Surfing is big in Japan—heck, everything is big in the Land of the Rising Sun, but surfing is REALLY big. The locals love the sport (both participating and watching), and for years the various beach breaks around Tokyo featured prominently on the ASP World Tour schedule. A late ’90s emphasis on quality waves and far-flung destinations (aka “The Dream Tour”) saw these Japanese competitive events eventually replaced, but one would be remiss to write Japan off as anything less than a legitimate surf destination. The country is in fact loaded with quality waves, including a number of world-class river mouths and even the occasional big wave spot. And if great setups and an exotic culture aren’t enough to entice you, there is always the fact that visiting surfers are said to enjoy instant celebrity status. Makes you wonder why you aren’t already there—drinking sake, snacking on sushi and chasing typhoon-driven barrels while singing “Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto.”
The Surf: Japan’s surf is underrated, which is a good thing if you are hoping to escape the crowds and score empty, quality lineups. Typhoon fueled, swell periods tend to be on the short side, but numerous beach breaks, river mouths, points and even reefs make for a widely varying surf experience. Japan is a solid beginner to intermediate destination, but there are days when only experts should be in the water.
Five Waves Worth Surfing:
- Sendai: A region rather than a singular surf break, Sendai is the main hub of surfing in northern Japan, and boasts a number of beach breaks within close proximity.
- Fukushima: Smack dab in the unfortunate epicenter of 2011’s tsunami disaster, the lineup at Fukushima was shut down after radioactive waste escaped the nearby nuclear power plant. The region houses numerous quality beach breaks, however, and both locals and foreigners alike look forward to the day that the surf—and the ocean in general—is once again clean and hospitable.
- Shonan: Another wave-dense region—this one in central Japan—Shonan is only an hour and a half from Tokyo, and is one of the country’s most popular surfing areas, with everything from soft longboard-friendly spots to thumping reefs.
- Aoshima Island: A unique setting in southern Japan with a long, rippable left, Aoshima is a tiny island connected to the mainland by a short bridge, and is the peaceful home of a small Shinto temple.
- Okinawa: The fourth main surf region in Japan, Okinawa is rich in history, but also has a number of quality reef breaks, making it a worthy destination. Interestingly, it is also one of the world’s Blue Zones, meaning the local people are some of the longest living on the planet.
The Water: The water near major industrial centers is quite polluted, and obviously the breaks around the Fukushima nuclear power plant are now suffering from the after-effects of radiation leaks. However, various regions in Japan—including areas in the south and around Okinawa—are about as pristine as they come. Water temps vary greatly from the north to the south (and from the winter to the summer), so depending on where and when you are surfing you could be in board shorts or a 6mm wetsuit. Shonan (Japan’s surf capital) sees temps ranging from 61–81 F (16–27 C).
The Season: Although swells can sneak in year round, Japan is all about typhoon season, which means July through November.
The Vibe: Japan has some incredibly crowded surf spots—and some incredibly empty ones. The saving grace in crowded urban areas is that locals seem to take kindly to visiting surfers, so if you don’t mind slaloming through crowded lineups, chances are good that you’ll still score waves, even if you are in Shonan.
Things To Do: Forget surfing—Japan is a worthy destination on the merits of its culture alone. With temples galore, the novelty of big-city Tokyo, and the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, extracurriculars are never lacking. Plus, the country also happens to house some killer snowboarding/skiing.
Where To Stay: Japan is expensive, as you will quickly find out. It is not really set up for feral surfers or budget backpackers, although major cities do have a few hostels. For the most part, expect to pay top dollar for overpriced hotels.
What To Bring: A shortboard as your standard stick, and a longboard if you are of the persuasion and intend to spend time near soft waves. Warm clothing and thick rubber if you are coming in winter or heading north. A taste for rice wine and raw fish, and a lot of money to spend on it. A typhoon.
Getting There: Narita airport on the outskirts of Tokyo is the main entry point into the country, with flights coming in from virtually everywhere. However, you can also fly directly into Okinawa if you intend to spend your time there. Tourist visas are available upon arrival (more information available here: http://www.us.emb-japan.go.jp/english/html/travel_and_visa/travel_and_visa_index.htm). Airport codes: OKA (Okinawa) and NRT (Narita [Tokyo]).