Shimanami Kaido, the island-hopping cycle route from Onomichi in Hiroshima to Imabari in Ehime, has been named a National Cycle Route.
The Halfakid and I cycled the route in April 2018. We got lucky with the weather and hit peak cherry blossom season. The course was not challenging, with well-marked roads and gentle climbs to the bridges along the route. It will probably have been the last time I’ll ever drop the Halfakid on a climb, too. Our nemesis proved to be the unforgiving saddles on the rental bikes, though.
Cycling Shimanami 2020 is a group event that will be held Oct. 25. I’m not sure I’ll join, although the Halfakid would like to do the ride again (on our own bikes this time) and Tomo would like to join. Ideally we’d like to do the ride as a two-day event, there and back with an overnight onsen stay. The group event is a single day, and although the 140km round trip is one of the course choices, that might be a bit over the top. On the other hand, I’d love to have those sensu in the photo at top.
Shimanami Kaido cycling road is the third national cycle route — the others are Tsukuba-Kasumigaura ring-ring road and Biwaichi. Tsukuba-Kasumigaura looks like it would be a fun two-day ride. Alternatively, as the start is about 80km from here, it could be a three- or four-day ride setting out from home. Fearless Leader Joe, Sanborn and I did Biwaichi — circumnavigating Lake Biwa near Kyoto — five years ago. It’s another ride I’d love to do again, although getting the bike there and back is always a challenge.
The little planning I did before the ride paid off handsomely, and we enjoyed amazingly good weather and cherry blossoms in full bloom. The views — particularly the Seto Inland Sea from the bridges — were breathtaking, and we were simply too at peace on the road to stop and take enough photos.
We arrived in Onomichi about 10 a.m. following a three-and-a-half-hour ride on the shinkansen and then a brief ride on a crowded JR local train. We soon found Giant Store Onomichi, just a few dozen meters past the Go Shimanami Rental Bikes outlet. The staffer who served us was polite and thorough, presenting us with a multi-page English guide to safety regulations, riding tips and rental conditions. We went for the option to add a spare inner tube and a toolset for ¥500 each. He then spent a few minutes demonstrating the operation of the bike shifters, and adjusted the saddle height for us. He also allowed us to use the store’s fitting room to change. As a finishing touch, we received guides to ferry departure times and to various shops along the route we could call on if we needed emergency repairs.
The first leg of the Shimanami Kaido Cycling Road was a very short ferry ride from Onomichi to Mukaishima, at a cost of ¥100 per adult plus ¥10 per cycle. (The Shin Onomichi Bridge is not open to pedestrian or cycle traffic.) While on the ferry we noticed other riders with the mini-velo bikes from the Go Shimanami rental outlet, and from the looks of them we were reassured that we had made the right choice. It’s true that Giant store only offers two locations to drop off the bikes (Onomichi and Imabari), compared to 14 for Go Shimanami, but the list of emergency shops we could call on made up for a good deal of that difference. And the differences in the condition of the bikes made it no competition — the Giants were the perfect bikes for the trip.
From the dock it was just 100m or so before we joined the Cycling Road and began our journey, following the blue stripe and course markings. However, we soon discovered the only short-coming of our lightweight Giant bikes, and it was a painful revelation. The seats were narrow plastic with no padding and little, if any, give. They were obviously meant to be ridden with thickly padded cycling shorts, while I had only a thin liner and my son had only gym shorts. Within a few kilometers, we were standing on the pedals and then sitting down again with trepidation.
In any case, we soldiered on. It wasn’t long before we came to the ramparts of the first bridge of the course, the Innoshima Bridge. There we found a winding but gradual cycle path (motor scooters up to 125cc also use the path) with a 3% rise over a distance of a bit more than 1km. We dropped down to the lower gears and had no difficulty with the climb. Within a couple of minutes we were at the top, 30m higher above the Seto Inland Sea and ready to traverse our first crossing. Each of the bridges is different, as we found, and the Innoshima features a separate span below the main roadway for the Cycling Road. Once across, we had a similar winding cycle path on which to play slalom racer until we were back down nearer sea level.
Riding across the islands was a mixture of seaside vistas, nearly abandoned industrial zones (mostly construction, from the looks of it) and rural scenery. There were occasional climbs exceeding the 3% grade of the bridge ramparts, but these tended to be short. At various points along the route we had the choice of riding a sidewalk marked for cycling or along the blue stripe in the road. There are a couple of reasons to prefer the roadway, though: the sidewalks tended to be bumpier — at one point they were made of paving blocks — and include a number of obstacles, and sometimes shrubbery or fences block the view of the distance and directional markers painted at intervals along the blue stripe. We found that drivers along the course are very courteous to cyclists, and in the end we preferred the road to the sidewalks (except when we were moving so slowly that we thought we’d be a traffic hazard).
