Wander through Japan's most enchanting waterscapes
Japan is a land of water—it receives plenty of rainfall and has many bodies of water. Water is nurtured by mountainous terrains, which make up around 70% of the Japanese archipelago, and transformed into rivers and lakes. These scenic rivers and lakes are popular as tourist spots and serve as ideal backdrops for water sports.
Japan is made up of about 7,000 islands, many with quiet coves and inland seas perfect for sea kayaking. Paddle at your own pace as you kayak or canoe, and take in your breathtaking surroundings as you drift along the tranquil waters. There are plenty of fascinating settings to choose from, whether it’s the crystal clear lakes of Hokkaido or the lush mangrove forests of Okinawa. Enjoy each season from a unique vantage point.
Spots for kayaking and canoeing are roughly divided into three categories: Seas, rivers, and lakes. Each of them have their own appeal and level of difficulty.
Sea kayaking gives you a chance to visit islands and encounter marine life. It may seem challenging due to the currents, so joining a tour is a safe and viable option. You’ll get instructions beforehand and be taken to an area depending on your skill level and the wind direction. Plenty of adventures await you on Japan’s extensive coastlines.
River kayaking requires some technique at points where currents are strong, but it’s the variety in pacing that makes it fun—rest your paddle and let the currents carry you when the flow is steady and enjoy some thrills when you encounter rapids.
Kayaking on a lake is best for beginners. The water stays still, so you’ll need to paddle but you can enjoy the scenery from the water at a pace suited to your own physical strength.
The scenery will also transform depending on the time of day. In many places, you can take tours to watch the sun set over the horizon or paddle under starry skies. Canoeing and kayaking are relatively hassle-free activities since you can rent all the equipment needed. If you’re visiting in the summer, it’s best to bring swimwear, a quick-dry t-shirt, water-resistant shoes or flip-flops, and a change of clothes. In winter, you can rent wetsuits, rainwear, and other weather-appropriate gear in most places.
Lake Shikotsu is a caldera lake that was formed by a volcanic eruption more than 40,000 years ago. It’s designated as a national park along with Mount Yotei, Lake Toya and the surrounding volcanic terrain.
With a depth of 360 m, Lake Shikotsu is the second deepest lake and the northernmost ice-free lake in Japan. The waters have an outstanding level of transparency and take on a rich cerulean shade known as “Shikotsu Blue” when illuminated. Paddling across these crystal-clear waters feel like you’re gliding through the sky. The lake itself is surrounded by active volcanoes over 1,000 m in height. Kayaking is possible throughout the year since it’s an ice-free lake and you can enjoy spectacular views each season, from fresh summer greens to fall foliage and white snow scapes. Be sure to have a thick swimsuit on if you’re visiting in winter. Another option is to paddle out to the Chitose River which flows from the lake.
The area is also easily accessible—it’s located 40 minutes from Chitose Airport, which also has an international terminal. From the center of Sapporo City, it takes about an hour and a half by car. At Lake Shikotsu, you can also combine activities with hot spring visits or local sightseeing.
Shimanto River is the longest river in the Shikoku Region. It has been selected as one of Japan’s three clearest rivers and one of Japan’s 100 unexplored regions. The sight of this tranquil stream winding between lush mountains has inspired many novels and poems. The landscape also gives visitors a glimpse into the pastoral lifestyle of Japan.
Canoeing and kayaking are popular in the middle to lower reaches of the river, where currents are relatively gentle. When temperatures are high in the summer, canoers can try snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters or catch freshwater prawn. In winter, you can rent out weather-appropriate clothes.
There are 48 submerged bridges designed to sink below the surface when the volume of water increases. The designs vary depending on the era when they were built. Enjoy observing the unique view from above the water. You’ll find campgrounds in the vicinity and can even combine your canoe or kayak adventure with rafting or SUP (standup paddleboarding). Look out for wild birds like the kingfisher in spring and genji-botaru fireflies (Luciola cruciata) in June near the tributaries.
Lake Motosu is known for beautiful reflections of Mount Fuji on its mirror-like surface and is featured in the Japanese 1,000 yen bill. It is one of the “Fuji Five Lakes“, dammed by lava flows from the eruption of Mount Fuji. Lake Motosu is the deepest of the five at 126 m, and it’s the clearest lake on the main island of Japan.
Motor sports are banned to preserve the natural environment, but you can canoe or kayak on this serene lake against the stunning backdrop of Mount Fuji. The view has inspired artwork since ancient times, such as 36 Views of Mount Fuji by iconic woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai. It has also had a great impact on the international community and is registered as a World Heritage Site.
