Sushi, sake and surfing
in Japan

Sushi and sake, sure, but surfing, it’s not something people readily associate with Japan. Yet the sport is set to make its Olympic debut at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Plus, this year’s International Surfing Association World Surfing Games – the first qualifying event for Olympic surfers - are being held in Kisakihama Beach in the country’s southern, surf-rich prefecture of Miyazaki in September.

Kiwi surfing champion Billy Stairmand’s got his eyes set on competing at both events and, if successful, it won’t be the first time the 29-year-old pro has surfed Japanese breaks.

Billy Stairmand surfs on a big wave

Kiwi surfer Billy Stairmand has his eyes set on competing at the Olympics

He says the sport is growing in popularity in Japan, and surfers from the island nation are up there with the best.

The likes of Masatoshi Ono, Hiroto Arai and Hiroto Ohara roll off the tongue of the Raglan local.

“I love competing in Japan. The waves are not always the greatest but the whole atmosphere around each event there is always amazing.

“The people are so welcoming and supportive even if you are not from Japan.

“When you are competing and you have supporters on the beach clapping and cheering for you, it’s a cool feeling.”

Off the water, Japan is one of his favourite travel destinations.

“I love the culture, food and the people. I’m always excited to check out the shrines, temples and all the amazing places to eat.”

He reckons it’s an easy country to get around, although the language barrier can be challenging.

“I’m always trying to pick up a few words here and there, and a couple of sentences, whenever I travel.

“If you learn a little, then that will go a long way.”

An image of Ella Williams, a young pro surfer

24-year-old Whangamata surfer Ella Williams says, “The people [in Japan] are so welcoming and supportive even if you are not from Japan."

For 24-year-old Whangamata surfer Ella Williams, competing in the Olympics in Japan would be a dream come true.

Surf competitions have taken her to breaks across the globe, but she says what makes Japan stand out as a surf spot is not its waves, but its hosts.

“The people there pretty much made my experience of the place.”

Recently, she competed in Kamakura, a surfing hotspot less than an hour from Tokyo by train.

It was a “cute spot”, with low-key cafes, and black sand, reminiscent of New Zealand’s west coast, she says.

After the second world war, United States soldiers stationed at the nearby Yokosuka naval base introduced the Japanese to surfing.

Jamie Brisick, writing a travel piece for The Guardian, says the beach scene is straight out of the book of surfing clichés – Wayfarers, boardshorts and sun-reddened faces.

But it’s also quintessentially Japanese: a row of sandals carefully left at the edge of the beach and Japanese surfers carrying portable showers, foot towels and plastic coat hanger for drying their wetsuits, he says.

Surfer Ella Williams pulls off a controlled cut back

Ella Williams surfs competitively on the world stage

However, in Ella’s experience, surfing is still a novelty for most.

“Sometimes, walking around with my board, people would look at me as if to say ‘What’s that?’”

But the sport is set to grow, especially with the Olympics on the horizon, she says.

A stand-out day away from the waves for Ella: Touring town on bicycle, dad in tow, and having tea at a local cafe.

Checking into her accommodation after a day of competition, her bed was a traditional Japanese set-up with a mat on the floor, she says.

“It was really cool to live the way the locals do.”

Ella sees surfing, or any sport, as a great connector of people.

“Sport brings us together. No matter what language barriers you may have, you already have that in common.”