Japan's ultimate cycling adventure, the Shimanami Kaido
If you were to thumb through a photo album from my youth, you'd find what appears to be a cyclist in the making. There I am at age three - immortalized in 80's-era Kodak film - a blur of messy curls blowing in the wind as I proudly speed down the driveway of my Texas home on a two-wheeler Huffy, not a training wheel in sight.
Even my first memory is tied to cycling: a hazy recollection of the view from a plastic child's seat fixed to the rear of my mother's bike. As I grew into my own wheels, the bicycle became a symbol of independence. I peddled to school, to my friend's house four blocks over, to nowhere as I practiced the art of hands-free riding.
I found freedom on two wheels.
Now, 30 years after my photo-worthy cycling debut, I find myself in Onomichi, an industrial port town on the Seto Inland Sea and the starting point of Japan's world-famous cycling route, the Setouchi Shimanami Kaido Expressway. Hugging the sandy coastline of citrus-studded islands and jetting over turquoise waters on soaring suspension bridges, the 60 kilometer-long cycling path is about as scenic as they come.
I arrived in Onomichi less than 48 hours after completing a half marathon in nearby Marugame, and with far too much confidence for my own good (I'm certain that my 3-year-old self is to blame for this). It took a store associate at our hotel's bike rental shop to bring me back down to Earth.
"You ride road bike before?"
I had not. I never graduated to serious cycling - speed just isn't my thing. I prefer a relaxed, leisurely ride. (My last bike was a beach cruiser with a wide cushy seat and even wider handlebars.) The store associate smiled and unfurled a map of the Shimanami Kaido, circling the name of a port located three islands into the course.
"Rescue point. Halfway. Take ferry back."
The "rescue point" - Setoda Port - was 35 kilometers away (that's just over 20 miles, for my American friends). Had I been too zealous? I was suddenly acutely aware of my inexperience with regard to road riding, wondering if perhaps I should have chosen a less aggressive mode of transportation.
After a few nervous practice circles outside the hotel on our featherlight bikes, we embarked on the journey. It began at Onomichi Port, where we hitched a 4-minute ferry ride (placards at the dock proclaimed it the "world's shortest ferry") across the Onomichi Channel to Mukaishima Island, the first of six small islands connected by the Shimanami Kaido. Once on the pavement we began tracing the blue and white paint stripe which marks the Shimanami Kaido's path, our sleek borrowed wheels climbing slowly to the towering steel structure that loomed ahead: the 1,270 meter-long Innoshima Bridge.
The day was cold, blustery and grey, but from our elevated position on the bridge I could finally see the vibrant color of the Inland Sea, a beautiful ombre of blues that began as a bright teal on the island beaches and darkened to a rich sapphire at its depths.
It was only our first bridge ascent, but I could already feel the toll that my previous athletic endeavor had taken on my body. I had very wrongly assumed that the circular motion of cycling would help to stretch out my tired runner's legs - a mistake I'd come to furiously regret in the following days.
Alas, a triathlete I was not.
Once on Innoshima Island, we parked our bikes and walked up to a lookout that offered park bench seating and sweeping sea views for our picnic lunch. I pulled a selection of savory pastries from my backpack: golden braids of chewy bread laced with cheese and meat that I'd purchased from the in-house bakery at our hotel. We polished them off while contemplating how far we'd ridden (answer: not far).
Our bellies satisfied, we peddled on, crossing the smaller Ikuchi Bridge to Ikuchijima Island, where the path is bordered on one side by quaint roadside citrus groves; the other by bustling industrial ports. Somewhere along the way a woman unloading crates of fruit from the back of a truck tossed us a piece of her harvest, and I amazed myself by catching the offering while still in motion.
In search of further relief from the bike, we dismounted at Kosanji Temple, a Buddhist temple whose construction took more than 30 years to complete. We spent nearly two hours covering the dreamlike complex, a wonderland of strikingly colorful temple replicas that transport visitors to Nikko, Kyoto and beyond. This might make Kosanji feel a bit disingenuous to some, but I quite enjoyed walking among so much beauty in one place - kitschy as it may be.
The temple grounds include a long underground cave filled with 1,000 Buddha statues, standing from floor to ceiling on the rocky nooks of the cavern walls. We emerged from the dimly lit cave to find ourselves in a blinding sea of white: a stone garden sculpted from nearly 3,000 tons of Italian marble. At its end sat a cliffside restaurant built entirely of the pearly rock, where we reasoned our efforts had earned us a cappuccino.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we left Kosanji Temple, which meant the rental shop associate had been right to steer us towards a return by ferry from the halfway point. We decided to linger on Ikuchijima Island, catching the 5 o'clock boat from Setoda Port.
As we crossed the Inland Sea back to Onomichi, I watched with happy exhaustion as the sun sank below the horizon, silhouetting the hilly islands against a glowing amber sky. My quads ached and my knees screamed at the tiniest of movements, but the realization that I'd likely never complete a triathlon was the last thing on my mind.
The little girl who had peddled her way into the world three decades ago now had a much longer driveway - one that spanned an ocean and a sea and two continents - and she couldn't have been more pleased with herself.
The Shimanami Kaido draws experienced cyclists from across the globe, but you needn't be an avid rider to enjoy the course. Those who cringe at the thought of spending 8 to 10 consecutive hours on the unforgiving saddle of a road bike can break up the route over the course of several days, leaving time to explore the islands' many treasures - whether it be pit stops to sample the region's beloved citrus in gelato form or to explore vibrant temples and ancient castle remains.
If you go
Plan your visit for Spring. The Inland Sea is all the more beautiful when its islands are swathed in lush greenery and blossoms. Onomichi in particular is a spectacular spot for sakura (cherry blossoms).
Reserve a half-day for exploring Onomichi. There's a Temple Walk that connects 25 of the town's temples and shrines, as well as a hilltop observatory and ropeway for aerial sea views. Come hungry: Onomichi is famous for its regional ramen. Catch a preview of Onomichi here.
Start your journey at Onomichi U2, a former industrial warehouse turned hip cyclist haunt. The complex houses a hotel with in-room bike racks, a GIANT-branded rental and repair shop, three restaurants (one of which boasts a "cycle-thru" window) and a lifestyle store. Read more about Onomichi U2 here.
Use ferry services to break the route into shorter distances. A printable guide map with the recommended cycling course (and sights along the way) can be found here. We cycled to the halfway point (Setoda Port) and returned to Onomichi by ferry, but I'd advise focusing on the latter half of the route (which we did not cover) as it includes longer, more scenic bridges.
From Tokyo Station, take the Nozomi Shinkansen to Fukuyama Station (214 minutes), and then switch to the JR Sanyo line to reach Onomichi Station (20 minutes). Note that the JR Pass is not valid on Nozomi trains.
If you're traveling from elsewhere in Japan, use HyperDia to map the best route.