Troy Bilbrough Skates the Length of Japan[wptouch target=”mobile”][/wptouch]
To set the record straight. Not everybody chooses the easy route in life. I’m here with Troy B., who has now accomplished more kilometers by skateboard than the ordinary. He’s obviously a talented rider, charismatic traveler, and mega-amped on creating experiences, and sharing his experiences with the world.
Troy, for those out there who don’t know your story, where you from gangsterino?
I’m from Waikuku Beach, in the South Island of New Zealand. I love to travel around the world on my longboard. I’ve skated across Thailand , Malaysia, Singapore , Peru, Chile and Japan. When I’m not skateboarding, I’ll be doing barrel rolls in airplanes or bbqing up some bacon strips.
When did you first take a liking to four wheels and a plank of wood?
It was the summer of ’07. I was working in Australia, selling pub crawls in Surfers Paradise. I used to skate around with my mates and we would sell pub crawls all over town. It was the best way to get around, it turned traveling into an adventure.
Are you currently studying or working?
I’m training to be a pilot, but I also have a commerce degree, and sell gourmet bacon at the local farmers market. If I ever run my own airline each plane will do a mandatory barrel roll upon take off and then serve complimentary bacon.
What was your first distance longboard trip, who was it with?
My first trip was with my best mate Huw John in ’09. I planned this mission for us to fly up to the Top of Thailand and reach Singapore 2 months later using only a longboard. I didnt know anything about distance skating at the time, I just loved skating and adventure. After research I found out that other awesome people skated cross-country before; Jim Pettersen, Long Treks, Nat Haliday, Rob Thompson, Laura, Tomo, and Dave. Finding the community gave me hope that we could actually do this.
Distance skateboarding, can you describe for me what the allure of this menial form of travel? What inspired you to do it.
Back at Uni I loved skating, I’d skate everywhere, it was a feeling of freedom. After tasting Thailand by skateboard I knew I wanted to see the rest of the world this way, I was experiencing the ‘real’ part of each country , staying with local families on coffee plantations, seeing the sun rise over the mountain tops, going to places no foreigner had ever gone before and putting smiles on the faces of the hill tribes who were amazed by what we were doing. Each day I would wake up and I would be smiling and thinking is this a dream or what? With long distance skating you never know what each day holds, that is the beauty of it.
At the beginning of your trip in Japan, you got to meet one of the legends of long distance skateboarding. How was it to hang out with Rob Thomson (Guinness Record Holder) and what insight did he give you for your trip?
It was epic meeting Rob, he is an inspiration to all of us. We skated around Sapporo and then he cooked an amazing banquet meal. One piece of advice he gave me was what to do in the event of a bear walking into your campsite. Rule 1: Don’t come into contact with a bear. Rule 2: If you do come into contact with a bear stay still and let the bear come over and suss you out. Rule 3: Don’t run, as bears can run faster than you. This would no doubt come in handy, as I had 400km of bear infested forest to survive over the next 5 days.
For Japan, what was your board set up with components, any special details you can provide for those who want to have right set up? I see your wheels were flipped, nose and tail sawed off, grip tape was applied in great detail…
I used a standard Demonseed for my journey. The Long Treks Demonseed is the deck of choice these days, but they are hard to get hold of. So I did the classic Paul Kent modifications of sawing of the nose and tail and inverting the wheels. It means you can pull the board behind you without the tail scraping on the ground and the inverting the wheels means that you can land your feet closer to the board when you push. I used Tekton bearings – didn’t have to clean them once and they were super fast despite all the rain and dirt I travelled through. I used Caliber trucks – the same set of trucks that I pushed across the Atacama desert with, solid and maneuverable, with Sabre/Blood Red bushings for stability and depth of turn.
Grip tape looks sketchy, didn’t you need a little trustier job to hook your feet on the DH?
Yeah the grip tape is a ‘sketchy as’ job that I did late at night when I was at Rob’s house. I made Vicious grip tape cut outs of the words “Skateventure Japan” and placed it centrally along the deck–it meant it was grippy, but wouldn’t eat my shoes too badly. I had the grip in the right places so, when combined with the Demonseed’s ‘cave, my feet locked in like a dream.
How far was this trip in Japan, starting in what part of the country and ending where? How long? How many actual days of skating in comparison to days of rest?