We’d set out at 11 a.m. from Onomichi (after the time spent getting the bikes and changing), so it was nearly 1 p.m. before we stopped for lunch at a small Chinese diner at the side of the road. We weren’t expecting much from the looks of the place, but the food was good and filling, and the waitress cheerfully let us fill our water bottles from the drinking water dispenser.
After lunch the pain in our backsides starting taking its toll, and my son in particular began lagging. I found myself stopping every half kilometer or so to let him catch up, and so I finally let him take the lead. After all, he knew the route as well as I did: we simply followed the blue line and the directional markings. As I followed along, I heard him giving himself a pep talk with each new rise we encountered. “Here we go,” he’d say, or “We got this. Come on.” He told me his inner thighs were aching, but he also ascribed it to the painful saddle. As he continued to meet each climb, including the ramparts of each bridge as we came to it, I concluded the issue was at least partly psychological.
For my part, I had some tenderness in my hands from riding on the brake hoods, but no problem with numbness (as I often experience with my usual ride, Ol’ Paint). My backside was tender but my thighs were in fine shape. I could easily ride up each hill or bridge rampart by simply dropping to the lower gears, and at no point did I find myself wishing for an even lower gear to get up the rise — even when we rode through the pass on Omishima that was a prelude to approaching the bridge. An older local who passed us together with his two granddaughters shouted encouragement: Climbing is hard, eh? It wasn’t really, apart from my son’s issue with his saddle and his thighs.
Even slowpokes eventually near their goal, and about 4:45 p.m. we found ourselves at the southwestern point of Oshima, resting before the climb up to the last bridge of the day: the 4km Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge. As we’d already crossed into Ehime at this point, we were delighted to discover that the prefectural mascot is a mikan-looking dog named Mikyan, and he has his own nemesis (Dark Mikyan)!
The approach to the Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge starts off as the others, with a winding cycle-only path on a 3% grade, but it soon leaves terra firma behind and continues as a pair of free-standing spirals circling upwards to the bridge surface. Riding along the bridge affords amazing vistas over the Seto Inland Sea to either side, although the length of the bridge soon becomes daunting. “Aren’t we done with this bridge yet?” we found ourselves thinking. Fear not: in good time we found ourselves on the longest and twistiest yet downhill which took us onward into our destination of Imabari port. Having rolled off the descending path, though, we found ourselves with a few more kilometers of city traffic to bike through towards our final destination (the Imabari train station) and we were glad for a change to stick to the sidewalks — at least where they were clearly marked for cycling and free of obstacles.
Over a much-deserved dinner and frothy, we discussed our options for the return. We’d planned to simply bike back on Sunday the same way we came, but it was obvious our backsides were in pain. We could ride a bit more than halfway back, to Setoda port on Ikuchijima, and take a ferry the rest of the way to Onomichi. Or we could take a ferry right from Imabari, which would put us within a 25km ride of the goal. The final option was to wait until the Imabari Giant Store opened and leave the bikes there (for an additional fee) and return via a combination of ferry and bus. We wisely decided to sleep on it.
In the morning, after a quick hotel breakfast, we quickly came to our decision: take the ferry from Imabari to Habu, on Innoshima, and bike the remaining 25km. The ferry terminal in Imabari Port was within walking distance of the hotel, and we quickly purchased our tickets: ¥1,750 per adult and an additional ¥570 per bicycle. The ferry ride was an uneventful hour-and-15-minute ride, with several stops along the way before we were deposited at Habu port. From there we mounted up and simply kept the sea on our left for a few kilometers before rejoining the cycling course.
The final leg home went smoothly. My son had recharged a bit overnight, although I still found him giving his thighs pep talks as we wound our way up the few hills remaining. At long last we came into Onomichi Port, and once again took the two-minute ferry ride back to the mainland.
Friends have been asking if I’d ride this route again. The answer? In a flash! Even knowing that I might not be as lucky with the weather and the cherry blossoms next time around. I’d make sure I have proper shorts to suit the hard bike saddle, and I might book a better hotel in Imabari even if it means a bit of a longer ride at the end of the first day. As for my son, he’s vowed to get in more miles on the bike nearer to home before we take on the challenge.
