Rishiri Island

The Sunshine Boys: Summit to Sea in Rishiri, Japan

“It’s gonna be insane and we’re going to the top,” Taylor Carlton said through a haze of sake. Maybe the abundant rice wine had altered his memory. Maybe he was still stuck in a feedback loop of anticipation and celebration. We’d been sitting in a little fishing village on Rishiri waiting out the weather for three days, as the Sea of Japan raged with subarctic winds, our ferry out of there delayed for who knows how long. It was early March. The world was about to go into pandemic mode. But we’d already been to the top. And it had been insane. 

Rishiri is a volcanic island off the northwest tip of Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido, just 20 miles south of Russia. Essentially a floating volcano, its name comes from the Ainu language and means “high island.” The extinct cone of Mount Rishiri dominates the landscape, rising to 5,646 feet straight from the sea. The island’s 5,102 residents see few visitors, especially during winter months, when most of the eponymous village shuts down due to consistently harsh weather. Heavy winds scour the island from all sides, rolling in from the Sea of Ohkotsk and the North Pacific. High pressure during winter is rare. 

To get to Rishiri, one must either board a ferry from Wakkanai on northern Hokkaido or catch a daily flight from Sapporo that can be hit or miss. To increase our odds, we’d booked both options. I was traveling with Taylor, Griffin Siebert, Jason Robinson, Jesse Grandkoski, filmer Sean Lucey and photographer Tsutomu Endo. And while we didn’t foresee the coming COVID lockdown, we did manage to depart just ahead of it by plane on Feb. 29. With crystal-clear skies and 360-degree views, Rishiri appeared in the distance—spine-filled ridges guarding deep gullies, weaving from the summit to the sea. A powder-coated volcano filling the horizon…

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