Rishiri is named after the Ainu Ri-shiri, meaning “tall island.” Its striking conic form can be seen from the mainland rising up out of the Sea of Japan, drawing hikers to the formidable climb up its slopes. Cliffs and alpine plants hug the summit, while all around, the deep blue sea stretches to the horizon.
On the north flank is the Oshidomari Trail (鴛泊コース), and on the west flank is the Kutsugata Trail (沓形コー ス). Both trails are rough climbs, littered with loose rocks and scree. Here, we’ll introduce the Oshidomari Trail climb, as it's the most popular route.
Walking from the trailhead at Rishiri Hokuroku Campsite (利尻北麓), you’ll shortly arrive at Kanro Spring (甘露泉), where you can fill up on water. Snow for melting and drinking isn’t exactly reliable higher up on the mountain, so consider filling up for the whole trip here.
At the spring the trail splits off towards Hime-numa (姫沼) and passing Pon-yama (ポン山, lit. 'little mountain'). Continue along the Oshidomari Trail and start the long slog up to Chokan-yama (長官山). The first half of the trek is through a dense conifer forest. Keep your eyes open for the Ezo spruce (Picea jezoensis, エゾマツ) and Sakhalin fir (Abies sachalinensis, トドマツ). Past this point, you’ll come out to the No. 1 Viewing Plateau (第一展望台), which commands a view down to Oshidomari Harbor.
When you find that you’ve come out onto a ridgeline of dwarf stone pine (Pinus pumila, ハイマツ), you’ll be closing in on Chokan-yama (長官山). There used to be a mountain lodge here, but a new one nearer the summit has been built. On Rishiri, the weather can change quickly, and often aggressively, so from Chokan-yama, if the weather looks like it might be turning bad, don’t try to push it.
At Rishiri-yama Lodge (利尻山避難小屋), there’s a booth for portable toilets (although you’ll have to haul your own toilets up). Up until late July, you'll also likely find some snow off to the east of the lodge, which you can boil for water.
Along the ridge towards the summit, the trail is covered in scree and travel will get pretty tough. The hollows and flats of the trail will become increasingly hard to traverse. Damage to alpine plants here is ongoing; the Rishiri papaver (Papaver fauriei Fedde, リシリヒナゲン) in particular is getting beaten down pretty hard along the sides of the trail. The mountain management bureau has, in recent years, had to contend seriously with encroachment onto these delicate plants' habitat.
When you see Rosoku-iwa (ロウソク岩, lit. Candle Cliff) off on the right, you’ll shortly come out onto the narrow summit of Rishiri-yama. If it’s a cloudless day, you’ll be able to look down over the whole hollow breast of the mountain, down to the sea. Most people follow the trail to the small shrine at Kita-mine (北峰). If you want to cross to the slightly-higher Minami-mine (南峰, which inexplicably, isn't the true summit, although it's 3 meters taller), be very careful. The saddle between the two summits is very narrow — and treacherous, in low visibility.
Although the return trip follows the same trail you took up, it’s a different beast on the way down. The descent along the steep ridgeline has the tendency to knock people off their feet, so tread slowly. Be careful as well for tumbling rocks dislodged by people coming down behind you.
If you're interested, the Kutsugata Trail on the western slopes runs from Mikaeri-dai Park (見返台) through Sancho-yama (三眺山) to a junction with the Oshdomari Trail just below the summit. You’ll probably run into a number of veterans of the Oshidomari Trail here. At the 7th station marker (七合目) is a small hut with a booth for portable toilets (again, carry yours in). From Sancho-yama the ridgeline is fairly dangerous; watch out as well along the traverse to the junction with the Oshidomari Trail for places where the trail might crumble away.
The flowers will be at their peak throughout July. Climbers will be out in force during summer vacation, so if you’re looking for a quieter mountain experience, it’s recommended to go either during the first half of July or later in August.