Travel article
LAST UPDATED 07/01/2008
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Provides all the surf and travel information you need to know about Japan and shows links to..

Level of surfing


Quality of surf


Call code


Net code





29,751 km


Varies from tropical in south to cool temperate in north


Cyclones, Severe Storms

Best Months

July - November




Yen (JPY) yen per US dollar - 116.18 (2006)

Time Zone

Japan Standard Time (UTC+9)

Special Requirements

Private Beaches


NASA: Map du Japon; 2003

Spread across the western shores of the north Pacific lie the 3000 islands that form Japan. As they are in all sports such as Rugby, the Japanese are fierce competitors in all sports that they adopt. In modern Japan, surfing is one of those sports. Currently, around 2.5 million Japanese consider themselves to be ‘surfers’. Don’t let this worry you though as a lot of surfers tend to congregate in the same spots. If you have the time and inclination to travel you will be rewarded with some fantastic waves in splendid isolation.


Kagoshima Museum: Battle of Shiroyama;1880 painting.

The Japanese Archipelago has been settled since 30,000 BC. Early trade with China and Korea led to a flourishing culture that was eventually to give rise to the feudal era and the emergence of the ruling class of warriors, the samurai around 700 AD. Japan was to remain isolated for the next 1000 years, repelling invasion from the Mongols in 1274. The entire invading Mongol fleet was decimated by a typhoon – or commonly referred as the Kamikaze, Divine Wind.

During the 16th century, Portuguese traders began arriving in Japan and active commerce commenced. Japan was to remain relatively isolated until the 1850’s when trade was expanded to the United States and Europe. The Shogunates power was to crumble sixteen years later and Japan embraced a period of scientific and military expansionism that was to see her defeat china in 1895 and Russia in 1905. Japan sided with the allies in World War I and was able to consolidate further holdings in present day Korea and Taiwan. This expansionist policy was to continue with Japan occupying Manchuria in 1931 and invading China in 1937.

Japan became further and further distanced from her previous World War I allies and eventually invaded Pearl Harbour in 1941 having signed a pact with Nazi Germany. World War II was to end disastrously for Japan. Two atomic devices were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan lost all of her overseas territories. Recent history has seen a more stable and western orientated Japan arise, focusing on economic development and prosperity.


Katsushika Hokusai(1760-1849: Behind the Great Wave at Kanagawa; c.1825

The Japanese coastline has excellent exposure to swell activity from the north through to the Southwest. Even the west coast can see typhoon generated swell from time to time which provides a nice novelty alternative. The limiting factor for many surfers lies not in the fantastic variety of beach, point and reef breaks but in the cost of living in Japan. If you were bouncing through on a holiday then a stop over in Habara beach near Tokyo followed by a stop over in Okinawa would be the best option and your best bet of guaranteed quality waves. Few people have the money to wait out a season and wait for ‘that point’ to really turn on once the tide, swell, wind and the planets finally align to bring it to life. If you are working in Japan however you should have the opportunity to do enough travelling to realise that Japan is a vastly underestimated surf destination.

A pitching deck, the creak of well-worn timbers, the cracking of sail and canvas...tied to the mast.  Things have changed a little I guess from when Jack London and Josef Conrad wrote their haunting Pacific infused epics but it hasn’t changed everywhere. There are corners of this earth where that myth still holds true, and most of those corners are here in the South Pacific.

The main source of swell here is from the intense lows that circle the earth south of Australia, these lows spin off northwards with blessed regularity, peppering the entire region with generous SE to SW groundswell from March to September. Australia and New Zealand see the bulk of these swells. These countries cast a very tall shadow across the rest of the Pacific and hence many other islands in their wake can suffer from swell diffusion. December to February is cyclone season. Unpredictable cells can deliver swell in a 360 radius, lighting up rarely breaking reefs and points facing every conceivable direction.

