Hokkaido Travel Adventures / Experience Kuromatsunai Landscape on Foot or by Canoe

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Atsuhito Takahashi, front, rows a canoe as his guide, Takafumi Honma, looks on from behind on the Shubuto River that flows through the towns of Kuromatsunai and Suttsu in Hokkaido.

This is the second installment of a series exploring the sights of Hokkaido, which is garnering attention as an ideal adventure vacation destination.


I slowly glided on the water in a two-seater canoe while listening to the instructions given to me.

“Stand the paddle straight and row as if you’re pushing toward the river bottom,” said Takafumi Honma, a senior official of the tourism association in the town of Kuromatsunai in Hokkaido. Honma, 59, sat behind me in the canoe and kindly acted as my guide.

Thanks to his suggestions, I was able to paddle forward along the Shubuto River, which makes its way through Kuromatsunai before flowing into the Sea of Japan on the coast of the town of Suttsu. I made my way southeast from the river mouth to its middle reaches. The stream was quiet and its surface, untouched by wind or waves, was like a mirror. Surprisingly, I did not need much physical strength to paddle the canoe.

The water was shallow and clear, and I could see freshwater fish, such as amemasu white-spotted char, swimming elegantly. Water weeds and shrubs grew on both banks, and water birds could be heard singing amid the tranquility. Visible in the north were Suttsu town’s wind turbines making good use of the winds blowing toward the sea.

“The headstream of Shubuto River is very close to the Pacific Ocean. The river has about 120 tributaries. The middle reaches pass through Kuromatsunai town, and then the water slowly flows into the Sea of Japan,” Honma said.

The Kuromatsunai Lowland is a little less than 30 kilometers in length, with Suttsu Bay on the Sea of Japan coast to the north and Uchiura Bay on the Pacific coast to the south. Fossil shells have been excavated from a stratum in the region, where the highest altitude of the lowland area is only about 100 meters. They are proof that this area must have been covered by the sea eons ago.

The region is also sandwiched between steep mountains to the east and west, and with regards to climate is sometimes called the borderline between Hokkaido and East Japan. Native beech forests found in mountain areas of Honshu — such as the ones found in the Shirakami Sanchi mountainous region, a World Heritage site straddling Aomori and Akita prefectures — are believed to have their northernmost habitat in Kuromatsunai.

Shubuto River does not have many rapids as there are no large altitude changes in the river’s water level, and there is no dam on the main stream either. The rainwater that falls on the beech forests filtrates through the fossil stratum and then flows into the river, which is a paradise for freshwater fish, such as char, yamame trout and ayu sweetfish that feed on algae found on the bottom of rivers with good water quality.

The river is well-known among anglers. The town of Kuromatsunai regards the river and the surrounding area as an “eco museum,” where the municipality has been promoting interactive tourism for the past 30 years or so. It has become a place where people can learn about the environment and ecology while appreciating how the forests, rivers and sea are connected. Visitors can get around by bicycle or on foot. Another option is a guided canoe tour, which is recommended for those who are not confident with their physical strength and even canoe beginners.

If you get off the canoe and walk southward along the river, you will come upon Utasai Beech Forest, a national natural treasure. The forest is about 1 kilometer from a parking lot. Strolling along a walking trail inside the forest will bring you to beech trees more than 200 years old, and a stream nearby has a calming effect.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A tourist walks through the Utasai Beech Forest in Kuromatsunai, Hokkaido.

This time I chose the canoe tour, but you can explore the area more extensively on a bicycle. A coast-to-coast ride between the Pacific coast and the Sea of Japan coast is quite easy.

In autumn, salmon swim up the Shubuto river to spawn, and juvenile ayu sweetfish swim down to Suttsu Bay. Kuromatsunai’s appearance changes from season to season. The more you know about the area, the deeper you will come to appreciate its beauty.