Magnificent rock formations and tree-covered mountains line the gorge. A gentle current carries us down river. It is a picture of paradise. But perched on the side of the two-man inflatable, my heart is racing like a juggernaut.
“When the time comes listen to my instructions and if I say paddle, keep paddling forward,” says Mark Treston, the founder of Happy Raft in Shikoku and my guide on the water.
Up ahead, I can see the light ripples on the surface of the river change into frothy, churning whitewater. We are inching towards our first rapid on the Yoshino River – one of the finest whitewater rafting rivers in the world.
Mark, born and raised in North Queensland, Australia, has guided rafting trips in Japan for 20 years. Recognizing the potential of the Yoshino River flowing through the heart of Shikoku, he relocated to Kochi and set up Happy Raft 15 years ago.
“There are two great spots for rafting in Japan, the Tone River in Gunma and the Yoshino River here in Kochi,” explains Mark. “The water in Gunma is good in spring, but in summer the Yoshino River is the only place to be.”
With his extensive experience guiding rafters around the world, Mark knows good water when he sees it. If you needed any proof, the entire IRF World Rafting Championship was held on the Yoshino River in 2017.
The location is perfect. The river flows through two spectacular gorges – Oboke and Koboke with a range of rapids to suit beginners to seasoned experts alike. The water is as pure as it comes, glistening in shades of turquoise and ultramarine.
The journey to Happy Raft takes you through some of the most picturesque countryside in Japan. No worries if you don’t drive – Happy Raft Base is located right next to Tosa-Iwahara Station on the Dosan Line.
If you want to travel light, you can book ahead, roll up and Happy Raft will provide everything you need from helmets, wetsuits and life jackets to swimwear and towels.
“To make the most of it you should come for two days if you can,” recommends Mark. “You can do a half-day of canyoning and then a one-day rafting tour. We have a guesthouse on the mountain where you can stay and barbecue in the summer.”
The rafting tours run every day from March to October. It’s policy to go out on the water with two experienced English-speaking guides even if there’s only one customer. I was in the raft with Mark, while Happy Raft veteran guide Kobu followed in the canoe. It was the first days of the season and I had the river to myself, but during summer (peak season) you’ll be sharing the river with multiple 8-person rafts, all navigating the rapids, jumping into the water and having all manner of fun.
“We’re lucky because we have a core group of guides who have stayed together,” says Mark who assembles a team of 30 experienced guides every season from Japan and around the world. “It means we know the river inside out – you need that knowledge to have the most fun on the river, but also to stay safe when the conditions suddenly change.”
After 15 years, Happy Raft has built an enthusiastic community of regular customers who come back year after year. According to Mark, some come back as often as ten times in one season.
“Everyone who tries rafting once gets addicted,” says Kentaro Kusunoki, a long-time customer at Happy Raft. “You meet new people every time you come and become friends really quickly. There’s something magical about sharing the experience in the raft, riding the waves and helping each other out on the water.”
Happy Raft is fully integrated into the local community. Mark lives on the mountain overlooking the Happy Raft Base with his wife and daughter, helps out in the local volunteer firefighters and uses local craftsmen for building work. In modern Japan where rural areas face serious depopulation, Happy Raft is helping to revitalize the local economy and bring young people back into the countryside.
Back on the water, the rapid pulled us in. “Paddle forward” was the cry. We tore through the waves and sped through the eddies. In an instant we were past the white surf and floating again on calm water. The thrill was intense. We high-fived using our paddles, I caught my breath and looked forward to the next rapid.
Photographs & Text by Tom Miyagawa Coulton