The South Pacific trade winds are some of the most consistent in the world, generally from the East with slight seasonal variation. This is the largest Ocean on the planet and these winds easily generate regular rideable swell. Onshore conditions can be a problem on east facing coastlines but peeling yourself out for an early surf will usually bring some relief.

In the North Pacific it is the intense lows descending from the Aleutians that deliver NE to NW swells from October to March. Hawaii is ideally placed to make best use of this energy but other coastlines in the region have their own less publicised and far less crowded gems.

In June to October, it is rather rare to see hurricane swell radiate out from southern Mexico. This energy is often felt right throughout Polynesia. With so many energy vectors at work it is very hard not to find a wave.

Places such as Japan that offer rideable options on every coast will ensure that regardless of the conditions, somewhere there will be a wave. In fact quite often there will be a very good one.


Tennen-Gas: Tōkaidō Shinkansen 700 & 300, at Tokyo Station; 2007

Flying is the most common method of arrival in Japan. All of the islands are well connected with the bullet train being one of the best ways to travel large distances. Tickets can be expensive but there are always plenty of great deals to pick up before you leave, such as using the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass). The green class on the bullet trains probably isn’t really worth it, especially if you are on any type of budget – seating is the same as standard class – there are just a fewer in each carriage.

You really will need to get down to a car at some stage however if you are looking to do some serious surf travel. Tokyo may well be the most complicated city in the world to navigate around unless you speak and read fluent Japanese. The total lack of any English alphabet characters in street signs and maps means you can’t even fake it and feel your way out of there. Tourists have taken 12 hours to get from one side of Tokyo to the other – image the kids in the back seat after that! I would probably fly / bus / train it out of Tokyo until you can tackle a city that’s a little more manageable, hire a car and enjoy from there.

If you have the time I really would be making a trip down to the Okinawa Islands. There are a number of world-class reef breaks around this group, which lies well to the south of Japan; Sunabe is probably the best known. The island is small enough to permit surf action on all coasts. Larger swells wrap around the north and south points of the island creating quality option. If the wind is howling onshore on the east coast during the monsoon no problems, the island is only 20 kilometres wide at its widest point, you can head to the other coast to check it before your styrofoam cup of miso soup gets cold. Many of the smaller islands are connected to Okinawa and the mainland by standard and high-speed ferry. Go forth and explore!


Robert A. Rohde: Annual Average Temperature Map, 15 February 2008

Weather varies widely across Japan due to its lengthy longitudinal spread and like a lot of eastern Asian weather, regulation by the Asiatic monsoon. Which in winter sees the Siberian high, a large, shallow high-pressure cell dominates Russia directing a cold and dry north-westerly flow over much of Asia. Conversely, in summer, the warming landmass causes a large thermal low to form over Asia, directing warm and moist southerly flow over the region. The weather conditions in Japan vary from hot, humid summers in the south on Okinawa, to cold, snowy winters in the north on Hokkaido. The main seasons are summer (June-August), when an overall southerly wind flow brings warm, moist air to Japan, and with weak cold fronts traversing over northern areas only, and winter (December-February), when overall north-westerly flow from Asia dominates the region with cold, dry air.  Spring (March-May) and Autumn (September-November) are transition seasons and exhibit similar mild conditions compared to the cold of winter and the heat and humidity of summer. Tsunamis can cause widespread destruction throughout the Pacific coast of Japan, which is in a particularly tsunami-prone area.  About one third of all tsunamis recorded in the Pacific, are generated near Japan. However any earthquake or underwater landslide in the Pacific can initiate these waves, which can travel thousands of miles and strike the Japanese coast hours after the initial geologic disturbance.

