Imagine a place far away from mainstream Japan. Two small remote islands in the most northern part of the country where a relaxed pace of life and lack of foreign tourists awaits. Small fishing villages, friendly people, a hot spring bath surrounded by cherry blossom trees, and an extinct volcano looming out of the sea.
Welcome to Rishiri and Ruben Islands.
They are designated a national park and is the perfect place to escape from the busy cities in Japan and take things slower.They are popular islands to visit by Japanese in the summer months, but you will see little foreigners.
For those interested in exact details about getting there, camping conditions, getting food supplies, hiking etc, then you can find all the information at the bottom of the post.
Off the beaten path Japan –
The extinct volcano on Rishiri Island seen from Rebun. It’s like a mini Mount Fuji coming up from the sea.
Cherry blossoms in full bloom with Mount Rishiri in the background. If you visit in mid-May you can see them. Small parks are covered with the blossoms and they appear in many private gardens all over.
The southern part of Rishiri is one of the most relaxed areas.
Hidden shrines can be seen.
One of the main reasons people come to Rishiri is to hike up the mountain. It can be hard going, and as it was visited in the middle of May there was still snow on the upper reaches and impassable without proper gear. When it comes to mountains it’s always safety first.
Snow seen halfway up which is hard to traverse with all the trees buried around and knee deep snow in parts.
A steady climb.
Half way up getting a view across to Ruben Island in the distance.
A small shrine surrounded by cherry blossoms in the southern part of the island.
A good way to see the island is to walk around it. It’s 53km in total so can be done in 2 good days of walking with camping overnight half way.
You will see small fishing communities at work.
Two women attend to the fishing gear.
They use net cages like these to hang the fish. The nets are to keep out seagulls and crows.
Seaweed drying on the pavement at fishing village in the south-west of Rishiri.
In the 2 main ports of the island are the bigger fishing boats that head out to deeper sea. Take a walk down the docks and eat some fresh seafood.
You will come across laid back parks with the typical Japanese style.
A small shrine juts out on a rock by the sea.
The first glimpse of Mount Rishiri coming in on the ferry.
It’s a beautiful sight.
Rishirifuji Onsen (hot spring)
One of the delights about travelling in Japan is the hot spring baths you will find. There’s one on Rishiri that’s perfect. You can’t take photos inside the onsen as everyone is naked so imagine this –
The day is coming to an end and your muscles are a little sore from hiking. You enter into the outdoor pool of the onsen and descend into the hot therapeutic water, all troubles easing away, a deep sigh.
Steam from the water blows around in front of you from the cool breeze as you look up and see a cherry blossom tree in full bloom, it’s petals gently falling around. Beyond that alpine trees ascend upwards until you see the peak of the snow capped mountain.
The sun is casting its last light on the slopes as a full moon rises to take it’s place above Mount Rishiri.
Naked. Relaxed. Warm. In awe at nature. At one with the world around you.
That’s exactly how it is. In cherry blossom season in mid May.
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Rishiri is certainly the bigger and more busier island of the 2. Get onto Ruben Island and things really slow down. You will see the same small fishing ports and communities, especially along the east coast, and although it doesn’t have a mountain in the middle of it you get great views across to Mount Rishiri.
The coast on the west side is more rugged and quiet compared to Rishiri and you can catch some great sunsets in the far north.
This is almost as far as you can go at the tip.
Cliffs look over the sea offering some good hiking on the top. But beware of strong winds!
The most northern point of both islands.
Mount Rishiri seen in the far distance from atop a cliff.
The centre of the island has rolling hills.
An abandoned fishing area. Due to the sometimes severe weather buildings can take a battering and there are plenty of deserted ones scattered about the coast on both islands.
Hanging fish heads to dry by someones house.
If you stay at the campground in the north you will be next to a quiet lake.
You never get bored of the view.
I spent a total of 11 days on the islands and loved it. It’s not only one of my favourite places in Japan, but after 18 years of travel I will definitely be including this as one of the places I will escape to in the future.
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Guide to Rishiri and Ruben Islands
This part is where I go into exact details about the trip to the islands to help others in the future. This will probably be boring for some so don’t worry if you miss it 😉
Fist of all I highly recommend camping when there. You’re on quiet chilled out islands so it’s perfect but also way cheaper than hotels. Camping will set you back around $5 a person/tent whereas the average hotel room is $50. If you have no camping gear and are coming to the islands for at least a few days you could just buy a really cheap tent and sleeping bag in Sapporo and save you money.
You can fly into Sapporo for quite cheap from Tokyo ($50 at time of writing) and then take a bus north to Wakkanai where you will need to spend a night before getting the ferry the next day. I took the bus at 10.30 in the morning from Sapporo using Soya Bus near the TV tower in the centre. It took 6 hours to reach Wakkanai and cost $60.
I went to Rebun first and paid around $20 for the ferry to the main port at Kafukamura. You can then take a bus to the north or walk it. It takes just over 4 hours walking and you pass by quant fishing villages. Although you’re walking along the ring-road of the island there are not many cars and you’re by the sea.
I hitch-hiked the rest of the time on the island when on the roads.
From Rebun I paid just under $9 to take the ferry to Oshidomari on Rishiri Island. From there back to Wakkanai is around $20. I walked the entire time on the island.
Camping And Hiking In Rishiri – Rebun National Park
This was all in May.
I spent a total of 11 days on both islands and for 7 of those days I was the only person at the campgrounds. Still early in the season. 4 days on Ruben and 7 on Rishiri.
One thing to be aware of on these islands is the weather. You can get very strong winds at times. The weather is fickle and you can get lucky with sunny days or be drowned out in non-stop rain. It rained for 2 days on Ruben which was ok as it kind of added to the rougher ambience.
On Rishiri I was blessed with no rain for 7 days and mostly sun. However 3 of those days had quite strong winds.
I stayed at the campsite in the northern part of Rebun and it cost around $5 a night per person with tent. From there you can easily walk out to various trails in the north or hitch down to the central area to hike there.
There is a Seicomart supermarket in Kafukamura but you don’t need to carry food supplies as there is 2 small supermarkets in Funadomari where the campsite is next to. There is also an international ATM at the JP post office.
I stayed at YU-NI campsite in Oshidamari and recommend it. It’s up on a hill looking down onto the sea with plenty of space and right next to the onsen (hot spring, and only a several minute walk into town and 30 minutes to the start of the trailhead for Mount Rishiri.
As mentioned I was there in mid-May and there was too much snow on top for a safe ascent. You could always risk it. I was happy with the view halfway as it was and the going got really hard after that.
Make sure to get some food from the small bakery in town next to the book store on the main road from the ferry terminal to Seicomart. Get there at 11 for freshly baked warm goodness.
There is a Seicomart supermarket in Oshidomari, Katsugata, and Oniwaki, so again you don’t need to carry food all over as you can easily restock.
The island is 53km around and I walked it in just over 10 hours. 4 hours the first day and 6 the next. Like Ruben there are small fishing villages on the road around the island. I liked the south-southwest best as it was less busy.
Whatever you do don’t think that you’re escaping purely into nature. The main towns are built up with all modern conveniences. However all of the towns and villages are located by the sea, there is no settlements inland as it is a national park. That’s where you will find the nature.
But then you would be missing one of the best things about the islands. The friendliness of the people and relaxed/remote island life along with the fishing is what made the islands for me. The walking/hiking around was just the bonus.
Hopefully you will feel the same if you make it there. Enjoy it if you do!