I've always wanted to cycle the inland sea of Japan. A true archipelago, the sea between Honshu and Shikoku is dotted with islands, each with a unique character. The opportunity came up to take some time off work, so with a typhoon bearing down on me, I took advantage of a brief two-day window of fine weather to undertake an ambitious cycling and hiking trip along arguably the most beautiful cycling route Japan has to offer, the Shimanami Kaido (しまなみ海道.)
Setting out from the humble seaside town of Onomichi I found it impossible to comprehend the scale of the journey ahead. The strait between Honshu and Mukaishima, the first island, is so narrow that it feels you can reach out and touch the land on the other side. The ferry ride across took about 3 minutes, then I joined the official route marked by a blue line which would guide me all the way to Imabari, about 70 kilometers away.
It didn't take long to fall into a steady rhythm. The route was well marked and flat, and the inland road across the first island flew by. There were few other cyclists on the road, and only the occasional vehicle. The sky opened up above, deepening to a beautiful cerulean blue as I approached the coast, and my first hike of the trip.
Only one thing stood in my way.
A small landslide had taken out the coast road, resulting in a diversion up a deceptively steep incline, and past a vivid red bridge. I powered up the slope, pausing at the top to take in the view, feeling confident in my hill-climbing prowess.
Little did I know that this was merely an amuse bouche in the hilly feast that was to come.
That small obstacle overcome, I approached the first real bridge of the trip.
I had one important stop to make before tackling the bridge. The nearby Mt. Takami (高見山) is famous for its panoramic views of the Seto inland sea. I was determined to see those views, so I set my destination in Google Maps and took off in what Google thought was the right general direction, straight up a very steep and narrow path.
Never trust Google.
After cycling up a brutally steep incline, and speeding back down an equally steep descent, I was feeling a little disillusioned. After running into the subsequent dead end (no, Google, I can't turn right, that is someone's driveway!) I was well and truly fed up.
I turned my eyes to the map and charted my own course, going down a tiny backstreet before finally getting onto the correct road.
Sweating and with legs burning I pushed hard up the hill, however after a hundred metres or so I decided to dismount and hike the rest of the way, knowing that it was only going to get steeper towards the top.
On the climb up I ran into a cyclist on his way back down. I asked about the road ahead, however he had turned around before reaching the summit, having run into an unexpected downhill section. I hiked on, undaunted.
After a brief downhill, no longer than 100m, the road turned upwards once again, to start the long climb to the summit.
The road was steep and hot. I was glad to be on foot. One eager cyclist pushed past me as I hiked.
The sun beat down. My legs ached. Sweat poured off my brow as I approached the park at the peak.
The view from the summit instantly took my mind off my aching legs.
This was the first time I really appreciated the scale of the journey ahead of me. Over the coming 72 hours I would set foot on many of the islands here, stretching all the way to the distant hills of Shikoku, barely visible on the horizon.
The massive bridge I'd passed under scarcely an hour beforehand seemed like a toy nestled in the midst of this mountainous marine landscape.
After a quick snack it was time to get back on the road.
The hike back down to the bike went by in a flash, and before I knew it I was zooming effortlessly downhill towards the coast.
The shade of the lower-deck bike path was a welcome relief after the heat of the mountain and the long downhill run to the next island was a perfect opportunity to give the legs a rest.
Passing onto Innoshima I realized I had made a critical mistake during my pre-coffee daze earlier that morning. I had forgotten to apply sunscreen before setting off, and I was starting to resemble a tomato. This was not good. I made a beeline for the one convenience store on the island and proceeded to drown myself in the stuff. Better late than never!
It was also time for First Lunch. A roast beef sandwich and a refreshing nashi (Japanese pear) ice cream.
After lunch my route took me past some industrial workshops, where the clang of power hammers and the deep thumping of some enormous machine reverberated across the countryside. This part of Japan is home to an active shipbuilding industry, and it was interesting to see it up close as I rode by.
I also spotted these stern fellows, looking out of place on this (otherwise very Japanese) island:
Innoshima flew by, and soon I could see the second bridge of the trip in the distance, however my legs were crying out for a rest and my various devices were running low on battery charge. I was also well ahead of schedule, so I stopped in at a cafe below the bridge for a well-earned second lunch.
After a short uphill, across the bridge and yet another delightful downhill coast I had arrived on my final island of the day: Ikuchijima.
I was starting to feel some fatigue due to the stop-and-go for photos, so after settling into a good pace I resolved to make some good ground before stopping again. I achieved a solid 10km before arriving at the town of Setoda. I very nearly blew straight through without a pause, but I spotted a beautiful-looking building out of the corner of my eye, which turned out to be part of the Kousanji (耕三寺) temple complex.
I considered pushing on to my destination, but I had plenty of time and decided to check it out.
Kousanji is a Buddhist temple dedicated to mothers. It was commissioned by a local businessman who had made his fortune dealing in steel in Osaka. He had the temple constructed in his hometown and built an adjoining residence for his mother to live in.
Further into the temple grounds, there was a path up to a more modern monument at the top of the hill. Still a little worn out from the morning's hike and a full day of cycling, I took my time taking the meandering route to the brilliantly white marble plaza at the top of The Hill of Hope.
Completed in the year 2000, after 15 years of construction, the white landscape at the top of the hill gleams in the sunshine.
It is an otherworldly place.
I ran into some other visitors at the top of the hill and we talked about where I was from and what I was doing, the lone foreigner out here in the middle of the inland sea in the middle of the pandemic!
Finally, after admiring the view from the top of the hill it was time to head back down to the bike for the final leg to my accommodation for the night.
It was a largely uneventful ride along the coast to the hamlet of Setoda Sunset Beach. I pulled into the minshuku (Japanese inn) at about 4pm, worn out and ready for a soak in their onsen. As I rested my tired legs in the warm water a hawk drew lazy circles in the darkening sky overhead, which turned first yellow, then red, before finally fading to black.
- 40 km cycled
- 7 km hiked
- 2 bridges
- 3 islands