Up until relatively recently, planes were the most expensive option for bike travelers, and given the current turmoil in the international oil markets, they may revert to that status. However, the appearance of smaller airlines like Skymark that compete with the two big boys (Japan Airlines and All-Nippon Airways), combined with low-cost Internet ticketing options, have brought prices down dramatically in many cases. More to the point, when you're traveling halfway across the country or more, it often doesn't make sense to go any other way - it would take you days to get to Hokkaido by ferry, and a day or more by train, as compared to two hours by plane. I've only taken my bicycle on planes a few times, but in each case it was a surprisingly pleasant experience. I used the normal bikebag but packed the derailleur section with a lot of bubble wrap (and lately have taken to placing the bubble-wrapped derailleur in a hard plastic container for additional protection), then cautioned the luggage personnel to be especially careful of that section. In each case, the bicycle was hand-carried on and off the plane, and in one case showed up wrapped in even more bubble wrap, and in each case it was undamaged.

The good news is that, on Japan Airlines at least, the bicycle handling policies have improved dramatically. A bagged bicycle weighing less than 15 kg now goes on FREE of charge, as regular luggage. Each time I’ve used this option, I’ve simply bagged the bike as usual, with the handlebars sticking out from the top, and tied the zippers together with a piece of cord to keep the bag closed, and the bicycle was accepted without question and at no charge.

The only problem has been patch kit glue. The airport staff are trained to ask whether you have any; if you say yes, they confiscate it (if you have a round-trip flight, usually they’ll hold it at the airport for you for two weeks or so and you can pick it up on you return). The airport staff say this is not their policy: it’s written into the Aviation Law (Koukuuho) that no flammable material can be taken aboard, and they’re simply enforcing the law. I’m quite sure there has to be a better way to handle this, since it’s a MAJOR pain for cyclists to be without a way to repair flats, but the airlines show no willingness to find a better way. Needless to say, this is a major pain, but all things considered it’s a minor issue. In the future, I’ll try to include information on where to get glue around major airports so you won’t lose hours of cycling time trying to hunt it down (as I did on a recent trip to Hokkaido). If you find any good places, please let us know and we’ll post the information. Needless to say, you should pack a few glueless patches for use in case you’re unable to find any glue for a day or two.

All things considered: by all means, consider flying for at least one leg of your Hokkaido or Okinawa/Ryukyu trips. Ferries also go to both Hokkaido and Okinawa and the other Ryukyu Islands, but they take a long time - if you can’t get a good round-trip airfare, ferry one way and plane the other way might be a reasonable compromise. Note that if you’re using frequent flyer miles on JAL, the number of miles for a one-way trip is exactly the same as for a round-trip flight (15,000 miles in each case), so it doesn’t make sense to waste the miles on a one-way flight.

For other reference materials that you may find useful in route planning, see RESOURCES.