Posted on Apr 4, 2019
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Posted on Apr 4, 2019

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Reading time: 6 min
10km

Distance

5 hours

Time

1067m

Ascent

1225m

Highest point

7/10

Difficulty

Snow Icon | Hokkaido Wilds
Mar-Apr

Best season

This is a relatively mellow route up to a 1255m prominence on the sheltered southeastern flanks of Rishiri-zan (利尻山, 1721m). It gives full-frontal views of Rishiri-zan's powerful southeastern upper face. Be prepared for world-class alpine scenery on par with the spires of Patagonia and the bulwarks of the Himalayas. If there is a creator, she used this side of Rishiri as a petri dish. The route starts at the old Oniwaki Ski Field, and follows the impressive Yamunai-zawa (ヤムナイ沢) gully on its upper southern ridge. There's nothing technical on this route, so even intermediate backcountry travelers, in careful consultation with the weather forecast, will enjoy it.

Last updated Apr 6, 2019

Route Map

Need to know details

Location

This route is on the southeast side of Rishiri Island, starting here from the old Oniwaki Ishiyama Ski Field access road.

General notes

This route up the southeastern flanks of Rishiri-zan is not usually a route for summiting the mountain (leave that to the icy northern route), but rather a route to make the most of Rishiri’s amazing snow, ski-friendly topography, and views. Indeed, the prevailing wind on Rishiri Island is from the northwest, so the southerly aspects of the island will always have more reliably good snow conditions. This route joins up with the Yamunai-zawa’s southern ridge, which offers some great skiing down to the gully from a number of spots. The stream at the base of the Yamunai-zawa (ヤムナイ沢) gully is marked as the Hosenzawa-gawa (豊仙沢川) on topographical maps. Yamunai means “cold stream” in Ainu, presumably referring to the permanent snow field at the upper reaches of this gully, even in the height of summer. There are many points where skiers can descend into the gully floor from the ridge. However, the route guide on this page, however, sticks to the ridge for an out-and-back trip. The many minor gullies on this broad ridge also offer fantastic skiing.

Whereas the Rishiri Classic Northern Ski Tour Route via the Rishiri Emergency Hut and on to the summit may require ski crampons and/or boot-packing in places, this route up the southeastern foothills of Rishiri should be fine without them; you’ll only be going to around 1225m.

  • When to ski Rishiri Island
    The best season to visit Rishiri Island for backcountry skiing is March and April. While snow is consistently the best during January and February, the weather is notoriously unstable during these deep winter months. As I liked to say during our trip there, “Rishiri is a long way to go for bad weather.” Some of the handful of ski guides who guide on Rishiri don’t even offer tours on Rishiri till late February. Weather is most stable in the late winter months of March and April, and the snow is still fantastic in the many gullies, couloirs/chutes and valleys on the mountain.
  • Weather forecast for Rishiri Island
    The most reliable forecast for any area of Hokkaido, including cloud cover and cloud altitude, is on Windy.com. Rishiri Island is no exception. Windy.com’s forecast for Rishiri Island (here) was spot on down to the hour, from about two days out. Note however that cloud cover can be very aspect-dependent on Rishiri Island. Often times, the windward side of the mountain will have thick cloud, while the lee of the mountain will be clear blue skies. Use Windy.com’s forecast in conjunction with this knowledge of higher probability of clear skies on the lee side of the mountain to fine-tune your options on the mountain.
Hut

Rishiri Green Hill Inn Hostel (full details here)

The Rishiri Green Hill Inn Hostel (利尻ぐりーんひるinn) is a skier’s dream come true on Rishiri Island. With epic, unobstructed views of Rishiri-zan, ski-in and ski-out access to the mountain, easy access to stores for self-catering, a beautiful wood stove in the common dining area, plus the cheapest per-night cost on the island in winter, it is the best wallet-friendly base (besides free-camping in the snow near the onsen) for self-guided exploration of Rishiri Island in most seasons. Officially, the hostel is closed during the deep-winter months between November and February, but the hostel is open to inquiries during the ‘off’ season also.

Route markers

This route is not marked. From the end of the snow-clearing (here) head west to the ski area. Traverse diagonally up and across the one single slope, and cut through the trees to the west of the ski slope. From here, wrap around the eastern side of Oniwakipon-yama. Once on the the northern side of Oniwakipon-yama, head up the very gradual slope in a northwest direction, keeping to the climber’s left of the various humps along the south of the Yamunai-zawa gully. At around 750m, you’ll emerge onto the main ridge that will take you to a false summit just before the 1225m peak. To actually get to the 1225m peak, which is about 75m higher than the false summit, you’ll need to scramble across a knife-edge ridge and bootpack the final few meters – all with precipitous no-fall drops on both sides. Needless to say, we were quite happy with the false summit, and started our descent from there.

