While Niseko has put Japan firmly on the list of top international skiing and boarding destinations, there is no similar association with Japanese surfing. Apart from occasional stories that drift out of the better known beach areas around Tokyo (the Shonan Kaigan has a “sister” relationship with the Gold Coast in Queensland) the surfing scene is generally a bit of a black hole. Those snippets suggest waves are small, the water and beaches are dirty, and they are very, very overcrowded.
But rumor has it that it can get really, really good during the annual typhoon season. With so little documented, however, the hard part is knowing where to look. While Japan is largely an unchartered surfing destination, Hokkaido is truly a surfing frontier. The sport has only gained popularity among Japanese over the past 10 to 15 years. While around Tokyo and Japan’s tropical southern islands that has been enough time to cultivate a young but genuine surfing culture, it still hasn’t really taken root in the north. There are plenty of local Japanese surfers about in Hokkaido but there’s so much coastline and such a sparse population that it doesn’t seem to have really taken hold of a generation.
As a result when it is good, the waves are virtually deserted meaning you can take your pick of the best waves that come through – the surfing ideal and a rarity anywhere in the world these days. The traditionally beach-obsessed expat Australian community living in Niseko is revelling in the situation given the chronic overcrowding of Australian waves.
“When the typhoons come up it’s fantastic,” says Kal Bragg, president of Niseko Alpine Developments (Nisade).
“It’s uncrowded and very often it’s got some power – it’s a surfer’s dream. It does get very, very good, touching on world class. Not far from Niseko, there’s a multitude of points to choose from at the horseshoe-shaped Uchiura Bay (on the Pacific Ocean side) so there are lefts and rights and heaps of places to choose from. There’s reefs, sand bottom – everything. Uchiura Bay is one of the best places to go from here but there are waves all over. There are really remote waves up over on the northeast of the island which is still pretty much uncharted territory.”
Another local expat, Ruskin McLennan, director of Niseko Property, said he and his buddies – including colleagues Peter Murphy and Mick Davis, go surfing in Hokkaido all year round. “The water temperature on the Sea of Japan side doesn’t drop much below 10 degrees and the quality of wetsuits is so good these days you can wear a 4mm (thick) wetsuit with hood, gloves and boots and go out all year round.”
McLennan said while there is top quality surf on offer it can be hard to pinpoint. Perhaps more so than Australia, a bit of local knowledge of the coastline and weather patterns goes a long way. “It’s all about watching the swell buoys here,” he said. “Most of the swell comes in as wind swell so you’ve really got to time your trips out to the Sea of Japan. It’s really about tracking the storms and picking up the swells as they go through. There are a lot of beach breaks, reefs and point breaks but the key is finding the right combination of swell and wind. There’s not really any known spots. It’s about jumping in the car and doing the old surf check. But one great thing about surfing up here is that it doesn’t get crowded. There are a few Japanese surfers and they’re really nice to surf with – they’re very polite and respectful.”
The best time for surfing is in the typhoon season, from August through November. You can expect an average of about two good swells a month during that time, whereas outside those months, swells become few and far between. Generally the Pacific Ocean side is better because it gets better swell. The Sea of Japan side tends to be more short-range wind swell.
As for where to go . . . well, it’s like anywhere in the world –you’ll be lucky to find someone who will give away their secret spots, and there are plenty of secret spots here. Niseko is a good base to start you Hokkaido surfing odyssey. It’s close to Japan Sea coast beaches and others on the east coast beyond Chitose. There’s also lots of good quality accommodation throughout the year and cheap van rentals readily available. If you do the hard yards, you’re sure to be rewarded sooner rather than later in the seas off Hokkaido.