S is for Shimanami Kaido (Part Two)

*The end of this post contains a collection of photos from the trip. Click the photos to enlarge and enjoy!*

We awoke the next morning to another pleasant teishoku (Japanese set meal) for breakfast, and we were back on our bikes before 8:30am. Then promptly back off them again. Pulling in at a local Conbini some 400 meters from where we slept, we found that we had to make some major adjustments to our seating arrangements on these bikes: our backsides were still smarting from yesterday, and couldn’t handle another whole day on these stiff seats as they were. I stuffed a towel into what padding there was in the saddle, making it tolerable, and then we were off again.

As mentioned before, Omishima is the biggest island on the Shimanami Kaido, and yet we spent relatively little time on it, making our way along the pleasant yet unremarkable road skirting the shoreline to the next bridge.

It should be noted that the end of every island traverse is punctuated by this single track bike route that winds its way up a hillside in its approach to the bridge. It’s a grueling but appropriate challenge, and always rewarded by the sight and crossing of the next bridge followed by a breezy descent. In this case, it was Omishimabashi, the smallest bridge on our journey and the only arch bridge to boot.

The next island, Hakatajima, we had even less time on, though it was a little more eventful. It was on this island that I came closest to crashing after trying to take a photo of the boat-building cranes. After that we thought it best to take a pit stop at the local beach. It was again a perfect day for weather, the blue sky fading imperceptibly to the sea on the horizon. I gathered up some sand and shingle to take home in a plastic bottle, and we were off again, making our ascent to Hakata-Oshimabashi and down to what would be our final island: Oshima. After a brief skirting around the shore affording serene views across the sea dotted with countless islands and outcrops, we took a right turn at a rough-and-ready harbour outpost and delved inland: the most inland our journey would take us. It was here where we hit a wall with the steepest slopes we’d encountered, twisting its way into the heart of Oshima. The payoff was handsome, however, with the longest and most breathtaking descent down a hill that seemed endless. We pitied those heading in the opposite direction!

With another pit stop at a Conbini to recollect ourselves and refuel, we were off, keenly looking through the gaps in the rolling hills for our first glimpse of the final bridge. It finally came, peeking through a tunnel. First we spotted one suspension tower, then another, and another…another descent bought the final bridge into its full stunning view. This was the Kurushima Kaiyou Bashi, the longest suspension bridge in the world, throwing itself across waters and tiny islands all the way to Shikoku for a total span of 4km (over four times longer than the Golden Gate Bridge). It would be a perfect way to end our journey and arrive in Shikoku.

We took a moment at the rest area at the foot of the bridge to crane our necks up at it while chomping down mikan-flavored ice cream – a local speciality – before we were making our final ascent. The path snaked its way upwards, taking in miniature parks with views of their own to admire and even looping out into thin air before finally joining the Kurushima Kaikyou Bashi. Suspended 65m above the sea, with the wind whipping around us as we sped across massive construction, surrounded by like-minded people who were either beginning or ending their own journeys, was a full-body experience. We came down from the Kurushima Kaikyo invigorated and saddened that this 75km journey was coming to an end.

We touched down at last on mainland Shikoku, and I took a moment to savour that fact before we made our way into central Imabari. The trusty blue line that had guided us all this way had come to end, dropping us right at the doorstep of the train station. We had made it: all this time watching the distance to Imabari count down, and now we were finally here.

However much or little we’d built Imabari up in our heads as some kind of Mecca, though, we were in for a bit of a disappointment. The wind in our sails at our achievement was quickly taken away by the extremely rude woman who we handed out rental bikes back two, who refused to give our deposits back on a damage point that had been there from the moment we collected the bikes. That, and the fact that Imabari was a ghost town. True, it was Golden Week, and Imabari was hardly a big place, but a wander round the station yielded two places where we could eat lunch. Two. To put that in perspective, my tiny town of 8,000 I used to call home has at least four around the station, off the top of my head. Imabari is a city 172,000. The Big Boy we eventually landed in was a good choice, in any case. We wolfed down our lunch and made a dash for the train to Matsuyama. There we cracked open cans of beer as we watched Imabari disappear behind us, the Kirushima Kaiyou Bashi in the distance.

It was there on the train, watching the bridge fade out of sight, that we found our true closure on the Shimanami Kaido. It had been a long, at times trying trip. But it was overwhelmed by the positives: the sights, the smells of the sea, the delightful like books of Japan you never considered existed all traversed on bike. It’s a truly incredible experience, one everyone can try and should try, if they wish to see a jewel of Japan not often seen by tourist eyes. As long as it is done on two wheels.

Click to enlarge the photo and read the caption…

 

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