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A Paipo Interview with Mitsuo "Michan" Uenoyama

Hiring itago-nori on Zaimokuza Beach

A Paipo Interview with Mitsuo "Michan" Uenoyama
July 24, 2013 - Zaimokuza Beach, Kamakura
Interview and photos by John Clark

Conventional wisdom dates the origins of surfing in Japan to U.S. surfers post-World War II. Postcards which featured small wooden boards sparked questions regarding whether there was an indigenous surfing culture. Wooden boards that became known as known as itago, or "itako," were floor boards lining the bottom of fishing boats. These boards also served a life saving purpose and later would be used to ride waves — itako-nori is the act of riding these wooden boards.

Mitsuo "Michan" Uenoyama rented these boards to tourists at Zaimokuza Beach, over a period of many years. On a visit to Japan, John Clark, with the assistance of his son Koji as his translator, met with Michan and asked about his experiences with itago-nori boards.

(Right) Photo of Michan holding an itago board. Courtesy of John Clark.



Introduction by John Clark
In 2007, my family and I visited Japan. My wife, Julie Ushio, is a sansei (third generation Japanese in the U.S.), so one of the main reasons for our visit was for me and our two children, Sachi and Koji, to meet her family at Iimori Shrine in Fukuoka. On our way from Tokyo to Fukuoka, we stopped in Kamakura and stayed at the Kamakura Park Hotel. There we met Mie Inage who works at the front desk. Mie speaks English, and we soon learned that she is a bodyboard surfer. In the years that followed our visit to Japan, Mie came to Hawaii several times and stayed in Waikiki. She and I went surfing each time she came, and we became good friends.

In 2011, the University of Hawaii Press published a book I wrote called Hawaiian Surfing: Traditions from the Past. While I was researching traditional Hawaiian surfing, I also learned about itago-nori, traditional surfing in Japan. I wanted to know more, so I checked on the Internet and found a wonderful history of itago-nori on the website for Nobbywood Surfboards [see Note 1]. The history was written by Nobuhito "Nobby" Ohkawa, the owner of Nobbywood Surfboards. I contacted him by email, and we began exchanging information about surf history in Japan. I also contacted Mie about itago-nori, and she told me she knew a fisherman named Matsuo "Michan" Uenoyama who used to rent itago boards on the beach in Kamakura.


(Below left) John Clark on Waikiki Beach with an Itago board from Michan. (Below right) Nobby Ohkawa in his shop.




Photos by John Clark.

In 2013, my family and I returned to Japan. Our first stop was in Chiba, where we met Nobby and visited his shop. In addition to seeing the beautiful boards he makes, he showed us his collection of itago boards, which includes one float board, a naminori furouto. After Chiba, we stayed again at the Kamakura Park Hotel, where Mie arranged for me to meet and interview Michan. In addition to meeting Michan, we made a side trip to the Oiso Municipal Museum, which has a nice collection of itago boards (see below figures). Mitsuo Uenoyama is a life-long fisherman who was born and raised in Kamakura, Japan. Like many fishermen in Kamakura, he has a shop on Zaimokuza Beach where he stores his fishing gear and rents rowboats and small sailboats. In the old days, he also rented itago-nori and naminori furouto. The itago-nori are small wood bodyboards, which were ridden prone, and naminori furouto are larger hollow wood boards, which were ridden standing up. The rentals were a side business to supplement his income from fishing.


(Below left) Five itago boards in the Oiso Municipal Museum. (Below right) The kappa, a legendary Japanese water creature, on one of the Oiso Municipal Museum itago boards.




Photos by John Clark.

Mitsuo Uenoyama interview
Everyone knows Mitsuo as Michan. His family home is in Zaimokuza, the community just inland from the beach. His grandfather, Senzou Uenoyama, was a fisherman who started the family's beach rental business on Zaimokuza Beach in the early-1950s. The original shop was closer to the harbor, which is to the east of the beach. Michan's shop now is on the west side of the Zaimokuza lifeguard headquarters, where he asked me to meet him. The lifeguards know him well and call him the original "beachboy" of Zaimokuza Beach. They offered the use of their office for the interview.

