Japan: A Surfer’s Paradise
Surfing is a ritual. I’ve done it all over the world, but the routine is the same: wetsuit on, wax the board, paddle out, wait for the waves. It’s comforting to know that even when exploring a new place, if I have the opportunity to go surfing, much of this routine stays the same. On a trip that can otherwise feel disorienting, overwhelming and assaulting on the senses, surfing is a way to find my center wherever I am.
That being said, I’m not what many would call a “good” surfer. By any definition around the world, I am a novice. I’ve been known to wobble around on my board and lose balance, and to flip upside-down in the calmest of waters. For me, surfing isn’t about being the best or even trying to be good—it’s a form of meditation, being one with the waves and seeing a landscape from a new perspective.
A couple years ago on Cape Hedo at the northernmost tip of Okinawa’s main island, for instance, I remember promising myself that I would, here in “the Hawaii of Japan,” try my hand at surfing. With a subtropical climate, warm waters and abundant reef breaks, it’s considered one of the best places to surf in the whole country. There’s pretty regular Pacific swell in this area, but the conditions can still vary. That day, I found the waves consistent, and having a pitch and frequency that were perfect for a surfer of my level. They weren’t the biggest, scariest waves in the world, but they were exactly what I needed to get out on the water and have a few hours of fun. And unlike California or Australia where surf breaks can be crowded with dozens and dozens of surfers waiting in the lineup, I saw perhaps six other people in the water that day—and a local had told me that eight or more would be considered a crowded affair.
The beautiful thing about surfing in Japan is that despite being quite literally a surfer’s paradise, the popular surf spots are seldom overcrowded like they would be in the other Pacific surfing hot spots. When you’re here, you’re experiencing the sport of surfing the way it was originally intended: being one with nature.
Japan consists of nearly 7,000 islands and contains about 22,000 miles of coastline, so there’s not just a little bit of everything here, but a lot. Beach breaks, reef breaks, point breaks, man-made seawalls, gently sloping sandy beaches, gnarly cold water storm swells to balmy subtropical waters—Japan has them all.
Different regions of the country offer different things. Okinawa, as I experienced, is known for its agreeable climate and warm waters, but—it should be pointed out—should only be surfed while wearing booties, as there is an abundance of both sharp coral reefs and sea urchins in the area. The Wada Rivermouth in Chiba Prefecture, just a few hours east of Tokyo, offers consistent year-round surfing. Miyazaki on the island of Kyushu has a great variety of waves, suitable for beginners as well as intermediates who want to try their hand at barrel-wave surfing. Another iconic option is a short ferry ride away from Tokyo on the island of Niijima, which has vast sandy beaches that are great for surfers—and for their friends and family who prefer to watch from the comfort of terra firma.
But it’s not just the waves and beaches that bring surfers from around the world to Japan—it’s the culture, the food and the sense of community. Surfing here is an enriching experience that goes far beyond the beach.
Japan’s deep-rooted culture of hospitality makes this land a welcoming place for surfers. Surf shops from Tokyo to Okinawa are on hand to equip visitors with wetsuit and board rentals, making surfing a seamless experience for all. And thanks to its history as a volcanic landscape, the country is dotted with natural onsen hot springs that offer a welcome reprieve after a long day spent on the waves. The recuperation doesn’t end there, however: food, too, is part of the experience.
After hours on my surfboard in Okinawa, I remember walking back into town, pulling up a chair at a small izakaya and ordering a feast of pork onigiri, parrotfish sashimi and a big steaming bowl of soki soba noodles. Japan is a land of unimaginably rich culinary traditions, but as I gobbled down dinner that day—my hair still salty from the ocean arms tired from paddling all afternoon—I couldn’t help but be struck by how good this refueling tasted. Surfing makes everything taste that much better.
The biggest takeaway from my time surfing in Okinawa, however, was the sense of community I felt. In a place where you aren’t familiar with the landscape or the lay of the land, and you don’t speak the language or even know any people personally, surfing is a beautiful entry-point to experience a place. Each time I paddled out into the waves, I exchanged a knowing nod with the local surfers who were out there, too. We didn’t speak the same language—not the same words, at least—but for a short time, we were riding the same waves. And in a land that’s far from home and far from everything you’ve ever experienced, surfing is a small yet meaningful method to feel like, in some way, you’ve really come to know a place.