Taro Tamai is not only the most iconic Japanese freerider, he is also the founder of Gentemstick snowboards and the father of snow surf culture.
I first met Taro in San Sebastián –in the Spanish Basque Country- in 2015 during his visit to the 13th edition of Surfilmfestibal with a Japanese film crew. We talked about surfing, snowboarding and his dream of traveling to the Pyrenees to ride our mountains, then crossing over to the Atlantic coast to surf the Basque Coast and the world-class beach breaks in Les landes, France. I also shared with him my longtime dream of riding the iconic Japanese powder, so we agreed to get in touch as soon as any of our dreams were on their way to come true. And so I did: last January, I arrived in Hokkaido on their best winter in 10 years, I had the chance to taste the epic Japanese snow, which met and exceeded all my expectations, and also to chat with Taro in his beautiful brand new Gentemstick shop located in Niseko.
Our conversation took place in their showroom. An awesome, minimalistic space on the top floor of the shop, with just a couple of seats in the center and all sorts of beautiful custom made snow surfs and Alaïa like surfboards leaning on the walls.
Domi Churiki, his right hand and global Gentemstick person was there to translate when Taro answered in Japanese, making sure we didn’t miss a detail in his explanations about his powerful philosophy & lifestyle.
-First of all, Arigato Gozaimasu, thank you for sparing a little time to talk with us during your peak winter season. I know you’re a busy guy and we really appreciate it. Could you start by telling us about your origins as a snow surfer? Which came first, snowboarding or surfing?
T: I first started as a skier. I come from a family of passionate skiers. Then snowboarding and surfing came pretty much at the same time. I am originally from Tokio and I skied with my family in different ski resorts. But then I started snowboarding in 1981 and I’ve only skied three times since! (he laughs).
“Gentem is a Japanese word which means Northern sky, a Northern space, the sun , the moon, the stars…it can also mean natural way.”
-So when you started surfing, did you surf mostly on the main island in Japan or did you start going on surf trips straight away?
T:At first I used to surf around Honshu, the main island, but as soon as I started to get better I went on surf trips in Central America, Indonesia and different islands in Japan. It was the time when surfing became very popular in Japan and it started to get crowded, especially in warmer spots. Then I moved to Hokkaido, because of snowboarding but also because I really like fly-fishing. Once here, I started to discover there are plenty of good waves on the island.
-You’ve also shaped a few surfboards. How does surfing surfboards influence your Gemtenstick snowboard designs, and the other way around. Does your snowboarding influence you as a surfboard shaper?
T: I’ve only shaped a few surfboards but when I am designing new snowboards I take some ideas from surfboards. I use different woods from different origins and make the most of the natural fibers in the wood. For instance, I started shaping this board –pointing at one of the beautiful Alaïa like surf plank on one side of the room- as an idea I had for a snowboard, but I could probably use it as a surfboard. When I have a new idea for a snowboard, I like to bring it out of my head, so I shape a concept board just to materialize the idea into a shape. That’s where all these wood boards came from. Then I apply these concepts to the snowboards.
-But you don’t surf these boards, do you?
T:No. Well, this one I have. It’s a board I shaped in Papua from local wood and I surfed it there. It’s made of balsa wood.
-Tell us about Gentemstick. Actually, I’d like to ask you about the name. What does it mean?
T: Gentem is a Japanese word which means northern sky, a northern space, the sun, the moon, the stars…it can also mean natural way or unconditioned Nature.
-Wow, that’s a really cool word! So, when did you start making snowboards and what were they like? Did they all have edges and swallow tail?
T: I started Gentemstick in 1988 and yes, all the snowboards had edges but the first one has a round tail and a pointy nose. It was a directional snowboard. The first swallowtail came in the year 2000.
“Snow surfing is a philosophy, a lifestyle…it’s seeing the mountain and reading the terrain from a surfer’s point of view. To follow Nature’s cycles and think: Ok, today I need to go in this orientation to get the best conditions.”
– I’ve seen that the average board here in Japan is a powder gun: a wide board with a short swallow tail, pretty much like the global trend in shaping for the past few years. You have many different shapes in your catalog now, but did you start your own brand because you needed specific boards for Japanese mountains and snow conditions?
