Shimanami Kaido – On Crossing Bridges and Islands

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I almost missed out on the Shimanami Kaido (しまなみ海道) experience. Ever since Ms. Shaan, a fellow Singaporean JET, tempted me with Shimanami Kaido, it was highly ranked in my “JET Bucket List”. What is this legendary Shimanami Kaido? It is a 74 kilometres bikeway that connects Japan’s main island of Honshu to the island of Shikoku. Passing over 6 bridges and 6 islands in the Seto Inland Sea, the picturesque Shimanami Kaido is every cyclist’s dream.

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Extracted from Onimichi Tourist Website

I initially planned to attempt the bikeway during my summer trip. After much deliberation, I cancelled it because of baggage logistics problems and time constraints. During my trip, however, I met many backpackers who shared their wonderful cycling experiences. Somehow, I had the gnawing feeling that if I did not try to conquer Shimanami Kaido when I was so near the area, I would regret it. After missing the chance to approach the bikeway from Shikoku, I decided to make a super impromptu detour from Hiroshima.

Blessed with surprisingly sunny post-typhoon weather on August 11 2014, I rented a mamachari bike at Onimichi and embarked on my solo Shimanami Kaido adventure around 8.30 a.m. The expedition started officially after a 5-minute ferry ride from Onimichi port to Mukushima.

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The bikeway is cyclist-friendly as it is clearly marked by blue and white lines, road markers, and signs. Other than the challenging slopes up and down the bridges, the entire cycling course is relatively flat.

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The gentle coastal ride through Mukaishima goes through Tachibana beach, a popular getaway for summer sports. Mukaishima Orchid Center displays a wide variety of colourful orchids that thrive in Mukaishima’s warm climate. Filled with excitement at the beginning of my expedition, I breezed through Mukaishima and crossed the first suspended bridge, Innoshima Bridge (1,339 meters).

1-3 Innoshima Bridge with name

Innoshima used to be a playground for the Murakami Suigun or pirates. During the Muromachi and Sengoku periods, they controlled the waters of the Seto inland sea. The Innoshima Suigun Castle provides a glimpse into the past of piracy with its extensive display of armours, weapons and historical documents. In summer, Innoshima celebrates its annual Pirate Festival. The renowned three-part celebration consists of the Island, Fire and Sea festivals.

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I spent some time in Innoshima as I was distracted by the gorgeous Shimanami Beach and Petit Four Bakery (プチフール) where I stopped for a dessert break.

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After lingering in Innoshima for far too long, I quickly crossed the Ikuchi Bridge (790 meters).

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In Ikuchijima, I stopped for another dessert break and recharged my dehydrated body with the famous Setoda handmade gelato at Dolce.

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Next, I took refuge from the heat and visited the Hirayama Ikuo Museum that showcases art exhibits by one of Japan’s most famous painters, Hirayama Ikuo. The museum shop sells a series of souvenir-worthy postcards featuring Hirayama’s evocative paintings of the bridges and islands.

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Many people visited the nearby Kosanji temple but I just admired its exterior due to time and budget constraints.

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I moved on to have well-deserved lunch at a roadside takoyaki place. This place is apparently famous for their tako tempura.

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After crossing the Tatara Bridge (1,480 meters), I left Hiroshima Prefecture and reached Omishima, an island located at the border of Ehime Prefecture. There are many art museums like Omishima Museum of Art, Tokoro Museum Omishima, Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture and Ken Iwata Mother and Child Museum on the island. Unfortunately, most museums are closed on Monday – the day I visited.

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As a result of my slow pace, constant “cam-whoring”, snacking and sight-seeing, it was around 5 p.m. when I reached the island. I headed straight to the Oyamazumi Shrine, a Shinto shrine revered by sailors and warrior. Sunburnt and exhausted, I surrendered and resorted to pushing my mamachari when I encountered killer slopes on the way to the Shrine.

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I almost collapsed with happiness when I finally arrived at my pit stop of the day: Minshuku Kontama (民宿紺玉) (which K’s House Hiroshima staff kindly helped me to book a few days before).

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It was a fantastic end to my first day of expedition as I soaked in the saltwater onsen at Mare Grazier Omishima and watched the iridescent sunset fading into the Seto Inland Sea.

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I must take a break now and talk about the kind granny who manages the minshuku with her husband. This is not a luxurious 5-star minshuku. But the experience I had was so heart-warming and filled with so much “omotenashi”. Firstly, the granny greeted me with so much concern when she saw me half-dead from the steep climb. She immediately chauffeured me to the onsen and then picked me up after I was done. Then she served the most incredible dinner of my life.

