A day in the rafting life

Chris showing how to put a drysuit onChris showing how to put a drysuit on

It’s 8am as I hop on my bike and cycle the 5 minutes to the riverbase on flat tires and with no front brake. I greet everyone with ohayou gozaimasu! (おはようございます – good morning) as I ride past and drop my bike next to the rickety prefab hut that reminds me of my old school huts.

Quick change into wetsuit (and drysuit if it’s cold), grab my helmet, life jacket, throwbag and paddle before heading back to the main shed (and it is a shed) to clock in with a good ol’ fashion punch card. Today’s guides gather for a short briefing given by the TL (team leader) – we’re told which groups we’re in, given a number and a list of customers. The meeting is entirely in Japanese with the occassional allowance for gaijin (外人 – foreigners) if we’re lucky enough to have one of the Nepalese guides as TL. We disappear off to grab drysuits and boots for our guests – it’s a bit of a scramble as we never have enough of the right sizes.

Safety talk at the start pointSafety talk at the start point

As the buses arrive, someone yells basu kita (バス来た – bus has arrived) and we scurry outside to stand in a neat line in numerical order. 2 or 3 perfectly neat, matching buses rock up, and a (usually) attractive young woman in a short skirt and inappropriate shoes hops off and beckons the bus into a parking space with her white cloth gloves.

Bus talk guides hop on and brief the school kids, who then descend en masse, dressed in matching school tracksuits. Youkoso, watashi wa kyou guido suru – rafting hajimete? (ようこそ、私は今日ガーイドする。ラフチーング初めて?- Welcome, I’m your guide today – is this the first time you’ve been rafting?). Once we’ve gathered our crew, we cram into the shed and frantically try to dress our kids in awkward drysuits. Then it’s outside for lifejackets and helmets before ushering them back on the bus. The buses are all immaculately clean and each one has a small map of Hokkaido at the front showing Niseko and the route they’ve just taken.

First eddyFirst eddy

The start point is about 20 minutes away so there’s time for the nominated guide to give a safety talk, complete with raku-chan (sea otter) demonstration (it’s the position you need to take if you fall in – otherwise known as the swiftwater float position).

We arrive at the start point and scramble off the bus. The guides dash to the pre-prepared rafts and run through a quick check – all inflated, no tears, outside/inside lines intact, enough paddles. We gather our group and then begin our 10 minute safety talk. In Japanese. Eek.

Hopefully our kids understand and are excited – it’s then a short walk to carry the rafts to the river. The kids generally fall into two camps – dead shy or super-genki. But they are all polite (well, compared to British or American schoolkids!) and generally quite weak at paddling. A brief paduro agete (パヅロ上げて – paddle clap), kamera mite (カメラ見て – look at the camera) and we’re off.


We usually gather at the first big eddy and then peel off in two or three groups. The combination of reading the river, paddling and trying to entertain kids in a totally alien language is quite a challenge for me, but an enjoyable one. We play river games and the more excitable kids throw themselves in for a swim. The thing the kids love most is catching up to another boat and splashing them before paddling off again. When the sun’s out it’s hard to beat!


Camera points are strategically placed along the river and on overhead bridges, so we try to get the kids into entertaining poses for them

About an hour and a half later, we’ve reached the goal point (about 7km downstream) and hop out. We drag the rafts up and the kids jump back on the bus. The guides then speedily haul the rafts onto the awaiting trucks and trailers. They’re usually stacked 5 rafts high, so it’s quite an operation!

Coming out of a rapidComing out of a rapid

Then it’s back on the buses – a small tray of water to rinse our boots and then finding a seat nicely covered by a NOASC-branded plastic sheet. The bus talk guide gives a wrap-up and talks about what else NOASC does. Most kids are usually falling asleep by this point!

We get back and organised chaos ensues as we collect lifejackets, return helmets and try to get kids out of drysuits. It’s a very labour intensive process that I’m sure could be more efficient, but that’s the way we do it, so there’s no questioning (another trait I’ve noticed amongst my Japanese co-workers – there’s a system, and that’s the way we do it).

Yotei from the riverYotei from the river

The kids sip hot tea before piling back on the the buses. We all stop re-arranging drysuits and scurry back outside again to line up and shout otsukare sama deshita (お疲れ様です – hard to translate but sort of means thanks for your hard work, a fairly stock expression at the end of the day in the Japanese workplace), wave goodbye and bow. There’s usually a few kids who go a bit nuts, particularly those who’ve had the novelty of a gaijin guide!

Then it’s back inside for us guides to check drysuits and hang them up to dry. A debrief to run through any incidents and comments – again all in Japanese – very hierarchical, generally reinforcing the fact that we are first-year guides and they are all seasoned guides (not necessarily reflected in ability though :)). Back to the prefab, strip off, dry and change before clocking out and wearily cycling home – unless we’ve got a PM trip too!