As the keen cyclists we both are, we could not miss out on the famous bike ride along the shimanami kaido road. It goes from just outside Onomichi to Shikoku island via a chain of islands and bridges. This was also the first time we saw a lot of fancy road bikes ridden by Japanese as well as foreign tourists.
Apart from the cycle route Onomichi did not seem to have much to write home about apart from some temples dotted around the surrounding hills and connected by a walking route. The whole place seems to be set up for cyclists riding across the islands. There are three bike rental businesses (plus rentals offered by accommodation) and a couple of businesses offering luggage transport for those who only do it one way rather than return. As it was our plan to head to Hiroshima afterwards by ferry we made use of this service, and sent our two big backpacks ahead to Matsuyama after sorting out the things we needed tor the ride and two nights.
Since the bike rental company of our choice opened at 7am and would not allow reservation of certain bikes we got up very early. Nothing is worse than having spend all day on an ill-fitting bike just because you got there too late and only got the runt of the litter.
We needn’t have to worry: we were the first customers of the day and had a full choice of bikes. As much as we wanted them, renting a road bike if you have not got the right shoes or clothes (mainly padded shorts) was not a good idea and so we went with normal flat bar mountain bikes. The offering consisted of various brands and sizes (there were also other bike types like ebikes). They even had belt-driven bikes with hub gears.
The shimanami kaido road crosses seven bridges between Honshu and Shikoku, but only six of them can be used by cyclists. For the first water crossing riders have to use a ferry. From the end of the ferry ride to the end of the last bridge the recommended route is 70 km long. Some sources quote 80km though; this figure includes the ride down into Imabari center and the ferry ride. On some islands there are alternative routes to chose if you want to venture off the trodden/ridden path, are super keen or just want see some places that are a bit further away.
When we set of in the early hours it was still quite cold, so it was the first time in a long while that we had you use our gloves and buffs. Thankfully, it got warmer soon as the sun climbed up higher and higher. We were in good spirits thanks to the the nice weather and decent bikes. Unlike the last ones we rented on Hokkaido these had more than three gears (21) and were actually well maintained, although not the most comfortable ones we had ever ridden.
Before we knew it we completed the first island and climbed up to our first bridge. All bridges are at least an estimated 30m above the water and are reached via a steady incline of around 800m with an average gradient of 3%. This doesn’t sound like much but considering our lack of training were enough of a challenge; especially when added up with all the other hills. These ramps are also used by scooters so caution was in order. The very first bridge is also a bit special: the bike path is in fact under the road and made Zoë feeling quite unsteady thanks to her vertigo.
On the second island we chose the alternative route and followed the road along the coast instead of going through the center. We were very surprised by how built up those islands were. The second (and most of the following islands) had a lot of marine businesses taking up almost the entire coast line. We were amazed by the number of shipyards of all sizes since we had expected smallish towns and villages and definitely more nature. At least there wasn’t a lot of traffic and we still seemed to be the only cyclists on the shimanami that day.
The third island was pretty much the same as the previous one so when we got to the fourth one we were quite comfortably ahead of our timeplan. Therefore we made the decision to take the long way around it. At this point we like to add that the entire route is very well sign posted; with signs at most junctions, a blue line running along the edge of the road together with the usual white one and distance markers both to Onomichi and Imabari. While this works well for the recommended route, the alternatives are not signposted at all and require a map (free at the bike rental places). We somehow missed the planned turn-off and ended up on the challenging route which was very hilly and added roughly 13km to our today’s total. At least it took us through a village where we got some lunch and cheap local oranges. Some of the hills were pretty steep and got our legs burning. Zoë was in a disadvantage there since here front derailleur would not allow her to use the small chainring with the mountain gears but she still conquered every incline. In between all this hard work we were rewarded with amazing views over the Seto Inland sea and the other islands.
Our next (and penultimate) island is famous for its ice cream made with local sea salt and obviously we could not ride the few kilometers on it without trying it. We got it from the roadside station and enjoyed a nice short break (our legs loved it) before embarking on the final section.
Our map pointed out some rocks of granite (apparently well known) along the flat coastal road of the last island so we decided to go the extra two miles and see them. It turned out that the entire coast is littered with granite blocks of various sizes, which originate from quarries in the hills of the island. About 5-6 miles of coast seemed to be used as quarry storage and working area. While the map was right about the coastline being flat it failed to mention the 800m long incline towards the center with an average gradient of 10%! This was too much for our legs after all the other hills and we had to stop a few times before we finally made it over the top and down the same slope on the other side.
By the time we got to the last bridge we were slowly but surely running out of time before the bike office closed so we had to hurry up. We could not help it but had to stop a few times when we got distracted by the mesmerising and photogenic sunset (and when we gave an interview to an English reporter writing for the ANA flight magazine. We were determined to cycle to the other Shikoku end of the last bridge as to officially complete the shimanami kaido. This last bridge was the tallest and longest with 4.2km over water.
One big final push and sprint later we arrived back at our chosen rental center/drop of point 8min before closure time.
Knackered, tired and powered out we were more than happy to get picked up by our couchsurfing host. We volunteered to cook and opted for the recovery classic of spaghetti bolognese. After a big dinner and a shower we felt like new (apart from the tiredness). We had a great and very entertaining evening with our American host before falling into bed quite late.
The next morning we went to the famous rose garden around the corner to stretch our stiff and sore legs before getting on a bus. In order to get to our next destination, Matsuyama, we had to catch a bus to Imabari first. From there we had the choice of a train or bus and we opted for the latter; partially because of the price but also because it could drop us of very close to our hotel. The one hour ride was alright but the road went through some mountains and was very windy. There were times when we looked straight down a steep drop when the bus got close to the edge, but the driver did a good job and we got there safely.
