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Misa Inaoka: the obscure beauty of art, surf, and nature

Misako (Misa) Inaoka studied fine art in the United States and Italy, currently living and working in Kyoto, Japan. Her interests arise from the delicate boundaries that exist between the natural and the artificial worlds. She finds hidden beauty even in the most peculiar places: as a cell tower posing as a pine tree, a flock of non-native birds, coyotes thriving in urban parks, hybrid species thriving in nature, tree branches growing through a wire fence, or moss growing in a crack of cement sidewalk.

When did you come to the US? Was it to compete in professional snow skiing representing Japan? What was it like- being a young woman from Japan in Action Sports?

I was turning 16-year-old when I first moved to Colorado. I wasn't representing Japan, nor made it to the National Team, but I fell in love with alpine skiing, and I wanted to continue training and competing. The US or Europe had better competitions and a more extended season, so I chose to go to the US. Being a competitive athlete was very hard for me, not just physically but mostly mentally. I loved snow, loved training, and skiing, but competing did not come naturally to me. There was a sense of pressure to do well, get results at significant events, get sponsors, etc. It became stressful.

When did you decide to go to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design)? Were you still skiing? Or other Sports? Why RISD?

I always loved drawing and making things since I was very young. So it was a big surprise for my friends and family to choose "sports" over "art" when I was 15. Everyone thought I was going to go to art school and become an "artist." Maybe I had to rebel against myself or something. When I was 14, I went to a pre-college in the summer, preparing high school students for the art school entrance exam. In Japan, there are on-site entrance exams for drawing, painting, and design skills in addition to a portfolio. It was all about technique and methods, and it made me not enjoy art as much. The experience made me feel that art is something you can "learn," If it's just a learned skill, I was not interested, so I chose sports for the next 4 years.

I heard good things about RISD from an art teacher in Colorado, my friends, and my older sister living in New York attending Parsons School of Design. I enjoyed my years at RISD and the EHP program (European Honors Program). I spent my junior year in Rome, with about 20 selected students from all departments. It was a very independent program with good and intense critics, where I could explore different media and topics. This is where I met (or got to know) my future husband, Colin (although we didn't date till 10 years later).

When, how, why did you pick up surfing? Was this at the same time you went to graduate school at Mills? Or later when you were at the residency Headland Center for the Arts in Marin County? What were your first experiences with surfing? Competitiveness? Women in the water?

The first time I surfed was actually right after the EHP program in Italy. I traveled to South Africa to visit my former host-sister, who was a competitive longboarder. She pushed me into waves in icy and sharky water, and I got hooked as soon as I caught my first wave. I finally got my own car when I started graduate school at Mills, so that's when I could go surfing. My friends helped me, but I mostly learned from being in the water and watching other surfers in West Marin, Pacifica, and Santa Cruz.

Beginner spots are not so intimidating nor competitive. Still, once I learned to surf, I felt "competitive" or a bit "out-of-place" on a few occasions, especially in Santa Cruz and So Cal., at popular points on a good day or big day. I felt like I was outnumbered by male surfers and felt the pressure to make the first drop, or they will never give me another wave. Fortunately, in Japan, surfers are welcoming, polite, and friendly to girl surfers (at least where I surf) and don't feel intimidated.

Tell us a little bit about the connection between your art and surfing? Also, what surfing has taught you?

I think the connection between my art and surfing is "nature." I always get inspired by nature to make art and be in the water. Seeing the swell rolling in, the sky, and the clouds' movements purifies me and gives me energy and inspiration. Both surfing and art-making are like "meditation" for me. Both practices taught me patience and ways to really "see" things in nature. Surfing is a unique sport in that you are becoming part of nature, moving with natural energy, and letting yourself immerse and let the energy take you. Reading and feeling the waves are an essential part of surfing. The ocean enables you to play on the surface as long as you can see what it wants to do and go with the natural flow. I feel the same way about making art. The art material or the shape I am working with already has as a potential or the flow. I need to be able to "see" that potential and let it take me where it wants to go.