Route Timing

Up | 4hrs
Down | 1.5hrs

Expect about 4 hours from trailhead to the 1225m (or the false peak just before it), and then another 1 to 1.5 hours back down.

Transport

Public transport:

There are daily ferries to Rishiri Island, leaving Wakkanai ferry port (location) at 6:55am and 1:55pm between January and April (see timetable here). Tickets cost 2,500yen each way. There is no extra charge for skis/snowboards. To get to Wakkanai, either take a highway bus or the train, with service from centers such as Sapporo and Asahikawa. Once in Rishiri, there is a local bus (details in Japanese) running from the Oshidomari ferry terminal (鴛泊フェリーターミナル) to Oniwaki Bus Stop (鬼脇バス停, around here). Oniwaki Bus Stop is the 11th after the ferry terminal, if taking the A-Course bus (Aコース, clockwise around the island). As of March 2019, buses ran on weekdays at 7:12am, 8:38am, 11:41am, 14:15pm, and 17:21pm from the ferry terminal clockwise around the island. The trip will take about 30 minutes, and will cost 970yen one way. From the bus stop, it is a 1.5km walk to the trailhead.

For the return to the ferry terminal, take the B-Course bus (Bコース, anti-clockwise around the island) from Oniwaki Bus Stop back to the ferry terminal. As of March 2019, buses ran at 7:11am, 8:06am, 11:11am, 13:41pm, and 17:26pm. The trip will take about 30 minutes, and will cost 970yen one way.

Taxis are also available at the ferry terminal, but may struggle to take more than a few sets of skis. Guests staying at the Rishiri Green Hill Inn Hostel can request drop-offs and pick-ups from anywhere on the island for a donation.

By car: 

There is ample parking in the cleared parking area here.

Physical maps

  • Hokkaido Wilds full Rishiri Island Topomap PDF (A3, 1:25000 scale, 6 sheets) – download (67Mb)
  • Hokkaido Wilds full Rishiri Island Topomap PDF (A0, 1:25000 scale, 1 sheet, 841mm x 900mm) – download (40Mb)
Official Topo Map: Oniwaki (鬼脇) – map no. NL-54-17-10-3

NOTE: The official 1/25000 topo map(s) above can be purchased for 350yen from Kinokuniya bookstore next to Sapporo Station or online (in Japanese).

Snow and route safety

While this route is far less exposed than other ridge-line routes on the island, the majority of the route is above the treeline, with few defining features. In low visibility conditions, it will be nearly impossible to navigate, particularly across the broad plains on the approach. Make sure to carry reliable navigation tools and know how to use them. Weather is also very changeable on Rishiri Island, with cloud cover largely dependent on wind direction and aspect. It can be pristine blue skies on one side of the island, and thick whiteout fog and cloud on the other. Being in the wild and windy northern Japan Sea, Rishiri is a fearsome place in bad weather – keep plans conservative and flexible.

Weather forecast

Windy.com weather forecast for Rishiri 1225m Southeast Peak

Onsen nearby

The Rishiri-fuji Onsen (利尻富士温泉保養施設, 500yen, location) is at the end of the route described on this page, so that makes the most sense for a post-ski soak. Note that in winter (November till April) it is open from noon till 9pm, and is not open on Mondays.

Extra Resources

Guide Options

If you’d like to ski this route and/or explore the rest of Rishiri together with a local certified guide, get in touch with Toshiya Watanabe here. He is the only certified guide based on Rishiri island. And his videos of skiing on the island are epic. If Toshiya is booked out, then contact Takao Miyashita – he offers northern Hokkaido ski trips, as well as Rishiri expert-only and upper-advanced climbing trips.

Photo Gallery

Show Full Route Notes Close Route Notes

Route Trip Notes

“I’ve seen 7000m high peaks in the Himalayas, and this is on par with their beauty,” whispered Quentin when we emerged out onto the broad plateau. Rishiri-zan was standing there, spires and spurs and rugged peaks and all, framed crisp against a deep blue sky. I’d heard that this route up the southeast side of Rishiri was one of the best for views of the mountain. But this was something else. Perhaps it was due to the effort in getting to this particular place, at least 8 hours travel from Sapporo City, but I felt like this was the most beautiful mountain I’d ever seen.

