On the waves of the Japanese life

We introduce a story written by Roman Malyshev, a translator and former Russian diplomat from St.Petersburg. An ambitious man with an unconventional career who spent five years in Tokyo, where in addition to his official duties he managed to make some room for pleasures like film photography (i.e. not digital), travelling, catching waves and riding slopes as well as researching different aspects of Japanese life. He shares his unique experience of life and work in Japan and breaks down about Japanese surfing, which he himself witnessed on spectacular spots in the vicinity of Tokyo.

What kind of people are they?

Russians, Europeans, Americans and others might learn a lot from the Japanese. Careful attitude towards the environment, respect for others, appreciation of tiny little things — these are just a few features which come to mind in the first place. If a group of Japanese goes to a park to hit some drinks while gazing at sakura in bloom, they will clean up the place after. On top of that, the bulk of their garbage most probably will be recycled.

When a public train is running behind schedule, the driver will keep apologising for the inconvenience throughout the whole trip. Yes, this may be too much, but I personally appreciate the approach. At least they express their care.

Now imagine a member of parliament or even a Minister is spotted doing something wrong or making a weird statement. He or she will be required to make a public apology, it will then appear on the TV and in the newspapers. Most probably, it`ll end up with their resignation.

Finally, when you buy a bottle of water, it will be properly cooled, the label will be nice and clean and you will remove the cap effortlessly. As it is supposed to be.

On first impressions, the Japanese seem the nicest people you`ve ever known. However, as with other nationalities, there is a dark side too. The Japanese people are familiar with Russian cuisine, they appreciate borscht (beetroot soup) and pirozhki (buns), love the Russian ballet, theatre, fine arts and our culture as a whole. Whenever Russian artists of all categories perform in Tokyo and other big cities of Japan, tickets are normally sold out long before the show. The same goes for Japanese events in Russia. However in politics things are not that bright at all.

The cornerstone of most tensions between Russia and Japan is in the dispute over the Kuril islands. In my opinion, for the time being there is no solution which would satisfy both parties. Largely due to this unresolvable dispute, over recent decades the Russian diplomatic mission in Tokyo has  regularly been the location of unhealthy developments. Rampant marches of right-wing nationalists, controversial articles in local newspapers, ostentatious surveillance and many more issues are commonplace for the Embassy employees and their families. 

Once a car was burned right in front of the Embassy gate. Then — a Russian flag. Then somebody broke a front door at night. Then a local man blocked the gates of the Embassy with his car, just as I was about to leave. It took the Japanese cops more than an hour to ‘persuade’ the man to leave. All this, of course, is not beneficial for the bilateral relationship. Add to this the generally wary attitude of the Japanese towards all foreigners, which sometimes transforms into actual discrimination. But this topic deserves another article or even a whole book.

The mountains and the ocean

Now let’s switch to pleasures. Japan is a very comfortable and interesting place to live. Personally, I was very happy with the proximity of the mountains and the ocean. It takes just two or three hours by car one way to get to the waves from downtown Tokyo. Five-six hours in the opposite direction and you are in the mountains, where you can ride through the woods and drown in a gorgeous powder, just like in the movie “The Fourth Phase”. There are countless ski resorts of various scales scattered around the Northern part of Honshu and the island of Hokkaido. Meanwhile the endless coastline stretching from the North, where it borders Russia, to the tropical South, hosts innumerable surf spots. 

It takes just two or three hours by car one way to get to the waves from downtown Tokyo. Five-six hours in the opposite direction and you are in the mountains, where you can ride through the woods and drown in a gorgeous powder

Take a look at the surf map of Japan. They ride everywhere! Even on the West coast — on the Sea of ​​Japan, which is hidden from the oceanic ground swell. There are many spots near Tokyo too. Imagine you live in a huge city, a world capital, but in a matter of hours you can get to a rural wilderness, where a wetsuit is dried on almost every veranda. Isn’t that awesome!

Surfing in Japan

It is believed that surfing appeared in Japan after World War II. The heavy defeat led to occupation by the US and allies, and US military bases came to the Japanese islands, yet the Americans brought not only arms. They essentially introduced elements of their lifestyle and culture which attracted locals. One of those was the art of riding waves. Previously, the Japanese themselves did it for fun too, but they rode only on primitive wooden ‘itago’ boards — the predecessor of modern bodyboards.

