Banked slaloms are booming right now. They are being embraced around the shred world as part of the current ‘carving revolution’ trend, and Japan is very much onboard this turning train too. If you wanted to, you could sign up for a banked slalom event pretty much every weekend from mid February to the end of the winter across Japan, and the cream of this carving crop is the Tenjin Banked Slalom. Now in its 5th year, the Tenjin Banked Slalom was born out of Lib Tech legend, Matt Cummins sharing powder lines with Tenjin locals. The connection goes both ways as the champions of the Tenjin event win coveted start-gate spots in the Mt. Baker LBS the following season. With this prize on offer, the competition for the top spots is intense, and the start list reads like a roll call of Japanese all-mountain rippers. Salomon big mountain rider, Yoko Nakamura won it in 2013 and 2014, and summed up the magnitude of this chance, “I really want to win this… just because I really really want to ride in Baker again!”
Despite this, the atmosphere is relaxed and fun, and the event remains a celebration of snowboarding in its simplest form. While at the top of the tree, the pros battle it out for chance to make the trip to the hallowed ground of the LBS at Mt. Baker, you can ride against your friends and against yourself. Weekend warriors, local rippers and veteran pros all rub shoulders with no obvious divisions. At a big air comp there’s no way most of the watching snowboarders are ever going to hit the same jumps, but here fans can be participants, riding against some of their favorite riders on the same course, and hanging out in the same community around the event.
The blessing ceremony marks the official start of the event, with Shinto priests blessing the event and calling for the safety of all involved. Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan, an animist belief system that finds sacred spirits in all things, with powerful spirits in prominent natural features such as mountains. With such a dominating peak as Mt. Tanigawa in attendance, it is only fitting that Tenjin goes all in with the blessing.
‘Blessed is the beer bringer’. The respect for the priests’ blessing is tangible, evident in the silent prayer …and by the donation to their beer supply:
Tenjindaira resort sits on the shoulder of the majestic Tanigawa-dake peak, and it’s reputation for powder also means it catches a lot of weather. The perfect sunny weekend weather this year belied the storm that had raged the days before, that had taken a perfectly shaped course and filled it back in to flat just 24 hours before the event. Rather than run the event on a sub-par course, Saturday was made practice only while the diggers crew rolled up their sleeves and got to work all over again. This meant it was all riding on one qualifier run on Sunday, but what better way to forget that pressure and remind yourself that it’s all just snowboarding than by spending a sunny day hitting sunny side-hits or chasing powder in the shady tree runs? Sunday morning brought more blue skies and it was straight to business with the newly rebuilt course.
Eating the classic Japanese ski resort curry and rice is one sure way to leave you feeling more in the mood for an afternoon nap than an intense banked slalom run. Luckily Patagonia were keeping the wolf from the door with handouts of healthy soup and energy bar samples from their provisions range:
However long you spend stretching and waxing your board, waiting in line fully prepared, the last few moments always seem to be a rush of cranking bindings straps. Keep your pre-drop rituals short and say your prayers:
Course digger and all round ripper, Go Biyajima was repping his outerwear sponsor with his start number:
All up in your grill: In the base area, one of the faces of K2’s Enjoyer campaign, Yo Amagai bringing pro level snacking skills, while others get the sports drinks flowing:
With the increased popularity of banked slaloms, it seems the standard of riding is rising too as everyone works out the genre. This was evident in the Women’s race too where past champion Yoko Nakamura, faced a strong challenge from Moss rider Misa Honda who topped the field in qualifying:
Yoko Nakamura’s riding combines power and finesse, equally at home in banked slalom or big mountains:
In the Men’s, every crash was met with good-natured abuse from the MCs – a comedy act in themselves, they kept the stoke high over the weekend, and made sure nobody could take it themselves too seriously. The riding level was high as the top guys fought for the chance to make the trip to the hallowed ground of Mt. Baker. Putting it all on the line in a one-run final, they bent the course to their will, transforming the abrupt twists and turns of the course into smooth arcs of consistent speed.
Matt Cummins took a break from setting the course and riding the Tenjindaira backcountry to attack the course on next year’s Lib Tech Eric Jackson pro model, saying “I’ll be happy with a top ten as I’m about 20 years older than most of these guys!” He nearly got his wish, coming in 13th, and judging by the number of tree run laps he was squeezing in, I’d guess most of the other guys would be happy to end up with as much powder as him.
2016 champion, Takafumi Konishi came to Tenjin fresh off winning the Nagareha Banked Slalom. The technical course suited his aggressive approach:
Seeing Temple Cummins ride in person is confusing. He looks like he has given up on racing and is just cruising down while thinking about what to have for dinner. Snowboarding is only as hard as you make it – and he makes it look very easy. My first reaction on seeing his first run was “Oh, he’s not racing! He’s just taking it easy and having a demo run… ” then you see the times and he’s right at the top of the pile. A freeriding lap with him gave a clue to this relaxed approach: While most people are trying to ride faster than usual in their runs, Temple rides so fast all the time, his banked slalom runs are probably slower than a typical run! This unrelenting high speed approach to freeriding, constantly dealing with what’s in front of you rather than slowing down, suits the mental and physical demands of an intense banked slalom course to a tee.
Temple’s son and fellow ripper, Canon Cummins, captures dad on the final turn:
Temple’s effortless flow and experience took him to third place in qualifying, but there was to be one more twist in the story of this year’s race. Pontus Stahlkloo had made the journey from Sweden to Japan as part of an epic family adventure around the world, stopping at banked slaloms in different countries. An ex-pipe rider, he had ridden in the 1998 Nagano Olympics, and the tall, friendly Swede didn’t seem have lost any of his edge control. We were stoked to hear that last year he had read about the Tenjin banked slalom on Japan Grabs …and this year was riding in it and topping a heavy field after qualifying!
As another classic weekend of smiles and speed at Tenjindaira drew towards its conclusion, the time had come to head inside and see who would take the unique Tenjin bowls handcrafted by Mike Cummins:
Respectful quiet turned to cheers all round as the top riders were called forth to get their prizes, and nobody was more stoked than Yoko Nakamura, who booked a return trip to her beloved Mt. Baker.
The tension rose, and finally it came down to the two quietest and most unassuming, friendly guys in the house – the Northwest legend, Temple Cummins and the wildcard ex-pro Swede with his family, Pontus Stahlkloo:
It was safe to say that either would have been a popular champion but Pontus’ sheer joy at getting the result made this story complete. The 2017 champions Pontus Stahlkloo and Yoko Nakamura soak in the good vibes with their unique trophies:
Thanks to the organizers and sponsors, and especially the crew of diggers and race staff who whose work makes the Tenjin Banked Slalom possible. Nothing makes you motivated to rip every turn like its your last like a good banked slalom and at Japan Grabs we’re already looking forward to next year’s event.