Sāfu’s Up!

Ready or not, Japan’s quiet surf scene is about to go global
Story by Derek Ferrar. Photos by Ben Weller.

I’m standing on a deserted, wind-blasted beach about forty miles southeast of Tokyo, looking out across dark gray sand at a hashed-up jumble of whitewater.

Above: Under the lofty gaze of Mount Fuji, locals and "train surfers" from Tokyo flock to the Shōnan coast's twenty-five miles of fickle beach breaks. Left: a torii gate—traditional Shinto symbol of passage from the mundane to the sacred—stands in front of Shidashita Beach in Chiba Prefecture where surfing is set to make its Olympic deput in 2020. Right: Father-and-son duo Takeshi and Taisei Akiyama warm up before heading out for dawn patrol at "Shida".
Japan's surfers make the most of waves that barely get above waist-high much of the time, though on ocassion typhoons bring short-lived bursts of overhead swells that can rival some of the best waves in the world. Right top: Hailing from the laid-back Shōnan surf town of Chigasaki, 13-year-old competitive surfer Taisei Akiyama and his dad Takeshi travel to prime surfing spots around the Japan every weekend in their VW camper. Right bottom: While Shōnan is mainly known for its part-time urban leisure surfers, rural Chiba is home to a more core community of surfriders like local Hana Akiba, gearing up for a morning session at Shida
Left: Tucked at the base of limestone cliffs, Hebara beach in central Chiba is known as the "North Shore" of Japan for the variety and quality of the local surft spots, when it's going off. For a couple of decades starting in the early 1980s, the area was an annual stop on the world championship tour, with the sport's biggest stars roaming the sleepy little town's narrow streets and family shops. Right: Competitive surver Reon Oba gets above the lip at Kugenuma Beach in the Shōnan coast's urban surfing core. One of the striking things about hitting the waves in Shōnan is that it's a bit like riding a crowded Tokyo subway train: Although the lineup may be packed, people manage to maintain a bubble of personal space.

Scanning the grassy dunes and parking lot—empty in these onshore wind conditions but usually packed with a hundred or more surfers when it’s going off—I try to picture the scene that will happen here in just a little over a year, with a warren of tents and bleachers buzzing with action, loudspeakers blaring and TV cameras everywhere. Because although you sure wouldn’t know it to look at it today, some-time in late July or early August 2020, at this very spot—Shidashita Beach (or just “Shida” to surfers) in the Chiba prefecture town of Ichinomiya—someone is going to win the first Olympic medals ever awarded for surfing.

Between the parking lot and the beach stands a torii gate, the traditional Shinto mark of a transition point from the mundane to the sacred. It’s a fitting symbol at Shida, which hosts so many surfing contests throughout the year that it’s known as the“dojo” of Japanese surfing, after the com-petition ring in sumo wrestling. Standing next to me by the gate is local pro Reo Inaba, wearing a broad, dimpled smile and a trendy hint of bleach in his hair. As one of Japan’s top-ranked surfers on the international circuit, Reo might actually have a shot at making Team Japan to compete
in home surf when Olympic history is made here.

A surfer stretches out for a surf session in view of Enoshima island, the “Diamond Head of the Shōnan Coast.”

Reo says he was as surprised as anyone when it was announced a couple of years ago that surfing had been accepted as a sport for the Tokyo Games and that Shida had been selected as the venue. “I never imagined it would happen here,” he tells me. Like pretty much everyone I talk to in Japan’s surfing world, he thinks a lot will ride on conditions during the two-week holding period: Although Shida is one of Japan’s more consistent breaks, it can also go flat in August unless a typhoon swell happens along. If he does manage to make the Olympic team, Reo will have a home break advantage. “I grew up surfing this spot,” he says. “So as long as there is swell, it should be OK.”

In the living room of their spacious, memorabilia-filled home by a river a few miles inland from Shida, legendary surfboard shaper Teruo “Ted” Adegawa and his wife, Yuriko, reminisce as they leaf through a book of old photos from Ted’s long shaping career. There he is in Southern California in 1964 during a year-long road trip around the United States, when he learned to surf and shape boards. And there he is setting up shop as one of Japan’s first local shapers at a time when the only boards available were brought in by American military guys serving in the country.