Summer (June-August) to Autumn (September-November)

The climate from June to August is marked by hot, wet weather as warm, moisture laden tropical air flows from the Pacific Ocean and Southeast Asia. Early summer, there is a marked rainy season, with weak fronts settling over Honshu.  This sees about a month of continual rain and grey skies and is known as bai-u (plum) rains, because it begins when the plums ripen, usually from early to mid-June through mid-July. Plentiful precipitation continues through to late summer, but rain is showery in nature.  Typhoons affect the area during late summer and autumn (August through October), reaching their peak frequency in September, making Autumn preferred time for surf travel as the end of summer brings relief from the heat and crowds.   The Pacific coasts are most vulnerable and it will be possible to see plenty of swells from these systems, which is the hope of every surfer watching the WCT event at Chiba early August. Though when these typhoons are too close to or cross the coast they see a few days of very strong winds and torrential rain, though thankfully this is usually followed by a few days of fine conditions.  Local winds are very terrain dependent.  Southern and island coastal locations typically have land/sea breeze winds.  In sites that face south, sea breeze winds are enhanced by the overall southerly winds of the seasons so early surfs are a good idea.

August is the warmest month; average high temperatures are 21 to 24°C on Hokkaido and 29 to 35°C on the coast of southern Japan. Over the remainder of Japan's main islands, temperatures are somewhat higher and can reach 40°C. Northern areas, mountainous areas, and even Tokyo can still be very cool at the start if Summer.
Winter and (December-March) to Spring (March-May)

Winter is generally the dry period over most of Japan, but western areas often receive their maximum precipitation during December and January. In winter also, semi-permanent thermal trough extends into the Sea of Japan that is induced by the temperature difference between the freezing air of the Asian landmass and the relatively warmer waters of the Sea of Japan. The result is a flow of cold North Westerly flow across Japan that brings freezing temperatures and heavy snowfalls to the central mountain ranges facing the Sea of Japan, but clear skies to areas fronting on the Pacific. Because of the blocking effect of the mountains, the eastern coasts have significantly less precipitation and fewer clouds than the western coasts.  Snow falls almost daily in December-February over the high slopes on Hokkaido and northern Honshu that sees temperatures often subfreezing. Spring weather is milder and gradually warms up, though there is a secondary but less marked wet season, locally known as Shurin rains, covering September and early October as the polar fronts moves back to the south. The prevailing winds shift from the northerly winds of winter to the southeast winds of summer.

Throughout most of Japan, January and February are also the coldest months, with mean lows only 4°C near the coasts, so snowboarding or hitting that artificial waves of Seagaia Ocean Dome seem a much better option, unless you love your thickest wetsuit, gloves and hoods. During winter, mean highs are generally reach 11 to 13°C in the south.  Highs along Honshu's east coast are generally 3-6°C warmer than those along the west coast. Spring temperatures are much more pleasant with mean highs of 18-22°C in April/May of the main populous areas.

where to stay

Gryffendor: Japanese Teahouse; 2006

This bit will hurt. Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world. If you are only passing through there are plenty of hotels out around the airport . The Hilton is around $200 USD per night. Closer to Tokyo prices ramp up to around $600 USD per night. A better option is one of the guest houses for foreigners in the cities, you can get something for less than half that price. I would be heading out of the cities as soon as your sight seeing is done and  find a spot with quality surf potential and a cheaper hotel.

what to pack

Eric Naeseth: A 3-prong type B AC plug and receptacle; 2006

Most Japanese travel fairly lightly and accordingly, baggage space on trains and buses can be fairly tight. You may want to consider bringing several smaller bags as opposed to one big one. There are plenty of pharmacies in Japan but common medication can be very expensive, you should look to bring all that you will need for your trip. If you are doing any sight seeing, chances are you will be taking your shoes on and off quite a bit – sensible shoes without laces can make this process a bit easier, similarly, make sure you are wearing a decent pair of socks and that they are clean.

If you a larger person you may find it hard to find clothes your size in Japan, especially shoes. On the topic of size, Japanese condoms are a little…weird. If you have any intentions of indulging in pleasures of the flesh you may want to bring your own, some men also report that the local product is a little small – um..nothing.

