The Floating MountainFriday, January 31, 2020
As we round an icy corner on the narrow, nearly deserted two-lane road on Hokkaido, Japan’s north island, the snow-covered hills we’ve been driving through for hours finally give way to the Sea of Japan. Stretches of sandy beach are striped with ice and snow and across the glittering expanse of water; a hulking white triangle rises toward a frozen summit. Rishiri—a stratovolcano towering 5,646 feet above the ocean and known to the indigenous Ainu people as Rera Moshiri or Windy Mountain—is a near-mythical place. It’s known for Siberian gales ripping across the ocean and battering the fishing towns and mountain flanks with seven months of harsh winter. But it’s also known for rugged alpine faces buried in meters of snow and long, technically demanding ski descents.
Sun streams in the windows of the ferry’s carpeted fore-cabin, making for a cozy, warm atmosphere in stark contrast to the frigid spray whipping onto the outside deck. After days of build-up about seasickness and bad weather (the last ferry that half our crew had been on involved four hours of vomiting and nearly sunk in South Korea), this sunshine and relative calm are almost a letdown. But we know from the weather forecast that it’s not going to last. And that makes it almost painful to be sitting here, on the boat, watching the mountain grow bigger and more tangible through the windows, with visible ski tracks off the top, and knowing that today would’ve been our best chance at summiting.
With a half-day of clear weather the next morning before a storm rolls in, we decide to push as high as we can on the mountain. We climb through a birch and bamboo forest across wide, windswept ridges dotted with bright green bamboo fronds. We learn from Mako, our friend acting as a guide and translator for the trip, that it’s the island’s worst snow year in a decade. Most of the descent routes we’d chosen before our arrival by researching videos and images are peppered with black volcanic rock. By midday, the simmering clouds have rolled in, shrouding the mountain in mist and completely obscuring our way down. The natural halfpipe we slide into is various shades of white depending on which direction you look, but nothing indicates up or down. Parkin jumps in to demonstrate the best route—relieving the nauseating vertigo with a dose of speed and gravity—ending the 3,000-foot descent back at the ocean.
The next few days, we become familiar with the island’s namesake. We wake to 60mph gusts and by midday they spike up to 100mph. Although we’re here to ski, it’s a day to respect the weather and explore the island with Mako’s friend and our generous host, Tei Asai. Through him, we learn about the small stories unfolding around the mountain during the day while we’re up in the clouds. The towns we drive through look deserted, but for lunch, we find the community at a bustling Udon shop on the south shore. An elderly woman and her daughter-in-law hurry around the steamy, un-modernized kitchen, stirring broth, straining noodles, and serving bowls of warm soup to counter the biting wind.
We meet fisherman at the local harbor and eat scallops fresh off the shell. As we circumnavigate the island by car, Tei, a recent transplant to the island, excitedly tells us of winter snowboard descents, summer surf adventures, and fall salmon fishing in the rivers tumbling off the volcano. From all aspects, the island seems like a multi-sport paradise and I begin to daydream about joining this small community in the middle of the ocean. But then I look out the window and see the wind. A dark cloud obscures any sign of the mountain and I remember that they live with this weather more than not. The trees grow sideways as a testament to the unrelenting gales.
In the next town, Tei grins and asks, “who wants pudding?!” We’re too confused to give him an equally thrilled response, but after we poke our heads into the small confectionary and see glass cases of homemade pastries, we understand his excitement. Historical fishing photos hang on the wall and the proprietor laughs as we fill our arms with sweets for now and later.
As the week goes on, we learn to pick our objectives by following the wind. The leeside holds a semblance of soft snow that blows back and forth across the ridges day by day. Conditions are bad, but the mountain is beautiful and we take long, fast runs down the sastrugi and boilerplate covered slopes. I get to know a group of women at the town onsen (hot spring) and we make friends at the ramen shop. We get into a groove, even with the bad weather, and by the time we’re supposed to leave, it’s hard. I know we’ll be back because our desire to ski off an alpine summit in the middle of the Sea of Japan remains unsatiated, but also because this welcoming community and the wild, mythical landscape of Rishiri has left an impression. It will pull us back into its vortex of wind and ice and Udon and pudding, back to the low likelihood, high reward chance of skiing powder for 5,000 feet from the summit shrine down to the steely blue ocean.