The Floating Mountain: Japan's most remote ski destination (2023)

(Image credit:

Francesco Bassetti


The Floating Mountain: Japan's most remote ski destination (1)

By Francesco Bassetti2nd December 2022

Buffeted by wild winds and blanketed in deep powdery snow throughout winter, the remote island of Rishiri off Japan's north-western tip is a self-powered skier's paradise.

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"It's pretty much always windy here," explained Toshiya Watanabe, sitting in the living room of his guesthouse after dinner. Skis, surfboards and fishing equipment of all kinds were neatly stacked in the entrance. The taste of local seafood hotpot and sake still on my lips, I peered through the large living room window and could just make out the dark contour of Mount Rishiri silhouetted in the moonlight, snow blowing off the ridgeline.

Toshiya is a native of Rishiri, the north-westernmost island of Hokkaido, which is in itself the northernmost of Japan's main islands. Together with his wife Maki Watanabe, he owns the guesthouse Rera Mosir, which in the language of the indigenous Ainu people, Rishiri's ancestral inhabitants, means "domain of the wind".

Mount Rishiri, a dormant volcano and the island's imposing lone peak, rises up at the island's centre. Toshiya started pulling out maps, photos and magazine cuttings, his thick weather-worn fingers pointing out countless skiable lines – all of which he says he has skied in more than 20 years exploring the island's backcountry.

"The true beauty of Rishiri is that it isn't perfectly tepee-shaped like Mount Fuji. The wind can't just wrap around it," he explained. "It is really many mountains wrapped into one and, if you know where to look, you can always find shelter and, of course, some of the best powder in the world."

The Floating Mountain: Japan's most remote ski destination (2)

According to local guide Toshiya Watanabe, Rishiri has some of the best powder in the world (Credit: Francesco Bassetti)

Getting here isn't easy. When I visited in early March, the short 20km ferry crossing from Wakkanai, Japan's northernmost city, was delayed for 24 hours due to stormy weather. Even when I was allowed to make the crossing together with a handful of eager passengers, the eerily empty ferry, designed to carry more than 500 people, lurched for two long hours on the residual swell.

The true beauty of Rishiri is that it isn't perfectly tepee-shaped like Mount Fuji

Not until the boat had finally found shelter behind Rishiri's jagged silhouette did I muster the courage to venture out onto the ice-encrusted deck, binoculars in hand, to get my first proper look at the island and its standalone mountain.

In Ainu, Rishiri means "high island" and locals also refer to it as ukishima, "floating island". I could see why. Rising 1,721m directly out of the sea, Rishiri seemed almost out of place at first glance, as if a single mountain had drifted away from a larger range and was left to float in the middle of the ocean. When observed more closely, its conical shape was in fact broken up with steep ridges and gullies covered in immaculate white snow, which stood in stark contrast to the dark green sea that lapped against its shores.

"Understanding Ainu names can tell you a lot about a place and what the Ainu people thought of it," explained Ayami Saga, a Wakkanai local who helped organise my trip, as we stood out on deck. "Wakkanai itself gets its name from the Ainu 'Yam-wakka-nay' which means 'cold water river'."

As we got closer, slowly pulling into the quiet harbour, I saw dozens of fishing boats lying dormant, bound to the docks waiting for spring and calmer waters. The two hotels overlooking the bay, dark grey concrete structures, were shuttered up with snow piled high around them. It was hard to imagine that in summer, more than 120,000 tourists descend on the island, many of them in search of the coveted Rishiri sea urchin, or uni, as well as the kombu seaweed that is a prized delicacy across Japan and beyond.

(Video) U& 영어뉴스: The Floating Mountain: Japan's most remote ski destination
The Floating Mountain: Japan's most remote ski destination (3)

The island is known for its prized konbu (seaweed) and uni (sea urchin) that is used by top restaurants in Kyoto and Tokyo (Credit: Imagenavi/Alamy)

Fishing has been the backbone of the island's economy for more than half a century. Toshiya's family moved to Rishiri from mainland Japan in the 1940s when his grandfather sought to make a living in the booming kombu business. At the time, Rishiri's population was at its peak and there were close to 20,000 people living on the island, most of whom made a living fishing the abundant herring.

