Volcanic mountains

In Japan, ski on the volcanic island of Rishiri

From the shelter just below the ridge line, sheltered from the whistling wind, I watch the steep canvas of untouched snow stretching out beneath my skis. The white shelf leads directly to the sea, which seems to be calling me in the sunlight.

Four hours of climbing got us here, just past 3,500 feet in elevation. I get to work removing the skins from the underside of my skis, essential equipment for any off-piste skier wanting to climb mountains. From my position, I can barely make out the top of the mountain, made inaccessible by the gales that blow for much of the winter. The silence of the slope is interrupted only by the whipping of the wind and the sound of my heartbeat drumming in my ears.

Soon it’s time to leave. I point my skis towards the water and the soft snow rises to my waist as I pick up speed. I dig in my heels to initiate a turn, pulling a curtain of powder that splatters my face and leaves snow on my lips. The stuff of dreams.

Before the pandemic, winter sports enthusiasts from around the world flocked to Japan in search of the weightlessness afforded by Japan’s famous light snow. This winter, after two seasons without foreign visitors due to the coronavirus-induced outbound travel ban, the borders have reopened. Well-known beach resorts, such as Niseko and Furano on the mainland Hokkaido and Hakuba on Japan’s main island of Honshu should be bustling again.

But on the remote island of Rishiri, off the northwestern tip of Japan, there’s no risk of rubbing shoulders with other skiers while waiting for the ski lifts to take you up the mountain. In fact, there is no elevator. To access the ski, you have to climb the slopes of the mountain yourself, which adds extra meaning and satisfaction to every turn you make on the way down.

Rising 5,646 feet above the sea, Rishiri is an extinct volcano whose conical shape is made up of innumerable ridges and ravines that lead to an isolated summit. In the ancient language of the indigenous Ainu people, the original inhabitants of Rishiri, the island’s name translates to “high island” and today the Japanese often call it Ukishima— the floating island. During the winter months, the landscape is made up of ledges, mushrooms and snow monsters, shaped by the merciless and icy winds that blow from Siberia.

To the east, a short 20 km stretch of sea separates Rishiri from Hokkaido. As brief as it is, this crossing can be stormy and perilous in winter. Getting to Rishiri can therefore be an exercise in patience and determination.

Rishiri is 20 km off the coast of Hokkaido.

Photographs by Francesco Bassetti

I spent two days trapped in Wakkanai, Japan’s northernmost city, waiting for the seas to grant safe passage to embark on a ferry journey with a handful of other passengers. Entering the quiet port of Rishiri, grateful to be sheltered from the wind and waves, I spotted a sign of life: a truck dumping snow collected from the streets directly into the sea, an indication of the Main concern at this time of year: to do with all the snow.

Throughout the winter, most hotels are boarded up and fishing boats sleep, tied to the docks awaiting the summer months when they head out to sea in search of the coveted Rishiri. kombu (algae) and United (sea urchin), the local specialties which, together with summer tourism, form the backbone of the island’s economy.

Home to nearly 22,000 people in the late 1950s, today there are just over 5,000, a declining population due to aging demographics, dwindling fish stocks and a lack of opportunities during the winter months when the island is in hibernation. Although more than 130,000 tourists descend on the island during the summer, fewer than 5,000 visit throughout the winter, according to a local official.

Some locals are trying to change that. Toshiya Watanabe, the first and only mountain guide born on the island, was one of the first to take advantage of the unique opportunity offered by Rishiri’s harsh climate when he began offering ski tours in backcountry in 2004. “Skiing here isn’t for everyone,” says Watanabe. “But for some, it’s unforgettable. We have many returning customers every year.

With his wife, Maki, Watanabe directs Rera Mosir, which in the Ainu language means “the domain of the wind”. This is one of the few accommodation options available on the island in winter. At maximum capacity, Watanabes accommodates no more than 25 guests at a time, most of whom are outdoor enthusiasts and off-piste skiers from Japan and abroad seeking peace, snow and Watanabe’s unrivaled mountain knowledge. There are usually one or two other guides staying at the lodge, and Watanabe will divide groups according to ability level and preference. others arrive with their own guides or go on the tour alone. (Travelers can book a room or a room and tour package.)

In the three days I spent at Rera Mosir, each brought a different adventure. In the morning I would join Watanabe for breakfast and as we sat staring out of the large windows in the living room which looked out at the mountain he would explain where we were going. Once the day’s destination was established, we would gather our gear, get into the minivan and take a short drive – never more than 20 minutes – to one of the trailheads where the hike would begin. From steep ridges to gentle tree tracks, each outing on Rishiri brought a different experience, making it hard to believe I was always on the same island, not to mention the mountain. When I express this to Watanabe, he agrees. “Rishiri is a 360-degree playground with endless options,” he says.