Surfing in Japan has never been for the meek.

Surfing in Japan has never been for the meek. Those who came to it early faced new obstacles every day, from sub-zero temperatures to over-zealous police. But on the northern island of Hokkaido, one group of pioneers found a way through the wall.

The police officer pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his forefinger and surveys the two figures standing in front of him. Noboru Tagawa jumps up and down on the spot to keep warm as the chill begins to seep through his damp wetsuit; Kasagi Hajime glances repeatedly over the cop’s dark epaulette as the next set peaks and peels along the sandbar. The officer shakes his head and continues scribbling on his flip pad. ‘How many times are we going to have to drag these two out of the water?’ he wonders. “Ok, sign this,” he says, handing over the ballpoint to the shivering surfer. Noboru scribbles his name and passes the now damp paperwork back. The officer snaps his pad closed and turns on his heel, kicking sand off his immaculate leather shoes as he heads back towards his car. “I’m coming back again tomorrow,” shouts one of the neoprene-clad figures as the officer climbs into the driver’s seat of the Nissan Cedric patrol car and starts the engine. It’s 1978 and a quiet revolution has begun on this northern isle.

“Every time I went into the water back then the police would come and kick me back onto the beach,” says Noboru, taking a sip of his black coffee. “They would write me a ticket for responsibility, because there was no one else there. It’s like a statement to say I won’t do it again. But after writing it I would always tell them, ‘I will be coming back tomorrow!’” This game of cat and mouse would go on for the next three or four years. In Hawaii Shaun Tomson was redefining the art of barrel riding at Off-The-Wall and Rabbit was attempting to Bust Down The Door at Sunset and Pipe. On Hokkaido, Noboru was just trying to avoid being busted by the law for the simple act of surfing.

Japan was born from the waves as molten rock violently extruded from the Pacific ‘ring of fire’, creating an offshore archipelago that, in part, buffers the huge Asian land mass from the great ocean. There are 6,852 islands within Japan, Hokkaido being the northernmost and largest prefecture. It is the second biggest island with a population of over five and a half million spread out over an area just smaller than Ireland. The majority of Hokkaidō sits at latitudes to the north of the Russian city of Vladivostok, enduring winters that can test the hardiest constitution as deathly winds slice in from the Siberian plains with the clinical sharpness of a Samurai’s cold Katana blade. The provincial capital Sapporo is a bustling metropolis of nearly two million; the country’s fifth largest urban conurbation. It provides a dazzling sensory collage that satisfies every preconception of urban Japan. Traffic, shopping, crowds, street dancing and the intense work ethic of a 24/7 society are set against a background noise of Pachinko halls and rafts of neon billboards that sing out competing advertising slogans. Yet within thirty minutes of its centre you can be transported to wide valleys where shrines wait in shady woodlands and herons stalk shimmering paddy fields.

Japanese society has a structure based on traditions that reach back through the millennia; it’s an establishment built on the ethics of hard work and adherence to a strict moral code. For some traditionalists, the concept of leisure time is still something of an anathema. Naminori, or waveriding, is thought to have arrived during the cultural shockwaves that followed the Second World War, brought in by American servicemen stationed outside Tokyo. By the early ’60s a handful of locals were surfing the beaches of Shonan and Chiba, by the late ’70s Japan was in the grip of a full-blown surf boom, fuelled by world tour contests bringing star-packed line-ups to its shores. On Hokkaido the beaches remained unoccupied – a blank canvas…

