Hokkaido: The Rights Of Passage
A respectful trip to Japan reveals that sometimes, as Haruki Murakami puts it in Kafka on the Shore, ‘silence . . . is something you can actually hear’.
Chris Nelson, a former surf magazine editor turned writer, hails from Yorkshire. An upbringing surfing the freezing reefs of England’s north-east coast led to a lifelong love of cold empty waves and their fringe communities, but a trip to Vancouver Island in 2005 set him on an odyssey he’ll never forget.
On Vancouver Island, Nelson met Wayne Vliet, whose tales of growing up as surfer in 1960s Canada, with home-made wooden boards, leaky dive suits and sneakers, were the stuff of the pioneering frontiersman. Nelson empathised with the pains the small number of local surfers went through for a few good waves, and an epiphany came, too: it struck him that many of Vliet’s experiences would be shared with other surfing pioneers across the globe. The hook was set and the tall, lean and wiry Nelson set out on a three-year journey to find these hardy souls and tell their stories. His travels took him to surfing’s coldest fringes and hardiest outposts.
The resulting book, Cold Water Souls: In Search of Surfing’s Cold Water Pioneers is a critically acclaimed anthropological study of the cold water communities that have grown up around the planet’s coldest shores and the surfers who ride their waves. The book tells the story of how the seeds of surfing took root and flourished in places from Northern California to Vancouver Island, from Alaska to Nova Scotia, and the US Eastern Seaboard to Iceland, Scotland, North East England and beyond. But it was a trip to Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island, that proved an object lesson in how to handle one of surfing’s thorniest problems: how to protect one’s breaks from exposure and consequential overcrowding.
“It was after midnight when I walked out through the sliding doors of a deserted Chitose airport,” says Nelson. “The 50 people on my flight had evaporated into the night. I was alone. Doubts began to creep into the back of my mind. I had no number to call, no phone that worked here and I could barely string a few words of Japanese together. It had taken six months just to get this far, and I was here on trust. It had all started with an email to a contact in Tokyo – just four lines of polite prose setting out my case. The reply came swiftly – he didn’t have an ‘in’ on Hokkaido, but he would ask around. Two weeks later hope arrived in my inbox, my man in Tokyo knew someone who knew someone. No names were exchanged, but everyone wanted to know more, a detailed plan of exactly what I wanted and why I was coming. After another couple of rounds of the interview process I was given the name of Taro Tamai, my local contact and, I hoped, my man on the ground.”
Hokkaido is Japan’s most northerly prefecture, an island the size of Ireland. In the winter its northern fringes are ice-locked, the land buried under several feet of snow. It is a place where winter sports brought the Olympics, where water sports brought solitude. Nelson explains its allure: “Coming from the grey cold of Britain’s North Sea, I’d always been drawn to those communities which existed on the edge, on surfing’s fringes. When I looked at Hokkaido on the world map, sitting as it does on a latitude to the north of Vladivostok, I knew that I needed to get to this remote place. But there was no easy route in, no friendly sponsored pro surfer to act as a conduit from the outside world.”
If Hokkaido’s very remoteness was the source of its appeal for Nelson, that same quality meant that he had to act as respectfully as possible.
“Without a well-worn path to follow, it’s a case of tread carefully. Through e-mail channels I’d laid out my mission. I was chasing tales, not swells. My visit would not be the vanguard of an influx of surf tourists. But I knew I was walking a fine line.”
Nelson’s arrival at Chitose airport was not initially promising. “So here I was, jetlagged, waiting, hoping that nothing had been lost in translation. After 20 minutes I dragged my boardbag outside into the glacial night air and stood, transfixed by my icy breath. In the distance I could see a figure approaching. It had a casual gait that seemed familiar. This must be my man. He approached slowly, but as I turned to greet him, he continued by with a nod and disappeared into the terminaltaking my hopes with him. But seconds later a van swept up to the curb.
‘Chris? Hey, jump in,’ beamed Yuki, who would be my driver on this quest to seek out the island’s surfing pioneers.
“The next day I met Taro Tamai. Seated at his large, wooden kitchen table he poured hot water into the white porcelain teapot. Huge picture windows framed the volcanoes and peaks around us. As a Yorkshireman, I smiled at the shared symbolism of this simple act. Tea, the universal icebreaker.”
