Whatever your imagination conjures at the thought of Japan, it probably isn’t surfing. There are plenty of quintessential experiences one ought to have in Japan, from temple exploring and sushi sampling to sake sipping on a road trip through Hokkaido. Yet, there is much to discover beyond these bucket list experiences. Like surfing. Japan may be known as the land of the rising sun but its world-class waves are raising eyebrows.
Japan boasts ideal conditions for year-round surfing: a 1,864-mile (3,000-kilometer) coastline, tropical climates in the south, powerful winter swells on the west coast, and typhoon swells from August to October. Japan’s island geography means there are surf spots all over the country. Some are located in the heart of major cities while others are found on tranquil islands or rural stretches of coastline. Whether you’re a big wave rider or first-timer, the perfect wave awaits.
Japan’s Surf Origins
You may not equate surfing with Japan, but the nation has a long-standing connection with the sea. Like Polynesia, Japan’s wave-riding culture is tied to a legacy of fishing and seafaring. And it developed long before the first Americans brought their fibreglass surfboards to military bases in the 1960s.
Japan’s traditional surfboards, called itago, were removable floorboards from wooden fishing boats. The earliest written record of itago-nori (‘floorboard riding’, comparable to bodyboarding) dates back to the 1821 diary entry of haiku poet Dokurakuan Kanri. Ita, the Japanese word for modern surfboards, reflects this history.
Modern surfing influenced Japan in two major waves. The first wave hit Japan’s shores in the 1950s, when surf imagery spread thanks to magazines like National Geographic, and the 1960s when American soldiers also frequented surf breaks near military bases. The second wave peaked around 1980, when Japan’s booming economy encouraged local recreation and travel.
Japan’s surf community has grown steadily since. Fittingly, surfing made its Olympic debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Tips for Planning a Japan Surf Trip
Plan Around the Seasons
If you want to charge big waves, timing is everything. Typhoon swells typically occur between August to October while the heavy winter swells hit the Sea of Japan from December to March.
Japan is home to a wide variety of waves for all levels of surfers. It’s best for beginners to visit during the summer months and stick to established surf areas like Shonan, Chiba, or Shizuoka, where mellow waves and board rentals are abundant. Winter in Hokkaido is best for snow sports.
Regardless of your skill level, waves can be fickle so it’s best to have flexible travel plans that can shift with the surf report. And have alternative arrangements at the ready, whether that’s chasing cherry blossoms in spring or participating in winter sports in Hokkaido.
Think About Logistics and Transportation
Many of Japan’s popular surf destinations are accessible by train, bus, ferry, or plane, and offer amenities like surf shops and board rentals. For those on the hunt for hidden gems with thinner crowds, it’s best to bring your own board and rent your own set of wheels. Planning ahead, asking locals, and having a GPS system can be crucial for finding lesser-known breaks.
Respect the Locals
It never hurts to have some Japanese phrases in your back pocket so you can strike up a friendly conversation in the lineup. The Japanese are renowned for their general hospitality and local surfers are known to warm up to respectful visitors.
The Best Places to Surf in Japan
There are countless surf breaks scattered across Japan and each will lead to a distinct experience. For a blend of sightseeing and surfing, it’s best to stick around Tokyo where you can catch a wave with Mount Fuji in the background and explore the city between.
If you have the gift of time, there are many rural surf breaks with perfect barrels and A-frames. Head to the southernmost islands and you’ll find tropical beaches with sparkling water, coral reefs, and laid-back vibes. If you’re feeling adventurous, head north for cold water surfing best followed up with a steaming bowl of ramen.
No matter where you decide to surf in Japan, you’ll also find an abundance of history, cuisine, art, and recreation to suit your travel style. Here’s a roundup of the best places to surf in Japan paired with things to do if the ocean is calm.
For a powerful wave that breaks on a magnificent rock shelf, head to Bira Reef, Japan’s version of Pipeline.
Part of the Satsunan chain that runs from Kyushu to Okinawa, Amami Oshima is famous for its picturesque beaches, mangrove forests, and ferns. Coral-rich waters are also teeming with aquatic life, making it a great destination for snorkelling and diving. The area is known for its unique cuisine and history of silk-making.
Located just 45 minutes outside Tokyo, this surf mecca offers powerful waves at both beach and reef breaks. Consistent swells and international surf competitions have put Chiba on the map. The Boso Peninsula has become one of the most popular surf spots in Japan, but if you wish to avoid crowds, try heading south to Kanagawa or the Shonan area, where you can catch glimpses of Mt. Fuji. The best waves break from August to October.
Between swells, there are numerous museums, historic sites, parks, and lighthouses to visit. It’s also home to signature “Chiba-only” dishes like kaisendon (seafood bowl).
Located relatively close to Tokyo, Fukushima prefecture’s beach and reef breaks are known for delivering consistent waves year-round. Be aware of the no-entry zone around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, which was devastated by a 2011 earthquake and tsunami that forced many residents (and local surfers) to evacuate.
Fukushima is the third-largest of Japan’s prefectures and offers many tourist attractions. Natural wonders include the area’s volcanic landscape, hot springs, cherry blossoms, and fall colours. The region is also known for its castle towns, ski resorts, and top-rated sake. Aizu, a small city with rich samurai history and Oze National Park, are also worth a visit!
