About this time last year, I’d been hearing stories of this epic bike ride called the ‘Shimanami Kaido’, seven bridges that span between the islands from Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture to Imabari in Ehime Prefecture. After further research I found out that the first bridge (if you start in Onomichi) is usually bypassed as it is very out of the way, and not suitable for pedestrians or bikers, so six bridges, no worries right? 71 kilometres of sunshine and cycling, here we come!
Before heading off, you can book the type of bicycle you’d like to rock (or ride, as it were). Electric engine-assisted (800yen per day), bikes with gears, and fixed mamacharis (both 500yen per day) are all available. The main bike terminal at Onomichi Port has the longest opening hours, is very accessible (Onomichi JR station), and has a large selection of bikes to choose from. If you leave from one of the minor hire stations, it’s important to book ahead so they have the bike you need ready for you. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to pre-book for ‘Golden Week’, you’ll just have to get there well ahead of opening time if you hope to get anything decent, as I did.
My journey started from the second bicycle hire terminal on Mukaishima (free parking here guys!). Rocking up 7:50am, I managed to snag one of the last remaining decent and geared bikes complete with a lil’ basket for my luggage.
Some of the ramps are fairly steep and short, while others span over a steady incline of nearly 2 kilometres. Whizzing down the other side of the bridge is pretty damn fun, just be sure to watch out for other bicycle folk, the occasional wild boar, and unexpected brontosaurus statues! Most of the course runs along the coastline, providing beautiful scenery along well marked paths.
One of the highlights along the route is the Kosanji Temple and Museum on Ikuchijima Island. The gardens are a lush green and in May are filled with blooming wisteria vines. The large koi pond is home to the goldest fish I’ve ever seen. The completion of the temple took 30 years, and each building is modelled after other buildings in some of the most famous temples in Japan, including Nikko Temple’s Yomeimon Gate and Byodoin’s Phoenix Hall. Follow the temple path around and underground and you’ll find a cavern lit delicately by the ornate lanterns and filled with many images of Buddha. But first you must descend down along halls displaying artwork that depicts the tortures of Buddhist hell…
At the rear of the temple is the winning piece of the 2005 international “Marble Architectural Awards”. Created by artist Kazuto Kuetani, “Miraishin no Oka” (Heights of Eternal Hope for the future) this series of Italian Marble sculptures are described by the artist himself as his “life’s work”. Although this instalment has no part of the temples religious functions, it’s really something quite special.
Beware the hill on Oshima: you may need to walk your bicycle. It’s the second highest point along the route, second only to the impressive Kurushimakaiyo Bridge. Kurushimakaiyo Bridge is actually 3 connected bridges that span the gap between Oshima and mainland Shikoku. On the rare clear day, the view from the bridge is spectacular, and I spent a while in the middle of the bridge watching ferries and cargo ships come and go.
For those that don’t want to cram the 71k into one day, you can drop off your bike at a rental terminal along the way, for a small fee. From these points you can either take a ferry to your next destination, or jump on the highway bus. There are also spots along the route where you can hire camping gear and chill out for the night, including the Onomichi Marine Youth Centre on Mukaishima. A list of accommodation can be found in Japanese (unfortunately the English website is far from complete) on the Kaido’s official homepage http://www.go-shimanami.jp/index.html. The islands also have some beautiful beaches along the way, so if you can, make time for a dip!
Imabari town was the end of the cycle for me. Here, you can find a lovely little castle, with an impressive display of samurai armour. But one of the true gems worth visiting in Ehime is Matsuyama. Matsuyama is home to the very famous Dogo Onsen. This is the bath house that inspired Yubaba’s hot spring in spirited away. The hot spring can be very, very crowded (especially in Golden Week), so be prepared to fight the crowds. The line to enter the hot spring for one of the bathing packages (including access to other baths and a snack) can stretch around the building, spilling out into the street.
This is another of my trips in Japan that left me feeling a little proud. 71k is a lot to tackle at any fitness level. And just to prove to myself that I could do it again, I rode back the whole way after just one day’s rest; blissful exhaustion.
Surviving the Shimanami:
Clothing: Although terribly unfashionable, I highly recommend investing in a pair of padded biking shorts. Even with these shorts you’ll be left a little saddle-sore. I’d also recommend grabbing a pair of riding gloves.
Sustenance: It’s handy to take some snacks for the ride. There are a few places to stop and eat along the way, but you never know when you’ll need to rest and refuel so come prepared. Arm yourself with some ‘Sweat’ or Aquarius too.
Protection: Sunscreen! The sun can get pretty intense, especially on the tops
of those pumpin’ legs. Sunnies and a hat won’t go astray either.
Money: Make sure to take small change to pay the bridge fees along the way. If you plan to cross all six bridges, you can purchase discount coupons at the cycle stations. ATMs are also few and far between, so come prepared.
To book your bike, you’ll need to fill in the form and fax it in at least 1 week before your intended departure date. There are other block-out periods in ‘Silver Week’ in September and in the summer holidays in August. The form can be found here: http://www.city.onomichi.hiroshima.jp/english/kanko/shimanami/reservation.doc