Today, declining fish stocks, an ageing population and a lack of economic opportunities in the winter season have pushed most young people to search for fortune in large cities like Sapporo (the capital of Hokkaido) or Tokyo, leaving little more than 5,000 mostly elderly residents behind.

Toshiya too moved to mainland Hokkaido when he was young to train and work as a certified mountain guide, only to return in 2003 to help with his family's hotel business. "Back then, we would be fully booked for three months in summer, and then have nothing to do for the rest of the year," he recalled.

In winter, Rishiri feels like a fishing town in hibernation and about as far removed as you can get from the bustling ski resorts in popular Japanese destinations such as Niseko on the main island of Hokkaido, or Hakuba, a four-hour drive north-west from Tokyo. There are no large hotels, no ski lifts and no queues of brightly dressed skiers eagerly waiting to head up the mountain. Here, anything you wish to ski you must first ascend yourself using climbing skins attached to the bottom of your skis and a healthy dose of perseverance.

The Floating Mountain: Japan's most remote ski destination (4)

Rishiri is nothing like the bustling ski resorts of Niseko or Hakuba (Credit: Francesco Bassetti)


Though many locals look in friendly bemusement at travellers who come to the island in the dead of winter, when there is little else but snow, for Toshiya and those who brave the journey, the draw lies in Rishiri's pristine nature and promise of unbridled adventure. What Rishiri is missing in ski infrastructure, it more than makes up for in the freedom to paint your ski tracks on the mountain's untouched canvas while basking in solitude and silence.

Toshiya is the only guide who lives on the island year-round, and since 2004, he has been offering nature tours in both the summer and, crucially, winter. In his first year as a Rishiri ski guide, Toyisha had just a handful of winter customers. Not many more came the next year. However, each person who visited went home with tales of a magical land of bottomless powder snow, guarded by stormy seas and icy winds from the encroachment of masses hungry for easy access ski adventures and the commodification of nature implicit in ski resorts.

By 2019, just before the Covid-19 pandemic, Rera Mosir's 25 beds were occupied for most of winter. "We now employ two extra guides to help bring clients, including professional skiers, out into the mountains and one person to help me with the guesthouse," explained Maki, who moved here from Sapporo when she married Toshiya in 2020, and hasn't looked back since.

I'd decided to travel here after hearing countless stories about descending Rishiri's ridges with unimpeded ocean views. Quietly, I was hoping to be able to complete one of my lifetime ski goals: skiing all the way to the sea.

"Today's wind is coming from the west, so we'll ski on the east face," Toshiya informed me when I made my way downstairs for my first day of skiing. It was just after dawn and the sunlight was gaining in intensity. I peered out the living room window to find a new layer of fresh snow on the ground and a staggering view of Mount Rishiri, its white crests and cornices standing out against the crisp blue sky.

The Floating Mountain: Japan's most remote ski destination (5)

The jagged ridgeline and ice-encrusted spires of Rishiri’s south face are used as a training ground for high altitude expeditions (Credit: Oscar Boyd)

After a breakfast of grilled local fish, homemade pickles and the customary bowl of rice, we quickly left the guesthouse and made the short 15-minute drive along the coast to the trailhead, just a stone's throw away from the sea.

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As we started to climb, my eyes were fixed on the back of Toshiya's boots rising and falling with a slow and regular rhythm as he broke trail with his skis. We worked our way up the ridgeline leaving behind a deep trail in the fresh snow. After a few hours of steady climbing, lost in my thoughts, I took a second to pause and catch my breath, inhaling the cold, biting air. As I raised my head and turned to look behind me, the view was like nothing I had seen before. Instead of mountains and valleys, I was staring directly down at the sea, which was painted in the deepest of blues that shimmered in the bright sunlight.

To the east, I could clearly make out the white coast of Hokkaido, and to the north, more than 100km away, Toshiya pointed out the islands of Moneron and Sakhalin. "It's one of the first times we see them this winter," he commented, the creases at the sides of his cheeks revealing that even he was impressed by the visibility on this clear, sunny day.

A couple of hours later, we reached the top of the ridge that had kept us sheltered from the wind that was busy shuttling the occasional cloud over our heads at breakneck speed. I look longingly up at the summit, still a good 600m elevation-gain away, yet tantalisingly close. "No-one has summited Rishiri this winter," Toshiya said. The strong winds kept the peak off-limits that day as well.

