Cycling across the Seto
By Wesley Capdepon
Photos by Joshua Zimmerman
With spring approaching, what better way to bid winter sayonara than to get your heart pumping on a scenic bike ride across the beautiful Shimanami Kaido?
The Shimanami Kaido, or Shimanami Expressway, is a 77-kilometer bike path that connects Onomichi in Hiroshima-ken and Imabari in Ehime-ken. The Expressway is famous for its spacious bike path, record-setting bridges and scenic view of the Seto Inland Sea and surrounding inaka.
Two of the record-setting bridges are they Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge and the Tatara Bridge. The Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge connects Oshima Island to Shikoku island (where Imabari is located), and is the longest suspension bridge structure in the world at 4,015 meters in length. The Tatara Bridge is the second longest cable-stayed bridge in the world at 1,480 meters in length. It connects Ikuchijima Island to Ohmishima Island.
The Expressway is a fun challenge and can be completed by almost anyone willing to try. You don’t have to be a world-class cyclist or even in amazing physical condition. I know people whose daily exercise routine was walking or cycling to work and they finished the bike ride in around seven hours.
The toughest parts of the course are the winding slopes that slowly lead you up to each bridge. Though these ascents are difficult, the reward of riding 30 meters above the Inland Sea makes the effort worthwhile. This is especially true for the last suspension bridge, which is the longest in the world, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’ve finished at that point because you’ll still have several kilometers to Imabari.
You can take your own bike, if you can fit it into a bike bag for trains and buses, or you can rent a bike in Onomichi. It costs about ¥1,500 and the rental shop can be found by walking directly out of Onomichi station and taking a right once you reach the water. It’s approximately a five- to 10-minute walk.
Most people skip the first bridge because the road is very narrow and the view is not as great as the others. That means taking a ferry to Mukaijima, which is conveniently located directly in front of Onomichi station. The ferry costs about ¥200 and takes 15 minutes.
Once you get started you soon realize that getting lost is very difficult. There are plenty of clearly visible signs and the local Japanese are more than happy to help you get back on the right path.
A nice place to take a break is Setoda on Ikuchijima Island. This is the halfway point of the trip and there are several small places to shop and find some lunch. The shops don’t have the healthiest choices, though, so if you think some fruit or non-sodium/non-fried snacks would be better, I recommend taking some along.
There are bike service and rental shops on each island. When I went, someone got a flat tire on the first island and we stopped at a konbini to ask for help. Thirty minutes later a truck dropped off a new bike and left with the old one. It’s a good idea to hold on to your receipt in case something like this happens to you.
It’s also smart to carry ¥100 and ¥50 coins to pay for the tolls on each bridge. It’s fun to try to throw your toll fee into the machine without stopping but be careful not to crash.
For some, the best part of the trip is the end. You can quickly drop your bike off in Imabari and catch a train or bus to Matsuyama. Matsuyama is famous for Dogo Onsen, which is one of the most well-known onsen in Japan. It is mentioned in popular culture and literature, most famously showing up in Natsume Soseki’s novel “Botchan.” A dip in a famous onsen, dinner and a celebratory beer is a perfect way to end a 77-kilometer bike ride.
The JR train takes about an hour and 15 minutes from Imabari to Matsuyama. For directions, hours and rates, visit http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e5502.html.
Whenever you decide to leave Imabari or Matsuyama, there are buses returning to Onomichi. The Iyotetsu Express bus runs from Matsuyama to Onomichi and costs about ¥3,500 and takes two hours. The Setsouchi Express bus costs ¥2,200 and takes an hour and 40 minutes.
This is a perfect way to say goodbye to the waning winter and hours spent shivering in front of a space heater and hello to the approaching spring season for which Japan is so famous. Just bring your sunscreen and a positive attitude and you’ll be on your way to finishing one of the more famous bike rides in Japan.