Sushi, Samurais, Sakura, Swells
A Postmortem On The Postponement of The Japan Olympics
Words by Kim Feldmann de Britto
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics, originally scheduled to run between 24 July and 9 August 2020, were set to debut surfing as an alternative sport – a hallmark in its history. Alongside, the games would have also moved Japanese surfing under the brightest and broader spotlight thus far, creating an opportunity for the country’s wave potential to be foregrounded, and its position as a surf nation and destination to be crystallised.
Around Tsurigasaki Beach (Shidashita Point), the chosen host site for the surf contest located in the Chiba Prefecture, roughly 60km south-east of Tokyo, preparations were underway. New hotels and establishments cropped up; business owners set premium prices and waited for a waterfall of bookings to come through; local surfers rejoiced with the prospect of welcoming such a prestigious gathering of elite athletes to their home breaks.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, it all came to a halt. The Olympic Committee decided to put the games on hold until 2021 – a change of course that forced many people and businesses, as well as the government, to restructure their plans. The deferral caused disappointment among the surfing community and industry. Yet this hiatus also makes room for bird’s-eye considerations over the state of affairs of Japanese surfing, and a closer look into the maturation of the country’s surf scene.
As an archipelago of more than six thousand islands and over 29,000kms of coastline open to a wide range of swells (both from the Sea of Japan and the mighty Pacific Ocean), it is a matter of course that Japan has plenty of high-quality surf spots. Typhoon season, which usually stretches from September until November, is considered the best time to surf in Japan, when solid long-period swells hit the Pacific coast and waves as big as triple overhead roll into a myriad of bays. Consistency decreases with temperatures as the winter season approaches. But those who don’t mind the cold water and wearing full 5/3 wetsuits are bound to find world-class, uncrowded waves before swells die down in April/May.
A swell magnet easily accessible from Tokyo, Chiba is one of the most sought-after regions for surfing. Spots like the 3 M’s (Mera, Maruki, Malibu) are renowned for their line-producing reef set-ups; Obachans and Kusohita for the quality of their barrels; Shotgun for big wave surfing; and Chikura (host beach for one of the JPSA Longboarding circuit legs) for its thriving longboarding scene. Other areas such as Shikoku Island not only offer an array of first-class waves in diverse breaks – such as Shishikui (rocky beach break) and Koifu (one of Japan’s best river mouth waves) – but also buzzing surf communities across Kochi and Tokushima prefectures. Nonetheless, in the eyes of most western surfers, Japan’s wave potential remains as obscure as its writing system. Much of this mystery is due to the country’s relatively late adoption of surfing – as well as the ensuing idiosyncrasies in the development of its surf culture.
Although sources point to wave riding in Japan dating back to the Edo period (1603-1868), it wasn’t until the 1950s, with an increasing number of Western media outlets portraying the sport and becoming accessible to the Japanese population, that the practice began to consolidate and evolve. The ontogenesis of surfing in Japan received its initial tangible push in the early 60s, when American soldiers stationed near Tokyo would bring their surfboards along and explore spots around the city, particularly in the Chiba prefecture. Such exposure to the sport and the craft allowed locals to begin shaping their own boards and the first generation of earnest wave riders to emerge. Trailblazers such as Chiba-born surfer-shaper, Mikio Kawai, and Californian shaper Tak Kawahara, helped disseminate surfing in and out of Japan. Kawai, after watching stand-up surfing on TV in his late teens, borrowed a board from a visiting American surfer, eventually becoming a major figure in the Nipponese surfing and board-making scene, 10-times winner of the All Japan Surfing Championships. Kawahara sojourned in Japan in 1963; he was the first to build boards in the country and later created his signature label, whilst also thoroughly exploring spots along Chiba’s coastline in the years to come.