Tobishima Kaido - Exploring Japan’s Lesser-Known Rural Islands on Two Wheels
You’ve likely heard of the Shimanami Kaido, the 70-kilometer-long cycling route connecting Honshu and Shikoku, but did you know that the area is home to another cycling route, which is largely off the radar for most travelers? This is the Tobishima Kaido, and in this article we will dive into the geography, history, and culture of this off-the-beaten-track destination which we experienced on our great cycling adventure this summer!
Oct 06 2022 (Oct 24 2022)
What Is the Tobishima Kaido?
The Tobishima Kaido (とびしま海道) is a cycling route of roughly 31 kilometers connecting five large and two small islands to the Honshu mainland via a series of bridges. The islands, also collectively known as the Akinada Islands, are located in the Seto Inland Sea between Honshu and Shikoku and span two different prefectures - Ehime and Hiroshima. From Shikoku traveling towards Honshu, the names of the five bigger islands in order are Okamurajima, Osaki Shimojima, Toyoshima, Kami Kamagarijima, and Shimo Kamagarijima.
These islands are a haven for cyclists with long, flat stretches along the coast, exhilarating bridge crossings with sweeping vistas, and plenty of opportunities to detour through the hilly interiors.
As opposed to the well-known Shimanami Kaido, which has a wealth of attractions, eateries, and accommodations along the route, the Tobishima Kaido winds through rural farmlands and sleepy fishing villages, and other cyclists or tourists are far less common.
Cycling the Tobishima Kaido
The official definition of the Tobishima Kaido is the 31-kilometer route connecting Okamurajima with the entry point to the Akinada Bridge, marked with a blue line on the road. Most people in general good health and physical condition will be able to finish the route in a day. However, there are many options for detours, museum visits, and beach fun to be had on the way, and staying overnight is highly recommended to immerse yourself fully in slow-paced island life.
Although the blue line marks the official route and runs along either the north or south coast of each island, this is usually also the busiest road sections, and the locals recommend taking the opposite way around the islands when possible (so, when the blue line runs along the north coast, take the south road instead) unless there’s something special you’d like to see along the blue line - we can attest there’s hardly any traffic at all in other parts of the islands!
We also recommend avoiding visiting on a Tuesday, since most museums, attractions, and water activities are closed. It’s also worth noting that many eateries in Mitarai are only open on weekends, which is when domestic tourists tend to visit.
Accessing the Tobishima Kaido
While the Tobishima Kaido can be cycled in either direction, this article will focus on a 2-day/1-night itinerary starting from Okamurajima to the bike drop-off point in Nigata (part of Kure City in Hiroshima).
Okamurajima can be accessed by ferry or passenger boat from Imabari City, which happens to also be the starting/ending point for the Shimanami Kaido. Tickets can be bought directly at Imabari Port in the morning, and if you’re bringing your own bike, it’s possible to bring that onboard as well. Tickets are sold from a vending machine with a confusing number of buttons, but the friendly staff will be happy to help you choose the right one, so don’t hesitate to ask!
The passenger boat has only four departures a day, and the ride takes roughly an hour. The boat will stop at other islands on the way to the final destination of Okamurajima, so be careful not to get off too early.
Since the Tobishima Kaido is not as well-developed as the Shimanami Kaido, it’s also essential to arrange your bike rental in advance. This can be done by contacting the staff at Setouchi Cycling (English).
Passenger Boat and Ferry Information: Sekizen Ferry (Japanese)
*Accurate as of September, 2022
*Note that there are many exceptions to the times of the ferry, as it only operates on certain days. We recommend taking the passenger boat unless you’re able to confirm the latest schedule in advance.
This summer, a friend and I went on a month-long trip hiking and cycling through some of Japan’s lesser-visited areas. We ended up with amazing weather - temperatures were high, but cloudy days meant no scorching sun (although it made the scenery less photogenic). It also stayed dry on our cycling days, and the breeze was gentle and refreshing. However, I’d imagine that the cool, pleasant weather of spring or autumn would be better suited for this kind of trip, so make sure you check the weather in advance and plan accordingly.
