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Rishiri Island: The Latest Addition to a Skier's Bucket List

Rishiri Island, off the coast of Hokkaido, is famous for its kelp and sea urchin. With an aging population, it is finding new ways to keep up with the times.



Rishiri Island. (©Agnes Tandler)

"It is essential to use crampons and ice axes until early July in the average year," warns a sign on the trail of Mount Rishiri, which makes up most of Rishiri Island. Situated about 20 kilometers (12 mi) off the northern tip of Hokkaido, the tiny spot is not known for its friendly weather. 

Heavy snowfall reaches Rishiri by mid-October, with strong, icy winds sweeping down from Siberia. Blizzards and winter whiteouts are common throughout winter. In January and February, temperatures reach minus 10 degrees Celsius (14°F) or less. 

"On some days, the city hall warns us not to leave the house," says Hiromi, a cheerful local woman. She is visiting a hot spring next to the sea. Outside the bathhouse, harvested kelp hangs down on washing lines. They are spread out on stones and gravel to dry in the sunshine of late summer. 


Rishiri's Famed Kombu

The use of kombu, a type of kelp, seems to have no limits on Risihri Island. There are kelp sweets, kelp-infused alcohol, kelp snacks, kelp bean paste, and even kelp hair shampoo. Kelp from this remote island is priced for its elegant, fine aroma and is a favorite of many Japanese chefs. The clean, nutrient-rich water and the tidal current around Rishiri give the large brown seaweed its distinctive, sweet taste. 

With a circumference of only 60 kilometers (37 mi) and a dormant volcano at its center, Rishiri's economy mainly relies on kelp and sea urchin, another local specialty. Today, the tiny island only counts around 5,000 residents down from 22,000 people in the late 1950s. With the population getting older and the fish stocks declining, Rishiri's young people are seeking out their luck somewhere else.

Kelp drying on the shore. (©Agnes Tandler)

'Island With a High Peak'

During the short summer season, a couple of thousand tourists visit the island and bring in some revenue for guesthouses and shops. Tourists cycle around the island or kayak through the turquoise sea water. Some hike up cone-shaped Mount Rishiri, one of Japan's 100 famous mountains. Exposed to wind and constantly changing weather, the 1721-meter-high (5646 ft) peak is more often in the clouds than not. Also known as Rishiri-Dake or Rishiri-Fuji, the mountain looks a bit like Mount Fuji, Japan's highest and most famous peak. After all, the name Rishiri comes from the Ainu language and means "island with a high peak."

Mount Rishiri partly in the clouds. (©Agnes Tandler)

Off the Beaten Track

When the short summer season ends, most of the island goes into hibernation. Blanketed in snow, the winter months can be long and lonely. Ferry and flight connections get interrupted, and on some winter days, there is no plane or boat coming in or going out. Only a few lodging options are available on the island during winter. 

But this is where mountain guide and snowboarder Toshiya Watanabe saw an opportunity. Could Rishiri's remote, isolated location and difficult access be a selling point for thrill seekers and adventurers who had grown tired of the crowds in famous winter resorts like Niseko or Hakuba? Watanabe, who is a Rishiri local, decided to find out. 

He started offering backcountry ski tours in 2004. "Skiing on Mount Rishiri is not easy. It requires a different set of skills [from unusual skiing] because of its icy conditions," explains Natsumi, a ski instructor in Hokkaido and a good friend of Watanabe. 

A snowy Mount Rishiri.

A Snowy Playground

Watanabe explains why ski touring and snowboarding on Rishiri is such a thrill. "In summer, only two trails lead to the summit. But in winter, when the whole island is covered in snow, the whole mountain is like a playground." Indeed, there are many ways winter sports enthusiasts can climb up and ski down Mount Rishiri. 

Apart from leading tours, Watanabe also runs a small guesthouse for visitors who want to be off the beaten track. Thanks to his effort, Rishiri is now on the bucket list for many backcountry skiing aficionados. 

The Most Northern Japanese Whisky 

Skiing in the wilderness of Hokkaido is not the only new option on the island. More recently, taking advantage of the somewhat exotic location, a start-up company led by American Casey Wahl has opened a whiskey distillery. "It has not been easy to build a business on the remote, windswept, and often very cold island," admits Wahl. 

The pandemic had delayed his plans to begin distilling for more than two years. But since May 2023 the first bottles of Kamui Genshu, a non-aged spirit from Rishiri, finally hit the market. Hokkaido governor Naomichi Suzuki paid a visit to the distillery in June. 

Kelp snacks and drink. (©Agnes Tandler)

In the past, Rishiri has seen other unexpected encounters. After all, the island is the unlikely place where Japan's first native English speaker landed. Disguised as a shipwrecked sailor, Ranald MacDonald arrived on the island in 1848 when it was still illegal for foreigners to enter Japan. Born in Ohio as the son of a Scottish fur trader and a Native American princess, he taught English to a group of samurai in Nagasaki before being returned to the United States a year later. 

Ranald MacDonald Memorial (©Agnes Tandler)


Author: Agnes Tandler

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