Though Japan’s northernmost island is better known for snowboarding, Hokkaido is also home to uncrowded surf breaks for those willing to brave the cold. Rub shoulders with hardcore locals and watch out for icebergs! Drysuits recommended in the winter.
The least developed of Japan’s four main islands, Hokkaidō is an excellent destination for rural villages, unspoiled nature, national parks, and outdoor recreation. Don’t miss the powder skiing at Niseko, the lavender fields of Furano, the castle of Matsumae, or the hot springs at Noboribetsu and Jozankei Onsen.
This region is known for small-wave beach breaks perfect for beginners. If you’re riding a longboard, head to Onuki. More advanced riders can find reef breaks and other hidden gems along the coast. Ibaraki is home to many wind turbines, which should let you know that you can expect to find the best surf conditions early in the day, before the wind picks up.
Besides surfing, visitors can enjoy the Kairakuen Garden, located in the prefectural capital of Mito, Fukuroda Falls, and Ushiku Daibutsi, the tallest bronze statue of Buddha in Japan.
Find barrel waves and crystal clear waters at Niijima, an islet in the Izu Island volcanic chain. The island is also known for its nightlife. Popular breaks in this area include Awaiura and Habushiura Beach. Catch the best waves in the summer months.
This scenic paradise offers towering cliffs and sandy beaches. It’s a great destination for cycling, sunbathing, and relaxing in hot springs. Visitors will also find local art, from glass blowing to the moyai carvings (similar to the heads of Easter Island) scattered around the island.
Okinawa is Japan’s southernmost island chain made up of over 150 islands and islets known for reef breaks, subtropical weather, gorgeous beaches, and surf year-round. When the swell is right, surfers can find Indo-class waves with thinner crowds. The U.S. military base in Okinawa also creates the unique experience of surfing while F-16s fly overhead. Popular breaks include the Sunabe Seawall, Maeda, and Aha Point.
While Okinawa’s coral reefs make many surf breaks ideal for the more experienced, they make for excellent snorkelling and diving. History lovers can also learn about native Ryukyuian culture (distinctly different from northern Japan in aspects of language, cuisine, and art) and some of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
The Miyagi Prefecture lies on the Pacific coast in Japan’s Tōhoku region. Miyagi’s capital, Sendai, is known for its long history of surfing and world-class breaks, which occur with typhoon swells. You’ll find overhead waves when the conditions are good and if it’s flat, you can explore the vibrant city.
Soak up this stunning coastline at Matsushima Bay, known for pine-clad islets, Naruko Gorge, famous for autumn colours, and the Sanriku coast, dotted with sea stacks and arches.
With a long history of surfing and a coastline that stretches roughly 200 miles (322 kilometers), Miyazaki is one of Japan’s most renowned surf destinations. Visitors will find an abundance of surf schools and shops in this area, which has been largely revived through surf tourism.
Miyazaki’s surf breaks are broken up into three areas: Hyuga to the north, Miyazaki City in the middle, and Nichinan in the south. Popular breaks include Okuragahama, Kanegahama, Hitotsuba, and Aoshima.
Don’t miss a drive along the Nichinan Coastline Road, which rewards visitors with breathtaking views of volcanic rock formations from its palm-lined highway. The Seagaia Ocean Dome, the world’s largest indoor wave pool, is also located in Miyazaki.
Shikoku is reputed as one of the best surf destinations in Japan because of its laid-back vibe and big waves. There’s a variety of surf communities to explore on Shikoku, Japan’s fourth-largest island.
With a southeast-facing coast plus a variety of points, breach breaks, and river mouths, the region caters to a wide variety of surfers. Popular surf breaks include Niyodo, Ikumi, and Shishikui. For a different experience, check out the Kaifu river mouth during typhoon season. Catch the best waves from June to November.
While you’re in Shikoku, don’t miss the Kotohira shrine and the olive gardens of Shodoshima island, or the castles of Matsuyama, Uwajima, Ozu, and Marugame.
Get a mix of beach and city in Shizuoka, a less-crowded alternative to Shonan. Dominated by beach breaks, you can expect small waves until typhoons start to roll in. Popular breaks include Omaezaki (watch out for strong currents and hidden reefs) and Shirahama.
A visit to the Shizuoka Prefecture is incomplete without paying a visit to Mount Fuji. Take in natural scenery and enjoy hot spring baths from Lake Hamanako or the Izu Peninsula. Last but not least, head to Kakegawa to find out why this prefecture is famous for its tea.
Located on the west coast along the Sea of Japan, Tottori’s winter swells draw big wave surfers from all over the world. The best waves are generally found from December to April.
Tottori is also famous for its sand dunes, castle ruins, museums, cherry blossoms, and Kannon-in temple. It is also relatively close to Kyoto, which offers an abundance of historical and cultural attractions.
Boasting some of the best reef breaks and point breaks in Japan, Wakayama has become a favourite for the Osaka surf community. This destination has been overshadowed by the likes of Chiba and Shikoku, but when the swell is decent, you’ll find world-class waves with fewer crowds. Popular breaks include Shingu, Isonoura, and Gobo.
While many consider surfing a spiritual experience, Wakayama has even more to offer in that regard. It is home to the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism, the pilgrimage site of Kumano, and the atmospheric temple on Mount Koya.
Whether you want to know more about the Land of the Rising Sun’s great outdoors or life in its big cities, our Japan Travel Guide will tell you all you need to know.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.