West Japan from Island to Island:
Cycling the Shimanami Kaido
I’m A-1, a team member and tour coordinator for Samurai Sports. Usually based in Hawaii, I’m a member of Triplefit, a cycling and triathlon team located in Oahu. Most of us have rode and trained together for many seasons. And for months, maybe even years, we had discussed how fun it would be for us to take a cycling trip to Japan.
Over time, what was once just a few haphazard ideas soon became reality as we picked dates and put together a rough itinerary. To round out the group, we were also joined by some spouses and friends who accompanied us for all of the sightseeing, shopping, and eating.
With the help of a ground support team led by Hisa, we had a stress-free adventure cycling the Shimanami Kaido. In fact, it went so well I put together some notes on our three-day journey across six islands and six bridges over 60km (nearly 40 miles).
Day 01 (Oct 18, 2019):
First day on the Shimanami cycling route
Onomichi - Mukai-shima - Inno-shima - Ikuchi-jima
After departing Honolulu for Narita Airport, we finally arrived in Onomichi last night. After a delicious breakfast at the hotel, we met the local cycling guide, Hisa to check out our rental bikes that we would ride for the week.
The rental bikes were quality road bikes by Cannondale and fitted with slightly wider tires for ease of riding. All of the bikes were well-maintained and in nearly new condition. Hisa had been informed of our heights and bike sizes beforehand, so he knew which bikes to bring for whom.
Each bike was displayed on a stand and even had our names on a tag! With just about everything (including helmets) provided for us, it was so easy. All we had to do was to adjust the height of the saddle and change the pedals.
The Shimanami Kaido is an approximately 70-kilometer (44 miles) road connecting Japan’s main island of Honshu to the island of Shikoku. Renown for being cycling-friendly with clearly designated bike paths marked in blue, the route traverses six small islands in the Seto Inland Sea.
While the Shimanami Kaido can be completed in one day, it’s recommended to split the route across two days to enjoy every detail and take in the scenery as you travel through all of the small islands.
After a short test ride on our rental bikes, we began our first ride – but it was not by bicycle. Instead, we took a small ferry boat from Honshu Island (basically, the ‘main island’ of Japan) to our first small Island, Mukai-shima or Mukai Island. It was a short 5-minute cruise aboard a spacious roll-on, roll-off ferry.
Once we landed in Mukai-shima, we started an easy spin. The first thing we had to get used to was riding on the left side of the road and making turns; but it did not take long to feel accustomed to the new norm. The roads were relatively narrow in Japan, but also the cars are much smaller than in Hawaii. We always felt safe because of our local guides showing us the way.
At our first stop, we visited a mom and pop shop called Goto Inryosui and treated ourselves to a fizzy Japanese cider drink called ramune. Since 1930, the shop owners have offered these classic drinks in a fancy glass bottle with a marble inside of the cap. Behind the counter, an old grandmother and grandfather serve these iconic Japanese ciders with a big smile!
After the refreshments, we got back on our bikes and rode for a bit. Our first bridge came into the horizon – the Inno-shima Ohashi, a suspension bridge connecting Mukai-shima to Inno-shima (Inno Island). Even though we had watched a video and viewed pictures beforehand, seeing our first bridge of the trip was very exciting for us. This was just the beginning!
Next, we made a quick stop at a small local shop called Hassaku Matsuura, which sells the famous hassaku daifuku. The most notable thing was how fresh it tasted from the mochi on the outside to the fresh piece of citrus inside. You could tell how much care they put into making it just so perfect. It was also pleasing to see that a couple from the younger generation took over this business from their grandfather to carry on his legacy.
did you know..?
The hassaku orange is a Japanese citrus hybrid similar to an orange in color but with the size of a grapefruit. The original hassaku plant was discovered here in Inno-shima. Daifuku (literally “great luck”), is a Japanese confection consisting of a small round mochi (glutinous rice cake) stuffed with sweet filling, most commonly anko, which is a sweetened red bean paste made from azuki beans.
As the day went on, it became a little cloudy but the weather was still perfect for riding. We reached our second bridge, the beautiful Ikuchi-bashi. A cable-stayed bridge worthy of a before-during-after sequence of photos, we enjoyed marveling at these unique bridges and looked forward to the next.
Starting at Onomichi, we had travelled from Mukai-shima to Inno-jima and now Ikuchi-jima (Ikuchi Island). We were on our third island for the day, and would stay the night here. But before going to our lodging, we had to stop again for food!
This time, we were led to a small butcher selling meat (beef, pork, or chicken) and fresh potato croquette. I ordered three kinds for each of us. Not surprisingly, they were all delicious. Perfectly fried golden, but not oily, cooked right in front of you by a happy grandma. We would never have found the little hole in the wall spots without local knowledge. Satiated with potato goodness, we were beginning to feel full now but soon it would be dinner time.
We recorded an easy 30km ride on our first day and closed out the day upon checking into Ryokan Tsutsui. A ryokan (旅館) is a type of traditional Japanese inn that typically features tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where visitors may wear yukata and talk with the owner.
We had an informational meeting on the proper way to wear a yukata, which is essentially a casual kimono usually made of cotton or synthetic fabrics. We were also taught the appropriate steps and etiquette when using a Japanese public bath facility, such an onsen and rotenburo. It was a casual learning experience and we had lots of fun! The best way to enjoy the country you are visiting is to do what the locals do and keep an open mind.
