Surfing Hokkaido in winter
I remember watching this video of surf legend Sally Fitzgibbon’s documenting on a surf trip to Novia Scotia, Canada. Beat down from the cold, she wept in the car, saying to her dad over and over “I just can’t do it!”. That memory always stuck in my mind when I contemplated surfing Hokkaido in winter. If surf warrior Sally Fitz couldn’t muster the strength to paddle out in sub-zero temps, there’s no way I ever could. Mentally, I never thought I’d have what it takes despite such good surf being on my doorstep every winter.
Nothing will prepare you for that feeling of jumping in for the first time and having to duck dive. It was a painful awakening.
– Sally Fitzgibbons in Subzero surfing in Nova Scotia
Powder Yoga Niseko became the catalyst for my winter’s most pivotal friendship. A surf coach from Cornwall in the U.K, Alice spotted me reading an old copy of Surfer Girl on my yoga mat between circuit training and Yin class. Following Shavasana, while hiding my sleepy-state beneath my favourite hat, a mesh-back cap paying tribute to the late surfer Andy Irons, she fatefully asked if I surfed. We became instant friends.
Making shit happen
Alice was more prepared than me. Her third winter in Hokkaido, she brought her 6mm wetty with her. Keen to make plans to surf, we met at Yummies restaurant in lower Hirafu. Yummies was the perfect venue for such chats, with Tomu the owner relishing two gaijin girls (the Japanese word for foreigner) discussing pointbreaks and reefs below one of the hand-shaped boards that hung proudly on the wall. Find wetsuits he said, and I’ll show you the way.
As fate would have it, 4x world champion F1 racer Lewis Hamilton came catskiing with me a few days later. He had just been surfing in Iwani, a little fishing town not far from Niseko. When I met him, he was still buzzing from the experience. A shop in Sapporo had rented them all the gear they needed. They shut up shop and drove to meet them in Iwani. I wondered if I would have similar luck to the World-famous Hamilton. In an effort to realize my dream, I reached out to every Hokkaido surf contact I could think of including local surfers that shared photos of surfing Hokkaido in winter, on Instagram. Thankfully, the kindness of the Japanese gave me a few leads. A week later, Alice and I had a drysuit, a bunch of retro boards and a beach date on the Sea of Japan.
You’ll never know if you don’t go
Alice and I had already scoped much of the coast from Iwani to Otaru of one of our several ‘we need to surf’ dates that we embarked on in my little Honda Jazz car. The south coast however, was never on our minds.
Leaving in the dark on a morning that promised to show the sun (that never happens in January), we picked up Charlotte and embarked on our mission south. The 2-hour drive was not without entertainment. A flat battery resultant of leaving the car lights on for 10 minutes at Seicomart bore a classic “Lost In translation” moment as we asked early workers grabbing their takeaway coffees, if they had jump leads. They were shocked to see three foreign girls, lets alone three girls asking for jump leads!
That look of shock carried to the surf later that morning. I remember Alice racing down the line on this right and the local surfer paddling out, eyes wide in absolute astonishment making gasping noises as she sprayed the back of the wave all the way to the beach! Not one but THREE gijin. Girls. Surfing! Their reactions were priceless and made the experience all the more special.
That morning, we surfed a 2-3ft beachy break on the shores of Tomakomi for well over 2 hours, alongside a power station billowing smoke of a variety of different aromas. Given the choice between three retro surfboards averaging 5”6, at first, we struggled to get onto the slow, fat waves. But as the tide dropped, the peaks got punchier and we clocked several 100 or so meter rides to the shore. The classic, “I’m going to get one more then go in” game played out between Alice and myself as we ignored the blood and any remaining sensations leave our fingers. The dread changing out of our of our suits in the snow, loomed ever closer. About 6 waves later with zero feeling in our fingers, we both paddled in … Charlotte, being Scottish and slightly nutts, kept surfing for another half an hour.
Yoga mat on the snow, car heater (and engine!) on, with bottles of hot water at the ready, we helped each other out of our suits. Without that hot water, I would never have been able to grasp the zip of the wetsuit. My fingers were white icicles. My face was frozen with a permanent smile. We did it, we had surfed Hokkaido in winter!
Tales of right-hand reefs
The pure joy of that day surfing, kept me buzzing for weeks. While the duckdives were at first painful (more like tiny samurai swords stabbing my skull when I got lazy and the water rushed under my hood when I didn’t duck deep enough), it really wasn’t that bad. Literally frothing to get on some bigger waves, Alice and I kept scheming and whispering throughout our Powder Yoga classes. We had to do it again.
