Exploring the northernmost tip of Japan

Travellers visiting the farthest reaches of Japan can take in nature's bounty and learn about its indigenous culture and Cold War past

The wind keeps its secrets in the northernmost tip of Japan.

In the fishing town of  Wakkanai, a boat ride from Russia, unwary tourists hear of Cold War intrigue in one breath and, in the next, are swept into the sea. Winds blowing Siberian chill can tear off car doors and halt traffic on the roads and waters.

A two-hour ferry ride away, on rustic Rishiri Island, the storm stirs leaves on wet, autumn trails. Footing on the path is as elusive as the mystery of what happened to the Ainu. The indigenous tribe once named and shaped this space, but seems to exist mostly in allusion.

The wind catches my 36-seater plane at the end of its hour-long journey from Sapporo airport. Cameras are ready to capture Mount Rishiri, 1,721m-tall and perpetually frosted, rising from the perfect circle of the island below.

A sudden gust flips up the tail of the plane and knocks smartphones and recording devices from hands. The fragile aircraft bucks and shudders. Only the visitors from Singapore shriek. Returning residents hug boxes of Sapporo treats and grimly endure the convulsions.

After 10 minutes of avoiding freak winds in a sky-high game of tag, the plane lands. "Mount Rishiri is shy," says my guide Chie Moue, pointing to the cloud-wrapped mass.

  • GETTING THERE

    On Oct 1, Scoot (www.flyscoot.com) started a direct flight from Singapore to Sapporo, with a roughly one-hour stopover in Taipei. The flight operates three times a week on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and takes about 10 hours. Airfares vary with the season, but regular return all-in economy tickets start at $418, excluding baggage and meals.

    From Sapporo's Okadama airport, Japan Airlines and Hokkaido Air System operate flights direct to Rishiri Island. Go to www.jal.co.jp for fares and travel dates.

    Ferries operate twice daily between Rishiri Island and Wakkanai, and the trip takes 1 hour 40 minutes. Prices start at 1,090 yen (S$14.60) a seat, with the option of Western or tatami seats. Trips may be cancelled because of bad weather.

  • TRAVEL TIPS

    • The best time to visit the northernmost parts of Japan is from April to September, from the spring thaw and into summer. This is also the high season, so prices will be higher.

    • Until recently, Wakkanai and Rishiri Island catered mostly to domestic tourists. With few English-speaking staff at hotels and restaurants, expect to rely heavily on the tourism information desks for bookings and help with itineraries.

    • Towards the end of summer, strong winds and sudden storms can derail sightseeing plans. Gusts have been known to tear off car doors in Wakkanai or blow unprepared travellers off their feet.

    Book into a hotel with an onsen and wait out bad weather with a relaxing soak. On Rishiri Island, try the Rishiri Marine Hotel (marine-h.com/english). In Wakkanai, try the Wakkanai Grand (www.wakkanai-g-hotel. jp/en/).

Indeed. The landform is visible from every point on the island during my two-day stay here, but never once shows its snowy peak.

Visitors to Hokkaido expect snow and skiing. But only expert skiers can dare the slopes of Mount Rishiri in the winter. Unprepared tourists are begged to not even try the six-hour trek up- it might take too long to raise a helicopter to rescue the stranded. There are no ski lifts, manicured lodges or equipment rental shops. Rishiri Island is a place formed in fire and whose residents wrest their livelihood from icy waters.

Only 60km around the edges, Rishiri Island is a dream destination for lovers of outdoor sports. Biking and hiking trails criss-cross the island. The trails pass lakes enshrined on gleaming packages of the famous Shiroi Koibito ("white lovers") biscuits. They go around capes remembered in nostalgic songs from the 1960s.

A marathon is held on the first Sunday of June, a cycle race on the first Sunday of August. There is no triathlon event. Even in midsummer, when temperatures rise to a steamy 24 deg C, the seawater is so cold that swimmers build fires on the shoreline.

