Kaichiro Kurosu: no bike is sacred

Kaichiro Kurosu turns standard motorcycles into highly distinctive one-offs. In his native Japan, he’s one of the most in-demand exponents of the art of customization. The latest object of his affections? The BMW R nineT.

Antonina Gern
Roland Hagenberg

Freddie Spencer was Kaichiro Kurosu’s boyhood idol. At elementary school, he would imitate the riding style of the three-time motorcycle world champion on his bicycle. Kurosu may not have grown up to be a famous racer like “Fast Freddie,” but he’s a big name in the bike world nonetheless – fueled by his appetite for experimentation, technical know-how and forward-thinking instincts. His mechanic’s shop in the Nerima district of Tokyo is one of Japan’s most popular customizing havens. “I have no idea why I do it, really,” says Kurosu with a grin. “I don’t know anything else. Setting eyes on a motorbike triggers a flood of ideas. I start imagining dozens of different designs. Like a jazz musician, I explore variations on a theme – a particular motorcycle, in my case. But the same melody is always there and always recognizable.”

Interpret the role

It would never occur to the 44-year-old that a brand-new machine like the R nineT would be off-limits just because the bubbles had hardly settled on its debut champagne. “Take a hundred riders and you’ll get a hundred different opinions, preferences and tastes,” he says. “It’s my job to interpret all of these and express them through the motorcycle.”

From the outside, Kurosu’s workshop cuts an unpretentious figure. The smooth metal frontage of the two-story building – the proprietor’s family lives on the top floor – rises up next to a busy arterial road. And at the ground floor, we’re greeted by a good-natured black retriever stretched out in the morning sun. Visible through the workshop window are bicycle crossbars, wheel rims and inner tubes waiting for their chance to shine. “The bicycle business was a late starter,” says Kurosu. “Parents would show up with their kids and their broken bikes, and there came a point where I couldn’t keep saying no.”

Tattoos peer out from under the sleeves of Kurosu’s overalls but, with his fuzzy hair, goatee and shy smile, he’s more dreamy ’60s musician than road-weathered, hardcore mechanic. A while back, some people from BMW Motorrad stopped by at the workshop with a proposal for the award-winning customizer. They were given a patient audience. “We’ll bring you an R nineT,” they began encouragingly, “and leave you to enjoy yourself. You can modify it to your heart’s content.” The only condition was that fans should be able to follow the progress of the transformation online through to the summer. Kurosu didn’t need asking twice – the R nineT Custom Project had liftoff.

“Setting eyes on a motorbike triggers a flood of ideas. I start imagining dozens of different designs.”

Kaichiro Kurosu

Kaichiro Kurosu’s customizing shop, Cherry’s Company, is one of the most famous locations in Japan’s hot-rod scene. Sometimes he also repairs bicycles for children. Rarely can he say no.

Fellow luminaries of the Japanese customizing scene – Shiroh Nakajima, Hideya Togashi and Go Takamine – also received a bike to work on, the machines giving their workshops a work-in-progress focal point. Not that the customizers spent much time admiring each other’s work: “Of course, I like to talk with my friends about current trends and the latest technologies in motorcycle design,” says Kurosu. “But I avoid hanging out with other customizers all the time. Too much information from outside is distracting.” When he’s working on a machine – i.e., most of the time – he also steers clear of motorcycle magazines, preferring to seek inspiration in the far-removed world of architecture.

Creative chaos and the right tone

Stepping over the prone retriever into the creative maelstrom of frame skeletons, chassis shells and drive chains, we are attracted by a gleaming engine block set to one side, upon which Kurosu has embossed his company’s logo. Calling your firm Cherry’s Company is an act of some bravery in Japan. “The name provokes a lot of jokes and innuendo,” concedes the father of three, with a smile. “Cherry boy” is Japanese slang for a male virgin. Kurosu was 22 years old when he decided to turn his hobby into a career and took a job in a motorcycle workshop. Ten years later, with the encouragement and support of family and friends, the young businessman struck out on his own. “Hence the word ‘Company’ in the firm’s name,” explains Kurosu. “I used ‘company’ not in a business sense, but to describe a community of friends. ‘Cherry’ describes the feeling we had among us at that time: growing and bursting with energy. I was still just starting out, of course.”

