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Julian and Roberto go to Asia!
Hi friends from all over the world! Last March, we had the amazing opportunity to travel to Japan and Taiwan to visit dealers, manufacturers, a bike show, make friends, eat incredible food and ride bikes! When we landed back home in Canada, we dove right into the usual busy bike shop season and didn't get a chance to share the full story with you right away, so here we take the time to dive a little more into the details of our trip than those Instagram stories allowed.
Bassi and C&L have had a close relationship with Taiwanese manufacturers and distributors since the very beginning. Julian and Roberto, being the youngest and newest partners, went with the objective of nurturing those existing relationships while also meeting new people, seeing what's hot right now in bicycle manufacturing, and figured why not throw a little bike tour in the mix? Enjoy the read!
Tokyo Round 1
Right on our first day, after unboxing and rebuilding our bikes one at a time in our AirBnb due to space limitations, we set off to explore Tokyo as thoroughly as we could. And by that, we mean we immediately went to all three Blue Lug locations. Right then we got a glimpse of the kind of sensory overloads we’d be experiencing throughout this trip: at Blue Lug, every inch of usable space is taken up with unique and fancy products and merch, and there came a point where it was too much to take in! Each location, though unified under the Blue Lug name and mission, has its own personality and has carved out slightly different vocations. Despite being a big operation, everyone we met was extremely kind and interested in chatting with us. Naoto immediately helped us set up a distribution account and we’re very stoked to be bringing their amazing products to Canada!
We ended the day with a visit to Crumbworks, our Bassi dealer in Tokyo. Crumbworks were one of our first international clients, and certainly among those furthest away from Montréal. Nonetheless, we immediately felt we had so much in common even only through our virtual connections. Keita, the sole individual behind Crumbworks and Magic Components, is one of the most talented and tasteful build curators / business owners / designers in the game right now, and it feels like an honour for him to consider what we make to be worthy of taking up space in his teeny tiny shop! He was also extremely welcoming and was a huge help to us in securing some meetings and factory visits that otherwise might not have been possible.
He also planned to host one of his casual Ojisan (“Uncle”) rides on one of the few days we were in town, closing his shop for the day to do so. The ride-to-snack-stop ratio was just how we like it, with a stop seemingly every half hour at certain points. We biked along lovely paths that led us to a couple beautiful parks all the way to Saitama and back to the start at Crumbworks in the Nakano neighbourhood of Tokyo. Keita and his crew, the Crumlins, are a sweet bunch and it was lovely to meet them!
Tokyo to Nagoya
Being who we are, and having brought our Hog’s Backs allll the way to Japan, there was no way we weren’t going to squeeze in a little bike tour. And what better showcase for our own products than to show up with them a little dusty and dinged up fresh off a bike tour?
Julian’s Hog’s Back, long a 2x2 just for fun drop barred setup, needed a bit of a touring-worthy rebuild to handle this trip. He put on a Microshift XCD transmission for those long tunnel-y climbs, a Memento Atlas rack to schlep all the souvenirs, and a Crumbworks KT bar in honour of our hosts at Crumb. Sim Works Super Yummy tires and MKS Allways pedals were nods to our other favourite Japanese manufacturers.
Roberto kept his 54cm Hog’s Back as it was originally built with the prototype Bobby Bar that he’d been testing the year prior, peppered with some fancy bits in the form of Sim Works seatpost, stem and pedals, XTR M960 derailleurs, Paul Klampers and a White Industries Headset. For this trip, his homemade framebag, an Atwater Grafter XL and a pair of small Ortlieb bags were enough to meet his cargo needs.
Day one was a soggy one, through suburbs, rail trails, and some countryside, that ended with our first factory visit of the trip: MKS, located in Saitama. Yuba led the tour of the shop and we marvelled at the precision manufacturing of Mikashima’s operations. They’ve been making pedals for 77 years, and we’ve been selling them for 15 of those years at our shops. Witnessing the cold forging and heat treating processes, the testing that’s ten times more stringent than ISO standards, the time taken to micro-adjust the bearings on their top-tier pedals, and a tour of their historical collection confirmed that these favourite pedals of ours are indeed the best!
On day two, we got yet another 7-Eleven breakfast of the highest quality. Konbini meals were the perfect fuel stops for touring. The quality and variety of the food was mind-blowing, and we always found an excuse to stop! Highlights were Onigiri, the freshest triangle sandwiches, butter and syrup sandwiched between Dorayaki (mini pancakes), hot cans of coffee, and mini-cups of Sake. We started to get our first taste of real countryside and mountain views, including some of legendary Mount Fuji, interspersed with a few spooky tunnel sections that we tried to fly through as fast as our legs could take us.
