Rishiri Island remains a relatively untouched destination in northern Japan with just over 5000 inhabitants and a circumference of around 60km (37 miles). At the very centre rests Mt. Rishiri, a dormant volcano that overlooks the island with a towering elevation of 1721 meters (5646 feet). The passage of time has carved out a wide array of ridges and valleys that stretch out from the core of the island to its coast, creating one of the best and most secluded skiing destinations in the world.

Rishiri Island backcountry skiing

Rishiri Island isn’t merely distant in geographical terms; it’s a world apart from the hectic and active environment of Japan’s other iconic destinations such as Tokyo and Kyoto. This serene island is the ideal getaway for adventurers that are looking for a true wilderness experience in a natural sanctuary.

With a long and rich history, dating back to the Jomon period (10,000-300 BCE), this island is believed to be a sacred place. Its original inhabitants, the Ainu people, called the island “Rusiru”, which means “island with a high peak”. Once the Japanese began to colonize Rishiri Island in the 14th century, they built a number of shrines and temples, including the Rishiri Shrine, dedicated to the god of the sea.

Today, Rishiri Island is a hidden gem for skiers from all over the world. It is home to ski-ready ridges that extend from Mount Rishiri, offering a full 360-degree expanse for skiing. From rolling hills to steep slopes, Rishiri Island offers something for skiers of all levels. The island also receives generous amounts of snowfall that help create the perfect conditions for backcountry skiing and snowboarding.

As skiers make their way through the slopes of Rishiri Island, they’re treated to fascinating views of the Sea of Japan and the surrounding mountains. The trails of the cone-shaped Mount Rishiri change hues with the passing seasons, like a living canvas.

Rishiri Island

In spring, the slopes are painted with a lush green, covered in a carpet of fresh moss and wildflowers. As summertime approaches, you can find the wildflowers blooming in a kaleidoscope of hues, from delicate white to vibrant pinks and purples. In autumn, the leaves on the trees change color, creating a palette of reds, oranges, and yellows, while in winter, the slopes are covered in a serene white cloak of powdered snow. Each season offers a unique visual experience, a testament to the island’s dynamic nature.

There are a plethora of incredible natural landmarks on the island waiting to be unveiled, such as the Himenuma Pond, a beautiful lake nestled within the mountains where, on clear days, it is possible to see the reflection of Mount Rishiri in the water. This is known as the “Diamond-Rishiri” phenomenon, since the reflection of the mountain is so clear that it looks like a diamond.

Cape Senhoshi Park is another beautiful site located on the southernmost tip of Rishiri Island. This park is known for its stunning views of the Sea of Japan and its unique natural rock formations; it is also home to a colony of spotted seals, which you actually can feed yourself!

After a thrilling day on the slopes, skiers can unwind in one of the island’s natural hot springs surrounded by mountains and forests. These soothing waters offer a relaxing way to rejuvenate the body and soul while soaking up the views of Mount Rishiri and the Sea of Japan.

To cap off a day full of exploration, adventurers can enjoy the island’s unique culinary offerings, including fresh seafood. Rishiri kombu, a type of seaweed that is grown in the waters around Rishiri Island, is renowned for its fresh, aromatic flavour and its many health benefits. Hoteagai (scallops) are another popular seafood dish on Rishiri Island. They are often grilled or steamed and served with a simple dipping sauce. To accompany these delicious dishes, some Rishiri Ainu Wine, made from grapes that are grown on the island, or Rishiri Ainu Sake, a type of sake made from rice also grown locally, would be the perfect pairing.

Rishiri Island backcountry skiing

Rishiri Island offers a truly unique backcountry skiing experience. If you’re convinced this is a destination for your bucket list, you might need some prior preparations beforehand, as the journey to the island involves a few logistical steps. Here are some tips on how to begin your preparations:

How Can I Reach Rishiri Island?

The island is accessible by ferry from Wakkanai, the northernmost city of Japan’s main islands. There are direct flights from Tokyo (Haneda Airport) and Sapporo (New Chitose Airport) to Wakkanai Airport, which is the main airport for Rishiri Island. The flight from Tokyo takes about two hours, and the flight from Sapporo takes about one hour. Once in Wakkanai Airport, you can take a taxi or a bus to the Wakkanai Port Ferry Terminal, where you can catch a ferry to Rishiri Island. The ferry ride itself is a memorable 2-hour journey, providing stunning coastal views as you approach the island.

Rishiri Island ferry from Wakkanai

Do I need a mountain guide to go backcountry skiing on Rishiri Island?

