Outsiders to the world of surfing can think we’re a crazy bunch. If there are waves, you’ll find us even on the coldest of days, out in the water, looking for our next fix like a bunch of drug addicts. While the mythology of the brave and crazy surfer continues, there is one trick that we’ve got up our sleeves—quite literally—and that is modern wetsuit technology. The modern wetsuit is an incredible feat of human design, and they allow us to look almost invincible as we suit up in frigid conditions in front of onlookers in layers upon layers of clothes.
Remove the wetsuit from the equation, however, and you’ll see far fewer people out in the water—and not for long. A surfer isn’t immune to cold water, we’ve just got the equipment to brave it.
Disclaimer: This challenge was done before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Japan (in early February). It is now recommended that you refrain from gathering in public places until the danger of catching the virus has passed.
What did I get myself into?
This is, unfortunately, the notion that the Tokyo Survival Channel wanted to challenge me on: just how long can you surf in Japan without a wetsuit. I should back-track a little bit, though. We were throwing around some ideas about the Citywave, and what crazy ideas would make a unique, interesting piece of content. I half-jokingly suggested that I could try surfing it without a wetsuit. The team, flabbergasted and thinking me a badass, jumped at this idea—after all, what kind of person would try something like this?
Considering Tokyo is a city famed for its technology and vibrant nightlife, the challenge was refined: surf the Citywave in Shinagawa City, an artificial wave without a wetsuit, at the coldest time of the day. As if that wasn’t enough, I took it a step further. I wasn’t going home until I did a 360. At this stage, I’d been in Tokyo for nearly a month now, and hadn’t seen a surfable wave for even longer, so I figured the possibility of hypothermia might be a small price to pay to reinvigorate the surfer within.
So, that’s how I’ve found myself standing at the side of a wave pool in nothing more than a pair of shorts, a lofty promise, and stubborn determination to keep me warm.
Steeling myself for freezing my butt off
In terms of equipment, Citywave has everything ready to go. From beginners to shred-heads, they’ve got high-quality wetsuits available (lucky them) as well as bodyboards, beginner soft-tops and high-performance surfboards. I struggle to control my jealousy when a group of Californians I’m sharing the session received their wetsuits, steaming in the cold night air after being stored in a hot-box.
What I’d do for one of those wetsuits right now. ‘Maybe I could cheat… just a little?’ I think to myself. ’One little wetsuit couldn’t hurt, right…?’ But then again, if you’re wearing one, there’s no real challenge—you’re just surfing with all the conveniences of modern wetsuit technology like any Joe Schmoe… With that in mind, I kindly refused the offer of a wetsuit from the heavenly-looking hotbox, and received an extremely puzzled look from behind the counter.
It was like I’d just refused a lifejacket on a sinking ship. The epic battle between cold and surfer had just begun…
The wave itself is a flowrider: a torrent of water being shot up an incline that mimics the face of an ocean wave. Those that have surfed a flowrider will agree that it’s a far-cry from a real ocean wave; they’re really fun, but nothing man-made can compete with the pure power of nature.
The silence of a cold February evening was broken by a thunderous roar as the water jets began to get up to speed, transforming what was an empty pool into a spa bath, and eventually becoming a magical—and rather large—stationary wave.
I’m excited, nervous and oh-so-cold even before jumping in.
Takashi, a 32-year-old business analyst working in central Tokyo is a regular here, and stood waxing his board as I approached, already shivering like mad from a cold evening’s kiss. He grew up on the coastline, near Shimahara, just north of Shimoda on the peninsula two-hours drive south of Tokyo.
Takashi brought his own board, and enviably, his own 4/3 wetsuit- good enough for even the coldest winter’s water. “It’s very different to the ocean,” he says, “it’s like you learn to surf all over again,” he adds with a smile, probably expecting me to fall off—a lot.
