The sky is big and the waves are rough along the stretch of sea that separates Japan from its northern neighbour, Russia.
We are staring out across the Soya Strait from Wakkanai (稚内), on the northwestern tip of Hokkaido. On a clear day, it is possible to catch a glimpse of Sakhalin, Russia’s largest island that lies just 159 kilometres away.
But today, the clouds are thick, the wind is swift and Sakhalin is shrouded in haze beyond the grayish sea.
We had come to Wakkanai, a quiet port whose main claim to fame is that it is Japan’s northernmost city, on our way to the two small islands of Rishiri (利尻) and Rebun (礼文), famous throughout Japan for their high quality konbu (edible kelp) and abundant wild flowers.
Wakkanai itself has little to offer tourists in search of the wild or the exotic.
So, instead, the tour guides here like to point out that the city’s McDonald’s is the northernmost of the ubiquitous hamburger chain’s outlets in Japan, that the street signs are in Russian as well as Japanese and that residents complain of their faces melting should temperatures rise as high as 20 degrees centigrade.
What Wakkanai does have to offer is a convenient hop to the two small islands, known as the floating islands of flowers, where we hope to traipse amid fields of fragrant petals.
Although the port was still wet and grey, we had arrived there just in time to miss the worst of the foul weather caused by typhoons no. 9,10 and 11, that had kept the area’s main industries – fishery and tourism – in a funk for most of July, at the peak of the very short tourism season that lasts all but three months.
Our ferry needed to make its way across a part of the Sea of Japan, to the west of Wakkanai, which was still roiling with turbulent waves.
But by the time we reached Rishiri Island, the sky started to clear and Mt Rishiri, affectionately called Rishiri Fuji after its resemblance to Japan’s most famous peak, peered out from behind lingering thick clouds.
Rishiri Island is dominated by its namesake mountain, which locals describe as “shy” by way of explaining its refusal to emerge from the clouds and mist that often keep it out of view.
With a circumference of just 63 kms, it is possible to cover the island’s main attractions dotted along the coast by car or bicycle in a day or two. There are hiking routes that lead to crystal clear waters, such as the striking Otatomari Pond, or the smaller but no less pristine, Himenuma Pond.
The ponds are circled by easy trails, and, on clear days visitors are rewarded with breathtaking reflections of Mr Rishiri on sparkling waters.
More ambitious hikers can take up the challenge of climbing Mt Rishiri, which rises to a height of 1,721 meters. There are two 6-hour trails to the summit, both of which are challenging and should only be attempted by experienced climbers.
But, as we discovered the next day when we left the island behind us, the beauty of Rishiri and its famous mountain is best seen from afar – specifically from its neighbouring island, Rebun.
From the ferry that took us from island to island, we could see Mt Rishiri in all its glory against an azure sky, majestic even without its winter coat of pristine snow.
In contrast to Rishiri, which is shaped like a cone, Rebun is a narrow island with two prongs at its northern tip, like a lobster’s claws.
There are several viewpoints, such as Cape Gorota and Cape Sukoton, which offer magnificent views of the sea and surrounding mountains,.
But my favorite is Cape Skai, which overlooks a shimmering canvas of fluorescent blue and green waters.
On our second day on the island, we woke up at 6AM (the sun rises at 4AM in the summer) and went for a hike up to the Momoiwa Observation Deck.
It’s a modest climb up to the Observation Deck, made easy by the countless stops along the way to admire the varied alpine flowers, including dainty little edelweiss, shiny buttercup and soft red bistort.
But global warming has upset the flowering season and many of the more than 300 varieties of flowers, which should have been in full bloom, were already gone in mid-July.
Hokkaido, like the rest of Japan, was hit by a heat wave in the spring, which forced many flowers to bloom half a month earlier than usual.
Our stay in Rishiri and Rebun, where we were blessed with clear blue skies and mild temperatures, was a welcome respite from the grey days in Tokyo that preceded our trip and the sweltering heat that greeted us on our return to the capital.
The islands are not easy to reach, as the few flights from Tokyo to Wakkanai – the closest port – get quickly booked. The alternative is to fly to Sapporo and take an 8-hour bus ride and then the ferry.
Still, the views are stunning, the seafood is fresh and the people are friendly, making the trip well worth the effort – as long as you have the blessing of the weather gods.
According to our guide, visitors to the islands who arrived several days before us spent their entire stay in the rain and a stubborn white mist that refused to lift.