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adventure & travel

The Sensei from Mount Rishiri

A photographic dream becomes reality

by Nicolas Fojtu 02/21/2016
A single photo had taken over our minds. It was an aerial view of an island in the deep blue Sea of Japan. At its center stands a lonely mountain with snow-covered slopes. Deep furrows carve out gullies, form wide slopes and gently run out towards the forested coast. We had to go there - to find out if it really exists.

A wrong turn across Hokkaido lies behind us. A snowstorm is sweeping across Japan's northernmost island and we have to drive right through it, making sure we don't miss the ferry, the island, the good weather window and the summit. The crossing had picked up emotionally where the car journey over the glassy, snow-covered roads had left off. Waves thundered against the metal walls at irregular intervals and masses of water smashed against the windows of the ferry. With a sinking feeling in our stomachs, we finally arrive at the port of Oshidomari, in the north of the island of Rishiri.


All the hardships of the journey are forgotten the moment Toshi, our host and mountain guide, welcomes us into his home. He is visibly happy to see us and welcomes us as warmly as if we were old friends who have finally come together again. With his dark tanned, slightly leathery skin and his broad, warm smile, he reminds me more of a Sherpa than a Japanese man. A little later, we are all sitting at a table, leaning over the map of Rishiri. Toshi speaks simple English to us, or Japanese on his cell phone. After a short pause, a digital gong sounds and a female voice gives the translation in English. We laugh heartily, because it's not unusual for total nonsense to come out. "Tomorrow summit attempt". Yes, that sounds promising. "Maybe snow is very hard", "Maybe summit only by foot, no skis". Uff, yes, if we have to. We just want to get up there, even without a snowboard if necessary. We already knew that Mount Rishiri has its moods. In winter, cold air fronts from Siberia regularly push over the Sea of Japan and hit Mount Rishiri unchecked. And this has actually been the case for the last few days, but the wind seems to have blown the snow right off the island again, the sensei explains.


Apart from the harsh weather, the ascent of the 1792-metre-high Mount Rishiri does not pose any major alpine challenges. Assessing the current avalanche situation seems to me to be the biggest hurdle on this mountain - because the conditions are constantly changing. Maps at a scale of 1:50'000 can be downloaded online from the Geographical Institute of Japan, but there is no English translation of the website. So you will search in vain for the Japanese download or print function. This means that you have to rely on help. A Japanese friend in Switzerland had already helped us download the maps. So we had a whole set of printed maps with us. But Toshi is the only person on the whole island who can help you assess the snow and weather.
He trained as a mountain guide twelve years ago and returned to the island where he was born and raised at the age of 33.

Today, around 5,000 people live on the island of Rishiri, most of whom make a living from collecting sea cucumbers and algae, fishing, a craft or tourism. Together with his sister, an excellent cook, and his wife, Toshi built a nice little accommodation with around 10 guest rooms at the foot of Mount Rishiri. In summer, the family business runs at full speed. When around 6000 hikers make the pilgrimage up the mountain from July to September, Toshi enlists the help of a mountain guide friend. On special days in the Shinto calendar, up to 300 people may make a pilgrimage to the small shrine on the summit in one day. "Toshi very busy," he says with a nasal emphasis, proudly showing us a book of local botany that he has written himself. In winter, however, the island is very quiet and only very few people go up the mountain - almost all of them with Toshi as their guide.


The sky is gray and the mountain is covered in low clouds. But the most important thing is that there is almost no wind. After two to three hours, we reach the shoulder of the north-western foothills of the ridge. It is bitterly cold and we are wearing all the layers of clothing we brought with us. The snow is completely blown away and we often had to navigate our crampons very carefully over frozen bushes, which made walking almost impossible in places. At around 1200m, Toshi proudly shows us a shelter that he has built himself. He frees a hatch from the ice on the wood with his pickaxe, opens the shutters and leads us down into the dark. We drink green tea, eat dried fish, rice balls and chocolate at the same time. It is the light from outside that suddenly makes me curious. So I climb out of the hole and, blinded, peer between my fingers with my hands in front of my eyes.

The light suddenly casts shadows, the mist above me glows brightly and blurred contours emerge from the gray - is this the summit? Towards the west, the ridge on which the hut stands breaks off steeply and wafts of mist reveal a huge slope below. The clouds continue to dissipate and no matter where I look, all I can see are the huge, perfectly curved, 30-35° steep, powder-filled slopes. I suddenly hear voices behind me, and then an "Ohhhhhhh, ahhhhhh, today, very special day!". Toshi has been to the summit over 500 times, and yet today he is really excited about the conditions. The higher we climb, and the more fresh snow he has to track with his skis, the more often he repeats how lucky we are today.


We bubble away contentedly in the hotel's own onsen with a view of the summit of Mount Rishiri. We could never have dreamed of being able to plunge directly into these slopes from the summit, with powder snow from top to bottom and perfect weather. For the rest of the week, we go on independent tours on all sides of Mount Rishiri. The evening before, Toshi shows us which sector we should go to, where he thinks the snow will be good and where we need to watch out for the wind. He spreads out a pile of photographs in front of him. His collection of pictures shows various terrain chambers on Mount Rishiri. Toshi has neatly drawn downhill lines on them with a red pen and named all the pre-summits and peaks. "Tomorrow, here, here and here maybe very good snow."

And so we experience the mountain in all its facets: long ascents through the flat forest and the associated orientation difficulties, weather changes, gale-force winds and bright sunshine on the same day, but also gullies in which we leave meter-high clouds of dust in the air.


The ferry lets out a deep sigh from its horn as it leaves the port. The sky is almost cloudless, the sea is lapped by small, short waves and Toshi has been waving after us for almost two minutes. He waves until he is just a small dot on the harbor wall. Now we can see the mountain once again in all its glory and remember why we came here in the first place. We take home not only the memories of Mount Rishiri, but also of his sensei.

Further information:

Travel / Transportation:
There is no public transportation on the island. The Maruzen Pension Rera Mosir offers transportation including pick-up service from the ferry port in Oshidomari. If you rent your own car and take the ferry from Wakkanai (Hokkaido), you will pay a hefty surcharge for the vehicle, but you are much more independent. The quickest way to get to the island is to fly directly from Saporro. Ski tours:
Ski tours can be undertaken from Mount Rishiri in almost all exposures. The difficulties on the ascent range from the relatively easy normal route via the north-west ridge to very steep ascents on the east side. The descents are all quite demanding and steep. The long forest passages in particular require very good skiing technique. Easy, short tours can be undertaken on Ponyama, the small local mountain of Oshidomari.
It is highly advisable to get to know the mountain with a local mountain guide. Toshiya Watanabe also leads larger groups to the summit. The ascent can be shortened by around 500m using snowmobiles. The normal route to Mount Rishiri via the north-west ridge: Length: 1700m or 1200m with snowmobile support
Duration: 6-7 hours or 4-5 hours
Difficulties: As the ridges are often blown off, walking with skis is challenging. Crampons, crampons and ice axe advisable. Depending on how you enter the descent route, you have to expect places around 35-40° degrees. Accommodation:
Maruzen Pension Rera Mosir
Toshi and his family are very nice and offer a great service. In-house onsen. Top cuisine with lots of local delicacies. Japanese rooms with futon and tatami or nice rooms with normal beds.
+81 163 82 2295 and drink:
Either in the guesthouse by prior arrangement, or in one of the few restaurants in Oshidomari (knowledge of Japanese is an advantage). Mountain guide:
Toshiya WatanabeJapanese maps:

Text: Nicolas Fojtu / Helvetic Backcountry

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This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

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