Hiking Rebun & Rishiri

Japan Travel: Hiking in Rebun and Rishiri Islands

Rebun & Rishiri Hiking 礼文島と利尻島

Edward J. Taylor

The twin islands of Rebun and Rishiri off the north west coast of Hokkaido offer some excellent hiking for visitors who make it this far off the beaten track.

On Rebun, the Hachijikan (Eight hour) Hiking Course is a popular trail for advanced walkers, while there is also a two-hour course designed for beginners.

Rishiri offers the challenging ascent of Mt. Rishiri (1,721m), which should only be attempted by serious walkers with the right equipment and plenty of water. The summits affords a 360 degree view of the ocean.

Both Rebun and Rishiri offer superb scenery and stunning Alpine flowers during the summer hiking season.

Sukoton Cape and Todo Island, Japan
Sukoton Cape and Todo Island, Rebun-to, Hokkaido, Japan.
Rebun Island, Rebunto, Wakkanai, Japan
Momo-iwa, "Peach Rock" on Rebun Island, Hokkaido.


The bus picked up our group at 6.10am at Momoiwa-so Youth Hostel and let us out at Cape Sukoton, with its famed musical toilet. In Japan, there is no point further north, as this island of Rebun lies 50 kilometers off Hokkaido's northernmost tip.

The cape is the official starting point for the Hachijikan (Eight hour) Hiking Course, a 30-kilometer north-south traverse which attracts thousands of hikers during the two summer months in which the weather is mild enough to make the attempt.

I walked down to the edge of the cape, where old men and women were dragging seaweed onto shore. The waves broke in two directions off the point, crashing into one another with great force, lifting great walls of spray into the air to be carried away by the strong winds.

I usually like to hike alone, but this time thought it might be fun to go with the other young Japanese staying at the hostel. Last night before going to bed, everyone in the hostel had a meeting about the following day's hike, covering everything in great detail, down to telling us to wear long sleeves and pants against poisonous plants.

Because there were so many people going on this hike, we were split into two groups. It was kind of silly how we were broken into equal numbers of men and women. Our group leaders, appointed at random the night before, were taking their positions quite seriously. After the obligatory taking of photos, we were off, and walking down the road leading away from the cape, I couldn't help but feel like I was on an elementary school field trip.

After leaving the road, the trail led over a series of grassy peaks whose bases had been carved away by the waves. I pushed on ahead slightly, temporarily leaving the conversation behind in order to have the scenery to myself. All around was the gorgeous sea, while above, the clear skies were being purged by strong winds.

From the first and highest hill, I could see Sakhalin Island, about 100 km to the north. The descents in particular were pretty treacherous in this wind, which let up somewhat in the fishing villages below. In one village, I came across two small boys who had caught an octopus, which slithered and rolled its body across the concrete. When the rest of our group caught up, the boys caught a sea urchin and a sea cucumber, which they cut open and fed us raw from their knives. At the village's south end were huge molds for the tetrapods that litter the perimeter of Japan.

In another village was a shop whose master was crafting beautiful sculptures from driftwood. I admired his work and asked a few questions before rejoining the group. We climbed back up into the hills, past a small cemetery, then along a long path through grasslands that served as the canvas for a riot of colorful wildflowers. This eventually gave way to forest, the trail lined with dwarf bamboo that hid the approach to quite a few difficult water crossings.

We wearily stopped for lunch, atop a high bluff that offered no respite from the wind that threatened to blow the food off the ends of our chopsticks. We continued along a dangerous, crumbling route along the cliff's edge, then the final descent down a long sand dune, which most of the group walked gingerly in small steps, but a few of us ran at full speed down to the black sand beach below.

The remainder of the hike was a slow, four-hour meander over large porous volcanic boulders. We passed below a few high waterfalls that dropped into tide pools garnished with seaweed.

In one spot, the hills were striped with green of grass and black of rock, a dazzling effect. At the base of this stood a single house, still occupied, judging by the long strands of seaweed laid to dry on the beach in front. I marveled at the life these people must have, living amidst such power and beauty, so far from roads or towns. Winter must be especially rough, trips made by small boat traversing ice flows and partially submerged, snow covered boulders. Further along the beach was another house, half-collapsed with the other half still occupied.

