Answering to the Call on Mount Rishiri
You never forget where you were when the question hits: How did I get here, to this other world? If you’re coming from anywhere other than the island itself, the journey to Japan is a marathon of connections and long-haul flights. Despite the distance, it’s become a beloved prelude to Japan, a journey just long enough to compliment the feeling of being transported to another world. It’s a love only overtaken by that feeling when a motley crew of six— all of whom journeyed across oceans and continents—meet up at baggage claim carting all manners of boards and gear equipped to chase turns on the fabled Mt. Rishiri.
Mt. Rishiri, known as the floating mountain, is not keen to let visitors summit casually. While the topography is rather straightforward, it’s the relentless wind and obscured vision that Mt. Rishiri is known for. Nevertheless, you show up and see where the invitation leads you and pray you don’t get completely skunked.
The rough idea was this: the crew is to head north across Hokkaido, and ferry from Wakkanai to Rishiri Island. To refresh our legs and break up the 8-hour drive from Sapporo, we’d spend a couple of days touring and riding around the bubbling thermal vents of Asahidake. Asahidake is the tallest mountain in Japan’s Daisetsuzan National Park. Easily accessed via the Asahidake Ropeway tram. Called “Kamuimintara” by the indigenous Ainu people the mountain is known as the garden where gods play. Sure, we aren’t gods, but we intended to play.
You’re never so stimulated as you are when you are in a foreign country driving along unfamiliar roads on the opposite side of the road in the opposite side of the car all for the first time. As the flats became foothills and mountains and grass became a mix of white birch and matsu (Japanese pines) forest our energy ignited. In the morning, as we rolled into the parking lot of Asahidake Ropeway, it was pouring rain. We figured with some nasty wind forecasted for the next day we’d take our chances with the rain.
You know how people can look like their dogs? I’d never met anyone whose appearance matched their board so perfectly as legendary snow surfer Kazumasa Jr. Yamada. A credit to our incredible local fixer and shredder Pizza, Jr met up with us to show us around the mountain. Dare you to meet the man and think of him as anything other than a weapon. With narrow features and a slender silhouette, standing beside his towering 186cm Impossible Gentemstick, another weapon entirely in itself, everything about Jr oozes sharpness and finesse. We did our best to speak above the rain pelting the tram box. It’s never anything new being challenged with bad conditions, it only matters how you salvage the day. In anticipation of becoming wet dogs, the moment the tram docked we battened down the hatches of our gear and stepped outside.
All geared up in a very distant landscape after 24+ hours of travel, sleep deprived, and getting ready to drop into the “thing” will forever be a surreal experience. Here we were, standing atop the tram, with my vertigo starting and our initial inspiration slightly dulled. No sooner than we circled up, the milky cloud cover turned into rocky slopes punctuated with violently churning vents. The rain stopped and the wind did the rest. Hyped, we started towards the vents. Unreal.
Considering the time of year, we couldn’t be anything other than grateful for the conditions we found ourselves in. The snow was thin but enough to lay a turn in. After standing in awe like dwarves among the giant vents, it wasn’t long before Argentine shredder and Roark ambassador Manu Dominguez noticed an ideal spot for a turn along the wind lip contouring the vents. What followed was one of the most creative and fun hours-long sessions I’ve ever been a part of. One after another we hiked the adjacent hill and dropped into play with how close we could get to the spewing Sulphur and steam. It wouldn’t be the only time Manu’s infectious motivation to ride would rally the crew. Beers in hand and riding giddy, we haphazardly made our way through the perfectly spaced birch trees to Onsen.
Back on the road we started towards the ferry in Wakkanai. Stopping along the way in Nayoro to rest, indulge in the roadside all-you-can-eat sushi, and throw some darts at a local bar. No moment is left unsavored. Is there anything better than being on the road with a crew whose shared purpose is to explore a place we’ve never been? All together chasing the feeling of being expansive and spontaneous and a little detached, there is so much in life where we all must constantly be attached to— it’s good to let go.
At the port in Wakkanai, we boarded the ferry; Rishiri in our sights somewhere beyond the waves, clouds, wind, and rain. The crossing was hands down one of the rowdiest moments I think any one of us has experienced on the open ocean. The ferry felt like a bath toy bobbing between the massive waves. Wind and rain ravaging our faces and hair, we howled with laughter as the ocean spray blasted us. Soaking wet and red in the face we arrived and met our local Rishiri guides Shingo and Loki and took off to check the surf.
Rishiri Island, administratively part of Hokkaido but a realm unto itself, greeted us with full fishing village charm. Along the main road—that circumnavigates the island— the coast is dotted with modest homes adorned with countless trellised seaweed strands hung by the weathered hands of local farmers. Rishiri, like any fishing village, isn’t a wealthy place but it’s clear the people have love, tradition, and purpose. After watching Nate, Shingo, and Manu make the best of the evening set, we made for ramen and Onsen.
In the morning we started our approach. Sun shining, fueled by mass amounts of onigiri, we marched like perforated dots towards the ridge. As we climbed, the gusts and firmness of the slope increased. Whenever you think you don’t need ski crampons, just throw them in your bag for good luck. You won’t regret it. Topping out at the false summit before the final climb, seeing the summit obscured it became clear that the top wasn’t for us. A healthy reminder in this day and age that nature's whims still take precedence.
As we descended the slopes, the ice returned to slush, one after another we chased the contours of each other’s lines. Below the wind, Manu and Pizza led the charge for a different more appropriate line to session. Just because the summit wasn’t in the cards, didn’t mean the whole mountain was off limits. We’d come from Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, America, and the road just to be in the moment together, our fulfillment from the trip couldn’t be denied by a summit. There’s always more to explore, you just have to answer the call.