Taka Higashino’s American Dream
Taka Higashino is one of the biggest names in freestyle motocross. With multiple X Games medals to his credit and one of the largest selections of tricks in the sport – including the double backflip, and multiple body varials – Higashino has come a long way since his early days as an aspiring motocross racer in Osaka, Japan.
In Japan, Taka competed in the IA2 class, which is the same as the 250 Intermediate class here. With his father at his side, the duo followed the tour across the island country; Taka racing as best he could and his father maintaining the motorcycle and cheering him on. In preparation for the 2003 season, Taka secretly joined a gym and hired a trainer. “It was a secret,” he said. “I wanted to train hard and surprise my father at the first race with my new fitness.” Taka’s dad, however, began to wonder what the late nights were about. “One night, I came home, and my dad hit me!” said Taka. “He thought I was out partying and messing around and we got in a big fight. I wasn’t doing anything wrong.” Taka refused to explain what he was up to and as a result, they didn’t go racing or even speak to each other for six months. “One day, my mom said to me, ‘Hey Taka, if you want to race, you have to apologize to your dad,’” he said. “But I told her I didn’t do anything wrong because I was training. She told me that I would have to suck it up and apologize if I ever wanted to race again so I did.”
Taka chooses the Yamaha YZ250 because the bike has remained relatively unchanged for years, and that makes it easy for him to build up a fleet of machines that he can feel consistently comfortable on. This is his newest – a 2019 model that he has yet to even ride – but it is set up identically to the six other YZ250s that he uses for competitions around the globe. Taka has motorcycles stored in Japan and Europe for use in shows with the Chimera Games, Crusty Tour, and Nitro Circus.
A Change in Direction
After making amends with his father, the pair returned to their local track to prepare for the next race, and it was on that day that Taka’s future would take a radical change in direction. “I had just finished my 30-minute motos, and I saw a freestyle ramp set up in the park,” he remembered. “A lot of guys were sitting there looking at it and a few were hitting it. They all looked at me and waited for me to hit it, so I didn’t want to look like a p*ssy so I hit it on my 125. I didn’t know how fast to go and I had seen a guy overjump it and get hurt. I was lucky. I landed it perfect and figured out the speed, so I started doing can cans and nac nacs and heel clickers because I used to do those when I was on my 85.”
Pro Circuit modifies Taka’s YZ250 cylinder for more low-end snap. “Sometimes it is hard to get the jetting dialed in on a two-stroke,” said Taka. “But I like the feel and the light weight.” Pro Circuit also provides Taka’s pipe and silencer.
Taka’s bikes are all rebuilt using ProX pistons. “I have been using ProX pistons and they always work perfectly,” he said. “In freestyle you cannot risk engine failure because it could be life or death when you are hitting ramps. I have faith in my engine with ProX inside.”
Back at the truck, Taka told his dad that he wanted to ride freestyle instead of motocross. “I was rivals with Yohei Kojima (eventual 2015 All Japan National Champion) back then and I saw him making so much progress while I was not racing for six months, I didn’t think I could catch up,” he said. “So, I told my dad I wanted to do freestyle instead and cut grab holes in my bike, and he said ok! He told me that motocross was a hobby and not a way to make money, so I could do what I wanted.” And as they say, the rest is history. Taka dove headfirst into freestyle motocross and his learning curve was steep. “In motocross, it is hard to see your progress…a half second here and there,” he said. “But in freestyle, you can learn new tricks every day and the progress is easy to see.”
Soon enough, Higashino met established Japanese FMX star Eigo Sato, and the two began to train together. Within only a few months of riding freestyle, Sato invited Taka to ride in his first freestyle show.
Zeta parts are made in Japan and the brand is a long-time sponsor or Taka’s. If Zeta makes the part, chances are that Taka uses it. “Zeta is a Japanese brand, and I like using sponsor parts from my home country,” he said.
