Tomomi Kuwahara – nicknamed“Sheesa” after the Okinawan dog – is a formidable lady. Tanned, spry and full of pent-up energy, she looks nothing like her 49 years. Over half a lifetime on the snow Sheesa has won lucrative sponsorships and international acclaim, appeared in countless videos and photographs, has her own signature powder board, and now teaches others not just how to ride, but why.
Sheesa did her first Hokkaido winter in 1989, discovering Niseko when her local resort closed for the spring. By 1990 she was living here. Niseko then, she says, was perfect. Hanazono’s runs had just been cleared prior to lifts opening in 1991. “Back then, it was an ungroomed heaven. Powder skis didn’t exist and there weren’t many snowboarders, it was fantastic.”
Sheesa’s halfpipe game won her the sponsorship of Burton Japan in 1994 – soon after legendary local snow surfer Taro Tamai inspired her to leave the parks and freeride through ridges and forests. “I feel bad,” she laughs. “Burton wanted me to aim for the Olympics on the half-pipe. I said, I want to freeride. I want to go to Alaska.”
She set her sights on Alaska’s “King of the Hill” tournament with Burton’s blessing, and the world’s best riders in 1994 showed her “nothing unattainable. I thought, I can do this.” She did it in 1997, placing 5th. New Zealand’s King of the Mountain followed; she placed 4th in the freestyle category in 1998. Then Sheesa found a new thrill: boarding for film. “You have to be good, and ride beautifully, for as long as the camera is running. It’s hard, a different challenge.”
TEXT: MASHA SIMONOV
PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHER NAME
APPEARS IN: POWDERLIFE 2018 EDITION
TOMOMI “SHEESA” KUWAHARA
And making snowboard videos was far from glamorous. Sheesa was sponsored by Gentem from 1999, and began running “Sheesa Camps” in the same year. She taught through the winter, worked through the summer and put aside the humble stipends from her sponsors: everything went towards filming trips to Alaska. “We’d use 700, 800 thousand yen each per trip. We’d sleep in cars, have dinner parties in our vans. All the money was spent on heli-skiing.”
The resulting filmography is formidable (her homepage listes over 10 DVDs). While she left Burton left new sponsors followed, aligning themselves with Sheesa’s masterful descents.
Then in 2007 a buried rock sent Sheesa tumbling head over heels over 36 times. No lasting injuries, but her feelings towards that hardcore terrain changed. “Instead of thinking, let’s go sharper, let’s go more extreme, I got interested in a more mellow, surfing descent. I felt I was done with Alaska. I was lucky, my sponsors stuck with me.”
Sheesa turned her focus to the riding camps – a job that did not come naturally.
“I want to thank those early students,” Sheesa laughs. “Doing and teaching are very different things. I think it took me 10 years until I felt, “yes, I taught well today.”
A married couple from Honshu is an early case study. “They felt they were fairly good at snowboarding, and it wasn’t interesting anymore. Nothing inspired them, they were ready to quit.“
“I’d say, “How about going up this ridge like this, then dropping down and carving like that?” I showed new ways to look at snowboarding. New ways to enjoy it.” That couple from Honshu got their spark back – they’re still boarding, well into their 40s.
Another case study: the solo women that attend her women’s camps. They’re in their 30s, their boarding buddies are getting married, having kids and stepping away from the snow. They ride alone, but the fun slowly seeps away. At Sheesa’s camps these ladies meet each other, and share the joy. “We have several groups that met each other at camp. They come back and ride together every year. It’s fantastic.”
This is the “why” that Sheesa wants to give her students. A reigniting of passion, a new way to play.
Sadly for all the accolades, the boom times in Niseko have done Sheesa more harm than good. Her mostly Japanese clientele loves her, but fewer each year make it out to Niseko. “January and February are quiet for me. My students can’t afford to stay, to eat or to drink. They don’t enjoy it. No Japanese come here anymore.”
Instead Sheesa goes to them – she teaches in Asahidake, Niigata and Nagano, running teaching camps, events and workshops across the country. “I can help people who know me, who know my style, and Gentem, and powder.” Anything from basic turns to techniques and carving, to learning new ways to play.
Sheesa is part of Niseko’s slow life generation, ski and snowboard lovers that fell for the endless powder and moved here during the lull between ski booms. After her 25 years here, Sheesa has one wish for her adopted hometown: don’t be Yuzawa. A giant resort town in Niigata with dozens of ski resorts and its own shinkansen station, Yuzawa town still receives thousands of day trippers from Tokyo, a mere 70 minute shinkansen ride away. But the landscape is overrun by highrises, most of them dated, overambitious properties built during the boom years that are still sitting empty today.
As to her own snowboarding, after 28 years Sheesa’s passion is as strong as it was at 21, when a photo of a snowboarder in a ski mag inspired her first Hokkaido season. “I’ll do two or three runs before lessons start,” she says. “There’s always something to try, and when I get it right I’m stoked. That next run is always calling me.”