Light is fading fast outside. Sitting under the bright neon strip lights of his large open-plan office in downtown Sapporo, Kasagi Hajime cradles a cup of black coffee while his old friend Noboru Tagawa flicks through images imprinted on thirty-year-old textured Fuji matt paper. Noboru was the very first surfer on Hokkaidō, ground zero for wavesliding on this northern isle. He explains what inspired him to start surfing: “When I was sixteen years old I went to the United States to study and made friends there who lived in Tokyo… At that time it was the second boom of surfing in Japan.” In the mid-‘70s, Hawaii was still the focus of the surfing world; images of Gerry Lopez, Mark Richards and Reno Abellira were spreading inspiration around the globe, and across the Pacific Japan was no exception. Noboru caught the surfing bug in the US and the burgeoning surf scene in the Japanese capital provided access to the waveriding lifestyle. “I’d been to Tokyo to buy a surfboard and brought it back to Hokkaidō, but I didn’t know where I could go to surf. There was no one else here to ask.” Apart from the lack of fellow waveriders, Noboru faced another, more immediate obstacle in his newfound life as a surfer. “I didn’t have a driving licence. A friend of mine was working at a wholesale jean shop, so whenever he was going on business I would jump in his car and go with him. Then in 1978 maybe, two or three guys who were skiers went to university on the mainland around Tokyo and Osaka, but they dropped out and came back here – with surfboards. They had driving licences so we started to find new surf spots.”

In 1979, the small band of surfers from Sapporo ventured onto the sands of Itanki beach in the industrial town of Muroran. Today Itanki has a reputation as an intense, localised spot, but back then the urban surfers found a warm welcome from kindred spirits. “In the Itanki area we met other guys who had come back from the mainland – they were the same age.” Itanki Beach soon became the surfing and social hub of the Hokkaidō scene. At the same time, Noboru was teaching his friend Kasagi to surf. Kasagi ran a local coffee shop and the two friends made regular forays to the Pacific whenever the waves were up and work allowed. There was only one real problem. “The cops would find us on the beach and they would say, ‘You can’t do that’,” says Noboru. “Our main concern was to be able to surf and how we could stop the police molesting us. But how could we do that? How could we stop the police from hauling us from the water when we went surfing?”

The answer came to Noboru in a flash of inspiration – rather than rejecting mainstream society, dropping out and fighting the strict system and rigid social mores, they mobilised. “I told Kasagi he should start an Association of Hokkaidō Surfing!” Like environmental pressure groups in the West, the surfers of Hokkaidō became campaigners, promoting the lifestyle. So the Hokkaidō Surfing Federation was formed. Kasagi leans back in his chair and smiles. “Within one year there were twenty-seven of us,” he says. “These were friends, and friends of friends, or people who’d come to the beach and asked to join. And numbers rose. Then we started the competition – which is still going to this day. It’s called The Penguin Cup, because of the cold. The way we were doing it was to tie little contests up with local festivals around Hokkaidō. We would do a competition tour, so we were spreading around gaining a reputation and a social status so that the police wouldn’t bother us. We said, ‘We don’t need the cops involved with surfing!’”

In the context of waveriding’s massive global popularity, the proliferation of the surfing lifestyle within mainstream media and the problems of overcrowded line-ups faced today, the concept of actively recruiting surfers may seem like a strange priority. Two decades prior to this, the waves of Malibu were so choked that Mickey Dora and his cohorts were hauling people out of their way just to get down the line. The irony isn’t lost on Hokkaidō’s pioneers that in order to protect their counterculture they had to make it appear populist, garland it with a fig leaf of respectability.

“We went after the gangs. They were signed up to surf for different branches,” explains Kasagi. Japan in the late seventies saw a boom in biker culture, guys who were already on the social fringes. The surfers saw an easy vein of bored potential to tap into. Every time Noboru and his crew would come across a motorbike gang they would corner the boss and sell the stoke of surfing to them with an evangelical zeal that would shame a New York ad agency. “It was a bit scary, having to talk to these gang bosses,” says Noboru. “Not all the bikers could swim, but one of them tried surfing and said to all the others, ‘Surfing’s cool!’ so then others tried it, you know. Until that time there was nothing to do around the coastal towns like Muroran or Tomakomai, and people didn’t like bikers. But bikers started surfing, surfing is better really, so you could say we were a good movement.”