There is no real beach. The coast is carved from black rocks spewed by the dormant volcano at the height of its fury. In my late-autumn visit, Mount Rishiri wears mostly green skirts with hints of yellow and orange. There are beech trees and firs unique to Hokkaido. There are deer, there are innumerable species of birds.

At the jagged mouth of Cape Senpoushi (or Cape Senhoshi), there are seals. Two baby seals separated from a summer herd were rescued by fishermen and now provide a delightful surprise to a journalist here to watch the sunset.

I throw them small fish, a delightful surprise to the man whose store sells them. He demonstrates the use of what appears to be a camera tripod. It is a tool for tangling fronds of kelp and lifting huge bunches of it out of the sea.

Volcanic soil is rich and Mount Rishiri provides well for her people. It is rumoured that the imperial kitchen uses Rishiri konbu to make dashi stock. Beds of kelp mat the coastline and the main pests are uni - delicious, expensive sea urchins.

Rishiri Island last year produced 205 tonnes of kelp and 47 tonnes of uni. Harvesting pest and plant can net a worker US$200,000 (S$280,000) a year, Ms Moue says. And they work only in summer, from April to end-September.

The store owner offers me a job if I return in summer. However, his annual need for help is far greater than my command of Japanese.

I understand the labour problem, when the rising wind sends an icy wave to drench my jeans and sneakers. Needing the joy of socks - dry ones - I return to the hotel for a soak in the onsen. The chill wind blowing through my wet clothes further explains the store owner's lack of helping hands.

Rishiri Island has barely 4,900 residents. More move every year to Wakkanai or Sapporo or other towns where they do not need to hunch for hours in frigid waters, twisting their spines and tearing their skin on prickly urchins and sharp blades of kelp.

Scientists built an Iron Man-type suit, an external skeleton, to help mitigate the effects of hunching. It has not slowed emigration.

One option is for residents to branch out into tourism.

After a steamy bath in local waters, I inhale the briny tang of uni just prised out of its shell by an accommodating hotel worker. I ask Ms Moue for the history of the Ainu who lived here. "Rishiri", written with the Japanese characters for "profit" and "bottom", is actually an Ainu word.

Ms Moue's face falls. Like most Japanese I encounter in Hokkaido, she knows of the Ainu, but not of their stories.

The word Ainu means "human" in their language. They are indigenous to Hokkaido. They wore garments and drove herds as did the Mongolians of the Chinese steppes or the north-eastern tribes of India.

They had a unique culture and language now woven into the Hokkaido Tourism Authority's newest campaign. Instead of the "konichiwa" of standard Japanese, I was greeted with "Irankarapte" in Sapporo. It means "hello" in Ainu.

I learn about the Ainu after a 100-minute ferry ride to Wakkanai. A bus trip takes me to the Centennial Tower, which promises marvellous views from an observation deck 240m above sea level. The day I arrive, the deck is closed.

Situated at the northernmost tip of the northern island of Hokkaido, at latitude 45 deg 31 min north, Wakkanai is easy prey for sea storms and icy gales. In 1936, the city constructed a 427m-long and 13.6m-high breakwater dome. On days like this, it is little help.

I crouch in the shelter of stones, wait for a lull and then race to the tower. The door closes. The cheated wind howls, battering the walls.

It is far too dangerous to go up to the observation deck. I wander around the museum of history, looking at arrowheads and stone tools used by the Ainu in the past.

A photo montage shows female switchboard operators on Sakhalin Island in the 1940s, back when Japanese citizens boarded daily ferries back and forth from Wakkanai and the Russian outpost. The operators killed themselves in 1942, fearing the advancing Russian army. Today, Japanese citizens need a passport to go to Sakhalin Island. There are still daily ferries. The boat, Penguin 33, is leased from Singapore.

Heading to the ferry terminal, I pass a herd of wild deer. They come down from the Soya Hills to feast on town garbage. It is easier pickings as the season turns towards winter.

