Touring on Rebun Island

In October 2017, I visited Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. After touring with a friend, I continued alone to Rishiri Island. From there I took a ferry to Rebun Island.

Late autumn is a short and romantic season here, in the far north of Japan. Since I was a student, I dreamt of ‘island hopping,’ so I was looking forward to exploring these islands.

After a 45-minute ferry ride from Rishiri Island, I arrive on Rebun Island, one of the northernmost islands of Japan. I worried about the weather, but it looks great. I’m glad that I’ve finally come here.

When I go cyclotouring, I don’t plan too much. These days, we can get so much information online… It might make me feel safer, but it also limits the room for discovery. When I make a detailed plan, I feel the need to follow that plan. If I miss any of the details, I regret it later. Or if I look at others’ routes, I tend to follow somebody else’s experience. So my itinerary is very rough for this trip, and I look forward to many small discoveries along the way.

I know that, at the ferry terminal, I’ll find a map of the island. It’s usually more accurate than what I can find online, and it’s updated frequently. In this case, the map is accompanied by a hand-written note with updates about road construction. I prefer to rely on this direct knowledge and first-hand information from the islanders themselves…

Rebun Island is famous for its wildflowers and seafood. The season for traveling here is short, and during the summer months, it’s very difficult to reserve the inns. It’s also very expensive. The season ends in late September, and the island suddenly becomes very quiet.

When touring this island, it’s natural to go to the northernmost end, Cape Sukoton. So I head north and cycle along the coast. A cold tailwind blows me along. It’s fun to go fast. When I stop, I notice how windy it is.

Rebun Island is narrow and doesn’t have a road that goes all the way around it. So I’ll have to come back this way, and I’ll face a big headwind on the way to the inn. But for now, I’m not thinking about it, and just enjoying the ride.

At Cape Sukoton, it’s even windier, and I’m a little afraid that I’ll blow away.

In the distance, I see Todo Island (‘Sea Lion Island’). In the past, there were some fishermen’s huts on this island, but nobody lives there any longer. In the summer, a small boat runs to the island, but I’ve come to late for that. It sounds like fun, though, and perhaps I can take the boat and visit the island in the future.

Rebun Island measures 27 km (17 miles) from north to south, but just 7 km (4.5 miles) from east to west. It’s a very narrow island. If I ride across its backbone, I can really get a feel for it.

The road is narrow, but very smooth. I’m surprised by its good condition. Since the road runs over the ridge that makes up the island, it’s very windy here. Again I feel like I’ll be blown away. That’s why I didn’t even try to take a photo of my bike standing up!

There are promising side roads on gravel. I don’t have time to explore them today, but maybe in the future… There’s no road along the cliff in the distance, just a famous hiking trail. It looks like a great hike!

Most people on Rebun Island work for fishing. Local sea urchins and abalone are among the most prized seafood in Japan. The weatherbeaten huts look almost like part of the landscape. I imagine that during the fishing season, there’s so much life here. Now the season is over, and they are deserted.

As I ride along the eastern side of the island, I can see Mount Rishiri in the distance. I smile when I think that yesterday I was at the foot of the mountain. Now I’m on a different island, but it’s so close. This is really ‘island hopping’!

My inn for the night is called ‘Sea Urchin.’ The host has created an elaborate dinner for me, with sea urchin gratin as one of many courses featuring sea urchin. The sea urchin melts in my mouth. It’s really that good!

The sea urchin season ends in September. Since most tourists come for the fresh seafood, the island suddenly becomes empty in October. Shops close, ferry schedules change… This inn remains open for construction workers and others who need to come to the island, but tonight is the last day for the special meal. Eating seasonal local foods is a special joy of traveling for me. I’m lucky with the timing of my visit!

The next morning, I get up early and watch the sunrise from near my hotel. It feels like the sun greets me good-morning. Cyclotouring alone, I tend to feel a little sentimental.

Rebun Island is famous for hiking. I love both cycling and hiking, so this is a great opportunity. Today, I’ll take the bus and hike around the island.

First I head to Mount Rebun. During nice weather, there’s a great 360-degree view from the summit. My heart beats faster – today seems like a great day to climb the mountain.

