Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Young and the Chariotless

When I landed back on Canadian soil in August of 2010, the first thing I did was purchase a bicycle. Having a new bike right away, I hoped, would take away the sting of leaving behind my mama-chari in Osaka, at the very last minute, as I hastily dropped the keys with a Post-It note on my co-worker's desk on the final day. I needed the bike right up until that day, and I didn't have time to deal with boxing it up for transport across the Pacific. I thought that at least if I left it at school, it would be used by someone, and perhaps someday I would see it again. I took the second key home with me, just in case.

The first week home, I bought a cheap Wal-Mart bicycle. I needed to get to work, and I'd become accustomed to the independence of travelling by bike. I also bought a helmet, because unlike in Japan, I was significantly more concerned about being hit by a car. It was a Raleigh five-speed cruiser, and not an expensive one; it did have a partial chain guard, which was the main thing I was missing about my mama-chari at the time, as I remembered ripping up a few pairs of jeans on my mountain bike as a youth. It also had the curved handlebars I liked on cruisers. 

I have to assume the Japanese adapted their bicycles from European ones, as they were trading with the Netherlands as early as the 1600s; Japanese bikes bear strong similarities to Dutch ones. The covered chain guard and skirt guard are very uncommon in North America. Fender mudflaps and rear racks occasionally show up on American-made bikes, but are considered standard in Japan, along with the rear wheel lock and ubiquitous front basket. I would have liked to go for a bike with all the trimmings, but I had to settle for what Wal-Mart had in their inventory at the time. In retrospect, I was actually lucky to get a bike that had two out of the six features I wanted. I installed a rear rack and basket myself.

Eventually, as all Wal-Mart bikes are wont to do, my bike began losing steam in its 4th year, and during a particularly rough trip down into the Nordheimer Ravine one autumn, my jacket bounced out of my rear basket and twirled itself around the derailleur, which fortunately did not end in my dying in the ravine. The bike was never particularly good at switching gears again.

Dutch in action at Casa Loma
But we're going off on a tangent now. As I searched for a replacement to my bike (I had taken that cheap Wal-Mart bike with me on the plane to Toronto, wrapped in a tarp - can you believe it?) I decided that it had to be Dutch or nothing. I wanted a skirt guard; I wanted a proper rear rack. I wanted a mama-chari. I walked down Bloor Street taking photos of bikes I liked and jotting down their make and model to Google later. I never walked by a bike without giving it a once-over. To my surprise, the premium to get such luxuries as full chain guards required paying CAD $600+ for the bike. As I looked at bike shop after bike shop, almost buying a Giant-brand Liv Simple, I realized that I would never be able to tick all the boxes affordably. I finally settled for a step-through Beater Bike, with a partial chain, and a rear rack. What I hadn't bargained on was how much less hill-friendly the Beater was going to be compared to my Raleigh, with its fat tires and five speeds. The Beater, gorgeous though it was, was useless on hills, and the tires were the perfect size for getting caught in streetcar tracks. Riding it was exhausting. So I went back to the drawing board, formulating a plan for my trip to Japan in February to just buy a cheap mama-chari, have them box it up right in the shop, walk it to the post office and pay to have it sent home. I figured I'd be out $150 for the bike, $50 for domestic, $100 for the international shipping. Maybe a bit from customs on the other side. That sounded a lot better than the $600-ish I was pricing for Dutch-style bikes with gears in Toronto.

I think you guys already know this is going to go downhill.

I left the job of actually buying one until the last moments of our trip. I looked at bikes at Asahi Cycle in Rinku Town and Tokyo, but I never spotted one close to a post office (an essential for this plan to work). Eventually, when I was on my own in Tokyo with just one day left in the trip, I realized this wasn't going to work. I went on Rakuten and found a seller that did international shipping for Daiwa bikes, and I bought a cute pink Nana+ bike. No need to drag anything to the post office myself! They shipped to Canada!

...except that they only shipped to Canada through their proxy service. I had used Tenso before, but not in a few years, and the hoops they had me jump through just to get the bike shipped anywhere were out of this world. I waited two weeks without seeing my item appear on the "my page" section, even though the domestic shipping said it'd been delivered. I emailed them, and had no response for days. I started to worry that maybe this company was less reputable than I originally thought. I sent a third help request, which got a response at last, and was informed since it was oversized, they hadn't yet connected the purchase to my account, oh, and also it was too oversized to be shipped abroad. It had arrived fully assembled. I learned later that this is the standard for bike shops in Japan. Tenso said they were unable to downsize it for me by removing the pedals/turning the handlebars, as they weren't trained to do so.