“At that time there was almost no information about surfing anywhere in Japan, and no one had the materials to make boards,” Ted says, still charismatically colorful at 75 in hot-pink jeans and orange jacket. In those days, during the economic reconstruction of the country, Yuriko says, “people thought you should just be working night and day, so there was a lot of negative feeling not only against surfers, but anybody who enjoyed having fun.”

Pro surfer brothers Yukio and Nao Ogawa, along with Nao’s son Takuya, get ready to hit the waves at their home break in Kamogawa, a mellow city fronting a curving bay in southern Chiba.

It wasn’t until the ’70s, she says, that people “finally started thinking about joy and having a hobby like surfing.” Ted himself played no small part in promoting the growth of the Japanese surf industry and culture, opening a popular shop, sponsoring contests and team riders, and writing a column on the surfing scene for the pop lifestyle magazine Popeye. “I would shape during the day and write at night,” he chuckles. “I was too busy.”

One day about fifteen years ago, Ted was on his way home from a surf contest when a blood vessel suddenly burst in his brain (the fruit, he says with a wink, “of too much drinking shochu”). He was in a coma for months and was left partially paralyzed. Unable to surf, he turned to golf. But a couple of years ago he started riding waves again, lying down on his board. Soon after, he started Japan’s first adaptive surfing organization with the aim of helping surfers with disabilities get in the water. This September he organized Japan’s first adaptive competition, with more than twenty surfers coming from all over the country to participate.

Like other surfers I talk to, Ted is of two minds about the Olympics. It will help surfing “become more of a real sport” in many people’s eyes, he says, “but I also believe surfing is more of a free kind of lifestyle. So I don’t really agree or disagree with having it in the Olympics, but definitely surfing will be changed afterward.”

Trim, spry and still ripping at 70, early international surf star Mikio “Mickey” Kawai sits amid a clutter of mementos in his Surf Gallery in Kamogawa, a small beach city along a curving bay in southern Chiba. The small shop is packed with trophies, old boards and framed photos of Mickey shredding in seemingly every surfing era.

The preferred mode of transport for Shōnan surfers is the beach cruiser bike with surf racks on the side. For the masses of train surfers coming out from Tokyo, there’s a thriving local industry of storage lots for bikes and surf “clubs” offering board lockers.

In the early ’60s, Mickey tells me, he saw surfing on TV and tried to copy it using a blow-up air mattress. The first time he surfed for real, he says, was when he was finally able to borrow a board from an American Navy guy. After that he and his friends began trying to make their own boards, but, like Ted, they couldn’t find materials anywhere. “One of my friends even hired a detective to help find materials in Tokyo,” he laughs.

When I ask Mickey what he thinks of surfing being in the Olympics, he points out that the first Tokyo Olympics in 1964, hailed as Japan’s postwar re-emergence, happened right around the time he and others were first getting into surfing. And now the first Olympic surfing will be in the Tokyo 2020 games, “so it’s kind of a circle.”

Like everyone, he’s heard rumors that if the waves are no good at Shida, the Olympic competition might be moved at the last minute to a wave pool that just happens to be under construction outside Tokyo—although as of now the Olympic surfing organizers insist that the competition will be held in the ocean at Shida. Even though the controlled environment of a wave pool would allow each competitor to be judged more equally on their performance, “the reason surfing in the ocean is fun is that anything can happen by accident,” Mickey says. “It might only be one very good day, but scoring that day is the joy of surfing.”

At the other end of Kamogawa’s crescent bay, pro surfer brothers Nao and Yukio Ogawa and their buddy Dave Yamaya, a former pro longboarder from Maui, are drinking coffee on the deck of Nao’s Regalo surf shop, with a sweeping view down the city’s coastline. There’s a swell running about head-high at Maruki, the surf spot just off the rocks across the road, courtesy of a distant typhoon. “People still think of Japan as just small waves, but it can go off,” Dave says, showing me a shot on his phone of a huge grinder off the point to prove it. “Granted, it only happens maybe a couple of times a year.” The surf scene in Kamogawa reminds him a lot of the one on Maui, Dave says:“There’s a lot of respect in the water, same as Hawai‘i. And there’s that same kind of island mentality.”

The water temperature in southern Chiba and Shōnan stays surprisingly mild late into the year, thanks to the warm Kuroshio Current, known as the “Gulf Stream of the Pacific,” that sweeps up from
 the tropics.

