February 29, 2024


pleasant trip on vacation

Rishiri Island is a backcountry skiing paradise, as long as there’s a break in the weather


The wind cancels the ferry to Rishiri on our first day.

As we descend into Wakkanai Airport, I see waves crashing heavy against the snowy shoreline of northern Hokkaido. Beyond that the sea roils, a stormy green accented with whitecaps that feels cold just to look at. The route to Rishiri, a remote island 20 kilometers off the northwestern tip of Hokkaido that we are hoping to ski, is closed.

Fellow journalist and skier Francesco Bassetti and I are stuck in Wakkanai, a once-prosperous fishing town rendered almost obsolete by the Russian seizure of Sakhalin and its fishing grounds at the end of World War II. The town is Japan’s last major settlement to the north and just an hour’s drive from Cape Soya, where a sign quietly protests the country’s diplomatic tensions with Russia: This is the farthest north “freely accessible” point in Japan.

The landscape reflects the latitude. Snowbound fields butt up against the sea, and hardy fishing boats lie dormant next to natural harbors, pinned to the ground by ropes crusted with rime ice. Beneath leaden skies, Wakkanai’s squat structures are battered by ferocious, salt-laden gales, aging them prematurely and causing their paint to peel and flake. Wind turbines provide more energy than the town can use in a single day.

From the center of Wakkanai, we drive north, past the frigid-looking Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force base, to a lighthouse at the tip of Cape Noshappu. As the sun sets on the frozen landscape, I look west out over the sea, where I can just make out the snow-covered slopes of Rishiri, reflecting the sun’s dying light.

Francesco shouts at me to be heard above the wind: “How far do you think you’d make it?” The sea beneath the lighthouse looks freezing. “Swimming?” I shout back. “About 30 seconds.”

We turn and trace our footprints through the snow back to the car. The wind howls around us; the inside of the car is warm, and wonderfully quiet.

The snow-covered island of Rishiri as seen from the ferry to Wakkanai | OSCAR BOYD
The snow-covered island of Rishiri as seen from the ferry to Wakkanai | OSCAR BOYD

The island

Rishiri is the exception to the gentle landscape of northern Hokkaido.

Just 18 kilometers wide along its longest axis, the island rises steeply from sea level to a jagged, 1,721-meter peak formed by volcanic eruptions and sculpted by wind and glaciers. The island’s name, which is shared with the peak, is derived from the Ainu language, in which “rishiri” translates to “high island.” In Japanese, it has been nicknamed “ukishima” — the “floating island” — for the way it appears to hover above the sea.

The peak quite rightly deserves its place on the list of hyakumeizan (the famed 100 mountains of Japan highlighted by alpinist Kyuya Fukada), and in summer, hikers flock to climb it — passing through alpine meadows filled with endemic wildflowers and views over the neighboring island of Rebun.

Many more come for Rishiri’s maritime delicacies. The island is made prosperous by its fishing industry, which thrives off the summer catch of Rishiri konbu (kelp), prized in the kitchens of Kyoto’s finest restaurants. The uni (sea urchin) that feeds off the same kelp is even more valuable, selling for up to ¥40,000 a kilogram to the nation’s Michelin-starred sushi restaurants and, increasingly, to customers overseas.

“All you hear in summer is ‘uni, uni, uni,’” says Yoshihiro Kawanami, managing director of the Rishirifuji Town Tourist Association, with a laugh. “It’s enough to make you never want to think about it again.”

But summer is short and, in winter, Rishiri takes on a different form. The island is blanketed in snow and even windier than Wakkanai. The fishing season ends and Rishiri grows quiet, the stream of tourists thinning to a trickle. Those few who do arrive in winter come for one thing: backcountry skiing.

During northern Hokkaido's long winter, much of the fishing fleet is brought onto land to weather the stormy conditions. | OSCAR BOYD
During northern Hokkaido’s long winter, much of the fishing fleet is brought onto land to weather the stormy conditions. | OSCAR BOYD

The ferry

At 5:50 a.m. on our second morning, we are woken by a call from our fixer, Ayami Saga. “The ferry is running, I’ll see you outside in 20.”

As we board, the wind has dropped but the clouds remain, tinged pink by an invisible sun. The ship is modern, equipped with a dedicated luggage room for ski gear, and entirely deserted. Built for the summer crowds, the ferry can carry up to 550 people at a time on the two-hour passage to Rishiri, but on this particular day in early March, the passenger manifest can be counted on five fingers. Still, two ferries a day run throughout winter.

The journey is plagued by the remnants of the previous day’s bad weather. Outside the shelter of the harbor, the swell lifts the ferry and pitches it forward into the sea, waves crashing over the bow and covering the windows of our cabin with a fine spray. Storm clouds roll in, unleashing flurries of snow across the deck that settle for a moment before being obliterated by the waves.

