Riding in Circles: a Pilgrimage to Nagoya

Facade of Circles, Nagoya, Japan

Facade of Circles, Nagoya, Japan

It’s been almost three months since my visit to Nagoya. I have been letting a lot of memories from the trip sink in deeper so that I may better process them for writing this post. I had a good time there. I need to get it on paper. It’s time…

I was over in Japan on what some may call business. It was a vacation from my regular job but I was traveling for a specific reasons completely unrelated to cycling. Japan is a great place to visit. It’s so different from the States and there’s lots of awesome stuff to see. But I had been there for a while and none of what I was doing was keeping me near a bicycle. I decided that a dedicated side trip to a particular bike shop was in order. After all, I have been following some of these shops for years now on social media, and through the travels and articles of others.

One such shop was Circles in Nagoya. I had finally been able to set aside a full day to travel from Kyoto where I was staying to Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture. I had a rental car and it took us about 2 hours to travel the 130 km (about 80 miles) to make the journey. Travel by car in Japan is a lot slower than here in the US. The speed limits on the highways are a lot lower (80km/h or about 50mph), and there are toll booths everywhere. The drive was beautiful but expensive. But it was a pilgrimage of sorts. After about 30 dollars’ worth of tolls, we made it to Nagoya hungry and excited.

Let me  take a moment to explain something here: For a lot of people, there are always places that they feel drawn to. For some, there are religious destinations, for others, national parks or mountains to climb. In all cases, the importance of the destination is relative to the person’s personal experience. Cycling is a lifestyle, in all the forms and disciplines that it manifests itself. For me, it’s visiting other bike shops. Whether I stumble across one, or make it a point to go, it’s a compulsion.

So we arrived in Nagoya. A few minutes of finding the shop and parking a few blocks away, we arrived at a place that, honestly, I never thought I would get to.
Before we ventured inside, I took a few pictures of the facade. As I pressed the shutter button on my phone for the tenth or twentieth time, I realized that I should eat. I didn’t want to go into Circles on an empty stomach, risking passing out from all the excitement. So we went to Early Birds Breakfast which occupies the opposite corner and adjoins Circles’ repair shop. The small cafe and Circles have a mutually beneficial relationship with both businesses promoting each other. Cyclists love for coffee and breakfast food helps too, of course. Having had nothing but Japanese food (big surprise) for two weeks, it was an easy decision to set upon some western-style breakfast food. After loading up on coffee and sausages, we went into the bike shop.

Display window of Circles, Nagoya, Japan

Display window of Circles, Nagoya, Japan

Upon first impression, Circles is like many bike shops in Japan. Specializing in road, bikepacking, adventure cycling and commuting, it is stuffed with bikes and accessories, with every corner being used to effectively draw your eye towards whatever is there. The shelving and racks are all wood and done in sort of a DIY style that makes you feel like you are in your best friend’s very well-organized garage. The atmosphere is warm and friendly. Even though the space is filled with things I have seen before, I can’t help moving from shelf to shelf, staring and taking everything in. The ceiling was crammed with all sorts of frames from Surly, Fairdale, and All-City. And that was just the bottom floor.

Circles is organized into two floors, each with a separate purpose. The street level has complete bikes, frames and components. The repair shop and most bike sales take place there. Even though it is awesome, it is the regular shop. The [place where if you were stopping in for tubes, tires, a rack, or even a complete bike. The upstairs, on the other hand, is the high-end custom shop. There you can get your premium bike builds and all the primo kit you could ever want. The ceiling in there was crammed full of Chris King Cielo frames (more than I have ever seen in one place). There, the shelves were stocked with messenger bags, bike packing supplies and winter cycling apparel.

It was upstairs that I met one of the store managers, Shige. Being the only foreigners in the shop at the time, he walked right up and greeted us in English. Unlike some other bike shops I have been to in the past, you could tell that the staffers at Circles really love bicycles. They seem to treat everyone, no matter what kind of cycling they are into, exactly the same. As I looked around, I noticed that every staff member was really into the conversations they were having with their customers. I could chalk that up to Japanese retail culture (sometimes a breath of fresh air compared to the States), but I think it was more than that. These folks really enjoyed their jobs.

Since I was a little different (my glorious mustache tends to set me apart in Asia), Shige didn’t hesitate to make me feel like I belonged. I think he genuinely wanted to know why I chose Circles as a destination as if he had no idea that this shop wasn’t at all popular. He seemed very happy that after I told him I came to Nagoya just to see his shop. Just as I was about to ask him if there was more to all of this, he suggested I stop for lunch at the Pine Fields Market in another part of the city. I paid for the only thing I could think to buy there, a Circles 10th Anniversary edition Chris King headset and we said our goodbyes to Shige and his crew.

Front of Culture Club, Nagoya, Japan

Front of Culture Club, Nagoya, Japan

We arrived at Circles’ other operation, a DIY bike shop called Culture Club. It shares a space with the market and, interestingly enough, SimWorks headquarters, which is a smaller office on the upper floor. This shop was something that I wish we had here in Santa Barbara. Imagine a space where you can get new and used bike parts to build your dream bike. It is not a warehouse full of a bunch of dirty old frames and parts. It is a well-organized bike shop where a person can get excited about building something that they could never get off the shelf. Used parts were sorted and labeled in a way that made them look new. If I wanted a 9-speed Ultegra rear derailleur, I would find it it a bin, close to the 9-speed STI shifters. The staff at Culture Club, like Circles, was very friendly and seemed very interested in the projects of their customers.

Pine Fields Market, Nagoya, Japan

Pine Fields Market, Nagoya, Japan

It was about that time where we had to leave to get back to Kyoto. Before we did, we went around the back of the shop to have a bite to eat at the Pine Fields Market. The coffee was good and the baked goods were even better. Like at the main store, these two businesses are mutually beneficial. It’s a sort of co-op atmosphere. The staff, again no surprise, was awesome. But it was winter and there were reports that it may snow. Being from Southern California, I was worried about driving back to Kyoto without snow tires on the rental car. So we left Nagoya 3 p.m. to hit the road.

The drive back was filled with my friends and I talking about nothing but bikes. There was talk of starting my own shop with a similar style to Circles. But it soon became clear that Circles couldn’t exist anywhere else. Other bikes shops can try, but it the people that work there and the customers who buy there define that shop. One cannot exist without the other. But that doesn’t mean I cannot apply some of the things I learned from my short visit should I ever try. If you want a genuinely awesome bike shop experience, I urge you to do the same and look up Circles next time you find yourself within a hundred miles of Nagoya. It’s worth the 30 bucks in highway tolls.

3 thoughts on “Riding in Circles: a Pilgrimage to Nagoya

  1. This was exactly my experience, when we were in Japan last month, we made Nagoya a stop to go visit Circles and Early Birds. The staff were amazingly friendly and helpful, and like you we were recommended to visit Culture Club too.
    I returned back to England to start my own bike workshop business, so it was great to pick up so many tips whilst there but mainly the Japanese customer service was an inspiration.
    Your photos really show the shop well too!

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