Think of Tokyo and images of an endless, futuristic metropolis play across the mind. But within that bustling neon sprawl is the old-town of Yanaka.
“Yanaka is low-key and friendly, with many traditional craftsmen still there,” says Yuki Sugahara, director of Tokyobike Australia. “People take more time to do things like eat lunch or travel. Life is enjoyed at a much slower pace.”
Tokyobike was founded in Yanaka by Ichiro Kanai, who coined the term “Tokyo slow” to describe the district’s languid pace and respect for craftsmanship. Sugahara has become intimately familiar with this mantra since undertaking to create a slice of laid-back Yanaka in Collingwood, Melbourne.
Power of presentation
Off busy Smith Street, the Australian Tokyobike flagship store is surprisingly stark. With bare white walls, components arranged on tables, and bicycle artefacts carefully placed on the floor, the neutral, airy space has more in common with an art gallery than many bike stores. Sugahara says the most important element of Tokyobike’s store is making it feel nothing like a bike store at all.
“We’re the only bike shop I know of to always display fresh flowers,” says Sugahara. “We’re very careful to make the layouts beautiful and welcoming. We don’t want anyone to feel intimidated. It’s all about creating a nice, relaxing environment where we can teach people how to care for their bike.”
Jordan Tapper is a mechanic at the shop. He says the minimalist nature of the presentation also highlights the staff’s workspace. “There will be times you walk in and there’s only three or four bikes on display,” he says. “Sometimes we’ll have incense burning. We keep it as clean as possible. Everything is where it should be and everything is labelled. You don’t have to step too far to get what you need. It’s all about efficiency.”
Less is more
That refinement extends to the design of the bikes. In an age when lightweight, carbon-fibre frames have become common in road bikes, Tokyobike use Cr-Mo, a low-alloy steel.
“Steel is a traditional material to make bikes from,” says Tapper. “Way back when the Tour de France was in its first few years, most bikes were made of steel.”
Tapper says while Cr-Mo is heavier than carbon fibre, it’s more affordable and promotes a softer ride. “It absorbs road vibrations better,” says Tapper, “and cuts the fatigue of riding.” Steel also promotes the brand’s “Tokyo slow” concept. “Our bikes simply aren’t designed to be super fast,” says Tapper. “This is a totally different sort of riding style.”
To reduce weight, Tokyobike’s cycles have smaller frames and wheels compared with standard bikes, which usually use 700c (28 inch) wheels. Tokyobikes use 650c (26 inch) wheels.
“Smaller wheels and a smaller frame is weight saving across the entire bike,” says Tapper. Sugahara says it makes a Tokyobike bicycle feel unusually zippy. “This appeal to lightness is one of the most prominent characteristics of Tokyobike’s bicycles,” she says. “Sometimes people say they forget they’re even riding it, as if it disappears.”
It pays to maintain
Tapper says maintaining a bike is simple and its rewards lasting. “You should be able to pump up the tyres, put a bit of oil on the chain and have it ride as it did the day it left the shop,” he says. “Use some light dish detergent in warm water to wipe down the frame. It’s that simple.”
Sugahara says to lubricate your bike chain by turning it upside down. “Spray some degreaser onto a rag,” she says. “Hold the rag around the chain and turn the pedal until it comes away clean." You should also re-inflate your tyres every fortnight, and if you find debris stuck in the tread, remove it with a toothpick. “If your tyres have low air pressure and you ride over glass they’re more likely to be punctured,” says Sugahara.
This elemental approach to design and maintenance is a basic tenet of Tokyobike says Tapper. A good example is the saddle-seat covers – both a simple utility and clever callback to Japanese origins. “In Japan, a lot of people just buy an umbrella when it rains,” explains Tapper. “So there’s a surplus of used umbrellas around." Japanese artist Houko began collecting these umbrellas and repurposing the fabric as saddle-seat covers. Now Houka collaborates with tokyobike on exclusive new designs. "Things like that are quite different," says Tapper.
“It’s about the appreciation of aesthetics but in combination with usability,” says the mechanic. “It should be a reliable, practical tool within your lifestyle to get you from A to B in a really comfortable, stylish manner.”