The first wave
Shiver level: 2
Everyone lines the perimeter of the pool, with Takashi keenly first in line. He looks comfortable, steps onto the face, and unleashes a series of carves from side to side. Takashi wants to go for something bigger, though, and he lines me up perfectly for a snap that threw buckets of iced water all over me. Just moments before this, I really liked him—now I felt like he was trying to teach me a lesson.
I’m second in line, and when Takashi pushes it too far on one of his turns, he falls off and face-plants. I laughed at his expense revengefully for a moment, and then seized up the next: it was my turn.
Like jumping into a cold shower
If you’ve ever jumped off something high or had to jump into a cold shower, you’d know that if you hesitate for even a second, you’re likely to not jump in at all. Wanting to live up to my badass impression, my feet left the ground, and I received my icy baptism.
My mind was torn between two extremely vivid thoughts: the fast pace of the wave and the unbelievably cold water. Normally, with a wetsuit, you can barely feel that first moment—the water slowly creeps in and your body warms it up.
Without a wetsuit, however, your body kicks into survival mode… I compose myself for a moment, and begin feeling out the wave. In fear of wiping out and inevitably getting swept away by the washing machine of tumbling water behind the wave, I cautiously grabbed a rail and turned from side to side.
I immediately got an idea of just how much effort you needed to put in to fight against the water, which is a different feeling from surfing with the water in the ocean. After a few moments, I got over-confident and attempted that 360-degree spin; my goal for the evening’s session. Instead, the water picked me up without a breath, and threw me off the back.
I’m tumbling in the washing machine for a few brief, but astonishingly painful seconds with no idea where the surface is. The machine spat me out and left me with a piercing headache. Picture an ice cream headache, but instead of just eating it too fast, you were swimming in it.
10 Minutes in
Shiver level: 4
I spent the time waiting for my next turn contemplating all my life choices. I began to wonder what I’d do, say, or pay to get out of this icy hell. I’d been this cold before, but I hadn’t been this cold and expected to jump back into the water again—let alone for another 45 minutes.
After all, anyone can jump into an ice lake for a few brief moments, but only the very ballsy (or the superhuman) can jump back in for a second serve of the ice-cold desert.
Even at this fairly early point in the journey, the shivering has become uncontrollable and so severe that I could feel my shoulders sitting higher than they normally do.
My jaw began to seize up, and when one of the Californians—who was absolutely loving my situation—asked how I was doing, I failed to get coherent words out, sounding as though I’d just been punched in the mouth. I spared a moment to smirk when Takashi fell down again, and it was my turn.
I knew that my best chance of completing that illusive 360-degree spin was going to be early in the session, while I still had some semblance of control over my motor-skills. I jumped off, wanting to get straight into position for the maneuver.
What happened next was nothing short of a sucker punch to the gut. My body was positioned too far backward on the board so that the wave sucked me right back over in a matter of seconds.
My second chance at redemption was gone in a flash, and I was once again enjoying some more one-on-one time with the frigid washing machine.
20 Minutes in
Shiver Level: 6
I’m frustrated at this point, and beyond cold. My skin is viciously red, and I take comfort in the fact that my extremities have lost their ability to feel the cold.
The problem with being this cold, however, is that your body’s survival instinct sends excess blood to the head to protect the brain, and my headache is absolutely biblical after that second trip through the rinse-cycle.
Considering what I was putting myself through, I was surprised my body was sending any blood at all to my peanut-sized brain. I repeated to myself: ‘Once I get that 360, I’m done. Just one little 360…’ With a renewed sense of determination, forcing the blood back to my extremities, I jump off for my third attempt.
This time, I wasn’t going to force anything, I just wanted to smoothly carve from side to side to show the onlookers that I wasn’t completely out of my depth.
This challenge was fast becoming a war with my pride at one end of the battlefield, and my health at the other. After a relatively safe 30-seconds, I threw it in, and fell off the back. Once again, I was greeted by the dreaded Washing Machine of Pain.
