Surf Shacks 079

Taro Tamai
Niseko, Japan

Matt Titone

Most surfers don’t know who Taro Tamai is. And despite his iconic status within the snow and outdoor community, most snowboarders don’t know who he is either. Gerry Lopez refers to Taro as the Craig Kelly of Japan because of his pioneering backcountry spirit, while Chris Christenson calls him the Skip Frye of snowboarding because of his timeless, heirloom designs. However you try to define him, Taro has always taken a more humble, romantic, soulful approach to riding a board down the mountain where the rider aspires to be in harmony with nature. That style is also reflected throughout his snowboard brand, Gentemstick. The beautiful, unbranded boards resemble surfboards more than snowboards. Gentemstick represents Taro’s unwillingness to choose surf over snow or vice versa; it is a perfect balance of both activities and aesthetics. Like an ancient samurai sword, each board feels special; carefully tuned and crafted. Quality and sustainability over everything else is his unspoken mantra. Taro resides in the same building as his Gentemstick showroom and cafe, which is a mecca for the “snowsurf” movement.

Matt Titone
Matt Titone
Matt Titone
Matt Titone

Where are you from? How long have you lived here in Niseko?

I was born in Tokyo in 1962. I moved to Niseko in 1990.

This region is so unique in that the mountains are pretty low elevation (compared to the US for instance), right near the ocean, it’s pretty crazy. How are these awesome “Japow” conditions made possible here?

There is no other place in the world at this latitude that sees this much snowfall. There are many climatological factors that make Japan such a special place. There is a very cold air mass that gets 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 moves towards the outer rim of the continent and over the Sea of Japan. As the system moves further east, a strong northerly wind is generated by the low pressure system and pulls cold and dry air from the continent and over the sea where it sucks up plenty of moisture from the sea. This cold wind, now saturated with moisture, then meets the Japanese archipelago, and the Japanese mountain range lies perpendicular to this seasonal wind direction. The wind is then forcefully directed upwards the mountain slopes, the air cannot hold the moisture anymore and starts to dump it all in the form of snow. New low-pressure systems are born in a few days cycle and travel across Japan, that’s what generates the consistent and abundant snowfall. The snow is actually not that dry, 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. 30cm of fresh snow here is enough to have, no bottom touching, ideal riding conditions.

Describe a typical day for you — what do you do from sun up to sun down?

If I am not on the road, I wake up early enough to watch the sunrise. That’s my favorite time of the day. If it’s a guaranteed surf or snow condition kind of day, I’d already be there at sunrise time. When there’s no snow, I also go walk rivers to enjoy fishing. I really like early mornings, but I also enjoy sunset time as well. After my morning time, I’d have a cup of tea and have a chat with the staff / friends and discuss about each other’s mornings. I also take time to talk about that day’s work if there’s anything in particular. I try to do a bit a work on my own in the early afternoons, then spend late afternoons with friends and guests. I like to spend the evening time with my family, but sometimes I get carried away with friends and guests. I would listen to music and prepare for the following day at night. People say I am like a fisherman, always on the lookout for weather forecast for waves and snowfall. I really like to read books too, but I have a hard time finding time for it especially during winter. I always bring a couple of good books when I go traveling.

Matt Titone
Matt Titone
Matt Titone

Which passion came first for you: surfing or snowboarding?

I don’t remember. I witnessed a footage of deep powder snowsurfing in a natural halfpipe before I started surfing and that sight was deeply engraved in my unconsciousness, but the first board I got my hands on was a surfboard.

Describe your first time surfing. What sparked your interest? Where and when did you first learn?

I grew up in a skiing family. I was hooked on skiing powder and moguls when I was very little. The adults would tell me it’s dangerous to ski deep snow, but I guess they meant something similar to saying it’s dangerous to go fishing in a swelling river after heavy rain. We used to go to the ocean too, but it was more for fishing and diving, and we wouldn’t go when the waves were high. I grew up in Tokyo, but as I had the opportunity to experience the “hardcore” of the mountains and the rivers, my image of surfing back then was a bunch of guys in black rubber suits floating on an almost-flat ocean. It looked boring and superficial. I then had a chance to go spend some time in a house near the ocean in Izu with some friends. It was summer and I was 19 years old. One of the guys had brought a single-fin surfboard and he convinced me to give it a shot. Although I wasn’t too interested at first, I had to try it to prevent my friend calling me a coward. Like anyone else, my first day of surfing involved desperately trying to stand up on the board. I somehow managed to catch a wave, pop up, and ride the white water to the shore. That was how my surfing life started.

What about your first time snowboarding?

My first snowboarding experience was probably in 1974. It was an encounter with a 16mm film (it was all film back then) footage. It said “Utah Back Country” and I could see a guy gliding on powder snow on a surfboard-like shaped board. As I had experience on skis, I quickly realized that it would feel completely different from my sensation I get on my skis. I remember having goosebumps after I watched that footage. At that moment, I instinctively knew that I was going to do this. The impact of a footage back then may have had a different impact or value from what people are used to see today. It was a time without digital cameras, GoPros or drones.

If the conditions were equally amazing at the coast and on the mountain, what would you choose: surf or snow?

