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The Kazuhiro Kokubo Interview

10:35 26th June 2012 by Tom Copsey
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Kazuhiro Kokubo. Photo: Sami Tuoriniemi.

Check out Kazu’s interview that was in issue 127, beefed up with some epic video highlights from his career so far.

To make the long summer days pass quicker, so we’re dusting off interviews with snowboarding’s great and good that we featured in the mag last season, and spicing them up with some banging video. This time it’s one of our favourite riders around: Kazu…

KAZUHIRO KOKUBO

[Words: Danny Burrows]

Kazu is the lone Ronin of snowboarding, stealing from the bad guys, defined by him as fakers or leaches, and returning it, without want of acknowledgment, to those who deserve it most: the common rider. Filming, competing or getting gnarly in the pow with friends Kazu’s riding conveys a selfish yet selfless purpose, the essence of which, as it is for us all, is fun.

US OPEN 2003 – 2ND PLACE – 14-YEARS-OLD

In 2010, Kazu rode the pipe for Japan at the Vancouver Olympics, his second Games, but no sooner had he stepped off the plane than he found himself in hot water. Dressed in Japan’s official Olympic attire, as all athletes must, he had given the uniform a personal touch, with shirttails and tie worn loose. It was a molehill that became a mountain of scandal and could have seen him on the next flight home had he not apologised. As a lesser punishment he was made to miss the opening ceremony of the Games; not that he was bothered. He had come to enjoy the pipe and compete to the best of his ability, even with four broken ribs from hitting a tree a few weeks earlier.

There was one malignant draw back though, which in Kazu’s words was that he “became known to the general public.” “It is weird when people who don’t snowboard come up to me and know me. I didn’t want to go out at one time, but no one came up and said bad things.” He is snowboarding’s vociferous mute if you like, shouting loudly with his unique and stylish take on snowboarding, while choosing to move quietly through the scene, either because of his modest demeanour and or his temperate grasp of English.

LOST IN TRANSITION – 2005

Long before Vancouver he had been blinking brightly on Onboard’s radar but for fear of not being able to understand each other we had shied away from hauling him in for questioning. However, last season Kazu moved to So-Cal, the Ghetto of émigré snowboarders, and consequently his English has been improving. He also scored the opening part in Burton’s Standing Sideways, so no more excuses, the interview was on.

Kazu grew up on the outskirts of Sapporo, the capital of Japan’s North Island Hokkaido. The city is hemmed to the south by the mountains of Mount Teine, Maruyama, and Moiwa and to the North West by Japan’s infamous powder playgrounds, which rise over the island sifting moisture from oceanic winter storms. There’s no shortage of snow here and with a father who was a keen surfer and snowboarder it was predictable that Kazu should end up sliding sideways.

He started skiing aged two but came in contact with his first snowboard two years later and begged his parents to get him one. They not only obliged but also actively encouraged his riding, with his father taking him for night sessions, after work, at the local mountain of Asari. “We didn’t have parks and half pipes when I started,” says Kazu. “I started in powder and hiking backcountry with my dad and his friends before them.” These early years had a lasting influence on his riding and to this day Kazu is of the opinion that he is a better powder rider than park or park rat.

Of the local snowboard scene at the time Kazu claims that although there probably was one it was not something he was preoccupied by. “Our scene was my dad and a few friends and me.” Nor did he have riding heroes like many kids; this was something that he got into later. “It wasn’t about progression, it was about having fun,” and although his progression is undeniable his grasp of the fun side of riding has never slackened.

FULL PART – DRAW THE LINE – 2007

Within two years of strapping in he was hooked by the local distributor of Burton while competing on the youth circuit and has ridden the big B ever since. According to Kazu Burton and other sponsors, have been instrumental in the development of his snowboarding, allowing him to ride as he wants, which in his case means balancing a burgeoning competition schedule with filming and riding for himself. “I’m just doing what I want to do, I compete when I want to compete and ride where I want to ride.” It may sound ideal but it is also physically and mentally draining: “You have to really focus on each one and I exercise a lot so that I can stay in shape to do all and enjoy them equally.”

And focus he has throughout his career. After winning a clutch of contests in Japan and becoming the first Japanese rider to podium at the US Open in 2003 Kazu became a name on the international circuit and the following year was invited to film for Standard’s Lost in Transition. Before this, by Kazu’s own admittion, he was little known. It was also around this time that he met Mikkel Bang and Luke Mitrani, some of the many riders he now calls friends.

By 2006 and Standard’s Draw The Line Kazu’s parts had matured from pipe and contests to backcountry pow and kicker medleys. This according to Kazu is more of a true representation of the rider that he was and still is. “I always liked this style since I was living in Japan and started riding. I never had a year that I didn’t ride a lot of powder.” According to him if he doesn’t have “a balance of riding park, pipe, backcountry and big mountain” he feels he isn’t being true to himself.

FULL PART – AESTHETICA – 2009

His part in The Storming of 2010 is his best Standard part yet; “I think it showed every part of my riding from big contest to powder and parks. The music was sick and they did a really good job with all the Olympic stuff.” The part relives his contest runs at the Olympics and X Games, where the commentator described his front doubles as landed as easily as backside airs, through to park, pipe and quarter sessions, to backcountry booters and pow lines.

