The Shimanami Kaidō: Experiencing the Allure of Japan’s Inland Sea (Video)
JapanIn videoGuide to Japan
A Cycling Holy Land that All Can Enjoy
The 60-kilometer-long Shimanami Kaidō, connecting the city of Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture on Japan’s largest main island of Honshū with Imabari City in Ehime Prefecture on its smallest main island of Shikoku, is one of the holy grails of bicycling in Japan, and also one that is remarkably accessible to all. “Shimanami Kaidō” is the route’s popular nickname, chosen through public competition, evoking the “kaidō” main walking routes that crisscrossed Japan in pre-modern days. The routes’ less colorful official name is the Western Seto Highway (Nishi Seto Jidōshadō). It is the westernmost of the three highway routes that now connect once-isolated Shikoku to Honshū over strings of islands and bridges.
With the exception of the New Onomichi Bridge, the very first bridge on the route as you prepare to put Honshū behind you, all of the connecting bridges were built from the start with extra lanes or paths (and in one case an entire extra level) that are all for bicycles, motor-assisted bicycles, and pedestrians only. This makes the Shimanami Kaidō the first bike path in Japan where you can actual pedal over ocean straits. The opportunity to wheel your way through the gorgeous scenery of the connected islands and high above the swirling waters of Japan’s spectacular Inland Sea has sent the trail’s popularity soaring, to the point that it is has been popularly dubbed by serious and casual cyclists alike the “Holy Land of Bicyclists.”
Best of all for the casual visitor, you do not even need a bike of your own to experience this remarkable yet accessible cycling adventure. At one of the branches of the publicly operated rental company Shimanami Rental Cycle, you can rent out and return bicycles at one of 13 different terminals along the route, including the individual islands. If you arrange your travel plan to allow pedaling some parts of the Kaidō and to do the rest by bus or ferryboat, even a touring novice can take on the Shimanami challenge with ease. Here we would like to introduce you to the bridges and islands along the trail, departing—as you would on your own two wheels—from the town of Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture on the Honshū side.
Lush Green Islands and Towering Bridges
New Onomichi Bridge
Mukaishima, the first island along the route when traveling from the Honshū side, is, exactly what its name means in Japanese: the “island on the other side.” Bicyclists are not allowed on the New Onomichi Bridge, so you will first need to take a ferryboat to the island. The ferry departs approximately every 10 minutes, and is only a five-minute voyage. This nautical start to the journey costs a very reasonable ¥100 for adults, with a small ¥10 surcharge for bicycles and “electric assist bicycles” with battery-powered electric engines for steeper grades.
Before hitting the pavement, however, enjoy a short stroll along the streets of Mukaishima itself, which still retains the nostalgic ambiance of Japan’s Shōwa Era (1926-89). We also recommend a quick detour to the small island of Iwashijima near the end of Mukaishima Bridge. The vermillion torii gate of the Shintō Itsukushima Shrine boldly plants its feet in the ocean waves themselves, offering you good fortune as you begin your journey.
Innoshima was once the stronghold of the famed Murakami Suigun “pirates,” who controlled much of the Inland Sea during Japan’s medieval of Warring Sates period (1467-1568). The waterborne forces of the Murakami even defeated the conquering warlord Oda Nobunaga when he tried to battle them at sea. Today it is a center for shipbuilding, and ship-launching ceremonies are thronged with visitors.
The Ōyama Shrine, built in 773, enshrines a guardian god of transportation venerated by the Murakami Suigun. Today it draws so many cyclists it has come to be better known by its nickname, the Bicycle Shrine. There is a rest area at the shrine set aside for cyclists, and you are even allowed to pray before the shrine with your bicycle at your side, so it is a “must stop” spot if you are doing the Shimanami on your own two wheels.
Ikuchijima is known as the birthplace of lemon cultivation in Japan, as well as a source of many other citruses, and the island’s Setoda produces more lemons than any other town in Japan. A five-minute ferry ride from the port community of Sunoe takes you to the neighboring island of Iwagijima. Iwagijima’s Sekizen mountain with its 3,000 cherry trees is the most famous spot for cherry-blossom viewing in all of Shikoku’s Ehime Prefecture.
Crossing the Tatara bridge, the Shimanami Kaidō now enters Ehime Prefecture. Ōmishima Island is known as “The Island of the Gods” for the Ōyamazumi Shrine, the head shrine of the more than 400 Mishima jinja shrines found across Japan. In the distant past the shrine was called Ōmishima, giving its name to the entire island. The temple is especially famous for its remarkable hitorizumō (one-man sumō) ceremony presented to the gods during the Otaue Matsuri, or “rice planting festival,” held on May 5 under the old calendar and the Nuibo Matsuri rice harvest festival held on September 9, also under the old calendar.
Pedal through the arc of the Ōmishima Bridge and you are on Hakatajima, the original home of Japan’s famous “Hakata salt.” Salt production had long been an important part of the island’s industry, but with the passing of the Act on Special Measures Concerning Modernization of Salt Production banning the production of salt directly from seawater in 1971, the island’s salt ponds were abandoned. The company that still produces Hakata salt today is Hakata Salt Co. on Ōmishima, and it is possible to tour their current plant there.
The coastline of Hakatajima is particularly beautiful. Do not miss popular spots like Sasagejima that can only be reached when low tide reveals a hidden path just below the water, or Okiura Beach with its kilometer of sandy beach.
Ōshima is famous as the source of the outstanding rock known as “Ōshima stone” used in sculptures and stonework. The view of the sun setting beyond the Kurushima straits from the island’s Kirōsan Observation Park at 307 meters above sea level is spectacular. Once you descend and cross that four-kilometer long span, you arrive in Imabari City on the main island of Shikoku, and the conclusion of your journey.
Kurushima Kaikyō Bridge
The Shimanami Kaidō, linking together a string of islands of the Inland Sea, each with their own unique attractions and allure. Every island you pedal through is rich with its own cultural traditions and natural beauty. As you dismount your bike on the other side of the last bridge and feel the island of Shikoku under your feet, you may find yourself savoring that same satisfaction you gain from traveling through a host of other distant lands.
Shimanami Japan rental bicycles
- Web: http://shimanami-cycle.or.jp/rental/english
- Open: Open year-round. Daily hours differ by terminal. Please check the company homepage for details.
- Rates: Cyclocross bicycle, city bicycle, other: ¥1,000 per day for adults, ¥300 per day for children 12 and under). Tandem bike (one day only): ¥1,200. Electric assist bicycle (one-day only): ¥1,500
- Guarantee*: ¥1,000 for adults, ¥500 for elementary school student and younger
* The guarantee fee will be refunded only if the bicycle is returned to the terminal where it was first rented, or to another terminal on the same island on which it was first rented.
* Tandem bicycles and electric assist bicycles are available for adults only. They may not be returned to other terminals along the route.
(Originally published in Japanese on March 31, 2018. Text by Kuroiwa Masakazu of 96BOX. Video by Fujii Kazuyuki of 96BOX.)