A light pings on and the soft orange-pink glow of a naked bulb reflecting off pine walls spills into the empty hallway. In the corner of the lock-up, a tipi of old skis lean together next to an assortment of wooden tennis rackets and a pair of ski boots. To the right of the wooden storage room, two huge shelves are piled high with surfboards, the white foam now sun faded like pages in a book that have seen many seasons pass yet still have many stories to tell. “Ah, now this was the first board I brought to the island,” says Noboru, reaching upwards. His voice echoes from within the confines of the open room, but soon the nose of a board emerges followed by a face illuminated by a broad smile. “This is a Local Motion board I brought back to Hokkaidō. They were very popular back then Local Motion – boards from Hawaii. In 1977 there were no surfboards to be bought here. Then in ’78 a shop called Minami Sport started selling them, so two or three surfboards came in, but only two or three.” Noboru disappears back into the lock-up and sounds of exertion again fill the air before the swallowtail of a twin fin appears through the doorway. “A friend of mine was also bringing boards in, one by one,” he explains. “And wax too. It was hard to get a good one. There was Sex Wax in Tokyo, but the water temperature was different. It was warm water wax so it was too stiff, too hard.”

As surfing grew into a worldwide movement, a community, a clan, a way of life, so many of Hokkaidō’s new surfers followed. Noboru explains: “There was a social trend, the surfing thing was trendy around the same time that we started. Since 1977 in Japan, surfing was booming. In 1978 Gerry Lopez visited Niijima [an island close to Tokyo] and I saw him surf there. Until then, Japanese fashion and culture was mainly like Ivy League fashion, but after the Vietnam War the hippie generation started, like the movie Easy Rider. Those from the hippie generation were coming into Japan with the travelling surfers from around ’72. By 1978 it had developed into a fashion, a culture and a lifestyle here. We would get together and watch surf movies… Gerry Lopez… Standing Room Only!”

Hokkaidō was very much split between town and country. The urban areas like Muroran and the provincial capital Sapporo were where the majority of surfers lived and worked, but most were office or labour bound six days a week. Some of the keenest managed shift work, but while Californians, Europeans and Australians were living the dream, here in Japan and on Hokkaidō in particular, society wasn’t ready for those who wanted to drop out, merely to ‘drop-in’. “It’s hard to be a surf bum here, mainly because it is cold,” jokes Noboru. “You need a place to keep warm – if you notice there are no homeless in a cold place! It’s easier in California where it is warm. Surfing in a cold place, the mind is quite different, you know? The cold water affects the body – the joints, the neck. Then there’s the heavy wetsuits.”

It wasn’t just the meteorological climate that impacted on the growth of the surfing lifestyle, but the economic climate too. In Bali, if you had a board, you could get by on just a few bucks a day, on Hokkaidō you needed cold hard cash for wetsuits, boots and transport as well as food to fuel you and accommodation to keep the cold at bay. “The economy on Hokkaidō was not strong, because there’s no big factories like on the mainland, for example no car factories,” explains Noboru. “So in the coastal areas you could be fishing or drying seaweed while inland many people are farmers or involved in agriculture. If they were farmers or fisherman, they didn’t have a lot of money so the quality of their lives was much different. It wasn’t just the lack of equipment but also the lack of money. So it goes much further than buying equipment, it’s more the way they look at things.” However the early seeds of surfing had been sown, and despite the harsh conditions, this hardy perennial began to germinate, like an embryonic plant fighting through the snow to reach the sunlight.

