One of my biggest accomplishments on this Career Break trip to Japan was conquering the Shimanami Kaido, where I cycled a grand total of 76km over 2 days and across 5 islands in the Seto Inland Sea and lived to tell the tale. Alongside experiencing the Hanami season and attending the Setouchi Triennale arts festival, this was a major highlight of my 4 weeks in Japan.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am lazy. I think of it as “dislikes expending energy when I don’t have to” but I tend to avoid hardcore outdoorsy stuff like serious hiking and camping because all that work isn’t really my idea of a holiday! But the Shimanami Kaido is a pretty popular cycling route that is one of the things to do when you are in central Japan, so I put it down as one of things I definitely wanted to do.
If you are a cycling fan or just looking to explore the central Chugoku or Shikoku regions in Japan, here’s more to help you get planning for the ultimate cycling adventure.
- Route Planning
- Other Transport Options
- How Long does it take
- Bike Rental Options
- Luggage Forwarding
- Cycling Tips for the Amateur
Pre-trip route planning
The Shimanami Kaido connects the Chugoku and Shikoku regions across the Seto Inland sea via a link of various islands and bridges. It totals 76km and it can be covered in a day, but you don’t get much time to stop and look at stuff along the way. The route is pretty well travelled and there is a recommended 76km route marked out.
The two main towns it connects are Onomichi (Chugoku) and Imabari (Shikoku). Most people cycle North to South – from Onomichi to Imabari – which is what I did and will talk more about in this article, but you can cycle up the other direction as well.
There is a comprehensive English website which you can refer to for more information from the official sources. You can download this map or pick up a physical copy at the bike rental or tourism offices.
If all else fails, the recommended basic route is quite clearly marked out in blue on the roads, so you’ll find it hard to get lost as long as you follow the blue line! There are intermediate and advanced routes as well that deviate from the blue line but are easy to navigate via maps and road signs – these routes may require much longer distances or encounter more slopes.
My initial plan was a 2D1N journey:
- Day 1: Rent bike from Onomichi, cycle to Setoda Sunset Beach on Ikuchijima. Stay overnight at Setoda
- Day 2: Setoda on Ikuchijima to Imabari JR station, take train to next stop Matsuyama cycle
However, the weather reports seemed pretty insistent that the weather on the day of my cycling was going to be terrible – I had experienced a crazy downpour in Naoshima which would have been dreadful to cycle in, so what I ended up doing was a 3-day journey instead:
- Day 1: Rent bike from Onomichi, cycle to Setoda on Ikuchijima. Take ferry from Setoda port back to Onomichi and return bike in evening. Overnight at Onomichi.
- Day 2: Chill in day (when it was supposed to rain), take late afternoon ferry from Onomichi back to Setoda port on Ikuchijima. Car transfer from ferry terminal to Setoda Sunset Beach. Overnight at Setoda.
- Day 3: Quick walk and rent bike from Setoda Sunset Beach, cycle to Imabari JR station, take train to next stop Matsuyama.
The most annoying part about all that is that the weather turned out to be pretty good on the day it was supposed to rain, only in the evening when I would already have been to the guesthouse, so I felt like I got played out by the weather. On the plus side I did have an extra day for my muscles to recuperate. That’s what happens when your plans are fixed early and you are too lazy to change them!
Locations along Shimanami Kaido Route
Some tips and recommendations at the various locations along the route based on my own experience! You can see a very abbreviated version on another article I did for JapanTravel about the bridges along the Shimanami Kaido.
Onomichi is a small town which is easily reached by train to Onomichi JR station. The town’s attractions include a Temple Walk along the hillside that overlooks the straits – the highlight is Senkoji Temple and Senkoji Park which you can walk to or if you’re feeling a bit lazy, take the ropeway to. There is also a very long stretch of covered shopping street lined with shops and eateries.
I personally think 1-2 days to see Onomichi is sufficient – I felt 2 nights would have been just nice (I stayed 3). For other places nearby, take a day trip out to Tomonoura, and Fukuyama is not too far away either
Onomichi train station is really close to the port area where you need to take a short 5-min ferry connection (110 JPY including your bike, pay on the boat) to Mukaishima just across the small straits, which is when the actual cycling starts. The bridge that connects Onomichi to Mukaishima is for cars only, so pedestrians and cyclists have to take the ferry.
Starting point! I started cycling proper at around 9am. The route starts off through a small town area and following the blue line recommended route, it goes westward and flanks the shore for coastal views. Slowly the houses fade away and you can enjoy nice scenic views, but in terms of actual things to see, there is an Orchid Centre and an observatory deck but those are found on the intermediate/expert routes.
You will see a red bridge that will excite you at first, but that’s not the one you will cross. The first bridge crossing is a long white suspension bridge called Innoshima Bridge. It is rather unusual because pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists cross under the bridge, on a lower level than the cars – most of the other bridge crossings have bikes and cars cross on the same level.
Euphoria as you experience your first downslope coming off the bridge. There is a small amenity park in the area just past the bridge if you need to take a break already! There is an expert uphill route eastwards where you can see a castle and a park, but it is quite a long detour so I continued to follow the recommended route westwards. It went inland past a port area before skirting the coastline again as it neared the bridge.
