2-Week-Old Sushi: On tour in Japan with Element skateboards.

by Ryan Kingman

“Go to Japan with the Element team? Are you kidding? Of course, I’d love to go,” is the response that would be tendered from the average skateboarder these days. However, there are some outside circumstances involved that may tarnish the immediate luster of your “golden apple.”

But I didn’t care, either. Let’s go.

First off, my newfound fear of flying had my head full of flashbacks from movies in which an unsuspecting traveler finds himself in the hands of fate, fighting for his life miles in the air, so I was uneasy from the get-go.

At LAX, the team was excited to jump aboard the “steel horse” to the exotic Far East to see what skateboard pleasure it holds. Most pro skateboarders are a bit jaded from traveling so much and don’t seem too excited about going overseas. However, this was not the case with us. I felt genuine excitement from all in attendance¿Reese Forbes, Billy Pepper, Tosh Townend, Jake Rupp, and our photo/film crew of Chris Ortiz and Ricky Bedenbaugh. Also joining us for this long journey was our interpreter/guide Yuichi Ohara, a Japanese transplant from way back. He was very excited to be going home to meet up with familiar skate spots and friends. We would meet up with the rest of our crew when we hit the shores of our once-fierce enemy. Kenny Hughes, Donny Barley, and filmer Vern Laird should be waiting there, as they had to fly from their respective ports a day earlier.

“All aboard!” We gathered up our bags and personal stereo equipment and boarded the plane. There I was, with two empty seats next to me. “All right, maybe this won’t be so bad after all,” I said to myself. As my thoughts of air tragedy deteriorated, I found myself in a deep sleep. That is, until I was jarred awake by a frightened Tosh Townend, who thought some sly homebound Japanese civilian stole his CDs while he was sleeping. I calmed down our youngest traveler and found his precious CD collection in the hands of Chris Ortiz, the hungriest man alive.

To my horror I realized we hadn’t even left the terminal yet; I thought we would be high in the sky by now. “What the hell is going on?” I asked Tosh.

Just then the captain’s voice came over the speaker and told us that due to technical difficulties, our flight would be canceled. Great, now what. “Everybody get off the plane!”

Back at the terminal, I stood in line for a few hours to determine our options for travel. Somehow I ended up at the end of a very long line of very unhappy travelers who each took at least an hour discussing their options. I was finally called to the counter, only to realize that our options were not good. We opted to spend the night in a hotel near the airport with free food and movies, and fly out the next day. This was a nice time for everyone to reflect on the day’s bullshit and realize how lucky we were to be grounded for one more night. At least that’s what I thought.

The next morning was like a replay of the previous one¿same shit, different day. Finally, though, we were in the air. One hell of a bumpy flight, I might add. At one point my seat-partner Billy Pepper flashed me a ghost-white face and whispered, “We’re all gonna die.” He has greater flight anxiety than most¿he and Chris Ortiz could probably exchange notes on who left a bigger skid mark in their underpants that day. Flight turbulence is something to be taken very seriously. I’m not kidding, I was mixing muscle relaxers and beer in order to fall asleep, and I usually try not to drink. It finally worked, and I was in a dope-induced bliss that even turbulence could not shake me from.

In the Tokyo airport, we just wandered around for a little while. I tried to remember if I’d arranged for a ride or not. Yuichi made a couple calls to set up a session for the following day, and then I remembered we were getting picked up by our local distributor’s main man, Mike Miyazawa. Mike hurried us curbside, where he had two vans waiting for us. Vans in Jan are not as big as the ones we have in the U.S.¿actually, nothing is as big as what we are used to. Somehow we managed to fit ten people into the vans, and we were off to meet Japanese rush-hour in full swing.

I fell asleep somewhere along the way and awoke to a slap in the face from Chris Ortiz. Getting checked in to our hotel was an interesting process because as we stood there, I read people’s names off my list of attendees like I was calling roll for a school day-trip. At first this was a joke, but with so many in attendance, it turned out to be a vital part of tour organization.