In 2007, a close friend of the Higashino family passed away and Taka was reunited with another close friend at the funeral. “One of my dad’s close friends who was also into motocross…I hadn’t seen him in over 10 years,” remembers Taka. “He asked me what I was doing, and I told him that I was a freestyle rider now instead of a racer. Then he invited me to come to meet with him at his office. He sponsored a trials rider, and he said maybe he could sponsor me, too.
“I went to visit him at his office the next week and he asked me what my dream was. I told him it was to compete in X Games. He asked me why I was in Japan then, and not the United States, and I told him because I had no money to go.”
Zeta footpegs offer plenty of traction thanks to their raised, hardened studs. Every aluminum part on Taka’s bike – like the brake pedal and rear brake master cylinder – have been polished for show by his mechanic Yoshi Sako. The blue chrome shock spring is an unobtainable factory part from Kayaba.
Taka was tasked with building a budget, outlining what it would cost to get to the United States, live there, and get started in American freestyle. The proposal he submitted was slashed drastically, but within two weeks Taka was headed to the United States with a three-month tourist visa and $6000 in his pocket.
Taka moved to San Diego with the only person he knew in America, and spent his days driving all the way to Lake Elsinore MX Park to hit the largest jump on the track, over and over. Though he was hopeful of meeting some of the stars of American freestyle at the track, he had no such luck. What Taka did next is almost unbelievable, and the gamble paid off.
Taka hand-cuts his seat foam himself, using an electric turkey knife. He also cuts his own grab holes in the airbox and side panels. The Kayaba fork and shock on Taka’s bike are custom-tuned by enzo racing.
“I knew I needed to find some freestyle parks to ride at because it was not worth my time and gas to drive to Elsinore every day,” he said. “So, I went on Google Earth on my friend’s laptop. I looked for four hours until I saw what looked like freestyle ramps. I zoomed in and wrote down the location and how to get there on paper because I didn’t have a smartphone.”
The next day Taka drove to the location he had found on Google Earth with his motorcycle in the back of his truck and knocked on the door. To his surprise, Mike Metzger opened the door. “I could not believe it,” he said. “Mike Metzger was a hero. I couldn’t speak English but through some words and lots of hand movement, I told him I was Taka from Japan and I wanted to ride. He told me to come back later that night because they would ride then, so I left and came back. That first day I met Jeremy Lusk and he was super cool to me. After that, I rode with them at Metzger’s house for many times until Lusk took me to Jimmy Fitzpatrick’s place and that’s when I met Twitch. I was there watering the jumps around 4:00 p.m. and I saw Twitch and Ronnie Faisst pull in and I was thinking, ‘Oh my God it’s Twitch and Faisst!’ I wanted to tell Twitch it was nice to meet him, but my English was no good and he made fun of me! Faisst always loved Asian things and he was really cool. When Twitch told me that my riding was sick, I didn’t know what that meant so I asked my roommate in San Diego. When he told me that meant good, I was so surprised that Twitch would say that to me. That day, Twitch took my phone number and called me to ride the next day.”
Taka’s bikes are all equipped with Kayaba kit suspension, boasting special titanium nitride hard coatings and special Enzo Racing internals.
The friendship between Taka and Jeremy “Twitch” Stenberg would ultimately be a major turning point in Taka’s freestyle career. “One day, Twitch said to me, “Come here and sit down,” said Taka. “He pointed to stickers on my bike and asked ‘Do they pay you? No? Take that shit off!’ He went over every part of my bike and he told me if I wanna make a living riding freestyle, I need to be serious about sponsors. Then he offered me a chance to be his teammate on the Dew Tour. He said to take off every sticker on my bike and said he would handle everything. I was so excited but also so nervous! That’s how I got Rockstar, Etnies and Metal Mulisha, and all of my first sponsors. Then Twitch invited me to live with him and his family in Temecula, and that was so much better for riding than San Diego!”
Zeta’s new Z Wheel are the latest additions to Taka’s build. Take notice of all the Zeta blue-anodized aluminum fasteners, too.
