Introducing
Dion James

Building Bikes is My Life

Photography by Kazufumi Shimoyashiki
Editing & Text by Tamio Ogasawara

Sustainability means making bikes part of our lives. We can’t make progress if we only view our bicycles as a convenience. If they break, they deserve to be fixed, and shown love and respect. Drawn to Japan by his “love for bicycles,” Dion James builds bike frames for a living. At his studio on a Tokyo backstreet in the Ryogoku neighborhood of Sumida, this young creative hints at tomorrow through his passionate handiwork.

The machine behind Dion is a lathe, which he learned to use after arriving in Japan at a trade school and through books since arriving in Japan. This helps him cut steel pipe and fashion threaded parts. For his frames, Dion uses chromoly steel, an alloy in which chromium and molybdenum are added to iron. At the shop, you’ll always find him dressed in workwear.

UV Protection Twill Cap
WashedJersey Work Jacket
Extra Fine Cotton Broadcloth Checked Long SleeveShirt
Straight Work Pants
Low Cut Sneakers

Dion James

Frame Builder

Born in 1988 in California. Raised in Phoenix, Arizona by an American father and a Japanese mother. He came to Japan in November 2016 and studied frame building under Akio Tanabe of Tsukumo Cycle Sports, creator of Kalavinka racing frames. In summer 2018, he founded his own studio, J.D. Cycle Tech. His favorite team is the Phoenix Suns.

Ryogoku in Sumida has played an active role in perpetuating the traditional culture of Tokyo since the Edo period. It is also home to Ryogoku Sumo Hall, Tokyo’s main venue for professional sumo wrestling, which has its origins in the Kanjin Sumo events once held at nearby Eko-in Temple. Around the block is the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which offers endlessly fascinating dioramas that recreate, in vivid detail, the cityscape of Tokyo as it appeared during the Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods. Yet another of the many cultural institutions is the Sumida Hokusai Museum, a neo-futuristic building designed by architect Kazuyo Sejima, where you can peruse the works of Katsushika Hokusai, the legendary ukiyo-e painter who was born in Ryogoku and spent his life in Sumida.
Tucked in the backstreets behind Eko-in Temple, you’ll find the studio of frame builder Dion James. As a matter of fact, Dion lives in an apartment behind the studio and store, in a classic arrangement often found in the Japanese storefronts of the past. Watching Dion nod hello as people from the neighborhood pass by the large window at the front of the shop, it’s clear he’s found a place for himself in the community of Ryogoku.
“I came to Japan four years ago with no prospects for a job, but I knew I wanted to work here. When I first arrived, I lived with my Japanese grandfather in Koto, just south of here, but when it came time to get my own place, I chose Ryogoku, which has a similarly old-school downtown vibe. My interest in Japan started off with bikes and food. Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, I rode my fixie (fixed-gear bicycle) everywhere I went. I also worked at a Japanese restaurant. My mom is Japanese and taught me to speak Japanese when I was little. While working at the restaurant, I had the chance to wait on Japanese major league players who were on American teams at the time. In their opinion, I was great at Japanese. I didn’t actually work in the kitchen, but I always noticed how the Japanese chef had the mentality of a craftsman. I was so impressed by how he treated food like art. Things were always crazy busy for him. One time I asked him where he got all of his energy, and here’s what he told me: ‘I get my energy from loving what I do. Find something you love, Dion, and you’ll feel that energy too.’ He was absolutely right. When I thought seriously about what I loved, I realized it was bicycles. I knew about Japan’s interest in bike culture, since Japanese track bikes have a cult following in America. I love biking around cities, and Tokyo felt like just the right size. In Phoenix, you hit the suburbs after a twenty-minute ride. I’d been to Tokyo a lot, visiting my grandfather during summer vacation, and if I was moving, it wasn’t going to be New York or San Francisco. Tokyo was the place for me.”

Dion’s first goal was to gain experience at a bike shop, but finding a job was easier said than done. For a number of days, he wondered why he even bothered coming to Japan. Suppressing these difficult feelings, overwhelming as they were, Dion soon found work at a used bicycle shop, where he then spent his days repairing old bikes. At one point, a regular customer brought in a bike that captured his attention. This was his first encounter with a Kalavinka, the brand of frames made by Akio Tanabe of Tsukumo Cycle Sports, who has since become his teacher. He wanted more than anything to meet Tanabe and see how he built these frames, so he asked the customer if they would bring him to his studio. Pretty soon, the wheels of Dion’s future were in motion.

