SHIMANAMI KAIDO

Freewheeling across the Inland Sea

by Alice Gordenker

“Getting there is half the fun.”

With that maxim in mind, my family and I decided to forego all the usual means of transport for our first trip across the Seto Inland Sea to Shikoku last month.

Instead of relying on plane, train, car or boat for the crossing from Honshu, we made our maiden voyage by bicycle.

This was not as daring as it may sound, but it was certainly an adventure.

We made our way along the Shimanami Kaido (highway), a scenic tourism route that runs across six islands and seven bridges to link the towns of Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture in Honshu and Imabari in Ehime Prefecture in northwestern Shikoku. Completed in 1999, the Shimanami Kaido is shared by automobiles, cyclists and pedestrians, but what makes it so pleasant on two wheels is that whenever possible cyclists are provided with well-designed bike paths away from vehicular traffic. The trip along the Shimanami Kaido is a unique way to experience the beauty and culture of the Inland Sea region.

My family has done a lot of biking in Japan, and our previous experience with so-called “cycling routes” hasn’t been great. Riding surfaces are often poor, signs for cyclists are irregular and bike paths tend to peter out and leave you stranded. So the Shimanami Kaido was a pleasant surprise, impressing us with “bicycles only” graded approaches for the bridges so the climb isn’t so steep, better-than-average road surfaces, shaded rest spots and clear directional signs along the entire route. Even if you don’t read Japanese, you could follow the green “bike mark” signs.

The road for cars is 60-km long, but cyclists get a more meandering 80-km route with a fair bit of up and down, particularly at the bridges. Strong cyclists could make the trip from Honshu to Shikoku in a day as my husband did as he was in a rush to get back to Tokyo. But there is so much to see and do along the way that I’d recommend taking at least two days, as the kids and I did.

In the Edo Period, the Inland Sea was one of the busiest transport routes in Japan, used for shipping goods to and from Kansai and as the fastest route to Edo from many parts of Western Japan. There are dozens of small museums and points of historical significance along the Shimanami Kaido, including Japan’s only naval castle, on Innoshima, and an exhibit about the Edo Period salt trade on the island of Setoda. The route also offers pick-your-own fruit farms, famous flower spots and boating and fishing facilities.

The views are spectacular, particularly from each of the bridges, which are built high above the water to allow ocean-going boats to pass under. If you can’t bring your own bikes, rentals are available at 15 depots along the way. To rent a bike costs 500 yen per day for adults and 300 yen for children, plus a 1,000 yen deposit which is forfeited if the bike is returned to a different location. The flexible drop-off policy means you can cycle part of the way and continue on by public transportation (there are ferries and frequent buses), a real bonus if exhaustion sets in or the weather turns foul. Most of the depots offer a range of sizes and styles, including motor-assisted cycles (which cost extra and must be returned to the point at which they were rented) and bikes with child seats.

We started from Onomichi, and early, because the bike depots don’t take reservations and we needed to nab bikes big enough for our tall, long-legged frames. We arrived at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning, just in time to get the last bikes to fit us. Each bicycle had a light and a lock, but no luggage racks or basket, which meant we had to carry our overnight necessities in backpacks the whole way. Good thing we packed light.

On the first day, we biked about 50 km, across Mukaijima, Innoshima and Setoda, to the big island of Oomishima. The atmosphere en route was jovial. Every cyclist we passed greeted us with a cheerful “Konnichiwa!” and local children shouted out encouragement (“Ganbare!”). My children loved the unexpected sight, in such an out-of-the-way location, of huge ships under construction in bustling shipyards, while adults will appreciate the opportunity to observe the various changes in traditional architecture from island to island.

For our overnight lodging, I had booked us in Oomishima Furusato Ikoi no Ie, an old wooden schoolhouse converted into a minshuku (guest house). Two years ago I wrote an article about the ways in which municipalities have recycled unused schools because of declining enrollment due to the low birth rate. While it was fun for me to visit one of the examples I had researched, its location far off the bike road added 15 km of tough climbing at the end of an already long day. Still, it was a beautiful location with a private beach and barbecue facilities.

On the second day, we started out after breakfast and enjoyed great weather the entire way. It took us most of the morning to get back to the cycling road and across Hakata Island, and we stopped at a little supermarket on the next island over, Oshima, to get bento for lunch. The stretch from there to the last bridge (about 10 km) was the only time we did a lot of riding next to traffic, but the bridge crossing itself was one of the highlights of the entire trip. The Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge is 6.2-km long, and offers fabulous views of the Inland Sea. We stopped twice along the bridge to watch the boats and the emerald-green waters churning far below.

For families with small children, I recommend a less ambitious itinerary, doing only part of the ride by bicycle and using alternate transportation for the rest of the way. The youngest in our party was an active 11-year-old, and there were times when I think we pushed him pretty much to the limit of his endurance.

If we were to do the trip again — and we’re tempted — I’d set an easier pace so we could stop more along the way. We would have liked more time in Onomichi, a charming hilly town with lots of temples and shrines, and a little castle. It’s also a destination for film buffs. The recent movie “Otokotachi no Yamato” — starring Takashi Sorimachi — was filmed there, and you can tour the locations where the movie was shot, such as an outdoor mock-up of a battleship. And I’m still regretting that we didn’t stop at that stand that was offering soft ice cream made from hassaku, a citrus fruit we saw growing all along the ride.

All the more reason to roll that way again.