Day three had some fantastic climbing. We crossed a mountain pass through the mountains between Hokuto and Ina, where we were on our very own without a single car for hours, and slipped our bikes up snow-covered double-track 4x4 roads over the top. It was special to juxtapose our time in some of the most densely populated urban areas in the world with this serene riding in the middle of nowhere! In Ina we stopped for a highlight meal of the trip, a massive plate of Tonkatsu. One last tunnel got us to Kiso, where we stayed at a magical mountain inn with hot springs attached and an elaborate meal plan. Restful!
On our fourth day of touring, we visited the historical villages of Tsumago and Makoto on the old postal road between Tokyo and Kyoto. These have undergone a preservation effort from the local municipalities, and the result is beautiful Edo period architecture. If you can deal with the bumpiness, there are even sections of old stone-cobbled roads through the forest connecting the two that are somewhat ride-able - we managed to stay up, just!
On our fifth and last day of riding, we enjoyed trending downhill and had a lovely lunch stop in the city of Seto, known for its traditional ceramic-making and yakisoba noodles. A perfect knick-knacking and lunch spot!
We started off our first day in Nagoya by going directly to visit our then most recent dealer, Circles. Having the day-ride our new pals organised for us cancelled due to rain, we got to spend more time discovering the Circles ecosystem. We started with breakfast at Early Birds, an american-style breakfast joint inside the bike shop, before touring their shop and their in-house paint studio. We were then taken to visit Sim Works headquarters where all our favourite fancy bits and bobs are from before checking out their affiliated fixie-goon shop Culture Club and the adjacent coffee shop for more delicious drip brew. We ended the day on the newest branch of the Circles tree: dinner at Pasta Cerchi, their Italian restaurant, where we were treated to bottomless house wine and a literal array of japanese-italian fusion dishes.
As one can imagine, the Circles team are a busy bunch. It’s truly impressive and inspiring to see everything that goes on under one roof. We were grateful for the time they took to show us around and are excited to be working with them! It’s a beautiful shop and visiting is an absolute must if you’re in the area.
We also got to visit a real treasure trove of vintage bicycles at Kato Cycle Plus. The old-school bike shop was so densely packed with the fanciest vintage parts and bikes, it took us all multiple laps to really grasp what was going on.
Our stay in Nagoya ended with us discovering the fine art of Rinko. Bicycles are allowed on bullet trains in Japan, but only once partially disassembled and intricately fitted into bags called Rinko. Our first time doing it was on the train platform under the watchful eye of a nonplussed security guard. After some struggling and the bag finally zippered shut, we were ready to hop on the high-speed train back to Tokyo before catching a flight to Taiwan.
Travelling with our bikes was not only a must for showing off our products to current and potential dealers, but also an incredible - dare we say the best - way to discover the places we were visiting. The time we would’ve spent deciphering subway systems was spent above ground taking in the sights. Despite the fast-paced living everywhere we went, cycling felt quite safe and drivers were generally courteous.
Travelling with a bike isn’t without its logistical challenges. Small apartments with little to no outdoor bike parking, big bike boxes and getting to and from the airport were the main hassles. Every bike trip is different and the non-bike portions were fully part of the adventure.
Taipei Cycle and Taiwanese Manufacturing
After a few weeks of getting acclimated to tourist life in Japan, a short hop to Taipei landed us in a brand new world of sights, tastes, and smells. We immediately hit the night market nearest our accommodation for scallion and oyster pancakes, tea eggs, and bubble tea.
The next morning featured a chaotic but exciting hour-long commute across the city to the convention center where Taipei Cycle, probably the largest exhibition of cycling manufacturing, where factories show off their latest developments, capacities, and hot new products. We were struck by the scope of products on display, but also by the omnipresence of motors and various related contraptions. While we get pretty excited about urban mobility and utility cargo, it’s not part of what we’re currently up to at Bassi, so the dozens of three wheeled mini-cargo-mobiles and sometimes-gimmicky motor technology being shown off in cross-section or functioning underwater felt a bit humorous after a few days immersed in that world. Thankfully, there were several attendees that were very pertinent to meet and interesting to talk to!
Our first stop was the Japan pavilion, to say hi to our friends from MKS and to meet with Yoshikawa-san of Nitto fame to plan for opening our Canadian distribution channels for their products, and joint projects coming soon. Stay tuned!
A much-anticipated stop was next at the Maxway booth. They have been our one and only frame manufacturers for the last 15 years, are absolute pros at what they do - high end chromoly production framebuilding - and are some of the nicest people we work with. They were showing off what we like most: functional, strong, and beautiful steel frames. We were happy to see relaxed rim-brake offerings still well represented in their display alongside lightweight-tubing performance-oriented modern road bikes.
Other exciting highlights from the show included but definitely weren’t limited to:
- Very cool displays from frame part forges with a plethora of lugs, fixtures, and other framebuilding parts.
- Tons of minivelos! Small wheels were very much the vibe throughout this trip, we need more of these bikes in North America - they're so handy!
