Hokkaido’s mixture of rugged culture with pristine wilderness attract some special people and, after spending some time with these kindred spirits, I knew we’d been brought together to embark on The Way East.
While loading our packs full of camping gear, food and film equipment, none of us had any idea how far the journey would take us or what we might discover along the way. We would begin in Niseko, the well-known ski town that has become something of a global cliché for powder hounds.
We’d hike from the comforts of our Niseko lodge across the Annupuri Range, trekking and snow camping toward the Sea of Japan. Descending from the mountains to the sea, we’d follow the coastline in search of waves, until we reached the apex of our adventure: the floating mountain of Rishiri Island.
It didn’t take long for the scale of the challenge to become apparent. Halfway through day one, a dense white-out in the high alpine forced us to take a meandering course toward our first camp. After a much longer day than planned, and a much colder night than expected, we were forced to reevaluate the situation and re-plot our course.
We continued on for the next few days with fully loaded packs. We tackled the highest passes while ferocious winds roared in from the ocean, stripping the peaks of snow and the spirit from our souls. Our shared spirit carried us through. After three nights camping, digging into the mountainside along the way, we completed the traverse.
The elation we felt upon setting eyes on the ocean was beyond description. The ride down toward the coastline provided spectacular vistas across Iwani Bay as well as a clear view to the Tomari Nuclear Power Plant. It was a stark contrast and powerful reminder of the tenuous balance between nature and the seemingly endless demand of energy and industry.
Armed with a renewed sense of possibility as a collective, we embarked on the next phase of the journey. We set off north in two vans filled with camping gear, surfboards and ski equipment. We were headed toward the northern tip of Hokkaido, spending several days hunting for waves along the western coast only to find wind-chop, wet snow and generally unappealing wintery conditions.
Continuing to push north, the scene was hopeful; the often-forested horizon festooned with large wind turbines and open fields dotted with solar panels. Signs of a perception shift began to take hold. We did more driving than surfing, surf sessions were cold and uneventful, yet our camaraderie kept our spirits high, holding out hope we’d luck onto better conditions.
As we reached the pinnacle of the trip, Rishiri Island, it felt like stepping into a new reality. We boarded the ferry in our vans in Wakkanai, the northernmost town in Japan. From here the sea stretches out to Russia. On our way here, we watched hundreds of kilometers of coastline drift by with wind-affected ocean, very little surf and the ubiquitous concrete tetrapods diffusing what natural surf break may have existed.
We were still fueled by hope and the constant pulsing anxiety of what may lie around the next corner when the ferry pulled into the port at Rishiri. Here we glimpsed the wispy white caps of offshore waves rolling into the harbor. Weary from a full day’s drive, very little sleep and, tempted by an onsen and an early night sleep, we inexplicably decided to take a short drive and explore a bit more. We were rewarded.
Only a few kilometers from the port, we pulled up to a headland to see perfect waves peeling off into a gentle off-shore breeze—it was unlike anything we’d seen during the journey so far. Despite the sun dipping low on the horizon and the temperature soon to drop, the girls suited up and slotted into some perfect peeling rights as the skies turned purple and evening fell upon the magical island of Rishiri.
Our next few days were spent chasing offshore breezes around the perimeter of the island. When the swell was absent, we’d pursue perfect lines on the leeward flanks of the mountain. A volcano rising steeply from the ocean, Rishiri is a perfect equilibrium of surfing and skiing. Our days here were dictated by the mood of the mountain and the direction of the winds.
Our time in Rishiri was magical, enriched further by our mountain guide Toshi with his open and honest nature and his connection to the rhythm of the island. He talked openly about his life being dictated by the seasons, the beauty of accepting instead of trying to shape the world to our own will. Perhaps in this pure vision lies the hope of future generations.
Leaving Rishiri, our journey home was a long, reflective drive. Leaving our surf and snow nirvana, the realization seeped in that the best of our trip was now behind us. As the afternoon light began to slip into the blue, we lucked upon a beachside camping spot with offshore wind and perfect waves tumbling over shallow reefs just off shore. The stoke was high as Lena and Aline slotted into wave after wave of small but perfect lefts.
Sitting around the fire on the beach that evening, our last of the trip, the sound of waves peeling mechanically off the reefs around us, we laughed and relived the highlights of the trip— none more special than the one we were sharing at that very moment.
Our search for new adventures is what draws us to unseen places, unclimbed mountains and unridden waves. This same spirit of exploration can drive us toward undiscovered technologies and a sustainable future. This bond we share can push us beyond the peaks we have already summited.