This question does not makes sense to me. I just follow my instinct and my soul. Whichever I choose, you get to earn the exact same rewards. If, those two natural events happened at the same place in front of my eyes, I might just sit down and be watching that wonderful sight.

Matt Titone
Matt Titone
Matt Titone
Matt Titone

How did you first start Gentemstick?

I was a pro snowboarder. I was thinking about board shapes and the evolution of other equipment, thinking about what could make snowboarding better. Before that, I was doing random work to make enough money to live a snow and surf bum life. My priority was to be close to the snow or surf, and not the amount of money I could make. I needed a board that worked right for me. In the beginning of snowboarding, people were making boards that they wanted to ride, not boards that were easy to sell. When snowboarding started to emerge and skiing started to decline in the late 1980s, the ski industry got into snowboard production and started to make mass-produced boards from know-how they acquired from ski-making. How snowboarders wanted to ride or how they wanted to turn wasn’t the focus; the purpose was lost, but it helped get more people on the snow. Just like anything else, there’s light and shadow. Those ski-like snowboards played a big role in making snowboarding popular, however, it also made snowboarding lose its identity and culture. There were many people getting injured because of poor design. The same thing applies to the software side of things. Ski resorts were originally designed for skiers, and competitions were based on the existing ski event framework. The originality of snowboarding was lost and I think it’s still pretty much the same today. Anyway, my goal was to put snowboarding culture back in the hands of snowboarders, and my means to do it was through board design. I was motivated to start Gentemstick because I wanted to make boards that I wanted to ride, and because I was hoping to save a culture that was almost lost through my board-making. It wasn’t easy. All the factories back then weren’t even asking what kind of board I wanted to make, but wanted to know if I could afford their MOQ [minimum order quantity] of 2,000 boards. But what I realized while visiting the factories was that the most important thing was to find the right engineer that was able to materialize the shaping ideas I had in my mind. Eventually, everything turned out and I was finally able to start my own brand, Gentemstick, in 1998.

Gentemstick seems to have somewhat of a cult-like following. What makes your boards so unique?

They’re different from skateboards and also different from surfboards. Also different from skis. They’re not made to win a competition, but has been shaped to purely and freely glide on the snow. It’s not that they’re unique, but I guess it’s mine and my friends’ passion to make a design to synchronize with the nature that has fascinated like-minded snow-riders’ hearts.

Which is your favorite board model and why?

I love each and every shape that I can physically ride, but if I had to pick one out of them all, it would be the TT model. The way it allows me to ride, solid and sharp carving, smooth release of tail and versatility of riding. It might be a tricky board to handle sometimes, but when the conditions aligns, its performance is one and only.

Matt Titone

What have been the biggest challenges of running your own business?

To change snowboarders’ and snowboard industry’s consciousness.

On the flipside, what have been your greatest successes?

When I could see that the above change was actually happening.

What are your main sources of creative inspiration?

Every natural phenomenon that occurs around me.

Who have been your greatest influences over the years in shaping the Gentemstick brand?

Dimitrije Milovich and George Greenough

What are your favorite parts about Hokkaido and the Niseko area in which you live?

Powder snow almost everyday. Proximity to the ocean, the rivers and the mountains. Open minded mentality of the locals.

Matt Titone

I was told that this year has been the worst season for snowfall in Niseko on record. How have you seen climate change affect this region in particular?

The changes we see today are not quite like when I started living here in the early 90s. It just seems to go faster and faster. There seems to be less cold bluebird days right after big dumps. The atmospheric pressure distribution seems to have drastically changed since around 2006. The snowfall timing and the surf conditions are more difficult to predict. Even more so after 2010. The wind direction, sunshine hours, temperature, moisture and all the other climate variables have gone beyond our imagination.

You have a pretty serious jazz collection on vinyl here. What are your top 5 favorite records?

I love Jazz but I also listen to many different music genres. For me, good music is about the groove, the symphony, a well built music and a beautiful vocal. There is wonderful music around the world. This could be translated to snowboarding too. It’s not just about how aggressive or how extreme you can be, the next generation will go beyond categories and genres, and we will see wonderful riders interpreting their own music throughout their ridings.

What’s it like being a surfer in Japan? What are the pros and the cons?

I’m not sure. But I think surfer and snowboarders are a great role models for humanity. Nationality or ethnicity doesn’t matter.

What are your thoughts on surf culture in general?

Surfing has lost some of what makes it special—it has become more of a commercial sport these days. However, what one can experience, acquire, and feel through surfing is still something very special and something that won’t change with time. I think surfers should be proud of it and tell their story to the rest of the world. I think it’s important to redefine what resides deep in the surfing experience, and the same thing applies to snowboarding. It’s not just about the actions or how it appears to the eye, but acknowledging the deeper and more wonderful experience it provides.

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Matt Titone

A goofy-footed graphic designer who hails from the first state, Delaware. After attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL then graduating from SCAD in Savannah, GA with a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration, Matt moved to NYC and found work as a freelance designer and art director. In 2006 he moved west to Venice, CA where he co-founded ITAL/C Studio, constantly seeks left hand point breaks, and tries very hard to avoid crowds & traffic.

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