Lockdown in Japan

Published by Katie Bamber on

Published by The Telegraph on 24th June 2020

May 4, 2020

Tanegashima is a small island off the southeast tip of Kyushu, mainland Japan. White sand beaches, crystal clear water, caves and impressive sea stacks dominate the island’s coast, while the interior is lush with greenery and bamboo. In the fields farmers tend to crops of sweet potato, sugarcane and rice. Glassy rice paddies reflect the surrounding hills. The climate is subtropical and the ocean an ideal 21°C right now, late-May. Surfing is the island’s game with good year-round waves and occasional typhoons that roar past bringing in bigger swell. It’s rural Japan. The pace of life is slow, the atmosphere is sleepy and the people kind. 

It’s here that I find myself living out lockdown. Don’t ask how – it’s a long story, but my home is now a Nissan Elgrand van, equipped with a mattress in the back, a camping stove and a pop up beach tent. I park it overlooking whichever deserted beach I happen upon in my Tanegashima wanderings. So undocumented is this corner of the country, at least in English, that exploring is best done using Google Maps on satellite mode. It reveals all the hidden dirt tracks leading down to unspoilt sandy swathes and surf breaks. As time has gone on and I’ve been accepted into the Tanegashima fold, I’ve come to rely less on Google and more on valued tips from locals. It’s a life about as far as possible from my flat in east London. Only the towers of Japan’s JAXA space centre in the distance are a reminder of the modern world as launch preparations continue for a mission to Mars that’s not to be affected by this earthly pandemic.  

I’m travelling with a friend from the Hakuba ski area, who’s now stuck with me on a rather prolonged visit that started in March before travel became restricted. Down here it’s all about surfing, which has pretty much become my existence these past weeks as I practice and commit to cracking it. It’s been 10 years – 10 years and a solid fortnight – but it seems I’m here for the long haul. And any day now…

Everyone we meet is local, either born here or having moved down from Tokyo or Osaka decades ago for the surf and quiet life. No one seems stressed or anxious at all about the pandemic coursing through the rest of the world.

There’s chat, of course, out on the water waiting for waves, but the island is seemingly uninfected and – on the whole – unaffected by the pandemic so far. There’s interest in how I’ve come to be here and how I heard about Tanegashima.

I gather there isn’t much international travel, especially from western countries. So I tell them I’m around for the foreseeable future, as travel restrictions are extended, and that’s it – I’m accepted as a temporary local.

One sweet potato farmer brought some of his supplies, I’ve been given foraged plants and shown how to cook them and find more. I’ve been left hot coffee by an early morning dog walker and invited out fishing to catch my own dinner.

Life is low-key and simple, and from what I can tell, pretty much as it has always been here. Kindness and hospitality have marked every interaction. I was even approached with sincerest apologies, as well as a few surf tips by a security guard who’d come to move us on from camping illegally.

I’m trying to imagine how that interchange would have gone if at home during lockdown.

JAXA towers, Tanegashima, Japan

Japan’s national state of emergency has been extended to the end of May. Medical centres are under strain in urban areas but the spread of virus has slowed. Interestingly, all restrictions effective in the country are urged or requested, relying on social cooperation and a respect for authority. Japan’s Constitution doesn’t allow the government to apply a forced lockdown. During Golden Week – a string of national holidays in May lasting 10 days that last year saw more than 24 million people travel domestically – rail and air travel were down 95% and new cases of the infection stabilised. 

Aside from the (very real) impact of missing out on crucial business from tourism during peak times, the atmosphere in these rural areas of Japan remains calm, the concern is elsewhere. There were minimal visitors to Tanegashima through Golden Week, though locals were out surfing in numbers, at least in terms of here.

I was surprised to wake up one morning to a line of 20 or more cars parked along a pier for a beautiful surfing day having pitched up what was the night before a seemingly secluded spot.

Bigger news on Tanegashima is a satellite rocket to launch on 21st May, weather dependent. The ninth and final flight of Japan’s H-2B rocket will carry an automated cargo freighter into orbit and on to the International Space Station.

Some surfer mentioned an approaching typhoon to pass out in the ocean, but perhaps that is more a hopeful forecast for the swell it would bring. Golden Week has passed without drama or reported mishap and I’m expecting an even quieter time from here on out. Shops stay shuttered, local restaurants are open here and there, precautions are taken dutifully. Life is simple and sweet. Job’s on to find a good spot from which to watch the 2am launch in a fortnight. And to get surfing. 

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