It’s been some time now since our last visit to Japan and its time to catch up a bit with unwritten experiences. One of the most enjoyable and enlightening was a visit to frame builders Toei.
Tucked away down a back street in a suburb of Tokyo is a very unprepossessing metal framed building clad largely in corrugated iron. We arrived while the three gentlemen who work there were taking a break, two of them snoozing gently, which probably accounted for a slight frostiness in the welcome. My Wife Tomoko is Japanese and she is well acquainted with bicycle terminology, so she was a wonderful translator. After a while they seemed to warm to us, perhaps when they realised that we did know our chain stays from our down tubes, and a healthy discussion ensued. Founded in the 1950’s Toei were clearly influenced by the recently imported designs of René Herse and Alex Singer, and soon they were building beautiful machines with fully integrated components. But Toei have not stood still, and have come up with their own design improvements, for instance their front derailleur, and subtle and intelligent refinements of the constructeurs specialities such as the gear changer and brakes.
We soon realised that we had arrived at a unique point, as they were in the process of making THREE tandem frames, something which had not happened for a number of years. They don’t often get orders for tandems and one of the customers had been waiting for 8 years! Obviously it is easier to work on a group of similar machines, although as you can see from the pictures, the specification, lug work etc.. differs between the three. Tandems cost over double the price of a bicycle frame as the lugs have to be fabricated specially, since there are no suitable tandem lug blanks available. You can see this in the detailed photographs below. All their frames are built to order and their highly detailed order sheet requires every component to be specified, down to the last screw and nut. Many Japanese customers like to use vintage components ( very often NOS ) on their bicycles, so Toei are equally at home building a touring bike with a Cyclo gear and Stronglight 49D cranks as they are incorporating a new Shimano group set. Kaisei tubing is used largely but some customers provide Reynolds 531 tubesets for their build.
Above all we were struck by the quality and precision of their workmanship. These three great craftsmen are continuing the tradition of the constructeur to the very highest standard, producing machines of beauty, functionality, sophistication and taste.
For further information on Toei see the book here.
On one of my first visits to Japan some years ago I came across the cream coloured bicycle pictured below and spent some time scrutinizing its fine details. At that time I had only vaguely heard of the maker. Having subsequently inspected several more machines, I can testify to the quality of these exceptional bicycles. I recently acquired in Japan this book about Toei. Based in the suburbs of Tokyo, Toei have been making their exquisite bicycles in the style of the French constructeurs, since 1955. Heavily influenced by the import of René Herse machines to Japan in the 50’s, Toei set about providing a home grown alternative to the French makers. This 288 page book is solely in the Japanese language, but there are numerous pictures to feast your eyes on.
Many of the bikes made in recent years are fitted with NOS vintage parts – TA and Stronglight chainsets, Mafac brakes, Maxicar hubs etc.. Clearly part of the reason for the huge prices of such parts on Ebay and through other sources has something to do with the fact that bicycles like this are still being made both in Japan and in the States.
The quality of photography is very fine but is let down a little by the printing quality which is not very sharp in places. I would have preferred to see a smaller number of bicycles in more detail, because it is the detail shots which are lacking, being almost entirely small ‘thumbnail’ images. One such detail is the remarkable spoked chainwheel shown below. I can’t imagine it to be stiff enough, but it looks amazing! There is a wide range of bicycles illustrated – Randonneurs, Sprortif, Grand Tourisme, Piste, Tandem etc.. There are also some catalogue images and nice period photographs of Japanese randonneurs complete with the obligatory beret! Overall a very fine book, well worth having, with just a few reservations. The book costs 3800 Yen in Japan, about £30, but unfortunately you can expect it to be double that when/if it reaches our shores.
Note: Maxicar hub not included with book.
On a recent visit to Japan Tomoko and I visited a number of bicycle related craftsmen and shops, including Toei and Grand Bois – posts coming later! First though, in a suburb of Tokyo, Shoichi Watanabe and his Wife Tomoko make the most beautiful bicycle luggage in traditional vintage style, largely based on the products of the French Sologne and Lafuma bags, but with some added detail and innovations. If you want to equip your randonneuse with the most elegant and beautifully finished handlebar bags and panniers, you won’t find any better than the products of Guu Watanabe. As well as their advertised range they will make pretty much anything to special order. At the time of our visit they were making a very complicated canvas and leather briefcase. The quality of Japanese manufactured canvas and vegetable tanned leather is first class.
As well as being great craftspeople, they were very welcoming and a pleasure to talk to. Shoichi San demonstrated to me how he does the leather binding on the edges of their bags…completely freehand, without an edge guide or feeder! Believe me, that is an incredible skill, gained from over 20 years experience. He explained to me how the supplier of his edge finishing leather strips has just closed down, so he is recommissioning an old machine in his workshop to make his own, 8 strips at a time – a very fiddly and time consuming job which he would rather not have to do!
We enjoyed seeing their neat and efficient workshop with lots of beautiful tools and machines, adapted to the purpose of making beautiful luggage. More pictures of their work can be seen on their Flickr pages here. Thank you to Shoichi San and Tomoko San for their time and for the warmth of their welcome, and for my new green canvas handlebar bag!
The word Guu (from the French ‘Goût’) means ‘in good taste’, and is fittingly applied to these fine craftspeople.