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The Snowsurfer

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It’s 6 a.m. in Niseko, in the middle of what is commonly referred to as “Japan-uary.” A couple feet of fresh snow has fallen through the night and everyone in town is awake, buzzing with powder anxiety. They’re hoping to get the first tracks at Grand Hirafu, or at one of the three other resorts that comprise Niseko United, situated in the Japanese Alps. 

Taro Tamai is also up early, as he is every day this time of year. Normally on a powder day like this, he’d already be on the mountain. But there are waves today, which are rare and precious here on Hokkaido. Plus, it’s peak season on the mountains and, like most surfers, Tamai prefers no crowds. So he’s followed his instincts and made the one-hour drive down to the coast to check a few of his go-to points.

Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost main island, and surf can be found on nearly all of its sides—sometimes on the same day. But with storms typically forming off mainland China or the Aleutian chain, short fetch and crooked winds can be issues. Nevertheless, the tight-knit local surf community is very enthusiastic and active, even if waves are typically small and icy. 

At 58, Tamai has a bit of an Andy Warhol feel to him. Despite his gray hair, his physique is spry and wiry, like that of a twentysomething. Yoga and a healthy diet are clearly factors in his regimen. Like a fisherman, he is patient and precise, always checking the weather forecast, looking for swell and snowfall.

Most surfers don’t know who Tamai is. And despite his iconic status within the snow and outdoor communities, most snowboarders don’t know who he is either. He’s never qualified for the Winter Olympics, won an X Games medal, or landed a 900 McTwist. 

But Gerry Lopez refers to Tamai as the Craig Kelly of Japan because of his pioneering backcountry discoveries. And Chris Christenson calls him the Skip Frye of snowboarding because of his timeless, heirloom designs. However you try to define him, Tamai has always taken a different approach to riding a board down the mountain.

His style is reflected in his snowboard brand, Gentemstick. “Gentem” directly translates to “northern sky.” Phonetically, it can also mean “origin.” There are no loud graphics on the boards. There is only a clean, natural-bamboo top sheet and a jet-black base on each and every one. There isn’t even a logo, just Tamai’s signature and a small red eyedrop on the nose. No other branding is needed. 

Gentemstick represents Tamai’s unwillingness to choose surf over snow, or vice versa. It’s a balance of both activities and aesthetics. Though they’re made for the mountains, the boards’ outlines resemble surfboards more than snowboards. Each feels special, carefully tuned and crafted. Only a select number are made each year. Tamai believes in quality and sustainability over everything else.

A black base and small red eyedrop are design staples in Tamai’s snowboard label, Gentemstick (top left). Local wood is a design motif in Tamai’s offroad rig (top right) and home (bottom).

“My priority was always to be close to the snow or surf,” says Tamai, “not the amount of money I could make.”

According to his right-hand man and translator, Domi Churiki, “When snowboarding was first introduced in Japan, it was called ‘snowsurfing.’ Then came ‘snowboarding,’ the new-school movement with twin-tip boards that was heavily influenced by skateboarding and the ski industry. That style became mainstream, and snowboarding as we generally know it became popular here. The Japanese brands took the same direction, but Taro wasn’t buying that. He was convinced that the true essence of snowboarding resides in snowsurfing, and the original idea of gliding on snow.” 

Niseko is ground zero for the snowsurf movement, which was revived by Tamai and his friends decades ago. Once a quiet ski village, the town has grown exponentially in recent years as more and more travelers seek “Japow,” its unique snow conditions. Food trucks now huddle in the town center among large chain retailers, reservations and long waits are required for dinner, and signs for modern condo buildings under construction sit on every corner. It’s quickly becoming the Aspen of Japan. 

“I think more people are falling in love with this place,” says Tamai, “just like I did when I first came here. There is no other place in the world at this latitude that sees this much snowfall. There are many climatological factors that make it such a special place.”

It starts with a very cold air mass brewed in Siberia and the northern Eurasian continent. When a low pressure system is born, it starts to move east and gains energy as it heads toward and then over the Sea of Japan. As the system continues along, it generates a strong northerly wind that pulls cold and dry air from over the sea, where it sucks up moisture. This cold wind, saturated with moisture, meets the Japanese archipelago and its mountains, which lie perpendicular to the seasonal wind direction. The wind is then forcefully directed upward on the slopes, where it can no longer hold its moisture, and begins to dump in the form of snow.

“The snow is not that dry,” Tamai says. “I actually find it to be quite moist. It’s just that the crystals are still big and contain a lot of air, which makes it feel like it’s really dry. Because the snow is moist, it creates buoyancy in comparison to really dry snow. And it also creates a stable snowpack. Thirty centimeters of fresh snow here is ideal riding conditions, when there’s no bottom touching.”