***

The sun has dropped below the hills, long shadows stretch from the dark factory buildings, over the tarmac, across the dunes and down the beach. It’s 1981; the grey days of Reagan in the White House, Thatcher in Downing Street and a Cold War that has turned distinctly frigid, but here on Itanki Beach a small band of surfers are savouring a fresh autumn swell, the coconut aroma of surf wax and the feel of salt-crusted hair. A jumble of cars have been cast off in haphazard formations at the southern end of the beach road, while three dark silhouettes float serenely on the glassy ocean, steadily fading into the burnt pink canvas. Voices rise and fall against the background of spilling white water; a bonfire sends a spray of sparks into the blue black of the advancing night. A collection of figures laugh, hoot and jostle as they relive the day’s adventure, re-riding waves as they stand around the dancing flames. Candy-coloured boards lie scattered on the ground, one is pushed nose first into the sand, with Aussie surfer Mark Richards’ ‘MR’ superman logo inverted on a white foam tombstone. Damp wetsuits have collapsed in exhaustion by their towels, black neoprene dusted with the fine velvet of wet sand. Beer caps are popped, the gold star of the Sapporo Brewery glimmers on the dark bottles. The city surfers will soon be making the drive back, but the Muroran locals will linger a little longer, swap stories, stoke the fire and fire the stoke for tomorrow’s coming swell. “It was like the film //Big Wednesday//,” says surfer Kazuhiro Miyatake with a broad smile. “There were about twelve or thirteen of us who were friends. We would come together after surfing, drinking beer on the beach here at Itanki. But now it’s very strict: if you drink you can’t drive. But back then it was not so strict. It was not good,” he says thoughtfully, “but not so strict. So after surfing we got together, we barbequed and we drank beer.”

Muroran is a port town located on the southern Pacific seaboard of Hokkaidō. It is home to cement works, steel mills and ship building. Itanki sits on the outer fringe, a sandy haven hemmed in by factory walls and boulder groynes. Open to any passing Pacific swell or classic Typhoon day, the beach is a popular contest venue and the island’s most well known spot. Kazuhiro sits with his back to the sea, hair still soaked with the memory of afternoon waves. He has a powerful frame and a presence that gives off the aura of a pack leader. It is no surprise to find he is a high school teacher and national snowboard coach. His brother Hisashi has a slighter build but a quick smile. Kazuhiro was the first to take up waveriding while away on the mainland. “I started surfing when I was nineteen years old,” he explains with a nod. “I was in university in Tokyo for three years and when I returned there were probably less than ten surfers in Hokkaidō, but there were only a few local surfers here, less than two or three. The rest were from Sapporo, the city. They were not surrounded by the surf, so they would often call us and say, ‘How are the waves today?’”

The small local crew took to their oceanic playground with a zeal that the winter freeze could not diminish, even when the snowline reached the surging white water. “Now wetsuits are pretty good,” says Hisashi, “but at that time we didn’t have such good ones, they were 7mm thick. In winter the temperature went way below zero, so often when it was snowing, our hair was frozen.” In temperatures this low, getting changed out of thick, inflexible wet neoprene at the beach would mean entering a whole new world of pain, so the crew found an altogether more appealing alternative, one that blended ancient codes with modern conducts. “After the surf we went to the Onsen, the hot spring baths,” says Kazuhiro. “Without taking off the wetsuit, we went straight in there. Without hoods, in those temperatures, it was really cold,” he says in typical Japanese underplay.

By the fading light of the ’70s, two distinct yet small tribes of waveriders were emerging on the Hokkaidō scene: the Sapporo crew, based in the bustling city a couple of hours drive from the Pacific, and the Itanki Beach crew. But there was camaraderie between the two; they would band together to share the waves and gradually numbers rose. “Sometimes we’d say to our friends, ‘Surfing is really good, why don’t you try,’” says Kazuhiro. “So we brought them to the beach and we taught them how to surf.”

***

The sun is smiling on a clean two to three foot swell at Itanki. A light offshore fans the approaching sets and a handful of surfers jostle for the peeling rights as they roll through. To the north sits a sea wall, resplendent in its ‘Locals Only’ graffiti. To ensure nothing is lost in translation, it has been scribed in English, four feet high. Wetsuits are draped over wing mirrors, couples recline on the grass watching the surfers and small groups chat while propped up on sun-warmed car bonnets. This Sunday scene has been played out here for the last three decades, only the extras change. Hiraoka Tadanori rests his blue and white longboard on the wall and sits with a post-surf air of satisfaction. Back in 1980, Hiraoka was an early defector to the beach scene from the two-wheel lifestyle. “I used to have a motorcycle,” he explains, absently stroking the nose of his board, “and then I did something that meant I lost my licence,” he says, voice trailing off. “So I had nothing else to do. At that time my younger brother was surfing, so he taught me. When I first tried I thought this was something pretty great.”

