It’s neat to think about: pretty much any time, any day, somewhere in the world, there is a group of scooterists gathered together, riding, wrenching, or telling stories. And that’s been the case for several decades.
This theory can be easily proven via Instagram. Any time you check in, day or night, you’ll find smiling faces that seem somehow familiar, all clustered around the motor scooters we all love, in various exotic landscapes across the world. One of the best things about VCOA is being a part of this global community. If you’re lucky, every so often, this abstract concept of togetherness becomes a beautiful reality!
Our family visited Tokyo last week for a rare and desperately needed vacation. A couple months before the trip, I reached out to Vespa Club Tokyo, asking if they’d be interested in meeting up for a drink or coffee while I was in town.
I quickly heard back from VC Tokyo member Hiroki-san, who offered to serve as translator between me and club president Kazuhiro-san. We arranged to meet the morning after I arrived, and Kazuhiro assured me he’d make some plans. He also — incredibly — offered to let me ride his GTS! I secured an International Driving Permit and packed a helmet and gloves, excited for the chance for even a short Besupa ride in Japan. I designed some stickers to commemorate the visit (a heart with a katakana-styled “Vespa” logo). I packed some patches and other gifts for Hiroki, Kazuhiro, and their clubmates.
At dawn Sunday morning after my arrival, I Googled my way to Shimokitazawa station. I arrived an hour early, giving myself some time to walk around the beautiful neighborhood of small alleyways full of thrift stores, bars, and restaurants. Nothing was open yet, so it was much quieter and cozier than the hustle and lights of Shinjuku, where we were staying. Soon, Kazuhiro arrived on his GTS, then Hiroki on a beautiful GS160. As we chatted, a few more riders showed up, then we all rode to Kazuhiro’s neighborhood to pick up his 2017 PX150 (the “150 years of Italian/Japanese friendship” edition, the final limited batch of P-series to be sold in Japan). I was handed the keys to the GTS.
I was excited to take a quick ride around the neighborhood on this beautiful spring day, but they’d made much bigger plans! We left for an epic, unforgettable ride through much of Tokyo, with occasional sightings of early-blooming cherry blossoms. We passed through the famous Shibuya Crossing, then stopped for photos at Jingu Gaien, “Ginkgo Avenue,” a popular Sunday-morning auto enthusiasts meetup spot. A couple more club members joined us there. Back on the bikes, we passed the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Station in Marunouchi, and more… was that a Hello Kitty Self Storage? did I just cross the Nihonbashi bridge on a Vespa? There was so much to see!
We stopped at Tokyo Vespa in Sumida City, a small independent vintage Vespa dealer and repair shop. They had a couple dozen vintage Vespas (and a couple Lambrettas) on display, ranging from “beaters” to beautiful restorations. Some were customer bikes, but most were for sale, including an array of the late-90s Japanese-market smallframes I’d seen in my treasured copies of “Vespa Vivace” magazine. Hiroki, who’d snapped a front brake cable, left his GS for a repair and rode with Kazuhiro on the GTS, which meant I got to ride the PX150 for a bit!
I should note that I’d never driven (let alone ridden a scooter) in a left-hand-drive country, and wouldn’t have dared do it on Tokyo’s busiest streets if I hadn’t had decades of scooter group-riding experience, and hadn’t been safely tucked in the middle of a group of locals. At one point, Hiroki pointed out that’d I’d run a stop sign, at which point I realized I didn’t even know what a Japanese stop sign looked like. (After hearing that story, my son found me a tiny Japanese stop sign from a gashapon machine.) I also struggled a bit with the turn signals, being firmly used to hand signals. And on top of all that, I was wildly jet-lagged. So there might have been a few moments where Kazuhiro had second thoughts about loaning me his treasured Vespas, but I’m sure glad he did.
