Twenty years ago, no one rode a surfboard quite like Donald Takayama of Hawaii. He didn’t just ride the board, he walked to the nose in defiance of gravity, and stood there, seemingly forever. He could be still as a cloud, or agile as a gazelle. He pioneered a whole way of surfing for thousands.
Takayama was the first surfer to be paid to surf (for wearing a manufacturer’s T-shirt in a contest), and he became known as “Mr. Hawaii” to friends and fellow surfers. He won the U.S. National Surfing Championships three years running (1972-1974) and knocked the industry on its ear with his island charm and boyish good looks.
In the years that followed, Takayama suffered the ups and downs of a cult sport that has never been taken quite seriously. He emerged as the darling of the surf set, but found it difficult to stay on top as the years paddled by him. He was living proof that old surfers never die, they just fade into oblivion. His trophies began to show their age too, and he was soon replaced with a new generation of surfers on shorter boards, with radically new maneuvers.
Now, at 47, Takayama is back. And in a big way. The Oceanside resident’s Hawaiian Pro surfboard designs have taken Southern California by storm. His long boards have brought many “older” surfers back to the water, in a renaissance of sorts. The long boards always have been favored by older surfers because they are easier to paddle, although clumsier in the water. Takayama’s updated design and materials also have made them light, fast and maneuverable. He also sponsors a surfing team, made up largely of young locals and older, internationally known surfers.
Physically, Takayama is in great shape. He wears his salt-and-pepper hair long, has trimmed off 33 pounds this year, and quit drinking. He is looking forward to becoming a grandfather this year and sees his life finally coming together in what he refers to as his “extended second childhood.”
Takayama’s reputation in the surfing industry is stronger than ever, but what has caught everybody by surprise is the success of his teriyaki sauce recipe, one that has been passed down in his family for generations, and shared by fellow surfers at beach barbecues and parties for 30 years.
The demand from his friends became so great that a couple of years ago he decided to market the teriyaki sauce under the label “Surfer’s Choice.” The label sports a picture of Takayama surfing in Hawaii, doing what he did best: riding the nose of the board as landmark Diamond Head peninsula looms romantically in the background.
No longer does he make the recipe in large drums in his back yard. Gone too are the empty whiskey bottles and gallon jugs he would fill with the dark blend to give to friends. And he no longer markets it at the local surf shops. Now he deals with the largest food distributors on the West Coast. His product line includes the teriyaki sauce (called “Da Kine”), and a sweet and chunky pineapple marinade.
He gets letters almost every day from people describing how they use Surfer’s Choice. “Some people dunk doughnuts in it, others put it on their hash browns and eggs. One of my friends can’t eat cottage cheese without it, and one guy wrote me saying he even drinks the stuff,” Takayama said. Most people use it with fish, poultry and meat dishes either as a sauce or marinade.
Three major distribution chains carry Surfer’s Choice products. They keep it prominently displayed in many major, upscale markets and gourmet stores. It can be found in all Von’s grocery stores, and Takayama deals directly with Albertson’s.
“Right now we are in the top third of gourmet items sold at the major distribution houses,” said Sheri Mackin, marketing specialist for Takayama. “We are very pleased with the way the product is moving off the shelves. The demand has continually exceeded the supply, and one of our accounts has tripled his sales on a monthly basis. There is a major call for Surfer’s Choice on the East Coast, and that’s our next target area.”
Takayama has dropped in on the big wave of the food industry, and is riding the crest of profits on a scale he never dreamed possible. Some of his long boards bear the Surfer’s Choice logo and the nickname, “Teriyaki Stakes.” He operates both the surfboard shop and headquarters for Surfer’s Choice out of an office in Oceanside, not too far from the beach and his favorite pastime, surfing.
“I still surf quite a bit,” Takayama said. “When people call for me, and I’m surfing, the office policy is to tell them, ‘Donald is in a board meeting and can’t come to the phone.’ We just don’t tell them it’s a surfboard.”
His shop on South Cleveland is divided into small rooms for shaping, glassing, sanding and display work. His wife, Sid, works with him in the office, organizing the food and surfboard orders, and trying to screen out the unimportant calls.
