October 27, 2021

Northern Hokkaido

Hokkaido's northern reaches are home to the remote but beautiful islands of Rishiri and Rebun as well as all of Japan's northernmost locations.

Donny Kimball sits on the side of a dock on northern Hokkaido's Rishiri Island

For the longest time, I’ve been itching to feature Hokkaido on this blog. Alas, the prefecture is just so expansive that I’ve struggled to figure out where to begin. Trying to fit all of Hokkaido into a single article is a fool’s errand that would be akin to trying to eat a proverbial elephant in one sitting. At the same time though, this blog is all about Japan’s hidden gems so I also didn’t want to feature popular areas like Sapporo and Biei that have been covered to death already. Perplexed by the prospect of covering the prefecture, I inadvertently put off Hokkaido all this time. If you’ve ever wondered why there’s been a dearth of content about Hokkaido, know that this was the reason.

Luckily, the regional powers that be finally helped me put an end to my incessant dawdling. Just recently, I joined a group of four other travel industry representatives on a mission to Hokkaido’s most northern extremes. Here, our objective was to ascertain whether this remote part of Japan was suitable for overseas visitors (Spoiler Alert: It was!). Seeing as there’s no way that I would ever venture to an amazing slice of rural Japan and NOT write about it, the following is an in-depth account of my trip. Unlike with my usual style for area guides though, I’ll be recounting my travels throughout Japan’s northernmost sections in the first person.

While there are certainly some daunting logistical challenges to overcome if you’re looking to explore this remote side of Japan, I’d wager that the experience is more than worth the required effort to do so. Never in my life have I seen such amazing natural vistas as those that are found in this neck of the woods. Moreover, you’ll be in for a far more authentic adventure than you might find elsewhere in other parts of Hokkaido. Though I’ll do my best to provide a concise overview of each of the locales that we toured, you, the reader, are encouraged to do more digging to uncover additional information.

Getting to Northern Hokkaido

A small plane departs Sapporo for Rishiri Island in northern Hokkaido

Before I get into the many locations that I inspected on my northern bound trip, allow me to first cover the basics of getting to this section of Japan. Unlike with destinations such as Kyoto or even Aomori, getting to northern Hokkaido will require the usage of airplanes. Though you can technically make the trek all the way up to the prefecture’s boreal frontiers via trains, I can’t say I’d advise it. Rather than trying to milk you JR Rail Pass for all that it’s worth, just simply bite the bullet and resign yourself to catching a few flights. Though you’ll need to drop a few more yen, the time you get back is worth it.

Now, there are a handful of airports in Hokkaido to consider. During my stint in the area, we opted to first go to Rishiri Island. Due to the seasonality of flights, this meant that we first needed to fly into Shin-Chitose Airport and then take a bus over to Sapporo Okadama Airport. If you instead elect to visit Wakkanai first, you may be able to take a direct flight from Tokyo International Airport (a.k.a. Haneda) if it’s peak season. Since I didn’t do the route, I cannot comment on its logistical soundness but it may work out for you so do some planning on your own.

Note that I do realize none of these northerly locales that I’ve mention yet have any significance for readers of this article. As a result, you may want to revisit this section after reading the following features. Furthermore, you don’t need to elect to visit all of the spots that I did either. Consider the catalog of locations below that I examined on my outing a mere sampling of what’s on offer. From there, I encourage all readers to do additional research to concoct their own custom itinerary that fits their individual needs and interests. What works for one might not work for another.

By the way, you should know in advance that public transportation is basically nonexistent up here. Though there are a few buses, they shouldn’t be relied upon. While I suppose you could get by with the assistance of a ride from your place of lodging, it would behoove you to either rent a car or hire a driver for the day. Unfortunately, you’ll otherwise just end up missing out on too much to justify an expedition this far north into rural Hokkaido.