30 Minutes in
Shiver Level: 8
While waiting for the next wave, the Citywave team took pity on our poor souls and ignited an industrial-strength gas blower inside a small tent. I rushed inside like a moth to a flame.
Everyone has bowed their heads to fit inside, holding their hands out over the furnace. Everyone, regardless of their wetsuit situation, is cold.
What I’d thought would be my saving heat quickly turned on me. The gas blower is so hot that my body is melting from its ice-cube status into a human body again, and the transformation is painful. With the cold dissipating, some of the feelings returns to my ice-block of a body. The pins and needles are so unbearable that standing back out in the cold makes more sense and is less painful than the warm glow of the gas tent.
Looking back to the wave, I see Takashi fall off again in a hilarious fashion. My momentary smile is replaced by the realization that it’s my turn once again.
Making the turn
While my lofty promises got me into this position in the first place, I wasn’t going to leave without completing that spin. Visualising it, I jump off, and feel the worst pain so far. My body, still tingling from the little body-heat it managed to regain from the gas blower, was screaming out in betrayal at the shock of water.
At this point, I must have been actively conspiring against the wishes of my internal organs; the poor chunks of meat just want to be happy and warm, after all.
I, on the other hand, wanted to leave here knowing I’d completed a reverse-spin. Determination setting in once again, I make my move quickly. In an epic feat, I dart from side to side, gathering momentum, and make a sudden whip around with my head. My hips and my legs rise up, following suit, and I complete the turn.
The Californians yell out, Takashi is smiling, and even the Citywave crew are watching me—mostly in sheer disbelief throughout the session—giving me a thumbs up.
I’d done it. I’d overcome the odds, won my battle, held my gold medal in my cold, wrinkled hands—but I wasn’t celebrating yet… my senses were still overloaded. I knew I must once again face the dreaded cold of that unforgiving washing machine.
45 Minutes in
Shiver Level: 10
I’m fast approaching a state of genuine hypothermia as I hear the Citywave technician shout out: “Last wave, five-minutes left… The last wave!” to which the group is focussed on their remaining wave.
They look disappointed that their time on the wave is approaching an end. I, on the other hand, feel like the clouds have parted, bringing new dawn along with my salvation.
I jump back on, attempt one last spin, quickly fall off, and smile underwater knowing that this would be the last time I’d feel the washing machine on my bare skin.
My mission was accomplished. I’d conquered the challenge, and learnt a painful lesson about making extreme promises. Oh yeah, and managed a kick-ass 360 turn in frigid water with only my shorts on.
End of session
Shiver Level: Aw, fuck it.
By now, you’d probably assume that the worst is behind me, and that hot shower is a benevolent gift from the gods. However, if you’ve been unfortunate enough to spend a prolonged period of time outdoors in the cold and jumped straight into a hot shower, you’d already know that the thawing process absolutely sucks.
The shower read 30-degrees—a whole 26-degrees warmer than outside. I dropped my shorts, and found out in a heartbeat that there wasn’t actually water coming out of the showerhead, just a thousand knives, and needles instead.
After several adjustments to the water temperature, I was finally able to thaw out… less painfully.
Was it a good idea to jump into frigid water without a wetsuit?
After our showers, Takashi and I share a beer on the edge of the pool. He asks me if it was worth it, to which I answered quite frankly: no.
There’s no romanticising it, sugar-coating it, or telling you that I learnt some valuable life-lesson that night… my badass self went into the experience thinking it would be tough, but doable. I left that session knowing exactly what being cold for an hour feels like, and it absolutely sucks without a wetsuit.
The days following my bare-skinned shenanigans were my body’s revenge for betraying it that night. I’d caught a very bad cold. Luckily, it wasn’t corona.
Check out the Citywave in Shinagawa
The Citywave itself is a surfer’s dream hidden away inside Tokyo’s vast urban jungle. While it might not be completely reminiscent of an ocean wave, there are very few reasons why you shouldn’t check it out.
Just make sure to ask for a wetsuit!