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Urbanist Getaways: Finding Tranquility on Japan’s Shonan Coastline

It was my first trip to Zushi beach and the sun was beginning to set. 

Across the bay, the hazy mountain range that curved along the opposing shore was fading from view. Peaks dominated the skyline, stretching beyond sight. As they darkened, something even bigger appeared behind them; it was just half a silhouette, yet a colossal presence that dwarfed everything else in sight. A few minutes later, the light had gone and I wondered if I had just imagined it all.

I have since witnessed the same spectacle on numerous occasions and learned that, despite its breathtaking size, Mount Fuji is frustratingly elusive during the summer months. It seems like every time you think it’s finally about to emerge in full view, it’s suddenly lost to fading light or a fresh layer of mist.

This stretch of Shonan's coastline is notorious for its summer party atmosphere. From July to September, rows of pop-up bars appear along the shore and swathes of people flood down from Tokyo, Yokohama and Kawasaki. Bands play J-pop on temporary stages and all through the day, the beaches are packed with people. Even after dark, the more popular stretches are often dotted with groups of drinkers that play in the shallows or let off small, whimpering fireworks.

Pastel light reflecting off the ocean.

It was only after a spur-of-the-moment trip last December that I realized how beautiful the view from the beach actually is. Previously smothered in a thick haze, the mountains were now crisp and jagged. And Fuji, which had been nothing more than a shadow, was now clearly defined. I could see the gradations of its ridges, follow small clouds moving across its face, and even trace snow-filled ravines that clawed downward from its peak.

There’s a special atmosphere on the beaches in winter, particularly if you’ve experienced the party vibe during the peak summer months. This feeling is as much to do with the absence of human activity as to how people spend their time here during winter. Hordes of people playing at the water’s edge are replaced by surfers out in the deep, all waiting for a perfect wave. Instead of bars and partygoers, couples sit hand-in-hand, taking in the silence and watching pastel light reflect off the ocean.

Seaweed on the shore. 

Each morning, I would walk along near-deserted Yuigahama beach, dip my feet into the freezing water and watch surfers brave the cold. At the end of each day, I watched the sunset from Zushi beach, before returning home after a stop at one of the many small bathhouses that dot the side streets of Kamakura.

On my final morning, I met Obe, a university student who often drives down from central Tokyo before sunrise to catch the early waves. “Are you never distracted by the view?” I asked him. He shook his head, “Not really. Maybe when I first started coming here, but it’s normal for me now. Sometimes, though, I’ll sit on the beach after surfing and think ‘Wow. That’s really beautiful’.”

The area is accessible by train from central Tokyo.

“I like the summer parties,” Obe continued. “The waves are better around typhoon season - maybe August or September. But yeah, it’s a special place in the winter. A lot more peaceful. A lot more relaxed. You have the view but it’s also the atmosphere on the beaches. The crowds are gone and the people are friendlier.”

Obe picked up his board and waded back out into the sea. He struggled with the unseasonably strong surf and was thrown off his board before falling silently into the waves. Behind me, I could just make out the sound of a man struggling to control his kite in the wind. Two girls were walking along the shore, inspecting shells that had washed up. Above it all, in the distance, Fuji was emerging from the clouds; another winter’s day at the beach had quietly come to life.


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