Like many at the time, Hiraoka was restrained in his surfing exploits by the confines of the nine to five. “There were a few who were students who could come everyday, but I was working. Sometimes I could manage one or two hours, maybe at lunchtime. I would jump into my wetsuit, rush in for a surf and then rush back to work. If you lost your job then it was difficult to find a new one, so people didn’t want to quit. You know how people say that Japanese work long hours? Well it’s true. At that time it was true, it’s still true today. Most surfers had jobs so they worked Monday through to Saturday. Not like in other places around the world were surfers would be chefs or carpenters, so they could have time to go to the beach. There were a few surfers who worked for a company making fish products, so they had to go to work very early, then leave early, say after three or four, then they could surf. Other than that we only had Sundays off. Today, things are a bit better, we have two days off a week, but thirty years ago we only had one.” So Sunday became surf day. “Any condition was good, because we could only surf one day a week! If there were waves – even if there was snow – I surfed.”

***

The Japan Sea has the translucent green blue of sand-weathered glass. The dark, jagged cliffs that surround the bay have a fractured abrasiveness that comes when volcanic rock is ripped apart. Two basalt columns stand offshore, a small shrine crowns the grassy summit of the nearest. The winter blanket has only just peeled back to reveal the bedding of sasa bamboo. A sushi bar sits a left turn back from the harbour in the tiny village, compressed between cliffs and sea. Its interior is compact and immaculately clean, the glass counter displays small plates of glistening fish steaks and fidgeting shellfish. Taro Tamai is perched on a stool. One of Japan’s snowboarding greats, a true back-countryman and pioneering soul surfer, he nods a thank you as the chef leans over and places a Nigirizushi roll on his plate. The distinctively marbled scarlet flesh of the bluefin tuna’s fatty steak is highly prized, highly priced and highly endangered. “This particular fish tastes subtly different to tuna caught later in the year,” he explains. “It was caught locally while chasing mackerel into shallow waters. It has a distinctive taste, and a specific story. A good sushi chef can tell you the story of all the fish here. Like surfing, every wave that breaks has a story, and they are all different, every season, every time of the year.”

At times it feels counterculture has turned into a marketeer’s dream vehicle, and become a mainline into the consumer vein. While there is a mainstream groundswell in Japan that has assimilated the surfing lifestyle, on Hokkaidō the wheel has turned full circle. Where once they actively recruited, today the waveriders have closed ranks; their coastline has become a closely guarded secret, a resource to be cherished. The incumbent pioneers are blessed with a unique opportunity to enjoy the purity of the experience the way it was during surfing’s genesis – away from the hassle, the crowds, the commercialism. The privilege of this position isn’t lost on Hokkaidō’s tight-knit community of searchers. “Today in the world it’s really hard to find a break that hasn’t really been tapped by anybody else,” says Taro. “It is a luxurious thing to be able to explore this island and find more new spots than you can actually surf. All over the world you can go deep into the jungles and there are people already surfing there, crowds – so to be able to have this experience… this is what it means to surf. To find new spots where there’s nobody there and just surf all day. In snowboarding you still can; there are major mountains that are still untouched, there are many places like that left, but it’s very rare these days to surf and have that experience. If you head out alone and find a new point, there’s no information about it, you don’t know whether it’s safe or dangerous, whether you can actually surf it or not. There’s no one there to save you. It’s you and the wave. The whole thing – that’s what the experience of exploring is. To me, that’s what it means to be a surfer.”