On The Road: Battling snow and wind in search of the perfect surf

Click to follow
The Independent Travel

The sat-nav screen illuminates the dark cab of the Land Rover. We sit in the lay-by just off the coastal road cocooned in down-filled jackets, the hammer of the diesel engine replaced by the ticking of the motor as it cools. The road traces a narrow line between the deep crystalline Japan Sea and fractured, vertical rock faces. At times there's enough room for two cars to pass, just. The single strip of cracked asphalt weaves through cavernous, twisting tunnels only to emerge into the bright light of yet another hidden cove.

Taro Tamai has spent many years scouring the wild and rugged coastline of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost isle. Earlier surfers may have been inspired by finger-worn, sun-faded maps, but his search for waves is hi-tech. The location of new discoveries are logged in the memory of the GPS, swell prediction and weather models tracked hourly through mobile web browsers.

Taro's 4x4 is no "Chelsea Tractor"; it is an expedition vehicle, a working tool essential on an island that sits at latitudes north of Vladivostok. Winter tests the hardiest constitution; missions to the island's outer reaches mean waist-deep snow and wind chill –20C.

Watching through the windscreen as icy waves wrap along the point, I ask Taro why he endures these extreme conditions in his search for surf. "Today, the world is getting smaller," he explains. "It's really hard to find spots that haven't been surfed by somebody else. With snowboarding you still can do that; there are major mountains that are still untouched. But all over the world you can go to the most remote tropical island and there are people already surfing there. Here we find new spots where there is no one and just surf all day. There's nobody to save you if it goes wrong, it's just you and the wave; it's pure.

"Yes it's cold, but that's part of the experience. It focuses the mind. For me, that's what it means to be a surfer." The snow has stopped falling. "Come on, let's surf," he says, jumping from the cab.

Footprint's 'Cold Water Souls' is on sale soon (£24.99)