Exploring Japan’s Far North: Rishiri Island
Stretching close to 3000 miles from North to South, Japan offers the traveler a wide variety of climates and ecosystems to explore. While I call Tokyo home, I’ve harbored for some time the desire to visit some of Japan’s extreme locations and so, naturally, a visit to Rishiri Island (利尻島)has been high on my travel priority list.
With the onset of the rainy season in Tokyo, I was eager to plan an escape from the tepid dampness and head North where tsuyu (rainy season) is something you only read about. I casually proposed the idea of taking a long weekend to explore Rishiri to my wife, fully expecting her to say no out of habit. To my surprise, she actually agreed, and so before she had a change of heart, I quickly made the booking. 4 hours from Tokyo via Sapporo by air gets you there and it doesn’t feel that long. Sapporo itself is a great place for a layover, even if you never leave the airport, but the connection between flights is virtually seamless in any case. Depending on how you choose to travel, besides air, there are ferry services from Hokkaido Island (Wakkanai).
As soon as we left Sapporo, I found my anticipation building. I’d done some basic research about it online before the trip, so I knew it was a small, somewhat isolated place, and well, maybe it was not overbuilt with tourist attractions like so many other travel destinations in Japan, but, on the other hand, something less contrived, something more authentic, was what I was hoping to find so I couldn’t help but start to paint mental pictures of what I would be seeing when we touched down.
My first impression did not disappoint. Upon arrival the senses are bombarded by unfamiliar sensations for a city dweller; so much green it was disorienting, unobstructed views all around, and best of all, a cool sea breeze (sunshine and a refreshing 8 Celsius; IN JULY!!!). Undoubtedly, this island embraces its remoteness.
For such a remote location, Rishiri has a surprisingly good variety of accommodations to choose from depending on your taste. There are pensions, ryokans, guest houses, and a number of full service hotels as well. We selected the Island Inn Rishiri.
This particular hotel was just reopened in May, making it, essentially, the newest hotel on the island. If you come expecting luxury, you may be a bit disappointed, but, you aren’t going to spend your entire trip in the room anyway, so…
That being said, the “new” feel of the place was still very much present and a pleasant surprise. The overwhelming majority of the hotels visitors were Japanese in tour groups. This area seems to be a place where the influx of foreign tourists that you see in other parts of Japan hasn’t quite yet reached.
The real draw for the hotel has to be viewing the sunset from the dining room and outdoor baths and the observation deck with an unobstructed view of Rishiri Fuji (the mountain which dominates the landscape of the island) and the coast. The hotel staff are friendly, and somewhat curious as to why we chose Rishiri for long weekend. “Because it’s here and I’ve always wanted to come here”, didn’t sound like a good enough explanation, but that was the truth, which elicited some curious looks. Places like this radiate positive energy and I could feel myself relaxing an adjusting to “island time”, Japanese style, almost immediately.
For those who enjoy the outdoors, Rishiri has much to recommend.
Hiking trails are available and renting a car gives you easy access to the entire island, or for more ecologically minded travelers, rent a bicycle and enjoy the unspoiled view and variety of flowers and plants which are seldom seen in warmer climates. Between the rare alpine flowers and seldom seen birds (except seagulls, of course) Rishiri presents some very unique opportunities for flower and bird watching. The Summer (June-July) is best for viewing, but, Rishiri also has 4 distinct seasons, so coming the view Fall colors is also something to consider. Cyclists can also choose to ride a bike trail of 23Km or, if you’re more adventurous (or a more experienced cyclist) you can have a go at circumnavigating the island. I was warned though to check the prevailing wind on the day you choose for your ride, as, if you start heading against the wind, you’ll likely be battling it all day! Rental cycles are available near the port or your hotel can help you make arrangements. Rental cars are also available and if you want freedom and flexibility in your itinerary, are the choice I’d recommend for getting around the island.
Rishiri has two claims to culinary fame, combu (seaweed) and uni (sea urchin), and they are available in a variety of different forms.
Perhaps the most unique combination I discovered was uni and combu flavored ice cream.
Surprisingly, the savory and sweet mix was palatable, although I imagine that it might not be as appetizing when you’re not “in the moment”.
You won’t find five-star restaurants here, but you will experience an authenticity that comes from islanders who probably battle the elements as much as any people in Japan, but for which pride of home and eagerness to make visitors welcome is unmistakable.
There are many different dining options on the island, but the abundance of seafood offering reasonably priced by Tokyo standards is understandably appealing. Again, no pretentions, just quality.
If you have a little more time, you might also want to check out Reibun Island, slightly North of Rishiri (and Japan’s Northernmost Island). Ferry service is available from Rishiri and a visit to Reibun will feel like going back in time. Literally, the northernmost remote island in Japan, its “Land’s End”.
What were my lasting impressions? Despite the fact that it is only 1 hour flying time from Sapporo, the feeling of remoteness was very powerful. Despite what you hear about so many of Japan’s regions aging away, I saw a very active core of younger Japanese doing their best to make a go of life on the island. I have no idea if the desire to make Rishiri their permanent home is a universally held desire, but despite the population skewing a bit older, I felt a sense of hope that the communities on the island will find a way to persevere. Finally, my hunch that this place would be the cure for rainy season blues was vindicated. I’ve not yet visited a place in Japan more suited to easing the stress of a weary city dweller.
If you come to Rishiri, keep a few things in mind. English speakers are not abundant, and many of the signs and directions are in Japanese only so, have that translation app handy! (Basic English language support is available at the Oshidomari Ferry Port, I couldn’t find any multilingual information at the airport). If you’re a trekker, be sure to bring light/moderate trekking gear, depending on the course you plan to traverse. And, finally, keep in mind that the island isn’t really a year-round destination. Winter comes to Rishiri around late October and the thaw doesn’t come until April or May. It doesn’t mean the island is inaccessible, but, conditions can be harsh, and accommodation sparse, so, if you are planning a Winter trip, you’d be wise to bridle your spontaneity and plan ahead.
Will I ever be back? Who knows? What I do know is that I now have a wonderful memory to savor of Japan’s most extreme north.