Northern Hokkaido’s Rishiri Island

The sun rises over Rishiri Island’s Cape Peshi in northern Hokkaido

As I alluded to above, my adventures in northern Hokkaido began on the remote Rishiri Island. This small landmass can be found around 20 kilometers off of the northern tip of Hokkaido. Essentially, the entirety of Rishiri Island is formed by the coneshapped Mt. Rishiri. This now extinct volcanic peak juts out of the Sea of Japan thereby giving rise to the habitable parts of Rishiri Island. While only a mere 1,721 meters in height, this seemingly towering crag has no other nearby point of comparison and therefore feels as if it’s a lot taller than it is.

As you might imagine, Rishiri Island is quite popular with hikers. Though by no means an easy climb, Mt. Rishiri is regularly challenged by countless mountaineers in Japan. While the ascent to the summit will take you a whole day, Mt. Rishiri is definitely worth considering if you’re an avid fan of climbing mountains. It’s easy to see why the volcano is listed on Japan’s list of 100 Famous Japanese Mountains. While I’ve recently been doing a lot more hiking than I used to, I’d wager that Mt. Rishiri’s beauty is best experienced from below.

Speaking of natural splendor, know that Rishiri Island has a lot of truly beautiful spots to explore. Though most sources suggest that the isle is at its best from June to August when the alpine flora is in bloom, I am going to go out on a limb and recommend early fall as well. While you’ll need to contend with far chillier temperatures than you would down in Tokyo at this time of year, the autumn hues that you’ll be treated with are more than worth the shivers. Just be sure to bring an extra jacket in case!

Here’s a list of some of the spots on Rishiri Island that I toured during my recent sojourn up in northern Hokkaido. The residents of Rishiri Island often use the imagery of a clock face to describe the coordinates of the isles attractions. As you’ll see with the following roster, I’ve opted to follow suit. While this doesn’t make much sense when you’re out and about on the island, the analogy is quite helpful when you see Rishiri Island from a bird’s eye view or on Google Maps.

  • Himenuma
    Literally meaning “Princess Pond,” this small body of water resides on the lower portions of Mt. Rishiri. It’s famous for its reflecting views of Rishiri Island’s iconic peak and is at its best during the months of autumn. You’ll find it at around 2 o’clock.
  • Otatomarinuma
    Found on the southeastern side of Rishiri Island at about 5 o’clock, this natural pond affords impressive views of Mt. Rishiri. Like with Hime-numa, this locale is especially epic during the early fall.
  • Cape Peshi
    Located just next to Rishiri Island’s main port, Cape Peshi’s unique shape is rather symbolic of the island. If you’re up for a short trek, you can get some great views from Cape Peshi or the port town as well as Mt. Rishiri
  • Cape Senhoshi
    Situated at around 7 o’clock on the clock face, this jagged coastline is quite beautiful and also boasts some epic views of Mt. Rishiri. Additionally, there’s also an uni vendor here as well as a shop that processes kombu.
  • Tiny Mt. Pon
    This sub-peak is located around 2 o’clock on the northeastern side of Mt. Rishiri. It can be accessed via the third station on the mountain and is an easy hike for those who aren’t up to challenge its bigger sibling.
  • Rishirifuji Onsen
    So, I am cheating with this one as we didn’t have time on our trip to visit Rishirifuji Onsen but I’ve read elsewhere that it has both indoor and outdoor baths. From what I can gather, admission is only 500 yen too.
Donny Kimball makes a keychain out of seaweed at Rishiri Island’s Shima-no-Eki in northern Hokkaido

Happen to be caught in a rainstorm? Don’t worry! I’ve got you covered. For the price of just a mere 1,500 yen, you can try your hand at some seaweed arts and crafts at Rishiri Island’s Shima-no-Eki. As seen above, here you’ll be given a handpicked selection of seaweed bits that you can arrange into your own masterpiece. I elected to make a keychain but there are other options too. Alternatively, the history buffs might prefer to go to one of the two museums about the isle’s past that I found digging around in Google Maps. Since I haven’t visited either of these facilities, I cannot comment if they are worth it.

Moving on, my fellow non-drivers out there should know that one of the best ways to tour the island is to do so via bicycle. There’s a great cycling road along the island’s northern coast that you can enjoy. This route winds through the mountainside of Mt. Rishiri and is especially attractive during the earlier months of autumn (winter comes quickly when you’re this far north). While some people do opt to bring their own set of wheels, you can also easily rent a bicycle from right in front of Rishiri Island’s main port.