Michan was born in Kamakura on July 16, 1946. He was six years old when he first started using the itago-nori and the naminori furouto rental boards in his grandfather's shop, so he started surfing in the shorebreak at Zaimokuza Beach in the early-1950s. When he was 16, he tried a surfboard from Hawaii. A professional baseball player from Hawaii named Oodate brought a foam surfboard to Kamakura. It was the board that Elvis Presley used in the movie Blue Hawaii (1961). Oodate's son lived in Kamakura, so Michan and his friends all tried the board. In later years, when Oodate's son was renovating his house, he threw away the historic Elvis Presley surfboard.

Although the men in his family have been fishermen for many generations, Michan's father worked for Mitsubishi. He didn't help out at his father's shop on Zaimokuza Beach, but Michan began helping his grandfather there when he was in middle school. When he graduated from high school, he worked full-time at the shop and eventually took it over. He had 15 itago-nori boards and 20 naminori furouto boards in his shop. He charged 30 yen to rent the itago boards and 150 yen to rent the float boards. In addition to his shop, there were four other shops on Zaimokuza Beach that rented boards.


(Below left) Michan holding the nose of an itago board. (Below right) Demonstrating the proper way to catch a breaker on an itago for a fun ride to the shore.




Photos by John Clark.


In the old days, there were many more people who came to the beach and rented their equipment. People with breathing problems used to come to Kamakura. His mother would come down to the shop three times a day and take the money from the rentals to the bank. His stand was a popular gathering place and attracted many girls.

Both the itago boards and the float boards were in use when he was a child. He doesn't know their history. The coast road along the beach was built during the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Before that the communities behind the beach were more isolated. In later years as wood became more expensive and plastics were developed, interest in the old wood boards died out. His boards were handmade by the man who made their boats. The itago boards had a top piece and a bottom piece (like a tail block), but Michan didn't know why they were made that way. These pieces were just nailed on the top and bottom of the boards. If they came off, the nails would stick out, which was dangerous. The nails were the same as the ones used to build temples.

He never saw the inside of a float board, so he doesn't know what the interior frame looks like. Each of the boards had a mizu wonuku, or a drain plug. To catch a wave, a surfer would stand on the float board and paddle with a wood paddle. Michan stood up and demonstrated the movement, which was paddling with alternating strokes on either side of the board. This was possible because the paddles had a blade at each end of the handle, so the surfer held the middle of the handle and paddled alternately on either side. Michan explained that if you were going to grab the rope in front of the board, you put the paddle down in the middle of the board between your legs, grabbed the rope, and held it while you rode in. If you were a good surfer, however, you didn't need to hold the rope.


(Below left) Michan, Nobby, Mie, and friend with the float board. (Below right) Nobby demonstrates how to paddle a float board. Four itago boards are against the wall.




Photos by John Clark.

Today he only rents rowboats and small sailboats. The name of his shop is the same as his last name, Uenoyama, which is the same for all the shops on the beach. The shop owners pay rent to the province to be on the beach, and the amount they pay is determined by the size of the shop.


Note 1: Nobby's website, Traditional surfing in Japan: An unknown history, and a couple of the postcards that sparked the communication between Nobby Ohkawa and John Clark.


(Below left) Yokohama-Wien: 1911, Japanese beauty in bath suit. (Below right) Oiso beach scene pre-1950.



Source: Ohkawa, Nobuhito. (2012). Traditional surfing in Japan: An unknown history. On the Internet at http://www.nobbywoodsurfboards.com/webpages/cn74/itago.html


Other items of interest:


John Clark prior to catching some waves and riding a wave on an itago, at Waikiki Beach, March 2013.





Photos by Yusuke Motohashi.


Video of John Clark riding an itago at Waikiki, 2013. Click link here or on the video below.


Filmed and produced by Yusuke Motohashi.

Feel free to send me suggestions, comments and additional information to: The Paipo Interviews


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Last updated on: 01/02/14