Friday, November 23, 2007

The Uneo motorcycle District Japan.

By Grant Parsons. Via: amadirectlink
"This place is huge. And bustling. And crammed with more people than Daytona's Main Street during Bike Week. Me, I need to find the subway to Ueno. One saving grace is that there are occasional English subtitles on the signs. Another saving grace is that I've researched fairly carefully where I want to go.

I hang back and watch how the locals do it—they look at a giant subway map on the wall with station names and prices on it, then put money in an automated fare machine and get a ticket. Simple enough, except the map looks like a multi-colored woven basket and makes New York's subway map look like a simple peace symbol.

Eventually, I'm through the turnstiles and find my way through four levels of train station to the subway platform I want. Three stops later, I get off in a much smaller station in Ueno. I randomly choose one of two exits, and it takes me to exactly where I need to be: atop a long stairway leading down to about a million motorcycle stores.

From atop the stairs, I can see parts of at least four city blocks. And all of them are festooned with various motorcycling-related signs . The sidewalks are blanketed with motorcycles for sale. And though there are lots of motorcycles running on the streets like most other places I've seen in Japan, the guys here seem a little more into it. There are repli-racer guys zooming by on 50cc sportbikes, and hard-core Harley-looking dudes on 250cc cruisers.

Tokyo can be a strange place to a wandering American. But if you're a motorcyclist, you'll feel right at home the second you hit the sidewalks in Ueno.

Here, you'll see it all. Tricked-out "monkey bikes"—little 50cc machines with more custom parts than a drag racer. Ultra-cool Japanese domestic market motorcycles, most of them limited to 400cc due to licensing restrictions. Replica road-racing leathers from vintage Freddie Spencers to last week's Valentino Rossis.

Where else will you find an eight-story building filled with motorcycles, parts and accessories, with each floor dedicated to a different type of item? First floor, jackets. Second floor, helmets. Third floor, exhausts. Granted, the footprint of the store is only maybe 30 feet square, but in tightly packed Tokyo, that's a mega-mall.

I wander into the first store I come to, the massive Corin superstore. The funny thing is that for as large as it appears on the outside, it sure feels cramped inside. Shelves of jackets and helmets overflow to create an almost-claustrophobic feeling. I guess with real-estate prices in Tokyo, you need to sell a lot of stuff to pay the rent.

I had heard this from others who had visited here, but it still surprises me. I had been told that store owners didn't want pictures taken because they didn't want their prices to be seen. I guess that's possible, but all it would take to blow that theory would be another owner wandering over to price-compare.

I'm guessing that it's also possible that many of the logo items—replica leathers and stickers and helmets—are not necessarily officially licensed. Who knows? I spend the rest of the time in stores taking photos as discretely as possible, which is why some of these pictures aren't framed as well as they could be.

One of the great things about being an American in Japan in general and in the Ueno District in particular, is the wonderful English translations that appear on T-shirts and signs. While you have to admire the Japanese infatuation with English, and their desire to translate hip Japanese slogans into it, the fact remains that not every one is perfectly done.

Consider the sticker that says: "Follow me looking my (behind)." I'm guessing it's a loose translation of "Eat my dust." But I'm not sure what to think when I see the banner that says, "A Motorcycle is the Sport of Naked".

Every store seems to come with its own lifestyle, and I guess it's possible that's what you're buying here. After all, why should Japan be different from the rest of the world. Chaps, fringe, tough-guy jackets and beanie helmets are crammed to the rafters in one store. The same store boasts something like a shrine built in front of an old Harley-Davidson red-white-and-blue "1" back-patch, complete with a picture of Jay Springsteen..

If your motorcycles of choice run more toward the bent-over kind, you'll find all the lifestyle accessories you need across the street at the sportbike store. Repli-jackets and full-face helmets spill out of shelves where you can buy knee pucks resembling Japanese Kanji characters and titanium-plated road-race gloves.

With scooters being even more popular than motorcycles in Japan—judging, at least, by how many of them you see on the road —it only makes sense that the scooter folks get their own stores too. In one, you can even buy authentic English parkas for the full-on Mod look, while on the next floor of the store, every square inch is devoted to hop-up carbs, expansion pipes and clutch flywheel weights for modern 50cc scoots.

