Setouchi Special: Bridge-linked isles hope for tourist blitz


Staff writer

ONOMICHI, Hiroshima Pref. — History was made in May in the Inland Sea when the Kurushima Suspension Bridge, linking Shikoku with Oshima Island, opened.

At 4,045 meters, the world’s first triple suspension bridge is the also the world’s longest of its type.

he Kurushima bridge formed the last link in a series of seven bridges that connect the port of Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture to Imabari in Ehime Prefecture. A “Seven Bridges Road” now makes it possible to drive the entire distance and avoid the ferry completely.

To commemorate completion of the Kurushima Kaikyo bridge and to promote tourism on the islands of the Inland Sea, the Hiroshima and Ehime Prefectural governments launched Shimanami Kaido ’99 on May 1. Running until mid-October, Shimanami-Kaido ’99 is a series of over 1,000 large events, from concerts to art exhibitions to marine sports festivals.

Most tours of the Inland Sea islands begin in the ancient port town of Onomichi, just west of Fukuyama. The town is noted for several Buddhist temples, the most popular of which is Senkoji. Dating to 806, Senkoji is one of the oldest temples in Japan, and remains a symbol for the city.

Senkoji is known for its Path of Literature. Over the years, many famous Japanese writers, artists and intellectuals lived or worked in Onomichi, giving it a reputation as one of the most important cultural centers west of Kyoto.

Within the grounds of Senkoji, a winding path takes you past stones engraved with the names and works of the poet Basho and the writer Fumiko Hayashi, among many others. There are also poems and tributes to artists, a well-known doctor and even a popular sumo wrestler.

Senkoji sits atop a hill overlooking Onomichi. From the Path of Literature, one can see across the narrow bay to Mukaishima.

Crossing the Onomichi bridge, the first of the 10 bridges that form the Shimanami Kaido, can be done by car, bicycle or on foot, although the last method is the only one that is free of charge.

And here is where the traveler can spend a lot of money very quickly. To cross all of the bridges between Onomichi and Imabari by car, stopping at each island along the way, will cost 5,250 yen.

Renting a bicycle gets you across all of the bridges for only 510 yen. However, the Hiroshima and Ehime governments failed to coordinate their efforts, and thus people who elect to rent a bicycle must pay one fee to rent the bike and another to drop it off at designated spots on each island along the way.

Renting one bicycle in Onomichi and taking it all the way across to Imabari is not allowed.

Those who bring their own bikes can avoid this bureaucratic hassle and just pay the basic 510 yen toll.

However you decide to get across the bridges, once on Mukaishima, a popular place to visit is the Mukaishima Orchid Center. More than 1,000 orchids are on display.

If you’re traveling by bicycle and have a lot of extra energy, make the trip up Mount Takami, which is beside the center, for a spectacular view of the surrounding area.

After crossing the Innoshima bridge, which connects Mukaishima and Innoshima islands, you can take a break at the Innoshima amenity park site.

Innoshima is most famous for being the home of the Murakami clan. Nearly 500 years ago, the clan controlled the narrow waterways around the island, charging tolls to all ships that had to pass through.

In addition, the Murakami navy traded independently with China and Korea, and Murakami pirates, known as “wako,” were notorious for plundering the coasts of both.

The history of the Murakami navy is explained at the Innoshima Pirates’ Museum. You can also visit the tombs of Murakami pirates and Konrenji Temple, both of which are nearby.

Afterward, those with a hearty appetite can try “suigun nabe,” or navy stew. This is actually a cold plate that includes several different kinds of sashimi, but is heavy on octopus and squid.

Innoshima is also known as a center for “mikan” mandarin orange production, and traveling throughout the island, one sees many mikan and “hassaku” (a fruit with a taste somewhere between a mikan and a grapefruit).

All sorts of local treats made with both fruits are available at Innoshima amenity park.

Crossing the Ikuchishima bridge brings you to the island of Ikuchishima.

The main town is Setoda, home to internationally acclaimed artist Ikuo Hirayama, and there is a museum dedicated to his life and works (see article below). Citrus Park Setoda, with its hectares of mikan trees, is on the western side of the island for those who can’t get enough fruit.

