Sushi, sake and surfing: Making waves in Miyazaki

Cool vibes, laid-back culture and great surfing – not the typical attributes you’d associate with Japan… unless you’re in Miyazaki.

Surfer at Kisaki Beach Miyazaki City - credit KIMIYUKI KUMAMOTO
  • Simon Tsang
    Main image: Surfer at Kisaki Beach, Miyazaki City. Picture: Kimiyuki Kumamoto
  • October 2018

I am discovering new and creative ways to fall into water as fatigue sets in. Paddling furiously then springing upright into the standing position isn’t something my body is accustomed to, so all semblance of balance and coordination has gone out the window. Face-first, feet-first, back-first – even butt-first – I’ve tried them all. Still, plunging into waist-deep water – as warm as it is – provides a welcome relief from the baking hot sun and sultry conditions of a Japanese summer.

Of all the places I would have expected to learn to surf, the Land of the Rising Sun wasn’t one of them. So why Japan? Well, as far as hidden surfing gems go, Miyazaki prefecture on the east coast of Kyushu is a treasure.

Japan is divided into 47 prefectures, similar to the states in Australia. Miyazaki is to Japan what Queensland is to Australia – it’s the country’s “sunshine capital” and it’s popular with locals year-round.

Where to eat, stay and play in Miyazaki

With its laid-back vibe and abundance of sun-kissed locals, surf culture in Miyazaki is alive and well. But the tropical destination is still relatively unknown to international travellers, despite playing host to world-class surfing competitions.

So with the hordes of tourists elsewhere, you get an authentic experience in Miyazaki – and there’s plenty of sun, surf and sake to go around.

A man is about to surf at sunset.
Okuragahama Beach is popular with families and surfers of all levels.

I’m taking my surf lesson at Okuragahama Beach in Hyuga city, about a 75-minute drive north from Miyazaki Airport. Framed by pine forest, it’s one of the leading surf spots in the country and at about four kilometres long, it’s also Hyuga’s largest sandy beach. Hama means beach in Japanese, so technically it’s just Okuraga Beach, but English speakers add the extra word at the end for good measure.

So here I am, paddling my heart out in the height of summer. If it were possible to sweat under water, I would be. Regardless, I have a goofy grin on my face that no amount of sweat could wash away.

On weekends, I’m told the beach car park overflows with visitors from other parts of Japan and food trucks line up to keep hungry beachgoers fed. Today, it’s limited to vans kitted out for surfing safaris. Most look like they’ve been at it for a while.

They’re not just your typical young surfer types either. Families with young children have rolled up and, in some cases, pitched a tent (which is perfectly legal here). I even spot a cat, clearly a household pet, sitting beside one of the vans.

The enthusiasm for surfing is spread across a wide demographic – there are kids, women and men of all ages. It’s a dynamic that Okuragahama serves well, as beginners stick to the sheltered southern end of the beach, while more experienced surfers head further north for the bigger breaks. It’s at the southern end that learners, like me, yelp with delight after successfully catching a wave.

A view of a cross shape cape and a vast sea.
The "sea cruz" in Hyuga City, Miyazaki prefecture. Picture: Simon Tsang

Moments before my dip in the ocean, we had been lying face-down on the warm sand. Our instructor Joji, from Sunrise Surf Shop, took us through the motions of paddling in pretend surf on a pretend surfboard we drew in the sand around us.

Joji is all smiles as he shows us how to move from lying prone to standing with feet shoulder-width apart in two quick movements. After a couple of dry runs, we grabbed our boards and headed straight into the surf for the real thing.

Lucky for us, the waves were small and regular so it wasn’t long before we were able to stand with varying degrees of success. Although, with a bright yellow longboard made of foam, I probably looked more like I was riding on a giant banana than actually surfing.

A girl swimming on a infinity pool, over-viewing the vast sea.
Hyuga Sun Park Onsen has views of the ocean.

Elsewhere in Hyuga – which aptly means “facing the sun” – there are plenty of things to do beyond surfing. Japan is well known for its onsens (hot springs) and here you can enjoy a soak while taking in beach views.

Hyuga Sun Park Onsen is a must-visit for a unique take on ocean vistas. The facility is divided into bathing areas for men and women and the indoor pools and shower rooms have floor-to-ceiling glass windows facing the sea, so you’ve always got a great view. The onsen draws on the naturally heated local spring water, which contains less sulphur than your average mountain hot springs.

The onsen also has a small outdoor area with a cave bath on one side and outdoor rock bath on the other. The gendered sections swap sides regularly so visitors can try both baths on repeated visits. Don’t worry, you won’t wander into the wrong one by mistake as the entrances are clearly marked next to the reception area.

While the views from Sun Park are great, you will have to leave the onsen and take up one of the vantage points around town to see the best of the coastline’s dramatic rock formations. The most famous of these is the columnar rocks, which rise a spectacular 70 metres out of the ocean at Umagase.

An old shrine atop of the mountain.
Omi Shrine in Hyuga City, Miyazaki prefecture. Picture: Simon Tsang

Hyuga is also home to the historic port town of Mimitsu, located at the mouth of the Mimi River. According to Japanese mythology, the country’s first emperor Jimmu, launched a naval expedition from this spot in 607BC. This is thought to have been the birth of the Japanese navy. Today, you can visit the town’s wave-shaped monument, which was built to mark the event. You can also check out many of Mimitsu’s traditional homes and buildings that prospered from the Edo (1615-1868) to the Taisho (1912-1926) eras in Japan.

A lady at the door of an old Japanese house.
The historical town of Mimitsu is known as the birthplace of the Japanese navy.

While I wouldn’t call myself a surfer just yet, Miyazaki’s mix of laid-back surf lifestyle and traditional culture is infectious. On my next visit, I’ll pitch a tent on the sand and aim to practice until I can tackle the bigger waves… and maybe even bring my own cat.