Rishiri Island 利尻島

While Rebun Island was my favorite experience in Hokkaido, it is possible that Rishiri-to could have beaten its neighbor for the top spot had I planned my visit better. The striking Mt. Rishiri dominates the horizon for half the ferry ride to it, the island is lushly green, and there is no better seafood in Japan.

Like Rebun, Rishiri Island is part of the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, comprising the northernmost points of Hokkaido, and therefore Japan. The ferries from Wakkanai dock at the bigger port town of Oshidomari, while a second ferry terminal exists in the other town on the island, Katsugata, to take you to Rebun Island. The focal point of Rishiri Island is Mt. Rishiri, a dormant volcano, and it is also the main draw for tourists. The shape of it resembles Mt. Fuji, and so it is often called Rishiri-fuji. While there are plenty of picturesque points around Mt. Rishiri to stop on a bus tour and make use of your camera, the brave see the beautiful mountain and must climb it.

Mt. Rishiri from Cape Peshi

Mt. Rishiri from Cape Peshi

I am not one of these brave. Climbing Mt. Rishiri, by all accounts, is a serious business and takes a full day. You can supposedly see the Russian islands from the top, though.

While I arrived at Oshidomari Port intending to climb part of the way, or at least take a bus to see Himenuma Pond, I ended up stuck at the port. This wasn’t a total loss, as I could climb Cape Peshi here and not only was the view fabulous, of both Mt. Rishiri and the distant Rebun, but I could feel fit and accomplished for finishing the hike, as it only took maybe 15 or 20 minutes.

Cape Peshi

Cape Peshi

 

I strongly advise studying and properly planning around the infrequent bus times as soon as you disembark the ferry. The ferry terminal contains a cafe with great views on the second floor and a tourist information desk on the first, where you can pick up the day’s bus schedule and a map of the island. There’s also a bay of coin lockers, and several of the lockers were big enough to stash my medium-sized suitcase in.

Mistakenly, I decided to climb Cape Peshi before organizing the rest of my day, and by the time I got to it, there wasn’t much chance of my taking a bus to Himenuma, coming back, picking up my suitcase, and getting to Katsugata by the check-in time of my accommodations. So a lot of this post is a do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-did.

Especially if you plan on climbing the mountain, book more than one night on Rishiri. The original hostel on Rishiri, Greenhill Youth Hostel, shut down some years ago, and though there are rumors online about a hostel called “3.9” (a play on the Japanese pronunciation of ‘thank you’), contact information is nowhere to be found. Even my Japanese friend could find nothing on Japanese language websites.

So I splurged and had my friend book one night for me at Minshuku Ebisu-so in Katsugata. Katsugata is about a 30 minute bus ride from Oshidomari and a minshuku is a Japanese-style bed and breakfast. While one night there only costs a bit more than the campsite on the island, they also offer two meals for an extra fee. I went for the meals since I didn’t know what Katsugata would offer for restaurants. The stay cost ¥8640. The proprietress who runs the minshuku is a kind, bubbly lady who doesn’t speak a word of English. I understood about 1/4 of what she said, but it didn’t seem to bother her. She is also an amazing cook. Dinner was a huge assortment of the best seafood I’d ever eaten, including the local specialty, uni, or sea urchin.

I actually bought this sushi-don in Otaru, but the yellow stuff is uni.

I actually bought this sushi-don in Otaru, but the yellow stuff is uni.

Even if you’ve tried uni elsewhere and didn’t care for it, try it in Hokkaido; the difference is astounding. There was also my personal favorite, hotate, or scallops, as well as different mushrooms, pickles, shrimp, sushi, etc. Second most notable were the four or five different dishes of octopus. I’d always been neutral about octopus, but what this lady did with it made it seem like an entirely different, and far more delicious, dish. There were a couple of less appealing offerings, like tsubu, a kind of sea snail, but since you can’t eat everything the proprietress puts in front of you, you don’t seem rude not eating it all. See my link below for someone else’s picture of one of her meals. You will get a far greater variety of home-cooked local delicacies for the same or a lower price at a minshuku than at a restaurant, so I recommend it.

Minshuku Ebisu-so: #0163-84-3640

For some Minshuku Ebisu-so pictures

The rooms at Ebisu-so are private, sunny, and airy, even if the mattresses are a bit hard. The proprietress has discount passes for the town hotel’s onsen, as well. I think my presence threw off at least one local- she was about to get in the onsen when she saw me, froze, and made a beeline for the other pool. I realized a bit later that she was simply a very chatty older lady who wanted someone to talk at, after seeing the politely strained expression of the young woman sharing her pool.

Unfortunately, while seafood makes an amazing dinner, it’s not quite as welcome to a Western palate for breakfast. I suggest requesting only dinner at a minshuku. There’s a convenience store in town for a cheap, prepackaged pastry or protein bar, and the ferry terminal is walkable from the minshuku, if you’re going to Rebun. The ferry terminal is smaller and only two ferries leave a day, but it has vending machines and a surprisingly good wi-fi signal.

Please see my post on Rebun for information on Wakkanai and getting to the islands.

This building in Oshidomari was under heavy guard.

Obviously, this post is an incomplete guide to seeing Rishiri Island, but I hope you can use it as advice on a few things not to do, and that it gave you an idea of what to expect. Happy travels, globehoppers!

Rebun Island 礼文島

My favorite place in Hokkaido was certainly Rebun-to (Rebun Island). The island itself was covered in wildflowers, and though I’m rarely impressed with what the Japanese deem a great ‘variety’ when it comes to flora, the quantity makes up for it, and the views are incredible (see my blog’s main photo). While these are recommendations enough in themselves, what really makes Rebun an experience is the Momoiwa-so Hostel. I’ve stayed at a lot of hostels, but none like this.