Where the ridge dropped to the sea ledges had formed. They were difficult to cross, so much of the going was aided by ropes. With good shoes and porous rock, it wasn't too tough, but many in the group couldn't grasp this, and the going became slow, made worse by frequent rest breaks.

I was beginning to grow a little impatient and tired by the time we finished at the base of Jizo-iwa, a large tower of stone that is the favorite of the postcards back in town.

Throughout the day, I was happy at the instant friendships created by our shared toil. This feeling continued throughout dinner back at the hostel, and through the simultaneous fireworks displays we witnessed over both islands. We sat up late talking, until one by one started to fade and sought out the comfort of true solitude in sleep.

Rishiri Island, Wakkanai, Hokkaido, Japan
Mt Rishiri known as Rishiri-fuji on Rishiri Island, Hokkaido.


I awoke this morning at Momoiwa-so to the incessant loudspeaker going off every five minutes. It was as if the girl at reception had gotten only four hours of sleep a night, and decided bitterly that no one else should get any sleep either.

Getting up early allowed for a leisurely morning. I talked over breakfast with a guy who is half French, but couldn't speak that language, as his father had disappeared back to Europe while he was an infant. Before catching my boat to neighboring Rishiri Island, I went with him and a few others to the pier, where they bought me some 30 centimeter-tall soft cream.

As my boat pulled out, I stayed on deck waving, trying to see how long I could keep them waving in return. But then it dawned on me that perhaps they were playing the same trick on me.

The short trip over to Rishiri was across some incredibly blue water. Along with Rebun, it makes up Japan's most remote national park. Near the Kutsugatamisaki Ferry Terminal, I found a campsite just below a lighthouse in a semi-enclosed grass "bowl" that offered views of the sea on three sides. The island's volcanic peak loomed over all, a Mount Fuji rising directly from the sea.

A few-minutes' walk away was the Island Inn Rishiri Hotel which rented bikes, enabling me to circumnavigate the island, tracing a 60 kilometer circle around the base of the volcano.

About five minutes down the road, I got a flat tire. After exchanging it for another, started goin' down the road feeling good. I sang as I rode, changing the lyrics of known songs to suit my mood. I also came up with ridiculous 'aphorisms,' like when I hit a patch of wind, I thought, "The wind can't blow both ways." Or all with all the dead insects on the roads: "A dragonfly can't fly faster than a car."

At the southern tip of the island, two seals swam in an enclosed man-made pool. They seemed happy enough, swimming upside down, apparently easier as their eyes are on top of their heads. Every time a tourist took out his camera, they'd swim to the other end of the pool in an almost cynical response.

The road followed the coast, lined mostly by houses or small shops, like one elongated village. Of course, most of the structures looked abandoned. On the complete opposite side of the island from where I rented the bike, I got my second puncture. I found a shop a short distance away, and a man there led me down the street to his house where I could use his bike pump.

When this failed, I called the hotel so that they could bring me my third bike. The helpful man's mumbly way of talking, as well as the lisping guy at the other end of the phone, made me realize that there are situations that language books can't possible prepare you for.

The bike arrived after a thirty-minute wait, and I headed down a cycling course. Near its start was a statue of Ranald MacDonald, Japan's first English teacher.

When I saw his name on the map, I naturally expected something quite different. This MacDonald's story is an equally fascinating one, of a man who had pretended to have been shipwrecked so as to enter a country whose immigration policy at the time was immediate execution. 

Granted leniency, being of great value as a teacher of English at a time when more and more American vessels were seen teasing Japanese waters. Upon his return to the United States, his petitions to Congress helped in part to launch the Black Ships that pried Japan open for good.

The cycling course was a narrow road running up into the tree line, then out along the flatlands, cutting back and forth repeatedly from the shore. They must have spent an incredible amount of money putting it together, especially the high suspension bridges that spanned the mountain streams. Along the ride, I incidentally met a girl from the hike the previous day. All in all, it was an excellent ride.

Back in camp, I shared some lamb with a biker who had toured the States seven times. Overhead, the sunset was making the sky do incredible things with its palette. Incredibly, the wind of the previous few days had stopped. At seven o'clock, the campsite resembled a pod city, bustling at suppertime. An hour later, all was silent.

The lighthouse kept streaking the night sky above. This would later be recreated naturally by a meteor shower. The clouds were splayed like fingers, and through them, I can see few stars but for one that speeds crazily towards the sea.