You can see the reflection of Mount Fuji on clear, windless days. Canoeing and kayaking can be enjoyed all year round, but the autumn foliage is particularly beautiful. On clear winter days, you can observe the majestic Mount Fuji capped in snow.
The Iroha Islands are said to be the place where Kukai (Kobo Daishi), the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism and renowned calligrapher, threw his brush because he was jolted by the spectacular view. The archipelago is made up of 48 uninhabited islands of various sizes in the calm Imari Bay and forms part of the Genkai Quasi-National Park.
While you can enjoy beautiful views from the Iroha Observatory on the mainland, sea kayaking* gives you chance to explore the islands and enjoy unique views. Since the bay is surrounded by islands, the waves are calm, making it a safe spot for novices.
The islands have no transportation networks, so the natural environment remains unspoiled. If you’re lucky, you may be able to spot nesting sea eagles as you explore the 2-km route around the sea. The waters are so clear that you can see all the way to the bottom. From your kayak, you can also soak in views of rice terraces of Oura along the peninsula’s coastline.
The kayaking season is from late March to late November. The Karatsu area, where the Iroha Islands are located, also has plenty of other attractions such as a castle, hot springs, pottery and seafood delicacies like oysters and squid.
The Seto Inland Sea is the largest inland sea in Japan and is surrounded by three of the country’s main islands—Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. It stretches 450 km east to west, encompassing 727 islands of various sizes. The area offers views of terraced rice fields and picturesque port towns.
The Seto Inland Sea is generally calm, but there are complex currents flowing between the islands, with some areas geared towards advanced sea kayakers. There are also plenty of quiet coves for novices. You’ll find kayak tours customizable with your itinerary in several islands or coastlines in the area like Shodoshima Island, famous for its olives, or Sashima Island, located near the center of the sea.
Catch a glimpse of island life from the sea, explore uninhabited islands, enjoy a picnic or have fun at a beach—all these activities can be enjoyed year-round. Be sure to bring your swimsuit if you’re visiting in the summer. In the winter, there are plenty of sunny days and the water appears even more transparent.
Okinawa, the southernmost part of Japan, is known for its subtropical climate and unique culture. Iriomote Island is a particularly noteworthy spot. The island has an ancient ecosystem, inhabited by plants and animals that have evolved in unique ways, such as the Iriomote wild cat, designated a Special Natural Monument. The entire island is part of a national park—it’s covered in deep forests and a web of more than 40 rivers. The area is home to about 70% of Japan’s mangrove forests, making it great for mangrove canoeing and kayaking.
Mangroves tend to grow well in brackish water—a mixture of freshwater and seawater. Their protruding roots create a unique spectacle. Taking a canoe will let you observe the mangroves up-close and enjoy the fragrance of wild flowers and bird songs along the way.
In addition to canoe expeditions, Iriomote Island offers a wide variety of tours, including stalactite cave walks, jungle hiking, and snorkeling in the clear sea. It’s the perfect place to experience nature and eco-tourism.
Tokyo may be an urban jungle, but it’s actually packed with plenty of spots for casual boating. Cherry blossoms usually line ponds and rivers, so you can enjoy breathtaking views of them blooming through late March and early April.
Chidorigafuchi, located in the center of Tokyo, is a great place for boat rides. It’s the moat of the former Edo Castle, located on the northwest side of the Imperial Palace, and is famous for its cherry blossoms. You can sail through a tunnel of cherry blossom trees and observe them from water level. Note that there’s usually a long wait for the boats in spring. In other seasons, you can take in views of the Tokyo skyline and the natural beauty of the surroundings.
Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park is another great place for a pleasant boat ride. The swan pedal boats are particularly fun for families with children. Nearby, you’ll find a zoo, museums, and art galleries.
If you’re looking for a nature escape to get away from hustle and bustle of the city, pay a visit to Zenpukuji Park in Suginami Ward or Inokashira Park in Kichijoji, where you’ll also find many quaint shops.
Tokyo has many sides and you have a lot of options to choose from if you’re hoping to get active or relax at a waterfront space.
The iconic Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima Prefecture is a World Heritage Site and known as one of Japan’s three most scenic places. The shrine rises from Hiroshima Bay and is well-recognized for its gigantic torii gate. During low tide, when the tide level is less than a meter, you can walk to shrine. During the three hours before and after high tide, you can visit it on a kayak. The views are particularly stunning during sunset. (*The torii gate is undergoing repairs until June 2021.)
Other torii gates over the water include Kojima Shrine on Iki Island, Nagasaki, and Shirahige Shrine on Lake Biwa, Shiga. Kayaking tours are available in these spots. While you can pass under the gates, avoid the middle since it’s considered to be the path taken by the gods. Ensure to avoid damaging the gates with your paddle.