Infiniti Brand Journey: Sano Magic

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How many shipbuilders are currently in Japan who make luxury yachts completely out of wood? One: Sano Magic. How much demand is there for eight-figure (¥x0,000,000) wooden luxury yachts in 2010? Not much, unfortunately.

But the good news is that master builder Sueshiro Sano is applying himself to a completely different mode of transportation: bicycles made from mahogany. The frame is wood, the seat is wood, the tireswheels are wood. Objectively speaking, these are probably the most beautiful bikes in the world. Half of his customers buy the wooden bicycle and promptly hang it up on a wall as art. But Sano isn’t just using the wood to prove an aesthetic point. His bicycles are nearly as light as carbon-fiber and are also apparently easier to ride due to the physical properties of the wood. As you pedal, the wooden frame actually kicks out force that lifts your foot up. Scientists at Ibaraki University want to do lab tests on the bikes, but their insurance won’t cover the costs.

So that brings us to the bad news for everyone hoping to get their hands on one of these: Sano Magic’s mahogany bikes are very, very expensive, as much as a relatively nice new car. And since Sano builds them by hand using his proprietary production techniques, he can only make three bikes a year. He’s booked with orders until 2012. But as he told me, he barely makes money from them. “If I only cared about making money, I would never have started making these bicycles.” (Sano believes that the craftsman way of living, taught to him by his grandfather, is to not think about money at all.) You may not be buying one of his bikes soon, but as a consolation, you can purchase one of his wooden tireswheels. They are only ¥100,000 a piece.

Sano is easily one of the world’s greatest wood-workers. His secret: He’s the ninth-generation of a shipbuilding family. You know how Beck is a musical prodigy because his dad is this guy who’s worked on 450 gold and platinum albums? Sano is like that times nine. Back in the early 19th century, when your ancestors were foraging for food and hoping their descendants wouldn’t waste their time “online” reading blogs, Sano’s ancestors were building solid hinoki fishing vessels in the Edo Period.

This heritage makes Sano the most stereotypical “craftsman” of this Infiniti Brand Journey project. He’s a guy whose entire life has literally revolved around his particular craft. At 16, he had already built this baby. His wife’s wedding band is made from a nearly translucent mahogany often mistaken for tortoise shell. The only bittersweet subtext to Sano’s overall inspirational story is that he’s probably going to be the very last generation of wooden shipbuilders in Japan. He has two daughters, the oldest of whom is “really into mathematics,” but they are not likely to follow in his footsteps. We can at least celebrate his existence while he is alive, so spread the word to all your DIY and biking friends about his bicycles. Wood, ironically enough, is the future.

Tomorrow: We film Flower Robotics! I am ready to see some robots in motion.

Learn more about the project at www.facebook.com/infiniti or www.infiniti.com.

W. David MARX
May 11, 2010

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

4 Responses

  1. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    > Sano is like that times nine.

    That paragraph was very romantic (magaziney?), but, in all fairness, Lamarck wasn’t right and what his ancestors did has no direct effect in his ability.

    I suppose you mean that the way his father raised him matters a lot, and that his father only educated him in so well in woodworking because he was in turn educated by his own father, and so on (which is of course true). But still, the phrasing sounded kind of genetically deterministic to me.

    AFAIK the traditional iemoto system usually had no qualms in adopting dedicated apprentices into the family to continue a lineage. I wonder if Sueshiro couldn’t find a student elsewhere, or if he doesn’t want to.

    By the way,

    > Back in the early 19th century

    Would that be the 9th? Because I hope my ancestors weren’t foraging for food in the 1800s :)

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    Lamarck wasn’t right and what his ancestors did has no direct effect in his ability.

    Yes, but his growing up surrounded by nothing other than shipbuilders talking about shipbuilding got him trained in the craft way at a very young age. If he had chosen not to be a shipbuilder, that would have been one thing, but he had a huge headstart on someone who would want to start from scratch.

    Because I hope my ancestors weren’t foraging for food in the 1800s :)

    This was dramatic exaggeration.

  3. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    > but his growing up surrounded by nothing other than shipbuilders

    Sure, but he didn’t grow up surrounded by his ancestors; presumably, only by his father and perhaps grandfather (thus the oddness, IMHO, of the “times nine” comparison with Beck). I totally agree that the 9 generations must have accumulated some awesome cultural heritage, but it’s not like having skilled ancestors would, in itself, improve your skill. (I’m not saying you said that either (it would be a very un-Marxy proposition), only that in my mind the choice of words suggested that reading).

    > dramatic exaggeration

    Oh. I thought 9 generations would be enough to carry his lineage to well before the 19th century (though not to the 9th, I guess…)

  4. Chuckles Says:

    What are the general prospects for wood in Japan? Any views? I assumed biopolymers of some sort were going to replace plastics / metals, etc in a wide variety of uses – even in robotics / automotive appliances – but after reading this, wood begins to suggest possiblities.