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.”
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.”