The Floating Mountain: Japan's most remote ski destination (6)

On Rishiri there are no big hotels or ski lifts; everything you descend you must climb yourself (Credit: Oscar Boyd)

After a snack of chocolate and a sip of warm tea, we got to work removing the climbing skins from the bottom of our skis, packing them away as the tingling excitement that precedes a promising descent grew in the air.

Toshiya was the first to set off, kicking up a cloud of fine powder with each flowing turn and leaving behind precise brushstrokes on the mountain's pristine face. As he came to a stop just within my sight, I looked down hungrily, scouting my own line that would lead directly to the glistening blue sea below.

There was nowhere else in the world I would rather be.


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The Floating Mountain: Japan's most remote ski destination? ›

The remote island of Rishiri

island of Rishiri
Rishiri Island (利尻島, Rishiri-tō) is a volcanic island in the Sea of Japan off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan. Administratively the island is part of Hokkaido Prefecture, and is divided between two towns, Rishiri and Rishirifuji. The island is formed by the cone-shaped extinct volcanic peak of Mount Rishiri. › wiki › Rishiri_Island
off Japan's north-western tip is a skier's paradise.

What is Japan's longest terrain ski park? ›

Shiga Kogen is in fact comprised of 18 ski areas – some large, some small – spread between five mountain peaks and in total, offers the largest extent of connected terrain of any ski area in Japan – around 425 hectares.

Where does Japan have some of the best ski resorts in the world the best snow is found? ›

Niseko, Hokkaido

Sometimes called the powder capital of the world, Niseko is probably the most well-known ski spot in all of Japan.

Where do most people ski in Japan? ›

The three main areas for skiing and snowboarding are Gifu and Nagano on the main island of Honshu, the northern island of Hokkaido, and Niigata on the Sea of Japan coast.

Which Japanese resort gets the most snow? ›

The Snowiest Ski Resorts in Japan
  • Myoko Kogen. Myoko Kogen in Niigata is one of the regions with the heaviest snowfall in Japan. ...
  • Appi Kogen. Situated in Iwate - one of Honshu's Northernmost regions, the region has temperatures averaging much lower than in the Southern Japanese Alps. ...
  • Niseko. ...
  • Geto Kogen.
Mar 26, 2020

Where is the longest ski slope in the world? ›

La Sarenne, Alpe d'Huez, France

Stretching a whopping 16km in length, this slope starts off steep, icy and full of moguls, so get ready to put your technique to the test. It flattens out further down when you reach the Gorges de Sarenne valley, where you can cruise past snow-covered mountains and icy rivers.

What is the longest ski area in the world? ›

Les 3 Vallees, France: The titanic 3 Vallees is the world's biggest ski area with 600 kilometers of runs spread between the three main resorts of Courchevel, Meribel and Val Thorens.

Where is the easiest place to ski in Japan? ›

On top of the most accessible Japan ski destinations list, the charming town of Yuzawa in Niigata is just an hour away from Tokyo. The resort town lies in the Japanese Alps, so you can expect some really heavy snowfall in winter!

Can foreigners ski in Japan? ›

Yes, even in Niseko. The foreigners you did see were mainly people who lived in Japan. Even now, you can still go to many smaller ski areas around Japan and never see a foreigner the entire day.

Where is it hardest to ski? ›

Most Difficult Ski Resorts
  • Chamonix, France. It is home to a World Cup downhill course and has some of the most challenging off-piste terrain. ...
  • Fernie, Canada. ...
  • Jackson Hole, USA. ...
  • Kicking Horse, Canada. ...
  • Palisades Tahoe, USA (formerly Squaw Valley) ...
  • St Anton, Austria. ...
  • Verbier, Switzerland. ...
  • Val d'Isere, France.
Oct 27, 2021

What is the famous snow village in Japan? ›

​The picturesque mountain village of Shirakawa-go — which literally translates as “White River Village” — has recorded an average of 415 inches (that's about 35 feet) of snowfall every year, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency.

Is it expensive to ski in Japan? ›

Ski lift tickets

The primary choice at most ski areas has traditionally been a one-day, half-day, or four or five-hour ticket. A one-day ticket typically costs around 4000 to 5000 yen, but there are increasingly exceptions on either side of that. Half-day, or 4-5 hour, tickets have become more popular than they were.