A local guide can exponentially enhance your experience by helping you discover the best routes, navigate the island’s terrain and most importantly, spot potential hazards. Safety should always be a top priority when exploring the mountains, and a guide’s expertise is the ideal option to ensure your well-being.

A capable guide can also help you by recommending the optimal time to visit the island based on your preferences and skill level. The weather conditions can vary depending on multiple factors, so consulting with experts who have experience skiing in the area is paramount.

Backcountry skiing requires specific skills such as avalanche awareness, route planning, and emergency preparedness. With the expertise of a guide, you can ensure you are prepared to complete your trip safely. They can also help you to identify essential gear you’ll need to bring along, such as avalanche safety equipment, proper clothing for winter conditions, and communication devices.

Rishiri Island mountain guide

As is the norm across much of Japan, fluency in English among locals on Rishiri Island is limited. A guide can be also be particularly helpful in this regard by bridging this communication gap, providing smoother interactions with the local community.

If you are looking for a knowledgeable and experienced guide to help you explore Rishiri Island, look no further than Toshiya Watanabe. Born and raised on the island, Toshiya has a deep passion for the outdoors and has been skiing since he was a child. He is a certified ski guide (level 2) by the Japanese Mountain Guide Association (JMGA) and has summited Mount Rishiri over 500 times.

Toshiya is not only an expert skier, but he is also knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna. He can customize a trip to suit any level of experience, from beginners to experienced skiers. In addition to his mountain guiding business, Toshiya also manages a family hostel, so you can stay with him and his family during your visit.

As Toshiya says, “Skiing here isn’t for everyone, but for some, it’s unforgettable.” If you are looking for an unforgettable skiing experience, contact certified guide Toshiya Watanabe today.

Do I need a backcountry skiing permit?

Rishiri Island is a protected national park, therefore a backcountry skiing permit is required to access certain areas. The permit is required to help ensure the safety of skiers and to protect the environment. These can be obtained at the local tourist information centre or online in advance.

You can apply for a backcountry skiing permit at the Rishiri Town Office. The permit costs ¥3,000 ($20 USD) for a single day or ¥10,000 ($68.85 USD) for a season pass.

To apply for a permit, you will need to provide the following information:

  • Your name
  • Your passport number
  • Your date of birth
  • Your address
  • Your skiing experience
  • The dates you plan to ski in the backcountry
  • You will also need to submit a copy of your passport and a recent photograph.

Once you have applied for a permit, you will need to attend a safety briefing. The briefing will cover topics such as avalanche safety, wilderness first aid, and environmental ethics.

Rishiri Island skiing

What is the best time to ski in Rishiri Island?

The season for backcountry skiing on Rishiri starts around mid to late December, however skiers seeking optimal conditions may prefer to leave their trip until March or April, when the island’s notoriously difficult weather is at its most stable.

The powdery snow and clear, crisp air make for a thrilling skiing experience, and the longer days allow for more time on the slopes.

Payment methods in Rishiri Island

Credit and debit cards are not widely used on Rishiri Island. It is important to carry enough Japanese yen with you to cover your expenses. You can withdraw money from the ATM at the Post Office. Most hotels do not accept credit cards, and there is no currency exchange service on the island. Tipping is not customary in Japan, so you do not need to tip for service.

Once you’ve arrived on Rishiri Island and taken care of logistics, it’s time to embark on your backcountry skiing adventure. Respect the environment, follow local guidelines, and interact respectfully with the local communities. By doing so, you’ll not only have an unforgettable skiing experience but also contribute to the preservation of this incredible destination.

Rishiri Island adventure

Rishiri Island is a truly special place. It is a place where natural beauty and cultural heritage come together to create something unique. If you are looking for a challenging and rewarding skiing experience, Rishiri Island is a great option. The island offers stunning scenery, challenging terrain, and excellent snow conditions. And with its ever-changing colors, Rishiri Island is sure to provide a memorable skiing experience.

This article was produced by the team at Explore-share, a booking engine for guided adventures everywhere, with over 11,000 trip listings in 70+ countries and more than 400 unique adventures in Japan alone. They have been a trusted partner of Ski Asia since 2019. To learn more or express interest in a guided tour on Rishiri Island, complete this 2-minute enquiry form and a team member will get back to you.


Japan backcountry skiingOrganise your guided backcountry skiing tour in Japan

There are lots of options in Hokkaido and Honshu that can be tailored to the kind of skiing you like and when you plan to come. Answer a few questions and we’ll get back to you with some recommendations.

Enquire Now