Beyond the horizon, the light from a squid boat shone brightly. The moon made an attempt to come out from behind the clouds, and the sea writhed and undulated in its light. It was a sight that old legends are built upon.

Summit of Mt Rishiri, Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, Japan
Summit of Mt Rishiri, Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, Hokkaido.
View of Mt. Rishiri from Rebun Island, Hokkaido, Japan.
View of Mt. Rishiri from Rebun Island, Hokkaido

Hiking Mt Rishiri (利尻山)

Awakened early by the usual campground racket at Kutsugatamisaki Park, just beside the ferry terminal.  I wandered over to the volcanic boulders of the shoreline, eating breakfast and watching men drag kelp from the seabed and into their boats.

Tied alongside were floating black 'megaphones,' through which they'd look under water to locate the plants on the bottom, then pull them up with long wooden oars. On the placid sea of this particular morning, it looked such a splendid simple life.

I had a quick coffee in town then started up a road to the trail head for the ascent of Mt Rishiri. About halfway up I thumbed a ride with a park employee to an observation deck.

After admiring the view a bit, I started up the trail, a hard muddy ascent up a narrow path. I moved along quickly at first, but then time slowed considerably as the weight of my overstuffed pack caused me to slip often, and to take a two-minute rest for every five spent on foot.

This pace continued after the straight track going directly up the mountainside finally reached the ridge, then began to zigzag along a boulder field. After a short rope-assisted descent, the trail cut sharply across the scar of a recent landslide.

I slowly worked myself across the loose shale, terrified at the sight of rocks shifting above me, the whole mountain seeming to move under my rapidly shuffling feet. I found relief on reaching the other side, but I still faced a steep climb to the top of the ridge. I dumped my pack, and used the ropes to pull myself up more loose shale to the summit. On top was a small shrine and a few boy scouts resting nearby, including one Japanese boy with long blonde hair. Off to the side, the mountain dropped away completely, certain death to anyone who misplaced a step.

I descended quickly, grabbing my pack, and rushed down a trail of wet rocks that turned under every step. This was punishing work and I fell often, cutting both of my palms and my wrists. But I was lucky in comparison. As I made my way down, a helicopter began circling the peak, signifying the obvious. (On the radio the next day I heard that a college student from Saitama had fallen 300 meters and had been hospitalized in Wakkanai.)

I had run out of water hours before so was thrilled to find a fresh spring just before a small campsite. I had been hurrying to catch the last ferry of the day back to Wakkanai, and at this point realized that I'd need a ride to catch it.

Two cars passed me by, and with fifteen minutes left I gave up. As I sat in the road looking at the ferry schedule, a truck offered me a lift and I made my boat with minutes to spare. No direction to head from here but south.


The nearest access point to Rebun and Rishiri, Wakkanai, can be reached by road, rail and air. Trains start in Sapporo and take five to five and a half hours to Wakkanai, highway buses take six hours Sapporo-Wakkanai. From Sapporo Station the Limited Express Super Soya 1 is direct to Wakkanai and costs just over 10,000 yen.

There are flights from both Sapporo and Tokyo to Wakkanai Airport. Wakkanai Airport is just over 30 minutes by bus to Wakkanai.

From Wakkanai, Heart Land Ferry operates car ferries to Rebun and Rishiri and between the two islands.

A range of hotels can be found in Wakkanai. On Rebun the main accommodation options of minshuku, ryokan and hotels are in the ferry port and main town of Kafuka.

Many back-packers stay at the Momoiwa-so Youth Hostel. (www.youthhostel.or.jp/English/n_momoiwaso.htm)

Bicycle hire is available from many hostels and hotels and in the main town of Kafuka on Rebun and Oshidomari on Rishiri.

Rebun Island

There are buses from from Kafuka Port (香深 ) for Cape Sukoton ( スコトン岬) or hitch-hiking is a possibility. Get off the bus at Nairo (香深 ) for the trail to climb Mt. Rebun.

Rishiri Island

The trail head to climb Mt. Rishiri is about an hour's walk from the port at Oshidomari (鴛泊) or take a taxi.

Based in Kyoto, Edward's work has appeared in a variety of print and online publications. Co-editor of the Deep Kyoto Walk anthology, he is currently at work on a series of books about walking Japan's ancient highways.

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