Also along the western side of Ikuchishima is the long Sunset Beach.

With a bike and jogging path running alongside, the view during twilight makes it a popular place for photographers and sketch artists. Several paintings by Ikuo Hirayama at the above-mentioned museum capture the view just as the sun sets.

By now, you’re about halfway between Onomichi and Imabari. Cross the Tatara bridge, which connects Ikuchishima with Omishima islands, and you’re in Ehime Prefecture.

The main attraction on Omishima Island is Oyamazumi Shrine. Housed within the shrine is one of Japan’s largest collections of ancient swords and armor.

Many are designated Important Cultural Properties. And several, including a suit of armor worn by warlord Minamoto Yoritomo at the beginning of the Kamakura Period (1185), are National Treasures.

Those of a more artistic than historical bent can visit the Murakami Calligraphy Museum, which contains more than 3,000 samples of Japanese calligraphy.

There is also the Omishima Art Museum, which contains modern “nihongaku” Japanese art and some Western paintings.

If you’ve had your fill of cultural events, Tatara Resort Park, on the eastern side of the island, is good place to relax and get something to eat, especially the local seafood delicacies. But the main attraction here is the floating pool.

Specially constructed for Shimanami Kaido ’99, the pool is modeled on the concept of the Dead Sea. Using the right balance of chemicals, visitors, no matter how heavy, will float. Even a 40-kg pound bowling ball won’t sink.

Heading south across the Omishima bridge brings you to Hakatajima island. Of the six islands that form the Shimanami Kaido, this is the least developed.

The Ehime Prefectural Government recently constructed a small park on the eastern side of the island in the hopes that it would be used by hikers and bikers.

From Hakatajima, it’s a short trip across the Hakata-Oshima bridge to Oshima Island. Of special note here is a rose museum that contains over 6,000 roses of more than 300 different varieties.

A few kilometers away, on the seaside looking toward Kurushima Suspension Bridge, is Iki Iki Kan, a restaurant and fish market. The seafood barbecue lunch includes fresh sea bream, clams and sashimi for about 3,000 yen. For dessert, try the rose-flavored ice cream.

Crossing Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge takes about five minutes by car and about 20 by bicycle. The bridge connects Oshima to the town of Imabari, on Shikoku proper. You’re now at the end of the Shimanami Kaido route.

Throughout the summer, Shimanami Kaido ’99 will feature a number of promotional events at different locations on all six islands.

Tourism officials in both Hiroshima and Ehime hope such events, including karaoke contests and performances by singers of note, as well as the building of rest stops and amusement park-entertainment complexes, will kick-start the tourist industry.

Some local residents, however, remain cautious and are concerned about a sudden influx of tourists.

“A few more people is a good idea. But we’re not really equipped to handle large crowds,” said Tomoko Ando, a resident of Omishima. “I don’t want to see the natural beauty of the islands spoiled.”

Mikan growers on Innoshima have already complained that, since the Kurushima bridge opened, tourists driving along the highway will occasionally stop and trespass on their orchards, and there have been reports of theft.

While the vast majority of tourists to Shimanami Kaido ’99 are Japanese, plans are also being made to attract more visitors from abroad.

On July 31 and Aug. 1, when the Bridge Walk across the newly opened Kurushima bridge takes place, officials say they especially want to attract non-Japanese participants.

Those who wish to participate have their choice of three different walks, all of which begin in Itoyama, Ehime Prefecture.

The first course is 6 km and crosses the Kurushima Suspension Bridge, finishing at the above-mentioned seafood market.

The second course is 11 km and finishes at the rose museum, while the third course is 20 km and takes visitors to the rose park and back to Itoyama.

On the night before, there will be a traditional arts ceremony at Imabari Castle. The event is open to all, but only 1,000 people will be allowed in. The registration fee is 1,000 yen.

For more information on the Bridge Walk, call (089) 927-7155 in Imabari. For general information on Shimanami Kaido ’99, call (0848) 22-1999 in Onomichi.