Surfing in Hokkaido

March 14, 2016

Guests who stay with us here during the winter and spring months are always curious about what summer offers up here in Hokkaido. We indulge them with stories of the many outdoor activities that you can enjoy once the snow melts and some people are surprised to learn that we surf up here too. Niseko is actually close to both the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Japan (about 50km east and west to the closest spots). Below is a bit more of an insight into what it is like searching for waves around Niseko.

‍The drive to the Pacific can be pretty spectacular in itself.

To foreigners, Japan perhaps isn’t top of mind as a surf destination yet the Japanese love it, and famous breaks on the main island of Honshu and further south in Kyushu and Okinawa can get pretty crowded when the waves are good. Hokkaido is the second largest island in Japan, yet sparsely populated, with hundreds of kilometres of rugged coastline that  offer surfers beach, reef and river mouth breaks. The surf can get pretty good up here but Hokkaido surfers don’t mind that their local spots aren’t broadcast to the masses.

‍Mnk General Manager Stu Cady with another local at a spot just over an hour from Niseko.

Surfing in Hokkaido only started in the late 70’s when Noboru Tagawa came back from studying university in the United States and bought a board back to Hokkaido from Tokyo. By around 1978 Minami Sport in Sapporo was offering a couple of surfboards for sale and slowly bikers, students and some other fringe dwellers were forming small surfing communities in Muroran and Sapporo. While surfing these days is well and truly a global sport, exploring the coast of Hokkaido can still feel remote and removed from the surf industries mass appeal.

Diehard surfers enjoy the waves year round in Hokkaido, although as well as thick wetsuits they wear hoods, booties, gloves or drysuits in the winter months as the water hovers just a few degrees above freezing. See below for a bar chart of average water temperatures for Yoichi (Japan sea side) and Date (Pacific Ocean side) throughout the year.

Average water temperature for Date on the Pacific Ocean side of Hokkaido
Average Water Temperature for Yoichi on the Sea of Japan side

In the winter months from December through to March, it is the west side of the island that sees the best swell, as the same low pressure systems that blow Hokkaido’s famous pow south from Siberia, also whip up some short-range wind swell across the Sea of Japan. None of us at MnK partake in winter surfing, although it would be great to go surfing and snowboarding in the same day at least once.

A big typhoon swell hits Uchiura Bay. Summer 2015

Across the year, the best season for swell in Hokkaido would have to be Summer/Autumn in between July and November. This is when typhoon season is in full effect and thankfully the water warms up considerably as seen in the bar charts above. Typhoons generally roar down through the Pacific Ocean, so the east coast sees the best waves during this period. Also, on the coast within 2-3 hours of Niseko the water is usually warm enough from late July through to mid September that the brave can swim and go for a brief surf without a wetsuit. It is pretty chilly though– a little too cold to remain comfortable for long, so a wetsuit is recommended.  

A typhoon swell creates a nice left on the Pacific side
Ocean and mountains
Little waterfall on one of our drives

One of the best parts about exploring the coastlines around Niseko, is the excitement of the search. On more than a few occasions, we have travelled up and down the coast looking for waves or new spots and haven’t found anything special– but the scenery is always interesting. Sometimes it is sunny and beautiful, if a typhoon is blowing it might be overcast and menacing. One of the more famous beaches near Chitose airport is Hama Atsuma– the beach is actually not pretty at all. In the background sits a shipping port and industrial structures with lots of man-made debris washed up on the shore, yet the surf can be great. It is also one of the busier beaches in the region and it has a unique feel to it.

A nice day at Hama Atsuma
Debris looking up  the beach

A few other side notes about searching for waves in Hokkaido. During summer there are many free campsites- some of them overlooking beaches you can pitch up for the night and have a BBQ. You won’t get in trouble for sleeping in your car on the beach. The locals are generally pretty friendly and there aren’t many dangerous sharks lurking around. You won’t always get awesome waves– it takes a while to get to know some of the more consistent spots for swell and like anywhere, watching forecasts, getting the right timing and a bit of luck are all factors. All in all– searching for waves around Niseko in summer is good fun.

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