In 2001 Nao snagged a unique honor, becoming the only Japanese surfer ever to score a perfect ten in the Pipe Masters competition on O‘ahu’s North Shore, the very pinnacle of all surfdom. Yukio, who was just starting to surf, remembers standing on the beach when his brother dropped out of the sky into a triple-over-head bomb late in his heat and got spit out the other end to nail the perfect score. “Everybody jumped up, and they were all screaming and clapping,” he recalls. “I got so excited, that’s why now all I do is copy my brother.”

With the coming of the Olympics, Nao says he thinks Japanese competitive surfers are going to have to realize that big-time sports fame is about more than just how well you surf. “How they look and behave outside the water is also important to get the audience,” he says. “But in surfing, that can be kind of hard to find.”

Out on the wooden deck of Splash Guest House overlooking a gorgeous stretch of beach in the central Chiba village of Hebara—often referred to as “Japan’s North Shore”—half a dozen women in billowy hula skirts are swaying in unison to Hawaiian tunes emanating from a boombox. Splash’s proprietress, Madoka Gillett, is a member of the local Hilo Hawaiian Academy hula troupe—one of many in hālau (schools) hula-mad Japan—and today she’s hosting practice at her Hawaiiana-filled home.

Meanwhile, clean little peelers are unwinding off the beach out front, where when the right swell is on, world-class grinding cylinders can pour in. From the early 1980s through the mid-2000s, this area helped spark a surfing boom in Japan as it hosted annual top-level competitions on the world championship tour. For a few weeks each year, the sleepy little town was transformed into surf circus central, with the sport’s biggest stars roaming the narrow streets and family shops.

Old-school longboarder Tenji Oda fondly recalls outlaw days gone by. Having surfed for over fifty-five years, Oda has witnessed the changing surf scene and says it makes him sad that “surfers in Japan are too tame now.”

“Most awareness of surfing in Japan started with those contests. Before that there was the idea here that surfing wasn’t something you did; it always sounded a bit suspect,” says Madoka’s effervescent husband, Dane, a snowboarder from Wales who first came to Japan twenty years ago to compete and fell in love with it. A surfer as well, Dane started searching for info on surf spots in the country and came up empty. So for the next decade he traveled and surfed the length of the island nation’s thousands of miles of coastline, filling pad after pad with notes. Eventually he put it all online at SurfingInJapan.com and other web sites, and about five years ago he and Madoka started their guesthouse and surf school at the hard-to-land prime ocean-front spot in Hebara.

“Most of the surfers who come to stay with us rock up to the beach and say, ‘Holy moley, I didn’t know Japan was like this,’” Dane says. “And now the Olympics are really gonna put Japan on the map to the masses as a surfable place. It’s like snow-boarding fifteen years ago—no one thought Japan had any, and now we’re a top snowboarding destination.”

It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon at Kugenuma beach, and hordes of wetsuit-clad Tokyo “train surfers” are swarming the small, blown-out beach break like ants on a sugar trail. With its warren of narrow streets fronting a long stretch of usually gentle beach breaks about an hour from Tokyo by train, Kugenuma is the epicenter of the urban surf scene on the Shōnan coast, a twenty-five-mile stretch of beach towns along Sagami Bay in Kanagawa prefecture.

Taisei Akiyama waxes his board before heading out for dawn patrol at Shida, which hosts so many surfing contests throughout the year that it’s known as the “dojo” of Japanese surfing, after the competition ring in sumo wrestling.

Dozens of beach cruiser bikes fitted with surf racks stand in rows by the sand, with a pair of rubber slippers neatly tucked behind each rear wheel. Down the beach a festival of some sort is in full swing, with big tents and blaring loudspeakers. A few people are playing paddleball over nets set up on the sand, while others lounge on the long arc of concrete bleachers fronting the beach. Offshore to the left is the steep profile of Enoshima island, the “Diamond Head” of the Shōnan coast, and in the distance to the right, Fuji-san soars high above the cloud line.

Smack in the middle of all the action stands the three-story, flamingo-pink Coastline surf shop. The shop’s owner, Tenji Oda, tells me he’s been surfing for fifty-five years, and like many early Japanese surfers he first learned about it from magazines. He tried it out with friends who had gotten boards from American servicemen, and he got hooked. But when he went looking for a board of his own, he says, there were no surf shops. When he finally found a place to get a board in Tokyo, it cost about $1,500, several months’ salary for most people at the time. “Back then it was only a rich person’s sport,” he says.

