taro tamai riding a gentemstick snowboard in hakkaido japan

SnowSurf: The Taro Tamai Interview

Words by Kim Feldmann de Britto



Surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding, windsurfing, wakeboarding…the fact that all board-sports are inherently interconnected – not only through common design aspects but also as subcultures – is clear to anyone who has been involved with one or more of them. Although surfers can pride themselves as the pioneers in the concept of placing a board under their feet to glide on some sort of surface, each board-sport has brought forth innovations of its own – subsequently borrowing from each other in ways that have pushed all previously conceived limitations, regardless of the riding environment.

Somewhere deep in the mountains of Hokkaido, Japan, (one of the snowiest places on Earth), a man named Taro Tamai has for a long time pursued the coexistence between his two “board-passions” – snowboarding and surfing – both through his work as a shaper as well as in his unique style of riding water in all states. Naturally, we were curious to find out his opinion on just how deeply snowboarding and surfing are intertwined, and what has this journey of discovery been like.

I used to live in Tokyo and go skiing from there with my family during the 60s. I enjoyed skiing powder as well as moguls, but an encounter with a 16mm movie in the mid 70s changed my whole perspective. It was a movie about a guy standing sideways on a board and gliding on powder snow. Its whole style of riding left a very strong and deep impact in my childhood. After nearly a decade passed, in the early 80s, I came across a few boards (including the one I saw in that movie) on display at a shop. There were various shapes, but it was a time when most people had no idea what those were used for. I instinctively acknowledged that the board I saw in the movie was not going to perform in Japanese snow conditions. I grabbed a different shape and I remember running back home with my first snowboard in my hands. Winter came and snow started to fall on the mountains. Coincidentally, it was a record snowfall season, probably 3 times more snow than average. The tracks left on the snow were buried after 30 minutes. After every run, I would sand off a bit of the board’s outline in order to match my preferences. I used to tweak the stance too. Basically, I spent my days either riding or customizing my board with a grinder in hand. I guess nothing has changed much since then. I’m building boards and still making some tweaks on them all the time.

Many of us may be familiar with the construction of a surfboard, but not so much with that of a snowboard. In the context of spotting the similarities/differences in the design process, what does it take to make a snowboard?

The basic outline of the board is made out of a wood core. The wood core is laminated with fiberglass in order to withstand the warping and twisting while riding it. The board’s edge is reinforced with a steel edge, however that is the crucial board/snow contact point, so the final shape of the steel edge needs to be shaped and tuned according to the desired riding. The deck is laminated with topsheet and the base with base material. That is the common structure of today’s snowboards. It is the same as ski construction, which was the reason why many ski makers started to manufacture snowboards in the 90s. This event played a major role in the growth of the sport, however, in the sense of board shape design, originality and prospects of new ideas were lost in the process. In my opinion, originality, innovation and imagination are the most important essence of snowboard design. I call this era the dark age of snowboarding. I started to be involved in board design in the late 90s in order to pursue my ideal snowboard shape.

The common sense of the industry at that time was to use a ready-made shape that was computer engineered and designed by a ski factory, and simply change the graphic every year following the trend.

I wasn’t going to buy that. When I had an idea in my mind, an idea that came from an inspiration I got from the natural world, I would get a big block of timber and trim out the shape out of that block. I call those concept boards, something to materialize an image I have in my head. I take that concept image and shape out a template with a more realistic outline and baseline. Eventually, I would use that template and turn into an industrial drawing so the factory can make a mold according to those measurements. I go through this process when I have a whole new design idea.

If someone googles your name, it will invariably be accompanied by the term SnowSurf. What is the story behind this design/philosophy, and what is your personal story with surfing?

Surfing was in the background of my style. Not just mimicking the actions, but to adjust myself to the ever changing waves & snow conditions, and how to blend into the natural environment. Big waves or long waves, steep slopes of AK or snowstorms in Niseko, just trying to be one with the Nature as would a bird flying in the sky or a fish swimming in a stream, is my ultimate objective. The same thing is applied to the riding aspect too. However, snowboarding in the 90s was nothing but an up & coming trend, together with the skateboarding trend that was happening around the same time, snowboarding became like skateboarding on snow and spread out around the world. Nobody could stop or slow it down. The ski industry noticed it and, although they were fully against snowboarding for many years, they suddenly claimed snowboarding to be part of the same snow-sport. Many ski resorts had no choice but to include snowboarders in order to sustain themselves. For a minute, it seemed like snowboarders were taking the initiative at last. A variety of businesses came on board, trying to take advantage of this new trend. Snowboarding, somehow, lost its identity. Like it or not, snowboarding became a sport at a global scale. It was difficult for me to see beginners struggle on poor designs and people get severely injured on bad kickers. It may have been a transition period for snowboarding, but I saw it as a really chaotic time. I was trying to keep cool and watch things go by. Skateboard-style (or freestyle) was the most popular, but the hard-boots racing style was also pretty popular. They were both just one aspect of snowboarding that were cut from the whole and specialized in one particular area. Trendy graphics were prioritized to board performance and snowboards were treated as disposable toys. My interest was to make a timeless board design that would allow smooth & stress-free turns in natural 3 dimensional terrain. That was my only focus.