You had a custom surfboard made for an art show in SF, which later you rode. Does it have a unique story?

In the Bay Area, my artist friend, Kenneth Lo, was preparing for an exhibition about "love story," a collaborative and conceptional show. He invited me to be a part of it. He wanted to record my love story, and he would make an object about it. I jokingly asked if he would have a custom surfboard made for me, and he said yes if it relates to the story. My friend Sandy Fin and I had made a list called a "wish list," which consisted of what we look for in our partner. We typed it on a red Olivetti Valentine typewriter when we were both single, so we wouldn't get blinded by new love and forget what was important. I had a single fin longboard made with an orange nose and the rest white with "the list" printed on it in a cream color.

After your Dad's passing, you moved back to Japan (Kyoto) to help your sister and Mom with the family soba restaurant business. Tell us a little about it? What have been the challenges as women in Japan- is this slowly changing?

Yes, it is one of the oldest businesses in Japan, 555 years old. My sister is the 16th century and the first woman to run it in the family. It is still untraditional to run/own a business as a woman in Japan, but more and more female-run businesses and their successes are being recognized. Just as in the US and the rest of the world, it is more challenging for women to balance the family and career because we are still expected to be the child's primary caretaker (children) and doing most of the housework.

What is the girl surfing/skate scene in Japan?

I see more women surfing when the waves are small and mellow, longboard waves. I see less when waves get bigger, but there are some good women shortboard surfers too. There are some very young competitive female surfers coming out of Japan who can compete at international levels, and it's exciting that more girls are picking up the sport at a young age.

What boards are you riding, and why do they work well for you?

My go-to board is Andreini's Vaquero, custom shaped 6'4". It is a single fin hull. The board feels "right" to me. It makes me feel confident in the water because it makes me feel like it is part of me. I ride "The List," an 8'6" single fin mini-log when it's small. I also ride my husband's 7'2" Ryan Lovelace V Bowls, which has the nickname "mistress." I used to have a mini Simmons (twin fin) and a small quad, but now I only own a single fin board. I also own a Liddle's 6ft smoothie, another single fin hull. Those boards make me feel more playful and soulful.

Balancing Art, Family Life, and Surfing?

Kyoto is a beautiful city surrounded by mountains and temples, but one negative thing is it's far from the ocean, at least 2-hours to any surf point. With my husband (a surfer who grew up in front of a beach break in CA) and a son, we used to drive all over Japan, both Sea of Japan and Pacific side, depending on the swell, but soon we fell in love with one area, Northern end of Kyoto prefecture. The landscape is beautiful, amazing coastline, the mountains, clear water, hot springs, seafood, seaside villages, uncrowded surf spots, and we ended up buying an old farmhouse in the area, 5-min drive to a surf point. Old houses in the countryside cost next to nothing in Japan. We go there almost every weekend, for family, art and surf time. It's a great environment for my son to grow up, running around freely, swimming in the summer, learning how to surf. My husband and I have studios there, so we surf if there is surf, and we make art or work on the house & garden.

Tell us about your current artwork?

I often used shapes and materials representing nature that are not "totally natural," animals and plants that are mutating or genetically modified, or manicured for/by humans. My older works used to comment on the artificiality of "nature" that we are surrounded by.

Since I moved to Japan, I have been working more with clay. Also, many materials(art supplies) are collected on the beach or in the mountains. I used to use plastic toys, resin, spray paints, etc. However, I am recently working with mostly all-natural material, driftwood, dried flowers, stones, seashell, and ceramic. I really like the idea of working only with natural materials such as clay(the earth), water, and fire to make art, and I am learning more about the firing process.

Anything else you want to add?

We recently relocated to Hieidaira, a small town about 15-min East of Kyoto into the mountains. There, we are not in the center of Kyoto city anymore, but we have trees and nature, a backyard, and space to build a studio. This town is known for artists (a bit like Ojai), and we are excited to balance our mountain home at Hieidaira during the week and country house on the weekends.


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