“It is much calmer today,” says Saga, who was born in Wakkanai and seems a cheery model of composure throughout the journey. Francesco sits unusually silent, and I keep a wary eye on the sick bag tucked into the seat pocket in front of me, glad that I didn’t eat much for breakfast.

Surrounded by the gray of the sea and the sky, the ferry almost feels lost in a void, steadily chugging on to its destination. Occasionally, the clouds part and we catch a glimpse of Rishiri, growing ever larger ahead of us. Each time we see it, Francesco and I burst into excited chatter and pass a pair of binoculars back and forth, trying to spot skiable lines down the island’s steep ridgelines and valleys.

It’s an awesome mountain, even at a distance.

Toshiya Watanabe is the only backcountry ski guide on Rishiri, and has spent the past two decades climbing and mapping the island's skiable lines. | OSCAR BOYD
Toshiya Watanabe is the only backcountry ski guide on Rishiri, and has spent the past two decades climbing and mapping the island’s skiable lines. | OSCAR BOYD

The guide

The backcountry of Rishiri is the domain of Toshiya “Toshi” Watanabe, the only ski guide to live on the island and a pioneer of the local, 10-person strong surfing community. Watanabe’s grandfather, originally from Toyama Prefecture, brought the family to Rishiri in the 1940s, where he plied the konbu trade and built a small business empire that spans the island’s fishing, construction and hospitality industries.

Powder skis and surfboards greet us at the entrance of Rera Mosir, the Watanabe family’s hotel on the outskirts of Rishiri Fuji. Maki, the hotel’s esteemed chef and Watanabe’s wife, welcomes us to the hotel and tells us that her husband is out on the mountain, enjoying the new snow the storm had brought to the island.

It is not until dinner that Francesco and I meet Watanabe in person, kitted out in the gear of his sponsor, Mammut, and sporting a goggle tan that is visible across the dining hall. He strides over to our table armed with a map of Rishiri and a box of photos of the same ridgelines and valleys we spied from the ferry. Red lines trace every crevice, gully and crack, marking out the skiable routes we’ve come for.

“Even though Rishiri is just one mountain, it is really many mountains,” Watanabe says. “You can access every face and never have to drive more than 30 minutes.”

Watanabe compares Rishiri to Mount Fuji and Mount Yotei — standalone volcanoes that are similarly popular for ski touring but have almost perfectly conical shapes. Rishiri is a far more rugged mountain, with deep valleys, protective ridgelines and such an abundance of terrain that even with the island’s temperamental weather, there is always somewhere to ski.

“Too much wind — there’s a line,” he says. “Too much sun — there’s a line. High avalanche risk — there’s always a line.”

Guide Naoki Kitagawa leads the group up the east face of Rishiri, with Wakkanai's Cape Noshappu visible in the background. | OSCAR BOYD
Guide Naoki Kitagawa leads the group up the east face of Rishiri, with Wakkanai’s Cape Noshappu visible in the background. | FRANCESCO BASSETTI

The approach

On his map, Watanabe outlines seven main approaches to the peak, each connected to Rishiri’s sole ring road. Wind direction dictates route selection and, at breakfast the next morning, Watanabe guides Francesco and I through our itinerary. He also introduces us to Naoki Kitagawa, an assistant guide who’ll be the fourth member of our expedition.

“However windy it is in town, it will be two to three times that up on the mountain,” Watanabe says. “Today we have a westerly wind, so the east face is the best place to ski.”

We load our gear into a van and set out along the road. After two days of clouds, we are treated to clear weather. To our east, the western coast of Hokkaido stretches out across the horizon. To the west, Rishiri’s peak — a jagged crown of rock and ice brutalized by the elements.

“You two must have been very well-behaved to get weather this good,” says Kitagawa as we park next to a snowed-in forest road. “Throughout the year, you only get to see the peak this clearly a handful of times.”

From Rishiri’s steep interior, the island’s lower slopes splay out gently toward the sea. Although it would be perfectly possible to tackle the forest road under our own steam, Watanabe prefers a quicker approach: a snowmobile tow. It feels a bit like cheating, but it cuts an hour or two of gentle climbing to barely 15 minutes. We click into our bindings, put the tow rope between our legs, and let the snowmobile do the rest.

Four kilometers inland, the gradient kicks up a notch and the four of us begin our ascent on skis, following a ridgeline to an outcrop that Watanabe has dubbed “1,003 Peak,” for its height. The pace is relaxed and, as we climb, the view spools out behind us.

We can see Wakkanai’s Cape Noshappu and beyond that Cape Soya. To our north, 100 kilometers away, the southern shores of Sakhalin rise out of the sea. At one point, Watanabe stops and gestures toward the far distance.

“Do you see that over there?” he says, pointing with a ski pole at a small island I can barely make out. “That’s Moneron — 120 kilometers away.”

Even he seems surprised by the view.

