There’s a massive typhoon bearing down on us, sitting a couple hundred miles off the coast and moving slowly and directly toward our exact location, and I can’t help but notice that no one seems concerned.
No one is lining up at gas stations or frantically filling shopping carts with canned goods. No windows are being boarded up, no families hunkering down with bathtubs full of extra water and a battery-operated radio. Instead, kids are riding their bikes around town as if nothing exciting at all is happening.
Men in baseball uniforms are leisurely walking home from games, and practically everyone else is winding down from a week of Obon festivities.
When to go: Japan
No one, it seems, is preparing for the strong possibility that we will all be under water in a few hours, lashed by torrential rain, assaulted by a surging ocean, our roofs literally torn from our homes. This is not the sort of response I am used to seeing from people in the path of a typhoon—but then again, Japan has managed to confound my expectations practically from the moment I arrived.
The first thing I noticed is how easy it is to travel in this country. Everything is neat and orderly, and everyone is helpful. The roads are impeccable, the drivers courteous, the maps accurate and rental cars clean. And better yet, it’s actually quite affordable. I’ve avoided surf trips to Japan for years because all of my experiences in the country have been in Tokyo, and Tokyo will break your bank in less than a week. But outside of the city, the value for your money is better than at home—which is a good thing, because once I get settled in, I start to think that I might not want to leave anytime soon.
The other thing that I find pleasantly surprising is how lush and green the countryside is. As soon as you get out of major metropolitan areas, concrete and high-rises give way to dense forests, breathtaking coastal scenery, and traditional wooden houses that give the landscape a quaint charm. When combined with the rich culture and friendly locals, this backdrop lends itself to an old world charm supplemented by a plethora of modern conveniences.
Speaking of friendly locals, we quickly bump into a handful of Japan’s best barrel riders our first day in the country. The small group of pros, led by Wave of the Winter winner Keito Matsuoka, has chased the typhoon to the same sandbar as my little crew, which makes me think we are probably in the right place at the right time.
But being in the right place only gets you so far when you are dealing with typhoons. For all of the conveniences and ease of travel I find on land, the opposite is true in the water. I have always assumed that one needs to chase a huge storm to Japan to score waves, but quickly realize that we actually have too much of a good thing going for us.
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Typhoons are a fickle beast in the best of circumstances, and when they are this big and this close to the coast, the window for scoring gets even smaller. It is only a matter of days before the ocean will be torn to tatters by raging onshore winds, but when we arrive it’s glassy and even light offshore, with good sandbars to boot.
In other words, you’d think we’d be in for a barrel-fest. Unfortunately, those good sandbars are set up for head-high to overhead swell—and we are looking at sets double and even triple that size. Our host explains that the storm is just too big and too close. If it were half the size, or a few hundred miles farther away, we’d have perfect 3- to 5-foot barrels on tap. Instead, we spend the majority of our time paddling and dodging sets, or driving the coast in search of a setup that is more protected and half the size.
I’m not used to being cursed with too much surf. In most of areas I’ve visited over the past few years, the bigger the swell the better. But after a few days of chasing our tails, it’s clear that the waves are only getting bigger and more difficult to navigate, and that our window of good conditions is quickly coming to a close.
With the storm only hours away from bashing the coast, we start to become frantic, driving even farther and faster in search of a more user-friendly lineup. But as we pass through a small suburb and I see yet another group of Obon stragglers sauntering home after a crazy night, I begin to wonder if we aren’t doing it all wrong.
We’ve been rushing around, expending so much energy chasing this typhoon, and meanwhile the local population isn’t even concerned about running from it. In a region that gets hit by more super typhoons than anywhere else in the world, the people of Japan have learned to roll with nature’s punches.
They are prepared—there is no arguing that. The homes are typhoon-proof, the beaches lined with stacked tetrapods to stop storm surges and tsunamis from inundating coastal towns. But all of the preparation has been done long before the season’s storms started popping up on the charts. So even though they are now staring down the barrel of a cat 4 behemoth, the people around me are markedly nonplussed.
Instead of freaking out, they just go about their days, enjoying baseball games and reveling in the festivities of Obon. No storm, no matter how big, is going to get in the way of the year’s biggest holiday.
Mere hours before the storm hits, we finally start to figure it out. Packing our boards back into their bag, we leave the car behind and wander into the city to join in the festivities. After all, storms will come and go, but Obon only comes around once per year.