Just go. I’ll write more about our family’s bike tour in Japan in upcoming weeks, but the most important thing to share with you is this: Despite everything, just go. Preparations may be a drag. There may be uncertainties. Your home may look like a disaster zone when you get back. Just go.
We’re both self-employed. No paid vacation for either of us, and only a little help when we’re gone. Our daughter is in school, and neither school nor swim team likes the idea of vacations. More than once before we left, I said, “I am never doing this again!” Now that we’re back, I know we will.
In a post-COVID daze, we saw an email about a bike tour in Japan back in 2022, and we jumped on it. It sounded great. Ten days of bike touring, moving from point to point on a small (156 cabins) cruise ship as we traveled around Japan. Though we’d traveled with this tour group before, their folksy, incomplete communications added to our stress levels soon after we signed up.
Luckily, we found a good travel agent to help us out. Not all websites in Japan have English translation, and the 16-hour time difference and language were issues that I didn’t trust myself to navigate properly. We watched the multiple airline meltdowns at the end of 2022. After waiting on final details from the tour company, we ultimately got good airline tickets for the roughly 11-hour flights and secured what we hoped was a reliable van transfer for our giant bike cases and luggage.
We’d traveled with bike cases before, but it’s been more than 10 years. We’d forgotten that it is truly harder than any actual bike riding that occurs on the trip. Due to customs issues, we were advised not to ship bikes ahead (a new thing we’d probably try in the U.S.) The day before traveling found us sweating profusely in our garage, disassembling two bikes and trying not to lose or forget little parts like the seat post screws (need those!) and wheel skewers.
We needed to cram in tools, bike gear and more. Closing bike cases involves kneeling on the case and praying you can close the latches without breaking anything inside in the process. If there are zippers, you pull it shut just knowing it could burst at any time and spew bits all over the airport floor, but you can’t secure it because of TSA. Finally, you begin the process of weighing the monster and seeing if you can meet excess weight limits. The large case was 5 1/2 feet long and 77 pounds. The “little” one was still 4 feet long.
We got lucky flying out: no fee and no issues with weight. Coming back, because Tokyo folks were very particular, we had to transfer some parts from one case to an extra duffle bag we bought just for that purpose. With a bit more sweating we pulled it off. Due to our travel agent having cleared the bikes in advance, miraculously we didn’t get charged at all for the huge cases.
We’d heard reports of five-hour delays in Tokyo for customs. Japan had just reopened, starting in late 2022, so there were kinks to work out. I’d give Japan an A+ for execution. By the time we traveled in April, they had a tool called JapanWeb to use for international arrivals. The instructions were a bit like a VCR manual, and it took me nearly four hours to figure out how to input our information. Nevertheless, two emails to customs folks in Japan were answered in under 24 hours — a miracle here in the U.S. Using the emailed advice, we “undeclared” a few things like the bikes and went without gold rings or allergy meds (not allowed) and sailed through customs at the airport in about 10 minutes.
We arrived a day early to allow for delayed luggage, but got everything, including the oversize bike cases, within minutes of getting to baggage claim. That was far better than past experience in the U.S. Our special-order van-transfer could, luckily, indeed fit the two bike cases and extra baggage, showed up on time, and after a teensy diversion got us to the exact spot at the port where the tour would start. All accomplished with hand signals and translation from a bilingual hotel worker, because the driver only spoke Japanese. We were off!
Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, water agency official, and mom living in Santa Clarita.