After completing the well-known Shimanami Kaido cycling route, we ended up in Imabari, where we stayed the night. Early next morning we walked down to the port to board the passenger boat to Okamurajima, the starting point of our next cycling adventure: the Tobishima Kaido.
We hopped off the boat at Okamurajima Port together with a few locals. An enthusiastic employee from our bike rental company greeted us with our bikes, handed out maps, and let us in on a few good lunch spots while briefly explaining the route. He also kindly made sure our bikes were adjusted correctly before we set out. A few elderly women sent us some big smiles and waved as we biked past, but soon we had left the township behind and were on the open road.
As Okamurajima is a very small island, the 228-meter-long Okamura Bridge soon came into sight. Before crossing, we stopped at a nearby “enmusubi” spot - a deeply spiritual location believed to bring good luck in relationships, especially romantic ones. Little wooden placards with handwritten prayers were tied up on strings virtually everywhere, perfectly framing the view of the bridge and following islands.
As you cross the Okamura Bridge, you’ll also be crossing the prefectural border, leaving Ehime behind as you enter Hiroshima. The next two bridges - the Nakanoseto Bridge and the Heira Bridge - soon follow as you traverse two tiny islets before reaching the next island, Osaki Shimojima.
Other Places to Check Out on Okamurajima:
Instead of following the blue line to the right as you leave the Heira Bridge, make sure to turn left towards Mitarai - because this is one highlight you do not want to miss!
Mitarai flourished as a port town during the Edo period (1603-1868), when Japan was under “sakoku” - a strict state of isolation that lasted more than 250 years until 1853. During this time, trade ships traveling to and from Osaka would stop in Mitarai to restock and wait for favorable winds and tides, transforming the once sleepy town into a bustling seaside hub.
Naturally, captains, officers, and other crew needed food, drink, and entertainment during their wait, and many geisha teahouses and brothels sprung up in response. One of these former teahouses, Waka-Ebisuya, employed between 50 to 100 geisha at the time, and today you can still admire the beautiful VIP rooms of this incredibly well-preserved building.
Another thing that held high value in Mitarai was gossip. Influential “daimyo” (feudal lords) met in the smoky backrooms of brothels to discuss politics and more, and it is said that the uprising that eventually overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868 was planned and plotted in Mitarai.
Today, Mitarai is an eclectic mix of beautifully preserved buildings from the Edo, Meiji, Taisho, and Showa eras, and has been designated a Historical Preservation District of Hiroshima Prefecture.
Being fans of traditional Japanese architecture, several hours went by in a flash as we aimlessly wandered the narrow streets and alleyways. An interesting local tradition is the skinny bamboo vases hung on the outer walls of many houses, each with their own unique flower arrangement made by local residents.
In one corner of town, the ear-piercing shriek of cicadas drew our attention, leading us to the large stone torii gate of Tenmangu Shrine. This shrine also has its own unique claim to fame, as the legendary Sugawara no Michizane visited and washed his hands in the well behind the main shrine building after losing an important battle in 901. “Mitarai” means “washing hands” in Japanese, giving the town its name.
Interestingly, Tenmangu Shrine also has a profound connection to cycling. The world’s original “backpacker cyclist,” Harukichi Nakamura, who cycled around the world in the beginning of the 20th century, was born in Mitarai, and passionate cyclists make sure to pay their respects to him at Tenmangu Shrine before embarking on their own adventures.
We continued strolling through the maze-like streets to uncover more gems amongst the many buildings. This included the two-storey Showa Museum, jam-packed with retro toys, games, posters, candy, and other memorabilia from Japan’s nostalgic Showa era (1926-1989).
The residents of Mitarai are friendly and chatty. After buying some cute stamps featuring the pretty townscape at the local post office, we ended up enjoying a long conversation with one of the staff. He was eager to explain the historic importance of Mitarai, and how the town evolved into its current state. He showed us a street where the electricity cables were removed to recreate the original atmosphere, and told us how certain picturesque houses and streets are often used as locations for films and TV shows.
