The Highs and Lows of Street Skating in Tokyo

Photos by Nat Kassel

When it comes to spots, Tokyo is probably up there with the skate meccas of the modern world, but it ain’t an easy place to get tricks.

Yoichiro Tamada is a Japanese skater who lives in Tokyo, and recently some of his homies from San Diego came to visit. They skated a bunch of the city’s spots, ate some world-class ramen and hit up the bars in Shibuya. On what was supposed to be their final morning in Japan, Yoichiro woke up to find his living room sprawled with sleeping skaters, but there were only four of them, instead of the usual five. Where was the fifth?

Yoichiro soon got a call from a lawyer, who explained that the final guy, Mike, had been arrested the night before for drunkenly tagging a construction site wall. Back home in the States, it’s likely he would have been released within 24 hours, jail-baggy in hand, ready to go skate the next spot. But not in Japan. He spent 10 full days and nights in jail and had to pay a $500 fine to get out.

Yoichiro laughs while he recounts the story, adding that as soon as Mike got released, he took him to his favourite noodle place. “Because the food in jail was really shitty,” he explains.

There are countless stories like this. Everyone has heard of some white dude who pushed the rules a bit too far in Japan and copped the unexpectedly heavy consequences. By all accounts, Japan is strict, which makes it a difficult place for skateboarding.

When it comes to spots, Tokyo is probably up there with the well-established skate meccas of the modern world—places like Barcelona, Guangzhou and San Francisco. But while there’s an abundance of knee-high rails, perfect marble ledges and bicycle ramps at the edge of every stair-set, it’s not an easy place to get tricks. Whether you’re filming for a pro part or your next Instagram story, getting footage in the streets of Tokyo is damn hard work.

Put simply, it’s a bust. But that’s a massive understatement. While HUF x Monster Children, GX1000, Pass~Port and Pizza have all put out solid and aesthetically pleasing Tokyo clips over the last few years, you’ll also notice that these edits contain a fair amount of conflict with police, security and random locals.

The GX1000 vid was probably the gnarliest in terms of presenting a balls-out, full eye-contact Fuck You to the local law enforcers and, in some cases, pedestrians. The YouTube comments are largely from disgruntled locals, calling these guys out for being disrespectful assholes and warning them not to come back to Japan. ‘Gaijin’ is the Japanese term for foreigner; one of the comments simply reads, “Fuck Gaijin, kill Gaijin (sic)”.

Most of the commenters point out that these dudes were being super disrespectful, not just to the local authorities but to local customs. But then, they’re literally being paid to go there and get footage. Copping shit from authority is one of the things that makes pro skating so pure, even in the face of corporate threats like the Olympics and energy drink sponsorship. Skateboarders, even the most talented people in the game, have to go out and battle their tricks in face of cops, security guards and local heroes who want to try to shut down a session. This challenge has a way of keeping skaters humble and anti-authoritarian. And this applies ten-fold in Tokyo.

Skateboarding is almost offensive in Tokyo, which kind of makes sense. Japanese culture is all about being polite and you can feel this acutely when you walk down the street. There’s no rubbish in sight, the train carriages are pervaded by a deafening silence and people literally bow when greeting each other. Street skating, by contrast, is generally loud and intrusive, so it’s difficult for the locals to stomach.

Although Japanese people usually seek to avoid conflict, the police are stern and uncompromising. All you have to do is jump on your board and push down the street and the cops will generally stop you and, in some cases, ask for ID and search you. (I recently got searched and questioned just for carrying my board through Shibuya—maybe being tall, white and scruffy doesn’t help either?) But you’re not likely to actually get arrested. As Yoichiro explained to me, “If you ignore the cops and keep skating they might take you to the police station or ask for ID, but no one’s going to get arrested just for skateboarding.”

Yoichiro and some foreign friends once got questioned by the police for skating near Tokyo Station. He tried to pretend he was American and didn’t speak Japanese but the cops were suspicious, so they took him in the patrol car to the police station. In the back, he stashed his Japanese ID in his sock, but then he got searched thoroughly and the jig was up. He had to spend the next three hours at the station while they went through a whole bunch of bureaucracy, part of which included calling his mother.

By this point, you might be thinking the skate scene in Tokyo sounds kinda shitty, but it’s actually super solid. By day, the locals skate at a few different skateparks that are dotted around the city. Komazawa, Setagaya and Tamachi are the most central ones (the Nike park in Shibuya recently closed), then a little further out of the city are Hachioji and Maihama. Street skating happens mostly at night, when the streets are less crowded and security is less prevalent.

If you want to skate street, your best bet is to try to meet some locals and impose yourself on them for a night sesh. This is actually easier than it sounds because the scene is markedly unpretentious and people seem to be pretty open to random foreigners. With any luck, you’ll probably find that you’re able to head to one of the local parks or skate shops, introduce yourself to some crew and blow in on their session. (I managed to find some dudes who were on a filming mission for Lesque Skateboards and we drove from spot to spot in their little car, which was dope.)

According to Yoichiro though, Osaka is a better city for skateboarding—it’s full of spots and it’s slightly less populated, so you’re not as likely to get hassled or kicked out. “I recommend you go to Osaka if you really want to focus on skating,” he explains. “But I know that most skaters don’t just want to focus on skating. They want to have fun times, partying and finding girls and all that. Then Tokyo’s the best spot.”

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