Niseko is the world center of the snowsurf movement, which was revived by Tamai and his friends decades ago. Once a quiet ski village, the town has grown exponentially in recent years.

Tamai has been a committed student of Hokkaido’s environment since moving here from Tokyo in 1990. As a professional snowboarder who discovered his passion for the sport through his simultaneous love of surfing, Tamai always wanted to steer the activity back to its surfing roots and make equipment that captured a feeling that he couldn’t find on the existing mass-produced, ski- and skate-inspired gear being made at the time. So in 1998, he created his own brand.

It’s noon now and Tamai, back from the coast, heads to the Gentemstick showroom, where he also lives. Unlike other ski and snowboard shops, which open early, Gentemstick opens at noon each day so employees can have their mornings to ride. Built in 2016, it’s a beautifully designed building that is part showroom, café, yoga studio, art gallery, office, shaping bay, and home. The architecture is clean and modern yet has that warm, cozy, ski-chalet feel with a uniquely Japanese touch. There’s a firewood pile out back, and a beautiful rock climbing wall in the hallway that separates the office from Tamai’s studio. Natural light pours in through large windows. Every square foot of the building serves a purpose. 

It’s the mecca of the international snowsurf community. Though it is technically a snowboard shop, it feels disrespectful to come in fresh off the mountain in your boots and gear. The first thing you see when entering is a colorful quiver of surfboards (not snowboards). These are boards Tamai has crafted himself, inspired by like-minded shapers such as Beau Young and Chris Christenson. The latter claims that Tamai made him a “born-again snowboarder” in 2006, after his first visit to Niseko where he rode the Rocketfish model. That experience then inspired Christenson’s own surf-inspired snowboard collaboration with backcountry snowboard icon Jeremy Jones. 

“Since snowboarding was originally born out of surfing,” says snowsurfing enthusiast Gerry Lopez, “Taro didn’t necessarily invent snowsurfing, but he definitely gave it style and made it cool.”

Lopez and Tamai’s relationship runs deep. The two first met back in the 70s through surfing in Hawaii, then became close in the 90s through snowboarding. Lopez had by then moved to Bend, Oregon, to focus his attention on snow. 

Artifacts on garage display.

“I didn’t feel like I had to give up surfing,” Lopez says of the change. “Snowboarding just feels like an extension of surfing—it’s the endless wave. It’s like surfing without paddling and a hell of a lot more turns.”

At the shop, Tamai mingles with employees, all disciples of his fine-tuned aesthetic. After recounting their morning adventures and what work needs to be done today, he retreats to his private quarters, where he starts a fire, plays some obscure jazz from his vast collection on a high-fidelity record player, then curls up on the couch with a book. He moves through these live/work spaces with cat-like fluidity, with work and play a constant, uncompromised state of balance.

Before long, his attention drifts to the massive window in his living room that faces the crown jewel of the region: Mount Yotei. He grabs his binoculars and gazes toward the mountain. His home was designed around this view of the inactive volcano. With no ski lifts on its faces, it is a six-hour hike from the base to the summit, and it’s one of Tamai’s favorite places to ride.

The showroom downstairs is abuzz with travelers trickling in, geeking out with shop employees over the latest board designs and recent snowfall. It’s what a core surf shop is meant to feel like: a hub of pure enthusiasm. Customers linger for hours—sharing stories, connecting over mutual friends, and creating bonds. 

“I think it’s important to redefine what resides deep in the surfing experience,” says Tamai of his work on Gentemstick, “and the same thing applies for snowboarding. It’s not just about the actions or how it appears to the eyes, but acknowledging the deeper and more wonderful experience it provides.”

Tamai is the unofficial mayor of the town. If you happen to spot him in the wild, you know you are in the right spot.

“Taro hunts the seasons,” explains Christenson. “He is primarily surfing in the summer and fall, chasing powder all winter, and fishing in the spring. His whole lifestyle revolves around nature and what the conditions call for.”

The sun, now setting, casts its pink and orange hues on a majestic view of Mount Yotei in the distance. The summit, above a hazy cloud layer, is in clear view. It’s blanketed in fresh snow. The onsens (communal, natural hot springs) across Niseko are now packed with the ski scene. Nude powder frothers from all over the world sip tall Sapporos and talk story while soaking in scalding-hot mineral water in beautiful rock formations. Tamai spends these evening hours with his wife and son.

One cannot help but notice the “life-size” statue of Yoda in the corner of their otherwise minimal, curated living room space. His quirky, irreverent, and wise presence feels physically out of place here, but at the same time makes so much sense. Tamai plays a record and enjoys his dinner—local fish, sea vegetables, and tsukemono pickles. He monitors the weather and prepares for whatever adventure tomorrow brings.  

All photos by the author, courtesy of the Surf Shacks book series, available here.