If having a company name that sounds right is important to Kurosu, so is hitting the right tone – literally – for his customers. A customizer’s work frequently begins with an owner’s idea of how his bike should sound. “For me, it’s always a challenge to understand what people mean when they use words to describe their favorite sound. You only know how an engine will really sound once the work is complete. I split engine notes into two categories: dry and wet. The R nineT has a full, dry sound, and it’s one I would never want to change.”

Retro look and modern electronics: the BMW R nineT

Kurosu was busy with the Custom Project when we dropped by, tinkering with the alignment of the four-piece steel spaceframe and the front fairing. Later, he’s planning to turn the handlebars downwards a tad. “I usually have a complete picture of the project in my head before I start work,” he says, “but what surprised me about this machine were the modern electronics and how they have been integrated into the retro look.” Kurosu reckons the standout characteristic of BMW motorcycles is that they have always been the most complete machines of their respective era. That was true 90 years ago with the R 32, and still applies today in the case of the R nineT. But, in his mind, there’s no such thing as a “perfect” motorcycle or the best of all time, and neither should there be. There always has to be room for further development, says Kurosu, otherwise, he adds with an entirely straight face, his life would lose its meaning.

Heavy metal: customers often ask Kurosu to modify a bike’s engine note. However, he always tries to stay true to the basic character of each model’s soundtrack.

Inside Kurosu’s laboratory: early this year, BMW handed a group of star Japanese customizers a handful of new machines for its R nineT Custom Project. With its modular concept, the R nineT represents an ideal platform for customization.

Inside Kurosu’s laboratory: early this year, BMW handed a group of star Japanese customizers a handful of new machines for its R nineT Custom Project. With its modular concept, the R nineT represents an ideal platform for customization.

Built for riding

Engine power, weight and speed are all quantifiable and extremely important factors – for customizers as well as riders. Regardless of how sexy and exciting a design might be, “a motorcycle is ultimately built to be ridden,” emphasizes Kurosu. “You can’t afford to let your love of design lead you off into your own, fun little world. That would be irresponsible and very dangerous.” However, Kurosu remains every inch an artist in one respect at least: although he’s won many competitions over the years, he often feels insecure about his design ideas. “When I finish a bike, I usually think it’s the most beautiful in the world,” he smiles. “But then I see all the other fantastic, cool motorcycles at a competition and ask myself: why should it be me who wins?”

So for someone like Kurosu, whose hobby is also his job, is there still such a thing as time off? “I love sport, especially tennis,” he says. “I take tennis very seriously.” Otherwise he’s a family man and spends a lot of time with his daughters Naru and Yaya, “One is 13, the other’s 10. My son Santa is four.” Santa? “Our family name sounds like ‘Claus’ when you say it in Japanese. And he was born in December, so…” It’s no surprise to discover Kurosu has a thing for fast bikes when he leaves the workshop as well.

“Japanese people want to do everything themselves.”

On one occasion, his work took him on a trip to South Dakota, where he took part in a competition and did a lot of riding. He returned to Japan armed with some of his most powerful memories. “I felt endlessly free in the expanse of the landscape,” he recalls. “There was this horizon we just don’t have in Japan.” While there, he also discovered a cultural difference: “Japanese people want to do everything themselves,” he points out. “A Japanese mechanic is proud to be not only a master mechanic, but also a specialist in paintwork, electronics, welding and design. It’s different in other countries, where most customizers concentrate on a particular skill and leave specialists to do their thing with the rest.”

Competitions also present Kurosu with a chance to observe new trends. “Old school” is currently the flavor of the month, with customizers referencing classic bikes, vintage designs and traditional construction. “When I started out as a mechanic,” recalls Kurosu, “it was the opposite: everyone wanted to get the latest machine parts, design tricks and looks.” What hasn’t changed, though, is the pursuit of balance. Kurosu understands balance technically, intuitively and in terms of design: “It helps me to lay the individual parts of a machine out in front of me before I set about modifying it. I have to develop this feeling for each part. Ultimately, my work also concerns the safety of my customers. Many years of experience will tell me right away if a rider looks unbalanced on a machine. And I can see if a motorcycle is lacking balance, even if I’ve never had a ride on it.”

Kaichiro Kurosu compares his work with that of a jazz musician: out of creative chaos, virtuosic design emerges.