Honshu, Shikoku

Cycling the Shimanami Kaidō

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I love cycling almost as much as I love traveling in Japan, and spend far too much time on the roads of London and Kent on a worn-out road bike. So, given the opportunity to ride what must be one of the best cycle routes in the world, in the heart of Japan, I jumped at it – and took a cyclist friend along for the ride.

The Shimanami Kaidō – very roughly, “islands and waves sea route” – runs from Onomichi, on the south coast of Honshu, to Imabari, on the top of the southern island of Shikoku. The name applies both to a major road for motor traffic, the Nishiseto expressway, and the path for cyclists and walkers that stalks it across, deviating onto local roads wherever possible. In fact, the one owes its existence to the other.

The expressway, which crosses Japan’s inland sea and provides one of three major road links to Shikoku, hops across the six larger islands of the area via six bridges. These include the Kurushima-Kaikyō Bridge, which at over 4km long is the world’s longest suspension bridge structure, and the huge cable-stayed Tatara bridge, both of which were completed in 1999, joining up the route. Unusually, the expressway’s design also caters for walkers and cyclists, including dedicated lanes for cyclists, walkers and mopeds, with entirely separate on- and off-ramps.

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And it’s these onramps that first reinforce just how special a route for cyclists the Shimanami Kaidō is. Leaving the outskirts of Imabari behind early one March afternoon, my friend and I found ourselves signed away from the road, and then sharply right onto a narrower, high-walled path that suddenly took flight, spiralling up and up above the dockyards below.

We were on an elegant, swirling motorway onramp leading up into the sky – but one engineered only for those on two wheels. One final loop of the ramp, and we were out onto the bridge, high above the inland sea and ready to start our crossing.

Getting There, and Getting a Bike

Before you’re ready to take on the first bridge, of course, you’ll need a bike. We passed all types on our two-day trip, from children pedalling high-kneed on the ubiquitous, lumpen Japanese workhorses that are often referred to as “mamachari” – with a step-over top tube, and brakes that seem to convert speed into noise rather than heat – to lycra-clad club riders pedalling Dura-Ace groupsets on carbon-fibre frames, tucked into groups against the wind.

Both types (well, Dura-Ace might be pushing it, but almost) are available to rent near the route. Everyday bikes can be hired from a well organised scheme that allows you to pick them up and drop them off at 15 locations across the route. The fee is just 500yen (currently around £3) per day, with a 1000yen extra charge if you drop your bike off at a location other than where you got it. It’s cheap, well organised and easy.

But, at anyone who’s ever attempted to cover more than a few kilometres on a rented Japanese bike will know, mamachari are built for town riding, not distance – let alone hills. So if you’re a keen cyclist considering riding the length of the Kaidō, or exploring the islands, bike manufacturer Giant provides a more attractive alternative. It runs two stores, one at each end of the route – at Imabari and Onomichi – that do a brisk trade in renting more modern bikes – everything from lightweight hybrid models with flat handlebars through to what they call “Carbon Premium” – carbon-framed road bikes worth around £1000 to £1500.

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Costs for a two day overnight rental range from 5,000 to 20,000 yen; our two aluminium road bikes came in at 8,000 (£45) each. Booking ahead is essential, and must be done by phone; after realising that my limited Japanese vocabulary was hopeless when it came to the finer points of bike frame sizing and SPD cleats I was happy to learn that some staff speak English. There’s no email address, but a good way to get in touch with any questions is via Facebook.

Bike rental includes flat pedals, although the shops have workshop staff if you want to fit your own clipless ones, helmets (which are mandatory), spare inner tubes and a lock; all the hire bikes use standard Shimano gear shifters – my rental had a 105 compact groupset, others used Sora. It’s worth noting, though, that Giant’s hire bikes aren’t really sized for the tall; ours were the biggest frames available from Imabari but both slightly too small for 6ft-ish riders.

Ride the Line

And so it was with seat posts pulled up to the limit, and maybe a little beyond, that we pulled out of Imabari Station car park and onto the trail. From this start point, the first bridge isn’t yet visible, but navigation is simple: as well as excellent maps available free in English, which show multiple routes, give guidance on difficulty and even provide encouragement (“Steep hills – you can do it!”), you can trace the entire 70km recommended route by simply following a blue line marked down the road.

This blue line led us to the turning for the swooping onramp of the Kurushima-Kaikyō Bridge, then disappeared as we crossed, hopping over the tiny island of Majima en-route. On descending at the other side, whipping down a similarly beautiful spiralling path onto the island of Oshima, we rejoined it, following the line past a waterfront seafood barbeque restaurant and rest stop. This is one of several catering to cyclists en-route, with toilets, water and track-pumps.

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And it’s here, when riders descend onto the first island of their crossing, that the blue line is joined by an alternative route: the green “Island Explorer” paths. These equally well marked routes diverge from the 70km recommended route, mostly following the island coastlines; hugging the coast of Oshima will add just a few kilometres to your total distance, but others allow for a major detour – a complete loop of Omishima will extend your total distance by around 50 per cent. If you can spare the time and cover the distance, though, these detours provide some stunning cycling and views.

