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 PAST ISSUES

776: Wanna Race?
A roundup of Japan’s police vehicle fleet
772: Wanna Race?
Be a pro driver for a day at Tokyo’s racetracks
768: Mazda Biante
Solve your space conundrums with this nimble people-mover
764: Lexus IS-F & SC430
With a new showroom and two sporty releases, the automaker is flying high
760: Chrysler Grand Voyager and Nissan Elgrand
It’s American power vs. Japanese grace in a battle of the vans
756: Motor Sport Japan
The stars and cars come out for a day at the races—in an Odaiba parking lot
752: Alfa Romeo 159 Sportwagon
A reborn classic earns a (near) perfect 10
748: Nissan GT-R
It’s fast, sexy and a bargain. So what’s the catch?
744: Jaguar XF
The new sedan from Britain’s storied automaker proves that appearances are, in fact, deceiving
736: Suzuki Swift Sport
Suzuki’s bargain hatch proves big fun can come in small packages
732: Dualis & X-Trail
Nissan introduces a new SUV while its marquee model continues to play tough
728: Toyota Vanguard
Head off to the concrete jungle with a bit more vehicle than you need
724: Subaru Impreza S-GT
Japan’s automotive loudmouth learns some manners
720: Tokyo Auto Salon 2008
Get ready for some modification mayhem at Makuhari Messe
716: Dodge These!
Chrysler introduces three muscle-bound imports to Japan
712: Licensed to Drive
We guide you through the bureaucratic jungle
708: Tokyo Concours D’Elegance
Exotic autos from the past and present glide into Roppongi
704: Car Knows Best
Automakers are introducing technology that will let your ride decide if you’ve had one too many
700: Range Rover & Land Rover
We put three SUVs from the fabled British maker through their paces
696: Aston Martin V8 Vantage
Channel 007 in this latest incarnation of the marquee automaker’s “baby”
692: BMW R1200GS Adventure
The storied bike maker competes with itself to create a three-in-one masterpiece
688: Lexus LS460
The new sedan is big, fast, safe, classy—and unremarkable
684: Alfa Romeo Spider
We unleash the Italian monster on a 1,200km road trip
680: Ford Mustang
The American classic goes back to its roots
676: Citroën C6
The French automaker's latest eccentricity pushes its own boundaries
672: Nissan’s Pino and Otti
Japan-friendly K-cars pack a big punch
668: Jaguar XK
Forget James Bond—this is the UK’s sexiest export
664: Mazda’s Axela, RX-8 and Roadster
Here’s the word on Japan’s resurgent automaker: buy, buy, buy!
660: Mazda’s Axela, RX-8 and Roadster
Here’s the word on Japan’s resurgent automaker: buy, buy, buy!
656: Alfa Romeo Brera
This gorgeous Italian coupe is both poised and sexy
652: Premium wheels
Business is good for Rolls-Royce in Japan, with an eagerly awaited convertible due out next year
648: Citroen C3 Pluriel
The quirky French automaker barrels into the 21st century
644: Jeep Commander& Grand Cherokee
Off road and on, these 4×4s do their military heritage proud
640: BMW Z4 M Roadster
Beemer’s monster convertible provides the most fun you can have sitting down
636: Name dropping
What your car is called says something about you—and even more about automakers’ marketing departments
632: BMW Mini Cooper S
All hail the mighty Mini!
628: Mazda Roadster
Redesigned and retooled, this two-seater is now a car for enthusiasts
624: Hyundai Sonata
A rev-happy South Korean import tries to find its niche in Japan
621: Lexus IS350
Toyota brings its upmarket brand to Japan—finally
616: Volvo XC90 V8
A bit sleeker and a lot more spacious, this SUV still puts a premium on safety
612: Chrysler 300C
This black beauty recalls the golden age of motoring
608: The Big Ideas
Tokyo Motor Show 2005 was a concept car bonanza
604: Tokyo Motor Show 2005
The automotive world’s big players zoom into Japan with some high concepts in tow
597: Three brothers
We put a trio of Nissan sedans through their paces
593: Ducati 1000S DS Multistrada
The boys from Bologna deliver an Italian masterpiece for your garage
589: Mazda Demio Sport
A worthy cousin to the Atenza and RX8, this roomy sedan is happy around town and in the country