T: Yes, I couldn’t find anywhere the board I wanted to ride. But I don’t only make boards for powder. I also enjoy riding groomers and spring snow, so I try to make boards that work on any kind of snow. They have different styles but I try to make them all versatile.
-Are your boards made out of Japanese wood?
T: Sometimes. Some of the models are made of Japanese wood. I choose woods that are adequate to make snowboards, not necessarily from Japan. I use wood with different characteristics for specific boards. Sometimes, I find a wood I like but it’s not available in big amounts, so I’ll make a limited edition snowboard. There is quite a few limited edition Gentemstick boards.
-Your catalog is very interesting. There are many different models but the year or the season is not specified. Do you carry on models year after year?
T: The catalog is mostly the same year after year; we add a few models and remove others. One of the models started in 1998 and it still included in the catalog. It’s the TT (Taro Tamai) with a pointy nose and a round tail.
– What about splitboarding? When did you first start splitboarding and when did you make the first Gentemstick splitboard?
T: We made the first Gentemstick splitboard in 2000. We only made it for professional riders: filmers, photographers, ski patrol and guides.
-It’s funny how so many people use snowshoes in Japan. It’s strange because the flat approaches make it a very splitboard friendly terrain. It’s kind of like in the Pyrenees in that sense. You can do many not so long runs in one day and the snow is quite safe and stable, with lots of woods. Why do you think people still rely on snowshoes?
T: : It depends on the type of terrain, but mostly there are steep sections on the higher parts of the volcanoes, and the snow is really deep and the approaches are quite quick. Also, one of the main characteristics here in Hokkaido is that the slope can start right at your backyard or you can drive your car and start hiking straight up so it’s easier on snowshoes at some places. But I think the trend is changing and people are using more and more splitboards. For many years, our splitboards were exclusive for special riders. Mt Yotei is ideal for splitboarding. I still haven’t been there this winter. I went many times the last three years, but the weather has been terrible this year so far. We have hardly seen the sun and. We’re very close to the ocean so the weather changes really quickly.
-Do you sell Gentemstick all over the world or mostly in Japan.
T: Mostly in Japan but we also sell in the US, Canada, Switzerland, France, Norway, Finland, in Hong-Kong, there are some in a surf shop in Indonesia, in Australia…we are slowly growing.
Juan Aizpuru: : The first time I saw one of your boards was in Julen Sports in Zermatt, Switzerland, 6 years ago. I asked there: “What is that?” and he said: “You need to check this board. It’s the future of snowboarding.”
-Which are the places where you’ve travelled to snowboard and surf that remain on top of your list of favorites, where you keep your best memories, most inspiring…
T: So many…that’s a difficult question. For snowboarding it’d have to be Mongolia, on the Eurasian continent, near Russia. The furthermost point from the ocean! That’s the driest snow in the world. It was a long time ago, I think it was in 1994. We did extremely long hikes. I was using snowshoes, but there were a few splitboarders in the group. I haven’t been back since but I check it on the satellite now and then and I’ve seen there’s less snow and melting glaciers. I want to go back sometime, though. Best snow ever: perfect dry powder.
“To understand about the sea, it is necessary to understand about mountains” -anonymous surfer.
-Even more perfect than Hokkaido powder?
-What about your favorite surfing spots? The problem these days is that surfing is such a mainstream sport there’s crowds everywhere…
T: Well, cold-water spots are still ok.
-Have you surfed here recently? Which side do you surf, Pacific or Japan sea?
(The shops displays a full wetsuit including feet and hands, so thick it looks like a scuba diving suit for the Arctic rather than a wettie)
T: I surfed on January 2nd. I am hoping that this big storm coming up next week is bringing some good waves. I surf in the Pacific. Wintertime is the best surf season here with all the low-pressure systems hitting Hokkaido and no crowds. Ten people at the most.
-What are Taro Tamai’s dreams, goals regarding surfing and snowboarding?
T: My goal in snowboarding is telling the world that snowboarding has a lot of different approaches, aspects. It’s a free sport activity and there’s more than one way of experiencing it. This is what I try to express with my shapes, my photography and my films. Maybe, trying to develop new playgrounds and ways of exploring different terrains.
