The nearby car sits empty, engine turning over, heater running. The land terminates dramatically here; vertical cliffs frame the view as the coastline winds its way to the north.
Sea defences line undulating bays, the dark rounded stones capped by crisp white snow. The narrow strip of land between cliff and sea is utilised to its maximum potential – packed striations of harbour, homes, warehouses, shops, road, rail track and here: a vantage point. Today is a good day. Although the air temperature has dipped to minus ten, there is a clean head-high swell and the local crew are on it.
Looking at a map the Japan Sea seems just too small, a pond against the vast Pacific. However winter months see swirling low pressure systems swing through to the north or south, their icy fronts delivering. The only drawback is the cold. Not like a chilly day in Scotland kind of cold, but cold like a frozen day in Alaska.
Here on the coast, deathly winds slice in from the Siberian plains with the clinical sharpness of a Samurai’s cold Katana blade, transforming the landscape into an almost featureless amalgam of monochrome hues. The line-ups are scattered and the locals, despite the low numbers, guard their secrets well. The complex geology of the region and the man-made groynes do not make life easy, but there are reefs, points and rivermouths there for those in the know.
Life on the Pacific Seaboard of Hokkaido is somewhat easier. The warm summer and temperate autumn days align themselves with the Typhoon Season, a window of atmospheric commotion that sees powerful depressions wreak havoc across the region. The side effect of these huge swirling weather patterns is that Japan is bombarded with regular pulses of epic surf.
Sometimes these typhoon swells can light up beaches and points for days on end, on a weekly basis. Hokkaido is transformed into a waveriding nirvana; elsewhere in the vast ocean, roofs are peeled from houses and devastation is wreaked. It is the eternal Yin and Yang of Pacific life. Surfers on Hokkaido know they have it good, they just don’t want others to know quite how good.
Surfing on this ‘white isle’ began in the late seventies, when Noboru Tagawa returned home from University on the mainland with a shiny new Local Motion single fin. He was the only surfer on an island of five million souls.
“I didn’t know where I could go to surf,” he says smiling. “There was no one else here to ask.” There was one other obstacle to overcome. “I didn’t have a driving licence. A friend of mine was working at a jean shop, so whenever he was going on business near a beach, I would jump in his car and go with him.”
Soon he met two other converts and the search was on. However there was another problem they had not anticipated. “Every time I went into the water back then the police would come and kick me back onto the beach” says Noboru. “They would write me a ticket, because there was no one else there. It’s like a statement to say I won’t do it again.” But the next day Noboru and his small band of friends would be back. The seeds had been planted, it was impossible to hold back the tide. Surfing had found a new land and the beaches began to bloom with a myriad of candy coloured surfboards.
The ocean has always exerted an uncanny ability to alter the life course of those who feel their career paths set, and Taro was not immune to its pull. Travelling the world as one of Japan’s most famous pro snowboarders, he found his focus drawn to a new vista. “I was on a fishing trip near here,” he explains, “and we came across this perfect wave. If you’re a surfer, you know what that means – you want to go and surf it. That day I had a little ripped wetsuit in the car, just by coincidence, and my friend had a wetsuit also, so we looked at each other and said ‘Lets check that out.’” It took just one duck dive to set the hook.
“As soon as I hit the cold water something in me knew this was something else – it was a distinctly different feeling. It was something new, something I never felt before.”
The dawn of a new day, we sit in the lay-by just off the coastal road, the hammer of the diesel engine is replaced by the ticking of the motor as it cools. The sat nav illuminates the dark cab of the Land Rover. On this part of the island the road traces a narrow line between the deep crystaline Japan Sea and the fractured hanging rock faces. At times there’s just enough room for two cars to pass – a single strip of cracked tarmac. Periodically it dives into cavernous, twisting tunnels only to emerge into the bright light of yet another breathtaking cove. Taro has spent many years scouring Hokkaido’s wild coastline. Locations are logged in the memory of the GPS, swell prediction models are studied every hour.
This 4×4 is no ‘Chelsea Tractor,’ it is an expedition vehicle, a working tool essential in the life threatening winter cold. Missions to the north of the island in waist deep snow are challenging in the extreme.
While the jet ski has become the trailer toy of choice for many cutting edge surfers, here on Hokkaido Taro and his tight crew have an altogether different beast hooked up for their trips into the big white. Huddled under the protective tarp sits a skidoo, the only way in or out of some isolated spots. The pay-off; point breaks that peel down huge, mountainous headlands below snow covered jagged peaks that shield from frigid northerlies. Few lights cut through the murk here; there are no people for miles. Not far to the north, pack ice covers the Sea of Okhotsk. To surf here you have to really love the cold water, not just suffer it for the pay-off offered by empty virgin waves. The experience means immersing oneself in a dense saline environment where water temperatures slip below zero, and wind burns exposed skin.
For Taro, being a cold water surfer is a holistic experience.
“When you go to a tropical place, you see many colours, and with the equatorial air, your consciousness and your mind is open, you feel like it’s vacation time, your mind is all over the place. In the cold water all you see is just a gradation in colour; it’s pretty much black and white. It really focuses the mind. There’s something special that I feel, I’m much more focused than when I am in tropical conditions. When I have an entire day with perfect waves all by myself, just surfing, I really feel what it is to surf.”
Today, the surfing world is shrinking. It is harder and harder to push out and explore virgin waves. “In snowboarding you still can do that; there are major mountains that are still untouched,” explains Taro, “but it’s very rare these days to surf and have that experience. If you 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. That’s what it means to be a surfer.”
Chris Nelson is the author of Cold Water Souls: In Search of Surfing’s Cold Water Pioneers, find out more about Chris and his work at Approaching Lines.