585: BMW K1200S
The boys from bavaria clothe an iron fist in a velvet glove
581: Chrysler’s Cruisers
The American auto manufacturer concentrates on the body beautiful
577: Suzuki Skywave 650LX
If you thought scooters were just for kids, think again
573: Cadillac STS 4x4
America’s flagship automaker recaptures its former glory
569: Tour de Force
Yamaha’s FJR1300A offers an unbeatable blend of poise, power and price
565: Alfa Romeo GT and 156 GTA
With stunning looks and power to spare, these two Alfas are an enthusiast's dream
560: Driving the Future
The talk of the auto industry in 2004 was hybrids, safe driving and intelligent vehicles
556: Deja vu
Blast to the past on Harley-Davidson’s Road King Custom
552: Sports sensation
Nissan's new SUV breaks out of its class
548: Lean machine
Lighter, faster, stronger and sexier—a diet works wonders for BMW’s R1200GS
544: Kings for a day
The Honda Elysion is master of all it surveys
539: Rules of the road
New traffic laws are on the horizon. Turn off your cellphone, watch where you park and don’t ride in gangs, Chris Betros warns.
537: Open roadster
William Bonds gets up-close with the elements courtesy of the Nissan Fairlady 350Z convertible.
535: Extreme makeover
Volvo sheds its stodgy-but-safe image for sleek-and-sporty with the new S40 T5. William Bonds likes what he sees.
533: Sporting chance
Mazda has brought the station wagon up to speed with its Atenza Sport Wagon 23Z. William Bonds takes one for a spin.
531: Street smarts
Automakers are taking car safety to new levels with sophisticated warning systems that almost do the driving for you, reports Chris Betros.
529: Speed zone
Just down the road from Ueno Zoo, a virtual hog heaven has everything for the motorcycling enthusiast. Steve Trautlein cruises on over.
527: Italian Stallion
The Alfa Romeo 147 carries on its maker’s reputation for hot cars with unmatched sex appeal. William Bonds gets carried away.
525: Hot wheels
A cross between a snowboard and a scooter, the Wheelman is a quirky Australian invention that's grabbing attention worldwide. Tim Colquhoun takes one for a ride.
523: Mean Machine
William Bonds gets behind the wheel of the Nissan Skyline 350GT.
521: Show stealers
Toyota stunned attendees at the recent Geneva and Melbourne auto shows with two concept cars that represent a powerful vision for the future of motoring. Tim Colquhoun reports.
519: Mighty mouse
Subaru goes boldly against the tide with its new R2 minicar. Justin Gardiner admires this latest feat of audacity and engineering.
517: Trail blazer
Nissan's top-selling 4x4 features cool touches for winter sports fans. Justin Gardiner drove the latest X-Trail to the slopes
515: Up to speed
The Formula One circus is gaining momentum as the season opener in Australia draws near. Tim Colquhoun takes a look at the latest developments.
513: Good save
Hybrid cars are the rage this year with Toyota, Honda and Subaru touting their gas-electric vehicles. Chris Betros looks at what they're offering.
512: The road ahead
Despite the lack of a full-fledged Tokyo Motor Show in 2004, domestic manufacturers have a bevy of weird and wonderful offerings in store for this year. Justin Gardiner previews the lineup.
509/10: Top of the class
Justin Gardiner finds his favorites from this year's Metropolis test drives.
507: Mom-mobiles
Japanese mothers are trading in their once ubiquitous mama-chari bicycles for a new breed of K-car. Justin Gardiner tries a couple of the most popular mini-cars.
505: Cubic's rube
Nissan has lengthened its highly successful Cube a few centimeters and added an extra row of seats. But, as Justin Gardiner finds out, the result is a bit puzzling.
503: Globe trotters
Kerstin Gackle and Volker Aldinger left their native Germany on April 1 and pointed their Yamahas toward Australia. Eight months later Justin Gardiner caught up with the couple in Tokyo.
501: Back to the future
Cutting-edge technology and futuristic vehicles highlight the 37th Tokyo Motor Show at Makuhari Messe through November 5. Justin Gardiner offers a guide.