With his jet-black hair combed back and a blue flowered aloha shirt, Tenji cracks an afternoon Asahi and boasts about stunts of his youth, like paddling out to Enoshima island naked and climbing the cliffs. “One thing I’m sad about is that surfers in Japan are too tame now compared to the old days,” he says. “Now I have so many police, lawyers, doctors and CEOs who are my customers. Things are changing.”

Oda owns the three-story, flamingo-pink Coastline surf shop in the heart of the action at Kugenuma beach. When he took up surfing in the seventies there were no surf shops in the area. Oda recalls traveling to Tokyo and paying a premium for his first board.

Tenji’s buddy Sano, a charmingly grizzled Kugenuma local in his sixties, remembers days when biker and hot-rod gangs from Tokyo and Yokohama came out to the Shōnan beaches to fight. To protect themselves, the surfers formed their own clubs, including one Sano cofounded called the Kugenuma Easy Underground. “We called it ‘Underground’ because we were about surfing culture, not contests,” he says. An old club photo shows a pack of scowling long-haired dudes in shades and cutoff jackets, flipping the bird at the camera. “People thought we were scary, but we were just surfers,” he says. “We didn’t want to fight.”

As it turned out, some of the biker types became surfers after the cops chased them out of the gangs. “So we taught them to surf and became friends with the bad guys to make peace,” Sano says, “and then they became good guys through surfing.” Even today, he tells me conspiratorially, “We still control Kugenuma … but it’s under-ground.” One thing he does fight for openly, he says, is unrestricted use of the beach.“Surfing should be free,” he growls. “I don’t like so many rules, rules, rules.”

In an industrial area about twenty minutes inland toward Tokyo, the two-story entryway to the headquarters of Dove Wetsuits is filled with artifacts from four decades of team-rider glory: contest-winning boards, hard-earned trophies, classic surf mag covers. The iconic brand’s founder, Yasumori Tokura, tells me he started the company in 1975 after washing out of college because he spent too much time in the water. He needed to make a living but couldn’t handle the idea of a regular job. “I wanted to go surfing whenever I liked,” he says. “So I started my own business instead.”

Oda with his buddy Masanobu Sano who co-founded the surf club Kugenuma Easy Underground. “We called it ‘Underground’ because we were about surfing culture, not contests,” Sano says.

With his mop-top hair, beatnik beard and John Lennon glasses, Tokura-san has the cool look of a character straight out of a ’70s surf comic. When he started Dove, he says, there were no other surfing wetsuits being made in Japan, and imported foreign suits often didn’t fit well. So he worked with friends to design suits especially for Japanese surfers. “We would measure each surfer’s body size and make a custom wetsuit just for them,” he says. “Japanese customers really care for such service.”

He built the company by pioneering a lot of now-standard surf marketing techniques, including sponsoring riders and competitions, saturating surf media and renting a team house on O‘ahu’s high-exposure North Shore. Along the way, Dove did a lot to shape and promote evolving Japanese surf culture. So what does Tokura-san think makes surfers in Japan different, besides their measurements? “I think maybe we’re a little bit more mellow and polite than in some other places,” he says. “But basically we’re the same as surfers everywhere: Once you
try it, you’re captivated.”

One of Dove’s prime stars over the years, Takayuki Wakita, is sitting at a picnic table out in front of his family’s surf shop on bustling Enoshima beach, showing me a sick shot on his phone of him tucked super far back in a macking Pipeline barrel last season. In his trademark helmet, Wakita is such a notorious charger at the North Shore proving ground that the insanely deep peak where he takes off (and frequently gets pounded) has been named after him.

Competitive surfer Reon Oba catches a wave off Kugenuma. The small beach town is the epicenter of the urban surf scene on the Shōnan coast due to its proximity to Tokyo – only an hour’s train ride away.

Like most of the proliferation of surf shops along the Shōnan coast, the Sylphide Surf Club, which his parents have owned since he was a kid, does a lot of its trade in rentals and board storage for Tokyo surfers who ride the train out to the beach. As we talk there’s a steady stream of weekend warriors lugging equipment in and out of the storage lockers in the basement.

