Not that long ago, rumors about the beauty of the snow in the Land of the Rising Sun started to increase, spread by the first European professional skiers who ventured to Japan. Their aim was to spend a mellow season with great snow, and soon thereafter, Japan was consolidated as the ultimate treasure for the quality of its snow.
Today, Japan is a must in every rider’s dream destinations. In the collective imagination of the snow searcher, Japan means mind-blowing snow depths and endless turns with a stamp for quality and appellation of origin.
Eager and full of expectations, we arrived there on November 15th. The first impression is different to any other place you’ve visited; that’s how it’s meant to be on any discovery trip. Ideally, we’d like to find snow immediately but once in Niseko, we soon realize that we’ll have to wait for it. Here, the season and the weather have their own timing, as elsewhere. The snow is yet to arrive and the pre-season can be handy to adapt and to become familiar with the terrain and the people.
I couldn’t have imagined that once the snow starts dumping, it just wouldn’t stop. The first dump left 2 meters (80 in) in almost four days, and a trend, which promised to remain the same, something that was confirmed all throughout the winter. We spent the whole winter under negative Celsius temperatures and hardly any sunlight, barely a few small weather windows over the first three months; that was it. Besides these scarce windows, endless snowfalls added to a massive snow layer with an almost daily precision.
“Rishiri is a small island with 100 year around inhabitants and a 60 km that road goes around the whole island. The island lives around and for Mount Rishiri. Leaving from Wakkanai harbor, 2 hours and some 33 (nautical) miles later we could spot the whole mountain.”
After travelling all over Hokkaido Island and having heard about Rishiri Island and its unique 1700 m (5600 ft) mountain dropping all the way down to the ocean, we decided to give it a chance.
Rishiri is a small island with 100 year around inhabitants and a 60 km that road goes around the whole island. The island lives around and for Mount Rishiri. Leaving from Wakkanai harbor, 2 hours and some 33 (nautical) miles later we could spot the whole mountain. It is a very alpine mountain, with steep faces and couloirs. We could also guess how hard the wind works on it watching its different profiles.
“We headed up facing the North couloir and we saw that the snow was wind packed, but rideable. Very Patagonian-like conditions: a 1200 m vertical ascent, which gave us a good feeling for our mission the following day.”
We had planned this trip for over a month and we knew how tough and unique the weather conditions were. Once there, we learned that locals had only been able to spot the mountain on 4 days since winter began, and 70 km/h wind were on the daily menu. Despite all this, we knew that we had to see a weather window at some point, and we certainly did. The forecast announced 30 km/h winds and clear skies, more than we could ask for. It wasn’t just a matter of luck, but we sure did get lucky.
We were the only tourists in the island and we were lucky to have our Japanese friend Yujiro Kondo, our interpreter with the locals. We dropped our gear off, grabbed just the essential stuff for a first inspection tour and we set of to see what the snow conditions looked like for a summit attack the following day. We headed up facing the North couloir and we saw that the snow was wind packed, but rideable. Very Patagonian-like conditions: a 1200 m vertical ascent, which gave us a good feeling for our mission the following day.
“After 6 hours and some exposed last steps, we reached the summit. What a place! One of the most magical spots we’d set foot on. It was an intense descent on all kinds of snow: from the hard snow at the higher part, to the tropical corn we found down at the beach.”
The day started with clear skies. At 4 am, we headed towards the northwest crest, where the wind seemed to be calm. We skinned into the valley on almost flat terrain for 3 hours, and then it started to be more uphill. We took our crampons out because skinning up became impossible: the whole crest was as hard as concrete, the wind started to blow but as we were ascending leeward, we were sheltered by the mountain itself. After 6 hours and some exposed last steps, we reached the summit. What a place! One of the most magical spots we’d set foot on. We enjoyed a 360º view of the Japan Sea, a single mountain, and Hokkaido far out on the horizon. It was slightly windy but not annoying, and watching a dark cloud approaching from the east, we opted for our B plan and headed down the west face. It was an intense descent on all kinds of snow: from the hard snow at the higher part, to the tropical corn we found down at the beach. We called the hostel and they came to take us back home.
In the event of a longer weather window (very unlikely) the mountain offers several possibilities. Guided tours are available to spare you the 3km flat approach on snowmobiles, enabling you to start the ascent fresh and choose between different face options. On the north face, your best call is to hike along the ridges, some of which lead straight to the refuge at 1.300 m (4.265 ft).
“There’s a whole array of options to choose from, but like I say, the weather windows are very scarce. During the whole month of March, there was just a two-day good weather window. In February, a single day is all they had.”
The wind always works on these ridges, making them comfortable to hike up, but the snow builds up on one of the faces increasing the avvy risk. But the ridge route enables a few different run options and without having the need to hike that much vertical. On the same face, we also find the most beautiful couloirs. They’re a bit exposed at the beginning, but once you’re in, you’ll feel like a fish in the sea. Some of them don’t lead all the way to the summit, but they reach up to 1.500 m or 1.600 m. They’re pretty steep and wide enough for 3 or 4 splitboards to have some fun.
Being a volcano, all its faces are rideable, although the south face has some gnarly sections and we couldn’t really see if all those spine lines had a clear way out. Also, approaching there without a snowmobile can be an extremely long mission, as the south face has a 5 km faux flat section, which can be a perfect waste of time and energy if you plan on attacking the ridges; especially if you do it in the dark, with the dreadful wind which blows on the island more often than not.
There’s a whole array of options to choose from, but like I say, the weather windows are very scarce. During the whole month of March, there was just a two-day good weather window. In February, a single day is all they had. In January, you might as well forget to go to the island. There is no snow there in December and if you’re thinking April or May, considering the latitude and the wind, the snow is never short of hard.
The best plan is to reach the summit on the good weather day, and if you’re lucky enough you can try one of the couloirs the following day. But on your first day there, reaching the summit and enjoying the view of Hokkaido and Russia is hands down the best call.
“People are shocked to see Western tourists, although they are slowly getting used to it as more and more people head to Rishiri, trying to get away from the crowds in Niseko. Don’t wait too long to visit it before it loses its essence.”
Speaking of logistics and organizing the trip, everything is much easier if you are with someone who speaks the language. There aren’t many fluent English-speaking people around.
Once in Wakkanai, you can take the ferry with or without your car. Taking your car is quite expensive, and if you tell the hostel owners the ferry you are arriving in, they usually come and pick you up. Our host even did taxi service for us; he drove us to the starting point at 4 am, picked us up and was available for any transfer we requested. The number of hostels is increasing, and if you book a guide, they pretty much take care of everything, but you better be ready to shed big yens, because they take advantage of the fact that only a few people offer this service in the island.
It’s advisable to carry your own food from the mainland. There’s only a small grocery store where prices are way higher than normal. There are just a few restaurants (we actually didn’t see any). People are shocked to see Western tourists, although they are slowly getting used to it as more and more people head to Rishiri, trying to get away from the crowds in Niseko. Don’t wait too long to visit it before it loses its essence.
And that’s about it. The following day started overcast with strong winds. The forecast didn’t look good. Sore bodies and the satisfaction of a well-accomplished mission, we decided to go back to Niseko at daylight and enjoy the journey. On our way over, we’d driven mostly in the dark, and the road is amazing! 400 km along the coast most of the time: a 7-hour drive, depending on the conditions and the traffic.
Our trip was over but this unique island-mountain will remain forever in our hearts and in our retinas.
Words: Eduardo Pajares / Juan Aizpuru
Translation: Elena G. de Murillo
Photo: Juan Aizpuru