The Shimanami Kaido: Japan's Greatest Cycling Adventure!
Japan's Seto Inland Sea is home to more than just year-round warm weather, gorgeous beaches, and scenic islands. It also boasts Japan's most famous cycling trail—the Shimanami Kaido! Crossing over six small islands connecting Honshu and Shikoku, bikers of all abilities are treated to stunning scenery as they make their way across bridges, mountain ridges, and sub-tropical forests. If you enjoy adventure traveling, or merely want to see a fresh side of Japan, the Shimanami Kaido is an unmissable experience!
Mar 15 2021 (Jun 24 2022)
Introduction - What Is the Shimanami Kaido?
Spanning six islands across the Seto Inland Sea, the Shimanami Kaido, also known as the Nishiseto Expressway, is one of Japan’s most memorable experiences. 70 kilometers of pavement and 6 bridges close the gap between the city of Onomichi on Honshu (the largest of Japan's four main islands) and Imabari on Shikoku (the smallest of the main islands). While the highway is itself a scenic drive, what truly makes the Shimanami Kaido shine is its attached cycling course. Shadowing the highway, but still taking an independent route of its own, the cycling course takes riders up through the mountain ridges and across several large bridge spans before eventually ending on the opposite side of the sea. What began initially as a highway construction project in the late 1990s has become one of Japan’s most interesting and unique experiences.
The Cycle Path
At 70 kilometers long, the cycling path is one of, if not the most, scenic biking trips you can take in Japan. Built entirely with cycling in mind, it winds up over the mountains of the islands, shuttling bikers through forests and beaches while taking them over six awe-inspiring spans of sea. As it is designed for cyclists, the majority of the path is the exclusive domain of bicycles. At some portions, and depending on the route you take, it might spill onto roadways, but for the most part, it will be just you and fellow bikers.
You can start at either end of the road, from Onomichi in Hiroshima, or from Imabari in Ehime. However, most people elect to start in Onomichi and make their way south, due to easy access from Hiroshima/Kansai/Kanto.
There are myriad routes you can take throughout the islands, and in fact, exploring at least one or two islands is encouraged! That being said, if you want to take the most basic route, the planners of the Shimanami Kaido have marked it with a blue line on the road. All you have to do is follow the blue line and you’ll make it across all six islands without much difficulty.
If you want to explore, all the islands offer alternative/extra routes you can easily take that branch off from the blue line. These routes often involve circling the islands or dropping by various small towns and villages. Some of these may be more difficult than simply taking the blue route, as they’ll tackle hills or mountains that would otherwise be bypassed. However, the opportunity to explore is boundless, and you’ll be gliding across beaches, through forests, and past beautiful little Japanese villages that you would otherwise miss on the main route.
If you start in Onomichi and take the main route, you’ll come across the islands in this order: Mukaishima → Innoshima → Kuchijima → Omishima → Hakatajima → Oshima. Starting in Imabari will have you doing the opposite. There are five other nearby islands that also have cycling routes, however, you'll need to take ferries to reach them.
Difficulty of the Routes
Since the route was designed for bicycles, you'll find that it is very comfortable to ride. The grading of slopes and the sharpness of turns were all built to be easily conquerable by everyone, from the enthusiast to the casual rider. Athough you may spot professional bikers breaking out their road bikes and spandex, you are just as likely to see families riding classic mamachari (single-speed bicycles with attached shopping basket) leisurely completing it as well.
Of course, not all the routes are designed equally. The blue route, being the recommended course, is the easiest. Going off the route may entail more difficult terrain or being forced onto roads with cars. If you’re not a professional or are hoping to complete the route in a day or two, it is usually best to stick with the blue route.
On the blue route, the most difficult sections are those on Oshima, near Imabari. The island is quite mountainous, with a center ridgeline that needs to be crested. Whereas most of the other islands will only have one big slope to ride up (to the bridge to cross over to the next island), Oshima has two, one 70-meter climb for the next bridge and one 60-meter climb over the mountains in the center. The rest of the islands, going north from Oshima decrease in difficulty, with slopes becoming shorter and less steep.
How Long Does It Take?