Another passerby joined the conversation, relaying the story of how he and his family moved away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo in favor of slow island life. They opened an enchanting English teahouse in town, serving several types of black tea as well as mouthwatering scones with marmalade, becoming a hit with tourists on the weekends. In recent years, these islands have seen an influx of young people seeking out a different lifestyle, but the general population is still very small.
Other Places to Check Out on Osaki Shimojima:
As you cycle the Tobishima Kaido, you’ll notice the many orchards, especially if you take a detour. These are citrus plantations, which played an essential role in the development and prosperity of the Akinada Islands.
From ancient times, native citrus fruits such as sudachi, kabosu, and yuzu were grown in this region in large amounts, and in 1898, the lemon was introduced to Osaki Shimojima by foreign traders. The island became the first place in Japan to grow lemons, and the locals built terraced orchards where the fruits thrived under Setouchi’s mild climate, abundant sunshine, and well-drained soil. Lemons are juicier and more acidic than native citrus fruits, and quickly became the preferred companion for seafood dishes, particularly white fish like sea bream which is popular in the Setouchi area. In addition, lemons are ready for harvest in the otherwise fruitless gap between January and May, complementing the growing season of native citrus fruits.
In 1905, the “wase mikan,” a type of tangerine, was also introduced to the islands and became hugely popular as a summertime snack in Japan. Combined with lemons, this sparked the beginning of a golden age of prosperity on the Akinada Islands.
However, following World War II, the demand for mikan and lemons decreased, and the general wealth dwindled. Many moved away, leaving the fishing villages and elderly population behind.
Thankfully, citrus fruits have again risen to become one of the region’s biggest draws, and the “Setouchi Lemon” is coveted throughout Japan. Many local citrus farmers have also started to grow their produce in organic or sustainable ways to promote a slower, healthier lifestyle while preserving the islands’ unique environment.
As we traveled the Tobishima Kaido, we were astonished by the number of unique citrus products available. They range from classics like cakes and cookies to intriguing specialties like lemon salt, salad dressings, and broth to dip your noodles in. Many made for great souvenirs, and it was hard to control our spending!
After crossing the 543-meter-long truss bridge to Toyoshima, we stopped at Shima Café Kitatani for lunch. This café is located in the island’s quiet port town, and we had a great view of the bridge from the counter seats by the window. The menu is small and, of course, citrus-centered. Everything sounded delicious, but in the end we went with their original citrus beef curry and pizza with local vegetables, both with a side of chilled corn cream soup, as well as their signature Prince Kiyomi orange juice.
The pizza was served with a drizzle of spicy citrus sauce - lemonesco - and the beef curry had an evident citrus flavor, making it one of the best we’ve ever had! The juice was equally unforgettable, with its distinctive kiyomi orange flavor making it unlike any juice we’ve tasted before.
The friendly lady serving our food was excited to hear of our trip and brought out a guestbook full of cute messages written by Japanese and international visitors over the years. We left a note and waved goodbye before getting back on our bikes, following the blue line along the northern coast towards the next island.
Other Places to Check Out on Toyoshima:
The impressive Toyoshima Bridge is 903 meters long, and was the last of the island bridges to open in 2008. Immediately after crossing you will enter a long, dark tunnel before once again emerging into the sunlight shining over Kami Kamagarijima, home to the most popular beach on the Tobishima Kaido: Kenminnohama Beach. Since it’s roughly halfway on the route, this is also the perfect place to stay if you’re planning an overnight trip like us.
Selected as one of Japan’s 100 Best Beaches, Kenminnohama Beach has a beautiful crescent shape with light yellow sand and calm waters. Apart from a refreshing swim, various activities such as kayaking and SUP are also available and can be booked at the beach hotel Kenminnohama Kagayaki no Yakata, where we stayed the night.
Kenminnohama Kagayaki no Yakata is a typical example of a classic Japanese beach resort, which has little to do with what many people picture when hearing the word “resort”. Japanese beach resorts are often housed in somewhat ugly buildings with a rather rundown atmosphere - and they don’t necessarily have a pool. They are, however, very popular with families and usually don’t lack anything when it comes to hospitality, food, or the activities on offer. On top of water activities, Kenminnohama Kagayaki no Yakata also has tennis courts, along with stargazing tours (in Japanese) at the astronomy tower on one end of the beach. Next door is also an onsen (hot spring) with several types of baths and views over the grounds, which is the perfect place to get clean and soothe your aching muscles after a sweaty bike ride.