It was a banger without question, but fast forward a season and into our DVD players slots Burton’s team movie Standing Sideways, kicked off by Kazu’s pow, pipe and park romping opener. It was well a reward well deserved for a season that he describes as his best yet both professionally and personally. “I was able to shoot all of my powder footage during 2 heli trips in Canada, and then 3 park shoots at end of the season and a Stonp trip while I was back in Japan last Christmas,” Kazu confided in us.

He also found time to score second at the BEO, 5th at the X Games and win perhaps the most prestigious event in the contest calendar, the US Open. Transworld Snowboarding Japan later ran a cover of his victory lap, in which he was pictured straight lining the pipe, arms outstretched, in an act of solidarity and prayer for the victims of the Japan. “I have gotten covers before but I think that will always be my favourite. It means so much to me spiritually, professionally and personally and to so many people because of everything that happened during the time of the US Open.”

Victory in hand Kazu returned to Japan and headed for the west coast, which bore the brunt of the earthquake and proceeding tsunamis. He primary work was with the animal welfare organisation JEARS: “I went to the disaster area to help animals, as I consider dogs as important a part of my family, same as humans. But we also went to meet the people who were affected by the disasters. If I can just make a few people smile and not think about all of the bad things that happened even for just a few minutes, it is all worth it.”

1ST PLACE – US OPEN 2010

Kazu will also donate the proceeds from the sale of his signature wax from Wend to the relief fund and he and his fellow riders from the Japanese film project Stonp put their weight behind the Jib for Japan event: “It’s our country, our neighbours, our home” said Kazu, explaining his dedication to the cause. “We are obligated to help. This isn’t about making yourself feel good or having a good image for press, it’s our duty as humans to help.”

Kazu too has had his own close calls, not only on the snow but also off. Driving back from the mountains last spring to So-Cal he flipped his truck: “I don’t remember anything before waking up in the ambulance. They said I rolled over 5 or 6 times but I don’t know. I have a lot of people watching over and protecting me and I am thankful for that.” He was lucky to come out of it with just a few cuts and bruises.

On snow his near misses include being sucked up by an avalanche, while riding with Nico Müller and Stefan Maurer but again luck was on his side and he didn’t get fully buried. But danger is something that comes with the territory in which Kazu rides or as he put it “on the mountain, I was in places that every time I dropped it was a close call if I fell.

Kazu sheathes high calibre all-mountain freestyle comfortably alongside his competition riding and lists the likes of John Jackson, Terje, Mads and Jussi as dudes he has the utmost respect for. But he adds “there are so many guys I have a lot of respect for as snowboarders and as people” and it may surprise you that these include Keegan Valaika, Ethan Deiss, Yusuku Horii and Kotoro Kamimura. They are his favourite riders in the genre of new school jibbery, a niche of snowboarding that Kazu admits is a style that he can’t do. What rails he does hit he limits to the park.

FULL PART – THE STORMING – 2010 – WITH THE ‘DRESS CODE’ INCIDENT

So what is it that motivates Kazu? A competitive streak? “Probably,” says Kazu. “When I go to contest I want to do my best and if I win, cool. But it isn’t the main focus.” Like at the X Games, he was stoked with his runs but was also happy about the feedback from everyone that was watching. “That is like winning for me even if it is not first place.”

Kazu, like the riders he competes against, trains hard, a regime that includes airbags and foam pits. But they were not a tool that he grew up with: “they are new to me but if you want to compete today, the tricks are too hard to learn on just snow. I try and use it very little and get to snow as fast as I can.” Apparently, airbags scare him more than snow.

For Kazu style is as important as technical tricks and this is perhaps why some many people are stoked on him as a rider, whether he is boosting lofty Mctwists in an Olympic pipe or putting down the back wheels in pow. “You can make technical tricks have style like McTwist or even spins and double corks. I don’t think it has to be just technical or just stylish.” Wherever Kazu rides it is his effortless style, and serene manner, that mark him a flag bearer for snowboarding in its purest form. To watch, it is as if he were dropping in to an empty pipe, enjoying the moment while flying high on natural ability. “For my run I will decide right before I start,” Kazu said describing his approach to competitions. “It depends on how I feel.”

Comp jock he is not but organically progressive rider he is. There’s a difference and it is a distinction that he applies to every aspect of his riding as well as his life beyond snow. “I am just me and will always be the same kid from Hokkaido no matter what.”

Concluding our interview Kazu said: “Someday everything I’m doing now will end and I want to appreciate and enjoy this life I’ve been blessed with and take advantage of it while I can before I get old and can’t keep doing the things I’m doing now. I have great people around me and sponsors that allow me to live this life now and I will do the best I can and show everyone how much fun snowboarding is.”

Selfless and yet selfish is what snowboarding is. It is a sport that is individual in execution and yet if you ride, think and behave like Kazu the act of putting board to snow can give some much back to so many.

FULL PART – STANDING SIDEWAYS – 2011

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