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5am Comes Quickly In Tokyo

Originals March 2, 2020July 13th, 2020


words & photos by Alexei Obolensky

words & photos by Alexei Obolensky

5am comes quickly in Tokyo. 

Why? Blame Jetlag. Blame after dinner drinks. Blame underground karaoke. Blame being in a city that is so alien compared to western culture you’ll be completely spun out. 

Six weeks on the road and this was us. We started in New York and we’ll end up in Tokyo. Via France, Spain and Portugal. Wondering the streets of Shibuya. It is monsoon season in Tokyo and it rains pretty much the entire time.

We drink Japanese ‘vodka and tea’ to excess. We’re still not sure what this is. We party with Japanese celebrities who wear their hoods up when we leave the club because the paparazzi are all over the shot. In Tokyo there is a club called One Oak and it’s worthy of your attention. The unnamed celebrities leave in their respective Range Rovers. We walk home in the rain eating chicken from the 7/11. Our room is the size of a shoebox and smells about the same, the sake hangovers are severe but we wake every morning grateful. Why? Because we’re really living this, riding this train to the ground, across the world to the end of the line and loving every second of it. 

We party with Japanese businessmen, in underground karaoke clubs. Karaoke is everything in Japan. Got time to kill after dinner? Karaoke. Just signed a business deal with a big client? Take him to karaoke. Japanese Navy Admiral with time on your hands on shore leave? Karaoke. (And, I might add, his rendition of Kate Bush was truly spectacular.) And us? Chippa sings The Passenger by Iggy Pop, says he enjoys the monotone. Me? Oasis, and of course Robbie Williams. Two national treasures that any self-respecting Englishman will agree with. Kanpais and Highballs. 

I digress. Most of what you have read about Japanese culture is by and large true. The cars are small. The hospitality is huge. Bowing is everything. Meet someone you respect? Keep your hands by your side and give then a 45 degree incline of the back. Turning up to surf a spot and want to engage the locals to sneak a couple of waves from the pack? Drop the 45 degree bow and exhale whilst doing so. A social must. 

We had to leave Tokyo. Get to the coast. We drove north, up past Sendai. The area that was truly devastated in the tsunami of 2011: think fishing trawlers swept up residential streets. A swath of land 20 miles from the shore completely devastated. The rebuild is swift and impressive, whole towns remade. Houses, schools, roads, railways. But the scars remain. Old wrecks of houses. Boats left in strange places. Not to mention the emotional scars that we didn’t feel comfortable visiting. They have now built a four-metre wall up and down the coast, 300 miles long. Four metres up, four down. Some argue it is too little, too late, but these walls create fun little jetties which we surf on the fleet of Drag Boards we have in the back of the van. 

Everything that you have read about surfing in Japan is true. Quite simply, surfing is huge in Japan. Think thousands of surf shops at every corner of all sizes. Chippa is a veritable rockstar, every spot we roll up to the van is mobbed by fans. And I mean mobbed. Every car park, every street. We cycle past bars in sleepy towns and the cry is the same – “CHIPPA WILSON!” Screamed at by 50-year-old men with equal spades of enthusiasm as their 15-year-old sons. Grown men with printed posters, some of which are from the Analog sponsorship age, queue for signatures. It was as if as soon as we left Tokyo and headed to the coast, Chippa’s right to anonymity was waived. 

And rightly so. Chippa’s performance on the Drag fleet was a pleasure on the eyes, surfing a finless body board and 8-footer with unparalleled ease. I hate describing surfing using words but this is fucked up –  a ridiculous amount of raw talent. We are joined by Kaito Hashi and Naomi Kobayashi, two Japanese surfers that are more than worthy of your acquaintance – they surf hard boards before eventually going soft. The Drag tagline of  Soft Boards for Hard C*NTs rings true . I awkwardly fall about, bogging rail and coming up smiling. The vibes in the water are all-time with mass drop-ins, from 50 surfers who have come to see the by-now Demi God-cum-Soft Lord Chippa. Mass hollering and smiles all around. This certainly constitutes a good time. 

The Japanese surf small waves the best in the world. The Japanese groms are the best in the world. It takes a lot for Chippa to be upstaged in the water. More precisely, it takes a 12-year-old Japanese boy in half a foot waves to get your head around it. It’s difficult to explain how good they are. If you want to be humbled, and I mean truly humbled, walking up the beach backwards, bowing your head in shame, wondering why you surf and if you should just give up, then catch a train out of Tokyo and surf. Every 12-year-old will surf better than you, I guarantee. A special breed of ÜBER GROM yet to be seen on shores outside of Japan.  The Vans duct tape rolls into town and we hang with the crew, again impressed at how buoyant the Japanese surf scene is. We surf one last time in Shonan as the sun sets over Mt Fuji; with its first snowfall of the year glistening in the back we reflect as to how special this moment is.

We leave the coast. We head back to Tokyo. We surf the city wave, a glorified flowrider. It’s a lot harder than we thought. In essence, it fucking hurts. We foray into the streets of Tokyo, it is Halloween and Shibuya couldn’t be more crowded. One last dip into the Karaoke bar under the shopping mall that has become our local and we’re out of there. 

We started this in New York and we ended it in Tokyo. 

P.S. To celebrate we’re giving away a Drag board. Follow us on VERO for more details.


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