I skated a touch over 2000km from Sapporo in northern Japan, down the eastern coast and over to Shikoku Island and finished in Hiroshima 30 days later. I had 5 rest days, on those days I got local and was out and about visiting castles, temples, karaoke, and making friends. I would often stay up until 2am talking to the local Japanese people I had met in broken English/Japanese, the conversations you have with a vocabulary of 10 words are actually quite amazing. Then I would get up at 6am to start skating to make the most of each day. After a month on the road my bones ached, feet were hobbit like and legs looked like moderately sized tree stumps. I was shattered and slept for a whole day when I returned home.
With the change of geography in Japan, what particularly did you notice change in the culture and lifestyle of the people?
Japanese people are very intrinsic and keep to themselves. They are honest and would never do anything to ‘lose face’. It is the safest country in the world. Nobody locks their homes, cars, or bikes. The etiquette to reserve a table at a restaurant is to put your wallet on the table and then go to the bar to drink sake. Alike Thailand, Peru and Chile, the people were friendlier in the mountain villages than in the cities.
When you approached a city, with dense traffic, motorcycles, swarms of birds, garbage and distractions, did it feel like you were about to battle a boss, or next level in a video game?
I got the next level feeling when I was taking on a massive mountain. It’s all mind power and you are going through a powerful internal struggle with every push. Skating into a city was different, but cool in its own special way. In some cities I’d flow with the traffic and get into the push culture weaving my way around town. In other cities it was frustrating as the sidewalks were packed and the traffic wasn’t flowing. All of the cities were super clean, I didn’t see any garbage at all, its hard to find a trash can, everybody takes their rubbish home.
How many cities did you pass through, where would you typically stay in the city?
I passed through most of the major cities: Tokyo, Fukushima, Nagoya, Yokahama, Utsunomia, Toyota. In one town I was skating around looking for wifi, I was asking around at the train station for directions and I ended up back at a locals house. This would happen every third day or so. Other nights I would set up camp in the city park, it was illegal, but as I didnt speak Japanese the police just laughed and let me sleep anywhere.
Cities mean food and water, but also smog and congestion. After being in rural Japan for a few weeks I felt really claustrophobic when I arrived in Tokyo. People were busy, the metropolis stretched for at least 50 miles, block after block of traffic lights. When the green man started flashing, the intersection would be swamped, nobody would walk when the red man was up, but when it went green, bingo, people everywhere. Tokyo has 14 million people. In New Zealand we have 4 million people. But Tokyo seems to work. People are stacked on top of each other, but everybody is a cog in a giant machine and it’s pumping efficiently.
Did you prefer camping to hostels? Any sketchy camping situations, funny situations, or wildlife attacks?
I made a rule to never pay for accommodation. I camped half the nights and stayed with friends the other half. One night I was skating quite late and the sun was setting. I really wanted to knock out another 20km so I kept skating. It was pitch black when I found a place to camp beside a lake. There were signs everywhere saying “WARNING: BEAR INFESTATION!!!”. I just laughed and set up my tent. I was writing my blog and heard noises. I thought it was my head messing with me, but I looked outside and a giant Hokkaido bear was snuffling around. He was impressive, I’d never seen such a magnificent animal in the wild before. All Rob’s advice went out the window. There was no way I was staying put. I put my shoes on. Left my tent, bag, iPad, wallet, and everything there and ninja’d my way out of there in record time. I think I broke the world record for the 1500m , but Guinness have yet to reply to my email. I think the fact that I was so sweaty saved my life; bears don’t like smelly gringos. The next day at dawn I went back down and grabbed my gear. The bear didn’t take my iPad which I was stoked about.
I also camped in public toilets. Hear me out first: The toilets would get cleaned at 9pm. They were pristine. The wheelchair bathrooms were like hotel rooms and larger than the average Tokyo apartment. They had a bench, toilet, wash basin, mirror, and power sockets. I would put an out of order sign on the door and then lock it up and go to sleep. It was good. In Peru I’ve stayed at where you think you will wake up the next day in an ice bath with a kidney missing.
Were there any instances that you felt insecure about what you were doing, or a situation you were unprepared for? How did you deal with it?
I’ve always felt safe on my skateventures, apart from when I was getting attacked by wild dogs in Chile and by a bear in Japan.
You can’t really prepare for long distance skating as it can throw anything at you and slap you in the face when you’re not looking. In Japan, people are in a Zen state and 90% of people wouldn’t notice me skate by. When I was in Thailand or Peru, the kids would go wild, adults would yell out to their mates and the jaws of old folk would drop in disbelief as we skated by. It was like we were in a fishbowl and everybody was looking at us. For the most part in Japan, it was like I was invisible, it is out of habit and politeness, but when somebody came out of their zen and looked at me they had the craziest grin, it was special.