Taka’s rate of progression under Twitch’s guidance was rapid and the Japanese rider soon established himself as not only one of the best freestyle riders from Japan, but in the sport. After finishing second overall in the Dew Tour in 2007, Taka got the invitation he had dreamed of: the X Games invited him to compete in the Freestyle MotoX competition. Unfortunately, a mistimed flip in qualifying left Taka with a broken collarbone and a mild concussion. “I woke up and I thought, ‘What! X Games is over!’ But that night I remember Jeremy Lusk and I celebrated big for our first X Games invites.”
Freeride Engineering produces the flip bars used by most of the sport’s elite. “They are made by a guy in France,” he said. “And they are expensive!” The bars are flipped up before Taka executes a flip trick out of the saddle, and allow him to return to the saddle by using his forearms pressed against them.
Through the years, the sport of freestyle has lost several of its heroes, among them Taka’s good friend from Japan, Eigo Sato, as well as Jeremy Lusk, one of the first friends he made in America. “Before Lusk died, I thought when you crash in freestyle it is only broken bones you have to deal with,” he said. “After Lusk, it was harder for me to ride because you never know how hard the trick is until you try it. I started thinking about things too much. Twitch too. We were both kind of down. We kept riding though and got a better feeling. But then when Eigo passed away I started wondering if I should keep riding or stop. He was just practising a simple backflip and missed. I don’t know…it’s hard. Sometimes we all forget how dangerous this sport is.”
Taka has his frame and swingarm Ceracoated because it “looks cooler and lasts longer than powdercoating.”
In 2008, Taka made a conscious effort to try his hardest and leave nothing on the table. He hired renowned trainer Charles Dao of Icon Sports Alliance and got into the best shape of his life. Oddly enough, the regimen didn’t seem to work for him. “I was training, training, training,” he said. “And I was pushing myself to learn new tricks and get better, but all I did was crash. That happened all year in 2008 and also in 2009, so one day as I left the gym I said, ‘See you tomorrow,’ to my trainer, but I never went back! (Laughs) After that I just rode to have fun like Twitch always told me to do, and the results got better.”
In 2010, Taka earned third in the X Games Best Trick competition with a double grab backflip. Though he was thrilled, his dream was to medal in the Freestyle competition.
The 2-stroke powerplant boasts Boyesen covers and a Supercooler, as well as the Pro Circuit engine sticker. Inside rests a ProX complete crankshaft, bearings, and other engine components.
In 2012, Taka rose to the top of the sport and won his first X Games gold medal with a Rock Solid backflip, a trick he worked on while on the Nitro Circus Tour in Australia. “I asked the media to please not post anything about it until after X Games, so it would still be a surprise at X Games,” he said. “I did it in my freestyle run at X Games and won the gold medal, and I got silver the next day in best trick. It was the best day ever. I should have retired then! (Laughs)”
Shortly after his sweep of the Summer X Games, Taka’s life changed again when he proposed to his girlfriend, Soline, who he had met in France several years earlier at an event. “At the time, I had just gotten my green card to stay in the United States, and she was staying with me,” he said. “I knew I wanted to propose, but I told myself, ‘If I get a gold medal this week, I will propose a little bit sooner.’ She said yes and we got married, and she got her green card, too. She is applying for her citizenship now, and if she gets it, we can stay here forever.”
These days, Taka doesn’t compete as much as he used to, but is a regular in the Crusty Demons tour and other freestyle shows and demos. “I will keep riding until my body stops moving,” he said. “Things might change, but my goal is to keep riding freestyle until I am 50. A couple years ago, another freestyle guy named Paul Smith passed away. I met him at Fitzland and he was always happy and smiling. He told me he was 48 so I told him my goal was to beat his record and that made him very happy. So, I have to keep my promise to Paul. I will ride as long as my body lets me. It’s like a drug. I can’t give up dirt bikes.”