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Seaside municipality turned cycling mecca

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Onomichi is a city on the southeastern coast of Hiroshima Prefecture, facing the Seto Inland Sea. Shrines, temples and many traditional buildings stand against the mountainside to the north of the city.

Having been designated as a Japan Heritage by the Agency for Cultural Affairs in 2015 and the port of Onomichi celebrating its 850th anniversary next year, Onomichi is a city rich with history and tradition.

“That is because both the public and private sectors have made consistent efforts to preserve the historic scenery and the vibrant atmosphere of the old merchant town over the years,” said Onomichi Mayor Yūkō Hiratani.

He took over efforts in 2007 after becoming mayor and has further promoted the effective use of the city’s history and culture as regional resources.

Various renovation projects have been taking place under the initiative of the public and private sectors, or through collaborations between the two. The city has supported a number of entrepreneurs starting new businesses using vacant stores. Overall, many new businesses have launched in Onomichi including a guesthouse, bakery, optician, stationery store, cafe and stuffed toy maker.

Onomichi U2 is a shopping, dining and accommodation complex housed in a renovated warehouse. It is operated by a private company and is gaining popularity as a hub for cyclists who travel via the Setouchi Shimanami Kaido, a 60-kilometer toll road with bike routes running from Onomichi and across six small islands to Imabari in Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku Island.

It has been a while since Onomichi, the start and end points of the Setouchi Shimanami Kaido, first came to be recognized as one of the best destinations for cyclists, but how it all started is less well-known.

2009 was the Setouchi Shimanami Kaido’s 10th anniversary. All of the city office staff, including the mayor himself, were brainstorming about how to celebrate the anniversary and promote the road.

During the session, one member murmured, “How about cycling?” Somehow, out of all the other ideas, this one left an impression on Hiratani and prompted him to hop on a bicycle with his wife and attempt the journey to Shikoku Island.

This is how a series of promotions featuring Onomichi and the Setouchi Shimanami Kaido as a mecca for cyclists were launched. “Nothing would have started if the staff member hadn’t mentioned cycling 10 years ago,” said Hiratani.

On Oct. 28, the event Cycling Shimanami 2018 took place on the Setouchi Shimanami Kaido, attracting about 7,200 people that included some 620 foreigners.

Hiratani and his wife rode electric bikes in this year’s event to promote them as eco-friendly and easy-to-use vehicles that make it possible for a wide array of generations to hit the road.

The privately operated Cycleship Lazuli debuted the same day, with secure bicycle storage being the passenger ferry’s main feature.

Other transportation services are also well-developed in Onomichi. Setouchi Seaplanes, offering sightseeing flights around the Seto Inland Sea, take off and land in the waters of Onomichi port that also serves as the home port of guntu, a luxury floating hotel.

The ongoing reconstruction of JR West’s Onomichi Station is expected to be another regional highlight once completed. The new station building will be launched in March 2019 as one of the Seto Inland area’s major stations. The Twilight Express Mizukaze, a luxury sleeper train that runs on certain JR lines, also stops at Onomichi Station.

“From the land to the islands, the sea and the sky — the great thing about Onomichi is everything in this compact area is connected,” said Hiratani.

Bringing people from outside the area is the key to preserving both the traditions and the nature of the region, as Hiratani pointed out that people from other areas are usually the ones to notice the value of the region’s existing resources.

Without incoming visitors or goods, the economy would shrink and life would grow dull, leaving little funds to invest in the effective use of regional resources. Mountains would become overgrown, the coastal environment ignored and beautiful scenery abandoned if nobody knew about or had interest in the area.

“Collaboration between the public and private sectors becomes a powerful force creating synergy in pursuing the same goals,” he said.

This series introduces municipalities and local companies promoting the beauty and excellence of deep Japan.