Taro Tamai steals a glance out of his kitchen window, away to the east. The large wooden frame is filled by the towering presence of Mount Yotei, the snowcapped volcanic cone that dominates the Niseko area of Hokkaido. For a few lingering moments his eyes trace lines down the gullies and powder fields before he is back in the room and back at the table. Taro is one of those people who seem to be of indefinable age, somewhere north of thirty. As a board rider he has stubbornly ploughed his own furrow, followed his own path. When snowboarding was an inverted world obsessing over degrees of rotation, finessing a smorgasbord of tweaked grabs and rolling up sleeves to compare tattoos, he was quietly hiking leeward faces, arms draped over the handcrafted wooden fish that rested on his shoulders.
Born in ‘62, he has been a practitioner of the glide since the age of four. Occasional precious winter mornings would see his dad pull him from school and together they would surreptitiously head for the mountains to ski fresh powder, fishing for trout in the winding brooks. Then a section of a ski film’s Technicolor avalanche of images opened his eyes. “This guy was just riding powder on a snowboard and it really shocked me,” he explains. “I was twelve. I dropped skiing and started going snowboarding. The equipment wasn’t really around at the time I started. I just happened to walk into a shop, there was one Japanese company that was making snowboards, and when I saw it I just couldn’t resist, because it was really similar to what I had in my mind about how snowboarding should be. Because I knew so much about the snow already, I had an idea that this would work. I bought it right there.”
The skate punk, baggy trousers era of the late nineties arrived with Taro right there on the ‘toe edge’ of Japanese snowboarding; deals on the table, signature board. But as the focus shifted to snowparks and big air contests, and riders became more and more insulated from the mountains they rode, Taro felt increasingly detached from this branch of snowriding. Surfing was a becoming a huge influence, a new found passion for chasing waves in solitude along Japan’s northernmost coastline allowed him to reconnect. In response, he took off around the world; hiking peaks, riding powder, fishing, surfing, shooting photos, writing. It took him away from the mainstream and away from the glare but for many of the world’s top riders Taro has been keeping the true spirit of snowsurfing alive ever since. “The concept that I developed over the time that I was travelling the world, was that I wanted to actualise more the style like surfing,” he says. “Not just to ride powder, but to use the terrain much like the wave, the way you would ride to connect with nature; to enjoy the terrain and different features, any kind of conditions really, but just to connect. That’s what it is to me; surfing is to connect with nature, to use the energy and the flow. The kind of snowboards I wanted weren’t really available, the companies I met with weren’t able to do such things. To actualise that style for snowsurfing, I had to make my own.”
For Taro snowboarding hasn’t learnt the lesson of its waveriding cousin. For a long period, surfing stagnated within self-made confines. There was a feeling board design had reached its zenith; they all looked the same, shapers all shaped the same. It was about replication not expression – Slater’s banana boards for the masses. Only the masses couldn’t surf them. Then a few souls started pulling old twin fins out of their garages, or single fins out of the loft. They began having fun in the waves again. Suddenly nothing was off the design agenda and it wasn’t all about retro styling. Today you’ll find quads, Bonzers, eggs, Alaias in line-ups from Cape St Francis to Cape Cod. Yet snowboard design ultimately still exists within fixed parallel lines. For Taro, this myopic focus misses the bigger picture. The idea of riding what is, essentially, the same board on a powder day as on a groomed icy piste makes no sense. Just ask a surfer if they’d paddle out on a Skip Frye Fish at ten foot Pipeline. It’s more than just an aesthetic decision, it’s form and function.
The aroma of wood cocoons the Gentem workshop in a warm familiarity. Outside cold air stings the nostrils, inside the atmosphere soothes like the smell of fresh coffee at dawn. On the stand rests a Darwinian offshoot, born of genes that would resonate with any big wave charger. Taro runs his fingers down the grain, through to the shallow keel fin. This bindingless board is out on the edge of Taro’s quiver, where he pushes the boundaries of snowsurfing. “Snowboards are all being made with the ski manufacturing know how, where as we have been making our boards with snowboarding knowhow from scratch,” he explains. “The big brands boards have stayed close to the skiing ideas, ski racing. What Gentem have been aiming for is something that doesn’t move like skis on the snow, something completely different.” Taro is channelling the very first ethos of snowboarding, something more organic: to bring surfing to the slopes. And he’s crafting the equipment to fit this brief. He is pushing people to re-evaluate their relationship with the mountain and snowboarding, to distil boardriding into to its purest form. For Taro, it’s simple. It’s all about making the connection, just as he did as a child, on those precious winter days, away from the class room, fishing a mountain stream or riding a powder field with his father.