‘Bolshy’ could be one way to describe a group of ten foreigners in a very quiet, humble land. There isn’t much you can do but be in the way and utter sumimasen (excuse me) or gomennasai (sorry, I really fucked up there, eh?) When the Element New Zealand team—consisting of Danimal Gemmell, Christian Low, Hootie Andrewes, Jack Fagan, Harry Culy, Chase Collins, Scott Lai, Willy Low, Leigh Bolton and me—landed, we knew our presence would be anything but orderly. Rather than bore you with the ins and outs of our trip, we thought it would be better to prepare something of a guide, covering things we did really wrong so next time you head off to Japan with a crew to go skateboarding things can go as smoothly as possible.
Text & Photography by Jake Mein.
For a first time visitor, trains can be really intimidating, especially as some of them don’t have any English on them. Make Google Maps your friend; as we all know, the feeling of heading in the wrong direction is miserable. Before you head out skating make a plan of where you’re going. The maps in your phone will plan out the entire route with what trains to catch and where to change. If you haven’t got a tour guide while in Japan, this is your best bet.
Hot tips for Japanese trains
• Purchase a Japan Rail Pass before you leave. Although not all train lines will be free, it means every JR branded train will be, and all shinkansens (bullet trains) are free too.
• If someone of the wiser demographic gets on, give them your seat. The same applies with pregnant or disabled passengers. It should be common sense, but hey, it’s good to know.
• If you want some entertainment, catch any train between 5 and 7pm; getting on is funny enough as it is. This also goes for trains around 10pm as they’ll be packed with shitfaced businessmen trying to make it home.
• Get used to switching trains. There are upwards of nine different train lines in Tokyo alone, and sometimes you might jump on three or four different trains to get to where you’re going.
Depending on where you are in the country, skating can be hard, but also really rewarding. On our trip we were purely skating in Tokyo and Okinawa, which are both amazing for skating, but are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to kickouts. Some of us thought we spent a little too much time in Tokyo, as Okinawa has so many amazing spots. Lately security and police have had a massive crackdown on skateboarding. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t get it done; you just need to go in with a game plan. When you’re rolling ten deep, a game plan can be harder to sort but the best advice is to be as stealth as possible. Let the media set up first. At some spots you might have five minutes max to get your trick. If security or police do arrive, pack up, go around the block and try again, but don’t push your luck—Japanese jails look miserable.
Hot tips for skating in Japan
• Ride the trains where possible, get off at major stations and push around. There’s gold everywhere, you just have to find it.
• If you’re rushed for time, sort a tour guide. This will cut down time searching for spots.
• Skate at night. You only have to watch Silas Baxter-Neal’s all-night part in Japan to see why. Skate late and get up late, it’s your best chance to skate everything you want.
• Do your research before you go, and find out the areas you want to cover. Japan is a hotbed of the most amazing looking spots. Yeah, it’s harder than going to China, but you’ll be rewarded with the craziest spots ever.
• Hire a Pocket WiFi when you land in Japan. For some reason SIM cards aren’t that big in Japan; everyone goes for these Pocket WiFi devices that work super good. They’ll be the thing that keeps you connected to the world wide web so you can keep a constant eye on what’s happening back home, even when you’re in one of the most amazing countries on the planet. It’ll also make finding spots that much easier.
Eating and drinking
Outside of skating this was obviously a favourite amongst the group. On some trips sorting where and what to eat can be harder than the skating. However, in Japan this is the best bit. From gyoza to ramen to sashimi to the group’s favourite, karaage (fried chicken), Japan offers some of the best cuisine you can wish for. If you’re not a seafood fan, stick to things like ramen and gyoza (dumplings). The Japanese are massive fans of Western cuisine so you can always stumble upon some form of chain fast food, if that’s your thing. For some reason there are Italian joints everywhere. If you can’t use chopsticks then get practising before you leave; you’ll feel a bit stink asking for a fork. If you were to go full traditional Japanese diet for one day, you’d start off with rice, and salmon on the bone with some pickles. For lunch you might have a ramen bowl (hearty soup usually served with pork and noodles), and for dinner you might have sashimi (raw fish), yakitori (meat on a stick) and natto (fermented soybeans; with a smell that’s similar to sweaty feet dipped in piss and with a mucous-like texture—the thought of them while writing this makes me gag a little—the Japanese consider them a delicacy and they’ve been deemed a superfood).
Hot tips for eating and drinking in Japan
• Bakeries in Japan are amazing; some say they do better croissants than the French. If you need a starch hit then head to a subway, as bakeries are dotted throughout the larger subway stations.
• If you have someone showing you around, let them suggest a spot and order for you. This is by far the best way to eat, all around one table with a steady flow of different dishes.
• Try sashimi in Japan if you haven’t before. Mainly salmon and maguro (tuna), it’s one of the best things you can do.
• Always pour your companion’s glass before your own. Again, common sense, but this is a Japanese custom.
• If you’re on a budget, stick to dishes like ramen. A massive bowl will cost you about ¥900 ($11) and will get you through two meals at least.
• For quick snacks try the different convenience stores, they’re like your local dairy on crack. The selection is like nothing else, from full meals to some of the best ice creams. Shit, the beer section will rival most New Zealand liquor stores! You can find these convenience stores on every block.
• Drinking on the streets is legal in Japan, within reason.
Police and security
This was a headache for us for the better part of our Japanese jaunt. On the first day we skated what looked like the most amazing bank spot, which turned out to be a memorial. We didn’t think too much of it, and moved on down the road to the next spot only to have a policeman corner Harry and Hootie and follow them while calling for backup. Turns out he was herding them back to the cop shop, and we were next to be rounded up. Eleven New Zealanders and every policeman in the greater Asakusa area and not one of them could tell us why we were being stopped other than they needed to see our passports. I’d been warned on a previous visit not to give cops your passport but to apologise (gomennasai) and move on. There was no getting out of this situation, however. After what seemed to be about an hour, an English-speaking detective of organised crime, (yup, you read that correctly, a detective; in fact I think there were three detectives there by the end) told us we would all be getting in cop cars and taken back to our lodging so they could check our passports were in order.