What is the best place to ski in the world? ›

Top 10 Ski Resorts
1Les Trois ValléesFrance
2Les Portes du SoleilSwitzerland
3Les Quatre ValléesSwitzerland
4Ski ArlbergAustria
6 more rows
Feb 3, 2023

Where do the Kardashians snow ski? ›

While Kim didn't tag a location, the KarJenner clan are known to love skiing in Aspen, where the family has previously taken larger vacations or celebrated special occasions.

What season is best to ski in Japan? ›

So when is the best time to ski in Japan? If you're after powder, the best time to visit is January and February. For festivals, the best time to go is from late January till mid-February. If you want to get a great deal and enjoy stunning weather, March and early April is the time to go.

What is the hardest ski slope in the world? ›

The Streif – Kitzbühel, Austria – Max Gradient 85%

Arguably the most famous ski run in the world, let alone the steepest ski runs in the world, the Streif is a truly extreme slope. Ski racers around the world each year head to Kitzbühel to compete in the Hahnenkamm ski weekend.

What is the hardest ski slope in America? ›

Rambo, located at Crested Butte Ski Resort in Colorado, holds the prestigious title of being the steepest ski run in the United States. The pitch is set at an astounding 55 degrees, meaning you'll be holding on for dear life almost every turn.

What is the longest ski run in USA? ›

Alta's High Rustler, in Utah, is the longest continuous steep run in the United States, starting at a 45-degree angle.

What is the ski capital of the world? ›

Courchevel boasts of the being the largest ski area and is commonly known as the ski capital of the world.

What is America's largest ski resort? ›

#1 Whistler-Blackcomb — 8,171 acres

Whistler-Blackcomb has become an iconic destination for skiers around the world, with an established reputation as the biggest resort in North America — and no one seems to be anywhere close to catching them.

What is the most visited ski resort in the world? ›

According to the research, La Plagne tops the list with over 2.5 million skier days each year. That includes all the resorts in the area – so Plagne Centre, Belle Plagne, Montchavin and Plagne 1800. It's interesting that 12 of the fifteen resorts are in the Alps and only three in North America.

Is it cheaper to ski in Canada or Japan? ›

Lift ticket prices are significantly cheaper in Japan compared to North America. In Japan, the day lift tickets for the top resorts are typically less than half the price compared to the Canadian resorts and even a quarter of the price compared to American resorts.

Where is the prettiest part is Japan? ›

Mt Fuji, Yamanashi

Japan's crown jewel and arguably the most beautiful place in the country, Mt Fuji is a must for any visitor. There are plenty of places to see the grand mountain, but the views from Arakurayama Sengen Park, which boasts the majestic Chureito Pagoda, and from Lake Kawaguchi best capture its beauty.

How many days do you need to ski in Japan? ›

You need 3–4 days at least to fully enjoy skiing with the finest powder snow at those ski resorts. Niseko Ski Resort is surrounded by gorgeous accommodations, restaurants, bars and other facilities, so you will never get bored there how long you stay in Niseko.

Is it cheaper to buy ski in Japan? ›

Skiing or snowboarding in Japan is also much more affordable when compared to resorts in North America or Europe. There are plenty of packages available, and lift tickets and accommodation are typically a fraction of the price. Renting or buying ski gear in Japan, however, isn't always cheap.

Can Americans work at ski resorts in Japan? ›

Japan Ski Season Visa

In order to work the 2023 ski season in Japan (or any other job in Japan), you will need to apply for a Working Holiday visa. However, there are new temporary work visa sponsorship requirements, which we cover in-depth in this Japan Working Holiday visa post.

Can you visit Japan with only English? ›

Do you need to speak any Japanese to travel around Japan? Absolutely not. You can travel to Japan without learning any of these words and have a great time. People ask us about the Japanese language barrier all the time, with common questions such as, Do Japanese people speak English?

Is there a triple black diamond? ›

Triple Black Diamond Terrain

The methodology for designating trails as triple black diamond includes: exposure to uncontrollable falls along a steep, continuous pitch, route complexity, and high consequence terrain.

What is a black diamond ski? ›

Black Diamond: Most difficult; steeper than 40%, likely ungroomed and therefore covered in moguls and/or the freshest snow. Double Black Diamond: Experts only! Very steep and narrow, with extra hazards and obstacles like exposed rock and drop-off cliffs.

