we tend to think of the art of pain and suffering as being the province of the european and latterly, north american bike riders. but there's a great big world out there much of which is a long way away existing under cultures substantially different from our own. and in a reversal of the usual role where japanese components head mostly in our direction, independent fabrication and rapha have made inroads in the opposite direction, through the auspices of the rather enterprising daisuke yano.
to find out the whys and wherefores, daisuke graciously agreed to the following interview...
what's your background in the japanese cycle world? are you solely concerned with rapha, or have you other commercial interests.
My background in the Japanese Cycle World is a brief one. I've spent most of my time in the US until graduating in 1998. Working as an semiconductor engineer, I raced Japanese MTB National Series for Independent Fabrication. There was a guy who was importing IF back then, but the following year, he vanished. IF were great that they still sponsored me when they were no longer distributed.
(ends up, this guy ran out of money, and was making fake aluminum IF's in Taiwan...IF never made any aluminum frame)
Eventually, IF gave me permission to sell their frames, and since I had my day job, I took measurements at the MTB races and sold a few frames.
2005 Spring, I switched job to Osaka's Cateye as a product manager. Built a network of folks in the cycling industry to eventually form my own business, Executive Sport Business (ESB...so I do like the Fuller's). Now I have an open-by-appointment showroom in the 1400m altitude Nagano on the foot of 3000m Yatsugatake mountains, the Yatsugatake Bicycle Studio (name is borrowed from former Seven master fitter Zack's Cascade Bicycle Studio).
My business is concerned with Rapha and Independent Fabrication. I have a plan to sell some Sportique skin care and other interesting small products for clients. I sell IF, but for Rapha, I'm an agent, building brand and providing customer services.
how long have rapha products been available in japan?
Rapha products have been available online from the 1st day, but as for the retailers, started in 2008 Spring from of all places Fukuoka (very western city).
how did you become involved with rapha?
2006 Interbike, I was supposed to eat dinner with Joe and Tyler from IF at a mexican restaurant and go to a trash biker party. I got lost on my way to the restaurant, so missed the dinner, but they were waiting for me there. Besides Joe and Tyler, there were two other fellows. Before then, I had briefly read about Rapha in the cyclingnews.com's London show coverage, and was interested in the Rapha Climber's Cap, but had no idea how to buy one. These two guys had the cap on, with distinctive center stripe, so I asked where to get one. The answer I got from Joe was "these guys are Rapha". They were Simon Mottram and then US agent Trystan Cobbett. We headed off to the really loud trash biker party, taking half an hour to buy everybody's Sierra Nevada (microbrew beer) but everybody was outside talking since it was too loud and the bouncer would not let me go outside with beer in my hand...stuck with five bottles of Sierra Nevada, I tried my best to consume with no avail, gave up three bottles to some biker trash, and headed outside for socialization. Simon mentioned about Rapha's interest in the Japanese market. I offered to help him with contacts, etc (then I was thinking he was looking for a distributor). Couple of weeks later, having confirmed my reputation with IF, Simon sends me an e-mail with an offer to be an agent with six month testing phase. I still had my day job at Cateye, but I found myself with a contract in front of me, and after a brief discussion with my wife, a decision was made to form my own company to work with Rapha and IF. Who would refuse such an opportunity?
do you hold stock for sale in japan, or are the orders sent from london?
No stock in Japan. All orders are shipped from London, which takes about a week. This is actually not problem at all for the Japanese web retail, since the only domestic web retailer who can ship within a few days, is Amazon.co.jp. Most domestic web retailers are not very efficient and do not keep inventory.
do you have a showroom or office where potential customers can have a look at the clothing?
As I mentioned above, since Feb 2009, I bought a closing B&B in Nobeyama, Nagano, 1400m altitude capital of cabbage and lettuce. 2.5 hours from Tokyo and Nagoya, 3.5 hour from Toyama, the northern city, 5 hours from Osaka area. You can also visit by train, getting off at the highest national rail train station. The showroom has a full line-up of Rapha products including most of 2008 Spring/Summer collection. Customers can visit and actually wear the sample while riding with me for 1hr or even a century (if my legs don't protest). There is no over-the-counter sales, but they can order here online with free shipping.
I constantly have 4 - 5 IF demo bikes ranging from cyclocross, road, and MTB. They change every year with fall Tokyo Show.
how do the prices compare with britain?
Online, of course, uses US dollar. As for retail store, we have our own currency, the Japanese Yen, so we can pretty much set our own pricing depending on the exchange rate. Pretty fairly priced compared to the online.
is your remit solely concerned with japan, or are you looking slightly further afield? what are the plans for the future?
