Off to Rebun Island

The boat ride to Rebun the next day was smooth despite the not so good weather, since the boat was going west together with the wind and the waves that day. The ferry has space for a few hundred people but only a few dozen were on board. I spent the entire time on deck and was mostly alone there. One could see the base of Rishiri island, but I wonder on just how many summer days it’s clear enough to see the full 1721-meter glory of this dormant volcano.

The plan was to stay on Rebun for nine nights and on Rishiri for two nights. Simply because I found a reasonably priced hotel in Rebun but not in Rishiri. There are cheaper places like youth hostels or Japanese guest houses, but neither are my cup of tea, Japanese guest houses are too simple and shared accommodation in a youth hostel doesn’t seem like the best idea in COVID times either.
My hotel was kind enough to send a car for me to pick me up from the ferry and then we rode some twenty kilometers to the northern end of the island and the village of Funadomari.

Funadomari to the north and Kafuka in the south where the ferry terminal is are the main settlements, but there are plenty of fishing villages in between. The rough west coast of the island has no road or settlement for a stretch of about fifteen kilometers. To be more precise, there is no road between Cape Sukai and Motochi settlements. Funadomari has two supermarkets, one bakery and a kinda general store, that’s it! I went to the supermarket right after arriving at the hotel at around 17:00 because it closes at 18:00.
Praise be to my hotel, since they let me have a bicycle for free 🙂 I took said bicycle and promptly rode to Cape Sukoton during my first day, which is the most northern part of Japan, apart from the tiny uninhabited island off shore that you see in this picture.

On I went into the “wild” and pushed my bicycle up into the hills. I tried my first little hike up Cape Gorota but got interrupted by rain and gave up on it. It’s actually rather dangerous if the steep paths get slippery. I got my “revenge” a few days later when I managed to climb up there. The sights and cliffs are fantastic nonetheless and the whole island reminds of Iceland, Scotland, or New Zealand. It’s hard to believe you’re in Japan 🙂

To Go or Not to Go

To go on vacation or not that is the question. At least during a pandemic. In summer 2020 I was thinking I could go to Germany in summer 2021. Around winter 2020 it became apparent that this would not work, since Japan wasn’t quick enough with vaccination and also worldwide Covid numbers were less than inviting to internationally travel. In February 2021, I already decided on not going to Okinawa but Hokkaido, mostly due to temperatures. I checked whether there aren’t any small islands around Hokkaido that I could explore and I promptly found two that I never heard of before, Rebun snd Rishiri, at the very north western tip of Hokkaido. That sounded like a good idea and I booked hotels in February. Thus started the waiting whether Covid would allow for going on this trip or not. It looked good in June and I booked flights. There is one direct flight per day from Haneda airport to Wakkanai at the northwest tip of Hokkaido’s main island and from there you travel on by boat.
Closer and closer came the day for departure and with it rose and rose the number of Covid cases in Japan. I debated with friends and colleagues and the general direction was “go”, those islands are fairly lonely, Rebun has about 3000 and Rishiri 5000 inhabitants and the risk to catch Covid there is probably much smaller than in the greater Tokyo area.
The week before departure Covid levels rose to new heights in the Tokyo area. I phoned my main hotel on Rebun whether they are okay with me coming and the guy from the hotel said, they have guests from Osaka and Tokyo all the time. So much for that. So, I decided to go.
But! I had some more tooth trouble before that and actually got a tooth pulled one day before departure! Well, luckily that happened before I went and not the pain starting while at the small islands.
I also had booked a PCR test at the airport. Not so easy, everything was in Japanese only and I was hitting the limit of my kanji knowledge. I’m proud that I understood it all after all and made a correct reservation. It was some odd combined test. You do a nasal swap and get the result half an hour later. You also have to deliver saliva and then get the official PCR test result emailed to you four hours later. For the nasal swap result you have to wait for half an hour and then they give you a credit card sized pice of paper stating that you are virus free. If the test comes back positive = infected, the airline gets notified and they probably refuse to board you. There was quite a queue at the testing place but things worked smoothly and I indeed had that little piece of paper allowing me to fly half an hour later. Nobody asked for it though at the departure gate or anywhere else.

On I flew to Wakkanai with a double mask on, full of antibiotics and painkillers because of my tooth.

Most people don’t stop in Wakkanai but go directly to the ferry port and off to Rebun or Rishiri. I wanted to check out the town though, at least for one day and had booked one night there before going to Rebun island. While it was a constant over 33 or so Celsius in Tokyo with high humidity, Wakkanai greeted me with gray, rainy weather and a balmy 22 or 23 degrees. I checked into the hotel and then went for a walk around town which has about 35,000 inhabitants. It’s a fishing town and also just 90km from Sakhalin island. To my surprise, some road signs and shop signs were also in Russian. The hill above the town is a park and it has also some historical monuments to offer which are mostly dealing with the warring past of the area.

The three powers in the region, China, Russia and Japan, all “had” Sakhalin for a while. Russia and Japan “shared” the island before WW2 and the Japanese called the place Karafuto. At the end of WW2 the Russian army drove out the Japanese populace and some 400,000 people fled back to Hokkaido as it seems (though that number seems rather high to me, but I found no other figure during a short internet search).
Weather wise I got a taste of what it would be like for a while on Rebun as well, the tops of hills and mountains in the clouds. I rode up the “100 years Wakkanai” memorial tower, but didn’t see a thing of the surroundings. On very good weather days you can see Mt. Rishiri and even Sakhalin.