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!

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