BO(A)RDERLANDS OF THE NORTH

The snow-driven thrills of win­ter are well known but Ja­pan de­liv­ers for lovers of board­sports at other times of the year too.

Action Asia - - CONTENTS - Story by Gabi Steindl Photography by Pe­dro Gomes, Pete Leong and Gabi Steindl

The snow-driven thrills of win­ter are well known but Ja­pan de­liv­ers for lovers of board­sports at other times of the year too.

LIKE MANY FIRST-TIMERS IN JA­PAN, I had cho­sen to visit in spring. Un­like them, I wasn’t fo­cused on the hanami, the tra­di­tional shared view­ing of the sakura, or cherry blos­som. Hanami dates back many hun­dreds of years and is a quin­tes­sen­tial Ja­panese ex­pe­ri­ence, a chance to ex­press appreciation for the ephemeral beauty of life. The beauty I sought was no less ephemeral, the fleet­ing con­junc­tion of wind and wave that would spell good con­di­tions for kit­ing. Al­though still rather chilly, the be­gin­ning of spring usu­ally brings wind and swell, be­fore ris­ing hu­mid­ity lev­els and heat put a stand­still to wind sports with the on­set of the rainy sea­son in late May/early June. In be­tween the all-im­por­tant low-pres­sure sys­tems, which tend to come through on a week-to-10-day ba­sis at this time of year, I in­tended to play tourist, ex­plor­ing us­ing Ja­pan’s fab­u­lous rail net­work. Wait­ing at the air­port were Toshi, a former pro-wind­surfer, and his girl­friend Hiy­ori. I had met them briefly five years be­fore when they came to my home spot of Mar­garet River in Western Aus­tralia for a surf hol­i­day. In spite of my limited con­tact since, they’d been quick to of­fer a place to stay when I men­tioned my trip. I was greeted with ex­pres­sions of “Gabi-chan!” and a group hug. The suf­fix – chan has a child­ish feel and is used for kids, lovers, close friends or any youth­ful wo­man. Con­sid­er­ing my age and the fact I am two heads taller than many peo­ple in Ja­pan, it was a funny choice but the name stuck. Toshi and Hiy­ori live in Ka­makura, a pic­turesque sea­side city about 50 kilo­me­tres south of Tokyo, once the po­lit­i­cal cen­tre of me­dieval Ja­pan and boast­ing nu­mer­ous Bud­dhist tem­ples and Shinto shrines. There he runs the Far East Wind­surf­ing School, es­tab­lished by his fa­ther in 1983. Wind­surf­ing re­mains far big­ger than kitesurf­ing in Ja­pan – per­haps be­cause of the gust­ing, of­ten strong winds that are most com­mon here – and Ka­makura is the most pop­u­lar spot in the Greater Tokyo area. Wind­surf­ing salary­men can jump on a train pretty much direct from down­town to the beach. A big low-pres­sure sys­tem had ar­rived a few days into my stay, which meant wind and hope­fully also waves all down the coast. With a road trip in mind, we started the day at 2am, meet­ing up with Pe­dro Gomes, a Brazil­ian surf pho­tog­ra­pher who has been liv­ing in Ja­pan for over 15 years. Spend­ing a good part of the year in the line-up at Hawaii’s fa­bled Pipe­line break, I was lucky he was in town. We had a plan: to cap­ture me kitesurf­ing at sun­rise with iconic Mt Fuji in the back­ground. We set course for Suzuki beach in Su­ruga Bay, about 250 ki lo me­tres south­west of Ka­makura. We ar­rived as night gave way to a stun­ning dawn and in the dis­tance I could make out the sil­hou­ette of Fuji-san. Ex­cited like a lit­tle kid, I jumped out of the van . . . to dis­cover the out­side tem­per­a­ture was close to zero. The wind fore­casted to blow all night was only about four knots and straight off­shore – there would be no kit­ing this morn­ing. I walked down to the shore­line to watch the sun ris­ing out of the Pa­cific, throw­ing its first rays onto Fuji. The spec­ta­cle was in­tense, but short-lived: as soon as the sun had climbed a few de­grees above the hori­zon, the moun­tain dis­ap­peared in the mist. There was noth­ing for it but to con­tinue on to Omaezaki, the hot spot for wave sail­ing in Ja­pan. It was a beau­ti­fully crisp, bright blue spring day and sure enough at Long Beach, Omaezaki, there was plenty of ac­tion. I was the only kitesurfer though, among about 30 wind­surfers in the wa­ter. The waves weren’t great and I was freez­ing, even rugged up in boots, a neo­prene hood and gloves. Still it was so great to be out on the wa­ter that I de­cided on an­other ses­sion, first com­ing to snack on sushi rolls. Then came one of those ‘I

