When most people think of Japan the first thing that typically comes to mind is the mega city of Tokyo. What most people often over look is that fact that Japan is made up of a series of both large and small islands that stretch from the coast of Taiwan in the south to the eastern islands of Russia in the north. One of the main islands in the south of Japan is Okinawa. Okinawa is a tropical island nicknamed the Hawaii of Japan and is known for its impressive beaches, great culture, friendly locals, and amazing reef breaks. Okinawa’s unique geography make it a playground for surfers of all levels. The island’s unique shape is capable of picking up swell in any direction and often delivers world class waves to those in the know. One such person is Danny Melhado. Danny came to Okinawa on a whim and ended up falling for the unique island charm that attracts people from all over the world. Danny is a former pro surfer turned surf guide, surf instructor, and Okinawa guest house owner. As you can imagine, Danny has a lot going on. That is why I was very fortunate enough to catch Danny in between surf trips to Sri Lanka and Samoa to answer a few questions. I hope you enjoy this great interview. As always, if anyone is interested in checking out flights to Okinawa from the USA please click this link.
Please state your name and country of origin:
Danny Melhado and I am from America.
Where is your local lineup?
My local lineups are various spots around the Happy Surfing Okinawa Guest House. One wave in particular is my most favorite hollow wave in Okinawa (no name mentioned).
How is the vibe?
Japanese spots can be localized. Okinawa has good surfing, good friends, good connections, and respect. I have never had a problem surfing any spots in Okinawa or around Japan for that matter. The surfing vibe and lifestyle is very alive and well all around Japan.
How did you get into surfing?
I got into surfing at ten when my family moved from the mountains of New Hampshire to the beaches of Florida. I was really lucky because we lived close to the beach and I had two older brothers who also surfed. Everyday we went to go to the beach to see other local surfers and get in the ocean.
How long did you compete in surf contests and why did you stop?
I started surfing in am contests at the age of fourteen. I lived near and competed in the same am organization as Kelly Slater and many other great surfers. At a really young age I was exposed to seeing some great surfing. This motivated me to compete in contests and slowly I climbed the am ranks. In my late teens I ended up moving to California for the last few years of high school to further my surfing and contest career. After high school I turned pro. I started surfing many east coast and US pro events. I won the East Coast pro tour a couple times and then decided to try the world qualifier events. After a few years of qualifiers I made it to the World Surfing Tour which was limited to the top forty four surfers in the world. I spent two years surfing in the world tour events. It was very difficult. At the time I was lacking good results, no sponsorship, and I had my first child. After a while of competing on the world tour I got tired of constantly traveling and missing my family. So I made a difficult decision and stopped doing the qualifiers and subsequently lost my world ranking. After leaving the tour I moved to Japan where I competed for a few years on the Japan pro tour before finally getting into teaching surfing and starting my own surf school in Okinawa.
“I lived near and competed in the same am organization as Kelly Slater and many other great surfers.”
At what point in your life did you decide that you wanted to make surfing your career?
I never really thought about making surfing my career. I just enjoyed traveling and seeing new places. It just all kind of came together without a lot of effort.
You grew up in a special period within Florida surfing history. In the late 80's to the late 90's Florida produced some of the best surfers in the world. Could you give me a run down of what was going on in Florida during those golden years?
I was really fortunate in that there were some really good guys to look up to around Sebastian Inlet. Growing up I had a lot of great surfing peers. Sebastian inlet taught me how to respect my elders, how to be hungry, and how to be driven to surf better each day. The wave at Sebastian Inlet was amazing and had a nice fast moving wedge with hollow sections. Surfing there I learned how to read waves really well. I was really lucky to be a part of some really good years of surfing that spot.
“Sebastian inlet taught me how to respect my elders, how to be hungry, and how to be driven to surf better each day.”
How did you transition from living in the USA to moving to Japan and later Okinawa?
Well, I have always loved Japan since my first trip to Asia when I was seventeen years old. At the time, I was pretty used to traveling and living in different situations so it was pretty easy. Sometimes I think it is still kind of strange but I would not have it any other way.