Guide Naoki Kitagawa skis down Rishiri’s eastern face toward the sea. | OSCAR BOYD
Guide Naoki Kitagawa skis down Rishiri’s eastern face toward the sea. | OSCAR BOYD

The ski

At 1,721 meters, Rishiri is not a particularly high mountain, and with the good weather, the idea of reaching the summit occupies my mind as we climb. Watanabe puts that idea to bed.

“No one has managed to summit this winter,” he says when I ask one too many times about it. “Often I’ll tell people that it is too dangerous to go out, but they’ll insist on trying to go to the summit anyway. Groups have returned after dark with frostbite to their faces, their fingers, their toes — frozen by the wind.”

The winter conditions on Rishiri’s upper slopes are so extreme that the mountain is often used as a training ground for Japanese climbers hoping to attempt 8,000-meter peaks in the Himalayas. The higher we climb, the more wind-scoured and icy the snowpack becomes.

While we are relatively sheltered on the eastern face, above us the clouds seem to move in double time. Large cornices hang precariously off downwind ridges, and exposed slopes are rippled and cracked by the force of the wind. The southern face of Rishiri is hardest hit, a tortured mass of rock and ice with breathtaking spires that rise out of the island’s center. The peak is harsh, rugged and beautiful — scenery that draws us up the mountain — but it is not a place for the underprepared.

After Watanabe’s warning, the idea of reaching the summit begins to feel less and less important. The real reward of Rishiri is not its peak but the proximity to the sea. There is nowhere like it in Japan for skiing, nowhere the sea feels so immediate. Facing down the mountain, it stretches from periphery to periphery, azure beneath the midday sun.

At 1,003 meters, we turn around and begin our descent. No one else is on the mountain. It’s just us, the sea and a vast backcountry playground.

“You must have been very well-behaved,” repeats Kitagawa as he drops into an untouched bowl and makes his first turn.

Snow fills the air and disappears on a breeze.

Francesco Bassetti climbs a ridge on the east face of Rishiri, with the west coast of mainland Hokkaido stretching out behind him. | OSCAR BOYD
Francesco Bassetti climbs a ridge on the east face of Rishiri, with the west coast of mainland Hokkaido stretching out behind him. | OSCAR BOYD

When to go

The best time to go to Rishiri for backcountry skiing and snowboarding will depend on what you’re hoping to get out of your trip.

January and February have the most consistent new snowfall, with February being the peak month for powder skiing on the mountain. For good views and sunnier weather, visit in March or April, when the winter storm cycle slows.

For attempts on the summit, guide Toshiya Watanabe advises visiting toward the end of March and into April, when the weather is warmer, and the wind drops a little. Summiting is never guaranteed and, as he puts it, “I am a ski guide, not a summit guide.”

While you can ski on Rishiri in all but the worst weather conditions, allow for three to four days on the island to get the best out of your trip. May marks the end of the season.

Backcountry guides

Watanabe is the only backcountry guide on Rishiri Island and he operates out of his hotel, Rera Mosir. No previous backcountry experience is necessary for a trek, though participants should be competent skiers or snowboarders. Guided tours and accommodation can be booked in English through Explore Share or via his company, Maruzen, in Japanese.

Prices start at ¥13,200 per person depending on the group size. You should bring your own touring gear to the island, though it is possible to rent avalanche safety gear (beacon, shovel, prove) from Watanabe. Snowshoe tours are also available through Maruzen and the Rishiri Shima Guide Center.

The southern face of Rishiri is a tortured mass of rock and ice, with breathtaking spires that rise out of the island’s center. | OSCAR BOYD
The southern face of Rishiri is a tortured mass of rock and ice, with breathtaking spires that rise out of the island’s center. | OSCAR BOYD

Summer on Rishiri

Rishiri is best known as a summer destination and is when the island comes to life. The summer hiking season is from June to October. The hike to the peak can be done unguided and takes eight to 12 hours depending on fitness. Several companies offer guided excursions throughout the season. During the summer season, Watanabe offers a variety of outdoor activities, including fishing and sea kayaking trips. The konbu (kelp) and uni (sea urchin) seasons last from June through September, during which many local restaurants serve uni-based cuisine. A dedicated bicycle route circles half the island and links to the ring road for a 60-kilometer loop of the island.

Other winter activities

During the winter season, many local establishments close due to the lack of tourists. There is a ski slope with one lift and one run suitable for beginners. Onsen dot the island, and the Rishirifuji Hot Spring complex, complete with outdoor baths, is a 10-minute walk from the center of the town of Rishiri Fuji. On the west side of the island, the Rishiri Choritsu Museum introduces the history and culture of the island in Japanese. For coffee and pastries, visit Porto Coffee, located opposite the ferry terminal.

How to get there

Rishiri can be reached via ferry from Wakkanai (two hours; from ¥2,550 per person). Ferries run twice a day from November to the end of April and three times a day from May to the end of October. Rishiri also has a small airport that connects it with Sapporo in under an hour. Planes and ferries may be canceled by bad weather, particularly in winter, so factor such unpredictably into your plans.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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