Dinner time! We all wore our yukata and ate a typical Japanese dinner, ryokan style. There were so many dishes, so much food, and so much to drink. Everything tasted so good! The best part is that ryokan often serve food that is seasonal and regional to their location. We really felt as though we were experiencing the real Japan.
At this particular ryokan, guests are able to enjoy a special onsen with lemon slices floating in the bath. Surprisingly refreshing, the lemon bath was one of many unique experiences throughout our journey on the Shimanami Kaido.
Day 02 (Oct 19, 2019):
Second day on the Shimanami cycling route
Ikuchi-jima- Omi-jima - Hakata-jima - Oh-shima - Imabari
On our second day, we were scheduled for a 50km ride. The weather forecast a rainy morning with improvements in the afternoon. As a result, we postponed our ride to the afternoon and instead, visited a famous art museum called the Kunio Hirayama Museum displaying works of art by a traditional Japanese painter hailing from Ikuchi Island.
After viewing the museum, we set out to ride for the day. By now, we had become more used to our rental bikes. Today’s route was specifically designed and engineered for cycling, so the hills were not steep and usually only about a 3% grade at most. All levels of cyclists can ride this route, from beginner to experienced. Moreover, on each of the bridges, there are dedicated bike paths and access points separate from motor vehicles.
From Ikuchi-jima, we crossed into Omi-shima (Omi Island) and took photos at a well-known landmark christening the Shimanami Kado as the “Holy Land of Cyclists”. We enjoyed local snack foods as we cruised along and admired the beautiful Tatara-ohashi (Tatara Bridge), which was another cable stayed bridge.
Next, we rode over the Omi-shima-bashi, a small arch bridge and arrived in Hakata-jima (Hakata Island). Here, we stopped by a big ship yard called Shimanami Zosen, where they were building a gigantic ship!
After marveling at the enormity of the metal vessels, we rode to a beach area and rewarded ourselves with soft serve ice cream. Some of us tried the sea salt flavor, which was well, very interesting.
We continued our ride and crossed into Oh-shima via the Hakata-Oshima Ohashi bridge – our fifth bridge. Throughout our cycling journey, we experienced very little traffic and mostly flat roads. The Shimanami Kaido was proving to be an enjoyable route with beautiful coastal scenery and photo-worthy landscapes.
Our first stop at Oh-shima was the Murakami Suigun Museum. The museum presents the maritime history of the Murakami Suigun, known as “the lords of the sea”, who were in control of the Seto Inland Sea during the Sengoku period.
After the museum, we head towards Imabari and our last bridge, the Kurushima-kaikyo-ohashi (Kurushima Bridge). A suspension bridge featuring six towards and four anchorages, it’s the longest bridge of the ride at about 2.5 miles long. In fact, Kurushima bridge is the world’s longest suspension bridge!
As we pedaled along in search of Imabari, the sun came out and the views were awe-inspiring. It was a picturesque ending to our 70k ride across six islands. In hindsight, each small island had something special to see and/or eat and we were pleased to have made such special memories on the Shimanami Kaido. It was truly one of the most meaningful cycling trips we had ever taken part in.
After a fun spiral descent from the bridge, we were back on Honshu and in Imabari city of Ehime Prefecture. Here, we checked into a nice western-style nice hotel to kick back and relax before another day ahead.
Day 03 (Oct 20, 2019):
From Imabari to Hiroshima
The next day, we woke up a little late and visited Imabari Castle by bicycle. The castle is located in the middle of the city, and features a vast seawater moat, a high stone wall and a rare style of main gate. The moat averages 60 meters (about 66 yards) in length and is intended to neutralize arrows. Amazingly, almost all parts of the high stone wall have remained unchanged since the Edo Period (1603-1868).
After taking some photos with the castle and expansive moat in the background, we cycled closer to the castle and parked our bikes at the designated area. Visitors can enter the castle and we viewed several exhibitions regarding weapons, armor, writings, and castle photography. We also took advantage of climbing to the top floor of Imabari Castle, and were treated with a spectacular vantage point over the city.
It was an optional ride day and some of the group chose to shop in town. Imabari is widely known for having special absorbent towels, so the shopping team visited the towel museum and shopped for these famous towels.
Others of us hopped back on the saddle. The cycling group headed back to the bridge and rode back over to midway point between the islands to a secret pit spot known only to cyclists. Hisa guided us to a hidden elevator that took us down many hundreds of feet with our bikes. When the elevator doors opened, we had arrived on a small island where people were fishing and farming. By ourselves, we would not have known about this hidden island – having a local cycling guide allowed us to make fascinating discoveries!
As we rode around this small island, we were amazed. From underneath, we looked up towards the bridge above us held up by towering concrete pillars. At home in Hawaii, the state is struggling to complete a guided rail system which would only have half the height.
After the easy ride, the cycling and shopping teams gathered at an onsen – a Japanese-style public bath. For many first timers, the onsen can be intimidating, but the one we visited was modern, clean, and resembled a spa. Many local Japanese use the onsen every day but for us visitors, it made for a uniquely Japanese experience.
After a refreshing (or shocking for some) clean-up, we prepared to board an express bus from Imabari to Hiroshima. Armed with six-packs of Japanese beer and convenience store snacks, we were ready to drink, eat, and eventually nap on the bus.
We were so fortunate to have the support from the guides and a sag wagon to bring our bikes and some luggage for a hassle-free journey. Next, we would spend two days in Hiroshima, walk around Miyajima, and try a new range of foods and drinks in local spots around town. More to come!