Beyond Shidashita: Chasing Olympic-size waves in Japan's south
All words and photos by Iain Stanley
When Tokyo got the nod for the 2020 Olympics, all of Japan went up as one. And when the IOC gave the green light for surfing to be included in the Olympics for the first time, the whole surfing world erupted as though it had just been spat out of a heaving ten-foot Pipe barrel.
Then, however, people started putting two and two together and realised that surfing and Tokyo went together like bats and soup in a Chinese wet market. For those who haven’t spent time around the east coast of Japan’s big island in August or September, think mid-afternoon Manly Beach in a summer nor’easter - pitiful, chop-hop slop.
On the other hand, for those of us who’ve been to Japan during the good times and seen the potential of the archipelago, we thought it was a wasted opportunity as Japan has so much to offer.
Indeed, it doesn’t take Sherlock to see the impact Japan has had on the surfing world in recent times.
To start with, you’ve got Takayuki Wakita, who’s so respected for his charging at Pipe that part of the reef is named after him - 'Wakita Bowl' is just inside the usual takeoff at Second Reef Pipe. Then you’ve got his daughter Sara, who just finished 16th on the WQS in 2019 and was part of three Japanese girls in the top 20. One of those was Amuro Tsuzuki, who won a 10,000 WQS event on her way to becoming the first Japanese-born surfer on either the Men’s or the Women’s side to qualify for the World Championship Tour.
Plus, Keito Matsuoka is the most recent winner of the highly coveted O’Neill Wave of the Winter competition, and his name now sits alongside the likes of more illustrious past winners including Nathan Florence, Jamie O’Brien, Koa Rothman, Kelly Slater, and Kalani Chapman. Not a bad list to be on, eh?
Throw in Hiroto Ohhara, who in 2015 won the Vans US Open, and of course, Kanoa Igarashi, who’s chosen to represent Japan on the WCT and at the Olympics.
With all those facts out the way, it’s fair to say that Japan and its surfers are making the type of inroads into the surfing world that Brazil was making a generation ago.
So what does all that mean? In part, it means that Japan has waves, and lots of them. But what you typically see in the media, or hear about coming from nearby Tokyo is not a true reflection of the diamonds in the rough on offer. But rest assured, there are plenty of them if you look hard enough.
Down south where I live, just a few clicks southwest of Tokyo and then some, there are a few big wave spots that are up there with pretty much anywhere else in the world. During the months from June to November, when the typhoons roll through, some of the reefs down here wouldn’t be out of place in a conversation including the most notorious big wave spots around the globe.
There’s one place in particular, just a short drive from my home, that I’ve fallen in love with when it comes to shooting big waves. If you live in these parts, or grew up watching Sarge’s Surfing Scrapbook, it’s pretty well known, but for those who haven’t ventured this far south, it still remains somewhat of a secret. Perhaps it’s because it only breaks really well a handful of times a year, or it might just be because there’s a strong sense of localism and hierarchy that exists in the lineup making it tough for newcomers to break into.
The place itself is nondescript. It sits in a bay on a straight stretch of the highway fronted by a couple of odd shops and a few abandoned factories. There’s a little gravel carpark that you’d barely notice if you didn’t know it was exclusively reserved for the older locals. And that’s pretty much it. The carpark faces out to an inviting little cove, perhaps similar to Waimea Bay when it’s flat and placid, though like Waimea, looks can be deceiving.
When it’s pumping, I’ve seen guys paddle out through the channel and time it so perfectly that their hair’s still dry once they’ve reached the takeoff zone.
I’ve also seen guys get caught inside on the paddle out, washed a kilometre down the coast into the fishing harbour, getting battered all the way, then have to make the inglorious trek back along the highway with tails between their legs.
The size of the waves doesn't help their cause. You have to understand that these guys are riding big, heavy boards measuring ten feet and longer, so there’s no duckdiving. If you time it wrong, you’re shit outta luck.
What I also love about this place is that, unlike most renowned big wave spots around the world, when it breaks here, there are no jetskis, packs of photographers in the channel, helicopters shooting from above, or personal filmers getting their daily social media posts ready for Instagram.