love Ja­pan’ mo­ments. Stand­ing in the car park in my wet­suit, I said, “I’d kill for a hot cof­fee right now.” “Just get one from the ma­chine!” Toshi replied ca­su­ally . . . Rid­ing into the sun­set that day, I ex­ited the wa­ter with eyes red from the sun and hands blue form the cold. There was only one thing for it: hit the on­sen to soak away the cold and aches in a tub of vol­cani­cally charged wa­ter. The next road trip took me the other di­rec­tion, up the coast to Chiba Pre­fec­ture, the other side of Tokyo. There Toshi and I were hop­ing to score the breaks at Shi­dashita beach, the venue for the surf­ing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. We took the Tokyo Bay Aqua-line, a fu­tur­is­tic 15-kilo­me­tre tun­nel and bridge cross­ing, to get up there. Ex­it­ing the tun­nel I thought I was dream­ing as enor­mous, fluffy flakes started land­ing on the wind­screen. The roads where al­ready white as we pulled up at the car park, next to a big torii stand­ing tall in front of Shi­dashita’s main break. The ocean was an­gry and as the snow gave way to rain, con­di­tions looked any­thing but invit­ing. The dark green wa­ter smashed against the con­crete tetra­pod break­wa­ters on ei­ther side of the black vol­canic sand beach. There were ob­vi­ous fierce rips, an icy and gusty cross-off­shore wind, and messy wild-break­ing swells pound­ing for about 150 me­tres out. There were no de­fined peaks: the scene looked more like a skate park that had been hit by a cy­clone. Out­side tem­per­a­ture: 2˚C. What was I meant to do? I was there and there were waves. Very messy, but still waves. I put on ev­ery sin­gle layer of neo­prene I had. Only once I en­tered the wa­ter, did I re­alise how pow­er­ful the surf was. Liv­ing in WA, I’m used to rid­ing in heavy con­di­tions with waves of con­se­quence. That day in Chiba wasn’t that big, but in the grip of those icy green waves, I felt more pow­er­fully than ever the sense of the ocean un­tamed, with­out a care for me, or any­one. Over­com­ing fear is ex­hil­a­rat­ing though! Re­flect­ing on the ses­sion af­ter­wards from the much safer wa­tery em­brace of a steam­ing on­sen was the per­fect coun­ter­point to fin­ish an un­for­get­table day. While on stand-by for the next low-pres­sure sys­tem, I jumped on the Shinkansen to Ky­oto where I rented a lit­tle machiya, a tra­di­tional wooden town­house, and a bike to get around on.