It’s the off-season, so there’s nobody on the trail. Only the wind blows, and the leaves of the trees rustle. The leaves are starting to show their autumn colors. I’m so glad I came here!

I am preparing to move to Seattle, and I am moved by the beautiful Japanese landscape. It’s almost as if Japan wants to remind me of its beauty: “Don’t forget!” I feel a little melancholic, alone on the mountain, with just the wind as company.

As I climb upward, I traverse the different vegetation zones, then pass the timberline. This mountain is only 490 m (1,600 ft) high, yet I’m approaching the treeline. It makes me realize how far north I am. Where I usually hike in the central Japanese Alps, the treeline is above 2,000 m (6,600 ft), so it feels like I’ve climbed very high.

Most of all, I feel like I’m alone in the world. There’s nobody in sight. It’s just the mountain, the wind, and me.

At the summit, it’s so windy that I cannot stand up at all. The summit is a very small flat area, and I have to crouch. The view is amazing. There are no other high mountains nearby, so the entire island is spread out below me. I can see all the small villages along the island. It’s a true bird’s eye view!

The air is so clear that Mount Rishiri looks like it’s floating on the sea. Often the summit is covered in clouds, so I am lucky to have such a clear view today. In the summer, visitors enjoy the wildflowers on the hike to the summit, but they don’t get such an expansive view. The local people explained that there’s only a very short window when the mountain isn’t covered in clouds. I’m very lucky.

There is nobody else on the trails today. Local people told me that it’s a busy trail during the summer months, when so many wildflowers bloom. That seems hard to believe, because it’s so quiet today. I think that the off-season is a good time to visit here.

On this trip, I can set my own pace. I feel very calm and happy. It’s a great way to reset my body and mind.

Back in the forest, I hear the wind in the trees. It’s warmer here, because the trees cut the wind. I can feel how the trees protect me. Before noon, I return to the foot of Mount Rebun. I take a bus to another hiking trail.

I visit a location where a famous movie was shot: This elementary school actually was built for the movie Kita no Kanaria Tachi (The Northern Canaries). Today it’s preserved as a tourist destination.

The interior is how Japanese imagine a mid-century Japanese elementary school. Originally, the ceiling was open to film the movie. I’ve only seen schools like this in movies – my school didn’t look anything like it! It’s interesting, and time passes quickly.

When I come outside, the wind has increased and the sky turns dark. It doesn’t seem dangerous, but I tell my destination and where I’m staying to the local woman staffing the museum, just in case.

The view is amazing. Such an interesting landscape! The hiking trail is clear, but there’s nobody here. There’s no cell coverage. The wind is increasing. I can feel that winter is coming. It really feels deserted. I’m not so brave. I’ve decided that if it gets too scary, I’ll return to the visitor center.

The most famous flower of Rebun Island is Rebun-usuyuki-sō, a large species of Edelweiss that grows only on this island. I find a few blooms that are past their prime, but still impressive.

I don’t take many photos – I’m a bit in a rush to get back. When I’m alone, I tend to be less brave than when I go with friends, but that can be a good thing, too. I think about that as I hike. Right now, I feel I’m striking a good balance.

As I reach the trailhead, it starts raining. From here, I have to walk along the paved road. There is no bus here. I’m back in cell coverage, and I call my inn to ask if they can pick me up. “No problem,” they say. I huddle next to a small restroom while I wait for them. “We’re glad you called,” they say when they arrive. “It seems a little scary out here.” I’m relieved when I hear this. This trail is known for summer hikes and beautiful flowers, but today it’s been a little adventure. It was fun after all!

On my third day on the island, I’m on my bike again. Today, I’ll ride inland. First I head to the post office. Often these small islands have their own postmarks, but you have to ask at the counter, so they hand-stamp your letter or postcard.

These days, we can send photos and texts immediately, but I also like to send and receive postcards from trips. I don’t want to forget what it feels like to take the time to write a postcard, and also the joy of finding one in my mailbox.

On this small island, there are four post offices, and each has a special postmark. If I was traveling by car, I could visit them all. But traveling by bike, I have to choose. That’s a good thing. It’s not like a stamp rally, where I just get all the stamps, but I have to make a decision. If my aim is to complete the series, then that becomes my goal, rather than focusing on each stamp. This way, each stamp is special by itself.

