Are you thinking about doing a bike tour of Japan? Cycling the Shimanami Kaido is probably one of the most scenic cycling routes in the world. It can be completed in a single day, or over a weekend. The entire route is about 70 kilometers, from Ehime prefecture on Shikoku to Onomichi in Hiroshima prefecture across the Inland Sea. The path is travelled via a series of impressive suspension bridges that connect a number of islands dotted throughout the sea, like giant stepping stones.
I’ll confess right now that I’m not really much of a cyclist. I drive everywhere in Japan. This is mostly because where I live it’s too hot and mountainous to cycle most of the time. I do enjoy cycling for leisure on occasion, but am very much a novice. However, I think that most people should be able to complete this route fairly comfortably. I saw whole families cycling together, and at one point I was even overtaken by a 9 year old boy!
Below is my guide on how to plan your own trip to cycle the Shimanami Kaido route. You can also download a handy printable guide here.
Before You Go – Things You Should Know
Personally I prefer to start the route from the Shikoku side, from Imabari in Ehime, finishing up in Onomichi in Hiroshima prefecture; although there is no reason why you couldn’t do it the other way around. However this article will focus mainly on my experience cycling from Shikoku. Whatever you decide, if you are renting a bicycle, be sure to start as early as possible as the queues for rental cycles build up quickly.
I would also like to add that the time of year you visit Japan will also have a huge impact on your cycling experience, with the autumn and spring months being the most pleasurable times of year to cycle. In summer the heat and humidity will make the experience very disagreeable, and the harsh winds of winter up on those bridges will chill you down to your bones.
Also, if you are someone who does not cycle often, I would recommend that you hire a mountain bike as it will make riding those ascents up to the bridges much easier. I initially opted for a Mama-Chari, a basic bicycle with a basket on the front, that many people in Japan own. However I had to switch to a mountain bike partway through the route because I was finding it to difficult to get up those hills on the first bike. I was pedaling furiously yet seemed to not be getting anywhere!
Getting Started – Where to Pick Up Your Rental Bike
If you are starting in Imabari, I recommend not picking up your bike at the terminals near Imabari station. Instead go to the Sunrise Itoyama terminal. The terminal at the Sunrise hotel is very close to the first bridge, but the cycle from Imabari city to the first bridge is not particularly nice. Usually the rental desk at the Sunrise hotel opens at 8am. As I mentioned, I would recommend you get there early, at least 30 minutes before is ideal. If you are not driving to Imabari I recommend to get a taxi from Imabari station to the hotel (around 2000 yen).
If you are starting the route in Onomichi, there are a couple of cycling terminals very close to Onomichi station. You will need to pick up your bike then hop on the ferry over to Mukaishima where the cycling route begins.
One of the great things about the Shimanami Kaido is that aside from the electric assisted bicycles that need to be dropped off at their original pick up point, you don’t have to drop off your bike where you hired it from. So even though I hired my bike at the Sunrise in Imabari, I was able to drop it off at the Onomichi terminal. I then stayed overnight in Onomichi and got the bus back to Imabari, before heading home to Kochi the next day. If you want to do the one way drop off you do need to mention it when you pick up your rental bike as there is an additional 1000 yen deposit that needs to be paid. You can find the pricing for rental bikes on the official Shimanami Kaido website.
Cycling the Route
Once you have picked up your rental bike it’s time to head off! Allow around 8-9 hours to cycle the whole route, to include rest stops and lunch along the way. It’s important to stay hydrated; you will pass many vending machines so there is no excuse not to! Also remember to take your camera as there will be so many photo opportunities. Cycle on the left side of the road and be aware that Japan has a zero tolerance approach to drink driving/cycling. The roads have markers along the entire route, so unless you’re not paying attention, you shouldn’t get lost.
If you are starting from Imabari, the ride to the first bridge is fairly easy. There is also a little observatory deck right before the bridge that I recommend taking a short detour to. One of the most fun parts of cycling the Shimanami Kaido is the downhill ride when you come off each bridge, on what my friend aptly named the “swirly funs”. These are the spiral paths that allow you to fly downhill with ease. This is sure to bring out your inner child!
After the first bridge I think that the ride to the second bridge is one of the most difficult. There’s a fairly long cycle along Oshima island and some less than enjoyable uphill parts. I may be remembering it to be more difficult than it really is though, as this is the section of the ride where I still had my cruddy bike.
I stopped for lunch after around four hours of cycling at a designated rest stop. The food wasn’t great to be honest, but there are also plenty of convenience stores around which have a variety of bento lunches you can buy. There may be some great restaurants along the route but I didn’t happen to see any that looked particularly inviting. If you know of any around the halfway mark please do let me know!
After lunch I swapped bikes and the rest of the route became much easier for me. Although it was still tiring at least I could manage the uphill parts without having to climb off my bike and walk.
There are six bridges you will cycle across altogether, and I found the last one to be the toughest. Maybe it was difficult because I was so tired by this stage, but once you make it up to the bridge the cycle path is actually really cool as it passes under the cars driving on the road above .
Approaching the End
As you descend the last bridge, you will need to follow the markers to the ferry port on Mukaishima island. I arrived here at around 5pm and watched the sunset as I waited to board the ferry. The ferries run every few minutes during the day so you shouldn’t have to wait around too long. The ferry operator is used to cyclists making the crossing so taking your bike on board is not a problem.
After around a five minute ferry crossing you will reach Onomichi in Hiroshima prefecture. It’s quite a small city but is well connected in terms of transport and even has its own stop on the Shinkansen line (bullet train). This is another reason why it’s good to cycle the route from Shikoku, as you can easily connect to other major Japanese cities once you reach the end.
Once you have made it to Onomichi, head left along the waterfront and after about 5 minutes you will come to the cycling terminal. Here you can drop off your bike and receive a cute certificate to announce that you have completed the route! If you are staying overnight in Onomichi, I recommend celebrating your hard work with dinner at the delicious Tranquillo Pizza restaurant.
Overnight Accommodation in Onomichi
Onomichi has a number of properties to suit various budgets. They do get filled up fairly quickly though so I would recommend booking ahead as far as possible. On the higher end of the scale is the trendy Hotel Cycle which even has a ride through food counter for cyclists! For those of you on a lower budget I can recommend the HTS Guesthouse, a friendly and affordable family owned hostel situated inside the shopping arcade.
From Onomichi you can either take a return bus to Imabari or travel onto Hiroshima or other Japanese cities.
Have you ever cycled the Shimanami Kaido? If you have some tips please leave them in the comments below!