And here we are with two days to go. Fearless Leader Joe went over his handlebars in January, taking a gouge out of his leg which required stitches and immobilized his knee for a couple of weeks. But that was followed up by an undiagnosed fracture which he finally had treated in late February. Long story short, he’s out. And Sanborn, our other Lake Biwa and L2P partner, dropped out for family reasons. That leaves me and Guy 2.0 to carry on.
While all the above was going on, I carried out a furious schedule of procrastination. In part I was waiting for FLJ and Sanborn to confirm dates with me, but mostly I was avoiding the challenge of making the arrangements. I’ve got a deep-seated aversion to trying new things and that’s compounded by the language barrier. Long story short, although I’ve been in this country for decades, I’ve always relied on others to take care of things like booking hotels.
My partner finally goaded me into action just a week ago. She’d been asking me for some time whether I was going. There’s a meet-and-greet at our new condo on the same date as the ride, and she needed to know if I’d be going with her. By this time I’d already confirmed that Shimanami Renta Cycle was fully booked, as was Cyclo no Ie, and so it was time for Plan B.
When I finally made the call to Giant Store Onomichi, it went very smoothly. No problem getting two road bikes in the requisite sizes. Just a few basic questions, a request that I bring appropriate ID (the clerk asked for a passport but I’m assuming my national ID card would be OK, too), and a reminder that they won’t guarantee to have the bikes if I’m more than 30 minutes late to pick them up. And then, after the call, I found they have a page describing the whole process in English.
Next up: Accommodations
The next step was to book a hotel in Imabari. I found some beautiful onsen in the area, but they were another 10km on from the end of cycling course, and uphill at that. In the end I just looked for hotels near the port on Google Maps, and found one that I could book via Rakuten. Since I already have a Rakuten account (and since this meant I could feed my introversion by booking without calling someone in person) it was appealing. The hotel is near the port, adjacent to the castle.
The booking doesn’t include dinner, but I’m sure we can find something in the neighborhood. Breakfast is offered over a three-hour period. We’ll probably be up early, anyway, eager to get on the road.
Finally: Bullet Train
Onomichi is a good four hours from Tokyo by shinkansen and JR. I’d originally planned to go out Friday afternoon and spend the evening there, but then my partner made plans for us with friends in Tokyo. And I knew that Guy 2.0 would prefer not to miss work on Friday. So I went to JTB to book the bullet train. This is something I’ve actually done before on my own, so I figured it wouldn’t be an issue. It’s a good thing I did in the end. Not only does it save us the worry of getting a ticket at 5:50 a.m. in Tokyo Station (for a 6 a.m. train), but the train was filling up fast. I was able to get two seats together.
I have a couple of days off now so I can take my time packing, making sure everything is charged up, and double-checking my list. I’ve printed out all the relevant materials, and I’ll have it all on my phone as well. Meanwhile, a coworker recommended that we stop by Kosanji, an unusual temple featuring reconstructions of other famous temple sites, while we’re on the ride.
Any posting I do from the road will be via twitter, so follow along there starting Saturday morning.
I finally started looking at possible routes, hotel stays and transportation for the Shimanami Kaido ride. We’d thought we had a five-day range to play with, but in the end it came down to a single weekend. And now we have a further complication in that Joe Lejog is recovering from a bike spill, so it’s all a bit iffy at this point.
The alternative, then, is to ride straight out from Onomichi to Imabari and overnight there. I found what looks like ideal overnight accommodation for four cyclists, Cyclo no Ie (Cyclo House). We could book a room for the four of us at the price of a regular hotel room for one person. Unfortunately, when I contacted them via their helpfully bilingual inquiry page, it turned out they’re fully booked for the date in question.
There’s a lot of uncertainty about our plans now, but we haven’t given up yet. There are other bike-friendly hotels, and there will be other dates if it comes to that.
Shimanami Kaido is a route bridging the islands between Hiroshima and Shikoku in Japan’s Inland Sea. It’s also a very popular cycling route for beginners on up, with cycle rentals and cyclist-friendly stops all along the route, as well as ferries between various islands. With the quality rental bikes available, you don’t even need to worry about how to transport your bike to the start of the ride and back.
I’ve spoken (well, mailed) with Fearless Leader Joe and L2P and Biwako veteran Sanborn, and it sounds like we’re on for the last week of March. We’re waiting to firm up the dates, but we’ll be looking at options to extend this 70km ride into a two-day outing. We could include some of the outer perimeter loops and overnight along the way, or we could ride out and back (rather than taking the ferry back at the end of the first day).