Why Japan is a suitable stage for surfing’s Olympic debut


ON THE SHONAN COAST, Japan – In summer it starts at four in the morning. Men and women in black wetsuits appear, lug their boards on foot or stuck in special bike racks.

Before the rest of the country wakes up, Kugenuma Beach is already a sea of ​​surfers, perhaps the most popular stretch of beach in the country.

Japan’s island geography means that a beach is rarely far away. While Hawaii is the undisputed birthplace and global Mecca of modern surfing, Japan has cultivated its very own fanatical surfing culture – in many ways a suitable stage for them Olympic Debut of one of the oldest sports in the world. Surfing celebrates its premiere at the games on Sunday.

The regular Masaya Uchida, who commutes here from his home in Kawasaki town several times a week, exuded chill as he watched the crowds that would put off surfers in other parts of the world.

“It’s full,” he said, “but the sea belongs to everyone.”

“It’s really relaxed and welcoming here,” he told CBS News. “Like in California!”

Surfing destinations on the Shonan Coast can be reached by train in around an hour from downtown Tokyo, so surf addicts can indulge in their passion for a few hours before work. It is not uncommon to see bureau crabs in the parking lot quickly taking off wetsuits
for business suits.

The Japanese have been body surfing and swimming on small wooden boards called itago since at least the 19th century. The posters often featured advertisements for shops or soap.

But after WWII and the arrival of U.S. soldiers, longboard-riding GIs from nearby American bases like Atsugi and Yokosuka in Shonan started surfing – and Japanese were instantly hooked, Tokyo writer Kaori Shoji told CBS News.

“Because we’re an island nation and the sea is almost everywhere, they looked at the GIs who were just having fun with a board and thought, ‘Hey, you know, if they can do that, so can we.’ I mean boards are cheap, aren’t they? ”

Shoji said that for Japanese people still recovering from the misery of war, surfing was much more than just a new sport – it meant liberation in itself.

“American boys at the time represented a strong sense of freedom and relaxation and the feeling that you weren’t being monitored or investigated, or forced to do something you weren’t ready to do, and that is what WWII was about for the majority the Japanese, “she said.

“Up to this point the sea was a livelihood, perhaps representing travel for the privileged few. But mostly the sea was a place to make a living. And now these GIs were telling people that it’s a place to have fun and relax and catch
a wave or two. And I think that was really seductive for the Japanese. “

Japan’s Hang Ten obsession – there are an estimated two million surfers here – supports a thriving local beach culture, from the cafes and equipment stores of the coastal Mecca of Chigasaki to a craft home industry. Soeda Surfboard is aimed at a notoriously picky clientele, with boards that are tailored to the surfer’s ability, body size and local wave conditions.

At Deuce Wetsuits, the craftsman Hiroshi Fukuzawa requires his customers to submit a long checklist of body measurements – and pay almost twice as much as for off-the-peg wetsuits. “Bespoke wetsuits were originally handcrafted for Japanese pearl divers,” Fukuzawa told CBS News amid its cramped workshop in Odawara town. “Then craftsmen developed into wetsuits for surfers.”

Japan’s gentle waves are perfect for absolute newbies. Redwood City, California, native and now local surf instructor Gary Burkhalter showed me how to more or less stay on my board.

“You can surf in Hawaii, you can surf in California, you can surf anywhere in Bali … but surfing in Japan is like, wow, that’s really special. Actually being in the water and watching the sunset behind Mount Fuji watch, the water turns red and orange, it glows.
And these beautiful waves are coming in. “

Hot dog surfers have to wait their time and wait for typhoons to stir up the big waves. But just for the sheer joy of the water community, Japan’s surf safari is a real day at the beach.

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