The route is completely doable in a single day for those who are determined. For more casual riders, though, a single day may be more of a challenge. The route length combined with the many slopes can easily wear down even the fittest person if they’re not used to long bicycle rides.
Therefore, many people opt for a two or possibly three-day ride, lodging overnight along the way. This not only breaks up the route, making it easier to tackle day-by-day, but also greatly expands the amount of time you can spend exploring. Those who opt to spend an extra day or two can easily detour off the blue line and visit the many different sights and scenes located amongst the islands. If you want a slower, easier, or more adventurous experience, a two or three-day trip might be the way to go.
Due to the popularity of breaking the ride up into multiple days, many different guesthouses dot the islands. Most are well prepared for bikers and make special accommodations for bicycles, rented or brought. You can even send luggage ahead, so that by the time you drop in, everything will be ready for you to relax in the evening.
Most people don’t come to the Shimanami Kaido with their own bicycle. Instead, various bicycle rental stores can be found in Onomichi, Imabari, and dotted across the islands along the route. Most of these shops will offer a variety of different bicycles to choose from. Basic bikes, such as cross bikes and city bikes are offered for about 1,000 yen per day. Tandem bikes and electric bikes are also available for slightly higher prices. For those who want to ride in a bit more style, or prefer the higher quality and lightweight frame of a road bike, expect prices between 5,000 yen and 10,000 yen per day.
As the rental shops are placed strategically along the route, this also means you don’t necessarily have to finish the whole course. You can easily return your bicycle to any of the many rental shops (provided they are part of the same chain you rented from). From there, buses and ferries can take you back to either Imabari or Onomichi, depending on where you want to go.
The Islands: What to Do, and Where to Stop
Each of the islands along the Shimanami Kaido are worthy of a special visit. Biking through them nets you the opportunity to visit dozens of different tourist sites while also enjoying the fantastic coastal scenery. Here, we will detail the islands in order, going south from Onomichi to Imabari.
The starting/ending point of the Shimanami Kaido, Mukaishima offers a 20-kilometer detour loop for those who want to jump off the blue line and explore a bit. Going through the center of the island, a more challenging ride, brings you through Mukaishima’s orchid cultivation center, where over a thousand different types of flowers are grown. Climb up Mount Takami (a very difficult ride!) for a fantastic view of the island and the Seto Inland Sea, or make your way to Tachibana and enjoy the beaches and shrines of the southern shore. There you can also find various small cafes and bakeries that cater to bikers and locals alike.
The blue route only covers about 8 kilometers on Innoshima island, taking riders across the north and western shores before crossing over a small bridge to Ikuchijima. Staying on the blue route, you will come across Shimanami Beach and Innoshimaohashi Memorial Park, a seaside area that serves as both a rest stop and a scenic view. Visit the Buddhist Temple in the park, or take a stroll out to the Ohamasaki Lighthouse, which has fantastic views of neighboring Mukaishima and Iwashishima. For those who want to explore, Innoshima offers 40 extra kilometers of routes across the island. Visit the flower center just below Mount Shirataki, climb the center of the island to a reimagined pirate fortress, or ride on down to the Habu shopping area to enjoy some of the island’s famously delicious "okonomiyaki" (savory pancakes).
The main route on Ikuchijima takes you along the northern shore of the island, and also happens to pass through a majority of the island’s tourist spots. Arriving in the small town of Setoda, you can drop by the Hirayama Museum of Art, which is right off the main shopping street in town.
Kosanji Temple, commissioned in the 1930s by a wealthy businessman, is full of interesting and unique Buddhist artwork and statues, including a long cave filled with statues that is said to represent the Buddhist idea of hell. Behind the temple, ascend to the Heights of Eternal Hope for the Future, a large marble artwork created by Japanese sculptor Kazuto Kuetani and made entirely out of imported Italian marble.
Alternatively, relax in Choonzan Park. Resting on top of a hill near the town, you are presented with a great view of the Kojoji Temple pagoda (which is covered entirely in red lacquer paint), along with the town and the sea. If you decide to venture off the main route, the southern path on the island has fewer tourist spots and is a more quiet, scenic trip.
