Surfing Japan: Lost in Translation

Surfing Japan

I was only in Tokyo for Sunday and Monday, but surfing Japan was a top priority.  Of those two days, however, only the second seemed to promise any swell. A few years prior, I had met a Japanese surfer in Panama; he could only say two words in English: surf and food. When I told him that I wanted to surf in Japan one day, he held up a thumb and said “Chiba. Surf. Enami.” Enami, I figured, from my understanding of the word tsunami and from the constant approval his one thumb kept offering meant “good wave.”


So I gathered that Chiba had waves. But when I pointed to Chiba on my map and asked the concierge at my hotel about the surf, he looked confused, which made sense as there is Chiba the city with no waves and Chiba the prefecture, which is abundant with surf. Due to language complications, it took about an hour to figure this out. Once this was narrowed down, however, I quickly discovered Torami in the prefecture. The wave report for Sunday was flat. But for Monday it looked decent enough to venture the two hours out of Tokyo for surf.


Surfing Japan


On Monday, I boarded the first of two trains for Torami, transferring in Chiba–the city–and then made my way to the next platform. Just to double check that the next train was for Torami, I asked a Japanese kid if I was in the correct place. He nodded, so I also double-checked that Torami was, in fact, a beach. He offered a very certain no.


“Wait,” I said, “there’s no beach in Torami?”


“No beach.”


I polled a few people on the platform and got the same negative response from another two helpful people, who looked worried for me. I stood there confused. Was there another Torami? (After all, there were two Chibas and while searching out waves in Costa Rica, I had booked a room in the wrong Playa Hermosa–the one without waves.) I asked one more person, who offered the contrary, nodding that Torami’s beach existed. I needed more certainty, so I used one of six words in Japanese that I knew (besides language that could aid in ordering sushi).


“Enami?” I asked.


“No. Torami,” the man corrected.


“Right, I know. But enami.”


“Torami,” he said more slowly.


“Right, but is there enami in Torami?”


“Ah,” he said with his words and eyebrows. “Enami. Yes.”


Just to really make sure, I took off my hat and pointed at Billabong’s logo–two white waves in a bar of black.


He nodded. “Emami. Yes.”


Torami was about an hour away and the train deposited me in this little hamlet high with bamboo and charm. I asked a lady for directions to the beach. She walked me to a fork and then pointed to the right. I trotted out ahead. The roads were lovely. Onions hung on a rod like drying clothes and everything that wasn’t a house was tall and green. Then I heard clopping coming toward me, like a slow, ungainly horse. It was the lady who had given me directions. When she reached me, she placed her hands on her knees and was out of breath. Then she started speaking quite loudly and pointing down the road that we had just traveled. I couldn’t understand her. But based on her pace and volume, I had a good sense that I was going to have to start sprinting at any moment. “This. This,” she said and pointed behind us, waving for me to follow. I followed her back toward the train and when we reached the original fork again, she pointed to the road that went left.


I thanked her and then made my way, down the road, one mile to the beach, past endless fields of damp rice paddies. A farmer pedaled his bicycle, cradling in one hand a long tool that rested on his shoulder, like a soldier marching with a rifle.


When I reached the beach, I found a surfboard to rent for a few hours and paddled out on the north side of one jetty, a long cement pier that ended at what looked like a pile of tossed and clustered concrete jacks. The waves peeled off the jetty, creating these little right handers that could travel the few hundred meters cleanly to the shore.


When I was flying from Jeju Island up to Seoul, in Korea, just before making my transfer to Japan, a Korean woman asked me if I was worried about radiation. At first, I thought she was referring to the full body scanners that they use in airports. I answered no, but then giving her question a little more thought, I realized that she was asking about the radiation from the Fukushima power plant meltdown from a few years ago. I said that I wasn’t one more time, but felt a little unsure.


As the waves broke, I thought about the nuclear waste that had certainly, at one time–maybe even now–been abundant in Japan’s waters. But nothing was green. At least not until the waves broke and the glassy face lifted, refracting the sunlight in the green translucence of Torami’s surf.


Art by Mike Licht

Posted on by Noah Lederman in Lost In Translation, Or Bust, Surf & Snow

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