Through the clouds of steam rising from the hotel’s hot spring, I can make out Jupiter — a tiny pinprick of light beaming over the twinkling black waters of the Seto Inland Sea. It’s easy to see why this hotel is called Bella Vista. Tucked into the hills outside the historic town of Onomichi, in Hiroshima Prefecture, it commands sublime views of the Inland Sea’s legend-filled labyrinth of misty islands. Meanwhile, in the onsen (hot spring), fresh sea breezes caress your skin as you boil yourself blissfully to a gooey jelly.
Tomorrow, my wife Angeles and I will be motoring across that sea, via the Shimanami Kaido, a spectacular 60-km road and bridge network connecting Japan’s main island of Honshu to the fourth- largest island, Shikoku. The route will take us from Onomichi through six smaller islands, like stepping-stones across the Inland Sea, before arriving way down in the city of Imabari (Ehime Prefecture).
But for tonight, it’s time for a close encounter with a Japanese delicacy — puffer fish, aka the second most poisonous vertebrate in the world. Happily, the hotel’s Sadenn Garden restaurant specializes in Italian-Japanese fusion, and serves the deadly little devil cooked to harmless, and exquisite, perfection, on a bed of tagliarini and rapeseed flowers.
The next day, the sight of dawn’s morning glory breaking over the islands tugs us from our bed. There is just enough time for breakfast in the hotel’s tatami-floored Japanese restaurant: a meal of eggs benedict with a variety of side dishes — including mushrooms in mikan (tangerine) sauce — made with local fruit, while we feast our bleary eyes on the stone lanterns and delicate blossoms in the garden outside the window. Then we’re off, down the hillside into the sun-dappled morning.
Onomichi is a delightful old port town, enriched by ancient temples and its literary history, so we linger for a languid hour or two before tackling the bridges. Onomichi is built on a hillside overlooking the sea, and the top of Senkoji Hill — 152 meters above the town — offers stunning panoramic views of town and sea. The ascent by ropeway is short, but breathtaking as we sail over the canopy of the pine-clad hillside.
From there, the steep, winding trail known as The Path of Literature leads back down into town. Along the way, dotted among the fragrant pines, noisy with cicadas, are 25 boulders inscribed with quotations from famous writers who’ve lived here for centuries, from haiku hermit Matsuo Basho to proto-feminist Fumiko Hayashi.
Halfway down the path is the vermillion-lacquered majesty of the Senkoji Temple. Established in 806, it’s one of Onomichi’s most iconic symbols and one of Japan’s oldest temples.
By the time we reach the bottom, we’re ready to sample another Onomichi icon: ramen. One of the most famous ramen shops is Tsutafuji, a tiny mom and pop waterfront bar near the JR station that’s been operating for more than 50 years. A quick peek behind the noren curtain reveals just 10 stools inside, clustered around the L-shaped bar. Consequently, there’s always a queue outside. Savvy customers bring manga to read and handheld Nintendo games for the kids, to pass the time.
Lacking such foresight, we check out another ramen hot spot, Shukaen, just around the corner, but the queue is even longer there, so we rejoin the line outside Tsutafuji. Fifteen minutes later we’re inside. The cook simply asks, in English, “large or small ramen?” In no time, we get a steaming bowlful of noodles, topped with generous slices of pork, in a piping hot pork-bone-and-fish broth.
Suitably fortified, it’s time to head for the islands. As soon as we’re across the Onomichi Strait and onto Mukaishima, we find ourselves in a dreamy realm of citrus groves, embosomed in the folds of mountains, the dark green foliage of the trees contrasting with the sapphire sea.
Citrus is big business here, from mikan tangerines, oranges and lemons to hybrid fruits, unique to these islands, like hassaku and anseikan (a cannonball-sized grapefruit). The town and district of Setoda, within Onomichi city limits, is Japan’s No. 1 producer of lemons, while Ehime Prefecture is known as the “Orchard of Japan.” There are even mikan trees adorning the roadside verges and citrus-related products abound too: hassaku cakes, mikan jams, fruity honey, sauces and juices.