- Chats with some of our favourite Taiwanese manufacturers. Hanging out with Dia-Compe and talking about rim brakes and friction shifting was lovely.
We also took a detour down to Taichung for an all-day visit at Maxway’s facilities. After hundreds of email exchanges throughout the years, it was really special to ride our Maxway-welded bikes up to their front door - a real homecoming. The tour validated and reinforced our esteem for these folks, who are responsible for a huge number of your favourite brands’ chromo frames. The quality control and precision of what they do is unbeatable, from the initial frame tubing prep to the final alignment checks. We also visited the nearby paint and fork factories, and enjoyed a massive Taiwanese lunch - turns out the folks at Maxway are just as passionate about food as we are!
Full of pep and keen on making the most of our time in Asia, we planned a lil’ three-day tour beginning and ending in Taipei. Turns out Taiwan is far wetter and hotter than we thought, but this was a welcome change from cold-weather early March touring in Japan! We started off with a big climb and big descent through Yangmingshan National Park, a lush collection of hills with stunning landscape.
Down on the northeastern coast, the village of Jiufen, nestled on steep hillsides with spectacular ocean views, was our tourist-y stop on this loop. Because of how steep the town is, you need to scale staircases to get anywhere, slippery from the lush jungle vibes. While shouldering a loaded bike, this got interesting! Jiufen’s old street is a bustling alley of shops and restaurants.
Tokyo Again - JD Cycle Tech, Nitto and Honjo visits, Crumbworks sendoff and Dominos
Back to Tokyo!
By this point we’d gotten pretty good at taking our bikes apart and putting them back together super fast. Riding across town with a rolled-up cardboard box was also now a breeze, so we landed and immediately got back on the bikes!
We had a great visit with James Dion, aka JD Cycle Tech. He’s a framebuilder in Tokyo who works out of the front of his house and does some pretty special stuff. He spends a couple days a week welding for legendary makers Kalavinka, where he learnt to build. Standout products of his include a 27.5/20x2.3” cargo truck with road-y geometry, and a smiley chainring he made for our pal Matsumura-san. His use of workspace is incredible, with a lathe and CNC a few feet away from his living room couch!
Our last full day in Tokyo was one for the books. We linked up with Keita at Crumbworks and a small crew before sunrise to hop into a van to drive out to the Nitto factory, about 3 hours away.
We were greeted by Nitto CEO Mr. Yoshikawa himself and immediately posed for some pics.
We’d first met him and his son at the Taipei show so it was nice to see them both again. It might be worth pointing out that with their current order backlog and the amount of demand, Nitto haven’t been taking on new clients and haven’t really been taking their limited time to give factory visits to tourists like us. We’re therefore extremely grateful to Keita Matsumoto, Nori Masada and of course the team at Nitto for making this visit possible and we are honoured to be collaborating with them.
The tour began with a friendly chat around tea about the history and the evolution of the company. The Nitto “compound” is similar in layout to the MKS one; multiple small buildings within short walking distances. We had started our tour in the office building before heading towards the main manufacturing area.
It was still hard to believe we were there, where some of our favourite and most prized bike-related possessions are made. Getting to watch the workers doing their thing firsthand — in their fabulous Nitto workwear obviously — truly cemented our perceptions of the relatively small manufacturer as being one of unparalleled quality and craftsmanship.
The common thread among Japanese manufacturers, and an important take-away for us, is their reluctance to grow in an attempt to match market demands. Time has proven them right, again and again. Long-standing companies like MKS and Nitto are among the extremely rare few that survived deep economic dips (not to mention catastrophic weather events) thanks in large part to their commitments to produce goods only of the highest quality, only at the cost of resisting the urge to increase their output.
After a delicious lunch, we drove back to Nakano for a final hang with Crumb and friends. After 3 weeks of the tastiest Asian meals, our final dinner in Japan was… Domino’s from across the street from the shop.
Japanese Domino’s nonetheless!
Honjo visit and flight home
Our last appointment was a visit to Honjo’s facilities in Sumida city, Tokyo, the morning of our flight. With our Hog’s Backs fully geared-up, bike boxes and all, we biked over to learn how the dreamiest fenders in the world are made. Honjo are a small family run business with 5-6 employees, and just celebrated their 75th anniversary by finally launching a website! Tomoyuki Shimamura, president of Honjo, gave us an extensive tour of the small building they occupy. It was wonderful to see how a simple roll of sheet material, after some roll forming, cutting, shaping, curling, shaving, engraving and polishing becomes such elegant pieces of bicycle equipment.
After a quick lunch and goodbyes we biked off to the airport, but not before stopping for some last-minute gift shopping along the way. We arrived at the airport, packed our bikes one last time and took flight for home. Our boxes were in rough shape - incredibly, they survived the whole trip!