Were there any articles that you brought that had absolutely no purpose and were dead weight? (ahem *Pikachu* cough)
Haha, yeah, about that. I met a guy named Hiro in Shikokuchou, he had a box of Pikachu soft toys sitting there and he gave me one as I left. It was day 26 on the road and I was shattered. When I was given the Pikachu I had a new mission to get Pikachu all the way to Hiroshima. I didnt have room in my pack, but I tucked Pikachu in behind my helmet, he had the best view in the house.
My iPad. It was the first for me. Usually I don’t take a phone or laptop. I found the iPad really helpful. It was my map, a backup camera, a translator, a torch, a blog, and internet access. It did mean I couldn’t carry a sleeping bag, the iPad couldn’t keep me warm at night but I was okay roughing it out in exchange for some other luxuries.
No sleeping bag? That’s insanity. I’d like to know what comfort-related item above all could you not do without on a distance skate trip. Maybe an item that people might not think about that was super important to you.
I would have to say my trusty old Sporting Sail. When you are wearing a pack and have been skating all day you can’t hold a tuck for too long. So downhill I would deploy my sail and carve all the way down. Japan is like New Zealand in that it is just one big mountain range where two tectonic plates have collided. Everyday I would carve down magestic mountains. One day I even skated Mt Fuji , 22km of pure bliss. When I was skating through the Atacama I would use the Sporting Sail as a sun shelter during the day and as a blanket at night when it froze. Cheers to Billy and Nick who run Sporting Sails.
Most eye opening experience about Japan?
The people that I met made my adventure so special. If I didn’t meet those awesome people, I would have just been a lonely gringo skating around who desperately needed a shower. It was amazing how families would just take me in and treat me like their son, and how you can connect with people even when you can’t speak the same language.
The thing is, Japanese people never invite other people into their homes, not even friends. Because I was doing something so crazy that they had never seen before, they snapped out of their chilled Japanese Zen of everyday life and embraced the awesomeness of skateventure. I was stoked to be able to spread the stoked through Japan.
Did you see how the earthquake affected peoples life?
The damage was widespread. Two hundred kilometers of coastline I skated along was destroyed, up to two miles inland. Schools, homes , 7/11s , supermarkets, just washed away. The wave was five stories high. One hundred times more damage than the quake in my home city of Christchurch, which was devastating, I’d never seen anything like it. The resilience of the Japanese is similar to the people back home, they have done so well to rebuild what they have and make life almost normal, but it just takes time.
What Japanese food is a must try that foreigners wouldn’t recognize?
Okonomiyaki! It’s a Japanese savory pancake. It’s typically eaten in a restaurant where you have a hot plate in the centre of the table and you add your own choice of toppings like chicken, cheese, bacon, prawn, pork, and salmon. All Japanese food is like art, it looks beautiful and tastes like magic.
I see that you trained as a Samurai, how many beheadings did you perform? What is the story behind that? Free samurai lessons?
About 10 days into the trip I was 13km into the day. I was in the hurt locker. My back was bleeding from my bag rubbing against the salt crystals from days of sweat. My toes were curled up and tattered from being crushed in my shoes, mile after mile, my bones in my knees were destroyed from the vibrations, I hadn’t eaten properly in a while, and I was thirsty and tired. I wasn’t in a good place. I pulled over at a rest stop and sat down. That was when I met Yoshi. He just walked up to me and introduced himself, he was a 70 year old ex-soldier and all around good guy. He was a noodle technician and his restaurant was across from where we were sitting. We ordered some of his delicious soba noodles and started yarning like old friends. He convinced me to stop skating for the day, which wasn’t hard, and spend the afternoon sightseeing with him. We went and relaxed at the hot pools, visited his old friend who was the number two samurai in Japan, and then ate the most delicious meal at his house, his wife cooked tempura which is usually reserved for special occasions and this was served with some nice sake (rice wine).
