A different kind of life drifts by at Kujukuri-hama beach on Chiba’s relaxed east shore
Just an hour by car from central Tokyo, Kujukuri-hama beach on the east coast of Chiba is a superb destination for getting away from the claustrophobia of life in the capital. The only hassle, really, is getting out of the city and on the road to a better, slower way of life.
The first challenge is the ancient Shutoko expressway, which is often dangerously narrow and crowded, especially around the Tokyo Tower area, with speed freaks honking horns, tailgating or darting in front of you.
One type of road sign, in Japanese only, is a maze of snakes and ladders, impossible to read unless you were the bureaucrat who made it.
After passing Disneyland and Makuhari, a left turn towards Togane leads into green corridors and an exhalation of urban stress.
A ¥200 toll-road arches over emerald rice paddies, and then at last, the ¥400 Kujukuri tollway takes you to a little parking area near sand dunes where you can see — and feel — the spray of the wild Pacific Ocean, only 60 kilometers from central Tokyo.
Before you, the 66-kilometer-long Kujukuri-hama beach, Japan’s second longest, spreads in both directions, backed by pine forests, not condos or hotels.
Driving along the coastline, with fresh air streaming through open windows, it’s easy to dream of living here forever.
A haven for surfers and fishermen, the Kujukuri area also features many cheap minshuku and brightly painted homes of farmers and refugees from Tokyo corporate life, who grow organic vegetables tied to nets on bamboo trellises and sell them at roadside stalls
For avid drivers, little back roads and tunnels reveal seaside villages and an agrarian world seemingly in another region of Japan, yet close enough for a day trip or a weekend out of Tokyo.
Farmland is still relatively cheap and developers have so far left most of the wild coastline alone.
It’s not postcard material, but I like seeing old American cars and sporty Japanese models rusting in the sea air, with patches of weeds and bamboo growing in marshy village plots claimed by nobody.
The local youths tend to get up early to load their surfboards onto pushbikes equipped with holders or atop vans customized with beds and jerricans for makeshift showers.
People go shopping in shorts and sandals, or work in surfer-centric shops or restaurants, such as Sea Song, with a Hawaiian vibe that seem ages away from Tokyo.
On a roadside bluff overlooking the Taito port and the excellent long board surfing waves of Torami beach, a funky young couple runs the Namioto café, serving Thai green curry, Jamaican jerk chicken and cheap glasses of beer.
Parties with reggae or folksy musicians from Tokyo often break out there or at the beachside stalls where the “hippy junkie surfers” hang out day and night.
The best things in Chiba — the ocean and sky — are free. The water, which stores the heat of summer, is surprisingly warm even in November and December and typhoons are a joy to watch from a safe distance.
Do it yourself
Though it’s fun to take surfing lessons and rent a long board for ¥3,000 a day, all you really need is your body and some waves. Bodysurfing is easy, once you figure out how to time the waves and use their energy.
While surfers on boards try to slide along the side of a cresting wave, bodysurfers wait for the wave to collapse and propel them headfirst toward shore like Superman.
A long ride with eyes closed is electrifying, provided you stay clear of board surfers, currents and waves that can flip you head over heels.
You should never go near the wicked currents around the ugly clumps of seawalls and concrete tetrapods, which failed to keep out the tsunami on March 11. But they do make great spots to study kanji, write songs or watch weekend surfing competitions.
It’s also fun to join fishermen getting splashed while waiting for bites at the end of long fishing lines.
Golf courses are reasonably affordable (¥5,000 to ¥10,000 for a round), and the driving ranges (about ¥1,000 for a bucket of balls and a driver) stay open until around 9 p.m.
Near the town of Ichinomiya, the Shirako “tennis village” hosts dozens of indoor and outdoor courts going for about ¥1,000 an hour. Kite-boarding, a cross between hang-gliding and windsurfing, is also gaining popularity on Chiba’s windy coast.
Whatever you do in Chiba, save energy for the drive home and avoid the Sunday-afternoon rush, where traffic can jam up for hours near the Anagawa exit between Togane and Chiba City.
Since the Shutoko often seems congested, especially coming off the Rainbow Bridge, it’s often faster to take non-toll roads and then enter downtown Tokyo via Harumi-dori through Odaiba.
Better yet, if you own a car and visit the coast frequently, just park it by a station in Chiba for ¥3,000 a month and take the Sotobo train line to Tokyo, as many Chiba residents do.
And for healthy, eco-conscious people, the best drive of all is on the two wheels of a good road bicycle. After all, it’s only 60 kilometers from the beach to the world’s biggest city, and you never get stuck in traffic.