I realized that each person had their own room, which I thought was interesting, so I grabbed my key and ran upstairs. I opened my door and discovered I had my very own closet to sleep in. It was tiny, but I was stoked nonetheless. Reese told me about once staying in a hotel in Japan where he could touch both walls while standing in the middle of the room.

I went back downstairs to meet with our gracious host and determine our plan of attack. We went over some notes, and finally it was agreed upon that our distributor would give us money to cover our food and transportation, and we would be on our own. Just the way I liked it … or so I thought.

Mike took us out for our first Japanese dinner. Down the street from our hotel was a very nice place that served raw everything, and when I say “raw,” I mean completely uncooked¿fish heads with eyeballs, and that sort of stuff. To our fickle-dieted vegans Jake Rupp and Vern Laird (who would shortly realize a different kind of misery), this presented a problem, but to me it was heaven. I’ll eat anything, and fortunately so will most of our crew, but poor old Jake and Vern met despair in the food department.

The next day I was awakened by some rustling in the hall, which turned out to be a couple of our skate idols who had already researched the local terrain and found numerous spots. We were here to skate our asses off, and now we would. It was on.

I immediately held council with my Japanese tour managers Yuichi and Munekazu Kitajima, and we decided our best shot would be a full-fledged attack on Tokyo’s downtown business province. We decided our best route would be by train. At this point there was no way I could have known that soon everyone on the trip would shudder with fear when the word “train” was mentioned.

So all us merry Element creatures made our way to the train, which we had absolutely no comprehension of. We had no idea how to obtain tokens, how to reach our destinations, or for that matter where the hell the spots were¿that was all up to Yuichi and Mune. Our lives were in their hands.

We were whisked away on a city train that gave new meaning to the word “crowded.” We got off in a central part of downtown Tokyo with a measure of skepticism as to what we were going to find. Our skepticism was soon erased as we passed spot after spot¿ledges, rails, and double-sets, to name a few. And quickly were we flanked by a horde of marauding skate locals hot on the trail of the Element team in Japan.

“This is great,” I thought, “we get to skate, and these kids will get a free demo.” But that wasn’t the case. The growing crowd was easily detectable by local police and security guards, who came out of the woodwork at every spot we hit. Wearing white gloves and face masks, they would throw their arms up in front of themselves, making an X to let us know that either they were straight edge, or that we weren’t allowed to skate there.

We eventually found a few great unguarded spots, and we were able to film to our hearts’ contents. This went on for hours, and once again we found ourselves engulfed in a melee of beers and raw food. This would prove to be a vicious cycle we’d find hard to escape.

The next day we encountered a bit of a speed bump on our productive filming tour¿Akihabara, the electronics district.At first, some members of our group tried to deny their need to jump on the digital bandwagon, but they soon found themselves wandering the streets of this massive electronics swap meet. The one who put up the fiercest fight was our gardening green-thumb friend Jake Rupp. He stood fast against modern technology and all of its devious little inventions, such as PlayStation2, heated toilet seats, recordable mini-disc players (which were the most common purchases on this tour), and mini portable view screens¿like those high-tech sunglasses from The Matrix that give you the feeling of sitting in a theater when you put them on your face. Jake eventually broke down and bought a portable tape recorder, which didn’t quite boost him to digital status.

Never sell out, Jake, hold on to your roots!

So, as you might guess, back at the hotel that night, everyone’s room resembled a teenager’s living room on Christmas morning¿boxes and wrappers everywhere, digital equipment and accessories strewn about the bed and floor, and each skater completely engrossed in the directions for final usage of his new toy. There wasn’t a thought of going skating that night. We all awoke with the feeling that we had somehow caught up to our Asian buddies in the world of electronics. We felt more in tune with our environment.

The next day we made our way to a small city called Mie, which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Yuichi kept saying it would be the best stop on the trip, because the local park/shop owner was a real nice guy. We had no idea how nice until we met him.