In order to celebrate and treat us for our birthdays we had decided to spend one night in a ryokan. They are traditional Japanese inns with tatami rooms and (usually) amazing dinners and breakfasts included. Most of them feature three stars. Since they are (as you might expect) not very cheap, we opted to go all the way and book a place that also had an onsen. Zoë struggled to find really nice ryokan that did not blow our travel budget over the moon but most of the cheaper places were either in areas that we did not go to or very difficult to get to by public transport.
Eventually we agreed on a mid-range hotel in Dogo (a part of Matsuyama). It included a 10 course dinner, roof top onsen and breakfast buffet. Our room was lovingly decorated and simple but nice.
Because of the cycling, we had sent our two big bags straight to Dogo so we did not have to carry them while sweating on the bikes. This worked very well and we felt really strange walking into a hotel where three people bowed and welcomed us before we even got to reception. The porter looked very confused because we did not arrive by car and he did not have to open any car doors or carry baggage for us. We were also probably the scruffiest looking guests they had had in a long while.
After dropping our bags there, we explored the local area and the remains of the palace hill with its garden. The most famous sight in Dogo is Dogo Onsen. It is a very old bath and is frequently used by the emperor. When his highness dwells there, he has his own bathing wing which nobody else is allowed to use. This part can be viewed as part of the most expensive bathing package but common mortals can only gain access to two other baths and relaxation rooms.
The park contains only a few wall ruins of its former buildings but some houses have been reconstructed to show their style and house exhibitions. We wandered to the viewing tower on top of the hill and enjoyed the sunshine and view over the city towards the castle hill.
Soon it was check-in time and we turned up on time on order to make the most of our time in the ryokan. After some green tea and sweets, we headed for the onsen. The interior of both men and womens baths were the same and featured one big pool with an entire glass wall allowing for great views (in theory; in reality at least half of it was fogged up). The main treat though was one floor up. Both areas had a nicely decorated roof top bathing area with plants around them and amazing views. There was both a normal pool as well as wooden tubs and the temperature was bearable, but not too hot. We loved relaxing our still slightly achy muscles in the hot mineral water while soaking in the sunshine. That did not last long, but sadly only Matthias got a good view of the sunset thanks to the layout.
When it was time for dinner we dressed in our Japanese style bathing ropes and shoes. The food was amazing. We had a whole range of food: sashimi, soup, pickeled and fried vegetables, roast beef and fish followed by pudding. It was super delicious and even though the portions were quite small and did not come with a lot of sides like rice we were pretty full by the end of it. Content and happy we went back to our room where we found our beds all ready and prepared. After a while we decided to head up to the roof pool for a late night dip. This time there were a lot more people in the onsen than in the afternoon. To our surprise the previous cloud cover had partially cleared and it felt awesome to lie in hot water while looking at stars.
The next morning we were amazed by the huge buffet which catered for both asian and european tastes. There was natto, curry, salads, and pickled vegetables but also toast, bacon saussages and made-to-order waffles with ice cream!
Once full (and the buffet closed) we got our stuff and walked to our next hotel. We wanted to spend some extra time to see Matsuyama but simply could not afford two nights in a ryokan (as much as we would have loved to).
Our next hotel was still nice but a big step down since we ended up in a smoking room. Apart from that our day planned sightseeing had to be called off since neither of us fancied walking up a hill to see a re-constructed castle shrouded in rainclouds. Instead we spent most of the afternoon planning our next few countries before stretching our legs walking around the covered shopping arcades.
It was a bit annoying but the as we left our hotel the next morning the weather had improved enough to offer decent vistas from the castle top but sadly we needed to catch a ferry to Hiroshima and did not have any time for sightseeing.
For all those of you who might fancy cycling the shimanami kaido themselves here are some more information.
We hired our bikes from the public bike company, which had their main base near the train station. To get there walk out of the station towards the sea. Bear right across the bridge and turn right past the hotel with the harbour bar and restaurant. If you walk right along the promenade/cycle path you will see the signs leading up to it.
Renting a non-electric adult bike costs ¥1,000/day with a ¥1,000 deposit. This deposit is refunded if you return your bike to a station on the same island (note that most islands only have one station). Helmets are included for free but wearing them is not encouraged (we had to ask for them explicitely). They also provide very good map for free, which shows important sights, landmarks and infrastructure along the route as well as distances.
There are two other rental companies but they only have stations at either end of the route and nothing inbetween. One of them stocks the latest Giant bikes including aluminium and carbon framed road bike These are available from ¥3,000 per day and require reservation. The third company offers a range including road bikes but at cheaper rates than Giant. All three seem to have ebikes in their line-up.
For the luggage forwarding we used a company called Yamato. They offer all sorts of transport services and are comparable to the likes of FedEx, DHL and others. They offer baggage pick up and drop of from and to certain hotels in Onomichi and Imabari. If you stay somewhere else, you have to take it to one of their stations. According to their website 7eleven (convenience store) acts as a drop of point, but we recommend using their office near the station. It is located at ground level in the same building as the harbour restaurant and the hotel. The staff there are very friendly and helpful and speak good English. Rates depend on the actual size and weight of your bag as well as its destination. Rather strangely, postage costs the same for Matsuyama and Imabari. We opted for picking our bags up from their station in Dogo rather then have them delivered to the hotel. Overall we paid about ¥2,100 for our two backpacks and the entire process worked flawlessly.
When we rode the this route we encountered less than 20 other serious cyclists, but it does get a lot busier during the warmer times of the year. If you know you want to go there and cycle around these beautiful islands book well in advance as there seems to be limited accommodation in Onomichi.