Travel to Japan’s Wild North: 5 Reasons to Visit Rebun Island

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  • Just 50 kilometres off the northwestern coast of Hokkaido lies the small Rebun Island. This tiny spec is easy to miss when searching on a map. However, despite being easily overlooked and unbeknownst to many, this island of just 80 square kilometres has much to offer. If you want to break away from the hectic urban cityscape and explore more of Japan’s rural side, Rebun is definitely a must visit.

    Rebun can be reached by taking a 2-hour ferry ride from Wakkanai, Hokkaido’s northernmost city, to Rebun island’s ferry terminal in Kafuka. En route, the ferry will take you past Mt. Rishiri, an extinct volcanic peak which rises out of the Sea of Japan, creating a stunning backdrop. Leaving multiple times throughout the day, the ferry is a fun and inexpensive way to cross the Sea of Japan and venture toward the smaller islands of Hokkaido.
    (For more information on the ferry, visit http://www.heartlandferry.jp/english/).

    rebun island

    *Author’s photo/

    Due to its small size, Rebun Island only offers a few places to stay. Nonetheless, options range from small luxury hotels to a family style bed & breakfast. For the more adventurous visitor, there is also the option of staying at a campsite located between beautiful Funadomari Bay and Kushu Lake. If a short-term visit is what you have in mind, a one day visit can be made possible by touring the island’s main attractions by bus. An even better option is renting a scooter or bicycle, which are available just opposite the ferry terminal. Not only does this allow you the freedom of viewing the island at your own pace (and reaching some of the more remote roadways), the drive along the coast on a sunny day can itself be the reward. Regardless of the things you seek, this island is sure to leave a lasting impression.
    Listed here are the five main reasons to visit this unique place.

    1. Beautiful flowers and walks through nature

     

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    Due to its northern location, Rebun is home to some unique flora, including alpine flowers that are not found anywhere else in Japan. In fact, the most popular of Rebun’s flowers is the Rebun-atsumori-so, a small “lady slipper” orchid that can only be found on the island. Another popular alpine flower is the edelweiss. Interestingly, the edelweiss song, which was made famous by the movie The Sound of Music, can be heard every day at noon over the island’s megaphones as it notifies the fishermen out at sea of the time of day. From the months of June until August the island’s flowers are in full bloom, providing visitors a view of over 300 varieties.

    The island is part of the greater Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park. Together with its neighbouring island Rishiri, and the Sarobetsu plain, the park covers just over 212 square kilometres of rugged beauty. The volcanic hills, mountains tops, beaches, flowers and wildlife provide a mosaic of colours and sounds.

    The best way to view parts of the island and discover its flowers and wildlife is by hiking one of the 6 trails. Each trail, all varying in length and duration, provide breathtaking views of the island’s rolling green hills and shorelines. One of the trails, which leads you up to the top of Mt Rebun, provides a 360 degree view of the island and a stunning view of Mt Rishiri on a clear day.

    2. Seal watching

     

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    The tip of Rebun, Cape Sukoton, is a prime location for watching seals. Here, you will often find them sunbathing in the shallow parts of the water. If the weather is good, you can even see Sakhalin Island (Russia) lying in the distance. Situated at the cape is a small shop and eatery where you can enjoy some konbu (seaweed) ice cream or purchase a can of controversial whale meat. Cape Sukoton is also the northernmost cape of Japan and offers views of Todojima, a tiny uninhabited island where many seabirds nest.

    Location

    Cape Sukoton

     

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    3. Kafuka museum of History, Rebun

    The local museum offers visitors an opportunity to learn more about the island’s history and prehistory, with exhibitions relating to the island flowers as well as island life during the 1900s. Also on display are artifacts that were discovered by archaeologists which date back to the prehistoric Jomon period, when the region was inhabited by hunter-gatherers. This makes Rebun Island the most northern range of the Jomon people currently known. Archaeological research is still being conducted on the island to this day, uncovering materials that have been left behind thousands of years ago. Some of these materials are even on display at the Hokkaido Museum in Sapporo.

    Website

    4. Usuyuki Onsen

     

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    The island’s hot spring is a great way to relax at the end of the day. There are two sections, which are sex segregated, that offer a total of 10 baths and two saunas. Each bath differs in temperature but all offer a spectacular view of Mt. Rishiri. There is nothing better than soaking your sore muscles in hot spring water after a day of hiking and touring the island. You can even make use of the onsen’s massage chairs and ice cream vending machine.
    Perhaps, once you are done relaxing in the onsen, consider enjoying some fresh caught fish at one of the nearby izakayas such as Robata Chidori. Fresh fish, squid, sea urchin, and yakitori are laid out for you on a charcoal grill.

    Onsen Website (Japanese only)

    5. Views of the Rugged West Coast
    Nekoiwa, which resembles a cat sitting in the water (author's photo)

    Nekoiwa, which resembles a cat sitting in the water (author’s photo)

    The western coastline of the island offers a more rugged and wild view of Rebun, with steep cliffs, rocky beaches, and strong winds. Here, visitors can visit Jizoiwa (split rock), which resembles two giant hands in an almost prayer form. Other popular rocks are Momoiwa (peach rock) and Nekoiwa (cat rock), both named after their shape. Viewing them from the sea is also an option as guided kayaking tours are available depending on the weather.

    On the west coast you will also encounter the occasional Ainu wood carver selling and showcasing their art.

    rebun island Mt. Rishiri

    Mt. Rishiri seen from Rebun Island (author’s photo)

    Your time on Rebun will provide you with the complete opposite of how Japan is often described: busy and always awake! A remote rural area, mixed with empty roads and beautiful landscapes, it creates a stillness that is truly rare.

     

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    *Featured Image: Author’s photo/