Dion making repairs to a frame. Using a file to clean up the lines, he brushes flux onto the joint where the pipes meet the lug and makes a weld. He earned a gas welding certification at a trade school, but lighting a torch for the first time at his studio was a nerve-wracking experience. Glancing at CAD drawings on his laptop, he checks the angles of the frame or the thickness of the pipe.

Ryogoku in Sumida has played an active role in perpetuating the traditional culture of Tokyo since the Edo period. It is also home to Ryogoku Sumo Hall, Tokyo’s main venue for professional sumo wrestling, which has its origins in the Kanjin Sumo events once held at nearby Eko-in Temple. Around the block is the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which offers endlessly fascinating dioramas that recreate, in vivid detail, the cityscape of Tokyo as it appeared during the Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods. Yet another of the many cultural institutions is the Sumida Hokusai Museum, a neo-futuristic building designed by architect Kazuyo Sejima, where you can peruse the works of Katsushika Hokusai, the legendary ukiyo-e painter who was born in Ryogoku and spent his life in Sumida.
Tucked in the backstreets behind Eko-in Temple, you’ll find the studio of frame builder Dion James. As a matter of fact, Dion lives in an apartment behind the studio and store, in a classic arrangement often found in the Japanese storefronts of the past. Watching Dion nod hello as people from the neighborhood pass by the large window at the front of the shop, it’s clear he’s found a place for himself in the community of Ryogoku.
“I came to Japan four years ago with no prospects for a job, but I knew I wanted to work here. When I first arrived, I lived with my Japanese grandfather in Koto, just south of here, but when it came time to get my own place, I chose Ryogoku, which has a similarly old-school downtown vibe. My interest in Japan started off with bikes and food. Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, I rode my fixie (fixed-gear bicycle) everywhere I went. I also worked at a Japanese restaurant. My mom is Japanese and taught me to speak Japanese when I was little. While working at the restaurant, I had the chance to wait on Japanese major league players who were on American teams at the time. In their opinion, I was great at Japanese. I didn’t actually work in the kitchen, but I always noticed how the Japanese chef had the mentality of a craftsman. I was so impressed by how he treated food like art. Things were always crazy busy for him. One time I asked him where he got all of his energy, and here’s what he told me: ‘I get my energy from loving what I do. Find something you love, Dion, and you’ll feel that energy too.’ He was absolutely right. When I thought seriously about what I loved, I realized it was bicycles. I knew about Japan’s interest in bike culture, since Japanese track bikes have a cult following in America. I love biking around cities, and Tokyo felt like just the right size. In Phoenix, you hit the suburbs after a twenty-minute ride. I’d been to Tokyo a lot, visiting my grandfather during summer vacation, and if I was moving, it wasn’t going to be New York or San Francisco. Tokyo was the place for me.”

Dion’s first goal was to gain experience at a bike shop, but finding a job was easier said than done. For a number of days, he wondered why he even bothered coming to Japan. Suppressing these difficult feelings, overwhelming as they were, Dion soon found work at a used bicycle shop, where he then spent his days repairing old bikes. At one point, a regular customer brought in a bike that captured his attention. This was his first encounter with a Kalavinka, the brand of frames made by Akio Tanabe of Tsukumo Cycle Sports, who has since become his teacher. He wanted more than anything to meet Tanabe and see how he built these frames, so he asked the customer if they would bring him to his studio. Pretty soon, the wheels of Dion’s future were in motion.

Seeing the frame was a pivotal experience.

