Feature Hang ju! Danielle Demetriou learns to ride the waves but finds it easier to warm up in the hot springs.
It's during a midweek early morning rush hour that I battle with my rucksack through crowds of salarymen at Tokyo station, sustained by a vending machine bottle of green tea and thoughts of the deep blue sea. The journey reflects the start of my transition from stressed urbanite to laid-back beach lover: we start at high speed, heading south-west of the crowded capital, passing a blur of skyscrapers, tower blocks and tangled railway junctions. Eventually, our pace slows to a near crawl as the condensed urban landscape slowly gives way to forest-covered mountains, sleepy coastal towns and orange groves.
Despite a brief glimpse on the right of Mount Fuji - perfectly triangular with its ever-snowy peak - all eyes remain fixed on the left windows as calming views of the Pacific Ocean horizon eventually come into sight. It is two hours and 40 minutes later that the train reaches the end of the line - and we arrive in Shimoda, a town on the Izu Hanto peninsula. With its dense green mountains, rocky coastline, hot spring onsen and enticing proximity to the capital, the Pacific Ocean peninsula of Izu is becoming an increasingly popular weekend retreat for stressed Tokyoites.
The southern tip of the peninsula - less than 100km south-west of the capital - is home to Shimoda, a small fishing town surrounded by wide white sandy beaches that have become home to one of Japan's best secrets - the nation's love of surfing. After picking up a bag of oranges at Shimoda station, I jump in a taxi for the final 10 minute stretch of my journey before arriving at Kisami-Ohama: here a vast sweeping expanse of sand is set against a backdrop of tumbling green mountains peppered with Californian-style cafes and drinks shacks.
I am dropped at the door of White Beach, a new boutique hotel that reflects the area's surge in popularity among fashionable young city dwellers. The former 1970s "love hotel" was given a 21st-century makeover by a Tokyo architecture practice last year, complete with vintage wallpapers, modern lighting and a party atmosphere. But competing for attention with the hotel is the sea just across the road. It is a beach worthy of a surfing shoot. The sun is shining above the cream-coloured sand. An endless cycle of waves is hitting the shore. Guitar music floats lazily from a makeshift drinks stall. Centre stage, an army of perfectly-toned and tanned young surfers are making a beeline for the blue waters clutching state-of-the-art boards.
Seduced by the setting, I immediately dump my bags, change into my bikini and hunt down my surf teacher with first-day-at-school enthusiasm. While I have attempted to stand up on a surfboard before in several locations around the world, I am embarrassingly unproficient and remain firmly in the beginner's category. My surf teacher, it transpires, is not Japanese but an American called Jeremiah. Despite his sun-bleached hair and laid-back demeanour, he fits perfectly into Japanese beach life. Families have set up camp across the white sands with crowds of children splashing on wakeboards and rows of surfers are bobbing out at sea.
And so my class begins. After a brief training session on the sand - during which I'm instructed to fling myself to the ground, paddle in a way I fear resembles more beached turtle than cool surfer and leap up again - my surfing sensei declares me ready for the real thing. "You know the waves are pretty small," he sighs, before describing his last surfing adventures leaping off rocks into shark-infested Chilean seas.
As we head into the water, I respond by nodding slowly while inwardly wondering if these waves are so little after all: they may be a long way off Hawaii's infamous tubes but already I am being buffeted by the crashing surf. My fears are confirmed by the fact that I proceed to spend the next few hours being churned underwater, trying not to lose my surfboard, bikini or dignity and attempting to see through a curtain of hair washed over my face. "We've given you quite a small board so you need to work on balancing," Jeremiah says - quite rightly as I roll off yet again despite the fact that there is not a wave in sight upon which to blame my clumsiness. And so a cycle of tumbling, rolling and slipping begins occasionally spiced up by the occasional rush of adrenalin as I catch a wave thanks to a timely push from behind by Jeremiah. At one point, during a fleeting moment of balance while waiting for waves, I find myself chatting with Naoko, a young woman clad in a pink surfing top with a matching board. "I love it here," she says. "I've been surfing for a few years and I come down from Tokyo as often as possible. I find it really relaxing." And with that, she leaves on a wave, effortlessly eclipsing me both in the surfing style and skills stakes as she glides off. Hours later, exhilarated, happy and completely exhausted - I finally crawl to the shore and collapse in a heap, leaving Jeremiah to have a proper grown-up surf. At this stage I'm ravenous - so I pick up a rickety hotel bike and set off in search of post-surfing refuelling. After cycling alongside the sea, I find myself outside a small wooden restaurant called Paradise Cafe that would not look out of place in Hawaii. Here, among crowds of stylish young Japanese surfing families, I tuck into a hearty avocado salad, organic vegetable curry and a banana milkshake, to recover from my surfing experience. Later, I stroll along the beach to watch a perfect pink sky as the sun sets over a sea still speckled with the black silhouettes of dozens of surfers. That evening at White Beach, a party spirit prevails as I have dinner on the terrace which helpfully distracts me from my aching arms, bruised ribs and the strange surfing rash on my tummy. Chatting at the bar, Aina, an actress from Barcelona, says: "I'm on holiday in Japan at the moment and friends recommended we come here. And I'm so glad we came. I didn't expect to find these kinds of beaches in Japan." The next morning, after a tasty breakfast of eggs, fruit and granola, it's time to tackle the waves again. This time we're both more prepared: I swap my bikini for a more sensible swimsuit and Jeremiah provides a board that is double the size. "This'll help you float," he proclaims cheerily as I balance it on my head while walking to the beach. The sea is significantly calmer today yielding hopes of minimal tumbling - aspirations that once again prove futile. This time I find myself tumbling even more dramatically due to the gargantuan board size - much to the bemusement of Jeremiah who doesn't even get his hair wet. Again, several hours pass in a blur of tumbling, laughing and yes occasionally almost crying, before I once again drag myself to shore feeling happy but exhausted. Surfing mission accomplished, I decide it's time to stick to dry land and set off on my bicycle to explore the coastline. After cycling along heart-racingly steep hills and dark mountain tunnels past pristine rocky coves, I wobble into Toji village - and the switch from urban surfing chic to rural fishing community is palpable. The seafront is lined with several vintage noodle shops behind which lies a tangle of quiet lanes of low-rise wooden houses while a string of fishing boats line the nearby harbour. Venturing into one of the noodle shops, beneath a rattan awning festooned with lanterns, an old man with a cat on his lap turns slowly and stares as do two elderly ladies with scarves on their heads from behind the counter. Their faces break into welcoming smiles as I ask in my best faltering Japanese for a bowl of yakisoba noodles and a bottle of mineral replenishing Pocari Sweat. Sitting at the table beneath old fashioned gilded clock and old fashioned Asahi beer posters, the man starts talking and I learn that the cat is called Perro and the noodle shop has been here for more than 30 years. "It's changed a lot since then. There weren't many surfers or foreigners then," he laughs heartily. By the time I return to the hotel, my body is aching from physical exertion - and it's time to visit one of the volcanic hot spring onsen that pepper the peninsula. Within the hour, I'm slowly turning pink in steaming hot waters in an outdoor rock pool bath looking up at the sky - and I start rifling through my mental diary wondering when I'll be able to squeeze in my next escape to Shimoda. And it does not take long to conclude that although Japan has smaller waves, relaxing in a hot spring is unbeatable in the après surfing stakes - and there aren't many of those in California. firstname.lastname@example.org