A few stores later, I'm wandering among floors on a spiral staircase when I start to feel a bit light-headed. OK, all this culture shock can be a bit overhwhelming, but then again, it has been a while since I've eaten. Maybe something to drink would be good.

I find a vending machine, where I'm strangely drawn to something that brands itself as "Pocari Sweat". What the heck. Maybe it's a sports drink. I cough up the 175 yen. I'm hoping a Pocari is some kind of made-up thing, and not a person who sits in a sauna all day from whom the company harvests, um, fluids.

After a few swigs, I decide that if a Pocari is a big, sweaty guy, he must eat a lot of honeydew. Turns out Pocari Sweat is a lot like melon Gatorade. Not bad, really. Shame about the name. It's good that I've fortified myself for exploring the rest of Ueno, because there's a lot of it.

I wander through a three-story multi-line dealership, with two floors of new bikes, one floor of used bikes and a basement that handles service work. Most all of the new bikes are smaller displacement machines, but you can still buy a Hayabusa, at least in theory.

I'm told that licensing in Japan has been relaxed a bit recently, but there are still a few tiers that are separated by displacement and cost. Under 50cc is simple, and even up to 400cc is relatively easy to do.

But something big is so horrendously expensive to buy, insure, license and pay taxes on that it qualifies as a pure luxury item. Then again, I’m not sure you'd ever find a place you could even remotely expect to open up even a 1,000cc sportbike, anyway.

Which is all a long way of saying that here, smaller machines rule. And after a while, I really start getting into them. I guess it's true that you always want what you can't get. Bring a Japanese enthusiast to the U.S., and he'd go nuts at the big bikes; take me to Japan, and I start thinking 400cc is cool. Go figure.

What's really neat about Japanese market 400s is that you can get just about everything in a 400cc version. Want a shrunken Honda Interceptor? Here's an RVF400 that looks just like one. Like Valentino Rossi's (former) GP Honda? How about a 400cc CBR painted to look just like it. Maybe you're more of a cruiser guy. Here, a 250 Virago actually looks impressive.

Prices don't seem all that great, though. With the exchange rate hovering at 106 yen to the dollar, a fairly pedestrian-looking used Honda CB400 standard goes for more than $3,000. In America, the styling of the bike would make it about 10 years old. But here, with retro being all the rage, it might have only been built last year.

A little toward the fringes of the district are the less-flashy shops that can't afford prime real estate. These seem more my kind of places. They don't care if you wander in and take pictures, and it's not uncommon to see most of the floor space of a 15-foot-by-15-foot shop given over to repair work.

One guy will be chatting up a customer behind an impossibly cramped counter. Only inches away, another guy lays on his back under a bike on an oil-stained wood floor with two glaring work-lights blazing on the whole scene. It looks like someone's going to shoot a really, really small movie in here.

There are plenty of places like this, which must be some kind of testament to how committed the local riders are to keeping their machines on the street. Come to think of it, it strikes me that I haven't seen one poorly maintained machine in all the time I've been here, either in a shop or on the road. You simply don't see cruddy vehicles of any kind on the streets of Tokyo. Maybe with this kind of horrendous traffic, stuff just doesn't last long. Or maybe people really actually do take great care of their stuff.

After a few hours of wandering around Ueno, I'm pretty beat. I sit down on a bench in front of a store to relax. A few minutes later, a guy on a small-displacement chopper pulls up. When I ask if I can take his picture, he enthusiastically agrees.

We get to talking—more like gesturing, smiling and speaking very rudimentary English, nothing more than nouns and verbs, really. But we more or less communicate.

I tell him "Ueno, very cool!" gesturing to the blocks of motorcycle stores.

"But in USA,'' he says. "More?"

"Not like this." I say back. "Ueno very cool!"

He looks around, as if he sees the place for the first time. He takes long enough to stare at the buildings that I worry he hasn't understood my feeble attempts to communicate. Then he looks back to me.

"Yes,'' he says, smiling and nodding, "Ueno very cool!"

Like in many of the world's best places, here, the common language is motorcycling."

1 comment:

OLeazy said...

Your story just booked my Saturday here in Japan, heading to Uneo.