The Floating Mountain: Japan’s most remote ski destination

Buffeted by wild winds and blanketed in deep powdery snow throughout winter, the remote island of Rishiri off Japan’s north-western tip is a self-powered skier’s paradise.

“It’s pretty much always windy here,” explained Toshiya Watanabe, sitting in the living room of his guesthouse after dinner. Skis, surfboards and fishing equipment of all kinds were neatly stacked in the entrance. The taste of local seafood hotpot and sake still on my lips, I peered through the large living room window and could just make out the dark contour of Mount Rishiri silhouetted in the moonlight, snow blowing off the ridgeline.

Toshiya is a native of Rishiri, the north-westernmost island of Hokkaido, which is in itself the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. Together with his wife Maki Watanabe, he owns the guesthouse Rera Mosir, which in the language of the indigenous Ainu people, Rishiri’s ancestral inhabitants, means “domain of the wind”.

Mount Rishiri, a dormant volcano and the island’s imposing lone peak, rises up at the island’s centre. Toshiya started pulling out maps, photos and magazine cuttings, his thick weather-worn fingers pointing out countless skiable lines – all of which he says he has skied in more than 20 years exploring the island’s backcountry.

“The true beauty of Rishiri is that it isn’t perfectly tepee-shaped like Mount Fuji. The wind can’t just wrap around it,” he explained. “It is really many mountains wrapped into one and, if you know where to look, you can always find shelter and, of course, some of the best powder in the world.”

Getting here isn’t easy. When I visited in early March, the short 20km ferry crossing from Wakkanai, Japan’s northernmost city, was delayed for 24 hours due to stormy weather. Even when I was allowed to make the crossing together with a handful of eager passengers, the eerily empty ferry, designed to carry more than 500 people, lurched for two long hours on the residual swell.

The true beauty of Rishiri is that it isn’t perfectly tepee-shaped like Mount Fuji

Not until the boat had finally found shelter behind Rishiri’s jagged silhouette did I muster the courage to venture out onto the ice-encrusted deck, binoculars in hand, to get my first proper look at the island and its standalone mountain.

In Ainu, Rishiri means “high island” and locals also refer to it as ukishima, “floating island”. I could see why. Rising 1,721m directly out of the sea, Rishiri seemed almost out of place at first glance, as if a single mountain had drifted away from a larger range and was left to float in the middle of the ocean. When observed more closely, its conical shape was in fact broken up with steep ridges and gullies covered in immaculate white snow, which stood in stark contrast to the dark green sea that lapped against its shores.

“Understanding Ainu names can tell you a lot about a place and what the Ainu people thought of it,” explained Ayami Saga, a Wakkanai local who helped organise my trip, as we stood out on deck. “Wakkanai itself gets its name from the Ainu ‘Yam-wakka-nay’ which means ‘cold water river’.”

As we got closer, slowly pulling into the quiet harbour, I saw dozens of fishing boats lying dormant, bound to the docks waiting for spring and calmer waters. The two hotels overlooking the bay, dark grey concrete structures, were shuttered up with snow piled high around them. It was hard to imagine that in summer, more than 120,000 tourists descend on the island, many of them in search of the coveted Rishiri sea urchin, or uni, as well as the kombu seaweed that is a prized delicacy across Japan and beyond.

Fishing has been the backbone of the island’s economy for more than half a century. Toshiya’s family moved to Rishiri from mainland Japan in the 1940s when his grandfather sought to make a living in the booming kombu business. At the time, Rishiri’s population was at its peak and there were close to 20,000 people living on the island, most of whom made a living fishing the abundant herring.

Today, declining fish stocks, an ageing population and a lack of economic opportunities in the winter season have pushed most young people to search for fortune in large cities like Sapporo (the capital of Hokkaido) or Tokyo, leaving little more than 5,000 mostly elderly residents behind.

Toshiya too moved to mainland Hokkaido when he was young to train and work as a certified mountain guide, only to return in 2003 to help with his family’s hotel business. “Back then, we would be fully booked for three months in summer, and then have nothing to do for the rest of the year,” he recalled.

In winter, Rishiri feels like a fishing town in hibernation and about as far removed as you can get from the bustling ski resorts in popular Japanese destinations such as Niseko on the main island of Hokkaido, or Hakuba, a four-hour drive north-west from Tokyo. There are no large hotels, no ski lifts and no queues of brightly dressed skiers eagerly waiting to head up the mountain. Here, anything you wish to ski you must first ascend yourself using climbing skins attached to the bottom of your skis and a healthy dose of perseverance.

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Though many locals look in friendly bemusement at travellers who come to the island in the dead of winter, when there is little else but snow, for Toshiya and those who brave the journey, the draw lies in Rishiri’s pristine nature and promise of unbridled adventure. What Rishiri is missing in ski infrastructure, it more than makes up for in the freedom to paint your ski tracks on the mountain’s untouched canvas while basking in solitude and silence.

Toshiya is the only guide who lives on the island year-round, and since 2004, he has been offering nature tours in both the summer and, crucially, winter. In his first year as a Rishiri ski guide, Toyisha had just a handful of winter customers. Not many more came the next year. However, each person who visited went home with tales of a magical land of bottomless powder snow, guarded by stormy seas and icy winds from the encroachment of masses hungry for easy access ski adventures and the commodification of nature implicit in ski resorts.