I didn’t start something new. I was simply following my desire, just like the guys who first tried to surf on snow. Snowboarding started as snowsurfing. I was following my desire, and in order to do so, I simply needed to have a board that would allow me to ride the way I was envisioning. By completing the board design, it opened up the doors to the evolution of riding and board design.

Many people have told me “I would have quit snowboarding if I haven’t found your boards”. I believe this is a sign that snowboarding is coming back into the hands of snowboarders.

I feel there are no boundaries in Snowsurfing. I head to the mountains when it snows, to the ocean if there’s swells. It’s just as simple as that. Some people ask me if there would be a design that would work on both snow & surf. That really doesn’t make too much sense to me. Pursuing surfboard design and snowboard design in order to allow the similar feelings on each element is important, not to have one tools that can be used on both. Although it’s different forms of the same water, it has totally different characteristics being gas, liquid or solid substance. Salt water is liquid and snow is a cluster of small particles of frozen (solid) water. Taking the consistency in consideration, board design cannot be the same.

 

What are some of the materials you have been trying out lately? Which one is your favorite? Why?

I like the feeling of wood and bamboo. Bamboo is a very common material in Japan and other parts of Asia and has been used for a variety of tools and uses. They grow fast and are known to be a sustainable material. I’ve been using bamboo fishing rods since my childhood and I always felt it as a wonderful material that is tough, powerful yet with a gentle feeling.

Is there a difference between your SnowSurf designs and the regular, more classic snowboards you shape?

There’s really nothing different just because it’s snowsurf design. One thing I can say is that it’s been focused on the riding aspect. Many of the larger brands try to make a board that will suit anyone, in any conditions. That is a good way to design a board that is easy to sell, but does not necessarily mean that it is a good board to ride. Sometimes, a good tool chooses the right person to use. A good tool for beginners may not be a good tool for experts. A design that excels in hardpack groomers, may not be a fun board to ride powder. Take the TT model (Taro Tamai’s modern-classic design) for example. It’s been designed to smoothly ride natural half-pipe shaped terrains, but is not a fast board for racing banked slalom courses. There is the “quiver” concept in surfing and fishing. To have a selection of boards that suit particular type of waves. Like one board for hollow waves, one board for mushy waves, one board for beach breaks etc… I guess that’s the answer. It seems the industry made it so people pick one board, use it for a season or two, then make them buy another because they got bored with the old graphic. If you pursue an all-round shape that is easy to ride, it becomes like a boring one-size-fits-all type of design. My shaping concept is different from the start, so I don’t think we can compare the two.

One thing that drew my attention when researching online about your work was the Gentemstick Surf Projects. Can you run us through the idea behind it and how it has been developing?

There have been many surfboard shapers that got into snowboarding and found out about my shapes and started to ride Gentemstick. So, as we were discussing about snowboard and surfboard designs and shapes, we came up with the idea to have them shape boards that have been inspired by the ride and shape of their favorite Gentemstick model. The result was a bunch of interesting and original shapes. They all surf really well.

 

In your opinion, what brings surfing and snowboarding together?

When I started surfing, I felt like that was the best thing I could ever find, but when I did snowboard for my first time, coincidentally, I felt the exact same feeling. Two exact same feeling in two completely different environments. Although, if using a conventional snowboard, I don’t think many people can relate to that feeling.

If you could only have one thing for the rest of your life, what would you choose: perfect waves or perfect powder?

Do you mean the rest of my life after this world came to an end?

What do you see as the next step of both Surfboard and Snowboard design?

To think outside the box, free of prejudice and stereotypes. Many riders and board designers are still stuck inside. Some are also stuck in the box labeled “SnowSurf”, just like being stuck in a category such as “Freestyle”. It is the essence, the core, that should be focused on. I wouldn’t mind getting rid of the term SnowSurf. It really wouldn’t matter.

The athletic quality of a half-pipe competitor, big mountain skills and surfy sense; I strongly believe that someone with all those essential qualities will come up in the future generations. The tools will simply follow it and reach the next level.

 

Click here to find out more about Taro’s work and Gentemstick Snowboards.

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