The electrical system in Japan will require you to bring some kind of adaptor depending on where you’re coming from. It’s all 100 volts but in Tokyo it runs at 50 cycles. In southwest Japan it runs at 60 cycles. All appliances are two pronged. If you are going to buy any appliances be sure to check that they will be compatible with your domestic supply back home.

dangers and warnings

Kobe earthquake memorial; 2005

Earthquakes are real. 90,000 people died in the Kanto earthquake of 1923 and another 6,427 perished in the Greater Kobe quake of 1995. Remember if you are in an earthquake don’t go outside, most people are killed by falling masonry. Open doors – otherwise you may not be able to after the quake, stay away from windows and shut the curtains to avoid flying glass and get under a sturdy object such as a dining table, when it’s all over, head to an open area or park.

Sometimes it is nearly impossible to locate a urinal in larger cities, whatever you do don’t urinate in public. If you get caught by the police you won’t just be fined, you’ll probably get a little bash on the head and a night in lock up to think about it all.

Pickpockets work the densely packet train systems of Tokyo so if you have a backpack on, best to take it off when you get onboard. Rush hour can be murderous, best to avoid travelling during these hours if you can help it. The crime rate is fairly low in Japan with most problems stemming from organised crime. The average traveller is unlikely to become embroiled in any of this with most of it occurring deep in the suburbs.

restaurants, shopping and nightlife

RdSmith: Preparing okonomiyaki; Hiroshima, Japan 2004

If you want to blow a packet on eating in Japan, knock yourself out, there are plenty of places very willing to accept your money. If you are on a budget however rest assured that there are plenty of options. There is a great chain of Gyudon restaurants called Yoshinoya, these places are everywhere. Gyudon means bowl of rice with cow meat on top and they are great for a budget snack. Tempura and udon soup houses abound. Most areas of Japan make their own version of Udon soup and competition to create the best one is fierce. Even the wife and kids will love this treat at $10 a bowl.

Ceramics and lacquer ware are specialities within Japan and make great souvenirs. Save your 100 yen coins as there are specialist 100 yen shops kind of like $2 bargain shops that dispense unique gifts.

Nightlife will depend on your travelling companions – seedy bars with prostitutes dressed as schoolgirls through to casual Izakaya’s (pubs) serving beer and family friendly food.

what to do when it's flat

Fang Hong: Tokyo Disneyland Cindrella castle; 1998

Head to downtown in the Electric City in Tokyo and play some Pachinko – the game with all the little metal balls. I thought it was all a big laugh, didn’t actually expect to win anything, that’s when the fun really started. You ‘win’ crappy little plastic toys such as plastic balls and rubber dollar signs. It seems that payoffs are illegal inside the parlour so you are led outside to a back alley where someone reaches through a hole in the wall and swaps your plastic toy for cash. Kind of strange in a dangerous sort of way and to be honest the only time I felt that I may actually be cut in half by an unseen samurai sword and stuffed into a suitcase.

The Mount Fiji area is only a few hours from Tokyo and a beautiful part of the country. The mountain itself known as Fuji-san is actually a dormant volcano – it hasn’t erupted for 200 years..so what are the chances right? Anyway, there are several beautiful temples in the area to keep you busy as well. You can actually climb Mt Fuji in the summer. There is great skiing around here as well during the winter.

For the eclectic amongst you, travel to the 5 lakes district and find a quiet pavilion to have a traditional Japanese tea ceremony – Geisha optional. If you do it properly the only sounds you should hear are the snapping of the west wind and the beating of a warriors heart…

useful phrase guide

Japanese Kanji

Good day. Konnichi wa.
Good morning. Ohayoo gozaimasu.
Good evening. Konban wa.
Good bye. Sayoonara.
Nice meeting you. Hajimemashite.
How are you doing? O-genki desu ka?
Good. ii.
Yes. Hai.
No. Iie.
My name is … Watashi no namae ... desu.
I am … Watashi wa ... desu.
Where do you come from? Doko kara kimashita ka?
Thank you. Doomo arigatoo gozaimasu.
You're welcome. Doozo.
I do not understand. Watashi wa wakarimasen.

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