Although Omishima is the largest island, it has one of the shortest routes. The recommended blue line lasts a mere 5 kilometers of the possible 45 kilometer ‘Island Explorer’ route on offer. Remaining on the main route, you can visit the massive roadside station at Tatara Shimanami Park. Stop by the multitude of stores, restaurants, and shops as you take a break from biking.
If you choose to venture off the blue route, you will be able to visit many of the island’s more hidden scenic spots. Go north along the coast to Sakari, where a ferry can take you to the "rabbit island" of Okunoshima, which, you guessed it, is full of rabbits. Circling north, ride past the beautiful sprawling citrus orchards of the northern shore. Cutting through the center of the island will have you taking on hillier and more challenging terrain, but it will also allow you to stop by Oyamazumi Shrine, which contains a treasure hall and a fantastic collection of samurai arms and armor. Going further west, don’t miss out on the eye-catching Toyo Ito Museum of Architecture, showcasing the famous architect’s works; or the hillside Tokoro Museum, designed by the same architect and presenting a thought-provoking mix of modern art, landscapes, and architecture.
Like Omishima, Hakatajima is largely ignored by the blue line, with just a short jaunt of its western shore being included on the route. On the blue line, you can stop in the small seaside town to enjoy its speciality: salted vanilla ice cream. Then, head to the beach and feed the dolphins at the Dolphin Park.
Going off the trail won't bring you to as many tourist sites as the other islands, but the lack of spots is made up for by the fantastic scenery and views along the way. Dazzling beaches, seaside cliffs, and giant salt ponds (salt is a local speciality) make up the nature-filled detour of Hakatajima. Don’t miss the "Funaori no Seto" (Broken Ship Strait), where the strong currents are visible from the seaside path!
Unlike the other islands, the main route on Oshima largely plows through the center, where the challenge comes from climbing the island’s spine. Taking this route will bring you through several different towns with a variety of family restaurants and chain stores, along with various bouts of forest and nature.
Alternative routes include the much longer shore path along the northern and western edges of the island, which offer a similar challenge to the center, but with added scenic views of rocky cliff faces and sandy beaches. Oshima’s reward, of course, is the Kurushima Bridge, which offers a dazzling 4-kilometer ride across the longest stretch of water in the island chain, ending at the city of Imabari in Shikoku.
Often small, these destinations don’t usually have any unique tourist attractions, but rather offer scenic loops and beautiful unspoilt nature.
Connected via bridge from the western coast of Mukaishima, Iwashijima is a short detour with plenty of small scenic spots. Back roads with little traffic offer a pleasant ride through citrus orchards and local fishing spots. Make sure to drop by Itsukushima Shrine, the smaller cousin to the famous shrine on Hiroshima's Miyajima.
Yumeshima Kaido: Ikinajima, Yugejima, Iwagijima, and Sashima
These four islands form a small group off the southern coast of Innoshima. While accessable only by ferry, a route called the Yumeshima Kaido can easily take you through all the islands without much difficulty. Yugejima is the largest and has a great swimming beach as well as several guesthouses that make it an excellent spot to spend the night. During springtime, you won't want to miss the Iwagijima, as it has some gorgeous cherry blossoms along with a great observatory.
Takaneshima sits off the main town on Ikuchijima, connected via bridge. You can circle the island on the coast with only minor diversions through the mountain forests of the interior. Devoid of heavy traffic, it is guaranteed to be a peaceful and tranquil ride.
Don't Forget to Explore the Starting and Ending Cities!
Now that you’ve completed your bike ride across the Seto Inland Sea, you’re in the perfect position to explore either Onomichi or Imabari as well!
On the northern end, the most famous site in Onomichi is the Temple Walk, which is a 2.5-kilometer path through the city’s central park. It is called the Temple Walk because there are 25 temples along the way, many more than other cities of a similar size.
Imabari in the south hosts the quirky Towel Museum, as the city is famed across Japan for the quality of its super absorbent and soft towels and their associated art. Imabari is also home to a replica castle and museum full of old samurai weapons and armor.
Also nearby the Shimanami Kaido is Hiroshima City, which is just a short train ride away from Onomichi to the west, as well as other scenic spots in Shikoku to the south or east of Imabari. Whichever way you choose, there’s plenty to do to accompany the fantastic bike trip across the Shimanami Kaido.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.