Indeed, story has it that a group of well known chargers from the Red Bull team were here a few years back during an epic swell and wanted to take their skis out and do tow-ins. However, they didn’t get past first base because they didn’t have correct permits or paperwork for their jetskis. It might seem ridiculous, but Japan’s notorious love of rules and inflexibility in administering them could well be one of the reasons this place still remains a relatively unknown dot on the map compared with some other places that have exploded in recent times. The logistical difficulties in getting here quickly is definitely another.
The wave itself is a curious one. There are different ledges on the volcanic reef that cause the waves to jack up quickly on certain sections, taking even the most seasoned locals by surprise. The outside has the big, steep drop. It can sometimes seem like a happy, little roll in if you get in early enough, but once it hits the ledge, it’s all weight on the back foot and arms high up in the air.
Once you’ve navigated that, there’s a quieter, flatter middle section. Then if you’re game enough, or if the tide’s high enough, you can have a crack at the macking inside section. It’s fast, gnarly, massively hollow, and pretty much unmakeable. It doesn’t stop these daredevils from having a lash though.
And that’s what I love most about this place now. Knowing the guys in the water and knowing their idiosyncrasies on a wave. I first started shooting here just over ten years ago, and the more time I’ve spent here, the more I’ve come to know the guys that are always out there, the boards they ride, the cars they drive, and whether it’s worth sticking with them on a wave to see if they’ll chuck themselves into a gaping inside drainer.
It took me a couple of years to get to know them all, mostly because the carparks around the area are very small and are reserved exclusively for the guys who surf there. Also, because it’s very localised and the guys who’ve put time in over the years there are very protective, they don’t exactly extend open invitations to any Tom, Dick and Harry to become part of the tight-knit community.
However, as time’s gone by I’ve developed good friendships with most of the locals and reached a level where they now message me when they think it might be on. Speaking Japanese and having my kids in the same schools as theirs has also helped.
What’s also cool is that outside of the community in which we live, no-one in the surfing world would know who these guys are. Names like Masaki Kobayashi, Kengo Nakasako, Eijiro Wada, Masao Hidaka, and Yoshimitsu Yamada wouldn’t raise an eyebrow amongst people talking about big wave chargers. Nor are there any stickers on boards, fluoro wetsuits, or fist pumps for the judges. It’s mostly just a bunch of unheralded, middle-aged men who love nothing more than pulling out their ten foot guns and chasing big waves when they’re on offer.
In fact, I’d reckon half the local sticker-pack kids wouldn’t know most of them from a bar of soap either. But for people who know these parts and who know who these guys are, there is a massive level of respect bestowed upon them because of the way they throw themselves into typhoon swells year after year without fanfare or fuss.
I think that’s why I enjoy shooting them so much. I think we can all see a piece of ourselves in them. They do it for the love of surfing, and for the love of the thrill. They’re not paid. They expect no financial return for taking on serious waves. They’re just doing it because they have a desire - a sometimes pathological desire - to ride the most mountainous waves that the annual typhoons can throw their way.
Almost all the guys I know who surf there regularly have itinerant, or extremely flexible jobs. None of them are upwardly mobile corporatists. That’s because it’s impossible for them to be tied down to an office job that dictates their hours and prevents them being free when the swell suddenly triples within in the space of an hour. In their world, they need to be available. They need to be able to drop everything in an instant to chase the swells when they come.
None of them crave attention. They don’t have big followings on Facebook or Instagram. They don’t post TikTok videos, nor curate YouTube channels where they beg for people to subscribe. They only follow the typhoons, roll up when it’s huge, then paddle into the biggest waves they dare. Then, when they’ve had their fill, they get in their cars and drive home, wherever that may be.
Some of them are single, some divorced, and some happily married family guys with kids.
While their home lives may be different, the values they all share is a respect for each other, a respect for the hierarchy in the lineup, and a crazy desire for big waves.
And, as the typhoon season nears for 2020, they’ll again be prepared to drop everything when the wind, tide, swell direction, and the swell itself comes come together to provide that fleeting magic they all crave.
// IAIN STANLEY