This presents probably the biggest dilemma for keen cyclists visiting the Shimanami Kaidō – although you could certainly cross the recommended route in a day, by doing so you’d bypass so many roads worth riding and sights worth seeing. With this in mind, we’d formulated a plan: to ride the biggest and best bridges of the route, but then to turn back a little over half way across and explore the backroads. This also allowed us to stay overnight and check out a famous temple, before returning the next day.

Stopping and Sightseeing

And so, after crossing Oshima, Hakatajima and Omishima islands, we rolled across the Tatara bridge – a striking structure that, when opened, was the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world – and just barely into Hiroshima prefecture, only to turn around and cross back into Shikoku’s Ehime-ken again. Heading north as the sun finally broke through, a lazy 14km loop around the nort-east coast of Omishima, past citrus groves and deserted beaches, took us down into the small port town of Miyaura.

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Miyaura is notable for the Ōyamazumi Jinja (大山祇神社), a shinto shrine which dates back to 594AD. Its stone Torii gates, ancient trees and barrels of sake left to one side for blessing make for a beautiful scene – especially if you visit early in the morning, as the priests and shrine attendants offer chanted prayers. But the most notable items are hidden in a rather nondescript building tucked away to one side.

After paying to enter, you are presented with room upon room of samurai armour and weapons, some almost a thousand years old and many registered as national treasures, all offered up to the shrine as gifts. Signage is Japanese with very occasional spots of English, but Gregorian dates are given for most items, and the sheer size and age of the objects speak for themselves. Even for the militarily uninterested (er, me), it’s a stunning historical trove.

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Just a few streets away from the shine was our stop for the night: Ryokan Chaume. The oldest on the island, this family-run ryokan has everything you’d expect from this type of lodging: tatami-floored rooms with futon to sleep on, a small communal soaking bath and beautiful kaiseki-style meals made from local seafood. And handily it also has a garage in which you can lock away bikes – so many cyclists pass through that they even had bike stands. At night, after eating an almost unfeasible amount of fresh fish, we walked around the town – pitch black save for roadside lanterns, and almost entirely deserted.

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Ryokan Chaume is one of a handful of such inns scattered across the islands, while a hotel on Innoshima has both Japanese-style and western rooms. Restaurants are few, so unless you want to carry food or buy from a convenience store it’s worth arranging to eat where you stay. The local tourist board has a website with listings, and can help you make a booking in English.

Onwards and Upwards

Our first day of cycling had covered a leisurely 60km, with no real challenges other than resisting the urge to stop and take photos every few minutes, but if you want to dig into the lower gears of your bike the alternative routes of the Shimanami Kaidō do offer some hills to get stuck into.

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Several short climbs lead up from coastal paths to parks, temples and other overlooks, but as we set out on the morning of our second day, buoyed by sleep and equipped with some frankly terrifying taurine-loaded drinks given to us by the ryokan’s owner (“For power!”, she explained), we decided to loop the hillier 22km route around the South of the island before heading back West.

True to the map, this saw us plumbing the very bottom gears of our bikes up three short but sharp climbs around Yakushiyama, and also going underground through a huge road tunnel – like the bridges, built with a wide, safe cycle path to one side. Away to the right as we climbed back steadily towards the first bridge of the day, the grey tiled roofs of small Japanese houses glimmered in the morning sun, the sea just beyond them.

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Moving onto the Omishima bridge, we suddenly hit traffic – in contrast to the odd day tripper the previous day, we met groups of local riders, on seriously expensive bikes and moving apace – until they all stopped and queued for a checkpoint at the start of each bridge. This, it turned out, was part of an organised ride weekend: participants were crossing from Honshu to Shikoku, down the main route, in one day – and, in a uniquely Japanese twist, collecting special ink stamps at every checkpoint. Descending spiralling bridge offramps on a bike the day before had been odd; doing so tucked into the back of a group moving at speed was incredible.

There are some hills on the main route, of course. Later on, the road to Imabari pulls up into a long, steady category 4 climb as you head from the Hakata-Omishima bridge towards Shitadami port; the keen cyclists got stuck in while other tourists stopped and pushed. And that port provides the last rest stop; time for one more local ice-cream and the last truly incredible view of the huge suspension bridge reaching out ahead, before landing back on Shikoku, ready to return our bikes and move on.

Something for Everyone

Starting and finishing at noon, and taking in around four hours in the saddle each day, our leisurely ride totalled around 120km, which is comfortable even on a not-quite-big-enough bike and while carrying overnight luggage on your back. Staying overnight at one side before starting in the morning would give you a whole day, in which a keen cyclist could easily cross the whole route, or you could even spend the best part of a week exploring the islands.

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On the other hand, if sightseeing interests you more than cycling, hiring one of the standard bikes from Onomichi or Imabari would allow you to easily cross one or two bridges and check out some amazing views.

And there, really, likes the joy of the Shimanami Kaidō – this is infrastucture built to accommodate all manner of cyclists, and providing all with an enjoyable, safe and beautiful place to ride. Whether your interests lie in a little island sightseeing facilitated by bike, in clocking up some unusual Strava segments on a rapid trip across the inland sea or, like me, somewhere in the middle, it’s a once in a lifetime ride.

Or maybe make that twice – I’d like to go back and check out the northern side..