Wakkanai, population 37,000, is a shadow of its former self. In the 20th century, this was a fishing town, a boom economy. Trawl owners such as Mr Seto Tsunezo could invite famous sumo wrestlers from Tokyo all the way to the northernmost tip of Japan for tea. His house is now a heritage building. His extensive fishing industry has dwindled to a gas station run by his grandson.

After the United Nations' Law of the Sea Treaty was adopted in 1982, the Seto family's ships, like so many others, could no longer venture out far enough. Catches dwindled. So did the town.

But after years battening down the hatches, a fairer wind is blowing. Japan is working to bring international tourists into the country's farthest reaches. Airline services such as the new Singapore-Sapporo flight which Scoot started on Oct 1 are key to revitalising this part of Japan.

Like the deer of Hokkaido, its people are adapting to changing winds. Or perhaps like the wind farm powering Wakkanai's street lights and heating, its people are transforming a deadly force into much-needed strength.


Where to go

RISHIRI ISLAND

Cape Senhoshi (also known as Cape Senpoushi)

While waiting for the sunset, feed seals rescued by local fishermen. The friendly store owner sometimes demonstrates how kelp is harvested.

Address: Senhoshimisaki Park, Rishiri District

Admission: Free


Himenuma Pond

Take the 1km trail around this picturesque swamp to try the Japanese custom of "forest bathing", which refers to spending time in a natural environment.

Address: Rishiri Fuji, Rishiri District

Admission: Free


Lake Otatomari

The largest lake on Rishiri Island is featured on the cover of the famous Shiroi Koibito ("white lovers") biscuits. Propose to your partner at the viewing deck and you will get a "proposal certificate". Registration is required first at the Tourism Information Desk at the Oshidomari Ferry Terminal.

Kameichi, near the entrance to the lake, offers ocean-fresh seafood (600 yen, or S$8, a piece of uni sushi) and variations of the local speciality, konbu kelp.

Address: Numaura Oniwaki, Rishiri Fuji

Admission: Free


Getting around Rishiri Island

City buses operate from May to end-October and stop at major tourist spots. Rent cars at the airport or bicycles at the Oshidomari Ferry Terminal near the airport.

The Rishiri Fuji Tourism Association (tel: 0163-82-1114 or 0163-82-2201) can book you on tour buses or tourist taxis. It also helps travellers make hotel bookings (tel: 0163-82-1837).

The Oshidomari Ferry Terminal tourism desk is open from April 15 to Oct 15. Another in the west of the island, at the Kutsugata Ferry Terminal, opens from May to September.


WAKKANAI

Cape Soya, the northernmost point of Japan

Situated at 45 degrees 31 min north, Cape Soya is the northernmost point of Japan. On a clear day, visitors can glimpse the coast of Sakhalin Island, which belongs to Russia.

Address: Soyamisaki, Wakkanai City

Admission: Free


Centennial Tower & Hoppo Memorial Museum

Built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the town of Wakkanai, the Centennial Tower rises 240m above sea level. For Japanese speakers, the museum on the ground floor has information on Ainu culture and Wakkanai history. Most poignant is the photo montage of the Japanese telegraph operators who lived on Sakhalin Island during World War II, but killed themselves in fear of the advancing Russian army.

Address: Wakkanai Park

Admission: 400 yen (adults), 200 yen (elementary and junior school children). Open April 29 to Oct 31


Getting around Wakkanai

Rent a car, use sightseeing buses or taxis. A roughly four-hour sightseeing bus trip, which includes Cape Soya and the Centennial Tower, costs 3,600 yen a person.

For bus schedules go to www.soyabus.co.jp.

For more information, go to www.welcome.wakkanai. hokkaido.jp

•This is the first of a two-part series on Hokkaido. Next week: Family-style Hokkaido.

•The writer's trip was hosted by Scoot together with Hokkaido District Transport Bureau, Hokkaido Tourism Organisation and Asahikawa Touring Promotion Council.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 06, 2016, with the headline 'A windy tour of northern Japan'. Print Edition | Subscribe