Rick, Hiro, Quentin and I had arrived in Rishiri two nights ago, and had made an attempt on the summit via the Rishiri Classic Northern Ridge Route the previous day. Ferocious winds and a worsening forecast had turned us back at the Rishiri-zan Hut, while we still had at least 500m vertical to climb. Today, with a better forecast, we’d certainly be guaranteed a summit if we tried the same route again. However, we forewent standing on the summit for a vague promise of good views from one of the more dramatic ski tour routes on the island.

As the owner of the Green Hill Inn Hostel was driving us around the island, the weather on the eastern side of the island was perfect blue skies, with hardly a breath of wind. When we left the hostel, it was grey, dark and overcast. “This is pretty typical of Rishiri weather,” he explained. “On the windward side, we’ll get cloud, and on the lee side, it will be brilliant clear skies.” As we drove further and further around the coast, clouds started to appear in view. The very ridge we were planning to ski up was shrouded, whereas other ridges just a few hundred meters closer to us were basking in sunlight.

“The wind direction is supposed to change in your favour as the day goes on,” the hostel owner said. “But there’s no guarantee. You might end up just on the border with the clouds, with no view all day. Do you want me to drop you off here, where the skies are clear?”

It was an agonizing decision. We’d all heard that the Hosenzawa-gawa Gorge and views from high on its southern ridge were some of the best in Rishiri. But if our driver dropped us off here, we’d still get OK views – guaranteed. Should we take the risk of cloud, but the possible reward of the better views, or cut our luck?

In the end, I suggested we stick to the original plan. We didn’t have a planned route for any of the other gorges or spurs, so safety and planning dictated that we’d better stick to what we’d scouted out on the topomap in advance. The hostel owner was confident we’d eventually see clear skies, so we gingerly set off from the original planned location under cloudy skies. Clearly the local guides or snowmobilers weren’t using this route today.

By the time we got to the bottom of the ski area, however, the skies were clearing up.

It was somewhat of a bush-bash getting through some thick conifers on the climber’s left of the ski field. We’d all stripped off to our cooler under layers by the time we got through them – there was a lot of heat in the sun. The blue skies continued as we rounded the back of Oniwakipon-yama, and this gave us our first glimpse of Rishiri in all her glory. We’d had no idea what to expect, so this was a phenomenally pleasant surprise. We all took a moment with mouths gaping and the view.

No sooner had we whooped and cheered our way towards this great bulk of a mountain, than the clouds rolled in and we found ourselves navigating by map and compass. This cloud remained for a disconcertingly long time. Long enough to have us thinking we’d seen all we’d see of the mountain.

We needn’t have worried. After about 30 minutes wandering into the misty abyss, we emerged above the clouds to blue skies. The relative lack of snow this year – record setting low snowfall across Hokkaido – was painfully clear. Much of the low haimatsu pines were already showing, so we had to carefully pick our way though them. Once we were on a more southerly gully, however, we made good progress, zig-zagging up the slope. It had been about a week since the last big powder dump, and the spring sun had already reduced much of this southeastern-facing slope to old, bumpy, but relatively soft pre-rotten-ish snow. Not corn, not crust…the in-between.

We were soon on the final short bit of ridge that would lead us up to the 1225m peak. Leading up to the false summit before the 1225m peak, it looked like we’d have no problem in getting to the actual 1225m peak. However, upon standing on that false summit, some 100m away, none of us were going to attempt that last few hundred meters.

It would be a boot-pack for starters, certainly with an ice-axe for self-arrest security. A slip would have meant a very long, steep fall, with potential bluffs on the way down, which we couldn’t see from the convex curvature away from the knife-edge saddle connecting the two peaks. My stomach turned just standing on the cramped, one-person-only false summit.  

From the false summit, we geared up to ski down. The snow wasn’t great, so Rick and Hiro opted to walk down a few meters to a better platform to remove skins and get set up. Quentin and I siddled down gingerly until we were able to cut a long descending traverse to better snow.

Once on the better snow in the wide, shallow gullies, we were able to open things up a bit. The snow was variable, with some soft patches, some icy.

At every turn, there was Rishiri-zan, the ever-present backdrop. 

On the way back around Oniwakipon-yama, we remembered the ski area, and stayed as high as possible so that we could ski down from the very top. The snow on the slope of the ski field was mostly rotten, but it made for a nice sea-facing end to the day. Back at the trailhead we messaged the hostel host, and he was there to pick us up in about 30 minutes.

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Comments | Queries | Reports

Done this route to Rishiri 1225m Southeast Peak, or others nearby? Thinking of doing it? Please post any feedback, reports, or queries here. Thanks!

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