I didn’t do much research before my trip, and my road surface turns out to be smooth gravel. It’s great fun for cycling!

I take a self-timer photo, and it almost works out. I realize that I forgot to charge my camera battery last night, so I have to be economical with my photos. This one is good enough! At least the blue sky has returned. That’s a relief.

This road runs along the backbone of the island, so I can see the sea on both sides. During the summer, many hikers walk on this route. Today, I meet only one car, driven by a road maintenance crew.

The weather on the island changes quickly. Clouds are forming, but I can still see Rishiri Island. It seems so close! The road meanders to the east and west side of the island, and with that, the landscape changes dramatically. The west side faces the open sea, and I can feel that the weather is rougher here. There is a lot of variety. Compared to the bird’s eye view from the top, I feel more immersed in the landscape now. I like this road!

At the end of the road, I decide to traverse the island, from the east to the west side. There’s a famous youth hostel there, and even though it’s closed for the season, I want to see it. Old cyclists told me that there was a mountain pass with a tunnel near the top of the ridge. But that old tunnel is closed now, and a new tunnel at the base of the mountain has replaced it. I can traverse it in just 15 minutes.

It’s a little sad, because it was more romantic to go over the mountain. But for the local people, the new tunnel has made life much easier. And since I have to catch the last ferry tonight, it’s useful for me as well. I wouldn’t have time to climb a mountain pass today.

Most people on the island live on the east side. The west side has more wind and bigger waves. It feels almost deserted now.

This island is not very big, so a long-distance cyclist could cover all of it in a day. But I feel there is a lot of value in taking your time, exploring some of it on foot and some by bike. It’s a much richer experience compared to just checking off the points on the map.

Local people warned me that the high winds might cancel the ferry tonight, but I am lucky. The ferry is running, and I take the last boat of the day. The sunset is beautiful. The ride to the mainland of Hokkaido takes two hours. There is nothing to do except look at the sunset and think.

Soon I’ll move to Seattle. I know I’ll return to Japan regularly, but I’m a bit sad to leave. I was born in Japan. I’ve lived here all my life. My friends are here. So are my favorite Onsen hot baths. Cyclotouring always makes me realize the beauty of Japan. That’s why it’s so special.

For me, Rebun Island is the Island of the Winds. Perhaps if I visit here during the summer months, my impression will be different. Japan has very distinct seasons, and I like that. But I don’t know when I will come back to Rebun Island. I have a long list of places I want to visit. As the ferry churns through the rough water, I feel a little melancholic. But most of all, I’m glad I came.

Click here to read about the previous stop of Natsuko’s island-hopping trip: Rishiri Island.

7 Responses to Touring on Rebun Island

  1. Julie jacobs October 5, 2020 at 6:14 am #

    Natsuko, thank you so much for writing and posting this story. I really love your attitude about seeing places fully and not being afraid of going alone. I’m a single woman and can understand your appreciation of adventure especially when you go alone. I hope you always keep your sense of adventure and keep sharing your adventures with us. I like Japan too and hope to travel there some day. Thanks again

  2. Andrew October 5, 2020 at 7:21 am #

    Many thanks to Natsuko for sharing these evocative travel diary entries. Wonderful!

  3. Steve October 5, 2020 at 2:52 pm #

    You write so evocatively! I hope one day I can visit Japan. Thank you!

  4. Mark October 5, 2020 at 3:43 pm #

    I miss Japan! Never made it to Hokkaido, though I wanted to; spent most of my time in Kyushu. I used to go twice a year to see family. I don’t know when or if I’ll be able to go back so it’s wonderful to see these islands and to imagine I’m there.

  5. William Schmitt October 6, 2020 at 12:36 pm #

    Thanks for the great trip, and lovely pictures, such fine light there!

  6. Stuart Fogg October 6, 2020 at 8:38 pm #

    Is what looks like a crack on the mountain a creek or an earthquake fault? If the latter when was the last time it slipped? Written from California where such things happen. 😉

    • Natsuko October 7, 2020 at 8:30 am #

      The line where there is no vegetation is the hiking trail, with a deep shadow cast by the low autumn sun.