Karate, geishas, yakuza, samurai, Godzilla, manga, ninja, sushi, Nintendo, cherry blossoms – one or two things are known about the Land of the Rising Sun. Then again, most people don’t know enough to realize that yoga, feng shui, kimchi, or kung fu would be kind of odd in that list. Through a western point of view, a lot of it remains unclear and blurry. In addition, the island country has isolated itself for a long time, minding its own business. Even in skateboarding, Japan has always been doing its own thing and has developed a very special and unique culture. We got together with the Berlin-based Tjark Thielker and Valeri Rosomako plus Harrison Hafner from San Francisco in autumn to explore this unfamiliar world, and a lot of the things we encountered were different than we expected.
It may sound surprising, but according to statistics, only about 6% of Japanese in their 20s have a passport. A lot of them simply don’t need one, because out of loyalty to the employer, holidays lasting more than a week are very rarely taken, and therefore, people prefer staying home over boarding exhausting long-distance flights. All this leads to the fact that a large part of the population has never left the country. For those who venture anyway, unexpected dangers are lurking behind every corner, such as the Paris syndrome, a temporary mental disorder that is caused by cultural differences and an idealized image of France which often occurs among Japanese when they visit Paris. I’m not kidding. Whereas tourism is booming in Japan, the willingness of the Japanese to travel is quite expandable – for the skaters as well. The so to speak neighboring countries Korea and Taiwan are most visited, and if it should be further away, America is preferred over Europe. One who successfully made the leap to both America and Europe is Hiroki Muraoka.
Crooked | Photo by Richard Hart
Evisen is without a doubt the most renowned Japanese skateboard brand. Katsumi Minami founded it in 2011 together with art director Kazuhiro Hamaguchi. Their first video released in 2017 finally put them on the map for a worldwide audience, and you may also have heard of them recently when they teamed up with Jenkem for a collab including a vibrator- shaped cruiser. They had already released sushi wax and butterfly knife skate tools and are working on a ceramic beer mug bong. You can obviously see their desire for extraordinary products, but they’re way more than just a skateboard brand. Through Shinpei Ueno, there is a connection to Tightbooth Production (TBPR) from Osaka and the shop there called SHRED. They’re also releasing the ER magazine, and all of that is gathered under the parent company Kinari, which is also a distribution. Skate products, clothing, shop, distribution, print mag – a lot of stuff is going on in the Evisen circle. We want to give you a little insight.
“Dude, have you seen these French guys who only cruise around and do ollies?” a very excited colleague asked me a couple of years ago while showing me a video of the recently started Magenta crew. It was a completely different approach to skateboarding compared to what our optic nerves had been served at that point. Don’t ollie down if you can’t ollie up. Diving deeper into the mythos of Magenta, I inevitably came across the Japanese scene and first and foremost one person: Takahiro Morita. He published two videos, Underground Broadcasting and Overground Broadcasting, which brought attention to the scene on a global scale – and which blew me away completely. Filming, editing, music, skating – all of that was on such a high level and so different than anything else I’ve seen before. It was clear that I had to interview this guy. In 2013, contact was established and I sent an e-mail filled with questions towards Japan. Since then, many more e-mails have been sent back and forth, the only thing that was missing now was to meet in person. It was definitely not the only but, for me personally, one of the more important reasons to make this issue. The sun was shining on this Monday when I made my way towards Nagano in order to finally meet Morita in his FESN Laboratory shop.
Shin Sanbongi rides for Polar, and if Pontus Alv chooses somebody for his team, you can be sure that there’s something special about this guy, that he has something “spicy.” To be honest, I didn’t exactly know what it was before I went to Japan, because besides his footage in the last Polar video, you don’t find too many videos with Shin in them, nor are there many interviews with him on the internet – but that just sparked my interest even more. We finally met in Tokyo for the interview, and then the day after, I visited him in his hometown Chigasaki, a tranquil beach town about 60 kilometers away from Tokyo. Being there feels more like being in San Diego than in Japan.
Wallie Melon Grab | Photo by Nils Svensson
Lui Araki is one of the OGs of the Japanese scene and was already riding for Zoo York in the ‘90s. For an even longer time, he has had a photo camera in his hand and developed such a level of craftsmanship that is only rarely found nowadays. Not only does he take analog photographs, but he also develops color films and prints color photos in his own apartment. The precision with which he shoots his photos within seconds is most impressive – he just has an eye for the right composition. When I met him at an exhibition in The Quiet Leaf headquarters in Seoul for this interview, he hung up his images within a few minutes, perfectly aligned without having to rearrange anything further. It takes an innate intuition combined with years of practice in order to reach such a level of mastery.
It’s been a couple of years since I bumped into a video from Toriotoko for the first time. It was in black and white, completely desaturated, and accompanied by a soft female voice. The video was baffling, different from anything else I’ve watched before. More clips followed – the majority of which are no longer online. He’d deleted them while drunk, Toriotoko says when I finally meet him at the Shinjuku Station. He’s just coming home from work a little outside central Tokyo and is still wearing his suit and a face mask. Now, I finally see him, though he seems to keep blending back into the crowds. He’s accompanied by two friends and a translator to ensure the success of our communication. We go into an Izakaya: greasy air and cold beer. Our cheeks quickly turn red. Laughter. Toriotoko takes off his mask.