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Californian expat and CEO of Knee High Media Japan, Lucas Badtke-Berkow, speaks to Lee Basford for Survey in Tokyo.
You came to live in Japan almost 20 years ago, what was it that led you here in the beginning?
I came to Japan the very next day after graduating from the University of California in Santa Cruz. I had never traveled outside of the US. I had lived in America and studied in America for a good 23 years; so I felt I needed to experience a change of culture and find somewhere that was inspiring for me. That place was Japan. I had been creating school newspapers, literature journals, writing and designing since elementary school and through University. I was a magazine addict. I also had a strong interest in Japanese fashion and design, and in San Francisco’s Kinokuniya’s bookshop I was able to see a lot of Japanese publications first hand.
Your history with bikes goes back long before you moved to Tokyo.
Yes, bicycling was something I started my first year in Santa Cruz back in 1989. I wanted to do something that would keep me active in college and also get me outdoors – because Santa Cruz is such an amazingly beautiful place. It’s got incredibly stunning oceans, mountains, and landscapes. Santa Cruz also was a leading community in creating the world’s surfing and skateboarding scenes as well as mountain biking. All of this was going on pretty much around the time I was attending University there.
I joined the UCSC cycling team in my freshmen year and thanks to Willard Ford (Harrison Ford’s son) – who encouraged me to continue on with cycling despite being totally shocked at both the distance and speed after our first training ride – I rode with the UCSC team for three years. One of those years we had a collegiate race on the UCSC campus. Being super excited to race at our own campus I burst out front for the first two laps of about 10 and totally blew up thereafter, but this was my only moment of cycling glory at the front of the race – so, for me, it is quite a good cycling memory.
People outside Japan may know you as the founder of Tokion magazine, but you’ve been producing plenty of other publications in a world where magazines are becoming an endangered species.
I’ve been making magazines since elementary school so in short it’s kinda all I know how to do, which means I gotta keep on making them and adapting them for the times. I founded, directed and edited Tokion [the first and only dedicated Japanese culture magazine made in Japan] from 1996-2002. Tokion introduced Japanese youth culture to the world and moved Japan beyond being a land of Geishas and Samurai to one of being the cutting edge of new culture, music, design and art. In my mind the time we published Tokion was probably the most relevant period for magazine publishing as a media. Currently we publish a travel magazine called Papersky and a kid’s magazine called Mammoth.
You connect Papersky with activities in the outside world through events like the Tour de Nippon?
Yes, the Tour de Nippon (Japan) project is about finding the magic of Japan’s rural districts, their inhabitants, nature, culture and food. We travel to various prefectures and ride bicycles. Traveling via bicycle allows us a clean and healthy way to explore Japan’s rural areas. We’ve got a few movies online from past rides – they are all worth having a brief look at for anybody interested in Japan.
Papersky currently runs five clubs: Bicycle, Mountain, Book, Food and Japan. Each club has a Captain that is highly knowledgeable and active in their field. For each event we work with our Captains on finding out ways we can tap into the locality of an area. For instance, we frequently invite chefs to collaborate with local farmers to create a unique dinner. We also work with local craftsmen and women to design small workshops that our guests can create a handmade item such as traditional lacquer spoons or learn the process and skill of cleaning and salting a fresh fish. Besides riding on our bicycles we also like to walk and frequently create programs to climb mountains or explore culture destinations with local people. It is our hope that through our Tour de Nippon project we’ll be able to introduce both Japanese people and people from around the world into a culture that is extremely difficult to access otherwise.
You work on many other creative projects too?
Knee High Media is also a creative agency – we pretty much work for anybody who comes to us with an interesting project. We help clients with branding, creating images, brochures, events, product design and so on. Recently we teamed up with Brooks to create custom maps of the cities we travel to on the Tour de Nippon.
Everyone that visits your office in Shibuya is always impressed; it’s one of the few remaining old houses in central Tokyo isn’t it?
We were very lucky to find the Knee High House or the Green Studio as it’s sometimes known. We also use it for events related to our media as well as rent it out for photo shoots. The Knee High House was built approximately 80 years ago and it is near Kono Temple, the founding location for the city of Shibuya. It’s a beautiful and a special place because while being very old is also extremely modern for the time it was built in and has a big garden that we sometimes use for movie screenings, cooking clubs or small events. We remodeled the house a bit when moving in 18 years ago, to make it usable both as an office and living quarters. When Knee High turned 15, three years back, we asked our good friend and artist Kami and his wife Sasu to paint the outside wall.
Can you mention the helmet you’re wearing, it’s quite special.
It’s a KASK helmet made for urban cyclists with a really nice visor – so on rainy or windy days you can just flip the cover down and keep a clear vision of the road ahead. I’ve been using it for about three years now and really love it.