Everyone wants a piece of Donald Takayama. On a typical Monday he might greet 15 surfers, some unknown, others of international fame. One of the girls on his Takayama Surf Team might drop off a basket of macadamia nut cookies (she knows his weakness), and he responds with a new design of surfboard, hand-shaped for her, with Donald’s handprint on the nose.
He is generous beyond words, his friends and acquaintances say. He works annually to host or sponsor long-board surfing events that benefit cancer victims. He recently helped a friend return to the water after doctors had removed most of his throat in a cancer operation that left a large hole. They said he could never go in the water again.
Takayama helped design a “snorkel” that fit into his neck and allowed him to breath through his nose. The friend now surfs daily.
One of Takayama’s shapers is a recovering drug addict. He claims Takayama saved his life and gave him inspiration to live again. If you hang around long enough, you hear many stories like this.
The Doberman that guards his shop is named Wesson.
“He was one of two dogs named Smith and Wesson,” says Buddy Adams, close friend and confidant to Takayama. “One day, the guy next door was beating the dogs to death. Donald couldn’t stand it anymore and hopped the fence. The beatings continued. One of the dogs was dead and the other severely wounded. After a brief skirmish with the man, Donald returned to his shop, with Wesson in his arms. The dog had a new home, and Donald had a new friend.”
Last November, Takayama was honored by his peers and inducted into the Surfing Hall of Fame. He doesn’t talk about things like this easily. He is modest and prefers to duck such questioning and immerse himself in business matters.
In the midst of chaos and confusion at the store, Takayama’s only sanctuary is the tiny, unglamorous shaper’s room. In the 8-by-15-foot room, he lays out the rough-hewn plastic foam blanks that will eventually become polished and brightly colored surfboards, selling for $300-$400 each.
The room is lit with soft white lights at various levels, to bring out the small details and imperfections of the blanks as he sands and planes the product. He walks around the board, sanding and eyeing the process like the craftsman that he has become.
On the floor the foam dust rises ankle high. The walls are blank, except for some templates he draws from, and large messages written to him from grateful fans, surf stars and family. There are notes from such surfing legends as Rabbit Kekai, Mickey (The Cat) Dora, Nat Young, and one of Takayama’s daughters, who says simply, “I love ‘u’ dad.” The room and the rest of the shop give evidence of Takayama’s love of people and their return devotion: photographs, letters, gifts, impromptu visitors.
It’s the shaping room that keeps Takayama’s sanity intact. Here he can get lost in his designs, collect his thoughts and relax. He spends some time in this room almost every day, including weekends. His entire body is covered with a fine white powder after just a few minutes. This is how most people know Donald Takayama. He is the study of concentration here.
Takayama was born in 1943, in the wake of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. His home was just a few blocks from the beach, where he would surf a break called Alamoana, alone, for years. Eventually it became one of the most popular surfing spots in the islands, but it was Takayama who discovered it and now “owns” it, according to Hawaiian lore.
Yet to his parents, Takayama was a beach bum, an image that finally began to change when he moved to the mainland in the early 1960s. Surfing had captured the hearts of many young people, and Takayama was at the top of the heap.
“My parents are dead now,” Takayama said. “But it gave them great pride to see me win the National Surfing Championships on TV. They called to say they saw me on the Wide World of Sports. I was no longer a ‘beach bum’ in their eyes. That was very gratifying for me.”
Takayama often is referred to in the media as the father of Hawaiian surfing. But the challenge of parenthood sometimes has been tougher. He had to cope with his daughter’s decision to appear in Playboy magazine in 1984. His daughter Alana’s decision to become a centerfold caught Takayama by surprise. Shortly thereafter, his other daughter, Leilani, posed with her sister in yet another Playboy pictorial.
“My daughters were under the impression it would help their modeling careers,” Takayama said. “They were old enough to make their own decisions, and all I could do was wish them well.
Donald Takayama is feeling the urge to surf more these days. “I still would like to work less and surf more,” he says. Surfer’s Choice is planning the release of new recipes this year, and Takayama will surf the senior tour in Japan in June.