Originally published in Riptide Magazine
When Japan’s in the waveriding headlines nowadays they’re mostly about travelling pros rocking up, pillaging its surf and leaving, or about the ongoing Fukushima nuclear power plant calamity. So it was with giddy excitement that I jumped on a plane to the Land of the Rising Sun in October, board and fins in hand, with arrogant notions of discovering “the real Japan”. Heightening my anticipation was the fact weeks earlier I’d received an email from a mutual Japanese friend, Ken Nakatsugawa – a shaper whose rails I’d heard were sharper than the average Samurai sword. “I heard that you come to Japan beginning of October,” the email read. “First time for you? I can take somewhere to surf and do other things, you can stay in my house too!”
Ken’s place lies about 50 clicks south-west of the neon lights of Tokyo, in the unassuming semi-industrial city of Fujisawa. He lives here with his wife Naoko and his parents, in the same house he grew up in. Below the upstairs wing Ken, 42, and his wife occupy is his shaping bay, and it’s here on the second day of my stay that we make time to talk about his work, bodyboarding, and life in Japan.
“Eleven years ago I started shaping,” Ken recalls, with hand stroking chin. “[Long before that] I went to check some factories for bodyboards in America – Toobs, Custom X and Wave Rebel. Just to have a look. Someone showed me around the factory and it was like… a first step on the moon.” It was this international fact-finding mission, straight out of high school, that affirmed Ken’s insatiable desire to shape bodyboards, borne when he first picked up a lid as a young teen. “[From] then every day I’d think – what is the right board for these conditions?” he says. “What channels, what rails? But I’d think it on paper. Paper was my shaping bay.”
Returning home from the US, armed only with sheer passion and some general board-making info gleaned from his factory tours, Ken just required the money to get going. Once he’d saved that, however, the real work began. “Each factory I’d been to had completely different equipment to make boards,” he recalls. “So I thought I’ll have to build some equipment for the situation I have in Japan… a small one [laminator] is enough,” he laughs. “It took me almost two years… I failed so many times. One time there was smoke coming everywhere from the machine and I thought it was finished. But all of these mistakes were a really good experience. I had to learn it all myself, teach it all by myself… because if I have some trouble with my laminating machine, I must fix it. There’s nobody here to do it.” Thankfully, the Japanese are quite handy with electronics, so it wasn’t hard for Ken to find someone willing and able to help put his ideas into practice. “I had to keep telling the guy from the parts company – I have no ideas, but I have more passion to do it than anyone else and I want to make one of the best lamination machines in the world,” he says. “The machine will one day make the best boards around the world – like Toyota, Nissan and Honda – and the guy from the company agreed with my thinking. My first board, I was crying! [Laughs] just kidding, but it was like a dream.”
More than a decade on and Ken has become, arguably, Japan’s best shaper (there are six others). Many of the country’s best riders seek out his shapes, bringing to my mind Uma Thurman’s character seeking the razor-sharp steel of master swordsmith Hattori Hanzō, in Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Yoshitada Kondo (who you might remember from this year’s Pipe contest, surging through to the quarterfinals) rides on Ken’s Cleave label, while he also supports top Japanese girls such as Ayaka Susuki. Ken’s Australian connection was forged via a dropknee contest he organised in the mid-noughties, where he met the bunch of Aussie riders that entered. He now counts DK stalwarts such as Jake Sharp and Grant Molony as team riders and good mates, and also shapes boards for Peru’s 2010 Dropknee World Champion, Cesar Bauer.
Ken’s own bodyboarding career saw him scale the country’s greatest heights, travelling the world as a sponsored pro, eventually becoming national men’s champion in 2007. But it was during the lucrative ’90s where he found the biggest financial support. “That was the best time for Japanese bodyboaders to be able to get money, ever,” he explains. “Big, famous companies had bodyboarding products. We saw bodyboards all over Japan. Shops sold 10 to 20 boards every day. There was a wave pool for bodyboarders near Tokyo called Wild Blue. It felt like a special festival at that time. That’s how I could get enough money from sponsors to start my own products. Looking back on that time is like a dream!”
From that initial boom period, Ken says the sport underwent a cooling-off phase in Japan and has now plateaued, as evidenced by the lack of men on the world stage. He rates Kondo, who lives not far from Ken’s place, as the country’s best bodyboarder, but now in his 30s with a wife and kids, Ken says Kondo doesn’t have the means to chase swells or contests internationally often. “They [Japanese male bodyboarders] are almost all around 30 years old, except for a few,” Ken explains. “Generally, most people in Japan think bodyboarding is for women, it’s so stupid. The number of women on the Japanese pro tour is bigger than the men’s. So there aren’t many young [male] riders. Some men just don’t [want to] go to the World Tour, I’m not sure why. I think if I really wanted to, I’d try to get the money, no matter what… I don’t feel the passion around me lately. I get really disappointed about it.” Japan certainly doesn’t struggle from a lack of waves, however. A right-hand rivermouth wave not far from Ken’s place was put firmly in the surfing world’s spotlight in recent years after John John Florence and Dane Reynolds scored it as good as it gets in front of a bunch of lenses, while big-name bodyboarders such as Jake Stone, Pierre Louis Costes and Tom Rigby have all cleaned up on photo and video trips in Japan over the past 12 months.
Ken says another reason young kids aren’t taking up bodyboarding in Japan lays just a three-hour bullet train ride away. “As you know, the Fukushima plant has big trouble,” Ken says. “There are really good waves around the Fukushima plant. That [concerns about water quality] affects the general public – they don’t go to the beach. It’s getting better, but there are still not many bodyboarders.” Earlier in the day Ken had taken me to a mushy beachbreak not far from his home, which was swarming with surfers and a few bodyboarders. Ken assured me before we paddled out that local authorities and the Surfrider Foundation had been conducting regular water testing in the area since the plant was crippled by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of March, 2011, and were yet to find any traces of radioactive materials in the water around Fujisawa, some 330km south-west of Fukushima. “I worry about the water in Japan,” Ken admits. “I don’t think there’s a problem around here, but nobody’s really sure about it… the government doesn’t do it [testing]. They have secrets, you know? So that’s a big problem.” Scientists are currently unsure what long-term effects the radiation disaster will have on the Japanese people living near Fukushima or on the greater Pacific Ocean and its marine life. Grinding right-handers continue to rifle along a point directly in front of the wrecked power plant, with not a soul in sight.
Ken says while he’s happy with the way his dreams have panned out so far, he wants to take his custom boards to the world. “The Japanese market is not big enough to get enough money to support riders and the bodyboarding world,” he says. “I don’t want to be famous, I just want to shape boards for ever. I love it very much. I can’t think of a life without bodyboarding and I have good friends [that are] like family in the whole world, through bodyboarding.” Showing me through the rest of his shaping bay – three small, typically functional and efficient rooms containing all manner of tools on neat racks (and of course his self-made laminating machine) – I ask Ken what makes his boards so special. “I focus on the details,” he says, picking up a board he’s almost finished for Ayaka Susuki. “Like sharp rails… the shape of the bottom, the angle of the nose rocker… details affect big things on the waves. There are many things impossible to do if you’re shaping with a computer… I make all of my boards only by my hands.” Whether Ken succeeds in his dreams to branch out into other markets or not, it’s nice to know there are guys like him in distant corners, whose only goal is to get more people stoked on bodyboarding.
“Bodyboarding… is so fun,” he says.” Everyone can do it, so I want to give this fun time to everybody.”