Propped up in the window of the shop is a busted “rhino-chaser” board from the first year Wakita surfed in the beyond-prestigious Eddie Aikau big-wave contest at Waimea bay. But he tells me the majority of his customers wouldn’t have any clue what the board represents. “Most of the members who come here are just beginners,” he says. “They don’t really know or care much about surfing history; it’s just more of a leisure activity. That’s why we have to educate.”

In his late forties, with a hip flip in his hair and a stylish beard line, Wakita grew up on this popular windsurfing beach in the shelter of Enoshima island, although “when I was little it was more countryside,” he says. Back in those days there was more of a territorial vibe in Shōnan: “Each beach had its own surf shop and its own locals who belonged to that shop. If you surfed at that spot, you didn’t really surf other places.” Today, he says, “it’s different; you see so many people you don’t know. There are so many beginning surfers now it’s incredible.”

Wakita says he first went to Hawai‘i when he was 15, and he has spent about half the year on the North Shore most years since then. “I just love Pipe,” he says. “Even when I hit the reef, even with a hundred people out. Even if I can’t catch a wave, that’s the place my soul wants to be.”

“When I was little it was more countryside,” says pro surfer Takayuki Wakita who grew up in Shōnan. “Each beach had its own surf shop and its own locals who belonged to that shop.” Today, he says, “it’s different; you see so many people you don’t know. There are so many beginning surfers now it’s incredible.”

After three decades of Pipeline charging that has made him the best-known Japanese surfer in Hawai‘i, Wakita says he still gives much respect to the locals and feels “like a visitor” when he’s surfing in the Islands. But here at his home breaks in Shōnan, it’s a different story. “Here I want to catch all the best waves,” he laughs. “This is my spot.”

At the back table of a funky-cool restaurant with a surfer-chef in the laid-back Shōnan town of Chigasaki, I’m chowing down on some great Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki—essentially fried noodles wrapped in a crepe—with a pair of surfing-lifestyle web site publishers, Naoka Nakahara and Eri Nishikami. Officially a sister city of Honolulu, Chigasaki is filled with shops and eateries bearing Hawai‘i-themed names, and the citizens pride themselves on their mellow aloha spirit. Eri says that’s what drew her to move to Chigasaki a few years ago after living for stretches in Hawai‘i and Bali. “Everyone is really friendly here,” she says. “Even if you don’t know someone in the market or whatever, they just talk to you—that’s very unusual in Japan.”

Naoka’s site, Go-Naminori.com, features Hawai‘i-Japan surf connections (naminori means surfing), while Eri’s Beach-Press.com focuses on health and well-being advice geared toward female surfers. “Basically, I blog about how to have a happy life, healthy eating and being conscious about everything you do,” she says, “because that’s what’s necessary for our planet to survive, I think.”

When it comes to the Olympics, Eri says, “people have mixed feelings. On one hand the government is cutting off funds for people who still don’t have homes from the Fukushima disaster, and yet at the same time they want to spend so much on the Olympics. Some of us have problems with that.”

Likewise, Masuo Ueda, a Kamogawa surf environmentalist who helped found the Surfrider Foundation in Japan, is concerned that all the Olympic hoopla will gloss over what he says are serious coastal problems in the contest region. “There’s a lot of moving sand, and the land has been sinking due to natural gas extraction in the area, but most people don’t even know about it,” he says. “People just want to focus on the competition side of surfing, or the fashion and lifestyle, but it’s not that simple.”

Seasoned pro Masatoshi “Mar” Ohno sits with several other coaches under a pop-up tent in a light rain, watching a pack of young hopefuls rip turns and boost airs in wobbly, head-high Chiba beach break as they warm up for a regional junior championship. He’s sporting the Japanese flag on his uniform cap and windbreaker, thanks to his recently assumed role as non-surfing captain for Team Japan in the Olympics-affiliated International Surfing Association.

The 38-year-old Mar says his role is “to help everyone bond together as a team, because they’re more used to approaching surfing as individuals.” He must be doing a good job, because earlier this year the team won gold for the first time at the ISA’s 2018 World Surfing Games, held in Japan. A few weeks later they took gold again in the junior championship.

Despite the fact that he may well wind up playing a similar role on Japan’s Olympic surfing team in 2020, Mar has reservations about whether surfing and the Olympics can truly mix. “What we do is not just a sport, it’s a whole culture,” he says. “I’m hoping the Olympics will reveal this side to the public also. It’s not just about going out there and getting the score; it’s about how you live your life.” HH