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The Way East: Ski and surf on the Sea of Japan

  • Camping in the Niseko backcountry. | Hokkaido, Japan | Photo: Aaron Jamieson

As a former resident of Japan for over ten years, I was excited to finally embark on an adventure I’d planned since first arriving on the island of Hokkaido a decade ago: a ski touring and surfing sojourn up the Japanese coastline. Lena Stoffel and Aline Bock—my trip partners and surfing and freeskiing athletes—were flying in from Europe with our videographer, Mathias Kögel. It was early March, and after a typically snowy winter, the island was primed for our late winter epic.

At first, the idea was just a tiny seed, an adventure combining the love of wild mountains and oceans. Hokkaido takes all the unique culture of Japan and blends it with a pristine wilderness to create a truly special piece of the country.

My lifelong passion for snow, mountains and surf is what lead me to Hokkaido in the first place, and the idea for this trip was borne shortly after my arrival all those years ago. Almost a decade later and after spending a few weeks with Lena and Aline last year, I knew I had found the team to actually do it.

Long days hiking in the mountains, camping in the snow, enduring the wind and surfing in freezing water will wear on even the most seasoned veterans. A trip like this takes a certain energy that only a team of truly positive and dedicated adventures and friends can bring.

This project was really about blending passions: the mountains and the snow, the oceans and the waves, their energy and the point at which they meet. Born from this passion was a trip up the twisting coast to the apex of our adventure: the floating mountain of Rishiri Island.

W A Y E A S T | Full Movie from Mathias Kögel on Vimeo.

Our trip began in Niseko, a well-known destination for powderhounds. As we loaded our packs in the ski lodge in Hirafu village, I was not aware of just how far the journey would take us—or what we might discover along the way.

The first stage of our trip was a hike from Niseko across the Annupuri range, where we planned to snow camp our way to the Sea of Japan. It didn’t take long for us to understand the magnitude of what we had set out to achieve. Halfway through day one, a dense white-out in the high alpine forced us take a meandering course toward our first camp, and after a much longer day than expected—and a much colder night—we were forced to re-evaluate our situation.

Resetting our course for the next few days meant tackling high-mountain passes with fully loaded packs weighed down by camping equipment, food and film gear—all while enduring ferocious winds from the ocean that stripped the peaks of snow. We worked together with a shared spirit to complete the traverse in three nights, camping in pits dug into the mountainside along the way.

Embarking on the next section of our trip, we set off north in two vans loaded with camping gear, surfboards and ski equipment to the most northern tip of Hokkaido and the pinnacle of our trip. We spent several days hunting for waves along the western coast only to find wind-chop, wet snow and generally unappealing, wintery conditions.

Finally, it was time to board the ferry for Rishiri, the stand-alone island rising 1,700 meters directly out of the ocean, isolated and removed from the already remote island of Hokkaido. As the ferry pulled into the port, we glimpsed the wispy white caps rolling into the harbor. Despite being tired from a full day’s drive and running on very little sleep, we decided to take a short drive and explore.

Only a few kilometers from the port, we pulled up to a headland and saw perfect waves peeling off into a gentle off-shore breeze. Despite the threat of sunset and the resulting temperature drop, the girls suited up and paddled out as the skies turned purple and evening fell upon the island. Our next few days were spent chasing the offshore breezes around the perimeter of Rishiri, and then when the swell was absent, we pursued lines on the leeward flanks of the mountain.

Our time in Rishiri was enriched by our mountain guide Toshi, who spoke of a life dictated by the seasons and the weather. And as we left the island, we couldn’t help but agree; our journey home from the north was a long, reflective drive. We were leaving a little piece of nirvana.

To find out more about the trip, visit The Way East at vimeo.com to watch the trailer and stay tuned for the full length film.

Comments

  1. Toshi is such a great mountain guide !!! All the people I know that have been to Rishiri with him enjoy their time a lot. This place is such a wonder. In case you want to reach Toshi, you can send him a message through his page here https://www.explore-share.com/trip/backcountry-skiing-rishiri-hokkaido/. Thanks Matthias for this great article !

  2. Nice trailer and article. We were there this March as well, alas just missed the powder window by two days. It was a magical and harsh place to climb, but we were warmed by the people we met there. We didn’t have surf gear so just watched the waves rolled in like eye candy. Check out our little film ‘Rishiri the film’ on YouTube. If you are ever that way again, come say hi and ski central Hokkaido with us!

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