On Surfing

Taro Tamai

Portrait by Matt Titone

As a legendary rider and designer, Taro Tamai has become an inextricable link between snow and surf, a stand-in not only for what some refer to as “snowsurf” but also for the feelings that so many find hard to articulate when carving through a stand of trees or an open face off the coast.

Can you describe one of the most challenging aspects of surfing to you?

To remain at the peak of the wave: it’s challenging to stay at the peak of the wave, and to be physically and mentally prepared to keep myself being able to do so.

The same challenge applies to snowboarding and snowboard manufacturing: to make the best possible crafts and to keep doing so. There are difficulties in evolving while continuing the making, but at the same time, that’s also what makes it worthwhile to take on the challenge.

What’s one of the most redemptive or rewarding parts of surfing?

To be a surfer and to be a snowsurfer have been the most important things to consider when making decisions in my life.

Has surfing afforded you anything in life? If so, what?

By having a definite objective, which is to ride a wave or a snow slope, I think surfers live a very pure way of life.

How long can you go without surfing?

Living nearby a surf spot would be a natural choice for somebody who wants to surf every day. My choice was different. I always wanted to live in a highland forest, nearby rivers with trout swimming around. That meant that I would need to commute to the ocean, and I wouldn’t be able to surf every day.

Anyhow, that was my decision. I never wanted to live in a busy place; I wanted to live in the forest and drive through that beautiful scenery to access the ocean. I needed that sense of scale and also a quality wave that would make the drive worthwhile. Life is not that long. A lifetime may not be enough to dedicate to surf and snowsurf. I think having a little space between myself and the ocean was exactly what I needed.

I never had many injuries during my career, but there was one time I experienced a pretty big hurdle. Over three years, I suffered from severe back pain. I was hardly able to walk. Obviously, I was unable to hike up mountains or paddle out for a surf. When I went over the peak of pain, I started looking around for small, perfectly shaped waves for my son to practice on. I didn’t use a board but had some fins to swim around in and help my boy catch waves.

Thanks to him, I got to spend a good three years only bodysurfing. Once I recovered enough to walk around, I started to walk along the rivers. At the beginning, one big obstacle blocked my way, but my body was gradually recovering, and eventually I could walk over fallen trees and boulders. The main purpose was to walk as rehab; however, I didn’t want it to be just that. I carried a fishing rod along and resumed my fishing passion. The main objective was to walk, but in having another purpose, it eventually made me want to go for a long walk on uneven terrain most mornings. There are a multitude of things to learn to be better at surfing and snowsurfing. Spending some time without surfing is very important.

When I was blindly in love with surfing, whatever I heard or saw was somehow connected to surfing. I guess any surfer can relate to that feeling. All I was seeing was tinted in one surfing color. I was in the tube when I was walking through a corridor and was spat out of it as I walked out of the door. The stairs were the face of another wave. I was indeed dreaming of surfing. Within that state of mind, I started to wonder what exactly it was that was catching my heart, and I eventually realized that it is the feeling I get when I attain the spiritual state of total selflessness. As you start to paddle into a wave and in that instant you take off, you live right in that moment, a moment of thoughtlessness when you adjust yourself to the breaking wave and you improvise to the rhythm of the wave as it goes on. That was the feeling I was hooked on.

After that realization, I found out that there are many moments in life where I could experience the same state of mind as you immerse yourself into what you’re doing. Surfing has become very popular these days. For some, it’s just a sport; for others, it’s more of a spiritual quest. One thing I could say, based on my personal experience, is that, whatever the type of surfing it is, if you can experience that feeling of selflessness, even for a split second, then surfing is probably one of the only few ways that you can reach that supreme state of mind and have fun trying to doing so.

How and when did you fall in love with surfing?

As a teenager, my motive to head to the ocean was to go diving or fishing. I grew up in a ski and fishing family. My proving ground was the moguls and the powder slopes in winter and the secret fishing spots to catch big fish in summer. I was never attracted to surfing, as it seemed like a bunch of guys covered in black rubber suits just floating on the water. It was only when I was 19 years old that the occasion finally came to me. A friend lent me a surfboard and told me to just give it a shot. I had no idea whether the conditions were good or bad, but I managed to ride a small white water wave. It may not sound like a big deal to non-surfers, but that singular experience totally flipped my life conception upside down.

How to explain that experience? I have no idea.

What’s one of your pre/post-surf rituals you hold dear?

I try to make use of my sensory apparatus in full and pay attention to whether I am being accepted into the ocean or the mountain as I paddle or hike out.

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On Surfing is generously supported by our friends at McTavish

Michael Adno

Michael is a writer and photographer born in Florida as a first-generation American to Austrian and South African parents. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Bitter Southerner, and The Surfer’s Journal among other magazines.

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