Sheltering just below the ridgeline, safe from the hissing wind, I look down at the steep canvas of untouched snow stretching out beneath my skis. The shelf of white leads directly into the sea, which seems to beckon up at me in the sunlight.
Four hours of climbing brought us here, just past 3,500 feet above sea level. I get to work removing the skins from the bottom of my skis, essential gear for any backcountry skier wanting to ascend mountains. From my position, I can just make out the mountain’s summit, rendered inaccessible by the gales that blow for much of the winter. The silence of the slope is interrupted only by the whip of the wind and the sound of my heartbeat, drumming in my ears.
Soon, it’s time to go. I point my skis toward the water, and the soft snow rises up to my waist as I gain speed. I dig in my heels to initiate a turn, drawing a curtain of powder that splashes against my face and leaves snow on my lips. The stuff of dreams.
Before the pandemic, winter sports enthusiasts from around the world would flock to Japan in search of the weightlessness granted by Japan’s famously light snow. This winter, after two seasons without foreign visitors due to the coronavirus-induced foreign travel ban, the borders have reopened. Well-known resorts, such as Niseko and Furano on mainland Hokkaido and Hakuba on Japan’s main island of Honshu, are expected to be bustling once again.
But on the remote island of Rishiri, off the northwestern tip of Japan, there is no risk of rubbing elbows with other skiers as you wait for ski lifts to carry you up the mountain. In fact, there are no lifts. To access the skiing, you must climb the mountain slopes yourself, adding extra significance—and satisfaction—to each turn you make on the way back down.
Towering 5,646 feet above the sea, Rishiri is an extinct volcano whose cone shape is made up of countless ridges and gullies that lead to a lone peak. In the ancient language of the Indigenous Ainu people, Rishiri’s original inhabitants, the island’s name translates to “high island” and today, Japanese people often refer to it as ukishima—the floating island. In the winter months, the scenery consists of cornices, mushrooms, and snow monsters, blasted into shape by the unforgiving, icy winds that come sweeping down from Siberia.
To the east, a short 12.5-mile stretch of sea separates Rishiri from Hokkaido. Brief though it may be, this crossing can be stormy and perilous in the winter months. Getting to Rishiri, then, can be an exercise in patience and determination.
I spent two days trapped in Wakkanai, Japan’s northernmost city, waiting for the seas to grant a safe passage only to embark on a bucking ferry ride with a handful of other passengers. Pulling into Rishiri’s quiet harbor, grateful to be sheltered from the wind and waves, I spotted one sign of life: a truck tipping snow collected from the streets directly into the sea, an indication of the main concern at this time of year—what to do with all the snow.
Throughout the winter, most hotels are boarded up and fishing boats lie dormant, bound to the docks waiting for the summer months when they will head back out to sea in search of the coveted Rishiri kombu (seaweed) and uni (sea urchin), the local specialties that, together with summer tourism, form the backbone of the island’s economy.
Home to almost 22,000 people in the late 1950s, today there are slightly more than 5,000 residents, a population decline owing to an aging demographic, declining fish stocks, and a lack of opportunities during the winter months when the island lies in hibernation. Although more than 130,000 tourists descend on the island during the summer, less than 5,000 visit over the course of the entire winter, according to a local official.
Some locals are trying to change this. Toshiya Watanabe, the first and only mountain guide born on the island, was one of the first to tap into the unique opportunity offered by Rishiri’s hostile weather when he started to offer backcountry ski tours in 2004. “Skiing here isn’t for everyone,” Watanabe says. “But for some it’s unforgettable. We have many clients who keep coming back every year.”
Together with his wife, Maki, Watanabe runs Rera Mosir, which in Ainu language means “the domain of the wind.” It is one of the few lodging options available on the island during winter. At maximum capacity, the Watanabes cater to no more than 25 guests at a time, most of whom are outdoor enthusiasts and backcountry skiers from Japan and abroad in search of peace, snow, and Watanabe’s unparalleled knowledge of the mountain. There are usually one or two other guides staying at the lodge, and Watanabe will split up the groups according to ability level and preferences; others arrive with their own guides or go touring on their own. (Travelers can book a room or a room and a guided tour package.)
Over the course of the three days I spent at Rera Mosir, each one brought a different adventure. In the morning I would join Watanabe for breakfast, and as we sat looking out of the big living room windows peering at the mountain, he would explain where we were headed. Once the day’s destination was established, we would gather our gear, hop into the mini-van and make a short drive—never longer than 20 minutes—to one of the trailheads where the trek up would begin. From steep ridgelines to mellow tree runs, each outing on Rishiri brought a different experience, making it hard to believe I was always on the same island, let alone mountain. When I express this to Watanabe, he agrees. “Rishiri is a 360-degree playground with endless options,” he says.