Monday, May 2, 2011

Kinfolk lounge and bicycle company, Tokyo

By John Greenfield

[This article also runs in Urban Velo magazine,]

If you want to visit Kinfolk, a cozy, atmospheric cocktail bar with vintage keirin (Japanese track racing) frames hanging from the rafters, be sure to print out a map of its exact location. In February, three weeks before the Sendai earthquake devastated northern Japan, my buddy T.C. and I visited the country for a few days. After spending an afternoon at Tokyo’s Tachikawa Velodrome, a gambling venue where old men in parkas studied racing forms and smoked as racers whizzed by in a rainbow blur, we decided to drop by Kinfolk for a drink.

Finding addresses in Tokyo is tricky, so when got to the Nakameguro neighborhood it took a lot of wandering around and asking “Keenfolk bah wa doko deska?” until we stumbled upon the tiny, second-story lounge on a quiet back street. With old-school Japanese woodwork, comfy couches, candlelight and tasty libations, it was definitely somewhere I wanted to spend some time. It’s run by Ways and Means, a collective of expats who also build custom track bikes as the Kinfolk Bicycle Company. Co-owner and bartender John Beullens filled me in on the history of the bar, Ways and Means’ current projects, and what it’s like mixing mojitos for Japanese gangsters.

Who’s involved with We Got Ways and how did you wind up opening this place?

It’s me, Ryan Carney, Maceo Eagle and Salah Mason. Me and Maceo, we’ve been friends for a long time, and Maceo grew up with Ryan and Salah in Washington State. I’m originally from Sidney, Australia, and I’ve been living in Japan since 1999. Round about that same time Maceo was coming over from New York and doing graphic design work and graffiti art. We were both skateboarding a fair bit at the time so that’s how we met.

As we got older we both stopped skateboarding and started getting into track bikes. We were buying secondhand track bikes in Japan and selling them Stateside. Maceo was coming over three or four times a year for work, doing a clothing brand over here. Every time he visited he would buy all these track bikes, as many as he could take back with him on the plane.

We’d go out to all these bike stores in the suburbs that were run by old men. At lot of them were the builders’ stores where they had all the old keirin frames that weren’t really for sale. But we’d go in and talk to them for long enough and we’d be like, “Come on, how much are the bikes going for?”

In 2008 Maceo and Ryan were visiting some builders with the idea of setting up a bicycle brand that would be designed by Maceo and Salah and made in Japan by these old men. At the same time I was getting the keys for this place. The whole time I’ve been in Japan I’ve worked at bars, cafes and restaurants and I knew from experience, having run my own bar before, that doing it by myself was really hard work. Maceo and Ryan were coming to Japan a lot so it made sense that they’d help out with the bar whenever they could.

So they still live in the U.S?

Well Ryan has been living here for the past year, year-and-a-half, and Maceo and Salah both live in the States but visit fairly frequently.

Why did you come up with the name Kinfolk?

The guys in the States came up with that. It was either that or Maceo’s old graffiti crew name which was Lit Fuse. But I thought about what it would be like for a Japanese person to say and a lot of Japanese people can’t pronounce “L” or “F.” So I was thinking Lit Fuse would be hard for them to pronounce.

I guess for a bar name Kinfolk sounds a little more welcoming than Lit Fuse. What all does Ways & Means do besides the bar and the bikes?

Salah and Maceo do web design and graphic design work. We also do a lot of tie-ins with other companies. Last year we did a project with Nike where we created a one-off bicycle for a famous Japanese messenger called Shino.

Was it a pain in the ass to open a bar in Tokyo?

No, a lot of it comes down to connections, knowing the right people and timing. Knowing the language helps because all my day-to-day administration and ordering alcohol, taxes, all that stuff’s in Japanese. So that’s probably a hassle if you don’t know Japanese but generally it’s a lot easier than setting up a bar in America, which we’re trying to do right now. We just signed a lease on a building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. [They held an opening party at the space, called Kinfolk Studios, on February 25.] In New York especially there’s so much red tape involved in getting a liquor license and getting your space up to code.

What kind of frames does Kinfolk Bicycle Company make?

We make two types of frames. One is a keirin-inspired track frame. The builder we use built bikes for keirin racers for about 30 years. So he uses the same geometry that he used when he was building the bikes for keirin. The other type of frame is a custom-made, steel road frame.

What’s special about keirin frames?

They’re steel, whereas a lot of bikes ridden on velodromes around the world are made of high-tech material like carbon fiber. But in Japan, as you’ve seen today, track racing is a gambling thing more than anything else, so they have regulations that the bicycles have to be built in a certain way so that no rider gets a performance advantage. Everyone’s riding a similar bike.

What’s the bar’s signature cocktail?

Our ginger-mint mojito is very popular. I used to work in this really high-end cocktail lounge where there were yakuza [Japanese Mafia] guys coming in. And this one guy would always order a mojito and specifically ask that there be ginger in the mojito. And I tried it and it was good so figured I should bring it down here when I opened this place. It goes well with Japanese ginger ale, which is really gingery, and a little bit spicy.

John Beullens

Every have any problems with the yakuza guys?

No, no, they’re fine. They don’t really pay any attention to Westerners. They’re in a whole different stratosphere. We’re not really worth their time.

So what were things like here when Tokyo hosted the Cycle Messenger World Championships?

It was crazy. There were messengers sleeping in hammocks made of tarpaulins, homeless people hammocks, in the park across the street. It was rainy season, September 2009, and it was pissing down rain. There were gangs of messengers and other cyclists riding around town from one convenience store to the next buying beer.

And then during the actual messenger world cup, which was out on Odaiba [a man-made island in Tokyo Harbor], in a big car park, that was pretty crazy too. Luckily there was a convenience store near where one of the tightest turns in the racecourse was, so everyone could just sit there and drink all day.

Where’s your favorite place to ride around Tokyo?

I really like Meiji Jingu Park which is in between the Harajuku and Roppongi districts. It’s a sporting area with baseball fields and soccer fields and tennis courts and there’s a lot of trees and roads that go around those sports facilities, so it’s really nice place to cruise around. I also like going through the Shibuya neighborhood late at night because the place is completely lit up with neon signs reflecting off the pavement. At three o’clock in the morning there’s hardly anyone around and you can just kind of fly through.

In general, how is it riding a bike around Tokyo?

It’s really safe, it’s good. Everyone’s very conscious about the fact that people are riding bikes on the street. You do have to look out for taxis but I guess you could say that about any country. The only thing is taxis here have doors that open automatically, so there could be nobody in the back of a taxi and suddenly a rear door could swing open for a passenger to get in, and you could ride into it.

What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened at Kinfolk?

All the furnishings are hung pretty low - you’ve got to duck everywhere. So we have a lot of tall guys that hit their heads multiple times when they’re in here drinking. And the more they drink, the more they hit their heads and the less it seems to hurt.

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