Surfing Shikoku

One sweltering afternoon in early August of 2002, I arrived exhausted at the Kochi airport in south-central Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. Sweating through my poorly chosen Canadian winter-weight shirt, tie, and wool pants and struggling with luggage and surf gear, I was met by Charlie, a high school teacher from Muroto, a small fishing port and well known surfing area on the Southeastern tip of Shikoku that I would call home for the next year. Charlie-sensei mercifully whisked me straight to lunch at a nearby air-conditioned restaurant with a gorgeous view of the sea. We became quick friends, which was fortunate since we would soon be team-teaching English lessons to restless high school students under the auspices of the JET Programme. I later discovered that Charlie had earned his nickname due to his uncanny resemblance to Charlie Brown and the fact that, along with teaching English, he also played the trumpet and conducted the school’s band.

I had enrolled in the JET Programme with three main objectives— to improve my Japanese, gain some formal teaching experience, and surf as much as possible. Over the past five years, I had completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary in Kinesiology with an unofficial minor in Japanese; I had also developed an unbridled passion for surfing. Periodic surfaris to Canada’s West Coast, the northwestern US, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand had whetted my appetite, but I still craved the complete surf experience. Like Arizona’s Rick Kane in the classic, if not cliché, surf film North Shore, I desperately desired to leave my land-locked roots behind for somewhere that I could completely immerse myself in a warm water surf scene.


Settling In

As it turned out, I had arrived near the height of the surf season in sub-tropical Kochi. Like other areas of Japan that face the Pacific Ocean, Kochi prefecture is regularly blessed by typhoon swells during the summer and fall. Typically originating in the South Pacific and moving northwards, the ideal typhoon stays just far enough offshore to deliver giant swells for surfers without creating too much havoc for towns and villages along the coast.

For experienced surfers, typhoon season is heaven, but for a relative newbie like myself, it was a challenging time to get my sea legs. Fortunately, the Muroto locals were very welcoming and patient with me—especially those who were my students! We devised an exchange system where I would teach them English and they would give me tips on my surfing and Tosa-ben, the local dialect. We informally dubbed our crew the “Muroto Koukou Surf Club” and I soon became known as “sensei” in the lineup, albeit not for my surfing ability.

Southeastern Kochi and neighbouring Tokushima’s surf breaks can become extremely crowded with visitors from the Kansai region during weekends and holidays, however the crowds usually disperse by Sunday evening. Unless the swell is epic, wise locals typically disappear on Friday and re-emerge for a Sunday evening session. However, my enthusiasm was too strong to keep me on the beach during those first few months, so I regularly battled the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds on the weekend, taking and delivering my share of errant board bonks.

It was during quiet mid-week days that I was able to put in lots of hours on relatively crowd-free waves; early mornings and evenings are blissful in Kochi during the summer and fall, with warm water and regular swells welcoming you more often than not. Through daily surf sessions and weekend trips up and down Shikoku’s coastlines, I made steady progress in my surfing.

However, my enthusiasm was dampened at times—dropping in on (cutting off) and running into the top local pro and nearly being sucked out to sea by a giant typhoon swell to name a couple. I also received a lot of teasing when I forgot to strap down my board before heading out onto the highway after one evening session—surfboards can really fly at high speeds!


Miyazaki

In mid-October some friends and I decided to finish off the surf season with a long-weekend trip to Miyazaki, a prefecture on neighbouring Kyushu known for its beautiful beaches, slightly more tropical climate, and consistent surf. After getting lost many times trying to cross over to Shikoku’s west coast in an overloaded van after dark, we made it on to the last ferry to the port of Saiki in northeastern Kyushu. Later that night, after several hours spent groping our way down the Miyazaki coastline through a deep fog, we finally reached our first destination, Okuragahama, and quickly tucked in for some much-needed rest.

The next morning we woke to shoulder-high typhoon swell and a packed line-up preparing for a regional surf competition. After a quick morning session we moved on down the coast and proceeded to enjoy three wonderful days of surfing, onsen, and countless driving mishaps. The most memorable might have been accidentally driving down the wrong side of a very busy road—I can’t remember who was driving that day, but I think that he might have been Canadian …

Miyazaki was gorgeous and we all agreed that we would love to live there. I secretly kicked myself for having put it down as my second choice after Kochi on my JET application, but then felt appropriately guilty. Where was my loyalty? What would the Muroto Koukou Surf Club have said? I did, however, have the chance to visit Miyazaki again on a subsequent visit to Japan in 2008. It was still spectacular.


One Last Wave

After a predominantly wave-less winter and several bouts of cold and flu, spring could not come soon enough in Kochi. The swell picked up steadily and we were soon on the brink of another typhoon season; unfortunately this also meant that I was due to leave. My contract was set to expire at the end of July and I had decided not to renew. After a year of teaching English, working on my Tosa-ben, and surfing as much as possible, it was time for me to head home. I had fulfilled my Rick Kane dream and felt good about returning back to a relatively land-locked life in Canada.

My keitai rang early in the morning of my final day. It was Rob, a Kiwi friend, with news of a building typhoon swell. I had already sent my luggage and boards ahead to the airport, so Rob came by with an extra board. We were soon paddling out at Yasudagawa, a river mouth in Southeastern Kochi, into some of the biggest swell that I have ever experienced. Locals and visiting pros alike were dazzling the crowd, dropping into stand-up barrels and occasionally breaking boards.

Rob and I nervously hung on the fringe of the lineup for quite a while; neither of us wanted to be caught unprepared by a big wave or accidentally drop-in on somebody. However, a nice medium-sized swell eventually rose on the horizon. Nobody in the lineup seemed to be going for it so, at the last second, I turned and paddled as hard as I could. The wave picked me up with a power that I’d never felt before. My stomach lurched as I jumped to my feet and dropped down the face. Before I knew it, I had completed a bottom-turn and tucked into a beautiful green barrel. Engulfed behind the turquoise curtain, time slowed down. However, as the rocks on shore loomed closer, I eventually lost my nerve and turned up and over the back of the wave. I paddled back out to meet a beaming Rob who had also managed to catch a wave. It was a great send off to conclude my time in Kochi.

by Greg Lowan
Muroto, Kochi-ken [2002-2003]

(Published April 20, 2012)

Greg Lowan is now based in Prince George, BC where he teaches in the First Nations’ Studies program at the University of Northern British Columbia. He still gets out for the occasional surf. Contact: kichigami@gmail.com, www.kichigami.com.