From there we began the lengthy process of finding a solution, any solution. Tenso offered to ship it elsewhere in Japan for me, but in order to do that, I had to verify my address in Canada. Mind you, I'd already done that when I bought things through Tenso in the past, but it had to be done again, including scans of my driver's license and the receipt of a postcard at my mailing address in Canada. That's right, I had to wait for a physical postcard to arrive by postal mail at my apartment. Only when they were satisfied that I really did live at my address in Toronto would they allow me to redirect the bike somewhere else, but obviously, not to Toronto! They urged me to let them courier it to a friend.

I don't have tons of friends in Japan whom I'd be comfortable asking for a favour so large as "can you receive this bike in the mail, bring it to a bike shop to take it apart, and put it back in the mail?" and even fewer that I wouldn't mind being laughed at by. (As genuinely fond as I am of my co-workers at 〇〇 High School, and as much as they already knew I was quirky, I prefer not to be remembered as "that one that asked me to ship a bike to her".) In the end, I asked my friend Nicole, of Irish Chocolate fame. She returned to Japan after leaving 〇〇 University and is now an English teacher in Chiba. She saved me from a separate mishap involving buying Mister Donut cups on Yahoo! Auctions, and so I thought she might be able to intervene again. Luckily for me, Nicole agreed, and some time later my bike appeared, fully formed, at her apartment.

Nicole, bless her, bought a bike-sized cardboard box online and wheeled it all down to her local shop, where they took it apart and packed it up. Then she brought it back to her place (how!?!?) and called Japan Post for an at-home pickup. it didn't fall within Japan Post's size guidelines. The JP Post guys returned to Nicole's apartment two hours later with the box in tow. It was too big! She told me it would have to be done via a commercial shipping company like FedEx. Now we were getting way, way too expensive, and I wasn't sure what to do next. I'd already sunk more money into the box and the domestic shipping to Nicole, and the losses were too big for me to cut now. We decided to Frankenstein the box to make it smaller, since that approach worked for Emily when she sent her kotatsu home, but after some measuring, it literally needed to be half the size. Nicole promised to look up some options when she got home from her vacation in Europe.

I decided to take a different tactic. My roommate, M, made plans to go to Japan for a concert in October. I decided to ask her if she'd check the bike as her second piece of luggage (oversized). She agreed without too much protest, to my relief, and so I asked Nicole to have the bike couriered to Narita Airport instead. Surprise - the luggage shipping company that we usually use for the airport, doesn't accept bikes. Nothing about the size, never mind that it was in a cardboard box and disassembled, they just don't do bicycles. Nicole had to call JAL ABC, because apparently Sagawa thought we were asking them to ship some expensive French racing bike worth $8,000 and not the little steel mama-chari I bought at Daiwa Cycle for under two hundred bucks. Luckily JAL ABC agreed to take it (after warning me about a COD fee) and it was delivered to Narita on the day M was scheduled to return to Canada.

Ah, but it's not over yet! As I gallivanted through Montreal on a rainy Saturday night, just before midnight, my cell phone alarm went off, reminding me that "M Is At The Airport Right Now." And then there's an email in my inbox dated 30 minutes prior, saying "Does your bike have suspension? Because if it does, I can't take it with me." Followed by, "If you don't answer soon, I have to leave." Oh noooooooo--

I emailed back as quickly as my thumbs would function, NO, NO SUSPENSION


After all, what was the next step if the bike got stranded at the airport? Call ABC and try to convince them to ship it back to Nicole (I really wanted to stop bugging her) or to another friend? Jes kindly agreed to receive it when I sent a desperate-sounding email asking for her address, but I didn't want to face the phone call where I explained that I, an uninvolved third party, wanted to use a foreign credit card to have this package sent not back to the sender or recipient but to someone else altogether. Also, what was Jes going to do when she got it? It was just too big!

Luckily, M hadn't checked in for her flight just yet, and decided to forge ahead. Air Canada, bless them, accepted the box without complaint, and it was successfully on its way to Canada at last. I waited until 2:30 AM for the inevitable email about something going wrong, before finally dropping off to sleep. In the morning I called for an airport van cab, and then I called The Bike Joint down on Harbord Street to arrange assembly, and then I recruited a friend with a car to drive it down there with me. BIKE BIKE BIKE BIKE BIKE.

It wasn't until she arrived in Calgary and they opened the box for inspection that M realized the extent to which I had thrown her under the bus.

I found this note written on the whiteboard when I got home, after M was safely sleeping off the jet lag:

...but at least I have my bike.