ONOMICHI, JAPAN - When you think of Japan you probably don’t think about cycling. But far from the busy streets of Tokyo is a small port town that is a haven for cyclists.
Onomichi is in the eastern Hiroshima Prefecture and is home to the Shimanami Kaido. Kaido literally means “sea road” and this route passes across the bridges and islands of the Seto Inland Sea, making it the only land connection — for cyclists and pedestrians — between Japan’s main island of Honshu and Shikoku.
The Shimanami Kaido is a cyclist’s dream. The route was first opened in 1999, so the bridges are modern and a breeze to ride across, and the views of the Seto Inland Sea and the islands’ small towns are breathtaking. The bicycle route is well marked and maintained, and even the ramps leading up to the bridges were built on small inclines with cyclists in mind. The route spans about 70 km between Onomichi City, in Hiroshima Prefecture, and Imabari City, in Ehime Prefecture.
Thousands of people come every year to experience the Shimanami Kaido. Some cyclists complete the trek in a day, but it is more comfortably enjoyed in two days with time for breaks and sightseeing. While some make the return trip by bicycle, many opt to make the return trip by bus or ferry.
In the fall, I had the pleasure of spending a day cycling the first half of the route with a group of 16 people. Our ride began with a short ferry ride over to Mukaishima Island, where we began, single file, breezing by houses, fields and farms. The sun shone brightly, lighting up the water and the gold and red painted trees. It was just warm enough to wear a T-shirt and there was a perfect crispness in the air that kept us cool.
While I’m normally more of a walker, the cycling made it possible to see more while still taking in all the sights, smells and sounds. I couldn’t stop smiling, shouting out konnichiwa as we passed locals.
Above: Cyclists from around the world show up in Japan and find the cycling experience most rewarding.
The first bridge took us over the sparkling sea to Innoshima Island, where we paused to indulge more of our senses at a small sweet shop, Hatsusaku-daifuku. Our guide introduced us to wagashi , a Japanese confectionary made from pillowy soft glutinous rice, stuffed with a local citrus fruit that tasted like a freshly-picked orange.
With this extra fuel on board, we continued our ride until we reached a sweet little roadside ramen restaurant called Mitsubachi, where plates of oranges and watermelons and sweet tea were waiting for us. The rest of the group enjoyed big bowls of ramen while the kitchen whipped up a special gluten-free meal of fried rice with eggs and ham for me.
Once again energized, we continued our ride by the sea. I breathed in heavily. The air in Japan is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. There is something so pure about it that I found myself feeling better than I ever had.
As I am not a seasoned cyclist, the many stops along the way eased the ride and made it more of an adventure. One such stop was at the Oyamazumi Shrine Treasury that was barely accessible until the Shimanami Kaido highway was built. We were greeted with a special purification ceremony that included tea and cold towels and then shown the treasury, which contains the largest collection of samurai armour in the country.
Despite the frequent stops, near the end of the ride everything started to hurt. Perhaps it was the jet leg or the challenging final hills, but, at one point, when I went to scratch my nose, head in the clouds, I tumbled off my bicycle. The young man behind me, a well-known actor from Thailand, helped me adjust my seat and made sure I was okay. I thanked him and, ignoring the aches and pains, kept going.
As the sun was beginning to set, we rode over another bridge to Ikuchijima Island and, just when I thought that I could go no further, the perfect antidote appeared — Setoda Dolce ice cream. Some people come here just to sample this treat made with Hakata salt, defined by its mildly salty taste with a slight hint of sweetness. The flavour results from traces of bittern, a component of the seawater used in the production process. Fun fact: Japanese dairy is also amazing! I dug into a small cup of milk and sea salt and chestnut ice cream and nearly swooned.
Left: Our writer takes a well deserved break. Right: She met many new friends while peddling around Japan.
Our food journey didn’t stop with ice cream. We continued our ride down small shopping streets, where we paused at Okatetsushouten for another treat — hot fish croquettes. The owner – a small elderly woman with a beautiful smile – requested a photo alone with me and made my day. In fact, everything we ate tasted heavenly and felt like added fuel. For the first time, I realized that sustained physical activity enhances the appetite and the palate. (I need to do more active vacations.)
At the end of the day, a small ferry arrived and, like a cradle, rocked us, under a beautiful sunset, all the way back to Onomichi and our hotel for a tempura dinner. With tired legs and a full belly, I fell into bed, feeling a well of gratitude for my most extraordinary day and the new friends I made along the way.
Where to Stay: Green Hill Hotel Onomichi. A great waterfront hotel with varied breakfast, small comfortable rooms, and very easy access to cycle routes. / Hotel Cycle. A beautiful modern hotel in a refurbished warehouse along the Onomichi channel overlooking cargo ships in the harbor and the islands of Setouchi. The hotel has its own cycle shop, bakery, restaurant, bar and store. / Tour East Holidays offers a full range of tour options to Japan. Go to www.toureast.com
for more information. / Air Canada offers direct flights from Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver to Japan.