His name is Toshio Morimoto, and he is the benevolent proprietor of the B-7 Skatepark. This guy brought to life all that I had believed Japan to be, immersing us in the ancient customs of hospitality. We were greeted at the train station by Toshio and one of his employees. It was rumored that Donny Barley was his favorite skater, so I knew he would be glad to see us. He approached our group with a very serious look on his face, placed his hands firmly against the sides of his legs and gave a traditional Japanese bow. Very serious stuff. I introduced myself and shook his hand. What a grip¿this guy meant business. He then bowed again as each person in our group was introduced.

He ushered us to his vehicles outside and got us all aboard. We drove a short while and arrived at his shop, which had one of the sickest cement parks in Japan in its backyard. There was a huge crowd of kids swarming around the place as we pulled up¿typical demo style … only this was no typical demo. As we got out of the vans, he stood in front of this crowd of anxious locals and gave a firm command in Japanese. All at once, every kid in attendance lit off some kind of firework. He then barked out another command, and The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” started playing.

“This is amazing!” I thought.

He had actually made a CD of all the music from Element’s teamriders’ video parts and put them on a loop so they played during the demo. I was blown away. Then I walked inside the skate shop to find every board on the wall was an Element. He even made a special Element store display, selling just about every Element product available. In a private back room, there was a spread of food like you wouldn’t believe. Plus he had the Element videos playing in the VCR.

This guy was amazing¿I get chills just thinking about it. He definitely made an impression on every American in attendance that we wouldn’t soon forget.

The demo went great, as expected, and we spent that evening at a traditional “cook your own food” restaurant, reminiscing about old times with Mr. Morimoto.

The following day we were off to our next destination, Nagoya. Yuichi, Mune, and I gathered our forces and made a plan¿Yuichi would take point, I would somehow blend in with the rest of our “round-eye” crew, and Mune’s job was to bring up the rear. This was the only way to get from one place to another without losing one of ouried to deny their need to jump on the digital bandwagon, but they soon found themselves wandering the streets of this massive electronics swap meet. The one who put up the fiercest fight was our gardening green-thumb friend Jake Rupp. He stood fast against modern technology and all of its devious little inventions, such as PlayStation2, heated toilet seats, recordable mini-disc players (which were the most common purchases on this tour), and mini portable view screens¿like those high-tech sunglasses from The Matrix that give you the feeling of sitting in a theater when you put them on your face. Jake eventually broke down and bought a portable tape recorder, which didn’t quite boost him to digital status.

Never sell out, Jake, hold on to your roots!

So, as you might guess, back at the hotel that night, everyone’s room resembled a teenager’s living room on Christmas morning¿boxes and wrappers everywhere, digital equipment and accessories strewn about the bed and floor, and each skater completely engrossed in the directions for final usage of his new toy. There wasn’t a thought of going skating that night. We all awoke with the feeling that we had somehow caught up to our Asian buddies in the world of electronics. We felt more in tune with our environment.

The next day we made our way to a small city called Mie, which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Yuichi kept saying it would be the best stop on the trip, because the local park/shop owner was a real nice guy. We had no idea how nice until we met him.

His name is Toshio Morimoto, and he is the benevolent proprietor of the B-7 Skatepark. This guy brought to life all that I had believed Japan to be, immersing us in the ancient customs of hospitality. We were greeted at the train station by Toshio and one of his employees. It was rumored that Donny Barley was his favorite skater, so I knew he would be glad to see us. He approached our group with a very serious look on his face, placed his hands firmly against the sides of his legs and gave a traditional Japanese bow. Very serious stuff. I introduced myself and shook his hand. What a grip¿this guy meant business. He then bowed again as each person in our group was introduced.

He ushered us to his vehicles outside and got us all aboard. We drove a short while and arrived at his shop, which had one of the sickest cement parks in Japan in its backyard. There was a huge crowd of kids swarming around the place as we pulled up¿typical demo style … only this was no typical demo. As we got out of the vans, he stood in front of this crowd of anxious locals and gave a firm command in Japanese. All at once, every kid in attendance lit off some kind of firework. He then barked out another command, and The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” started playing.

“This is amazing!” I thought.