-Yes, actually I wanted to ask you about this: how are things evolving in Japan in this sense? Is it possible to develop new models of exploring the mountains, like mountain lodges, cat operation, heliboarding etc?
T: Yes, this kind of activities is growing. It seems like the government is starting to shift their thinking. Instead of just protecting National Parks they are starting to used the for leisure and activities that allow the people to enjoy Nature and have fun. It is slowly changing, in a controlled way. I am hoping I am given some kind of role to be part of this development.
“When I have a new idea for a snowboard, I like to bring it out of my head, so I shape a concept board just to materialize the idea into a shape.”
-So tell me, what is exactly snow surfing for you?
T: The feeling I got from skiing was completely different to the one I got surfing in the ocean. But once I stepped on a snowboard I started to link both feelings. It clicked in my mind that they are connected and that it’s the same thing in two different environments.
-So actually snow surfing is not just riding a board without bindings…
T: No, it’s more like a philosophy, a lifestyle, a way to approach the mountain. Riding a snow surf with no bindings is just one of the ways of doing it. It’s more about seeing the mountain and reading the terrain from a surfer’s point of view. It’s not about the athletic aspect of snowboarding and surfing, but rather like hunting, or fishing. You have to be at the right spot at the right time to make the most of the best conditions. You need to follow Nature’s cycles and think: Ok, today I need to go in this orientation to get the best conditions. Like in surfing, you would choose the spot depending on the wind and the direction of the swell. The same thing applies to the mountains: depending how much it snowed, or which direction the wind blew, you’d go to one place or another. People think snow surfing is just riding these bindingless boards on powder, but no. It’s difficult for us to explain. Also, riding with no bindings is not a new thing; it’s the origin of snowboarding! That’s how it started!
-Would you like to tell me about your link with Patagonia?
T: When I looked at how people run different businesses, I always thought there was something that didn’t feel right. But when I got to know Yvon (Chouinard, founder of Patagonia) his business model and the philosophy behind it something clicked in my mind. So I felt something was resonating with the way Yvon was doing things. Not in the sense of wanting to run a business like him, but as I liked the idea and the product, I started to be a Patagonia user even before Patagonia Japan started and when they entered the Japanese market I got to know Yvon. The idea behind Patagonia is to have a good impact on the environment through their business. First I wondered if this is even possible because it almost seems like a contradiction. But once I saw how things work I wanted to witness how things evolve, so I maintain a close relationship with them.
Also, when I grew up, Japan was a country that was full on developing and the only concern was making more and more money, producing and consuming. Nobody thought about the environment. A very American approach to running the country! I was seeing with my own eyes how the environment was being neglected and destroyed for the sake of business and money. So bearing this in mind, I want to see that it is possible to do things the other way around
“It is necessary to reflect on what makes Niseko such a special place and preserve that, instead of seeking fast profit. Aiming for perfection in what we do is part of the Japanese culture, it is one of our assets and this should also be the case in Niseko.”
-Do you thing Japan is changing in that sense? Maybe after Fukushima? I’ve seen plenty of new of solar farms and roofs while travelling by train.
T: Well…not that much, really. It’s hard to say. They try to pretend they care…but they actually don’t.
-They’re all the same!
Juan Aizpuru: I would like to ask you if you like the way Niseko is growing. Sure all this is good for the business, but do you like all these massive hotels, all the crowds coming here…Since you were here from the beginning, I’d like to know your opinion about the development of the mountain.
T: If you think about your children and your grandchildren, you wouldn’t do it the way they’ve done it in the past in Japan in general and the same thing applies to Niseko. In my opinion the development of Niseko is not heading in the right direction. In the short run, it’s boosting the economy and bringing a lot of money in the town, but in the long run, it is hard to imagine where it’s heading. It’s really changed in the past ten years. It is necessary to reflect on what makes Niseko such a special place and preserve that, instead of seeking fast profit. Aiming for perfection in what we do is part of the Japanese culture, it is one of our assets and this should also be the case in Niseko. I am not an investor nor a developer, so as a snowboarder, what I can do is trying to improve the quality of the riding and maintaining the spirit, to keep it pure.