I fell in love with the house de­spite for­ever bang­ing my head on low door­frames and odd cor­ners. It was the ideal way to slip back a few cen­turies to cap­ture the spirit of old Ja­pan. With the next promis­ing weather sys­tem de­vel­op­ing, I flew to Ok­i­nawa, the so-called Hawaii of Ja­pan, a sub­trop­i­cal chain of more than 150 lush is­lands. Here I met up with Pete Leong, an Aussie pho­tog­ra­pher who’s been liv­ing in Ja­pan for 17 years. To­gether we criss­crossed the is­lands in search of the best kit­ing spots. The winds were un­co­op­er­a­tive though and Ja­pan’s Hawaii failed to de­liver any epic waves so I had to be con­tent with some gen­tle out­ings on some of the most sur­re­ally coloured wa­ter I had ever seen, par­tic­u­larly off the east coast of Miyagi Is­land. Re­turn­ing to Tokyo, the sakura were fi­nally bloom­ing. Fam­i­lies and friends were gath­ered in parks and along rivers, any­where they could for the highly an­tic­i­pated, cen­turies-old tra­di­tion

of view­ing the blos­som. Euphor­i­cally they cel­e­brated with sump­tu­ous pic­nics and mu­sic un­der gi­ant, feath­ery crowns of soft pink. Cherry blos­som is cher­ished for its beauty but also metaphor­i­cally, stand­ing for re­newal, fragility and the tran­sience of life. It makes spring a time to re­flect on the pre­cious­ness of our own ex­is­tence. Then, af­ter two giddy weeks, mil­lions of petals float to the ground like snow-flakes and shrivel – a pow­er­ful re­minder that we need to grasp our chances while we have them, to live mind­fully in the now. With moun­tains cov­er­ing 75% of Ja­pan, I just had to spend my last few days in Hokkaido, the north­ern­most and least de­vel­oped of the four main is­lands. This land of blue lakes and rolling hills is home to Ja­pan’s top ski re­gions, famed for epic snow­falls. We were hit­ting Niseko, the pow­der cap­i­tal of Ja­pan, late in the sea­son, so the chances for ‘Japow’ were ba­si­cally non-ex­is­tent but I didn’t care. Hokkaido is also con­sid­ered the cra­dle of lo­cal snow­surf cul­ture, a move­ment started about 15 years ago by Taro Ta­mai, a board shaper and liv­ing leg­end, to con­nect snow­board­ing to its ocean roots. His con­cept is to fo­cus on the bond with na­ture and the el­e­gance of turns as you play with grav­ity. His wood-topped boards pre­dated the cur­rent vogue for such things and the rid­ing style is com­pletely dif­fer­ent to work­ing a twin tip – suited to Hokkaido’s deep, dry pow­der. I felt such ex­hil­a­ra­tion stick­ing my first top turn with my split fish­tail di­rec­tional board in one of the nat­u­ral half-pipes of Niseko’s Grand Hi­rafu re­sort. Then, my ap­petite whet­ted, I was taken into the back­coun­try, hik­ing up in snow­shoes to etch my lines on vir­gin slopes, with the Sea of Ja­pan in the dis­tance. So late in the sea­son, we ba­si­cally had the moun­tain to our­selves. Wak­ing on our last day, our spir­its were shat­tered to see heavy rain out­side. But Hikaru, one of Toshi’s lo­cal mates, wasn’t daunted. He sug­gested a drive to Sap­poro where we should find some sun­shine. We scored much more than ‘just’ sun­shine. We stepped from our gon­dola to the top of Koku­sai Re­sort, on the city out­skirts, onto more freshly fallen pow­der. It was more than likely the very last dump of pow­der for the sea­son – Ja­pan wasn’t quite done with us yet.

MUS­ING ON HOKUSAI? The au­thor sur­veys the early morn­ing break­ers at Omaezaki, with iconic Mt Fuji in the back­ground.

THE OTHER JA­PAN Ok­i­nawa is much more happy-go-lucky and much less worka­holic than the rest of Ja­pan, with vivid colours all its own.

CLAS­SIC LINES Niseko’s ‘lit­tle Fuji’, vol­canic Mt Yotei, may have no piste but it’s an ob­vi­ous draw for ex­pe­ri­enced skiers and board­ers will­ing to hike up to bag the ul­ti­mate in back­coun­try.

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