Currently I'm solely concerned with Japanese market, since it's a significant and sensitive market. It needs to be carefully driven to be successful. Many great brands have failed or not performed to their potential due to how they've been marketed. This year, we have plans to expand into Korea, a rising market for high-end road bike related products.
with its somewhat traditional european style of jerseys, jackets etc., why would rapha appeal to to the far eastern cyclist?
Rapha has strong appeal for cyclists with fewer years of experience. Veteran cyclists most likely already have their brands of choice, a full wardrobe and perhaps used to lower cost pricing. It would be very difficult to get them to change into Rapha at this point. They can certainly start the process, but it's a long term thing. Those who started cycling recently are still on the hunt for their own styling, and are willing pay for the well balanced style that Rapha offers, as their everyday shirts cost maybe 20,000 yen ($200). Japan has seen quite a few new city-specifc fashion cycling wear brands recently, but when it comes to offering high-performance at the same time, there is less choice. Rapha's presence has been well received so far.
are there any traditional japanese styles that you think will make their way into the rapha range?
There were talks about Keirin style. We may still be working on that. But I don't want people to think Japanese cycling = Keirin. It's definitely a unique culture, though. Making much much more than anybody in the Pro Tour, but cannot win any World Cup or Olympics Keirin/Sprints... They must feel just like the Major League Baseball players. Anyway, if any foreign publications to cover Keirin, they really need to dig deep and not only with respect, but with a sharp critical mind. It certainly isn't on a fancy side.
Other than that, I can see using unique and distinctive Japanese fabric for trim/liner, etc. I may do something specifically for the Japanese market in the near future. I think the market is established enough that we can do that.
do you think that rapha's monochrome approach to the 'pain and suffering' side of the sport is a philosophy that will suit the minds of japanese riders?
Traditionally, Japanese have a soft side for sweat & blood hard working men. The working alone, never give up approach fits well, though the instant and fancy side of racing has caught up to some. But in the end, when we present Rapha's style and presentation of "pain and suffering", they are reminded of that what was once an old school mind, is actually a refreshing tone these days and most importantly, real.
have you visited perren street, london? if so, was it what you expected?
January 2007 is when I first tried to visit the office, mistakenly walking into Simon's house. His daughter opened the door to me, and had a cup of tea filled to the brim while waiting for a taxi to come. It was Friday evening by the time I got to the office and Simon was the only person there waiting for me. We went to eat some Italian and talked about our future business plans for Japan.
I expected a clean modern "design office". At least that is how it would be in Japan. Clean, efficient, bright, etc to a point where it's past comfort. I was pleasantly surprised by the "busy" ness environment. Chaotic, maybe, but comfortable, as if it's my own room. It's one thing for an office to be properly clean and efficient, but I think little bit of "mess" is organic and a good mess. Necessary for human being.
is the japanese cycle scene an active one?
Cyclist wise, the Japanese cycle scene is on a sharp rise and a positive one. On the other hand we have an impotent government which is surviving on a day to day basis and has no vision for future concerns. We have very little infrastructure to support this fast growing means of transport, and that is a huge concern. No bike racks, no new bike lanes, old bike lanes are being taken up by pedestrians, etc. No brake pista bikes are the least of the problems. Anyway, we do have a very active cycle scene here. It's apparent if you are walking in Tokyo or riding around it. Countryside roads are fantastic here, as you will see in the near future at the Rapha Yonretto Ride.
is there much road racing in japan, and if so, at what level? are there any plans to bring the rapha condor team over to compete at any time in the future?
Until recently, the general public referred Keirin as bicycle racing. The day has finally arrived where people recognize Tour de France style of racing as real bicycle racing. Road racing in Japan has come a long way, but still has a long way to go. The fact that we can only have a road race in the countryside, hours away from the city (freeway tolls here are stupidly expensive), and still not able to close a road, has been a big bottleneck for development. I look at the status of marathon and wonder what can be done to make it any where close to that. One genre that is showing great result is hill climb races. Most big passes are closed in the winter, so there are many hill climb races in the spring just before they open those roads. Sometimes you get to see a snow wall as big as the Mortilolo in May. China may have a better professional racing calendar than Japan. When they want to do something, it gets done. Period. Japan has the national tour, the Tour of Japan in mid May. We tried to get the Rapha-Condor team here, but could not get the invite. It was not as simple as I expected with the organizers. Past relationship has great weight...but I have to be patient. Hopefully next year, we can have them racing on Japanese tarmac.
how well respected is the bicycle in japanese culture?