Before wrapping up this section on Rishiri Island, I’d like to note that despite its meager 5,000 person population, the isle actually has a shocking hotel capacity insomuch as rooms are concerned. This is likely due to the fact that Rishiri Island is extremely popular with both hikers and cyclists. Just don’t make the mistake of trying to visit during the wintertime as the majority of the accommodations shut their doors as a result of the low demand!

Northern Hokkaido’s Rebun Island

A view of the Sea of Japan and the Momoiwa from northern Hokkaido’s Rebun Island

Along with Rishiri Island, neighboring Rebun Island is also part of the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park. While Rishiri Island is characterized by its centrally located Mt. Rishiri, Rebun Island is instead a longish isle that runs around 29 kilometers from tip to tip. Though certainly gorgeous in autumn when I visited, Rebun Island is most famous for its unique alpine flora. Many of these plants can only be found on Rebun Island. As a result, the isle enjoys a seasonal spike in visitors from June to August despite being quite remote.

While Rebun Island technically has an airport, it is currently not in use. This means that the journey there will prerequisite that you first visit Rishiri Island (as my group did) or Wakkanai. All in all, you’ll want to budget for around three days for just this pair of islands if possible. Unfortunately, if you want to explore this rural part of northern Hokkaido, you’re largely beholden to the ferry schedules. Therefore, unless you’re in a position to spend as much leisure time as you want on the islands of Rishiri and Rebun, you’d do well to plan your travels around their infrequent departures.

Anyway, enough about boring logistics. Let’s dig on into what Rebun Island has to offer. Of the set of two isles in northern Hokkaido, I found Rebun Island to be the more alluring of the duo. As impressive as the views of Mt. Rishiri are, they alone were not enough to justify me spending another day on Rishiri Island. Rebun Island on the other hand simply has much more to see and do. Likely, this is attributable to its latitudinal superiority. Simply put, things at the northernmost point of Rebun Island (a place known as Cape Sukoton) are quite different ecologically than down at its southernmost point.

After my squad and I landed on Rebun Island, the first thing that we did was make a beeline for the nearby rental cycle shop. For the price of but a mere 3,000 yen, you can snag yourself an electric powered bike here for the day. Once everyone had got their own bicycle, we made our way up towards the Momoiwa Observatory via a winding mountain road. Though the northern half of Rebun Island has few large trees, the southern sections in contrast come alive during the months of autumn. While I regrettably missed the alpine flora during summer, this partially helped to make up for it.

Travelers bike up to Rebun Island’s Momoiwa Observatory in northern Hokkaido

On a normal bike, the path that we took to get to the Momoiwa Observatory would be quite challenging but thanks to the electric motors on our bikes, we were able to easily power up the hill. While we worked up a bit of a sweat, the views from the lookout near the Momoiwa (lit. “Peach Rock’’ in reference to its shape) were worth every calorie burned en route. Not in the mood to bike? Fret not! There’s also a hiking train that you can take too. Though we opted for a more expedient form of transportation, my guide informed me that the trek takes around 30–45 minutes.

Seeing as a nasty storm was starting to roll in by the time we made it back down from the Momoiwa Observatory, we hopped into our bus and quickly drove over to the next location on the itinerary. Located on the western side of the island, this intriguing phenomenon is known as the Nekoiwa (lit. “Cat Rock”). Like with the Momoiwa and a peach, the many locals of Rebun Island believe that the Nekoiwa resembles a cat. If you’re interested in seeing the Neokoiwa, you’ll find it in the sea of Japan, directly below the bluff on which the Momoiwa resides.

When it comes to accomodations on Rebun Island, understand that there are a handful of options. While many people elect to lodge down near the port, there’s also some other spots like Petit Hotel Corinthian up north to consider. Seeing as my group and I were planning to explore the northernmost sections of Rebun Island, we opted to stay in the more conveniently located area. Overall though, you should expect things to be a bit pricier than you’re used to on the mainland. After all, it isn’t exactly cheap to furnish and run a hotel on one of Japan’s remote islands!