About three weeks later it stopped snowing and I got a day off from catskiing. A swell was approaching and we were told about a reef up north near Otaru that we should check out. Tomu kindly took one of his handmade boards off the wall of his restaurant and gave it to me to surf. On our way, we saw the most stunning sunrise as we drove over the Yamanashi mountain range towards Saporro. It was going to be another special day on this beautiful, magical island of the rising sun.
After grabbing a shortboard for Alice and a drysuit for me from the surf shop in Sapporo, we headed west to the reef. It was awful. Blown out, messy and a long walk in the sideways wind and deep snow, along the train tracks. I looked at Alice and questioned our decision to paddle out. Cars of Japanese surfers were also checking the break. They were amused at our presence and took photos of us for prosperity. We giggled and smiled at their camera.
In an agreement that we wouldn’t paddle out in those conditions back home, we decided to keep up the search. Looking at the wind direction and shape of the coastline, armed with more snacks and coffee, we continued heading west with confidence we could find a better option. Wham’s Club Tropicana blasted through the speakers in an effort to transport ourselves to sunnier climates.
We rolled over a headland into a protected, rocky bay. Right-handers peeled off a reef through thick snowfall. It was a solid 3ft and we had found our spot. Two other local surfers pulled up with the same idea. Fired up, we all suited up together, scrambled over the snow-covered, slippery rocks and paddled out in 5-degree water and a fierce snow storm.
The swell was picking up and on the sets it was a solid 4-5ft. The duck dive in my drysuit got all the more hideous as I couldn’t my buoyant body deep enough on the sets. At times I screamed as I popped out the back of the wave. The water flooding under my hood was excruciating. Ice cream headaches got the better of me. But the waves were so fun, albeit a little shifty and tough to read. Alice and I both scored loads of memorable rides. Duck diving to wipe snow from my eyelashes took the whole experience to a new level of awesomeness. As did the heavy snow that fell while we were out there in the mauve and purple light. We literally couldn’t believe our luck.
Over two and a half hours passed and it was time to get out. The paddle in looked tricky and I was somewhat apprehensive from the waves smashing violently against the rocks. My fears were realized when a rip dragged me far west of the beach. Alice and the two Japanese guys watched as I got dragged across the dark water. Luckily I found my feet and scampered up the shore, trying not to twist my ankle in the gaps between the snows covered boulders.
Safe back in the van (we took a van this time to change inside of with the heating on), our two new Japanese friends made conversation with us in broken English. One took out his phone and showed us a video. They asked ‘is this you in Tomakomi?”. It was indeed a video of us surfing the week before! It turns out three gijin surfer girls braving the beachies in mid-winter is not a normal Saturday, and we were being discussed in some forum or Facebook page somewhere! We were equally shocked, amused and honoured. It made that day all the more special.
As we got changed we watched as the waves continued to increase in size and sets roll all the way to the beach. We couldn’t believe our luck that day. We scored big time! Hokkaido had delivered yet again, and those memories will be etched in our minds forever.
We didn’t get the chance to surf again that winter. For me, February delivered 18 days of straight storms and every day we the catski operation I was guiding at was in full swing, taking clients to ski neck deep Japow!
Looking back I’m so glad we made it happened and managed to surf Hokkaido in winter. I honestly didn’t think I would be mentally strong enough to paddle out, so overcoming that fear was a huge achievement. People called us mad and I do think they were right. The water was a balmy 5 degrees and the air minus 8. But I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
Next year, I’m definitely bringing a wetsuit. I’ve got my eye on this Patagonia one and a dream of getting one of the local shapers like Tomu to make me a surfboard. Because just like Gentemstick creating their Hokkaido soul snow-surfing snowboards, the beautiful soul- inspired surf community craft their own magic sticks to drawn turns on these unique waves.
A massive thank you to Alice for being a huge inspiration, equally as mad as me to persistently pursue our dream of surfing Hokkaido in winter. To Powder Yoga Niseko for creating the incredible community where legends like Alice hangout and meet nut-jobs like me! Thank you to Charlotte for jumping on the last-minute invitation and bringing her incredibly positive energy to the road trip. To Tomu at Yummies Pizza for the encouragement, the pizza and for lending me his hand shaped twin fin literally off the wall of his restaurant. To Major for helping us make our dream a reality and renting us the kit we needed. To the surf community of Hokkaido for the smiles, the gasps, the laughs and the encouragement.
Surfing in Hokkaido in winter is extremely special and we are honoured to have had the opportunity. From the bottom of my heart – Thank you. I’ll see you next year!