A beach town near Tokyo is fast becoming a surfing mecca, with even school children rubbing shoulders with pros and taking to the world-class waves.
Chiba Prefecture's Ichinomiya, a town of nearly 12,500, was chosen to host the surfing events for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But even before then, local authorities had been working to lure families to move there, hoping to revitalize the area.
On a sunny day in October, 7-year-old Mauna Fujimoto and his father Kei, 49, dashed into the water with surfboards in hand. "When I ride smoothly on the waves, it feels like I'm flying in the sky," Mauna said with a smile. "It feels good."
Thanks to his father, Mauna started learning to surf when he was 4. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, and restrictions on people's movements made it difficult to travel to the ocean, Kei decided to permanently move to Ichinomiya from Tokyo's Sumida Ward in January 2021.
Hoping to become a pro surfer, Mauna hits the waves every morning at 5 a.m. before going to the nearby Torami Elementary School, then returns to the sea in the afternoon after his classes are over.
Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach, which hosted Olympic events that saw the likes of Japan silver medalist Kanoa Igarashi grace its waves, is only around 1.5 kilometers from Torami.
Pupils at the school numbered 89 in 2004, but the number has grown to 153 in 2022. One school official proudly said that about "a third (of the children) can surf," with about 20 of them also aiming to go professional.
Kei said that having Mauna in such an environment was one of the reasons for moving to the town. "I want him to have a friendly and mutually beneficial rivalry with kids his age," he said.
"If I go to the ocean, my school friends are there," Mauna said. "The older students also teach us surfing techniques."
Ichinomiya lies at the southern end of the 66-km-long Kujukuri Beach, which welcomes around 600,000 surfers a year. In 2015, the town launched its "surfonomics" initiative to encourage migration and promote surfing events.
"The waves are Ichinomiya's treasure," Hiroyuki Yamaguchi, a manager of the initiative from the town's education division, said. "I wanted to change the deeply rooted perception held at the time that surfers do not take things seriously."
The 49-year-old says that through discussions with surfers and holding events like surfing lessons for children, the scheme has now taken a steady hold in the town.
There are also further plans for young surfers. Kiyohisa Uzawa, 47, an Ichinomiya council member and head of the town's surfing industry association, said he has started talks with the Nippon Surfing Association to establish a club at the local junior high school.
"I want to create an accessible environment for taking on high-level challenges," Uzawa said, adding that he is also considering outsourcing professional surfing coaches.
With the help of volunteers, the town held a surfing tournament in November 2021. Around 100 elementary, junior high and high school students participated.
Meanwhile, the children's parents have also made calls for community surf clubs to be set up.
"Surfing has high educational value, such as teaching (kids) how to give way to each other on the waves and the importance of cleaning up the beach," Yamaguchi said.
"I hope the town provides a place for growth, and the number of pro athletes that go out into the world increases."