It's certainly not as chaotic as in some of the Asian countries, but we do have a "utility" bicycle called the "mama-chari", or "mother's bicycle". It's sold for under 10,000 yen ($100), and littered around the train stations. It's becoming a consumable product. Riding on the side walk, no lights, wrong way, with mobile phone and umbrella and possibly eating at the same time! They may be the most talented cyclists in the world. Anyway, over the decade their outlaw like behavior has put the bicycle at the very bottom of the pecking order in the city. Proper cyclists are doing their best to recover that reputation, but we have entirely new issues with these sport bikes. It all goes back to the infrastructure...we have none.
Riding bikes in Japan within traffic, it's hard to say if it's better here than the US or Europe. Motorists here are not so bad, except for notorious buses and taxis.
your photos of the ronde van vlaahanshin depict an almost entirely city based ride. was there not the opportunity to ride in the japanese countryside as with the rapha continental in north america?
The Ronde van Vlaahanshin ride was an invitational ride and not a Rapha Continental Ride type, so we held it in the city. Also, I wanted to make sure that the route was closely allied with the real Ronde, with a high concentration of short steep climbs. Those are much easier to find in developed areas. When we get to do a project like the Rapha Continental Ride, we will certainly go into the countryside, but it should still be fairly accesible, and not a route in the most northern tip of Hokkaido.
could you explain a bit about the rapha yonretto ride?
Rapha Yonretto Ride is the Japanese version of the Rapha Continental Ride. Those guys in PDX have been doing a fantastic job with the project and I hope to do the same for here, so I convinced Simon that we should set up a budget for it. I think it's interesting just as much for the Japanese audience as the foreign audience. We will not do anything stereo-typical like ride through Kyoto, or around Mt. Fuji, or through the cherry blossoms. Japan is more than that. There are some fantastic roads and distinctive culture around the country and people should know that Tokyo and Kyoto are not the only attractions here.
you mentioned the likelihood of working with some japanese framebuilders in the future. are there many in japan?
Most builders make a living building frames for the Keirin riders. The NJS approved. This NJS stamp has become such an iconic seal in the fashion world, that they no longer have to look for anything new. In a good sense, they are good old traditional, never changing, solid bikes. You can also say that they are just dinosaur bikes, and the bike itself is not worth the price. We do have other builders who do fantastic road bikes, such as Nakagawa, Dobatt's, etc. Panasonic still make frames. In the spirit of the Continental Ride, I will also work with some of the Japanese frame builders. Those who can make up-to-date, modern road frames. In fact, as I was writing this in Osaka, I have met with and confirmed participation from Nakagawa Cycle Works.
are the 'inside labels' on rapha jerseys translated into japanese, or if not, do you think it likely in the future?
The inside labels are something we have not touched on too much specifically for the Japanese market. It'll be difficult to do, as we cannot do a Japanese version on the jerseys, etc. In the future, we can certainly do a Japanese version of the recently released booklet. I think it's unfortunate that I'm not expressing the labels more to the market here, since it's such an important piece to Rapha products. I will think of a way to do it in a near future.
what bike(s) do you yourself ride?
I only ride Independent Fabrication, naturally. My first bike in Atlanta ('96) was a Trek 820 steel rigid fork mountain bike, broke it in a first race. I then bought a Scott Comp Racing an aluminum front suspended mountain bike, which cost me 1 month of living money then. There are some bikes which I'd like to ride like the Vanilla or John Slawta's bike, but not interested in modern racing bikes too much. I'm not much for the fancy Ferrari/Lamborghini style, but more like Maseratti/Aston Martin type, I guess. Kids and even my grand parents can recognize that Ferrari is a cool car, but only those who know recognize Aston Martin's value.
have you any cycling heroes?
Since I have a short history of bicycling myself, I do not go too far back. Andrea Tafi for sure. Today? Juan Antonio Flecha deserve a lot of credit. He's the original and the only Spanish rouleur and races on non-Spanish team, where many Spanish riders opt to say with the home country teams. Having spoken with him at the Tokyo Show (he was on vacation with his wife), I've confirmed myself that he's my hero. If I had to pick a Japanese rider, just retired Masahiko Mifune. He's the Japanese rouleur, having raced for F.S. Maestro, Tonissteiner - Landbouwkrediet, and of course his passion for racing cylocross is a definite plus.
are you enjoying yourself? is it good fun?
I have to admit, it wasn't so bad when I was working in the Intel's clean room on a 24hr call. But that's a different kind of pleasure, I guess. Working with Rapha and Independent Fabrication has been fantastic. Because there is no "price-point" product, there's good feeling to do branding for them. It's well worth the effort. I need to take a vacation, though...
It's only myself here, so I have many partners that understand our values and help me out at various stages. Last year's Tokyo Show's stands were made by a temple/castle craftsman, who can build an entire building that last several hundred years in an earthquake central without using a single nail/bolt.
posted on tuesday may 5 2009..........................................................................................................................................................................................................