Saturday, October 10, 2009

Custom bike makers of Japan

After seeing the bikes at the Oregon Manifest Constructor's Design Challenge last week, my mind has been on custom built bikes quite a bit and I started looking online to see what the current state of custom frame building in Japan is like.

I found that there is an annual event called the Handmade Bicycle Fair which takes place at the Bicycle Culture Center. (read about Kao's visit there)

I looked at this page in Japanese text and followed links to check out the participating frame builders. There are about 20 different participants and it would take too long to talk about each one, so I'll write about ones that seemed the most interesting.


I don't know too much about Level, but I think they are well established with providing frames for Keirin (Japanese pro track cycling) racers. I think they are also popular with the fixie riders. I noticed a Level fixie on Candy Cranks flickr pics from their trip to Tokyo.


Hirose seems to have the widest range of bikes of all the makers with everything from children's bikes, mixte town bike to tandem touring models. Their site seems to have the most pictures as well although, they nor any of the builders are using flickr like their US counterparts, so it's hard to see the details of the bikes. Their town bikes are pretty nice and remind me of A.N.T. bikes a bit.


Cherubim is one frame builder I'd heard of before and also maybe the most popular Japanese builder in the US as well. Cherubim exhibited at the 2009 North American Handmade Bicycle Show and won 2 awards for the best track bike and President Walker's choice.This time trial bike that Cherubim showed there may actually not be competition worthy, but it is one of the most radical looking bikes I've ever seen.


Ravanello didn't show at the Handmade Bicycle Fair, but I had often come across their name in Japanese bike magazines. They seem to be more oriented with road racing rather than track racing like most other builders in Japan. They look very reminiscent of European road bikes.

Overall, I get the impression that, the custom frame building isn't quite as popular as it is here in Portland and the US. It's probably not a hip alternative line of work, but rather work that they have been been doing regardless of popularity. Their websites weren't quite informative enough for me to really get a good idea of their bikes and there were other builders who didn't have a website to begin with. What I noticed though is that the prices of frames seemed a lot cheaper than what frames go for here. Even with the current dollar yen exchange rate (yen has gotten more expensive), it still might be a bargain. And maybe there is much less of a wait as well. I read on one builder's site that a frame will be finished in 4 weeks! I had thought both the price and the wait for getting a custom frame made was too much especially here in Portland, but I'm starting to think that maybe there is a custom bike in my future. I will definitely look more into it next time I'm in Japan (end of this month). One thing to keep in mind for people who might be seriously interested in getting a frame made by one of these builders is that, I think they are used to making bikes for the Japanese, so if your physique is drastically different from that of the average Japanese person, these builders may not be quite right for you.

It seems there are more and more people riding bikes in Japan and a lot of them are buying expensive mass manufactured bikes, but I don't think most people know about custom frame building or think of it as an option when they are considering a new bike. It would be cool to see it become more popular as I think there aren't many things quite as special as a custom built bike especially for you. I've never owned one myself, so I can only imagine though. As you may know, the Japanese are quite good at making things, so if custom frame building becomes more popular in Japan, I can imagine they will take the craft and take it to the next level.

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