The Japanese first saw real surfing in the way we know it sometime in the 60’s. Villagers attention was probably glued to the American military servicemen catching waves on a beach near Atsugi base, in the outskirts of Tokyo. The Americans supposedly noticed that local teenagers were intrigued and showed them the basics of an unusual sport. Thus, without knowing it, the Yankees laid the foundation for local Japanese surfing. Several decades later Shonan Beach on the shore of Sagami Bay, where a new culture was born, has become one of the largest surf spots in the country. Now it holds crowds of surfers and other visitors all year round and in almost any weather. Everybody surfs here — from young to old.

Previously, the Japanese themselves surfed for fun too, but they rode only on primitive wooden ‘itago’ boards — the predecessor of modern bodyboards

In Japan surfing is often in the newspapers. Good reads in the lifestyle section normally come together with nice colorful photographs, which are pleasurable to view. I can remember a story of a middle-aged ‘sarariman’ (salary man, office worker) who was so obsessed with surfing that he chose to get up at 5 AM to have time to go catch some waves before work. Truly, youth in the body is youth in the soul.

The Japanese pinned many hopes on the Summer Olympics, which were supposed to take place in Tokyo and its surroundings in 2020. That would have been the debut of surfing as an Olympic discipline. When I was in Japan there was a lot of talk that such a big event with sports and music would revitalize a remote area near Kujukuri Beach on the Boso Peninsula, where surfers from all over the world were expected to get together. However, the COVID-19 pandemic messed everything up and the project is still on hold.

Let’s get back to Shonan Beach. Here, in the atmosphere of lovely narrow coastal streets, the aesthetics of the American surf towns that can be seen in the movies can be felt. There are bars with a surfer ambiance and colorful cafes that coexist with authentic Japanese eateries. Those cosy places will offer you a juicy burger, the freshest sushi or a bowl of spicy ramen after a surf or a walk. It’s a good time to slow down, enjoy some Japanese beer with a sweet aroma or sip on some great Japanese whiskey. In moments like these the serene face of Bill Murray from the movie “Lost in Translation” comes to mind: «For relaxing times, make it Suntory time».

Here is the place where you can also buy the latest boards from top brands or find an old treasure — like a vintage hand-shaped surfboard from California in absolutely mint condition. All the necessary accessories and merchandise are right there too. The names of shops and other places as well as signs and menus often feature Hawaiian motifs, and the ukulele caresses your ears. Honolulu is thousands of miles away across the endless Pacific Ocean, but it feels like it’s just around the corner.

The waves on the spots around Tokyo, where I surfed, are mostly poor. The peak season lasts from August to September, when typhoons roam the Pacific Ocean. Often they hit Japan proper, bringing serious damage and even casualties. Three to five feet is common during these months. I saw a lot of nice nasty waves and even caught a few. The rest of the year, however, the waves rarely rise above two feet.

There are a lot of longboarders here too, although short boards are also in the business. They do not disdain even the smallest waves. Whenever you come, even in complete calm, many figures of surfers will appear on the lineup. Every time I saw that I was asking myself: what’s the point? From the forecast, it was obvious that there would be nothing to catch. But the team is there no matter what. Even in the cold.

One day on a snow trip I met a Japanese girl who appeared to be a surfer from the Shonan area. There were so many things to talk about right away. I could not help but take the opportunity to ask her the pending question. She made a pause like she needed to think a bit and then replied that local surfers are of course aware they need to lower expectations in times of calm, but nevertheless they are always attracted to raw interaction with unbridled nature. It’s an integral part of local lifestyle which can not be replaced or removed. This seems very true to me.

Yes, in complete calm the outcome of such ‘surf’ seems very dubious, although surfing itself is obviously more than a sport and probably not supposed to be accurately measured with actual scores. I like to consider surfing as rather a whole philosophy, practice and subculture. I can only guess that the Japanese spirit of collectivism, reverent attitude to nature and careful attention to smallest things and experiences make it altogether even more complex. Thus what we are used to consider obvious in Western civilisation may seem not so at all here.

After all, when you live in a place where you see the ocean every day and hear its breath, this is a completely natural order of things. You just grab a board and head out. What could be better than gliding down the lineup in the morning or at sunset, seeing all your friends and just talking about life? And if a nice stranded set or two suddenly comes, then the day becomes simply perfect.

Text and photosRoman Malyshev

Photo gallery: Kazuyoshi Sasao