Japan’s finest bike builders | Columns | Gassit Garage
The Mooneyes Hot Rod and Custom Show is the bee’s knees when it comes to the Japanese kings of custom cool. Michael Lichter has been covering the event for decades and these are his favourites
HIRO – The Builder
Cycle West was started seven years ago by custom builder Hiromichi ‘Hiro’ Nishiyama.
The name ‘Cycle West’ makes a lot of sense when you understand that Nishi, the first part of the owner and builder’s surname, means West. Hiro worked in a Harley-Davidson dealership from a young age and then, after a stint as a truck driver, started Cycle West seven years ago. Mainly working with pre-1990 Harley-Davidsons, Hiro strives to keep to a simple and clean style, which is something he may have inherited; Hiro’s father is a successful artist and sculptor.
This Cycle West 1977 Harley-Davidson Shovelhead by Hiromichi ‘Hiro’ Nishiyama was spotted by the Born Free crew at Mooneyes 2016 and selected to be displayed at the following Born Free in California. The 88 cubic-inch powerplant, with its S&S bottom end, has all the right ingredients – S&S pistons and cams, Jim’s lifters and a Dynatech ignition. The large 23-inch front wheel helped define the look, but the details are what finesses this bike. Built for a tattoo-artist customer, it has been lavishly engraved by Hiro’s sculptor father. The headlight lens and surround, handmade by Hiro, adds the finishing touch to the masterpiece.
HIDE – The Builder
Hideya ‘Hide’ Togashi opened Hide (pronounced Hee-day) Motorcycle in 2001. Most of his fabrication work is done in the basement of his shop in Kawasaki, south of Tokyo, where he has his mill, lathe, shaping equipment and all the tools he may need to build the hand-crafted, race-inspired customs he takes such pride in. As a master of understatement and simplicity, the V-twins he has built into extremely tight packages have received many accolades, including incredible commissions and winning Best Of Show at Mooneyes more than once.
Hide Motorcycle’s Galaxy 1966 Harley-Davidson Shovelhead, which debuted at the Mooneyes Yokohama Custom Show in December last year, took three months to build. The Galaxy has an aggressive stance with its 30-degree rake, two-inch stretch in the neck, and the one-off handlebar (with an internal throttle) that so perfectly finishes the line of the downtube. As with all of Hide’s bikes, the Galaxy’s amazing bodywork demonstrates his skill at hand-forming metal.
Cherry’s Company – The Builder
Cherry’s Company is a must-stop for me each year on my annual trek to Japan for the Mooneyes Yokohama Hot Rod and Custom Show. Master craftsman Kaichiroh ‘Kross’ Kurosu, the builder behind Cherry’s, started the shop almost 20 years ago in 2000. Since then, he has won Mooneyes’ Best Of Show several times and he can be counted on for having an entirely unique creation every time I visit. While most of his customs have been based around Harley-Davidson machinery, he has surprised over the years with radical customs on virtually every platform. Interestingly, the upstairs section of his small but efficient shop is devoted to building handmade bicycles. It’s not often anyone can say this, but looking at some of Kross-san’s creations, I have sometimes thought to myself, “This is perfection!”
‘Lazy Hank’ was one of Cherry’s Company’s entries into Mooneyes in 2017. This custom 1982 Harley-Davidson Shovelhead in a modified four-speed frame was built in just two months. Its 1420cc engine is said to run as well as the bike looks. All of Kross’s bikes are built to ride. While the moniker Lazy Hank may be no more than a name suggested by a friend, it fits well, as do the swoopy lines of the frame, fender and oil bag, the shaved rockers, outrageous ribbed pipes and retro Japanese wheels.
SUNDANCE –The Builder
Unlike most Japanese bike shops that are quite small by comparison, the two-storey Sundance V-Twin Skunkworks sits on its own like an imposing shrine to speed. Bikers from all over the world make the pilgrimage to see the offerings inside, and hopefully to hear a dissertation on the inner workings of the internal combustion engine from Sundance owner and author of the book Harley-Davidson Bible, Zak Take Shibazaki. Zak, who can usually be found on site in his lab coat and focused on some element of engine performance, thinks of himself more as an engineer than a bike builder, yet he repeatedly builds amazing customs to house his engine masterpieces.
This single-cylinder Knuckle Thumper took Sundance’s Zak Take Shibazaki three years to build. He started with a crankcase from a 500cc Buell Blast, then added Sundance’s Super Real Knuckle aluminium cylinder and case, fitted with a modified long-stroke H-D Sportster flywheel, and mounted it within a short-track frame, with a VL-style springer front-end. A Penske monoshock looks after suspension duties at the rear. The resulting 650cc bike accomplished the goal set by Zak Shibazaki that it offer a similar ride quality to a modern-day sportsbike.
HAMMER – The Builder
Koji ‘Hammer’ Hamada is the owner of Hammer Sycle, located in Japan’s Tsuchiura City, about 50km northeast of Tokyo. It is a shop dedicated exclusively to American motorcycles. After five years working in a California H-D dealership honing his mechanical skills, Hammer opened a shop in Japan where he continued to develop his expertise and reputation. Hammer does amazing work with old engines, especially Knuckleheads, for which he has an incredible reputation. Visiting his warm and characterful shop is always a treat, with parts from all eras hanging everywhere to draw your attention and captivate your mind.
VFL is Hammer’s latest creation, a race-inspired
1941 Knucklehead custom. This light, 74 cubic-inch machine, unveiled at the 2017 Mooneyes show is a shop build with the original 1920s-1940s parts from VLs, FLs and JDs. The seat from a 1948 Hummer came right off the surrounding walls of the workshop. At some point, Hammer hopes to take this beautiful bike back to the USA to race down the beach in the annual Race of Gentlemen.
BOOTLEG – The Builder
When you think of the term Bootleg, it conjures images of prohibition during the 1920s when liquor was illegal. It was still readily available through illicit means, including from people on the street selling shots from bottles hidden in their boots. For Yoji Kikuhara, the term represents the underground and the power of the people, so Bootleg was the perfect name for the motorcycle shop he opened two years ago. Yoji is a custom bike builder who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed by a single style, but would rather have fun exploring different avenues with Dynas and FXRs (for which he also makes parts), as well as much older bikes such as his recent Flathead.
Yoji’s custom 1957 Rikuo-Davidson bobber is unique by any standards. It is quite a combination of parts with its Harley-Davidson Flathead engine in a Rikuo frame, a springer front-end and Rikuo transmission. The engine was in particularly bad shape before Yoji sank his hands into it, but the perfectly polished results show off his talent, as does his choice of paint colors, graphics, tail-light and sissy bar, each with a nod to legendary builder and artist Ron Finch. If this Flathead was to make its way to the West, they would be fascinated to learn that the Rikuo brand dates back to 1929 when Harley-Davidson, on the verge of bankruptcy in the Depression, licensed the making of its motorcycles to Japan.
Words & photography Michael Lichter