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It was mind-blowing not just because of the wide variety of fish cooked in so many ways but the dining experience itself. A useless city girl, I was always depended on my father’s “fish de-boning” skills. The kind granny observed how I struggled with the fish dishes in great disbelief. Finally, she intervened and helped me to remove the succulent fresh from all the dishes. She just knelt in front of me throughout the entire meal while I ate and tried to communicate with my bad Japanese. She shared with her about her family and her eyes sparkled when she talked about her grandchildren. Even though I was alone in the tatami room that night in the middle of the Seto Inland Sea, I felt I was with my newfound family – the granny sleeping in the other room. The next morning, the kind granny made me a scrumptious breakfast and sent me off. I was rather sad saying goodbye to her as I will probably never see her again.

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After a nourishing rest at the granny’s minshuku, I traversed the hilly Omishima landscape and crossed the arch Ohmishima Bridge (328 meters).

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Compared to the strenuous ride around Omishima, it was a breeze cycling through Hakatajima. The fifth bridge, Hakata-Ohshima Bridge (1,196 meters), greeted me as I headed towards Ohshima Island.

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Oshima has many interesting attractions like the Kirosan Observatory Park located on the top of Kirosan, which is a perfect resting spot to admire the majestic Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge over the dynamic tidal currents of Kurushima Straits. Many tourists like to board a cruise ship at Miyakubo and Yoshiumi in order to experience the tidal currents up close. It was a pity that I did not have much time to explore Ohshima. I rode quickly towards the last and longest bridge, Kurushima-Kaikyo (4,105 meters). I really wanted to take the elevator down from the bridge to the small island Umashima to observe the tidal rapids but I had to rush to catch the bus.

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It was bittersweet cycling across this majestic bridge. I was relieved that I survived without any injuries but sad that my expedition was coming to an end. Finally, I bade goodbye to my faithful companion, mamachari, at Sunrise Itoyama, jumped into a cab and almost missed the bus at the Imabari bus station.

The long bus ride back to Hiroshima took me through the bridges and islands again. It would have been much cheaper but suicidal to cycle back. During the bus ride, my “monetary heartache” vanished as the familiar scenery unfolded in front of my eyes. Retracing my cycling journey through the bus window, an introspective visual montage of the Shimanami Kaido bikeway accompanied my thoughts. I was glad that I listened to my instincts and embarked on the once-in-a-lifetime cycling adventure. Suppressing my “Singaporean control freak” and “compulsive obsessive planner” nature, I realised that unpremeditated plans may bring about unexpected rewards.

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Bridges of varying lengths and steepness link one stage of life to the next. Despite the spectrum of difficulty levels, every ascent and descent are memorable challenges adding gradient to the monotony of life. Every island is different. Some islands have breath-taking beaches and delicious gelatos that lead to a longer sojourn. Some islands result in life-changing experiences. Some islands are entirely forgettable. Whether accelerating, slowing down or even dismounting, each traveller has to find a comfortable rhythm and pace. At the end of journey, after crossing numerous bridges and islands, every traveller is ultimately rewarded with their unique panorama of life – their own Shimanami Kaido.

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Tips:

  • I strongly recommend a minimum of 2 days (spending overnight on one of the islands like Omishima or Ikuchijima) to complete the bikeway. A good cyclist can probably finish the bikeway in 1 day but there will not be enough time to visit various sights on the islands. In hindsight, I wished I had extended my 1.5-day trip so I could explore the last few islands.
  • Remember to take the useful biking tour guide maps from the bicycle rental shop. The maps can be downloaded here.
  • Professional cyclist can make reservations for a good road bike in advance. As an amateur cyclist, I paid 2,000 yen (1,000 yen for a 2-day rental and 1,000 yen non-refundable deposit) for a mamachari. The deposit will not be refunded if the bicycle is returned at a different station.
  • Do not attempt to cycle without proper footwear. I was lucky that my Havaianas did not disintegrate when I pedalled upslope.
  • Monday is not a good day to visit the islands as most museums are closed. Visit the Hirayama Ikuo Museum to purchase souvenir-worthy postcards featuring Hirayama’s paintings of the bridges and islands.
  • If the starting point is from Onimichi, the bikeway does not end at Sunrise Itoyama in Imabari. From Sunrise Itoyama, it is another 30- to 45-minute ride to Imabari Station. Technically, I did not complete the full course because I took a cab to Imabari Station. The bikeway can be accessed from another direction – Imabari to Onimichi.

Different versions of this article were published at Taiken and Ryukyu Star.

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