Shonan Beach mystique evaporates upon arrival


It’s here: the season of mizu nurumu (water loosening) when one’s thoughts turn to things ocean-like: surf and sand and this year’s ichiban kawaii mizugi (the cutest bathing suit).

For those living in and around Tokyo, this often means piling into a car and driving down to the Shonan area where lush green mountains offset the waves of the great taiheiyo (Pacific), fragrant bougainvillea trees sway in the breeze and local surfers cruise by on mountain bikes with boards tucked under their arms.

The music blasting from the caasute (car stereo) is of course, Keisuke Kuwata: hero of Chigasaki City in Shonan and the guardian angel of Shonan rock. Who needs Malibu when Shonan is in our own backyard?

Ah, Shonan. How wonderful the word sounds to ears that have listened to nothing but office and street noises for a whole miserable winter, how sunny and gloriously colorful are the images that persist at the back of one’s otherwise tired brain? The truth is, though, that Shonan, like a lot of other pleasurable things in the Kanto region, is largely a mirage glimpsed in the asphalt wasteland of dreary buildings. It’s a fantasy product, a marketing concept. Or as my friend Gen-chan, a local Shonan saafaa (surfer) likes to say: Shonan wa iku made ga tanoshii (Shonan is great until you get there).

Gen-chan has a point. The prelude to the all-important Shonan excursion is wonderful: Many Tokyoites get up at 5 a.m. after a sleepless night (from all the excitement) and haul themselves into the car at 6. After various arguments about who gets to choose the music and what should be procured at the various konbini (convenience stores) along the way, the anticipation reaches peak levels and some have abandoned all sense of embarrassment to sing Keisuke Kuwata’s “Chako no Kaigan Monogatari (Chako’s Seaside Story)” along with the caasute. People crack jokes, smile, start craning their necks for the first glimpse of the ocean.

But by the time one actually gets a full-length view of the sea and feels the sun pouring on one’s upturned face and the breeze flapping through the front of one’s T-shirt — the three most palpable sensations of a Shonan trip — well, the truth is that 2.5 hours or more have gone by, and the car is locked in Shonan-bound traffic with millions of other Tokyo folks with the same idea, not to mention the same music on the caasute. And of course we all need to use the bathroom, but the chances of finding a legitimate parking space real soon are much slimmer than a mizugi (swimwear) model.

And later, when one finally plunks down on to the (nearly black) sand it’s invariably next to a mound of tangled brown kaiso (seaweed) and an empty beer bottle. Gigantic and hostile crows circle overhead, ready to swoop down on anyone with less than a solid grip on their onigiri (rice balls). The great taiheiyo is that singular Shonan shade of concrete gray.

So Shonan is less a resort getaway than a state-of-mind. We all love to love it, but Shonan no genjitsu (the reality of Shonan) has never quite gelled with the Shonan no imeeji (the image of Shonan) we carry in our hearts.

Even the jimo-pe (locals) say living here has never been easy — Gen-chan talks of the high tax rate (Kamukura city has the highest in Japan); incredible damp and kabi-kusasa (mildew smells) that enshroud the whole area during the rainy season; the gridlock on the coastal freeways; the cacophony of the motorbike gangs that burn up and down the streets on weekday nights and the general lack of privacy that comes with living in a tourist hot spot. He also reports that the amount of trash left behind by tourists and oka-safa (weekend, or landlocked surfers)” has doubled in the last 10 years.

The Shonan portrayed by the media is a perfect collage of sunny skies and crowded but gentle beaches where families and couples toss Frisbees and walk expensive pedigree dogs. Ancient Kamakura temples complement the beach and fishing culture, and classy cafes offer the sort of laidback atmosphere that’s impossible to duplicate in Tokyo. Life is slow and beautiful. On summer nights one can imagine being a character from Haruki Murakami’s earlier novels, and stroll over to the neighborhood bar in shorts and flip-flops to cool one’s tender hiyake (tan).

And so, in pursuit of this collage, we pile into the car on yet another Saturday morning, hoping that this time . . .