can’t wait for the next event, and I have a feeling some of us will be taking a couple more trips to Happy Raft next summer.

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