Surf’s up for Chiba town looking to ride 2020 Olympic waveSurfing Venue: ICHINOMIYA, Chiba Pref. [Part 1 of Surfonomics Series]
At Tsurigasaki beach, Ichinomiya Town, a stone torii gate rises solemnly from the silken black sand, marking the place where according to Japanese folklore, Tamayori-hime, a mythological deity and putative mother of Japan’s earliest emperor, Jimmu, first stepped foot on mortal land.
The gate, which is part of the town’s revered Tamasaki Shrine, will serve a more contemporary function when the gods of the surfing world descend on Tsurigasaki next July, and quaint Ichinomiya will become the inaugural host of surfing at the Olympics.
Over four competition days during the 2020 Tokyo Games, the globe’s top 40 male and female surfers will challenge for medals in that debut event, riding the waves on this southernmost point of the striking 66-km stretch of the Pacific Ocean coastline known as Kujukurihama, Chiba Prefecture.
While surfing is a newcomer to the Olympics, Ichinomiya is no stranger to the sport. Surf-junkies have been traveling here since the 1970s, though it took another couple of decades until the town gained a following among serious hobbyists and professionals who were enticed by some equally serious waves.
In the early 2000s, surf shops and chic restaurants opened up one after another along coastal Route 30, known locally as “Surf Street,” and later in the decade the town convened efforts to promote the “Ichinomiya Surfing Town” brand name and attract surfer residents, according to town official Katsuyoshi Takahashi.
Since the announcement of the Olympic host sites in 2015, Tsurigasaki has also found favor among surfing novices and even non-surfer day-trippers curious to find out what all the fuss is about.
The town was one of the earliest in Japan to take the coronavirus pandemic to heart, putting road blocks in place, closing car parks and effectively shutting down its beaches from late April to early June. After that, the town’s popularity as a surfing mecca has brought in a much-needed revenue injection to the town.
An estimated 600,000 surfers visit Ichinomiya each year, and with the Olympics raising the town’s profile still further, town officials have been looking at ways to tap into that potential.
In 2015, the town set out a wide-reaching strategy that included plans to boost surfer visitors to 700,000 and take more proactive measures to communicate the town’s appeal and lure surfer residents, whose numbers have been growing in recent years (see Part 2 to be published by the end of November).
Subsequently, in 2018, the town conducted a “surfonomics” study on the economic impact of those visiting boarders, estimating that they contribute some ¥3.2 billion a year to the town’s coffers.
It has also looked at ways of involving local business in the surfonomics concept and creating new infrastructure to better connect the town center with the beaches a few kilometers away – among them a shuttle bus and a new tourism office in front of the railway station that rents out bicycles fitted with surfboard racks.
In a separate survey, meanwhile, Japanese online publication The Surf News calculated the immediate economic benefits of the Tokyo Olympics for the town, including its 16 accommodations, concluding it to be between ¥720 million and ¥1 billion.
While this is a tiny slice of the Olympic pie – estimated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Olympic and Paralympic Preparatory Bureau at ¥32 trillion – it’s not a bad return for a few day’s work in a town of around 12,000 people.
According to town officials, the post-Games ripple effects, such as the projected increase in land prices and swell in surfer numbers, which were not included in the Surf News analysis, could be considerable. The Olympics will not only increase the number of visitors during the Games, but also raise the brand image of Ichinomiya over the longer term, says Takaaki Watanabe, who heads the town’s planning division.
“In that sense, the impact (of the Games) has to some extent already been achieved,” he says, adding that for local residents the overriding damage of the postponement of the games due to the coronavirus pandemic was not economical, but psychological. “It was disappointing, but next year, the benefits will hopefully be the same.”