Since the early 90s, reports of a thriving snowboard culture in Japan have been coming back Stateside-tales of indoor mountains where it snowed from the ceiling and droves of chain-smoking kids dressed just like Jamie Lynn and Terje, kids so hungry for American pros that a Beatles-like reception was awaiting those pros at any autograph signing or contest they might be involved in.
Yet all we ever hear in North America are the same stories about Japan again and again: A bunch of foreigners show up, get drunk, and zany antics ensue. We’re talking about a country that, over the last few years, has developed its own film crews, contests, magazines, and snowboard brands. Shit, even TransWorld has a sister publication, packed full of Japanese hotshots. And still, we know nothing about them.
With all this bouncing around in our little heads, photographer Chris Owen and I hopped on a plane to Tokyo to go undercover and try to separate the truth from fiction-well, as undercover as two white boys standing over six feet tall can get.
First things first-for the most part, all that 1995 teenybopper shit is dead. Sure, they still love pros and aren’t afraid to show it, but they no longer need to look to the West. Japan has its own scene and its own gnarly pros-our pros are just icing on their already delicious cake.
Next off, I was told about a thousand times before I went, “Oh, dude, when they find out you work for TransWorld, it’s going to be like getting the golden key to the city.” Bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, we were treated wonderfully, but I don’t think it was because of the business cards in our wallets. As I mentioned earlier, snowboarders in Japan have their own media. Take magazines for example-a fair amount of outside stuff still reaches them, but there’s still room for three domestic magazines. Video crews are starting to pop up, too. Legendary Japanese rider Rio Tahara started Red Eye Productions, one of the few companies to show all Japanese talent from start to finish. I have a feeling the fact that Owen and I work for a magazine on the other side of world had little to do with the hospitality we were shown.
Contests in Japan are a throwback to a time when kids still loved everything about snowboarding and weren’t jaded. Decks are packed with crowds that are just as much a part of the contest as the competitors, cheering with every great trick and feeling the pain of every slam. I won’t lie when I say it made me a little emotional (don’t tell anyone, though, ’cause I’m all tough and shit).
But on top of that, contests also hold a different meaning. The translation I got was a little rough, but it would seem that in order to be a certified “pro,” you have to do well in certain specific contests. You’re then issued a “pro card.” Now, I never actually understood what getting this card does, and from what I got, you can still collect a paycheck without one, but, hey-I bet girls dig it.
Or dudes, if that’s your thing.
Let’s not pull any punches here-for a long time the Japanese have had a reputation for being a step behind the rest of the shred world. Well, guess what? That ain’t the case any more. While everyone else was sucking down milkshakes and collecting checks, kids like XXX were out hiking. Look at the photo of him on page XXX- it looks like he should have a goddamn parachute on!
And another thing, I kept hearing how the shreds over there can’t jump-”All they do is ride pipe,” I was told. Double bullshit. Jumps and handrails are alive and well in the Land Of The Rising Sun, and while it might be true that the parks aren’t quite what they could be, all the skills are present. They are more than present-they’re abundant. I’m not saying that just to kiss some Far-East ass, either. Take a look at the sequence of Kazu-no joke.
Japanese riders are taking it to the street, too. Slippin’ down handrails is in full effect. And much like the kids around the rest of the world who don’t know it takes ten years and 30 tries to switch back lip a 30-stair kink, bodies are getting thrown down staircases-just like here.
So why is it that most North Americans still don’t know about these kids? Part of it has to do with the fact that Japan has a snowboard industry all its own. Literally. There are dozens of domestic snowboard companies throughout the island supporting these dudes. These are small brands that don’t sell anywhere but Japan, so even if Johnny U.S.A. was stoked on them, it would be almost impossible to get their goods. And seeing as the companies don’t do any marketing outside of the country-there’s no way we would know who’s on the team.
In the end, it would appear that a lot of these guys and gals are hoping to use their Japanese sponsors as stepping-stones to brands that will promote them outside of Japan. We can only hope that the next Tadashi Fuse doesn’t get lost in the mix.
Every time I told an American pro I was going to Japan, the first thing out of their mouths was, “Pack your own food.” This was followed by horrific stories of mayonnaise-filled pastries, boiled bacon, fish-eye soup, and one guy even told me about some monkey-gut casserole (which I think is a load of horse pucky). So the first two nights in Tokyo were spent eating at restaurants we’d never eat at in the States, for fear it would be the last edible thing we’d see. “Look, a T.G.I. Fridays-who wants a Bloomin’ Onion?”
To our surprise, with the exception of a weird breakfast that consisted of a salad and some onion rings, and a pizza Owen got with a raw egg on it, all the food that came in contact with my face cave was amazing. The key is finding restaurants with the plastic displays of the food in the window-that way you can just point to what you want.
For most people heading over to Japan, shopping for the newest high-tech gear and space-age toys is a must. As for me, I just wanted to find the most mistranslated piece of knock-off gear on Earth. For two days I dragged Owen through back-alley swap meets and Tokyo’s outdoor markets in search of a “Rorring Stones” T-shirt or a pair of “Mikes” with an upside-down swoosh.
After twelve straight hours of walking and a wicked heel bruise, I thought all hope was lost. Then, like a sunbeam from heaven, this market appeared. While Chris haggled over the price of a fake Louis Vuitton wallet, I found a Rorex watch and the belt buckle pictured here. Life is good.
Listen up, this is very important! If you plan to go outside of the city, bring cold hard cash with you. This is something we learned the hard way. Upon arriving in the mountains, it became overly apparent that not only did they not take credit cards anywhere, but the cash machines didn’t take our cards. Luckily, our new friend Yasu-the editor at TransWorld SNOWboarding Japan-had our backs. For the duration of our stay in the mountains, Yasu paid for everything we
needed. It didn’t stop there, though. Being that we’re stupid Americans, we can’t speak a lick of Japanese (well, that’s not exactly true-I know just enough to get me slapped). Yasu had to translate everything for us the entire time we were there-menus, conversations, road signs, you name it. By day two, Chris and I were laughing nonstop at how stupid and unprepared we were. A couple more days passed, and I started feeling really bad. I wanted to do something nice for him, so I bought him a beer-with the money he’d lent me. Thanks, Yasu! .