Let’s start at the beginning. Rebun Island is part of the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, which encompasses the most northern points of Japan. You can see Russian islands from Sarobetsu, supposedly. I’ll talk about Rishiri Island on another page. Rebun is the smaller, flatter island of two, famous for the aforementioned wild flowers, and falling short of being Japan’s northernmost point by only a few meters in favor of Sarobetsu.

Hokkaido

Hokkaido

Access to Rebun is mostly via Wakkanai. The very modern ferry terminal is just down the pier from the train station. Wakkanai itself is exceedingly dull, but if you have to stop there, I recommend the Wakkanai Youth Hostel. It’s a distance from the station/terminal, but the proprietor is excellent about picking you up and dropping you off there and I got a two-bed hotel room for ¥3240. The Moshiripa Youth Hostel (¥4000/night) is a closer option if you’re taking the first ferry in the morning, but I found it difficult to make a reservation. There is also an early curfew, for those to whom it matters, though there’s not much you’d want to break it doing, anyway. Proprietors at both hostels speak English well.

Wakkanai Youth Hostel

Moshiripa Youth Hostel

The journey to Rebun Island’s Kafuka Port on the HeartLand Ferry takes about two hours. Try to board early to get a good spot on the floor (yes, you have to take off your shoes).

Onboard the HeartLand Ferry.

Onboard the HeartLand Ferry.

Alternatively, there are a few ferries each day from Rishiri Island to Rebun, if you’d prefer to start there.

HeartLand Ferry timetables and rates

And now comes Momoiwa-so Hostel. I don’t want to give everything away, but at least two of the six male staff greet every guest at every ferry arrival and then you get to witness their Goodbye Ferry ritual, which consists of singing, dancing, and call-responses at top volume and energy until the ferry is out of sight again. These guys get up at 4:30 and don’t sleep until 11p.m. every day- they have more energy in one day than I have in a month!

Goodbye Ferry ritual

After the Goodbye Ferry ritual, they pack you into a vehicle to take you to the hostel, situated on a gorgeous, isolated cliff at the southern part of the island. Entertainment is provided enroute and upon arrival. There is also a nightly “meeting” that would more accurately be called a show. It’s part information session on the island and the 8-hour and 4-hour hiking courses that attract people to Rebun, and part interactive comedy/musical routine, complete with quizzes, cosplay, and skits.

Momoiwa-so Hostel

Momoiwa-so Hostel

I had a Japanese friend book Momoiwa-so Hostel for me. ¥6,000 a night, with the fee collected daily. The hostel provides two generous meals for an extra fee (the octopus curry and rice was quite good!): dinner and a boxed lunch to take hiking. One of the six men and the lady who seemed in charge of the front desk spoke English well, and one of the other guys was intermediate. I think I was the only non-Asian guest at the time. Therefore, if you don’t understand at least some Japanese, you may not get much out of the experience here.

If you’re traveling to Rebun to do the 8-hour or 4-hour hikes, however, missing out on the entertainment may not matter. Momoiwa-so is at the end of the 8-hour hike. They do a wake-up call in the morning and either drive the hikers to the northernmost point of the island or drop them off at the bus that will take them there, if there aren’t enough hikers to warrant the use of the hostel bus. The hostel staff does a full information session nightly, both the entertaining overview in the “meeting” and a serious meeting afterwards when hikers get divided into groups. This is when the intermediate guy sat down next to me and tried translating the gist of the information, and luckily my Japanese was low-intermediate at the time, so I got the important points.

I did the 4-hour hike. I am the first to admit that I am not in shape, and that said, I was exhausted. When Japanese people hike, they hike with a purpose. It likely would have been a 6-hour hike if the pace were left to me, so good thing it wasn’t! At the end of the 4-hour hike, you break off from those continuing on the 8-hour hike, go up a blessedly flat road for 40 minutes to the bus stop, and take that back to town, where you can catch a ride back to the hostel with the fresh-off-the-ferry guests (and participate in the Goodbye Ferry ritual, since you’re there). I understood that, past the split-off point, the hike became both less difficult and less scenic, should you choose the 8-hour one. Either way, you need to wear: hiking shoes, a long-sleeved shirt, and pants that are as waterproof as possible. The grasses are nearly as tall as you and still dew-kissed at the start of the hike.

From Cape Gorota

From Cape Gorota

One more point international visitors may want to keep in mind: bathing. Momoiwa-so Hostel’s bathing situation is public bath style. The genders are separated, but I admit it was one of the more bizarre situations I found myself in during the entire course of my stay in Japan. I had, of course, been to onsen and public bath houses before, but they were nearly empty or of the ‘get in, do your thing, and get out’ variety. Here, there was a long wait for the bathing room, as most people want to get clean between the end of their hike and the start of the meeting. So there were ten or so of us women hanging out in the changing room and I was having the exact same ‘where are you from, how long have you been in Japan’ conversation I’d had several times every day for a week, except this one was taking place while nude. The fact that I wasn’t feigning my nonchalance was actually the bizarre part. Their indifference took away my self-consciousness.

flowerDue to a typhoon shutting down the ferries, I could only stay on Rebun one night. I highly recommend at least two. Happy travels, globe-hoppers!

Welcome!

This page will serve two purposes: First, to help me figure out how to use WordPress. Thus, this is an ongoing work-in-progress. Second, to help travelers find information in English on navigating Hokkaido. I’m in the habit of doing massive amounts of research before traveling, but found very little on Hokkaido outside of Sapporo, which is a shame, as it is a beautiful island. I spent two weeks in August hopping around western Hokkaido in 2014, successfully escaping the miserable Honshu humidity. I hope some of my experience helps you in your planning, and feel free to email or post questions I’ll do my best to answer.