What is the highest difficulty ski run? ›

The steepness of ski trails is usually measured by grade (as a percentage) instead of degree angle. In general, beginner slopes (green circle) are between 6% and 25%. Intermediate slopes (blue square) are between 25% and 40%. Difficult slopes (black diamond) are 40% and up.

What is the snowiest city in the world? ›

Aomori City, Japan

What to do: Located on Honshu Island, Aomori City holds the title of snowiest city in the world, and winter is the best time to take advantage of seafood (like scallops) at the Furukawa Fish Market.

What is the richest Japanese village? ›

Misato Town, Miyagi Prefecture: One of the Richest Arable Lands in Japan – Agricultural Area Nurtured by Nature and History.

What is the most remote village in Japan? ›

It is the southernmost and most isolated inhabited island of the Izus, which are politically and administratively part of Japan but geographically not part of the Japanese archipelago.
Native name: 青ヶ島
SubprefectureHachijō Subprefecture
14 more rows

What is Japan's coldest town? ›

The town of Rikubetsu (陸別) is located in the Tokachi area of eastern Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. Rikubetsu is known for being the coldest town in Japan, where the temperature drops down even as low as freezing -33°C (about -28°F) during the coldest months of winter.

What country is the snowiest place on earth? ›

Surprisingly, Japan is the snowiest country in the world. According to the US-based AccuWeather survey, Japanese cities are among the top 3 in the world for annual snowfall in cities with over 100,000 people. Japan also has the heaviest recorded snow cover on earth, even in uninhabited areas.

What month does Japan get the most snow? ›

Japan's snow season typically begins in mid- to-late December, just before Christmas, and continues through late March or early April. This will vary from resort to resort based on the actual snow conditions. The season peaks from mid-January to late February.

Is it better to ski in Japan or Korea? ›

Japan's powder isn't just normal snow. It is super light, dry, and fun for travelers to ski or ride on. The scientific explanation for why Japan's powder is superior is because winds from Siberia collect a large amount of moisture while transiting across the Sea of Japan.

What is the ski etiquette in Japan? ›

Wearing your swimmers is not ok in an onsen, you must go in naked and entering the onsen without cleaning yourself with the hand held shower and soap on a small stool in the onsen is also highly offensive. Read our Onsen Etiquette guide and if you have tattoos then cover them with bandaids or ask for a private onsen.

Where is the most expensive place to ski? ›

Moritz and Gstaad in Switzerland: the highest prices for real estate in Europe are achieved here. With prices per square metre of up to 60,000 euros, the Swiss ski resorts are the most expensive regions for ski real estate in the entire Alps. Around 70 per cent of the demand in St. Moritz comes from domestic buyers.

What is the longest ski trail in Japan? ›

Suginohara resort provides 1,124 metres of vertical, and Japan's longest ski run with a total distance of 8.5 kilometres.

Where is Japan's longest terrain? ›

In 2021-2022 Palcall has recently been known for having the largest terrain park in Japan at 1,000m long and 1.5 km wide. Palcall's topography is perfect for a world-class terrain park making it undeniably even more attractive to snowboarders!

What is the biggest ski terrain park? ›

Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

That's over 100 jibs and up to 50 jumps across 100 acres. The biggest is the Main Park, accessible off of Chair 6 and serving up 18 jibs plus a 22-foot Superpipe, a large jump, and a snow cube.

What is the longest ski slope in Asia? ›

The ski resort Shigakogen Mountain Resort is the biggest ski resort in Asia. The total slope length is 83 km.

What is the hardest ski trail in the world? ›

1. Corbet's Couloir, Jackson Hole, United States. Arguably America's scariest slope, located in Wyoming's Jackson Hole ski resort in the Rocky Mountains and named after Barry Corbet, the instructor and climber who discovered it in 1960.

What is the most challenging ski trail? ›

Silverton. Silverton is one of the hardest ski areas in the country. It ranks in the top 10% of most-difficult ski resorts in all of North America, mostly due to the fact that it has 100% of its trails rated as expert-level, and a vertical drop of 3,087 feet.

What is the hardest ski run in Japan? ›

Not only does Myoko Kogen boast Japan's longest ski run, Myoko also possesses Japans steepest ski run, over at Akakura Onsen Ski Resort. At around a 38 degree angle it is also known as 'The Wall'.


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