FUKUOKA – There’s a moment in the original “Point Break” — Kathryn Bigelow’s epic ode to adrenaline — when Johnny Utah (played by a pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves) goes to rent his first surfboard. At the surf shop, he’s greeted with contempt by a 15-year-old who tells him: “Hey, man, a lot of guys your age are learning to surf. It’s cool, there’s nothing wrong with it.” Put out, Utah responds coolly, “I’m 25.”
The teen’s reply is as devastating to the budding surfer as it is short, “That’s what I’m saying, it’s never too late.”
After turning 24 in the summer, and not wanting to be called out by a snarky teen, I feel the urge to get a leg up on Utah and put my mind toward learning how to surf. The U.K. — aside from a few choice locations — doesn’t usually receive much in the way of waves, but since moving to the city of Fukuoka, great tales of Kyushu’s surfing scene have been in abundance. And so, I venture out to find some of the island’s best surf.
My journey begins to the west of Fukuoka, on the Itoshima Peninsula. The area is home to long sandy beaches and a well-established surf season that runs from mid-August, through the colder winter months and into spring. The drive from the city is short and scenic — under an hour to the heart of the surf scene — and I soon arrive at Futamigaura Beach, where three surf shops (and many more cafes) are packed into the busy promenade.
Surfers crowd the water, and the waves are plentiful, if not huge. Gentle 2-footers ride in from the Genkai Sea and I grab a board and spend an afternoon catching the odd wave. It is a relaxed experience that is conducive to chatting with other surfers. “Come back after a typhoon,” is the group consensus. “Yeah, the waves are much bigger,” echoes the response.
In early September, a typhoon rolls through over a long weekend, and I head out on the Monday morning. The worst of the storm has long passed, and the sky is blue and calm, with a gentle breeze rolling in from the west. This time I head slightly further into Itoshima, to Oguchi Beach, and rent a board from the internationally-minded “Surfboard Australia.”
From the road, the waves do not look that large, but at sea level they fill my vision, great ridges of foaming white that assault the beach with the energy of the typhoon. I catch a couple successfully, but a wipeout leads my ankle leash to snap, sending my board to the beach and me tumbling through the break, board-less, until a fellow surfer notices my plight and drags me on top of his board and to shore. The surf is great, if terrifying.
A few weeks later, I catch a ferry from Hakata Port to Iki Island for my next escape. The journey takes a little over two hours, and much of that is spent watching the Fukuoka shoreline recede into the distance. I trick myself into thinking I can see the surfers riding the waves of Itoshima, but this is surely impossible, and I soon change tack, immersing myself in studying the Momochihama coastline — Fukuoka Tower, the Yahuoku Dome and the Hilton Sea Hawk — glittering in the morning sun.
Iki’s surf is spread across two main beaches on the east and southeast of the island: Kiyoshihama Beach in Ashibe and Ohama Beach in Ishida. Like the breaks along Itoshima, the beaches of Iki benefit greatly from the autumn typhoons and without the input of those phenomena, the island’s waves lack impetus.
I arrive at Ohama Beach to a swell that is not surfable, but the beach’s marine shop is open and happy to rent me a mask and snorkel. Iki has some of the highest-latitude coral in the world, and the waters around the island are incredibly fertile, if not as clear as those of Okinawa.
As I dip my head beneath the water, I immediately notice a large school of fish and I lose the rest of the afternoon chasing them through the cloudy waters. For surf, the trip was a wasted one, but demonstrative of northern Kyushu’s fickle conditions.
Disappointed by the experience, my next destination is chosen based on tales of consistency and, at the first opportunity, I drive to Miyazaki Prefecture in southeast Kyushu. Nationwide, Miyazaki is known as one of the country’s main shōchū producing regions but amongst surfers, the beaches of Miyazaki are legendary.
Four hours south of Fukuoka, the drive through the city of Miyazaki is so akin to a drive through Los Angeles that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Californian city had been transposed to Japan. Huge Phoenix palms, planted in the 1930s, line the beaches and flank the roads, so ubiquitous in their tropicality that the prefecture has adopted the tree as its official symbol.
Miyazaki’s coastline faces the Pacific, and surfable swells are consistent throughout the year. By far the most prominent of Miyazaki’s surfing beaches is Aoshima Beach, which straddles the space south of the city of Miyazaki, and to the north of Aoshima Island.
Surf culture here is so ingrained that people surf with their dogs and their children, who calmly occupy the nose of the boards, while the adults steer from the back. Gone are the wet suits worn in the cooler waters of northern Kyushu, replaced by deep-brown surfer tans that would put the antiheroes of “Point Break,” the Ex-Presidents, to shame.
I spend two days in Miyazaki surfing waves that are by far the most enjoyable I’ve experienced in Kyushu, evenly spaced and arriving in long, rolling sets that cater to both beginners and experts alike; the kind of wave that makes you feel like a better surfer than you actually are.
Between sessions in the water, I explore Aoshima Island, its lush subtropical jungle home to more than 226 endemic species. And, nestled within the forest is Aoshima Shrine, its inner sanctuary so surrounded by the dense flora that it feels entirely cut off from the crashing waves of Pacific that are mere meters away.
But the sea and the surf soon call me back and my next view of Aoshima is from atop my board as I catch one last long, sweeping wave back toward the shore.
In Miyazaki, I had found my point break.
While Japan has some excellent surfing beaches, waves make or break a trip. Japanese website ii-nami.com has live cameras and publishes reports on conditions at popular surfing beaches across the country, while the beautifully presented windy.com gives an excellent overview of wave and swell conditions.