Kintsukuroi (or kintsugi) may sound like the name of the latest model from one of the big four Japanese motorcycle companies. Actually, it is the Japanese art of repairing the cracks in broken pottery with gold or silver—literally “golden repair.” The belief is that an object is more beautiful for having been broken. One of the historical accounts of the origins of kintsukuroi is that a hot-headed military leader was given a specially crafted bowl for a tea ceremony. The bowl was dropped by another person and broken. To avoid the wrath of the leader, a guest ad-libbed a poem equating each of the five pieces to one of the other guests. The true life of the bowl began the moment it was broken. In kintsukuroi, it is the belief that the vulnerability of the object is what makes it beautiful.
When I read about it, I thought about motorcycles in general and mine in particular. I ride a 2005 Suzuki V-Strom adorned with scars and scratches. If I were to walk a stranger around the bike I call Big Red, I could tell them the story of the motorcycle from those marks. New motorcycles are beautiful, but they have no past; and it is history that brands anything and gives it life. A motorcycle’s life begins the moment it is ridden.
After calling several dealers in my area looking specifically for a red V-Strom, I finally found one; but the dealer informed me that vandals had thrown bricks through the dealership window that bounced across the motorcycle. The romantic in me knows that great tales have interesting beginnings, so I drove up to take a look. I found it in the back, under a tarp, and covered with dust and bits of glass. A week later, after haggling about repairs and negotiating a great price, my brother Dave and his wife, Michelle, accompanied me on their ’94 Nighthawk to pick it up.
Fast forward three years to 2008. On my morning commute, I was broadsided by a Pennsylvania white-tailed deer at 45 miles an hour. His head hit Big Red’s gas tank directly in front of my left knee and destroyed nearly everything from that point forward: headlights (in a thousand splinters), front fender (split), turn signal, mirror and bar end weights (destroyed), and left side cowling (split in two). Plastic shards were everywhere, and I was in a ditch with a broken collarbone and severe bruising (but otherwise fine).
In his book, Into the Wild, author Jon Krakauer wrote, “The fragility of crystal is not a weakness but a fineness.” Modern motorcycles are miracles of engineering and can withstand a tremendous amount of punishment; but crashing in that way, at that speed, their fragility becomes evident, and the destruction can be complete. I thought Big Red was done-for, and that I’d merely be telling anecdotes about a bike with an interesting beginning and tragic end that I had once owned but is now in a scrap heap.
One call to my brother and he was in a flatbed on the way to pick up the wreckage. A neighbor near the crash allowed me to push Big Red into his driveway and another stacked the fragments into a neat pile that resembled a memorial cairn. How fitting, I thought. One look at it and Dave told me how lucky I was. By that point, I knew I was fine, and my only concern was to resurrect my bike so I could ride again. I knew I would do so as soon as I was physically able, but I wanted to use this one again, my bike, the one I found broken and forgotten under a tarp and covered in dust and glass. I suspect that Dave knew exactly how I felt.
In the months that followed, we ordered parts, tore Big Red down to the frame, and rebuilt it. Or rather, my sibling did while I watched with one arm in a sling. As I healed, so Big Red was healed. The pieces of a broken work of art mended and were made more beautiful for having been broken. Each time I remove the left side cowling and see the skull shaped dent in the gas tank, I am reminded of that time in Dave’s garage (and my brief stint in the air that day).
I like to see the visible signs of wear on things, especially motorcycles. They mean that its purpose has been fulfilled. Each imperfection is a chapter in a chronicle that, often, only the owner knows. Kintsukuroi dictates that repairs are to be made with precious metals like gold and silver, but some repairs are made with things even more valuable, like a brother’s love and skill. Five years and 40,000 miles later, I still ride Big Red—the bike I found broken and that I will always find more beautiful for having been.