Tsutomu Nakata, the mastermind behind ROOM Magazine, is three things: Hokkaido local, pro snowboarder and pro photographer. You may have seen ROOM on shelves at your local snow gear retailer. You may not know it’s free to take. Tsutomu’s epic photograph – above and below – is Powderlife 2018 edition’s cover photo. We sat down with him and talked shop, inspiration, process and how to get that epic shot.
PL: Tell us how you found snowboarding, and Niseko.
Niseko was already famous for skiing and snowboarding back when I was in Junior High. I started boarding in Sapporo, came over to Annupuri for the first time 20 years ago. I had my board stolen, that was a shock! That was before the international crowds were here, it happens in Japan too – be careful!
I did my first season with Grand Hirafu Ski Resort as a park digger. High school kids weren’t really allowed to work with Tokyu (operators of Hirafu) at the time, but they outsourced their hiring, so I got a job through the company they contracted with. I got around the rules. (laughs) I had a lift pass, a cheap dormitory, cheap meals, and snow. Perfect!
PL: And as a photographer?
I started taking photos 15 years ago. People from Hokkaido that are world-famous now, they were just around enjoying the snow in the same resorts as I was. So the contacts, the shots, my career grew naturally out of that. In the snowboarding community there are many generations and ages, but we all love the same thing. So we all run together, and get to know each other.
Putting together a trip and a crew for a photo or video shoot is a huge job. From renting or collecting the gear, to travel funds, food, and time, it’s hard work. But for me, I’m right here in Hokkaido. People are snowboarding all around me. I had a video camera for helping on video shoots anyway, so I started using that.
15 years later, here I am.
PL: What is it about photography? Why do you do it?
Any photographer can take a beautiful photo in terms of framing, lighting, etc. Knowing how to speak about the sport, that comes with the territory.
I love this sport, it’s my culture. I know what the soul of snowboarding is about. I know I can take a photo that captures that soul, expresses the culture and philosophy of boarding. I can’t do that for surfing or skating, because I don’t skate or surf.
What I aim for for in a photo, is that feeling of, “woah, that’s cool.” Expressing that, inspiring that feeling, that’s what I love to do.
“These riders are doing… beautiful things on the mountain. I want to give them all a place to shine.”
PL: Tell us about ROOM: how did it come about? What was your mission?
In Japan there’s “Freerun”, “Snowboarder”, “Fall Line”, “Backside Magazine”, “Transworld Japan.” There’s only five major snowboard magazines now. When I started ROOM four years ago, there were seven. These monthlies are dropping like flies. I had lots and lots of great photos, and yet nowhere to put them, so that’s the cynical reason. (laughs)
I started ROOM to support the culture: the riders, the photographers. These riders are doing amazing, beautiful things on the mountain. And photographers are taking amazing, inspiring photos. I want go give them all a place to shine.
There’s a lot of people out there who could buy a magazine but don’t, that’s fine. ROOM is free for the people who would love to buy a magazine but don’t have the money. The young, broke kids excited about their first runs, the kids that can’t spend 1,000 yen on a glossy monthly, the kids renting cheap gear from their local sports shop. They can take ROOM home and get excited. That’s who I make it for.
PL: There’s a special connection to Hokkaido too, isn’t there?
Yes. In Japan, all the big publishing muscle is in Tokyo.
All this culture is being dictated by the cities, and they focus on places close like Gunma, Tohoku, Nagano, Hakuba… places you can reach from Tokyo. They’re writing and editing from the cities. And it’s kind of repetitive. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
I thought I could make something more genuine if it was based where the culture was, on the mountains, here in Hokkaido. In ROOM I choose everything, I write and edit everything. It’s original, genuine, and new. It’s a photo book, but also a zine.
Hokkaido is a bit special in Japan for snowboarders, it has a mystique. Like Alaska in North America. So ROOM represents us. I want to showcase Hokkaido to the rest of Japan and the world, and get people excited about it.
PL: Has ROOM has been successful? Have you achieved what you want to achieve?
In Kanto, in Tokyo, we run out of issues right away. In Niseko we’re stocked in Gravity, and at Grand Hirafu resort as well – some local shop owners will take copies from there and stock them in their shops. Again, because people see something in it that speaks to their culture. I’m glad people are seeing it and getting inspired.
Financially ROOM breaks even, but I don’t make a salary doing it. My sponsors will place ads and fund the printing. Even as sales are dropping across the snowboarding industry, the sponsors keep putting in this much, I’m grateful.
As ROOM grows I want to be able to pay other photographers serious cash for their photos in this magazine. Some of them say, “dude, are you sure you’ll pay this much?” because they know it’s a free paper, but I pay. I don’t want to ask photographers to drop their prices. I want to support their art.
The epic shot on the cover of Powderlife 2018 edition.
RIDER: KOHEI KUDO
PHOTOGRAPHER: TSUTOMU NAKATA
PL: Ok, time to share trade secrets: where do you shoot?
I have lots of favourite spots in Hokkaido. I think I know pretty much all the terrain by heart. I’ll look at a magazine and be like, oh yeah, I know that, that’s Shibetsu. Or this, this is Kamui. I know them all. As for my favourite, the snow quality and texture, the steepness of slope, the foliage, every area is different so it’s hard to choose a best place. Niseko and Sapporo are where I’ve grown up snowboarding, so I like them a lot.
This year I’m focusing my shoots somewhere else. Everyone was shooting in Niseko last year so I focused on some other bits of Hokkaido, so my photos stand out.
PL: And this epic shot: tell us how it came about. Where is this?
I won’t tell you where it is. (laughs) Somewhere between Tokachi and Iwanai. (that covers about ¼ of Hokkaido’s length. Good secret-keeping, Tsutomu!)
PL: It looks unique, have other people shot there?
Some people know it, not that many. It’s not really a place you’d choose to go for a fun ride, the terrain is a challenge.
It was in my “maybe one day” box, and these riders were keen so off we went. It’s this rounded, concave bit of ground, so the way the light hits is very different at different times of day. And it looks very good. You can get a very cool lighting situation in this spot. I knew the light angle I wanted, the time of day I needed to be there. We camped out form early in the morning, then we took it. I’m glad it worked out.
Tsutomu Nakata’s ROOM Magazine’s 7th issue is available at selected ski and snowboard retailers, and in Niseko at Grand Hirafu Ski Resort’s .base building, and Gravity, among others.