After sharpening skills on the streets of New York and earning a free trip across the Pacific Ocean, a small group of elite longboard skateboarders arrived at their Holy Grail: 26 kilometers of smooth payment down Japan’s most sacred mountain —Fuji-san.
The itch that gets under the skin of outdoor enthusiasts pushes the limits of possibility. This kind of impulse led a small group of longboard skateboarders on the first known 26-km descent of Mt. Fuji’s pristine Subaru Line, dropping1,500 meters (5,000 ft.) from the 5th Station of Fuji to the base of the mountain. While waiting for the winter snow to clear for the first top-to-bottom run, a skate competition 11,000 km away in New York City caught wind of our adventure and decided to make the Fuji Run the all-expense-paid grand prize.
Passing the point of no return
The idea behind skating Mt. Fuji began simply enough. A friend and I decided to look for new hills to ride down on our longboards. With large, stable wheels and swooping carves, longboards make any pitched pavement a dry land ski resort. Even though the countryside was full of suitable roads, two hours later we found ourselves on Mt Fuji. After a few test runs, it became clear the perfect slope and well paved roads were promising for a full run. Out of time, we returned to Tokyo, my friend moved back to England soon after, so the idea was put on a back burner. Then I met Racer X.
Racer X (AKA Brad Bennett) was first described to me as “mid-30’s going on 17.” “You should definitely meet this guy!” I was told by a mutual friend. Brad is a smooth skater, which shows through in his genuinely mellow personality. He was inspired by the Fuji idea, and the project was back.
Skaters with the control and skill to ride the full distance safely was essential, as well as somebody with a car to leave at the bottom. It took us a year to gather all the players, but when Flashy Flash (AKA Fred Burvall) jumped in to skate, and Jeff Klein and Chris Campbell (from Terabyte Station) offered to document the run on video, all that remained was to wait for good weather.
With the team together, accountability was key to make sure we actually followed through. Traveling in France, I told a group of longboarders during a skate night at Trocadero Plaza about the plan. I also shared the idea with Jeff Gaites, columnist for Concrete Wave magazine and founder of the NYC longboard skateboard competition known as Style Sessions. After Jeff wrote back a week later, there was no turning back.
For the past several years, longboard skaters have come to NYC at the end of May to compete in Style Sessions. Jeff explained that he wanted the 2005 competition to maintain its fundamental roots in soulful skating but mushroom into a full-blown international longboard event—and boasting a grand prize trip to Japan with Mt. Fuji as the headline. We hadn’t done the first run yet but, I feigned confidence. “Good idea!” I wrote back and hoped for an early spring thaw to make sure it was a real possibility.
Spring ushered in right on schedule and, on a crisp morning at 4:45 a.m., the skaters and video crew pushed off from the fifth station of Mt. Fuji. Just as it had been on the scouting run a year earlier, the smooth upper section was as spectacular as the views. Skaters swung back and forth like pendulums across the road around one turn after another. The continuous flow was all any of us could have hoped for and, 26 km later, just inside the entry gate, we relished in the satisfaction of seeing the original idea to fruition.
Three weeks later, NYC native Manny Pangilinan won Style Sessions—and a trip to Japan. In September he found himself stepping off the plane at Narita along with a few others from the event to experience the culture and longboarding in Japan.
Welcome to Japan
I had only spoken with Style Sessions founder Jeff Gaites on the phone once or twice and knew nothing of the other guys, but waiting for them to arrive was like waiting for friends you had never met. The skateboarding connection helped, of course, but there was something else. It had been our idea to ride down Fuji-san, but it was Jeff’s equally impulsive notion to make the trip the Grand Prize for his event.
On our way to Yamanashi from the airport, Jeff commented, “There isn’t a thing on these highway signs I can read, much less make sense of—Japan isn’t the kind of place you just drop into and rent a car is it?” It’s refreshing for long-time residents in Japan to have visitors put things into perspective.
We had a three-day window of good weather on Fuji for the run. It was clear skies on Day One with rain in the forecast. Despite the long flight and late night putting boards together, the NYC crew (Manny, Robin, Jeff and Tom) were eager to get on mountain. Myself, Racer X and cameraman Jeff Klein, rolled out of bed at 3:30 a.m., brewed up some coffee, and set about longboarding one of the world’s natural icons.
Tom, the only non-skater in the crew, had come on the trip because he believed in Style Sessions and wanted to see how things would unfold in Japan. I was surprised to see him first out of bed loading up his camera equipment. Once on Fuji, he launched into shooting video with such efficiency that our friend from Terabyte Station asked how long Tom had been doing video work. Tom, in finance by trade, laughed and told him, “About 10 minutes.”
After the run, the Style Sessions winner, ever modest and reflective Manny, summed it up in a note home:
“Mt. Fuji is possibly one of the best runs in the world, if not the best. You can go as fast as you want on it. The road is smooth from top to bottom, and the grade is pretty consistent the whole way down; about five to six degrees. I think an international downhill contest should be held there. If anyone ever gets a chance to do it, grab a buddy and go for it…I am honored to be here.”
Beyond Mt. Fuji
The itch to find a big hill to ride started procession of events that brought some of the world’s top riders to Japan, helping launch longboarding in Japan into the international spotlight. More significant, however, was the collaborative energy as we rode some dramatic terrain in Yamanashi and Okutama (Tokyo), while enjoying time with people of similar values.
In addition to being a talented longboarder, Robin was incredibly passionate about capturing the event on video. He would fixate on a shot until he got it and no one dared get in the way. Waiting off screen, we marveled at the artist at work in full “director mode” with his hair blowing madly in the wind as he peered into his well-worn Sony HD Camera.
We discovered early on that, while the locations, skating, speed and sliding were right in step with the incessant pump of the extreme sports movement; this trip was void of glitz, glamour and ego. It was a simple gathering of longboarders and friends brought together over 11,000 km by vision, good fortune and the love of fluid motion over pavement.
The Japanese expression “wabisabi” became our mantra during the trip. With no true equivalent in English, wabisabi speaks to unadorned refinement and quiet simplicity. Staying in an open Japanese farmhouse in Yamanashi with a quiet autumn breeze drifting through a sleepy garden, we realized wabisabi was a fitting term.
To that end, Jeff Gaites offered this insight after returning home:
“This trip to Japan is one of the most memorable adventures of my life…it is not only Japan the place, but also the people that make it so amazing.”
The Fuji Project culminated this year with the Style Sessions Tour, but, if the past is any indication of the future, bigger things are on the horizon.
A video of the event can be seen on-line at http://www.freshpaved.com/Static_Pages/fuji.html. For more on longboarding in the Japan, visit the Longboard Skating Section on Outdoor Japan Online (www.outdoorjapan.com).