“What is that?!” I said to Hiro Shinozaki. We were looking at Google Earth as we were designing a Hokkaido ski program in late 2015. The almost circular island off the Northern tip of Hokkaido stood out like a sore thumb. “That’s Rishiri, very popular with Japanese tourists in the summer.” Hiro said as I zoomed in to get a closer look. Google Earth is amazing and it quickly showed an island made up of one volcano.
Summer typhoons regularly hit Rishiri Island and have eroded deep valleys into the dormant volcano over the past 200,000 years or so creating a huge variety of terrain not typical of other cone shaped volcanos. Valleys are hundreds of vertical meters deep and run down all aspects of the mountain creating a mountain range feel. My attention was immediately changed from Hokkaido to Rishiri.
Hokkaido, Japan is certainly in the limelight these days for skiers looking for the deepest powder skiing and for good reason. Snowfalls can be measured in metres instead of centimetres and it may snow everyday of a trip. Surprisingly, there was little information about skiing on Rishiri Island. I’m a bit of a skeptic and started thinking “there must be a reason”. After a little more research Hiro and I tracked down the local Rishiri ski guide for some in depth information and we became convinced. The trip was born.
In late January (2017), I met our Yamnuska guests at the airport in Northern Hokkaido. We transferred to the local ferry and we were on-route to Rishiri. Rishiri is impressive and unmistakeable as the ferry nears the island. It sits alone and towers 1721 metres above the Sea of Japan. The eroded valleys make the volcano look both intimidating and alluring for skiing. Toshi is waiting for us as the ferry docks and takes us to his family run accommodation just a few minutes away. After we settle in we are treated to a traditional seafood dinner prepared by Toshi’s mother and their few staff. The food is amazing only overshadowed by the towering summit of Rishiri we look at out the window.
We ski on the Eastern side of the Island for our first day. The winds are coming from the West and the shelter on the East side should provide the best snow for the day. A 20-minute drive on the icy roads takes us to the trailhead where we are met by a few other locals with snowmobiles. Rishiri, as with most volcanos, is cone shaped; steeper at the top than the bottom. The snowmobiles tow us 3-5 kilometres up the low angled base and drop us where the goods start.
The first section of trail breaking is epic. Thigh to waist deep snow ensures I’m getting a workout but we all know what that means for the descent. I work my track out of the steep sided valley feature and up onto the shoulder which is a more moderate angle. There has been a bit of wind effect here so the trail breaking is not as deep. The views are unreal looking down to the ocean and across the straight to Hokkaido. Everyone has their cameras out and the mood is good. I keep working the track higher aiming for a long warm up run. After a couple of hours, we reach our high point, standing on the ridge looking down to the valley below. Steep open runs interspersed with the familiar deciduous trees of Japan are waiting. Even better, we are the only ones in the area and not a track in sight. In fact, for the first half of our trip we were the only skiers on the island. Later in the week we would be joined by a handful of Toshi’s personal guests…but for now, the place was ours.
After a short break and the transition to downhill mode we’re ready to drop in. We are back on the sheltered side of the valley and the snow is deep. It’s straight out of the movies, consistent fall line, blower snow and breathing on the upside of the turns. This is what skiing is all about and the reason we are here. It’s hard not to have that open-mouthed grin while making turns, but you learn quickly as your mouth is stuffed full with snow. After a couple of regroups and more killer turns we reach the valley bottom. We are all awestruck by the quality of the skiing, location and secluded nature of the area. The skins go back on and we head out for more.
Our six days of skiing on Rishiri Island continue with discovering new areas, great skiing and a good dose of Japanese culture thrown in. We experience a full-on storm with high winds near the beginning of the week that drops around 70cm. We are shut down this day but instead rest our legs, tour the island, and watch the towering surf pound the shoreline. We stop for lunch at a recommended noodle house which involves lots of entertaining pointing and gesturing to order. Excellent food comes to us in the end and it is one of the highlights of the day.
On the final day, another storm comes in shutting down the ferry so we spend an extra day on this fabulous island. The following day, the storm subsides, we board the ferry and return to Hokkaido for our trip home. The stoke factor is high for us all and we would all come back again in a heart beat. In fact, we are all surprised with the lack of skier traffic to the area given the quality and I’m convinced the place will be well traveled in five to ten years by backcountry skiers from around the world.