Local Initiatives2020 Venue
City surfers look to Ichinomiya for lifestyle sea changeSurfing Venue: ICHINOMIYA, Chiba Pref. [Part 2 of Surfonomics Series]
Naminori Real Estate located in Ichinomiya Town, Chiba, has barely opened its doors for business when the phone rings and an inquiry about a seafront property comes in from out of town.
“At times the phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” comments staffer Romy Iwashita as she jots down the Tokyo-based caller’s details and preferred date to view the property.
The caller on this mid-November morning has an eye on one of the uber-chic properties designed by Naminori, all of which are purpose-built for surfing enthusiasts.
“A number (of urbanites) are looking for a change of lifestyle, it seems,” says Naminori CEO Shin Sasaki, adding that Ichinomiya’s proximity to Tokyo makes it a “viable” commuting option for them. “For some, that lifestyle includes surfing and the culture that goes with it. Those are the people we can help.”
Sasaki established the aptly named Naminori (“Surfing”) Real Estate and architect’s office in 2007 at a time when the pretty coastal town was starting to catch the eye of world-weary urbanites, with whom Sasaki deeply empathized: The self-confessed surfing buff—ironically originally from landlocked Saitama Prefecture—had spent three years working long hours at a Tokyo-based property developer before jumping ship and eventually settling in Ichinomiya in 2005.
Located just 90 km from the Japanese capital, Ichinomiya’s abundant nature, sunny climate and good surf, made it an attractive choice for Sasaki and other likeminded outdoors enthusiasts looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the concrete jungle for an alternative lifestyle.
The impact on the town has been remarkable. While most municipalities mirror Japan’s rapid population slide (it is projected to drop to 87 million by 2060 since peaking at 128 million in 2008), Ichinomiya has been going against that tide.
Resident numbers have been on the increase even since that national decline began 12 years ago, a rarity not just nationally, but also locally, according to town official Takaaki Watanabe.
“This Chosei-gun district consists of several municipalities, all of which continue to show plummeting populations year after year,” Watanabe said. “All except Ichinomiya.”
According to the town’s 2015 “population vision” report, more than 400 people have been moving into the town each year since the late 1990s, peaking in 2009 at 743 new residents.
In terms of demographics, the age groups showing the most consistent growth are those in the 0-14 and 25-44 age groups, while numbers at some of the town’s pre-school facilities have been on the rise – an indication that young families feature prominently among those relocating to the town, the report says.
“Many retirees want to move to the countryside and take it easy after retirement,” says Watanabe. “But in Ichinomiya, the vast majority of newcomers are in their prime of life.”
Since 2015, when the town was named host for surfing events during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a new wave of interest has washed over the town, and not just among the surging number of young surfers and day-trippers that flood the town, especially at weekends.
According to a town survey carried out in the spring of 2019, 32.3 percent of respondents cited surfing as the reason for relocating to the town, second only to those attracted by Ichinomiya’s natural environment (40.4 percent).
“In the past, there have been quite a few people who have said they’d like to relocate here, but when push comes to shove they can’t quite take the next step,” says Sasaki, 40. “The Olympics, and more recently the coronavirus pandemic, has given them the nudge they needed.”
Takuya Minemura is one such resident, moving his family, dog and construction business to Ichinomiya from Hanyu City, Saitama—75 km north of Tokyo—in 2016.
“I wanted to surf, but more than just the odd weekend, that was the reason (for moving),” said Minemura, 42, adding he takes a ride on the waves about three times a week since relocating. “My wife loves the ocean as well. … Just having it nearby improves (our) quality of life immeasurably.”
Even during his time in Ichinomiya Minemura says there has been a noticeable increase in construction, especially near the seafront.
“Clearly the number of people moving here permanently has been on the rise, and others are apparently relocating here to enjoy surfing while telecommuting.”
Indeed, according to town officials, Ichinomiya has become a popular destination for boarders whose companies have encouraged teleworking as part of their coronavirus countermeasures.
The town has been looking at ways to tap into this trend, developing magazines and websites, such as Ichinomiya Clip (ichinomiya-iju.jp), to attract newcomers and boost the town’s profile.
“Unlike other municipalities, we haven’t really needed to do very much (to attract newcomers)—surfers have just naturally come here,” says Nobuhiro Ikuta from the town’s public relations department, another surf buff who relocated to the town five years ago after spending 15 years working for a Tokyo finance company. “But we are looking at ways to support them and at the same time more actively promote the town.”
Those efforts would seem to be bearing fruit. Yugo Kawabata, who runs a surfing school close to one of Ichinomiya’s popular surf spots, Sunrise Point, says he has noticed a marked increase among his students who want to relocate here.
“Since starting this school three years ago, the number of students overall has grown about threefold,” says Kawabata, 26, who moved to Ichinomiya from another surfing region, Shonan in Kanagawa Prefecture, following in his father’s footsteps by becoming a professional surfer. Most of them are in their 20s and 30s, he adds. “Many say they’d like to move here—and some actually have.”
According to more seasoned newcomers, the face of the town has altered considerably, with surf shops, shower facilities and locker rooms for surfboards among the facilities sprouting up along Route 30—more commonly known as “Surf Street.”
“There was nothing like that when I first started coming here 30-odd years ago,” says Koji Takahashi, 51, a Tokyo-born professional surfer who together with his surfer wife, Chika from Sendai runs the Namioto restaurant and bar on the western extreme of Surf Street. “There were very few surfers. Things have changed, especially this past few years. The number of beginner surfers and surfing schools has shot up.”
Like realtor and developer Sasaki, the Takahashis were fortunate to be able to open their own business. Employment opportunities in the town are few and far between and, town official Watanabe admits, “a big hurdle” that needs to be tackled to prevent the continuing leak of young talent traveling in the opposite direction to the town’s newcomers.
And while the town is still experiencing net growth, Sasaki is among those who believe that the burden for keeping it that way lies in part with the newcomers themselves.
“Without the surfer settlers, this town would depopulate rapidly like everywhere else,” he says. “Many newcomers have young children and if there’s no work to keep them here those young children will follow the town’s youngsters to places like Tokyo. It’s up to both public and private entities to create opportunities and stem that flow, for the sake of the town.”