My second day on Rebun Island began with a wake up call. You see, the storm that had blown through the night prior had left in its wake a terrible wind. While bad enough when I stepped out of our hotel, the gusts were even worse at Cape Sukai, our first destination of the day. Normally calmly picturesque with waters that look like they belong in Okinawa, Cape Sukai was anything but when I was there. Instead, the gale force winds made it hard to stand up straight, let alone hold my phone. Luckily for anyone reading this article, the conditions are generally calm during Rebun Island’s peak seasons.

Rebun Island’s Cape Sukoton in northern Hokkaido

After sampling what skydiving might feel like at Cape Sukai (albeit with my feet firmly on the ground), the troupe and I made our way towards Cape Sukoton. Officially the northernmost point on the isle, this locale is a must visit for anyone who goes as far as coming to Rebun Island. Oddly enough, there’s a mishuku lodging up here at the edge of the world by the name of Revonies. From what I heard, the wait to make a reservation to stay in this lost corner of northern Hokkaido is months long. If you want something unique, consider giving Revonies a look (assuming you don’t mind the wait).

Though I would have liked to have had another day to leisurely explore Rebun Island, my travel comrades and I had a ferry to catch. After reenacting that ever-iconic scene from Titanic (with nothing but the wind’s support mind you), we made our way back down to the port so that we’d make the next departure that day for Wakkanai. Like I said, travel to and from Rebun Island is largely dictated by the schedules of the ferries. What’s more, you also need to be mindful of the weather as sometimes departures get canceled, thereby trapping you on the island.

The Trip Northern Hokkaido’s Toyotomi Onsen

The ferry ride from northern Hokkaido’s Rishiri and Rebun Island to the port of Wakkanai

After grabbing a quick kaisendon lunch at the ferry terminal, the squad and I embarked on our journey across the sea of Japan. Unfortunately for my traveling companions, the seas were extremely rough that day meaning that the waves that were battering our ship were over 3 meters in height. While everyone else battled with their seasickness, my suicidal self was enjoying the spectacle from the stern of the ship. While risky, the epic scene pictured above of so-called “god rays” made all the risk worth it.

Unfortunately, one of the downsides of the course that we took on our mission up north was the duration of the ferry rides. All in all, the voyage from Rebun Island to the port in Wakkanai clocked in at a little over three hours. Thankfully for my fellow smartphone addicts out there, all of the ships running to and from Rebun Island are equipped with outlets for you to charge up. Before heading out to enjoy the setting sun behind Mt. Rishiri, I actually hammered out a lot of this blog post while plugged in on the ferry.

Once we arrived at Wakkanai safely, we immediately boarded our bus and made a beeline for Toyotomi Onsen. This miniscule hot spring town first popped up in the Taisho period (1912–1926) and has had a cult following ever since. The reason for its popularity is the oddity of its waters. You see, this region was, and still is, used to source fossil fuel. One day while drilling, the workers stumbled across a hot spring source and that was the start of Toyotomi Onsen. To this day, the waters still have an oily quality to them.

Northern Hokkaido’s Toyotomi Onsen during the months of autumn

In comparison to an expansive and built up hot spring town like Kusatsu Onsen, Toyotomi Onsen isn’t much to write home about. That said, the reason that one would want to come here isn’t for the festivities. Instead, the main allure of Toyotomi Onsen is its unique hot springs. Allegedly, they are able to help with all sorts of skin ailment and people from all over the country come to Toyotomi Onsen in search of a cure. While the hot spring does indeed have a unique scent to it, you’ll come out with skin that glistens a new. Don’t knock it until you try it!

If you’re looking to stay at Toyotomi Onsen, any of the handful of ryokan that can be found there should do. We ended up staying at a joint called New Onsen-kaku Hotel but I personally found the Kawashima Ryokan facility to be the most visually appealing. Sadly, access to Toyotomi Onsen isn’t easy if you don’t have your own set of wheels. While there are a few buses that depart from Toyotomi Station, you might instead opt to rent a bike from the train station and pedal your way over. This will allow you more freedom to explore the area as fell as the following local should you so desire.

