Stepping into Izanami Wheel is like walking into an artist’s studio. The walls are adorned with inspirational artefacts and every surface is covered with shards of creative gold. If you like wheels, particularly those that are in keeping with kyusha style, this is heaven.
This slice of heaven is home to Kenji Kimura and Park Baker. This is where the magic happens.
The story of Kenji and Park is one that will sound familiar to most readers. They met at an automotive event in Tokyo and hit it off straight away, sharing an interest in vintage Japanese wheel designs and super low-down custom cars. Through a series of discussions about the importance of preserving and cultivating classic Japanese tuning styles, they reached the inevitable decision to combine their skills and knowledge.
Although the history of custom kyusha in Japan is famous for its wild and creative ideas, Kenji and Park saw an untapped opportunity to use its rich tradition as their very own launch pad by injecting new methods and technologies into it. The duo wanted to create a new movement within kyusha; one they could be right at the forefront of.
But how did Izanami become the authority on this type of style? How do you journey from being an enthusiast collecting wheels to building fully blown one-off custom specials? Just sourcing the rare centres to base the wheels from seems impossibly difficult to me. I wouldn’t know where to start this side of a BBS RS.
“The core of Izanami’s mission is to apply a more progressive approach to old car tuning while keeping that culture’s valued tradition intact,” explains Park. “We’re constantly seeking to achieve the best balance between past, present and future style. Our main focus is on complete wheel restoration and customization, but it doesn’t stop there. We’re honing our skills to provide a full service for kyusha fans, from the suspension right through to engine tuning. Our love for super low-down Japanese car culture is what drives us both to share it with the rest of the world.”
Having a vast knowledge on the insane variety of Japanese wheels is only half the battle here. In typical Japanese fashion, the most minuscule details can set two otherwise identical wheels apart – something both Kenji and Park have finessed to an almost terrifying level. “Without a deep comprehension of these details and the ways in which they come together, they say, one should not lay a hand on invaluable vintage pieces like these with customization in mind,” Park adds.
There’s also something very spiritual about their working space. It’s a very calm place to be. That’s no accident either, ‘Izanami’ (pronounced ‘ee-za-nah-mee’) is the goddess of death and creation in ancient Japanese mythology. It’s the perfect name (handed down from Kenji’s old motorcycle club) for the place where old wheels come to die before being reborn into something even greater. See, I told you these guys were cool.
I think this is where the mystical element comes in. These guys are not just refurbishing wheels, they’re reengineering and repurposing them with the greatest care and attention. Izanami is creating authentic and faithful representations of the rarest wheels imaginable. This isn’t just simply whacking huge lips on old centres; Izanami recreate the wildest versions of the actual wheels you could buy in the ’70s, but with the option to push them even further than the first time round. That’s real vision.
It’s important to remember that a lot of these wheels will be almost a half a century old, so each set comes with a life story of their own. That’s why Kenji and Park have equipped their temple to wheels with everything they need to bring them back to life. The pair have developed specialist tooling and processes to do everything from perfectly repairing bends to machining and adapting centres. It is all carried out within the four walls of their shop. It’s this independence that allow Izanami to deliver a truly artisan wheel purchasing experience, working individually with each client to deliver the ultimate one-of-a-kind product.
But how does the process work? Well, if you’re a bit of an engineering geek you may already be familiar with the process, but for those who don’t know, sit tight.
It all begins with what the customer wants. From there a suitable set of centres are chosen, either from Izanami’s extensive stock or through their huge network of contacts across Japan. Initial style and design agreed, it’s then onto the physical process.
Izanami use a range of traditional methods and equipment (developed by wheel manufacturers back in the day) combined with modern technologies and forming to create a style they like to call ‘Wide Custom’. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is just wheel rebarreling; aside from restoring the wheel, Izanami ensure each finished piece is 100% safe, legal and designed with tyre fitment in mind to avoid the bead from not seating properly. So much so there’s even a 13×14-inch design currently in the pipeline…
“One of the vital steps here is producing the right rim to suit the job at hand,” explains Park. “We’ve got our own library of outer rim molds we’ve personally developed using blueprints, archive imagery and measured data for each wheel design. With this data, we then work directly with a local aluminum spinning and press factory to make sure each rim profile we customize is authentic to that factory spec. To date, we’ve created over 30 different outer rim molds, which continues to grow year on year and means that every wheel looks authentic rather than simply widened.'”
Then there’s the hardware. It’ll come as no surprise that, just like the hundreds of individual wheel faces and designs, there are just as many variations in the hardware holding them together. From the physical bolts to the bolt seat, washers and nuts, every detail is important to Izanami and they know that certain brands will use specific hardware and dimensions. The solution? Much like the rim profiles, Izanami have painstakingly sourced just about every combination imaginable, all built to their own specifications.
For those interested in a complete in-depth explanation of the total reengineering process, Izanami break it down in full detail on the ‘Wide Custom’ page of their website.
Seeing wheels this wide, it seems almost incomprehensible to imagine them installed on anything without giant overfenders. But one of the styles quickly gaining traction in Japan is that of fitting ultra-wide wheels within the factory body lines. Given how rare certain Japanese classics are becoming, Izanami have noted many owners becoming less willing to physically cut the bodywork for wheels, and instead want an alternative solution.
“It sounds simple, but the solution here is to narrow the vehicle’s axles and modifying the lower arms to alter its geometry,” Park says. “This is something we’ve been keen to develop – along with bespoke suspension – to give clients the flexibility to run previously impossible wheel sizes while fitting snugly under clean factory body lines.”
“Other avenues we’ve embarked on include frame channeling and raising the engine/transmission (along with the cross members) to get the car rolling super low. The ultimate goal here is to achieve an unparalleled balance of simplicity and low-down, eye-catching coolness, a complete custom look that they expect to catch on more overseas as more old car fans come to realize its potential.”
Kenji has a wonderfully simple way to mount the wheels on the lathe – a machine first made in the 1950s. This works perfectly for both machine work and also when unbuckling used customer wheels. Different adaptors are kept for all the possible PCD options.
For both Kenji and Park, this is much more than simply a job. They’re not trying to keep this approach hidden or exclusive; in fact they encourage people to stop by the shop for a friendly chat an to witness their custom work first hand. These guys eat, sleep and breathe classic Japanese cars, so if you find yourself in the Tokyo area, be sure to drop them a message to arrange a visit.
The result of all this passion, attention to detail, authenticity and knowledge is nothing short of remarkable. The wheels they restore and customize look just like they should as new some 40 or 50 years ago. In fact, it’s almost impossible to distinguish which are actually original refurbished pieces from those completely reengineered by Izanami. That’s testament to the level of work here. I would love to know what the original designers who penned these wheels would make of Izanami’s versions.
Pair that with the seamless integration of these wheels onto low-down custom street cars an it’s clear to see how Izanami’s approach to kyusha is keeping a classic Japanese tuning culture not only alive and strong, but current for the next generation of fans too.
People of all ages stop and smile; there’s a sense of joy that the cars summon as they bob and weave along the road. I guess there’s something about these guardians of yesteryear that everybody can respect. The classics simply never go out of style.
Photos by Mark Riccioni