We parked the scooters in a garage near the Tokyo Skytree and walked to San Gusto Italian restaurant, where the club had reserved the second floor. A few more club members, and Kazuhiro’s wonderful family, awaited us, with customized Vespa placecards that Kazuhiro and Yuki-san had printed, hand-cut, folded, and assembled (with Vespa paperclips!). As the staff served delicious Caprese salad, various brick-oven pizzas, and pasta, Kazuhiro made a brief speech and introduced me. With Hiroki translating, I profusely thanked them, telling the assembled club that it was great to find friends with so much in common on the other side of the world, and that I hoped that someday I could host them in similar fashion in Chicago.
I answered a few questions about the VCOA and our chapter, and Vespas in the United States, then the waitstaff brought out an ornate chocolate cake with egg custard, lit with sparklers. After dinner, we traded cogs, banners, stickers (“Kawaii!” they exclaimed, one of about six Japanese words I know) and other club swag, and several members gave me thoughtful personal gifts (gashapon, senjafuda with my name, etc). I was literally brought to tears by the generosity of my hosts, who wouldn’t even let me chip in for the meal. Gochisousama deshita!
We returned to Vespa Tokyo to pick up Hiroki’s repaired GS, then rode to a coffeeshop to meet Kouichi-san, the president of Vespa Club Japan, who was unable to join us for lunch. He arrived on a pristine 90 SS. He told me the 70-year old national club was apparently far more active in the past, but had lost momentum over the last decade, so he was very excited to make contact with VCOA and share ideas for growth and cooperation. I told him about our chapter and the national club, and promised I’d introduce him to VCOA president Josh Rogers to keep the conversation going.
With the sun setting on a magical day, we headed back to Shimokitazawa, via the ritzy Ginza district and nightlife center Roppongi. We stopped for gas at a station with overhead pumps. I found it funny that in Japan you’re not allowed pump your own gas, but Hiroki still had to add 2-stroke oil himself. I guess maybe vintage scooterists in Oregon and New Jersey know the feeling? After dropping off the P200 at Kazuhiro’s home, he gave me a ride back to the station through the alleys of Shimokitazawa, now crowded with families and tourists enjoying the nightlife. Once I got on the train, I realized how exhausted and jet-lagged I was. I had a quick gyūdon dinner with my family and got a very good night’s sleep.
All in all, the day felt like a dream. After being involved with Vespas for such a long time, all the rallies and meetups tend to bleed together in my memory, but this day was so very special that I will never forget it. I honestly don’t think there’s any way I could ever thank my hosts enough, but I hope to someday return their hospitality, and to be similarly generous and welcoming to foreign scooterists who pass through Chicago. In fact, while in Japan, I got an email from a French scooterist coming to Chicago in May, so I’m already making big plans for his visit. He won’t know what hit him!
Some photos courtesy of Kazuhiro and Hiroki
A few other scooter-related notes: While not as ubiquitous as in Paris or Rome, there are a good number of scooters on the streets of Tokyo. Late-model mid-sized Honda and Yamaha twist-and-gos, especially Super Cubs, are common, and canopied delivery-box scooters are everywhere. While there are several modern Vespa dealers in town, I didn’t see many outside our group. I hardly saw anything older or more exotic, aside from one tricked-out 80s P200E parked in Shinzuku, a Fuji Rabbit I spotted during our ride, and an occasional LML Star (our Genuine Stella).
I’d hoped to come across Kyuu-Gentsuki (the vintage 50cc Japanese moped/scooter scene) and Bōsōzoku (the “out of control” modified motorcycle scene, which also bled into scooters… watch the film “Kamikaze Girls!”), but I didn’t see any evidence of either during my short stay. I’m also aware there’s a big Mod scene in Japan but didn’t get a chance to check that out. I visited several bookstores unsuccessfully looking for “Weller” magazine, the spiritual successor of “Vespa Vivace,” but apparently it’s just about impossible to find, even Hiroki and Kazuhiro say they have a hard time tracking it down. Ebay prices for recent issues are already ridiculous, and a subscription with U.S. shipping costs over $100 for two issues. Oh, well(er).