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Climbing Rishiri-Zan

Hokkaido is the northern most of the main islands which comprise Japan. And Natalie and I went to the northern tip of Hokkaido. We were hoping for clear enough weather to see Russia, but the relatively close island of Sakhalin remained elusive.

Getting closer to Rishiri

Getting there took us about 33 hours all up. We drove the first leg, leaving the last English lesson I taught at 11pm Wednesday night. After witnessing the sunrise and the thick population of huge and barbaric semi-trucks along the freeway, we arrived in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo at 6am. We dropped the car of with my friend Glenn and took the Shinkansen (bullet train) and local JR (Japan Rail) lines to arrive in Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido by 8pm that night. An overnight train took us to Wakkanai which got us there just in time to catch the first ferry in the morning to Rishiri-to (island), stepping off the ferry and starting our trek up Rishiri-zan (mountain) at 8am. Talk about wasting no time!

The island looked clear as we headed toward it on the ferry boat. The peak of Rishiri-zan stood alone in the blue sky at a majestic 1719 meters (5638 ft) straight out of the dark blue ocean. Our guide book had warned us about the possibility of late afternoon clouds and weather moving in. Like smart hikers we were well prepared for most any weather, and in the dark corner of our minds we were hoping some storm would hit to justify the weight of the gear in our packs.

We choose to hike from the ferry terminal up to the trailhead, ensuring that we climbed every meter of the 1,719 of them laid out above us. As we started up the trail, we started seeing a few folks coming down, and calculated they must have left just at daybreak, around 5am. They had arrived the day before and camped right by the trailhead to ensure an early start.

The plant life along the lower part of the climb was thick and lush. The hot, sticky, and humid air we were used to down where I live in Mie, had long since yielded to the northern latitudes as we worked our way up Japan. Here the air was cool, clear, and crisp. Although, the warm sun and the exertion of hiking warmed us back up with out any trouble. Most of our water breaks were on scenic outlooks graced with a cool breeze.

Our lunch stop showed the first signs of clouds threatening to move in and the wind picked up and became much cooler. Undaunted, we continued on. We were now passing lots and lots of folks heading back down the mountain. Some individuals, some groups, all were friendly. Some of them were keen to take the chance to practice their English as we passed on the trail asking us where we’re from and where we’ve been. Others, just gave us friendly nod or good wishes to take care “ki o tsukete, ne.” as we squeezed past on the steep and narrow path.

Most of the folks we passed were older, and were often dressed in a floppy brimmed hat, usually folded up in the front, and wearing white gloves. There’s something about those white gloves as they can be seen throughout the country in various conditions. The police wear them, the traffic controllers at construction sites wear them, bus drivers, cab drivers… a cultural marker. Many of the hikers also had something like a gym towel draped across the nape of their neck. And of course their backpacks with the required gear. But they were all just carrying daypacks. While Nat and I had no “home base” near by and were lugging all of our stuff for the whole trip with us. Don’t shed any tears for us, we chose it that way, but we got some curious looks from our passing friends as they noticed what large bags we had!

When we stopped for lunch, two men were just starting to continue up, and we saw they had just left their bags on the side of the trail after a particularly steep and slippery section of trail fairly close to the summit. By now the clouds had completely moved in and we couldn’t see more than ten meters up the mountain. The cold wind continued to howl and we met the two men coming down right below the summit.

Midway on the climb

Natalie and I set the camera up on the tripod I brought up and got a summit photo after a failed attempt because the wind tried to knock the tripod over and the photo shows Natalie reaching out to catch it. We inspected the small shrine on the summit and then were happy to start heading down. We were also realizing that we were a bit behind schedule and weren’t going to make the last ferry from the island to the next island tonight as planned.

Our guidebook had recommended another way down the hill to the far side of the island, and keen to see new territory, we obliged. The book said the trail is under used because the locals have given it a bad rep as a very difficult decent. Our guidebook said it was fine and the harshness of the conditions were exaggerated.

We found we should have heeded the local knowledge.

The trail was somewhat treacherous, and because of its infrequent use, the signage hasn’t been maintained and it took a little map and direction savvy to ensure we were going the right way. What really made the last stretch difficult was the trail along the lower part of the mountain was just a water drainage half full. Slippery rocks and mud placed in exceptionally inopportune places required serious concentration on the trail, and even then Nat and I managed to slip and fall quite a bit and get very dirty.

