Do busy intersections, white faced geishas and red torii gates flood your mind when you think of a trip to Japan? That is the common thought of the country, however, there is so much more to discover in Japan when you get off the beaten path a little. In the far northwest of Japan lie two islands that are waiting to be discovered.
Rebun and Rishiri Islands are well known to many Japanese as being beautiful nature escapes, but even yet, many locals have not made the journey up this way. Visiting Rishiri and Rebun Islands in Japan is an experience like no other, and below I show why you should consider adding them to your adventure itinerary. I share our travels from a long weekend exploring these stunning islands with tips on where to stay, what to eat and what to do.
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What are Rebun & Rishiri Islands?
Rebun and Rishiri Islands are two islands located in the Sea of Japan, off the northwest coast and tip of Hokkaido. Still part of Hokkaido prefecture, and known for their natural beauty, these islands are popular for hikers and nature enthusiasts. Both islands are part of the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park.
Rishiri Island is around 60 km is circumference creating a nice loop around the towering 1721-meter-high dormant volcanic peak of Mt Rishiri which dominates the landscape. This island has two main towns, Rishiri Town and Rishiri Fuji, with a total population of 4000 people.
Rebun Island is thought of as the smaller island of the two, but in circumference it’s actually larger at 72 km. The population of Rebun however is smaller at 2300 people.
Between the two islands, I think of Rishiri as the one for biking and sea adventures, while Rebun takes the prize for hiking trails.
HEADING TO JAPAN? Read my top Japan travel tips before you go so you know what to expect!
Getting to/from the Islands
Between the two islands, there is one small domestic airport, Rishiri Airport, with flights from Hokkaido including from Sapporo and Wakkanai airports and even Haneda in Tokyo. Additionally, you can reach either island by ferry from Wakkanai. Heartland Ferry has one daily service to Rishiri, a 45 minute ferry ride between the islands. There are two to three return boats per day to/from Wakkanai depending on the season, which takes almost 2 hours from Rebun to Wakkanai. Kafuka Port is where you will depart on Rebun, while Oshidomari Ferry terminal is the one on Rishiri Island.
Once on the islands, you can rent a car or rely on public transportation and/or sightseeing bus tours.
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5 Ways to Explore Rebun & Rishiri Island
As I explored the islands, the natural scenery was reminiscent of Ireland at times and childhood fairytale scenes at others. Think rolling green hilltops with sweeping coastal views. Add in fields blanketed in wildflowers and small fishing villages dotting the landscapes and you have the perfect escape. Here you will find an easy paced life that allows you to slow down and really take in the world around you. No matter where you go on either island you are sure to see Mount Rishiri with its prominent volcanic peak jutting into the skyline.
You’ll find hiking trails from easy to challenging and places to cycle so that you can take in everything. Add delicacies from the sea, and you’ve got the perfect island experience.
Cycling Around Rishiri Island
On Rishiri Island, you can rent bicycles and start your journey from Oshidomari Port to follow the dedicated 25-kilometer cycling road around Rishiri. This mostly forested route is perfect for families or those who do not want to ride on the road much. You will pedal through the forests, passing over bridges with views of the ocean and through shimmering fields of Chinese Silver grass. The dedicated cycling route is just one of the many bicycle options on the island.
The Rishiri-Saikuru Road is the 60-kilometer course that circles Rishiri Island connecting to the route above. This cycle trail offers visitors the opportunity to visit many popular sites on the island.
While riding around, you can visit Himenuma to walk the 1 km boardwalk around the pond, Otatomari-numa swamp and of course, Numaura Observatory where you can enjoy the high peak view printed on the renowned Hokkaido cookie package, Shiroi Koibito. While there isn’t an actual observation deck, this location is tops and if you have tried (or seen) the cookies around the prefecture, a must visit!
Rishiri Island is extremely popular with cyclists so you will surely not be alone as you make your way on the many bike routes in the coastal area.
TOP TIP: As you explore the island by bike or car, make sure to stop off at the “sacred mountain spring” water spout on the side of the road for fresh, cold mountain spring water.
Stop & Smell the Flowers
If you visit either of the islands during the summer months, you will witness a stunning display of wildflowers. Rebun Island is known as the “Floating Island of Flowers” for it’s blanket of wildflowers that bloom from May to August.
While both Rebun and Rishiri Island look beautiful year-round, some of the alpine plants here are truly unique and some can only be found on Mt. Rishiri.
Experiencing the blossoming skunk cabbage flowers in the start of spring, to seeing the colorful flowers bloom in the summer, or watching the autumn leaves blanket the landscape in the fall, to Rishiri covered in snow, you can’t go wrong.
From Cape Sukoton, at the northernmost point of the island, to the crags of Cape Gorota, you can see an entirely different face of the island with rough eroded coastlines and fields of color around you.
