Rishiri Island: Paradise in Northern Hokkaido
Wakkanai is the northernmost city in Japan. About 20km from Wakkanai, in the Sea of Japan lies two small islands separated by a distance of 8km. Even relatively close, these two islands are drastically different from one another. If you are driving towards Wakkanai on the route 106 which runs along the Sea of Japan coast, you can enjoy a remarkable cone shaped volcano rising from the ocean. This majestic mountain is Mt. Rishiri which is also called Rishiri Fuji because its shape resembles the perfect cone shape of Mt. Fuji. At 1721m it is not very tall by the Japanese standards, given that Japan is home to about 20 peaks towering over 3000m. But most of the times you only see a portion of the total height of a mountain, because it is very rare to see a very high peak from the sea level. Mt. Rishiri gives you that rare chance of witnessing its true height. The other island faintly visible next to Rishiri is the Rebun Island. Rebun Island is popular as a place alpine flowers grow at the sea level due its unique position. In summer months the whole island turns into a flower garden. The Rishiri Island, Rebun Island, combined with Sarobetsu, a coastal plain, makes the Rishiri - Rebun - Sarobetsu National Park.
Rishiri and Rebun islands are connected to Wakkanai by a ferry service. Additional to this there are flights to Rishiri Airport from Sapporo-Chitose and Sapporo-Okadama Airports. Some of these flights are seasonal. There are ferries 3 times a day from Wakkanai to Oshidomari ferry terminal in Rishiri Island and 3 times per day from Wakkanai to Kafuka Port of Rebun Island. Two ferries per day run between Oshidomari and Kafuka. If you plan to take your vehicle to the island you need to reserve tickets in advance. During summer months it is recommended to reserve at least one month in advance because the ferries fill up quickly due to very high demand. Fortunately reservation can be made online. Non-reserved economy class tickets can be bought at the Wakkanai ferry terminal. These tickets are valid only on the purchased day and there could be long queues at the ticket counter especially during long weekends. Even though first class and second class have heated cabins, economy class seats do not.
It is about a 2 hour ferry ride from Wakkanai to Rishiri Island and costs ¥2030 for an economy class ticket. Some ferries continue to Rebun Island after a few minutes stop at Rishiri. On a clear day you can enjoy spectacular views of Mt. Rishiri throughout the journey. But most times the peak is covered with clouds. As the ferry leaves the terminal and gets away from the mainland seagulls starting to gather to feast on the junk food thrown by people. Birds flying with the moving ferry and grabbing foods from people's extending hands with such remarkable precision is an awesome sight. But unfortunately this habit is not any good for wild animals and should be avoided by all responsible travellers.
As the ferry comes closing towards the Oshidomari terminal, the first thing to catch your eye is a high rock outcrop protruding towards the sea. Known as The Cape Peshi this can be reached by a 10 minute walk from the ferry terminal. If you go up to climb it using the well prepared steps, you can enjoy spectacular views of Mt. Rishiri and the surrounding areas.
There are outlets of major car renting companies near the terminal. Motorbikes and bicycles are also available to rent.
Hime pond is about 5km from the ferry terminal and can be reached by car. Most of the road runs along the coastline. Beautiful wild flowers of various varieties can be enjoyed alongside. As you go away from the Rishirifuji town, fishing villages surround you featuring wooden fishing boats, fishing nets and equipments and small wooden homes.
Hime pond is a small manmade pond surrounded by thick vegetation. On a clear day you can see a spectacular reflection of Mt. Rishiri through the pond. There is also a small island in the center. A walking trail around the pond allows you to enjoy the vegetation more closely.
Himenuma Ponyama Nature Trail starts from here and connects to Mt. Ponyama trail at the Himenuma - Mt. Ponyama junction. The hike takes about one and half hours in one direction. From Mt. Ponyama junction, it is about a 20 minute hike to Mt. Ponyama peak, which is 444m above sea level. This hike allows you to enjoy vegetation, including wildflowers and birds. From Mt. Ponyama junction it is a 10 minute walk to Mt. Rishiri Junction where it connects to the main hiking trail to the Rishiri peak starting from Oshidomari.
Climbing Mt. Rishiri can be challenging and will take a full day for most of the hikers. If you plan to take the challenge you should start the hike early in the morning. Mt. Rishiri ecosystem is very sensitive and hikers should be very cautious to avoid threatening the delicate balance. The soft volcanic soil is highly prone to erosion and authorities have made huge efforts to prevent the erosion. The park authorities request climbers to always stick to the hiking trails and should avoid walking on vegetation.
For those who like to ride, there is a bicycle trail about 20km long, running from Hime Pond to Kutsugata. Two tall bridges on the trail offer commanding views of Oshimodari, Cape Peshi and The Sea of Japan. Slopes are gentle and the trail runs through thick vegetation allowing you to enjoy wild flora and birds.
Rishrifuji Onsen is located close to where the cycle route meets the Oshimodari - Mt. Rishiri road. There is also a foot onsen, which allows you to relieve your tired legs. There are several campgrounds on the island. One is located very close to Rishirifuji Onsen and another one is further up on the road. In the winter, skiers can enjoy Rishiricho Tenbozan Ski Area, but weather conditions can be harsh.
You need to plan well in advance before your visit. While the island can provide most of the amenities required by travellers, the resources are not plentiful. Ferries, rental cars and hotels should book in advance to avoid frustration. Even though there is a bus service, it is limited and difficult to rely on. Compared with the cost of bringing down your own car, most of the times renting a car is cheaper and often is the best way to explore the island. Rishiri Island offers everything you need to make your trip a memorable one. So don’t hesitate to include it in your next vacation plan.