“It was such a gorgeous bike. I knew I wanted to make bikes like this someday. I asked if I could study with him, but at first he refused. Determined not to give up, I went by and asked several more times, and little by little he warmed up to me, and would chat with me if he was on a break. On my days off, I took classes at a trade school, where I learned to use gas welders and grinders, as well as how to create drawings using CAD. Before long, I drew up a new resume and went back to the shop, and finally he said that I could start as an apprentice. I was so happy. Helping out at my teacher’s workshop three times a week (and recently, twice a week), I founded my own studio and began producing bikes at a rate of one per month. At this point, I take things a little slower than my teacher. A crucial part of frame building is the lugs that serve as the connection between the steel tubes of the frame. The first time I saw one of my teacher’s frames, I was amazed at how simple and elegant the lugs were. You might call them the pinnacle of wabi-sabi. My teacher engineers his lugs himself, and counts as customers some of the more famous frame builders in America. The design of a bike is important, but I knew I was interested in building bikes from the most basic level, starting from the parts. A friend was nice enough to pass along a lathe, so I’m able to cut through metal and even machine threaded rod, in order to make precision parts. I also make the jigs I need for putting bikes together. I have a long way to go, but I’m hoping that someday I can engineer my own lugs and set up an area for doing coatings. All of the tasks of building a bike appeal to me.”

While making frames from scratch, Dion also takes frames in for repair. On the day we stopped by Dion’s studio, he was repairing a frame for a bike messenger who had gotten in an accident and severely bent the steel tubes of his bicycle. After riding the same bike for ten years, the customer was attached to their bike and really hoped to have it fixed, so Dion restored the back half of the frame and replaced the front half using new components.
“My dad loved cars. He bought an El Camino for next to nothing and fixed it up himself, even rebuilt the engine. I never wanted to help him work on cars when I was little, but looking back, I realize we have the same blood running through our veins!”

Dion starts work around 8:30 in the morning. Since he lives behind the shop, he can work anytime he wants, which makes it hard to keep away. Usually he finishes by 6pm, has dinner with his wife, and does a bit more work afterwards. If you take off your shoes and step up from the bare floor of the work area, you’ll find the table where he eats his meals and also meets with customers. When work is over, his mood and choice of clothes are both relaxed.

Flannel Checked LongSleeve Shirt
Soft Touch Crew NeckLong Sleeve T-shirt
Cargo Jogger Pants
HEATTECH Low Gauge Socks

While making frames from scratch, Dion also takes frames in for repair. On the day we stopped by Dion’s studio, he was repairing a frame for a bike messenger who had gotten in an accident and severely bent the steel tubes of his bicycle. After riding the same bike for ten years, the customer was attached to their bike and really hoped to have it fixed, so Dion restored the back half of the frame and replaced the front half using new components.
“My dad loved cars. He bought an El Camino for next to nothing and fixed it up himself, even rebuilt the engine. I never wanted to help him work on cars when I was little, but looking back, I realize we have the same blood running through our veins!”

Dion opened his shop and studio J.D. Cycle Tech in summer 2018. At this point, his frames don’t have a formal brand name. Instead of having people focus on the brand, he’d rather they look closely at the bikes, so for now he attaches a tiny sticker for the shop to the frame. His thinking is he’ll let his teacher choose a brand name later on. That’s how his teacher’s frames got the name Kalavinka, which was chosen by his teacher before him. If a customer is interested in having Dion build them a bike, he invites them inside for a cup of coffee at the table, where they can tell him all about what kind of bike they’d like to ride and how they tend to ride around. When you feel attached to something, you take good care of it and want for it to last forever. That’s what Dion hopes for with his bikes. It’s like how eating from a favorite bowl can make a meal delicious. Clothing has the same power. This welcoming shop on the backstreets of Ryogoku has earned a place in the hearts of the local people. Dion is happy to fix a flat or even put some air into your tires. This well-reasoned approach to life points to a bright future.

Dion’s favorite bicycle is an offbeat randonneuring bike with a 20 inch front wheel and a 27.5 inch (650b) rear wheel. The small front wheel makes it possible to load the basket without obstructing your view. The first bike he ever built was hit by a car and totaled. When riding, he always wears casual pants with a narrow leg.

UV Protection Twill Cap
Sweat Pullover Long Sleeve Hoodie (Uniqlo U)
Crew Neck Long Sleeve T-shirt(Uniqlo U),
Regular Fit Jeans (Uniqlo U)

Regular Fit Jeans (Uniqlo U)
Padded Shoulder Bag (Uniqlo U)
Line Half Socks
Low Cut Sneakers

J. D. Cycle Tech

Feel free to stop by to chat about anything from order-made bicycles on custom-built frames to bicycle repairs, or if you just need some air in your tires.

3-16-11 Ryogoku, Sumida-Ku, Tokyo
OPEN 9:00-18:00
CLOSED Wednesday and Friday
jdcycletech.com

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