Tokyo's Motorcycle Paradise: Ueno

Ueno is almost a village itself, a village reserved for all that has two wheels and an engine

If Ali Baba had been a fan of motorcycles, his cave of a thousand treasures would have been in Tokyo. And if this were the case, the phrase “sesame” would not open doors that revealed the sparkling booty of thieves. In our scenario, a plan of the city is sufficient. Located a stone’s throw away from the Imperial Palace, Tokyo’s Ueno district is a motorcyclist’s paradise.

Corin stores sell an average of 4000 helmets per month.
Corin stores sell an average of 4000 helmets per month.Photography by Laurent Benchana

Corin Town, a Unique World
Bordered by the Ueno train station to the west and Avenue Showa Dori to the east, Ueno contains at least one hundred motorcycle dealers and accessory shops. The multitude of luminous panels creates the feeling of a miniature Las Vegas, unrelenting in its attempt to attract. In the midst of all of this, there is a man named Hisaharu Wakabayashi. During most of his 43 years, Wakabayashi was unaware of the joys associated with two wheels until he was put in charge of encouraging the vice (see sidebar, page 85) by creating Ueno's first ensign, Corin, a store featuring motorcycles for any occasion. Today, he directs 24 motorcycle shops in Japan, including 18 in Ueno, which is sometimes referred to as "Corin Town."

Map of the Ueno district
Map of the Ueno district aka a motorcycle paradise.Cruiser

Stroll with a Thousand Temptations
Once you have left your credit card with a friend you can trust, you can venture into Ueno without risk of personal bankruptcy. In a small corner of this paradise is Racing D's Connection. (The meaning of the name does not readily become apparent, but since everything in Japan is strangely named, one learns not to notice.) On the ground floor, racks of tools are stocked in varieties so plentiful, you would be hard pressed not to find something you need. (One rack featured 10 different pressure gauges!)

The stairwell, which leads to the second level is filled with promotional posters for "decayed clothing" (the 1999 season collection). This next floor is where this motorcyclist felt he had entered the kingdom of heaven. A few hundred helmets are displayed in stalls, and whether you are looking for a full-face, a bowl or something resembling an egg shell, you will find it here. From retro to futuristic styles, painted with flames or flowers, in false wood or decorated with a pinup, the choices will make your head spin. But you'll need to keep your cool, because there's still more to explore.

Photos are nearly illegal in Ueno
As opposed to what this photo essay may lead you to believe, it is practically illegal to take photographs in Ueno. Small stickers stuck on the windows specify it. What are stores hiding? Good ideas. Stores fear competitors could steal their innovations…or conversely, fear reproach for having taken others’.Photography by Laurent Benchana

Up another stairwell thousands of boots, chaps, windbreakers, pants, leather vests, saddlebags and many, many key rings (stamped with American symbols such as the Union 76 logo) greet you. On the fourth floor, the apparel is dedicated to keeping you warm during a winter ride. And on the fifth, and last floor, finally you find the reason the place is called Racing D's Connection. The door to this floor is kept shut, and what lies beyond is the "other trade"—SP Tadao Racing Parts. As you enter this floor, two cartoonish eyes in the corner stare at you from the helmet of Shinya Nakano, the runner-up 250 Grand Prix rider. "Yes, we sponsor Shinya," proudly acknowledges a salesman, "but also [Naoki] Matsudo in 250 GP."

Motorcyclist in Ueno
With so many stores focused on anything involving two wheels, it is obvious why so many motorcyclists flock to this district.Photography by Laurent Benchana

But there are many more motorcycle stores in Ueno. No sooner do you walk out into the alley from Racing D's, when something else catches your eye. Outside and on a stage no less, are a variety of motorcycles and accessories. Everything is mixed together—Keihin FCR carburetors, aluminum swingarms and saddles of every type (including two-seaters, leopard prints and spring single-seaters). Even the unimaginable finds its place here, in all dimensions and in great numbers. However, Ueno is not simply one uninterrupted string of Gore-Tex jackets and Porker pipes. With its intimate air, it really is comparable to a village. The stores grew up in the streets, slowly and randomly, so you can find repair shops (where a mechanic can only work on two motorcycles in his close quarters) next to a tiny workshop (not far from the days of candlelight) where an old tailor at his worktable still makes leather suits to measure.

customs in Ueno
Customs of all shapes and sizes ride the streets of Tokyo's Ueno district.Photography by Laurent Benchana

Only here in Ueno can you find a Honda 1300 X4, Honda 50 Monkey, Honda CRM Mugen, Suzuki GSX 1100 Katana and a modified Vespa (with 10 rear view mirrors plastered in front instead of headlights) on the same street corner. The roadways abound with these small pearls.

motorcycle in Ueno
The streets of Ueno are lined with all sorts of rides both American and Japanese made.Photography by Laurent Benchana

Just as the French have their romantic Sunday morning markets, the Tokyo-ites have Ueno. And more and more often, the motorcyclists who roll through the Tokyo streets have custom cruisers of Japanese or American make. For the past 10 years, this style has gradually supplanted the thriving sportbike trend and Corin stores have recognized the market’s potential by opening spaces with names such as Harley kan, Bikers kan, America kan, and Bikers Custom Freak. The inventory is varied, from saddlebags (imagine white ones with studs or crocodile skins) to ultra retro exhaust systems. A telephone directory would not be enough to contain all the offerings of Ueno, not even the accessory Indian heads or cowboy dusters.

Stocki Komiyama harley
For Stochi Komiyama it was a Harley or nothing!Photography by Laurent Benchana

Youth Plugged-In
Like many motorcyclists in Ueno, Satochi Komiyama rolls in on his Harley-Davidson. And that is always a little surprising to see—a Japanese preferring an American motorcycle to one of the national models. Komiyama is a student, but when the classes are done, he mounts his Harley-Davidson and heads to Ueno. Why did he buy a Harley? "Because the Japanese ones are good motorcycles but I sought something original!" His friends also have Harleys, and there is a big enough supply of parts that Komiyama was able to customize his bike. "I don't especially like the U.S.A., only their motor bikes…." You can believe his words: to buy the rare bird, Komiyama took out a five-year loan and spent more than $19,000 (2,200,000 yen). "I also have a car, but I leave it original," specifies the student. Sounds reasonable.

Satochi Komiyama
Satochi Komiyama.Photography by Laurent Benchana
Hisaharu Wakabayashi owns the streets of Ueno.
Hisaharu Wakabayashi owns the streets of Ueno.Photography by Laurent Benchana

The Boss of the Boss:
Wakabayashi-san, the street belongs to him
When Hisaharu Wak­a­­bayashi sneezes, Ueno catches cold. Why? Because this man is the pioneer, president and founder of Corin, which has 24 shops in Japan with 18 in the Ueno district. In 1957, Wakabayashi was just 20 years old. His passion for success led him to open a motorcycle specialty shop where concessions were practically non-existent. "I am originally from Shinagawa, but I chose Ueno for its central site in Tokyo, and also because it is a district with relatively low rents. In the beginning, people bought motorcycles…because cars were too expensive. Today, the motorcycle is an object of style." And when asked about the name of his company, Corin, Wakabayashi says, "it is the association of the sun (Co) and the wheel (rin)." Corin also can be translated into "the light of the street" or by "the street of the light." In any case, the place is the light that draws the wheels.