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Hang ten Japanese style.

A visitor to Kamakura in the 13th century would have been met by gangs of sword-wielding Samurai strutting the streets in full regalia, en route to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple.

Today visitors come here to worship a very modern deity: the god of surf. People in wetsuits clutching surfboards pedal cruiser bikes through the torii, the stone gates that lead from Kamakura's main street on to Yuigahama beach.

Take away the Japanese signage and Asian faces, and Kamakura looks more like Malibu or La Jolla than the former capital of feudal Japan. The shrines and temples still draw the tourists, and the guide books still call it 'the most historically rich day trip from Tokyo', but surf culture, adopted with a sophisticated and stylish twist, is perhaps the biggest thing to rock Kamakura's sandy shores since the tsunami of 1495.

On a sunny Saturday morning, my wife Gisela and I catch the train from Tokyo to Kamakura, which takes 50 minutes. Taxis, tour buses and sign-toting hosts greet the droves of weekenders that bring bustle to this otherwise sleepy seaside hamlet. If you're here for the shrines, temples, and world-renowned Buddha you turn left; if you're here for the beach, as we are, you take a sharp right.

It's a quick 10-minute walk from station to sand, past the Kauai Aloha Hula boutique, Rave Surf and Sports, and the Seedless restaurant, which boasts 'California/Yuigahama cuisine'. I've brought my own board and O'Neill wetsuit, but if I didn't have any gear it wouldn't be a problem.

There are at least eight surf shops within walking distance of one another, a handful of surf schools, and an entire block of windsurf shops where boards and wetsuits can be rented.

The scene at the beach is straight out of the book of surfing clichoys as enthusiasts with sun-burnt faces and broad shoulders, wearing Wayfarers and boardshorts, swap stories in the car park. Yet there is something quintessentially Japanese about it: a row of sandals has been carefully left at the edge of the beach, and unlike their carefree Californian and Australian counterparts, Japanese surfers carry portable showers, foot towels, and plastic coat hangers on which to dry their wetsuits.

Most of what I'd heard about Kamakura came from Daisuke, a Japanese expat whose love of surfing and the Grateful Dead led him to San Francisco about 10 years ago. He'd told me it was the surf capital of Japan, where US soldiers stationed at the nearby Yokosuka naval base introduced the Japanese to surfing after the second world war. It was by no means a world-class surf spot, he said, but it had fun, learner-friendly waves.

After surfing, Gisela and I check into the Kaihin-so Kamakura, where the tatami mat floors, sliding doors, segregated baths and meticulously groomed garden with koi pond remind us that we are actually in Japan.

We have a late lunch at the small and cozy Ocean's Kitchen, where a chirpy, smiling waitress serves us a Caesar salad topped with tuna sashimi, a spicy coconut veggie curry, and a bottomless cup of ice-cold green tea.

After lunch we wander through narrow lanes, past boutiques and shops named after famous Hawaiian surf breaks (Middles, Makapuu), and come to the Daibutsu (Great Buddha). Cast in the 13th century, Daibutsu is 13.35 metres high and sits in a lotus position.

During the 1495 tsunami the temple that housed the statue was washed away, but Daibutsu refused to budge.

At sunset the haze clears just enough to reveal the snow-capped peak of Mt Fuji. The scene bears a striking resemblance to Hokusai's Great Wave Off Kanagawa.

The following morning the sea is flat, but such is the nature of the ocean. Had we been here the previous weekend we'd have had a decent swell.

Kamakura, I learn later, is best in August and September.

With no surf to play in, we stroll the boardwalk of Yuigahama, pass a row of weathered boathouses draped in floats and fishing nets, a pair of windsurfers rigging up at the shoreline, a rickshaw runner in split-toe surf boots. On the way to the railway station, we stop off at Kua Aina for a quick bite. The walls are covered in vintage surf photos, the flat screen plays a recent surf video, and the diners are, you guessed it, surfers.

When the waitress sets down a plate of French fries on the table next to us, and the three baseball-capped kids attack it with fingers instead of chopsticks, it all makes perfect sense.

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Publication:Gulf Weekly
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Aug 9, 2009
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