It was a mixed blessing when we finally broke free from the trail and found the paved road. The up side was walking would be easier. The down side was we still had 6 km to go to get to town. Like on our trip to Miya-Jima near Hiroshima, we snuck out of the clutches of darkness as the twilight was nearly all gone when we found the road.

The book was again wrong suggesting we could do the 6 km’s in an hour. Maybe so if we were fresh and rested, but our legs and brains were tired and the sky was completely dark by the time we stumbled into town. Not having any reservations at a peak season for this part of the world was something weighing on our minds and we started to do a verbal inventory of the “shelter-esque” items in our packs. One tarp. Well, one tarp and sufficient clothing to stay warm. We would live, but it would be an interesting evening.

Hight View

After we checked with the large hotel in town, which was booked solid, we asked them if they knew of any places that might have some room. “No” was the immediate response. So we sat in the comfort of the lobby for a moment to collect our thoughts and figure out were the campground was to set up our tarp.

As we were walking along the street towards… well, anywhere, I noticed a guy in a yukata. A yukata is a standard hotel issued evening robe. I followed him to his hotel to see if they had any room. No, again. But the clerk was great and started calling to the other hotels around to see who might have a spare room. One did, and it was right across the street. The nice hotel clerk walked us over, and left us in the caring hands of a very friendly hostess. It was past dinner time, but after showing us where the showers were, she had warmed up a massive feast just for Nat and I. She had also set up our room for us. It was a good thing because it was another small Japanese style tatami room with futons, and at my current state of mind I don’t know if I would have remembered the lessons I learned last time I tried to figure this out on the Sea of Japan road trip I took a few months a go.

We slept soundly until the alarm went off at 6am because breakfast was at 6:30. We enjoyed a traditional Japanese style breakfast of rice, fish, radish, and a whole host of other indescribable foods. Most of which I ate with no problem. Natalie wasn’t quite so darring.

Finishing by 7am, Nat and I went back to the room to find our futon beds had been folded up for us. So we laid right on the tatami and napped for about 2 hours. While we were at breakfast our hostess suggested we rent some bikes and cycle around as the first ferry to our next island, Rebun-to, wasn’t until 12:45. There wasn’t a whole lot to see, but we did cycle around the wharf and a small park out on the spit with a lighthouse and souvenir shop.

Our visit to Rebun-to was meant to include a famous 8 hour hike up the length of the island, but still sore from the tediousness of yesterday’s decent, we found we liked the bicycle option much better and rented more bikes. We stashed our big packs in lockers at the ferry terminal and started to ride north. The last ferry off the island left just after 5pm, so we rode as far as we could with time to spare to get back in time for the ferry. When we stopped for lunch on our ride, we could see Rishiri-zan poking out from the skirt of clouds surrounding the peak and covering the rest of the island. On the ferry back to Wakkanai we were a little disgruntled by the fact that Rishiri was again completely clear of clouds and it had probably been that way around the same time we summited yesterday. Bummer.

Summit sign

Back on the mainland of Japan, we found a Ramen shop for dinner then organized our train tickets to get us all the way back to Tokyo. Again, we left at 11pm, arrived in Sapporo at 6am, had a 2 hour wait for our next sequence of trains including the last leg via Shinkansen from Morioka to Tokyo. We shaved a few hours off and arrived in Tokyo at 7pm, making this trip in a mere 26 hours! Why did we do this trip by train, you ask? Well, Natalie had the super cool JR rail pass so it was cheaper for her to travel by train. And, I was keen to see the country by train, and if you visit Japan, you have to go on the Shinkansen! So, now you know. Flying would have taken about 2 hours, but what do you see that way?

We finally got to sleep in beds again at Glenn’s house where we left the car. But first we had a killer dinner at a restaurant called “The Garlic Restaurant” in Yokohama.

Fresh and ready to go in the morning, we were back in the car and heading to Mt. Fuji, or Fuji-san as it’s known out here. This Glenn has a cabin at the base of the mountain and said we could use it as our HQ while climbing Fuji-san.

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