Along with the many citrus products, the hotel shop’s “Amabito no Moshio” caught our eye. This translates to “seaweed salt of the sea people,” and is a signature product of the islands.
Located in one of the most narrow straits of the Seto Inland Sea, the Akinada Islands have been home to fishing communities since people first settled here. The sea surrounding the islands is nutrient-rich from the freshwater running into the ocean from the mountain ranges on Honshu and Shikoku. These nutrients get trapped by the many rocky islets and steep coastlines, creating the ideal environment for plankton, seagrass, and seaweed to grow, and the optimal conditions for fish and other seafood to thrive.
Since the largest natural seaweed bed in the Setouchi area is located just off the coast here, seaweed has long been harvested and used in local cooking, providing necessary nutrients and dietary fibers otherwise found in vegetables which cannot grow in island soil. “Amabito no Moshio” is one such way to prepare seaweed, made by boiling burnt seaweed ashes and seawater together. The result is a unique type of salt with a hint of sweetness and chock-full of minerals, vitamins, and savory “umami.”
Other Places to Check Out on Kami Kamagarijima:
After a good night’s sleep, we jumped back on our bikes and quickly covered the distance between the hotel and the next bridge, once again relishing sweeping ocean vistas along the south coast with Shikoku looming in the horizon. While still quiet, there was a bit more traffic here, a sure reminder that we were approaching the mainland.
The elegant 480-meter-long truss bridge connecting Kami Kamagarijima to its neighboring island of Shimo Kamagarijima opened in 1979, making it the first bridge of the Tobishima Kaido. Soon after crossing the bridge, we entered the pretty portside town of Sannose, whose main street is paved with flat rectangular cobblestones and lined with traditional buildings and masterfully shaped pine trees.
Sannose was an important port of call for influential Korean emissaries and their entourage on their way to the Japanese capital during the Edo period. These delegations and more are replicated through dioramas at the Shotoen Museum & Garden, which also exhibits many original documents including one designated as a UNESCO Memory of the World. These visits were so important to the development of Sannose that a reenactment of a Korean delegation’s arrival is carried out every year in October, with participants dressed in traditional Korean attire arriving by boat and walking up the harbor’s iconic stone steps.
Sannose is also home to several fascinating art galleries and museums, including the Rantokaku Art Museum, beautifully built from Japanese cedar and regularly hosting concerts, and the former teahouse Hakusetsuro, which has a unique rotating wall. The entire town emits a nostalgic vibe complemented by breathtaking ocean and island views, including great photo opportunities of both the Kamagari Bridge and Akinada Bridge.
After wandering the picturesque town of Sannose, we made one final push for the Akinada Bridge, a 1,175-meter-long suspension bridge (the longest of the bunch) connecting the Tobishima Kaido islands to the mainland. With a finishing dose of amazing views, we headed towards Nigata, the drop-off point for our bikes (or pick-up point, if traveling in the opposite direction). Although only a short ride, there’s lots of heavy traffic on the prefectural road, so be careful.
After dropping off the bikes, you can catch a train or bus to Hiroshima, or get off in Kure to board the ferry bound for Matsuyama. We did the latter and had a great few days admiring the ancient Matsuyama Castle and legendary Dogo Onsen before heading off to Kyushu for a week of hiking and hot springs.
Other Places to Check Out on Shimo Kamagarijima:
The Tobishima Kaido - A New Cycling Destination for Adventurous Travelers
While the Shimanami Kaido has gained fame with both Japanese and international travelers, the Tobishima Kaido remains largely unknown despite its huge potential as a cycling haven. The islands have an off-the-beaten-track vibe, showcasing a different side of Japan suited to active, adventurous travelers. From idyllic, rural landscapes of lush orchards and sleepy fishing villages to beautifully preserved traditional architecture tied deeply to history, along with plenty of welcoming locals, the Tobishima Kaido is one of Japan’s most underrated gems!
Top photo: Maya Iris Vesely Weisser
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.