The Sarobetsu Wetlands in Northern Hokkaido

Northern Hokkaido’s Sarobetsu Primeval Flower Garden and Mt. Rishiri on Rishiri Island

After soaking our weary souls in the waters of Toyotomi Onsen, the band and I got started on our third day of northerly peregrinations. Our next stop was the Sarobetsu Wetland Center and the Sarobetsu Primeval Flower Garden that’s directly behind it. Officially part of the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, this slice of northern Hokkaido is home to a one-of-a-kind wetland ecosystem that’s great for fans of nature and the outdoors. I definitely encourage you to do some more reading if this is the type of place that interests you.

Unfortunately, we only got to explore the small section of the mire that comprises the Sarobetsu Primeval Flower Garden. At it’s best between May and July, this part of the wetland comes alive with over 100 different types of flowers. This epic scene is topped off with views of Mt. Rishiri off the coast of Hokkaido. Despite the fact that my group missed the Sarobetsu Primeval Flower Garden at its peak, the autumn hues pictured above were, at least in my mind, just as impressive. I mean, just look at that shot pictured above; It’s absolutely heavenly!

After taking a bunch of Instaworthy shots of the Sarobetsu Primeval Flower Garden, we made our way to the Sarobetsu Wetland Center. This facility does a great job of summarizing the Sarobetsu Wetland ecosystem in an easy to understand manner. Moreover, it does so in a number of languages, English included of course. Especially if you’re not the type to favor outdoor adventures, know that the Sarobetsu Wetland Center is a great way to get an overview of the geology of the area as well as the flora and wildlife that inhabit it.

Taking Selfies in Northern Hokkaido’s Sarufutsu

The the neverending flatland through which Sarufutsu’s Esanuka Line cuts in northern Hokkaido

Sometimes, the best part of something is nothing at all. In stark contrast to the congested madness of the inner city back in Tokyo, the seemingly endless expanses of northern Hokkaido are something that soothes the soul. While there are a lot of wonderful locales to experience the sensation of neverending grasslands in Hokkaido, perhaps no spot compares to the Esanuka Line pictured above. This 16 km-long strip continues on forever and ever. As seen here, this lets you take some really cool shots for the Gram.

In addition to the calming greenery That the Esanuka Line cuts through, Sarufutsu also has another spot that I recommend you stop by if you have your own set of wheels. Technically nothing but a roadside Michi-no-Eki as the Japanese call them, Roadside Rest Area “Sarufutsu Park has its own hotel with an onsen. What’s more, it also has several restaurants and vendors of local goods. You’ll find it a few minutes’ drive away from Esanuka Line. If you’re in the area, you should definitely pop in for a quick visit!

During our trip through northern Hokkaido, we first hit up the Esanuka Line then continued on to Roadside Rest Area “Sarufutsu Park.” Seeing as Sarufutsu has some of the best milk in Hokkaido, I suggest you snag yourself a sample of this delicious dairy if you’re not lactose intolerant. Heck, if it works for your itinerary, you might even consider staying at the hotel just to say you spent the night AND took a bath at a Japanese service area!

Understanding Northern Hokkaido’s Wakkanai

Donny Kimball poses at Wakkanai’s Cape Soya in northern Hokkaido

Ever since I first learned that we’d be visiting Japan’s northernmost regions, I had been itching to finally get to Wakkanai. This hidden gem has long been on my bucket list but due to the nightmare that was figuring out the logistics I kept putting it off. Especially considering that I can’t drive, navigating the mess that is ferries, flights and transportation was quite the task. While I wish I had crossed it off much sooner than I did, I can thankfully now say that I’ve at last visited Wakkanai.