ISSUES 499-
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Speed zone

Just down the road from Ueno Zoo, a virtual hog heaven has everything for the motorcycling enthusiast. Steve Trautlein cruises on over.

The mania for big scooters is much in evidence at Bike Town

Foreign motorcyclists have many reasons to dislike Tokyo. Crowded streets in the city and in nearby suburbs allow few opportunities for carefree, wind-in-the-hair riding, a situation that's not helped by Japan's mandatory helmet laws. Large bikes are severely restricted downtown, which means that driving anything over 450cc requires an expensive and notoriously difficult-to-get license. And come springtime, rainy season ushers in four weeks of crappy weather just as temperatures start to warm up.

But for anyone who has biking in their blood, the good points of motorcycling here far outweigh the bad. Rainy season aside, Tokyo's temperate climate lets bikers do their thing year-round. Motorcycles and scooters are so common in the city that, unlike large metropolitan areas in the US, car drivers respect their two-wheeled cousins. And for the serious Tokyo biker, there's even a strip of turf in the center of town catering exclusively to open-air motoring.

 

Kick start
Listed on maps as "Bike Town," the area between JR Ueno station and adjacent Showa Dori has dozens of dealers, repair shops and accessory stores all devoted to motorcycling. Big chains like Corin boast several stand-alone buildings that stock everything from the tiniest Honda scooters to the biggest Harleys. Corin's accessories emporium fronts the main drag, a one-stop shop spread over seven floors where enthusiasts can pick up painted helmets, saddlebags, and just about anything else to make their ride complete.

But the lifeblood of the area lies in the numerous smaller shops and garages that dot Bike Town's main drag and side streets, the mom-and-pop operations that have been around for decades. Some do business out of storefronts the size of tiny apartments, with rows of bikes and scooters out front that occupy more space than their offices-cum-showrooms.

One such shop is Birdie Motors, which lies at the end of the strip farthest from the station. On a recent afternoon, proprietor Yoshikazu Suzuki watched over a line-up that included dirt bikes, scooters and a pink Yamaha the size of a tricycle. The well-worn store, open for ten years, looks like it's as old as its neighbors, but Suzuki reckons he's still something of a newcomer. "Most shops around here have been around a long time," he says.

Side streets have the feel of an open-air bazaar

 

Open road
Bike Town got its start in the years after World War II, when motorcycle wholesalers came from cities to the north and west and set up shop in what was then the central Tokyo hub of Ueno. "Bike Town is located here because of all the trains that came into Ueno station," says a mechanic named Miwa who was repairing bikes while waiting for customers in Sanwa Motors, another cubby-hole-sized dealer and repair shop on the strip. Leading postwar engine maker Kyokuto Motor Company opened a retail outlet that spurred the area's growth and, as more shops followed, Bike Town became the city's best-known purveyor of cheap transport. Today, this quarter of Ueno is associated with motorcycles in much the same way Akihabara is with electronics or Omotesando with fashion.

One key to Bike Town's longevity lies in the adaptability of its dealers. A quick walk around reveals that most shops, from the large chains to the small retailers, harbor no prejudice toward a bike's size or country of origin; if it has two wheels and an engine, they're willing to sell it. This flexibility has seen the area weather some tough times; tastes in bikes, like electronics or fashion, change, and Bike Town seems happy to change right along with them. "In the last four or five years, scooters have become extremely popular," Suzuki says. The Honda Majestics and Suzuki Let's models on offer at virtually all the stores suggest that the retail district is unafraid to conform to fickle consumer trends.

 

Going…going…gone?
Recently, though, several factors have come together to threaten business like nothing else in Bike Town's history. The first is the graying of the consumers who originally fueled the area's rapid growth, enthusiasts whose passion has failed to take hold in the current generation. Another is that Bike Town, which was once the only game in town, now faces competition from a variety of other retailers. These include shops that have sprung up in other areas of the city and in the suburbs, and auctions-both online and off-that sell bikes just as cheaply. Suzuki sees these trends affecting business in a very specific way. "A long time ago, people were particular about their preferences," he says. "But now price is the most important thing."

Despite these problems, the area on a recent weekday was bustling. According to Suzuki, foreigners make up a good portion of the foot traffic, and his Birdie Motors, for one, has staff who can speak English-in this case, Suzuki's nephew. Foreign bikes like the ultra-popular Vespa scooter are also much in evidence, and Suzuki says that one foreigner rules them all: "Harley Davidson, of course." In the narrow side streets, the mechanics, salesmen and shoppers making their way among the big Corin shops or the smaller stores give the sense that there's no place they'd rather be.

It may not have the cachet of Akihabara or Omotesando, or the convenience of an online auction, but to the city's motorcycling cult, Bike Town still has no equal.

Bike Town is located in Ueno 7-chome, near the Iriya exit (JR line) or exit 2 (Hibiya and Ginza lines) of Ueno station. Birdie Motors: 7-12-9 Ueno, Taito-ku. Tel: 03-3843-2166.

Photos by Steve Trautlein


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