Taro is known as one of Japan’s great snowboarders, an excellent free-rider who gracefully surfs the fields of champagne powder around his home. But what is less well known is that he is also a true soul surfer, often escaping the limelight in search of the isolated, freezing reefs and points on the island. Nelson tuned in at once to what made Taro tick. “For Taro, being a cold water surfer is a holistic experience,” he says. “It’s not about wearing a thicker wetsuit and enduring – it’s about where your mind takes you. The gradation in colour; the black and the white. It was this connection as cold water spirits, this shared understanding, that had gained me an audience.” But while there was a kinship between the two men, Nelson knew that he would not simply be ushered straight to Hokkaido’s elusive reefs and points. He had to wait and was happy to do so.
“Sometimes it feels as though there is a demand for everything to be immediate. Travellers can pre-load, arriving drunk on facts. Go online before you go, check the swells, watch the videos, read the reviews. Check everything first. No need to communicate when you get there. There’s a danger that we, as surfers, will become insular and removed from the very places and the very people we hope to experience. But take all this out of the equation, remove the digital drip and you have to engage, with the place, with the community. On Hokkaido, the language and the culture act as great filters. My journey so far had been a lesson in going slow, being patient. It reminded me of my days as a
grommet in the north-east in the late eighties. You served your time and paid your dues on the beaches; then, when you had built up time and trust, you were invited to the secret reefs. It was a rite of passage, not an immediate right.”
After three days of sharing stories and trading tales, Taro opened the door on his world.
“I had served my apprenticeship, and on my fourth day on the island, Taro offered to introduce me to Noboru, the very first waverider on Hokkaido.”
Naminori is Japanese for surfing; Nelson was on course to meet its originator on Hokkaido.
“Under the stark, neon lights of a downtown Sapporo office, I was introduced to Noboru and another surfer called Kasagi. Without Taro we would not have been there. He’d had to reach out. He was personally vouching for me. But now we were a long way from the cosy surrounds of Taro’s kitchen table. Nodding politely, we exchanged business cards, taking time to study them in turn, then placing them on the table. We sipped the strong, black espresso that is the lifeblood of Japan. Despite the formal surroundings there was a relaxed air – surfing has a way of bringing down barriers, be they linguistic or cultural. And soon the stories cascaded forth, Noboru part-narrating, part-translating.
“In 1976 he’d returned from the US, the stoke of surfing pumping through his veins. When he arrived home, there were no other surfers, no known surf breaks. No counter-cultural revolution. He had no pointers, no car. He was alone, but Kasagi was encouraged into the line-up. However they soon found themselves the centre of unwanted attention – the police started issuing threats, tickets and verbal warnings. In a land where strict rules and social pressures breed conformity, they didn’t back down. Instead they recruited other potential, likeminded surfing souls. Japan’s endemic motorcycle gangs offered access to a large pool of eager converts and strength in numbers.”
“It was,” says Nelson, “the cultural equivalent of Miki Dora recruiting Hells Angels to the Malibu line-up.”
Kasagi showed him images across the table. Nelson says, “I saw Kodak prints in rich hues, reaching back through the decades to young surfers posing on the sand, leaning on the bonnets of surfboard-laden Datsuns and I was aware of my good fortune in being able to see these.”
He was privileged to have been given access to a rare and obscure realm, one from which he could have been barred at any time. Waves would surely follow on the trip, but better yet, Taro turned to explain that he and Nelson had been invited to eat at Kasagi’s house.
“Taro’s whispered tone conveyed that this was an unexpected honour,” says Nelson.
The surfers of Hokkaido had lifted the veil on their history and heritage, but they did so in a way that, for Nelson, was emblematic of how surfers should behave when it comes to the age-old issue of localism.
“The Hokkaido surfers still shield their coastline’s breaks from the fate suffered by many, but no one ever warned me off, as was the case in Nova Scotia; or told me not to write about their waves, as they had in Norway. There was no need. There was an implicit accord that we shared as cold water souls. Here, in a country where surfing still operates an honour system, access was a privilege. This was the right kind of localism in action. I knew from the off that if they’d wanted to shut me out, they could have done so at any time, and I would have been adrift. They could have just left me at the airport. Left me out in the cold.”
© Not to be reproduced without written permission from Fernhurst Books Limited.
Amazing Surfing Stories is written by Alex Wade. Alex Wade is a writer, freelance journalist and media lawyer. As well as running the Surf Nation blog (www.surfnation.co.uk), he regularly contributes to national newspapers and magazines on topics ranging from sport and travel to law and literature. He has been short-listed as sport feature writer of the year and has been a columnist for The Times, The Independent On Sunday and Flush Magazine, and is the author of Surf Nation: In Search of the Fast Lefts and Hollow Rights of Britain and Ireland and Wrecking Machine: A Tale of Real Fights and White Collars.