Both islands boast a network of well-maintained hiking trails that cater to all levels of hikers. You can trek up Rishiri’s dormant volcano, Mount Rishiri, or explore Rebun’s unique alpine flowers dotting the landscape. While there are numerous day hikes on both islands, Rebun is our go to for excellent hiking trails, with 7 well established trails on the island, one of which starts at Cape Sukoton and continues all through the island (north to south), almost 33 kms.
Some great hikes to check out include walking part of the Rebun Long Trail at Gorota Cape on the northern part of the island for excellent vantage points over the island. The Momoiwa observation area, via the Motochi Lighthouse, continuing on to Shiretoko at the other end of the island is also a great trail with stunning sea views.
The other hiking trails to explore include: The Cape Tour Course that goes from Cape Sukoton to Cape Sukai, the Lake Kushu Course which is a short trail around the lake, the Mt Rebun course, 8 Hour Course, Rebun Forest Course, Rebun Falls and Momoiwa Observation Point Course.
Get Out on the Water in an SUP or Kayak
One of the best things to do at Rishiri Island is to get out on the water to really experience all the island has to offer adventure lovers. With Rishiri Activity, you can go kayaking or SUPing along the coast in crystal blue waters. During our visit, even though it was a clear day, the winds were too high creating swells at sea level, so we were unable to get out on the water. Keep an eye on the weather and plan accordingly for a short visit if you plan to get on the water.
Taste the Local Delicacies From the Sea
The surrounding seas provide some of the freshest seafood in Japan. Enjoy delectable dishes like sashimi, sea urchin, and crabs, all caught locally and served at cute seaside eateries. In addition to the sea animal varieties, you can also purchase fresh kombu kelp which is well known all over Japan. For those wanting a little hands on activity, you can visit the Kamui Kaigan sea park which offers a “souvenir” kombu kelp activity or get your hands wet and dirty with catching and processing sea urchins before enjoying it!
Kelp production is a specialty of the island, with Rishiri kombu being one of six Hokkaido-only varieties. Here you can slice, cut and fold your kombu into three products, which make for a great souvenir or gift (especially with the adorable island mascot, Rishiri-cho included on the packaging).
Top Spot to Eat on Rishiri Island
We did not have a ton of time to explore restaurants as we were on a guided tour with Hokkaido Treasure Tours, but before boarding our ferry at Oshidomari Ferry terminal, we hopped across the street to the Tsuki Cafe. I loved the vibe of this cafe with its homemade brownies with kombu kelp shavings and their delish and massive bowls of ramen, shaved ice and even Hokkaido chicken (with no MSG!). It is a must visit while on the island. If you are looking for a coffee and sweet treat, the coffee shop a few doors down also has amazing chocolate croissants that are perfect for your ferry ride to Rebun!.
Where to Stay on Rebun & Rishiri Islands
Our absolute favorite place to stay on the two islands was the Hana Rebun. The views from the rooms, lobby and onsen all face to Mt Rishiri which is a sight to behold at all times of the day, but especially at sunrise and sunset. I adored my traditional Japanese style room with modern bed including my own personal massage chair! That said, there are only 4 hotels on the island with around 20 small inns, so it is competitive to get a room here during high season.
On Rishiri Island, we stayed at one of the six hotels available on the island, the Island Inn Rishiri. While it did not have the vibe of Hana Rebun, it was perfect for our short visit and offered excellent views of Mt Rishiri. While not quite a traditional ryokan hotel, it does have a good onsen to relax in after a long day.
Tips on Visiting Rishiri & Rebun Islands
Rebun and Rishiri Island are well off the beaten path and as such there are a few things to know before going.
- For overseas visitors, make sure to have plenty of cash handy as there are not bank machines on the islands that accept foreign cards. Many shops will accept only cash.
- Pack layers as the weather can change quickly on the islands bringing in blustery cool weather in short notice.
- There is almost no western food on these islands, so plan in advance with plenty of snacks if you are traveling with picky eaters.
- The hiking trails are well marked, however they often go straight up a mountain, so be prepared for short trails to feel harder than you might think.
Why Rishiri Island & Rebun Island Needs to Be on Your Travel Bucket List
Rishiri and Rebun Islands are renowned for their unspoiled, breathtaking natural landscapes. With lush forests, crystal-clear lakes, and rugged coastlines, these islands offer an escape to nature’s paradise and a perfect place for adventurous travelers to explore. Rishiri and Rebun are relatively less crowded compared to other tourist destinations in Japan, offering visitors a peaceful and tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. Here you can also relax in a traditional ryokan hotel with onsens.
The feel of Hokkaido is much different than you might find in the small alleyways of Kyoto or bustling cities of Tokyo or Osaka, however, there is just as much culture and beauty to be found in this less visited prefecture.
In summary, Rishiri and Rebun Islands in Japan offer a unique blend of natural beauty, cultural richness, and tranquility that make them a must-visit destination for travelers looking to explore a different side of Japan.
Would you consider a trip to the tip of Hokkaido to see these special islands?