Could you share your thoughts on the surf scene in Okinawa?
The surf scene in Okinawa is interesting because a lot of surfers here do not travel around and surf other spots. Locals seem to be more interested in being a “local” at a spot rather than thinking about getting the best waves the island has to offer on any given day. Sometimes it feels a bit trendy and they are just doing it to do it. The bonus of this localism is that some days when Okinawa does get world class waves some lineups are almost empty. Other times you can run into crowded conditions in very average waves. More recently, surfing seems to have become more popular in Okinawa. As of today, there are more than six other guys doing the exact same business model as Happy Surfing Okinawa. What sets us apart from the rest of the crowd is that we have over thirty six years of surfing experience. We know this hard earned experience will keep customers interested in our surf instructor and surf guide services. I like to think of it this way, if you are going to learn a new skill, lets say say karate, you will want to know that your Sensei has put in the time and seen lots of different situations to further develop his skill.
What is your favorite time of year to surf in Okinawa?
We can find fun long board waves for our surfing school on almost any given day. But for me, finding some hollow waves that are good for short boarding is during the winter north swell clean up sessions and the typhoon swells late in the summer. It is always exciting when there is a typhoon headed in the direction of the Okinawa islands because they are always different and very unpredictable.
“With such big tides (6ft+) in a constant state of flux, Okinawa is not a place where you can have the time to just go look around. If you want to score then you want to be at the right spot at the right time.”
Okinawa is mostly made up of reef breaks. What advice would you give surfers visiting Okinawa for the first time?
Okinawa is very tidal and all reefs. It is a great place to learn how to surf and learn the basics of surfing reef breaks. If you are visiting you are going to have a much better time if you have a surf guide taking you to the spots and getting you in and out at the right time. Knowing the tides is crucial. With such big tides (6ft+) in a constant state of flux, Okinawa is not a place where you can have the time to just go look around. If you want to score then you want to be at the right spot at the right time. I usually do not encourage people to visit who want to score those world class days on short boards. Instead, I say come to relax, enjoy the great food, snorkel, see the culture, and if you do get some of those amazing surf days then you are lucky.
What do you love most about Okinawa?
I love the culture, food, living next to some world class spots, and the days when they finally do turn on.
What kept you in Okinawa and when did you decide to start Happy Surfing Okinawa Guest House?
The life style in Okinawa kept me here. I found a great house in a great location that is next to the best beach to teach surfing in Okinawa. No one was using the house for surfing lessons so I jumped on it. The best part about this location is that we have even found a very rare lower tide wave that no one was looking at so now we always have a great surf spot for surfing lessons and a world class slab wave right up the street. That is what really keeps me here.
What do you like most about running a surf guest house?
On a daily basis, I meet wonderful people from all over the world and that opens up a lot of doors. Recently, I taught a family how to surf last year and this year they have hired me to join them on their family vacation to Sri Lanka to teach them surfing and guide them along the waves. Teaching people to surf is a dream job and there is nothing better than getting paid to make people happy and find the stoke of surfing.
“Teaching people to surf is a dream job and there is nothing better than getting paid to make people happy and find the stoke of surfing.”
You are very well connected within the surf industry. Who have you had the pleasure of bringing to your local surf spots? Also, have you had any famous guests outside the surf industry pay you a visit?
Well, I had the pleasure of hosting Jimmy Buffett last year on a fun stand up paddle board wave riding session. Besides Jimmy, lots of pro surfers all want to come here and try to score those special days they see on my instagram posts. Kelly Slater has had his eye on Okinawa for a few years now. I love when my friends come to visit but again I tell everyone to visit with no expectations. If we score we are stoked. If not we are still stoked on fun long board sessions, snorkeling, stand up paddle boarding trips, and eating great food.
Could you share any particular stories that are memorable or stick out in your mind that relate to surfing in Okinawa?