He had actually made a CD of all the music from Element’s teamriders’ video parts and put them on a loop so they played during the demo. I was blown away. Then I walked inside the skate shop to find every board on the wall was an Element. He even made a special Element store display, selling just about every Element product available. In a private back room, there was a spread of food like you wouldn’t believe. Plus he had the Element videos playing in the VCR.

This guy was amazing¿I get chills just thinking about it. He definitely made an impression on every American in attendance that we wouldn’t soon forget.

The demo went great, as expected, and we spent that evening at a traditional “cook your own food” restaurant, reminiscing about old times with Mr. Morimoto.

The following day we were off to our next destination, Nagoya. Yuichi, Mune, and I gathered our forces and made a plan¿Yuichi would take point, I would somehow blend in with the rest of our “round-eye” crew, and Mune’s job was to bring up the rear. This was the only way to get from one place to another without losing one of our flock. We were off to the train station, where we became totally lost without the direction and safety of our loving Japanese guides, who were fast becoming less loving. Every time one of the nine American sheep saw something they didn’t understand¿which was about every second of the day¿they blurted out foolish questions to which they had to have an answer instantly.

Yuichi and Mune were very gracious at first and tried their hardest not to lose their temper¿as is Japanese tradition¿but we were putting them to the test. They soon became detached from the group and spoke only to one another, as if planning our untimely demise. Maybe they were going to sell us on the pro-skater black market¿a very big growth industry in these parts. We could only hope their patience would hold out for another eight days.

Sidebar

Taking trains from city to city, which usually consisted of catching three or four trains and taking anywhere from two to four hours, was no easy task. For those who don’t already know, professional skaters don’t travel light. This is not entirely their fault, though. They must have enough product (boards, trucks, wheels, shoes, etc.) to keep themselves updated with new gear every couple of days, which means traveling with a big box or bag. Add to that another big bag full of your regular clothes, electronics, skateboard, and cameras¿I think we had a total of eight video cameras with us¿and we’re talking about a lot of shit.

Now try to imagine carrying this stuff ten blocks to a train station, getting on a train with a crowd of 1,000 Japanese, and finding room for your gear. Once settled, you then have to get off that train to transfer to another and go through this all over again. You do this all day, until you get to your new destination, where you have to lug this shit through the busy train station, trying to keep up with your group so you don’t get lost¿which means you’d be completely screwed¿and finally you must carry it another ten blocks to the hotel. At the hotel, you usually had to carry your shit up a couple of flights of stairs, and then wrestle it into a room the size of a bathtub.

We eventually got to our next hotel and checked in for the night. After that, our group was on a mission to find some real American-style food. We stumbled across a few Italian-Japanese joints that seemed pretty good, so we walked in, made ourselves at home, and enjoyed a hybrid meal that was actually very good. Then it was on to the bar. We walked the streets for a little while, picking up more and more local skate stragglers as we went. Finally, we reached the bar we were looking for.

The beer flowed freely, and all in attendance were quite happy to be in Japan. Reese went on his own solo wandering mission and found an American-style jazz club. By the end of the night he was friends with everyone in the bar, signing everything they threw his way. The club locals were excited to meet their very first American skateboardero¿if they knew what that was.

The following morning had us on our way to Osaka. Yuichi told us Osaka was notorious for three things: squid, street spots, and Yakuza (the Japanese Mafia).

“Oh shit,” I thought. I’d seen Black Rain once and wanted nothing to do with the Yakuza, but hey, you only live once.

Our train arrived, and we lugged our shit about 50 blocks to our new housing facility. We had asked our distributor to book us a few nights in a traditional “Japanese style,” and got just what we asked for. It was really cool¿straw mats on the floors, and the rooms were actually big enough for a few of us to stay in each one. They came equipped with futons, which the staff would lay out for us every evening, and this place had good TV. You could either rent a porno (about one U.S. dollar per ten minutes), watch baseball, or watch an American movie in any of three different languages. I opted for Jumanji in Korean. I had to switch back to American every once in a while just to get to my roots, but then I’d return back to wild world of Asia. They also had really crazy game shows on TV; I couldn’t really gra