A shining light.

Riding through Tokyo with Joy Lewis on an R nineT Racer.

Tokyo is a shining light – not only because of all the advertising screens that make the city glow. With a population of 38 million, Tokyo is also the world’s largest metropolitan area, but it doesn’t have the overwhelming feel of other megacities. In fact, it is an extremely liveable city that is constantly reinventing itself and has long been at the forefront of urbanisation. But the past is also alive in Tokyo and the motorcycle scene is an endless source of inspiration for customizers and vintage racers.  

Green light. With so many exotic signs everywhere, its a relief that Japans traffic signals follow international conventions. Joy Lewis accelerates and shifts into second gear. She makes the long left turn up to Rainbow Bridge, where traffic spreads out onto two four-lane decks. On the other side of the bay, Tokyo stretches across the horizon in the twilight. Skyscrapers dominate the skyline, with the bright-red Tokyo Tower right in the middle. Third gear. Joy breathes in the sea of lights. She ducks down behind the R nineT Racers half-shell fairing and zooms across the bridge. At the end of Rainbow Bridge, she turns left up onto the loop. She circles around once and rides directly into the heart of the pulsing metropolis, which feels so contradictory and unlike anywhere else in the world: polite, silent people contrast with blaring advertising screens and cheesy pop music.  

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Manga-Mania am Shibuya Crossing.

Single-family homes line the winding alleys of Shibuya ward, where even locals need a GPS to find their way around. Its quiet here, and that makes the unmistakeable sound of the R nineT Racers flat twin boxer engine all the more powerful. The streets get wider and busier as Joy nears the train station. Only seconds ago, small cafés, dog grooming shops and hat makers dominated the street scene; now brightly lit skyscrapers tower like giants in Super Mario Land. Traffic begins to slow down at Shibuya Crossing, one of the most famous junctions in the world. When the light turns red for vehicles and traffic comes to a stop, the crossing spectacle begins. Every single time the traffic light changes, thousands of pedestrians cross this scramble intersection as they head to work, shops or parties.

Its a chaotic scene, with police directing traffic over megaphones and manga music blaring from loudspeakers. The crossing is broadcast live on three jumbo-sized screens on surrounding buildings. Its an absolutely fascinating scene that perfectly epitomises the hustle and bustle of this cramped megacity. In fact, this pedestrian crossing is now among the citys top-ten sights and has become the symbol of Tokyo. “Shibuya Crossing reminds me of New York”, says Joy. “It’s just as crazy there, the only difference is that in New York you’re always getting pushed around. Here everyone’s so careful and respectful”. The crossing is worth seeing on a motorcycle, even though it’s dominated by pedestrians. On the right: rows of Maseratis, Lamborghinis and Ferraris. On the left: Super Mario, Luigi and Spiderman in go-karts. Manga mania is everywhere, as if Tokyo sprang up out of some kind of a wonderland.  

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Customising centre on the other side of the world.

Customising centre on the other side of the world.

Japan might seem foreign and exotic, but it’s actually the centre of the customising world. For years, the countrys thriving scene has continually produced amazing new works of art. Japan kept the tradition going even when the customising craft almost died out in the US and Europe in the eighties and nineties. Customising was actually a stopgap solution after Japan’s economic bubble burst and suddenly there was no more money. When customising came back into fashion in the new millennium, the world looked to the Far East and was inspired by what the Japanese had accomplished over the past decades. Their propensity for perfection and keen sense of aesthetics and design are visible in every single custom bike. “They say that quality is very important to the Japanese. From everything I’ve seen in Tokyo, there’s a lot of truth to that”, says Joy. “I’ve met many guys who are into motorcycles and wanted to know absolutely everything about the R nineT Racer. They carefully examined every nook and cranny of the bike. You get a real sense of their attention to detail”.  

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Racing with a vintage look.

Daisuke Mukasa organizes the vintage racing series B.O.B.L.

Racing with a vintage look.

