The Shimanami Kaido: Japan's Best Cycling Adventure!
Japan's Seto Inland Sea is home to more than just year-round warm weather, gorgeous beaches, and scenic islands. It also contains Japan's longest cycling trail—the Shimanami Kaido! Crossing over six small islands in a chain connecting the main Japanese islands of Honshu and Shikoku, bikers of all abilities are treated to stunning scenery as they make their way across five awe-inspiring spans of water, over ancient mountain ridges, and through teeming sub-tropical forests. If you enjoy adventure traveling, or merely want to see a fresh side of Japan, the Shimanami Kaido presents one of Japan's most unique attractions and is a one-of-a-kind experience.
Mar 15 2021 (Sep 03 2021)
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. 60 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 across the six islands of the Shimanami Kaido, 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 60 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 before 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.
With no cars around, very little gets in the way of taking in the scenery.
You can start at either end of the path, from Onomichi in Hiroshima, or from Imabari in Shikoku. However, most people elect to start in Onomichi and make their way south, due to easy access from Hiroshima/Kansai/Kanto. However, it is actually slightly easier to start in Shikoku and work your way north. The way the wind blows across the Seto Inland Sea is largely from the south-west direction, which means it’ll be at your back if you ride north while you’ll have to fight it riding south. This isn’t a big issue normally, but it helps when tackling some of the more challenging hills.
There are myriad routes you can take across the islands, and in fact, exploring each island 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 islands that are also accessible by bike from the route: Iwashijima, Takaneshima, Yugeshima, Ikinashima, and Iwagishima. Each of these will require branching off the blue route to reach, however.
Difficulty of the Routes
The route was built with cyclists in mind, but that doesn’t mean you need to be a professional to complete the 60-kilometer course—Far from it. 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. To highlight this point, although you may see professional bikers breaking out their road bikes and spandex to cruise through the Shimanami Kaido in a few hours, you are also just as likely (if not more so) 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 and made to be doable by everyone. 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 just 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. Professional bikers should have no difficulty with the 60-kilometer price tag and can easily zip their way across the islands. For more casual riders, though, a single day may be more of a challenge than a goal. 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. Whereas people who want to finish in one day may zip through the main route, taking in the scenery along the way, 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 adventuring 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 for the evening (and in return freeing up that heavy load from your back!)
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 1000 yen per day. Tandem bikes and electric bikes are also available for slightly higher prices of 1300 yen and 1600 yen respectively. 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 5000 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. Say half the route is enough biking for you; you can easily return your bicycle to any of the many rental shops (provided they are part of the same shop chain you rented from). From there, there are buses and ferries that 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 nautical scenery. Here, we will detail the islands in order, going south from Onomichi to Imabari.
The technical starting/ending point of the Shimanami Kaido (although you could bike over the bridge from Onomichi to Mukaishima, it isn’t dedicated to bicycles and most people will take “Japan’s shortest ferry ride” over instead), 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 Ikuchi. 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 Kokoji Temple pagoda (which is covered entirely in red lacquer) 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 kilometers the island has to offer. Staying on the 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 go off the blue route, you will be able to visit many of the island’s numerous scenic spots.
Go north along the coast to Sakari, where a ferry can take you to rabbit island, which, as its name suggests, 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 you 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 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 and then go to the beach and feed the dolphins at the Hakatajima dolphin farm.
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 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!
The longest part of the route, as well as the toughest, is on the island of Oshima. The main route goes largely through the center of the island, 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 long ride across the longest stretch of water in the island chain, ending in Imabari in Shikoku.
These islands are off the main route and exist only as extensions of the explorer routes you can take on the other islands. Often small, these destinations don’t usually have a tourist attraction, but rather offer scenic loops and beautiful unspoilt nature.
Off the western coast of Mukaishima, Iwashijima is a short detour with plenty of small sites. 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 shine on Hiroshima's Miyajima.
Ikinajima, Yugejima, and Iwagijima
These three islands form a small group off the southern coast of Innoshima. A short route can easily take you through all three of the islands without much difficulty. Yugejima is the largest of the three islands 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 as well as a great observatory.
The largest of the side islands, Takaneshima sits off the main town on Ikuchijima. A gorgeous ride, circle the island on the coast with only minor diversions through the mountain forests of the interior. It is guaranteed to be a peaceful and tranquil ride, devoid of other bikers or heavy traffic.
Now that you’ve completed your stunning bike ride across the Seto Inland Sea, you’re in the perfect position to explore either Onomichi or Imabari as well! While you rest and recover from your 60-kilometer (or more!) journey, there’s no better time to see what each city and its surrounding area has to offer.
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, a density unmatched by other cities of Onomichi’s size.
Imabari in the south offers a 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 that is 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 and wholly-unique bike trip across the Shimanami Kaido.
Title Image: Rachin Mapanya / Shutterstock
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.