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Chiba town that will host Olympic surfing rides wave of prosperity

Numerous weekend surfers are seen enjoying waves off the coast of Ichinomiya in Chiba Prefecture. (Mainichi)

ICHINOMIYA, Chiba -- With exactly three years to go until the start of the Tokyo Olympics on July 24, 2020, it is worth mentioning the rise of this small town in Chiba Prefecture, which will be an official Olympic surfing venue.

    Situated at the southern end of an arc of the Kujukuri coastline facing the Pacific Ocean, Ichinomiya has been steadily gaining attention as a surfing paradise since the 1980s, but the town was boosted even further following its recent selection as an event venue for the Tokyo Olympics.

    Initially dependent on its agricultural industry, Ichinomiya's economy now benefits hugely from "surfonomics" -- the surf-driven economy. For example, according to a municipal government survey conducted in fiscal 2016, it has been calculated that the town received more than 3.2 billion yen (about $28.8 milllion) through surfing.

    Specifically, the town's Tsurigasaki beach, which will be an Olympic surfing venue in 2020, is a popular weekend spot among surfers due to the consistent flow of waves toward the shore from three different directions, namely northeast, east and southeast.

    Ever since the 1980s, people wanting to surf all year round have been moving to the town, and since the 2000s, numerous surfing shops, restaurants and new homes have emerged along prefectural Route 30, which runs parallel to the Pacific coast. As a result, the area has taken on an atmosphere of a "tropical island" bustling with youngsters, attracting what is believed to be about 600,000 visitors a year.

    "In recent years, it feels as though the number of buildings in this area has quadrupled, and the momentum has further picked up following its selection as a 2020 Olympic venue," says 37-year-old Shin Sasaki, the CEO of a local real estate firm called "Naminori Estate Agents."

    The town's popularity as a place to live means that about 500 people move there each year -- leading to the population for Ichinomiya increasing to about 12,400 in January 2017, a record high. The town takes pride in the fact that it is a "rare case of a town with a growing population" -- due to surfing -- which stands out in a country where many local authorities are having to deal with the challenge of depopulation.

    Interestingly, the decision to select Ichinomiya as an Olympic surfing venue was completely unexpected -- given that the original Tokyo bid was based on the concept of a "compact" Olympics concentrated in the capital. Furthermore, at the bidding stage, there were no real plans to add events such as surfing.

    Looking ahead, the local municipal government may have certain budget-related challenges, but it is certainly looking forward to being an Olympic host. As the mayor of Ichinomiya, Masaya Mabuchi, points out, "We want to spread the name and culture of Ichinomiya across the world."

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