When thinking about river trips, I hearken back to the rafting trip I once did on the American River near Sacramento, CA. This was a rollicking, high-speed adventure with rocky rapids threatening to toss you out of the raft at any time into the cold, roiling water. The fact that one of the rapids was called Satan’s Cesspool tells you all you need to know about the danger of this rafting trip.
The Hozugawa River Cruise, just outside of Kyoto, is not that kind of adventure. If the American River is heart-pounding, the Hozugawa is, let’s say, heart-massaging. We’re talking about a calm, gentle boat trip down a safe river in a bucolic setting, with rapids that should maybe be called slow-ids. No, you don’t come to the Hozugawa for an extreme sport. You come for the nature and the history.
The access point is quite a ways out of town, 45 minutes from Kyoto, at the Kameoka train station. From there, you walk to a kind of transit terminal, where you pay your fee, acquire your life vests, and meet your 3 boat guides. You then walk out to the jetty and climb aboard your boat, a traditional wooden craft with bench seating. Before you know it, you’re off – floating down the river in the direction of Kyoto’s Arashiyama district, known for its famous bamboo forest. The entire 2-hour boat trip is VERY relaxing—drifting along sleepily, enjoying the unpolluted river and lush green trees just starting to change with the fall season, as your guides maneuver long wooden poles to propel you down the waterway. Every so often they point something out, like “That’s Snoopy Rocky. Doesn’t it look like the Snoopy character?” or “Over there is where the old bridge used to be.” Heart-thumping it’s not. What makes the journey interesting is the historical context. Apparently, Japanese tourists have been coming to this place for boat rides for over 400 years! Think about that. Since the time of shoguns and samurais, local tourists have been traveling the country, in search of nature, experience and undoubtedly, souvenirs. The tour company running this trip is, in fact, owned by the same family that has been doing the tours for four centuries! At one point during the journey, one of our guides points to a little indentation in the rocks and says, “That’s a hole created by poles over the years. We always try to use the same holes. For the next ‘rapid’ I’m going to try and get my pole right in the divot.” The rapid arrives, the guide thrusts out his pole, and … misses the hole entirely! As the passengers clap, our guide comments, “It’s like you wanted me to miss!”
The trip ends at a dock a few hundred feet from Tenryu-ji, one of the loveliest temples in all of Japan. As we float down the final 100 yards of the river, a canoe sidles up to our boat, selling drinks and hot food. It’s a suiting finale to a relaxing, scenic and very Japanese “adventure.”