I think my best story is how I ended up coming to Okinawa. At the time, I was living in Florida with my Japanese wife and I had Japanese sponsors. I was surfing Sebastian Inlet one day when I met a Japanese guy surfing in Florida which was really rare to see back then. After surfing, I invited him and his wife to my house for a BBQ. We had a great time and the next day he and his wife set off to the Bahamas. I figured that was the last time I would see him. Well, fast forward twelve years into the future. I was living in northern Japan and I was competing in a Japan pro tour event in the south of Japan. One day, my photographer friend Kin San came up to me and said, “Danny…….Keiichi San heard you are here and is looking for you. I was like who is that? he said…he is a BIG boss and he is coming here looking for you…he said you set him up with a BBQ in Florida twelve years ago.” Anyways, he finds me and takes me to his house and shows me his fish company. Then takes me to some great secret waves around Wakayama and then some wonderful dinners. Then he says, “Hey do you want go to Okinawa tomorrow? There is a good typhoon coming.” Now at the time, I had two boards and a couple pairs of trunks. I was basically prepared for a weekend contest. I was not exactly ready to travel. But we went to Okinawa the next day and stayed for almost a full month scoring some great waves and meeting Kazubo San (The Okinawa boss). All the Okinawa locals were all so good to me and such nice people. That trip had a profound impact on my future. My life took an unexpected turn for the better all because I invited a stranger to my house for a BBQ. That BBQ was a life changer for sure!
One serious question. Unfortunately, Okinawa is known in the media as the Japanese island with a lot of American bases. Over the years, there have been a number of high profile crimes committed by both American military personnel and American contractors. If you could, could you please share your thoughts on what is going on in Okinawa as it relates to the local community and the Americans stationed there?
It is a hard call. I would love to see a world where we could spend all that military money on something more positive rather than fear and control but that is not up to me. It is what it is and it probably will not change any time soon. Okinawa is a unique place. The island has a lot of mixed families and the American culture has just become a part of the island. Some people like it and some people do not. Unfortunately, when you have that many military personnel stationed on a small island some bad things will happen. It is so sad because I love Japan for being Japan. All these terrible choices by these Americans working in Okinawa reflects poorly on good Americans and their culture. Honestly, I do not deal with it. I hate politics. I will not let those things change my life. Everyday I wake up, check the weather and the waves and search for the best spot of the day to have fun with my customers no matter who they are.
What does the future hold for you?
I am not a big planner. I like to let things happen. A few new things are in the works and when and if they happen we will see. One thing I did recently is invest and help build a new hotel in Canggu which is in Bali. I have some Japanese friends who asked me to be apart of their new venture. You can check them out at Villa Lotus 8. Besides that, I am happy and would be happy if things stay just the way they are today!
If you could send a message to the surfing community at large what would you tell them?
Surf happy, give waves, and enjoy this special thing we have been given by those before us.
Where can people find you on online?
Please follow me on Instagram and Facebook! People can find us at Happy Surfing Okinawa on Instagram, Happy Surfing Okinawa on Facebook, and at the Happy Surfing Okinawa website. I also have a daily wave report on my blog as well so please check that out too.
Any parting words or shout outs?
Thanks to my mom and dad for their support. Pete Dooley for helping me out as a young surfer. Mr. Mitsui for bringing me to Japan when I was seventeen years old and so many times after. Mr. Keiichi San for introducing me to Okinawa. Mr Kazubo San for welcoming me to his wonderful island. I also want to thank my sponsors: Imagination surfboards, O’Neill wetsuits, and Sticky Bumps wax and traction pads. Also, a big thank you to all the other people that have helped me develop into the person I have become. I truly feel blessed. Photo credit goes to Happy Surfing Okinawa, Pete Leong (photoshisa), and Adam Lewis (AdamLphotography).
This interview was edited and created within Medium by myself — Peter Mc. I am a graphic designer, photographer, and journalist who is obsessed with surfing. I have two home bases, one in Miami, FL and another in Kobe, Japan. I am always on the lookout for interesting people who want to share their stories. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow me on Instagram.com at Ptrmc.Photos. If you enjoyed this story please like it and hit the follow button for more great stories in the future!