Day one of proper skating in Japan and we had a whole task force on our arses. The detective apologised and said everything has to be done by the book in Japan. Surely there’s actual crime going on somewhere? From then on we wised up to cops; when security kicked you out you could definitely get at least another ten minutes, but as soon as you saw a cop car it was time to book it. At one point we stumbled upon what looked to be the perfect slappy marble ledge. Jack walked up to put his board on it and sirens started blaring. We were then chased by a cop car purely for looking at something! We realised the only way that things were going to work was if we went in with some sort of plan, set up, turn the lights on only when whoever was skating was one hundred percent ready, then hope they can get their trick in five to ten tries. Yeah, it’s difficult, but the game of cat and mouse is pretty fun.
Hot tips for security and police
• Security can definitely be messed with to a degree. They aren’t police so they can’t lock you up but some of them can be quite full on (the ones that have had to deal with skateboarders a lot, I’m guessing). If you want to skate a spot, try to get some of the crew to head around the other side of wherever you are and make a lot of noise. This should buy you some time.
• Police can’t be messed with as much. If they ask for your passport, politely apologise, plead ignorance and try to move on.
• If they have you cornered, show them your passport and hope they don’t take it off you. It’s compulsory to have your passport on you at all times in Japan.
This was a complete contrast to our days in hectic Tokyo. Think of Okinawa as Japan’s Waiheke Island, if you will. If you don’t mind a very brief history lesson, Okinawa was annexed by Japan in 1879 and it’s been a controversial piece of land ever since. During WWII it was attacked by the USA which then led to full occupation of the island from 1952 (it’s in a pretty key spot to spy on surrounding countries from what we heard). This was reversed in 1969 but to this day the US has control of about 19% of the island and about 30,000 servicemen and women live there full-time. Our first encounter was literally the night we arrived. After the rental car company didn’t let us hire a car, we taxied to our house then had a wander down to the local sushi bar where we were met by three loud Americans upon entry. While we sat down to eat, they discussed topics such as their semen, the sound of bodies blowing up on a grenade and some things that shouldn’t be uttered ever again. Day to day you’ll hear and see fighter jets, drone surveillance planes and tonnes of other military vehicles making their way around the island. Since the American occupation, rape and murder rates have hit an all-time high, so it’s no secret that not all Okinawan people appreciate the American presence.
Luckily for us we met some absolute legends and life-long friends on the tropical island of Okinawa. Chris Matayoshi and Tatsuya Hayashi saved our arses countless times. Whether it was showing us some of the plethora of absolute gem spots that litter the island, sorting out rental cars, playing Savage as loud as possible, skating till 4am and dodging seccy, Chris and Tatsu came through every time. We can’t thank them enough. If you head to Okinawa, seek these boys out. They’ll see you right.
Hot tips for Okinawa
• Hire a rental car. If you really want to skate properly, you’ll need one. In Japan you need an International Driving Permit ($30 from the AA). You’ll need to sort this before you go or they won’t let you hire a rental car.
• Try local Okinawan delicacies such as the sea grapes and sour melon.
• Be prepared for sudden and intense tropical storms; Okinawa gets pounded by these. November is a pretty stable time of year to go.
• Hit up some of the plethora of ditch spots Okinawa has on offer. They were built to protect against large sea swells so they’re everywhere on the island.
• Use social media to your advantage. Chris our tour guide has gone through and made an #okinawaskatespots hashtag and it’s absolutely mental. Over 300 images geotagged on Instagram. All the work’s been done for you.
The sprawling mess that is Tokyo city may seem chaotic but is probably one of the most structured and orderly cities in the world. There’s a right way to ride an escalator, get on a train, eat sushi, enter a room, and fold your clothes. Shit, there’s even a certain way to drink tea! Needless to say in a place like Tokyo, simply pushing through areas can be a good way to stumble upon things. We were lucky enough to secure the help of UK expat Laurence Keefe, whose knowledge of Tokyo spots is priceless. Much like Chris and Tatsu, Laurence saved us as our previous five day jaunt in Tokyo had proved rather fruitless.
Hot tips for Tokyo
• Don’t bother with a rental car in Tokyo. It’s congested, parking is hard to find and expensive, and public transport in Tokyo is some of the best in the world. Trains are never late; if they are, the driver gets fired.
• If you want to shop, be sure to check out the vintage shops in Harajuku. These shops are famous the world over and have some amazing deals.
• If you’re looking for cheap accommodation, try areas like Asakusa. Not only are they close to some great spots but you’re just out of the central Tokyo area so prices are far cheaper than areas like Shibuya and Shinjuku.
• Don’t bother booking a hotel; Airbnb is far better for large groups.
• Go to the famous Shibuya crossing. No matter how many times you’ve seen it on different movies, actually witnessing the swarms of humans meeting in the middle is a definite life event.
• If you plan on having a big night, head to Shinjuku. Start off by having some yakitori in Piss Alley, then bar hop. Just be careful not to piss off the Yakuza.
First and foremost Scott Lai and GSM for getting a New Zealand team to somewhere as far off as Japan; here’s hoping more and more of these trips happen. Chris Matayoshi, Tatsuya Hayashi and Laurence Keefe for being absolute legends and showing us an amazing time. Leigh Bolton for taking up Team Manager duties when needed, and for being the most negative slash positive person ever. And thanks to all the Karaage Boyz for making the trip go.