Kujukuri: the long, long beach on Tokyo’s doorstep

by Christopher Johnson

If it was thousands of miles from home, I would wistfully think of this as an exotic and special place. It has almost everything I want in a seaside hangout: Empty beaches backed by pine forests, not condos; surfing waves; fishing piers; hilltop viewpoints; and family farms growing corn and watermelons. Then there are the good, cheap restaurants and the many minshuku (family-run guesthouses) — and funky surfers who make it feel like Bali or Hawaii.

But 66-km-long Kujukuri-hama (meaning “Ninety-nine-ri Beach” — using the ancient distance-measure of ri) is less than a two-hour trip from central Tokyo by train or car, being only 60 km at its nearest point from the capital. This means that a good mountain bike or road bike will get you there, too — feeling unwound from the city and ready to lap up the delights of this Pacific shore extending along the east coast of the Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture from Iioka-cho to Misaki-machi.

Yet somehow, Japan’s second-longest beach (outdone only by the 115-km Enshu Nada Kaigan that straddles Shizuoka and Aichi prefectures) remains off the tourism radar, though many flights into Narita Airport pass right over it. Certainly, when first arriving here in 1987, I was amazed to see this seemingly endless stretch of golden sand below — but never set foot on it until about 1999.

Nowadays, more than a decade since my first visit, while hordes of surfers and scenesters descend every summer upon Shonan and Shimoda southwest of Tokyo, not much has changed in eastern Chiba. Farmland is still relatively cheap, costing even less than seaside properties two hours from Bangkok, and while developers eagerly encroach on beaches in Cambodia and Indonesia, thankfully it seems they can’t be bothered to do so here.

Kujukuri-hama is not, it has to be said, top-class postcard material, but its less-photogenic charms abound, whether in the form of old cars rusting in the sea salt or weeds and bamboo reclaiming untended village plots. However, refugees from Tokyo corporate life, including many seniors, live happily here enjoying the moderate coastal climate, painting their houses bright colors and growing organic vegetables tied to nets on bamboo trellises.

Though the area lacks much nightlife, most of its more youthful visitors and residents are early-risers who load their boards on top of vans or on holders fastened to bicycles. Then, after a day in the water — and nothing’s better than that — they rinse off with jerry cans and hoses and go grocery shopping in shorts and sandals, or work in surfer-centric shops or restaurants with a Pacific vibe.

As well as the ocean’s attractions, though, the Shirako area has a “tennis village” with dozens of indoor and outdoor courts available at around ¥1,000 an hour. Golf courses, too, are reasonably affordable (¥5,000 to ¥10,000 for a round), and the driving ranges (about ¥1,000 for a bucket of balls and a driver) stay open until around 9 p.m. There are also little old shops selling gear and bait to anglers who enjoy getting soaked by waves splashing into the concrete piers jutting out from beaches and ports.

Here, though, the best things are free. Sure, it’s fun to take surfing lessons and rent a longboard for ¥3,000 a day, but all you really need is your body and some surf. Bodysurfing is easy, once you figure out how to time the waves and use their energy. While surfers on boards try to slide along the side of a cresting wave, bodysurfers wait for the wave to collapse in front of them and then ride its outburst of energy to rocket forward head-first like human torpedoes. After a long ride with your eyes closed, your body feels electrified like a lightning rod.

While surfers on boards often appear blissfully calm (or frozen in fear, in my case), bodysurfers are wont to hoot for joy — though it pays to be careful there’s nobody to hit on your blind flight path, and also beware currents that can suddenly sap leg strength without warning. Most importantly, though, it’s imperative to resist the temptation to ride bigger waves, which can flip you over in a trice and break your neck or back.

Inherent dangers aside, Kujukuri-hama is ideal for bodysurfing and, while board surfers have to venture further out into treacherous currents, bodysurfing is better closer to shore. And, whichever your preference, and especially with a wetsuit to protect you from scratching, you can surf year round — even enjoying surprisingly warm water in November and December.

Meanwhile, the ugly jumbles of concrete tetrapods — often government make-work projects meant to ward off erosion, tsunamis and foreign environmentalists — are great spots to study kanji, write songs or watch weekend surfing competitions. At night, too, they are great places to watch the moon and stars, or fireworks reflecting off the water — but do beware the dangerous currents around many of them, which can tow you out to sea in seconds.

Though too windy for some, the Kujukuri-hama area is awesome for stormwatching in winter and late summer, when waves pound into cliffs and giant outcroppings of rock. But as the winds can tear up plants or blow the roofs off greenhouses, farmers tend to plant in the lee of hills or well away from the shore.

All in all, Kujukuri-hama offers a healthy respite from Tokyo stress — or a great place to raise kids or pets, or to live almost for free by growing food and collecting clams and crabs as locals do. Indeed, on secretive beaches further south, time and Tokyo seem to vanish like cirrus clouds on a windy day. There, I can play frisbee on the sand with my dogs, practice tai-chi with nobody around — or find a wave of my own, and not worry about anyone taking my guitar or towel. Or, if the fancy takes me, I can cycle in fragrant pine forests or along bendy riverside roads till I’m ready to return to civilization for a meal of seafood fresh from local fish markets.

Then finally I can be back in Tokyo in an hour or two, my body toned and bronzed and my mind at peace as I wistfully plan my next trip to Kujukuri-hama’s exotic and special places.

Getting there: By train, take the Sotobo Line from Shinagawa or Tokyo stations to Kazusa- Ichinomiya or any of the unmanned stops nearby. By road, take the Higashi-Kanto Expressway to the Togane Interchange, from where toll roads take you to within sight (and spray) of the Pacific. Christopher Johnson is the author of “Siamese Dreams.” His Web site is at www.globalite.posterous.com