They treated me nicer than my real parents treated me, and they were so stoked to have my company. My kiwi parents couldn’t wait until I went to Uni and left the house, but Yoshi and I got on like a long lost father and son reunited. He lived life. On the weekends he would go paragliding off mountains. Last year he was paragliding and miscalculated a landing. He broke both legs and smashed a few ribs, but got up and walked 5 miles to the nearest road, with all his gear. What a man. It made me reassess my own pain thresholds and take a hard look at myself. They set me up a futon and I had an amazing sleep, content to be full of tempura and sake and my body was feeling good after the hot spring. The next morning we all cried as I left. We exchanged details and promised to keep in touch. So Yoshi made my day and week. I went from being in a deep low to a soaring high. That’s distance skating, you never know what is going to happen each day, just ride out the tough times and enjoy the good times.
Did you make up any jingles while skating alone, like a marching song. Favorite songs in general?
Haha, funny you mention that. I did make up a few raps after some long days on the road. I have a few on video. I can’t remember the exact lyrics, but I do have a catchy rap about an epic battle between myself and a ninja. The lyrics will be divulged in given time and will no doubt form the basis for a number 1 hit in Japan and the Peoples Democratic Republic of Korea.
What was the deepest darkest thing you thought about while on this massive journey?
You do have a lot of time on the road. I spent most of the time in the zone, living. You are constantly on alert, looking for food, dodgy road, water, monkeys, snakes. I never really went into any dark places, I had lows, but none were toxic. I did learn a lot of what I was capable of and what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I knew that I could never work for a manager with the personality of a plank of wood. I wanted to devote my life to enjoyment and putting smiles on other people’s faces, to do that I had to find my passions in life and give them everything. Why do something in life if it doesn’t make you happy?
Life has funny ways of teaching people lessons, and through the situations we choose to put ourselves into, we hopefully discover that which we hoped to discover, or achieve what we wanted to achieve, and learn a lesson or keep a feeling from our journeys for the rest of our life. Adam Colton always says he’s left with a deep rooted feeling of accomplishment, and is left for a huge appreciation for the comforts of being at home. What is it for you that you take away from your trips, is it the same that you sought out to experience?
Well after surviving in the Atacama desert for 2 days without food and water, I can tell you that every drop of water I taste I am so thankful for. You have to go without the necessities in life to really appreciate them. Sleeping in bed is amazing and not having to worry about when you will eat again is a good feeling. Ever since I’ve started skating I haven’t watched TV. You learn what you do need in life and what you don’t. What I have taken away from this journey is something special. By putting myself out there and doing something so radical, I met amazing families, was chased by a bear, skated down Mt Fuji, camped under the stars, put smiles on dials, challenged my horizons every day. These experiences are good for you as long as you learn from them in order to make yourself a better person.
And now that you’ve done more than one trip and in very different circumstances, being solo verses with being companions, which do you prefer?
Travelling with mates was awesome. Huw, Guy, and Alan are like brothers to me now. When you do something that amazing you are bonded for life. When I was skating solo there were some times when I wished I had company, for instance when the wild bear walked into my campsite. If Huw was with me, we would have hunted it down and cooked wild bear over a campfire. But for the rest of the time it was awesome, I had to really get out of my comfort zone and for that I was rewarded with many crazy experiences. I really learned what I was personally capable of, I couldn’t rely on Guy for directions or Huw to find a mean campsite. It was just me and Japan in the ring, battling it out every day, and I came out with a smile on my face. I preferred solo, but I would skate with mates again.
Can we expect to see any video from your trip in Japan?
Sure, I’m going through the footage now, the things that you do when you are alone in the jungle are quite funny.
Any sponsors who helped you out good for the trip, did mom and dad contribute?
I have some awesome sponsors who helped out with the gear – Rayne, Seismic, Sporting Sails, Horleys, Sitka, Macpac, and I pay for the flights myself and any money I raise goes to charity. Mum and Dad didn’t really know what I was up to until it was too late. They worry about my safety, so I just told them I was going to Japan and might be doing a little skating. They put the pieces together but know I’m old enough to look after myself.
If you go back to Japan where would you go back to and why?
I will have to return one day and visit my Japanese host families that took me in off the street. We write to each other and they love me like a son. Yoshi is flying over to New Zealand to see me and I’ll take him to the rugby and take him for a flight around the Alps. I also have a Thai family and a Chilean family whom I still keep in touch with.
Next country you’d like to skate through?
Karakoram Highway – Kazakhstan – Kyrgyzstan – Pakistan
Super big pleasure Troy!!! Maybe we’ll see you flipping us the bird from way up high in your aeroplane!!! Hope I get to try your bacon one day and your travels are inspiring to all of us.
Please check out Troy’s website
Also, special thanks to JHS and Co. for shipping out Troy’s board and gear before his travel. John Hurren rocks!