“If you go to Setoda, you must try the lemon ice cream,” insisted the desk clerk at our hotel.
As we meander across the bridges (all seven of them), it’s hard to take my eyes off the head-spinning seascape of endless islands spreading out below us. With no traffic behind, I slow the car to a crawl to get a better look. There are inhabited islands, desert islands and islands which are no more than a tufty pine tree clinging to a rock. And all the while a procession of trawlers, tugs and speedboats put-puts to and fro. Van Morrison’s song “Sweet Thing” dances a jig through my head, that part where he sings “I shall watch the ferry boats and they’ll get high, on a bluer ocean against tomorrow’s sky.”
The bridges themselves are magnificent structures, rising out of the placid waters to tower above the somnolent scenery. One of them, Tatara, was the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world when it was built (now it’s the fifth longest). Its elegant 220-meter-high steel towers represent the folded wings of a crane. Further along the route is the 4,015-meter-long Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world. It took us more than five minutes to cross it.
The bridge network may have improved connections between the once-isolated island communities, but anytime we detour off the expressway we’re suddenly deep in the heart of rural Japan, surrounded by unbroken greenery, save for occasional clusters of houses dotted here and there. Little white-eye birds dart among the branches of the cherry trees, a kite swoops low to check us out, then wheels away again.
Yet, for a rural idyll, there’s a surprising amount of art and culture to enjoy too. Like the museum in Setoda devoted to native son and artist Ikuo Hirayama, famous for his Silk Road paintings. Also on Ikuchijima Island, just down the road from the museum, is the phantasmagorical Kosanji Temple, another must-see. Built in 1936 by Buddhist priest Koso Kosanji in memory of his mother, this wonderland of temples, pagodas and gorgeous gardens took more than thirty years to complete. Each building is modeled on famous temples from different eras in Kyoto, Nikko and elsewhere, so it’s like taking a stroll through Japanese history.
Although the Shimanami Kaido is an expressway, it has also been designed with the cyclist in mind. There are bike and pedestrian lanes the whole way, so you can quite literally walk (or roll) across the sea. Moreover, with 14 cycle rental terminals along the way, you can go at your own pace, taking as long as you like. If you get tired, just hand in your bike and hop on a bus.
More good news for cyclists is that, as of March 22 this year, Onomichi is home to Japan’s first hotel designed exclusively for cyclists: Hotel Cycle, just five minutes’ walk from the JR station. Hotel manager Katsunori Takahashi is a huge cycling enthusiast, and it shows — there are bike-racks in the reception area, you can park your bike in your room and the restaurant even has a cycle-through window.
Hotel Cycle is located in the Onomichi U2 building, a former maritime warehouse, which now also houses a bar, cafe, the heavenly Butti Bakery and the Shima Shop, specializing in a fine array of local produce like lemon comfiture and dried debera (five-spot flounder), an Onomichi delicacy. Taiwanese bike manufacturer Giant also have a store in U2, catering to cyclists’ every need: bikes, accessories, repairs.
The islands of the Shimanami Kaido are part of the Seto Inland Sea National Park, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, making it one of Japan’s three oldest national parks. To celebrate, the Setouchi-Shimanowa 2014 event will be organizing dozens of activities until October this year, which the organizers hope will “spread awareness of the charming Seto Inland Sea to the people in Japan and the world.” Celebrations culminate in a massive cycle marathon on Oct. 26 in which 8,000 people from around the globe will participate.
By the time we make it across the Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge to Imabari, where the Shimanami Kaido bridge road ends, the sun is slipping down and the islands are floating in a sea of mist. We pull into a rest area to savor the serenity of the moment — the sea breeze tugging at our hair as we contemplate the boats threading their way in and out of the islands, toward the open ocean beyond.
Getting there: Onomichi can be reached by Shinkansen (to Shin-Onomichi Station) or bus from both Tokyo and Osaka, or by ferry from Imabari. More information about Onomichi’s Bella Vista (www.bella-vista.jp) and Hotel Cycle (www.onomichi-u2.com) can be found online.