Leaving Hiroshima behind, I begin the cycle ride towards Onomochi and the start of the Shimanami Kaido cycling route. I foolishly trust the GPS route without checking it for terrain or inclines first. Within an hour it’s taken me up a torturous few hills into the mountains. I decide to ignore it for now and ride some fun downhills roads back towards the coast. Sharing the trail with a lot of heavy trucks and cars through narrow passes and tunnels, I have a tough time of it through the afternoon. Eventually the dull urban buildup gives way to a view of the blue sea and the numerous islands on the horizon. I’ve reached the Seto Inland Sea.
Making it into Onomichi around dusk, I decide to make an early start. I hop a ferry towards Mukaishima, the first island in the Shimanami Kaido route. At sunset with blue skies, the route is very beautiful and the well-marked roads are a hint at the easy ride to come. Cycling in the last of the light, I head for a sheltered campsite in the north of Innoshima island. There’s a lovely view of the bay as trawlers steam past through the night. A cosy start to several nights of camping on the road.
The Shimanami Kaido, route across the Seto Inland Sea
The Shimanami Kaido is a series of roads and bridges leading over several islands in the Seto Inland Sea. Once a haven for Japanese pirates, these islands have many facilities, cafes and inns aimed at tourists and cyclists, and many of the cycle paths are smoothly paved and feature very gentle inclines. My plan is to cycle across this famous route down to northern Shikoku and along the coastal roads, before heading back to Okayama in Honshu. Leaving the campsite early the next morning, I start on a very easy ride southwards. Compared to many of the roads and places I’ve cycled along before, this really is very relaxed.
About 70km in total, the Shimanami Kaido is something that most tourists can complete in a day, whether they cycle regularly or not. There are a lot of western tourists along the route and I get chatting with a few. One is a Norwegian carpenter who has recently quit his job and is cycling from Osaka to Fukuoka and back, looping around the inland sea. He’s one of the few other cyclists fully loaded with panniers, carrying his life around with him. Most others are day tourists – you can hire bicycles at either end of the route, and there are trains running between both ends too.
Lemons and marble shrines
Visiting Ikuchi island, there are a couple of sightseeing spots here. The temple of Kousanji, constructed in 1936 by a successful businessman, seems like more of an tourist-trap art-piece than a true temple as it features many buildings modeled after Japan’s more famous temples. The entrance fee is pretty steep, especially to see the marble monument on the hill within the grounds. Named the Hill of Hope, there are abstract sculptures and steps made from Italian marble – which is also why there are numerous Italian-style restaurants, cafes and gelato stands nearby. The most famous thing about this area is that Japan’s best lemons and citrus fruit are grown here, so there are many souvenirs and monuments featuring lemons. I have some lemon-flavored ice cream before I continue on.
I meet a few more tourists on the way, stopping to chat and cycle together for a while. The roads are too easy, and I notice the daytrippers beginning to struggle the closer we get to Shikoku. The heat is rather intense, but at this point I’ve grown used to long days cycling in the sun. The final bridge across to Japan’s fourth largest island is long, but with amazing views across the inland sea. A lovely day.
Shikoku, Ehime and Kagawa
Arriving in Imabari on the north coast of Shikoku, I take a breather at the station and people-watch for a bit. Several couples and groups I’d overtaken throughout the day make it to the finish line one-by-one and catch their trains back to Honshu. The island of Shikoku isn’t travelled as much as Japan’s other main islands, so compared to the high number of tourists I’ve seen recently, it’s back to being the only westerner for miles around. I down a bowl of niku-udon then set off for my campsite. It’s a free site next to the beach with a view of the Seto Inland Sea, and the islands I’ve just crossed by bike.
Before setting up for the night, I cycle down the road to a bathhouse on a hill. For very little money, I get to enjoy two indoor baths, an outdoor bath (rotenburo), a sauna and a cold plunge pool. An older gentleman in the outdoor bath asks me where I’m from, when I’m leaving and what I think of Japan. I decide to be honest and say that, while there are some bad things, it’s mostly been a good experience and that Japan is a beautiful country. I ask him if he’s been abroad and he tells me he used to work on cargo ships, visiting Germany, France, Denmark and even the UK. Others wish me luck on my trip and I head back to the beach.
A dull cycle ride along the coast of the inland sea
The next day is a dull cycle ride along dull roads. The centre of Shikoku is defined by its tall mountain ranges and hidden valleys. It was here historically that many defeated clans and exiles hid themselves away, being so difficult to access. It’s for this reason that I’m sticking to these dull, flat roads along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea. At lunchtime I pull into a side street in a small town and order a sea bream dish, a specialty food of Ehime prefecture. As I cycle through the prefecture, I notice a lot of monks walking along the busy roads, on a pilgrimage through the area to visit the 88 Buddhist temples associated with Kūkai. In the afternoon, I pass through Shikokuchūō, an industrial town full of factories, before arriving in Kanonji in Kagawa prefecture.
The campsite I planned to stay at is packed full of families on such a hot weekend, so I quickly make other plans. There’s an off-season campsite at a public park a few miles away, and a public bath halfway there, so I go for a dip first. Unusually, this hot spring comes with a jacuzzi as well as a salt-sauna – as in you cover yourself in salt while you sweat it out, supposedly for anti-inflammatory reasons. There’s also a bath with a mild electric current running through it, which is a unique experience. The campsite is tucked away on a hill above a lake, and being so close to water, is crawling with mosquitos and other insects.
A thousand-step shrine and a landscape garden
After one of the worst nights of camping (even worse than being rained out), covered in bites and sweat, I pack up as soon as possible at dawn before heading off. Considering I’d only spent the past day travelling and doing little sightseeing, I make a decision to head for Kompirasan shrine, also known as Kotohiragu. Dedicated to seafaring and sailors, the shrine is located high on a hill, over a thousand stone steps up. On the way to the top, there’s a giant golden propeller fan as well as white horses kept in stables. After a forty minute hike, the view of the town from the veranda is worth the effort. A quick prayer for good luck, and a bowl of sanuki udon back at the start, and I start off for Takamatsu.
Although there’s a bridge from Marugame over to Okayama prefecture, you can’t cycle across it. I consider taking the bicycle on the train, but there’s a ferry from Takamatsu via Naoshima, so I opt for that instead. While waiting around in the city, I visit the traditional Japanese landscape gardens there, the Ritsurin Gardens. There are many beautiful ponds and trees, as well as many pavilions. I have a cup of green tea at the Kikugetsu-tei teahouse, with peaceful views of the surrounding gardens. After spending the day doing these cultural things, I hop aboard the ferry across the Seto Inland Sea and leave the island of Shikoku behind.