What makes Wakkanai so special you ask? Well, this city is basically home to ALL of the northernmost things in Japan. Here, you’ll encounter the northernmost train station, convenience store, ramen shop etc. Of course, Wakkanai’s real claim to fame is Cape Soya. Officially considered to be the northernmost point in all of Japan, this attraction is sure to always draw a crowd. Expect to line up in order to get your commemorative shot of being the northernmost person in Japan, if only for a few fleeting moments.

While you’re at Cape Soya, I also implore you to give cycling a try here too. At Base Soya, you can get yourself either a motor-assisted bicycle or a lean mountain bike. If you’re going to follow the course that Base Soya recommends, I highly suggest that you select one of the motor-assisted bikes as the hills here are rather unforgiving. Due to being the youngest member of the group, I was stuck with a regular mountain bike and boy oh boy was it a challenge to get up those slopes!

In addition to the above attractions, there are also a couple of other minor allures that I got to check out while in Wakkanai. Consider visiting one or more of the following if you’re on a more leisurely schedule and can afford to take it slow…

  • Cape Noshappu
    Though not the northernmost point by any stretch, Cape Noshappu has one of the best sunset views in all of Hokkaido. What’s more, the area also has an aquarium and science museum to enjoy should you be traveling with the family. While not a “must visit” like Cape Soya, Cape Noshappu is a fun add-on if you’re looking for more to do in Wakkanai.
  • Wakkanai North Breakwater Dome
    Found near the ferry terminal, the Wakkanai North Breakwater Dome is a symbol of the days of yesteryear and is iconic of Wakkanai. The structure towers at a height of 13.6 metres and makes for some great Instagram shots. While here, try to imagine how the Wakkanai North Breakwater Dome kept passengers safe from waves washing them out to sea.
  • Wakkanai Station
    Located in the center of the city, Wakkanai Station is officially the northernmost station in all of Japan. Additionally, the station complex also houses several options for shopping as well as the local area’s tourist help desk. Consider stopping by if you’re in the area!
Donny Kimball learns curling from a pro at Wakkanai’s Midori Sports Park in northern Hokkaido

During my day and a half in Wakkanai, I also got a chance to try my hand at curling, that odd sport that only ever pops up on the radar during the winter Olympics. Due to the cold climate, Wakkanai is actually an area that is perfectly suited to the sport. I mean, where else in Japan are you going to find an ice rink, let alone a curling one. To be frank, it really should come as no surprise that the sport is so popular up here. Moreover, many of Japan’s top players hail from Wakkanai.

Should you want to cross curling off of your “to do before I die” list, you can actually do so at Wakkanai. At Midori Sports Park, you can both rent the gear needed for curling as well as get instructions from a seasoned veteran (you’ll need it). The group and I had many laughs as we struggled to perfect the grace that you often see professional players exhibit during the winter Olympics. If you don’t mind slipping and sliding all over the ice, do consider giving curling a try while you’re in Wakkanai!

Oh — before I forget! If you didn’t get the old man joke embedded in the subtitle of this section, know that Wakkanai sounds quite similar to a slang pronunciation of 分からない (read as “wakaranai”). Seeing as this means “I don’t understand” in Japanese, I couldn’t help myself from making a bad joke.

Attractions Near Northern Hokkaido

The Russian national flag is used to represent the fact that Sakhalin is close to Wakkanai in northern Hokkaido

So, what else is near these northernmost extremes of Japan? Well, Russia for starters! Just kidding; while this part of Hokkaido is indeed near the motherland of vodka, I’d never be caught dead promotion anywhere that isn’t Japan. I mean, I am a humble servant of the Daikon Cult, aren’t I? Instead, I am going to suggest that you take some time to explore more of Hokkaido. As mentioned before, this landmass is just as massive as the island of Kyushu despite it being just only one prefecture.

Seeing as the northernmost extremes of Hokkaido are quite rural, why not counterbalance this by heading down to Sapporo and Hakodate for a change of pace. Alternatively, there’s also a lot of great natural scenery to enjoy all over Hokkaido too. Rather than make this exposé any longer than it already is though, I am just going to direct anyone to a Google query for now. Hopefully in the future though, I’ll have a lot more of Hokkaido’s allures documented for you in their own stand alone pieces.

Until next time travelers…