*The end of this post contains a collection of photos from the trip. Click the photos to enlarge and enjoy!*
It’s easy to forget that Japan is a nation of multiple islands. 6,000 islands to be exact, though ‘only’ 430 of them are populated. I’ve lived here since 2010 and only recently, in the May of 2016, did I finally step off of the main island of Honshu. Well, I say step, but the truth is that I arrived on the island of Shikoku on two bicycle wheels.
The Shimanami Kaido (しまなみ街道) is the name given to a cycling route that links up mainland Honshu to the island of Shikoku (the 4th largest in Japan), but it doesn’t do this by just one big bridge. Between the port cities of Onomichi (Honshu) and Imabari (Shikoku) lies not just an azure sea but emerald green islands scattered from one end to the other, handily linked together via vast bridges like a thread stringing together a necklace of precious stones. Whether by accident or by design, this 75km route weaving from island to island is one of the most breathtaking outdoor tours of rural Japan on offer. And although you can complete this journey in one long day, you really shouldn’t. Give it at least two days to get from Onomichi to Imabari (or vice versa) to truly savour the journey and the sights. Likewise, I’m going to split this blog post in two too, starting with day one of my trip.
We started our Shimanami Kaido experience as most experiences in Japan start: in a queue. You see, the good news is that you don’t have to haul your own bike to the Shimanami Kaido: you can rent one. The bad news is that you’re going to have to wait for it. Having said that, we did roll up in Golden Week, a time when the WHOLE COUNTRY goes on holiday, so it’s a given that we’d be waiting for two hours, which wasn’t so bad as I was in good company. When we finally got rolling, we went no more than 50 meters before we had to get off again and take a 5-minute ferry across the narrow waters to the first island – Mukoujima Island. This would be the only time we’d be taking a boat on this journey. Then we were off, cycling through the rural suburbia until we’d left the town behind us.
It should be noted that the bikes we rented weren’t built-for-purpose sports bikes but basic city bikes. My bike had a basket on the front, for example. And we were dressed pretty casually, too. And although you see many people on the Shimanami Kaido who are geared to the nines in hardcore biking kit, it shouldn’t worry you: all of the roads we biked on were smooth tarmac, and as long as you are in reasonable shape the steep bits should prove to be nothing more than a fair challenge – people use these roads for commuting after all.
After rounding the corner of Mukoujima, we witnessed two sights, both of which were to become common staples of our journey: beautiful shorelines and majestic bridges. The former offered up staggering vistas of the blue Seto Inland Sea dotted with islands big enough to be mistaken as the mainland to craggy rocks small enough only for the gulls. The latter were the graceful milestones of our journey, leaping from one island to the next. After a brief stop taking photos of our first bridge, Innoshimabashi, we were off again. We made the winding uphill climb through the undergrowth before launching ourselves across the vast stretch of the bridge. And while we were in awe at the sheer scale of Innoushimabashi, it was to quickly become apparent that it would be one of the smaller bridges on our trails. Which is saying something: Innoshimabashi is by no means small, being some 2/3rds the size of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Our next island, Innoshima island, took us away from the coast, the trusty blue line that clearly laid out our path leading us inland. Although Innoshima may not look like much on a map, it’s very easy to get into a position where you can see no see at all and the whole island surrounds you. Suddenly these tiny communities don’t seem like strange outliers clinging to the edge of civilization anymore but are in fact living in small but very amenable pockets of homes, shops and workplaces. It’s easy to lose that sense of perspective when you’re in Tokyo.
We stopped for lunch at a small hut-like restaurant. I had ‘inoshishi’ curry (inoshishi being wild boar), and was about to make a pit stop at the bathroom when I discovered the toilet was merely a deep hole in the ground with a sign saying ‘If you don’t like it, go to the toilet in the convenience store opposite’. Without questioning the plumbing (or lack thereof), we paid up, hit the conbini for refreshment and relief, and headed on our way.
The next bridge, Ikujibashi, was even more impressive than Innoshimabashi because whereas that bridge put you in an enclosed ‘cocoon’ of a bike path under the main road, Ikujibashi had you riding alongside the main road in the open air, affording incredible views over the sea all wrapped in a bracing wind.
The next island, Ikuchijima, was a more functional island than a touristy one: the coastal route took us around rusty harbors and hulking arms of concrete, as well as into Setoda town, the largest settlement on the island and arguably on the whole bike route (excluding Onomichi and Imabari, of course). In Setoda town we passed the gaudy Kousan Temple and the rundown shopping street, which nonetheless provided a much needed excuse to step off the bikes and stretch our legs.
The back end of Ikuchijima proved to be more picturesque, with palm trees lining thin fingers of beaches with mysterious statues looking out over the sloshing bay. The next and final bridge for day one loomed into view from behind the trees: Tatara bridge, spanning the water by nearly 1km, bolted into place by two tall towers that looked like giant tweezers. The view of the sun steadily sinking towards the water as we traversed it made for a satisfying end for the day as we landed on Omishima island, where we’d be staying for the night.
Although Omishima is the largest island on the Shimanami Kaido, we had only a short distance to travel before we arrived at our lodgings: a delightful little ‘minshuku’ (traveller’s lodge) next to a junior high school, nestled in a horseshoe of hills. Best of all, we were given complementary towels and tickets to the nearby onsen, which was enough to encourage us to get our aching bodies back on our bikes and back up the hill to the onsen, which after a day of gleeful anticipation seemed to shimmer in the sunset as it came into view. An onsen is always good, but after a long day on bikes with basically no suspension or cushion in the seats, this particular dip was divine.
With evening closing in we retired for the evening with a homemade dinner, nihonshu and beers. We were both curled up in our futon by 9pm, which was just as well: tomorrow was to be another long day…
Click to enlarge the photo and read the caption…