Alongside customising, another trend is quickly taking hold: vintage racing. Here too, Japan is well ahead of the rest of the world. All the more impressive considering that nothing is old in Japan, apart from a few temples and shrines. Everything is recycled as soon as it becomes obsolete. Daisuke Mukasa’s custom shop is a real treasure trove, filled from top to bottom with vintage bikes and old components. Joy is amazed by Daisuke’s collection of rare pieces. “The machines he creates from these old parts are absolutely fascinating, both technically and aesthetically”. The bikes are by no means just museum pieces. Daisuke rides them in the B.O.B.L. (Battle of Bottom Link) vintage race series, which he founded himself. “It’s a great feeling to race vintage bikes and bring the past to life”, says Daisuke. The series has made racing affordable again for hobbyists. It’s more about the rider’s skill than his gear. That’s Daisuke’s ideal. It’s also the reason why he runs his custom garage. He hoards parts and accessories in this tiny space. The false ceiling above the workshop is full of neatly stacked and labelled boxes full of screws, nuts and bearings. Space is scarce here. Like everywhere else in Tokyo.  

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Individuality in a cramped city.

Caravan Tokyo reflects Tokyo’s individual spirit of time.

Individuality in a cramped city.

Whenever space becomes scarce and incredibly expensive, developers build upwards. Thirty-seven of the city’s innumerable skyscrapers are over 180 metres tall, the new Tokyo Sky Tree TV tower stands at a whopping 634 metres. The shortage of space is also a reason why there are hardly any old buildings in Tokyo. 30 years, then houses are torn down, recycled and built up again at current standards. Bad neighbourhoods are hard to find in Tokyo. Everything is in perfect condition, well maintained and polished. If you’ve visited the city before, you won’t recognise it the second time. It’s always redefining itself. New trends are always taking hold and being invented and shaped in Tokyo. For example, the motorcycle enthusiasts of Drive Thru combine their love for vehicles with stunning customising ideas. Not only did they build their own custom machines for Daisuke’s B.O.B.L. vintages races. They also travel to the races in a vintage caravan that they converted into a café. Another caravan is parked in the pricey Omotesando district in the centre of Tokyo. They rent it out on the online homestay network Airbnb. Equipped with original accessories, the caravan reflects Japanese culture and is a perfect example of the unique zeitgeist that the people of Tokyo live and love.  

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They say that quality and aesthetics are very important to the Japanese. From everything I’ve seen in Tokyo, there’s a lot of truth to that.
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Joy Lewis

Lifestyle customised.

Drinking coffee and do some shopping at Deus Ex Machina in Harajuku.

Lifestyle customised.

The need for individuality might have something to do with the fact that so many people are packed together in one place in Tokyo. Many shops understand this and offer products that cater to this desire for self-actualisation. One example is the Japanese branch of the American custom label Deus Ex Machina. Joy is excited as she enters the shop, which is a mixture of cocktail bar, custom garage, café, surf shop and clothing store. She immediately makes herself comfortable on a stylish sofa designed by her good friend, motorcycle-obsessed designer Stephen Kenn from California. “It reminds me of Deus Ex Machina in Los Angeles – even though the Japanese influence is clearly visible and everything is more compact. It feels a little like home here, especially as I’m sitting on Stephen’s couch”, says Joy.  

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The value of craft.

Joy Lewis chatting with Deus customizer Matt Roberts about the lifestyle of Japanese bikers.

The value of craft.

Next she meets Deus’ customizer, Matthew Roberts. Originally from Australia, he first came to Japan on a school exchange programme in 1991. He was so fascinated by the country that he moved to Tokyo permanently in 2005. “I love the Japanese appreciation of design and their attention to detail”, says Matt. He’s excited that his passion for motorcycles and customising is now in vogue again. “Customising is a lifestyle decision. That includes motorcycling, surfing, skating, fashion and a rediscovery of the importance of craft. It all matches perfectly, which is why Deus is bringing everything together in one place here. For me, a motorcycle is like the cup, it is a vessel for your emotions and experiences as you make your adventures. When you ride a motorcycle, it fills you with energy and excitement; you grow personally and it brings you together with other people, riders and beyond. That’s what is unique about this lifestyle“.  

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A sea of lights in the rear view mirror.

For Matt Roberts, Tokyo is the ideal place to live his lifestyle and realise his design dreams. But it’s not easy for customizers to establish a foothold in a country that is the absolute leader in this market, a country that is driven by excessive self-expectations, a country that values aesthetics and perfection above all else. To compete in such a society, you have to work hard. This gives confirmation to the stereotype of the hard-working Japanese whose lives are centred around their jobs. People like Matt or Daisuke ride their motorcycles at night when the roads are empty. Joy Lewis and her R nineT Racer are following their lead today. They ride out across Rainbow Bridge. The lights of Tokyo in the rear view mirror. In front of them, the horizon, where delicate pink strands of light will appear at 4 am, in the land of the rising sun.  

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