I stopped for a lunch break at the 711 here, and met a more serious cyclist who was spending 5 days on the route and had his own bike and everything. I would meet him again in Matsuyama (hello R if you see this! email me I haven’t seen your comments on my blog for some reason)
The halfway point for me! The recommended route goes westward along the coastline. I made my first attraction stops:
- Hirayama Ikuo Museum (800 JPY) – the artist is famous for being inspired by the Seto Inland Sea area. I found his stuff ok but not something I fell in love with – I liked some of his earlier sketches more than his finished work. The aircon interior was a nice bonus though!
- Kosanji Temple (1,400 JPY) – it’s a bit pricey in comparison but man it’s quite a sight to see. This crazy temple complex was built by a dutiful son as an act of filial piety to his mother, and you will be awed by the mishmash of styles and architecture. Not to be missed are the cool, dank underground gates of hell tunnels where you see scenes of how sinners are tortured in hell. You are right if you think it sounds like Singapore’s Haw Par Villa complex, there are some parallels but somehow the Japanese version is a little more tasteful and slightly less garish. The bits where it feels like 10000 buddha statues are staring at you are somewhat creepy no matter how Japanese they may me, and you finally emerge at the feet of the giant Guanyin. IDEK. See the video clip below for yourself – this is the end bit of the walk
- Shiomachi Street is an old shopping street that connects Kosanji to the Setoda Port area, but by the time I cycled down it, many of the stalls were closing in the evening.
I stopped at Setoda Port and caught the ferry back to Onomichi. It was pretty cool zooming by all the places that I cycled over just hours before, though it also feels like I negated all the work it took me to get to Setoda… Another highlight on this island are the many citrus orchards which are famous in the Seto Inland Sea area, but those are on the east side and I didn’t bother cycling there.
I walked to Sunset Beach the next day to rent my bike and continue on my journey, starting out at around 9am after the bike rental centre opened and continued on my journey. The next bridge is Tatara Bridge, a cable bridge connecting Ikuchijima to Omishima.
This is perhaps the largest island of the entire Shimanami Kaido, but the recommended route actually only takes you through a very small portion of it on the east coast. I think you could easily spend a day exploring this island on its own, and it has a bunch of contemporary art museums on the western coast I would loved to have seen:
- Toyo Ito Museum
- Tokoro Sculpture Museum
- Omishima Museum of Contemporary Art
- Ken Iwata Mother and Child Museum
But I wasn’t that confident in myself to complete the route by the end time of 5pm when I needed to return the bike to the Imabari JR station, so I decided to just stick to the recommended route.
Similar to Omishima, the recommended route brings you through a very tiny portion of the southwest end of Hakatajima. I stopped at the rest stop here for lunch but didn’t do much else. Hirakiyama is supposed to be a nice park for Sakura viewing and this area is also famous for salt making – but you will have to head around to the eastern side to check out the salt factory.
Not to be mixed up with the larger island of Omishima! This is the final island before you hit Shikoku, the recommended route brings you right through the middle of the island. Alternative routes are longer and skirt the coast. I felt like I spent the longest time just cycling through the island…
Take a rest before climbing up the bridge – your last bridge is actually 3 bridges combined together to form a 4+km long stretch called the Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridges. You can even visit the small island of Umashima after you cross the second bridge.
Once you hit Imabari, you are rewarded with a lovely downward sloping loop ramp that brings you to Itoyama Park or Sunrise Itoyama where the major bike kiosk is. I recommend finishing your cycling leg on a high at this spot where you can take a rest and get some great pix of the sea. The closest train station here is Hashihama station, where you can catch a train to the main JR Imabari station.
What I did was cycle to JR Imabari station, and let me just say it is not particularly noteworthy cycling through increasingly crowded town traffic and that familiar blue line suddenly disappears. It’s a bit of a downer to finish your ride by just wheeling your bike into a rather crowded bike lot under the railway tracks!
And there you have it, 76km and 2 days worth of cycling compressed into this one post :)
Other transport options
Should you decide that you had enough of cycling, other ways you can continue on your journey:
I took the ferry from Setoda back to Onomichi and brought my bike with me. Setoda and Sawa are both on Ikuchijima, while Sigeihigashi is on Innoshima. Sunoue is on another island not on the Shimanami Kaido main route and Sinnhama is further up the coast from Onomichi. This is probably suitable for people who just want to do a cycling day trip and return back to Onomichi.
There are other ferry options, but you will need to look that up for yourself. Same goes for the buses, which are an option if you decide to return your bike at the stations along the way. The best info can be found on the Shimanami website here.
How long does it take to cycle the Shimanami Kaido?
Given that I’m a pretty unseasoned cyclist, I decided to give myself 2 days to complete the route, and even then I found that I might have liked to have given myself another day or two perhaps so I could explore the islands and stop at more spots along the way.
Based on the time stamps from my iphone pix, here’s a look at my cycling times across the islands including their respective bridges.
- Mukushima > Innoshima : 9am – 1030am (~1.5 hours)
- Innoshima > Ikuchijima : 1030am – 130pm (~3 hours, I had a lunch break too)
- Ikuchijima > Setoda : 130pm – 5pm (~3.5 hours, visited 2 tourist spots – without visiting any spots, I would have finished cycling around 35km in about 6 hours)
- Setoda > Omishima : 9am – 10am (~1 hour)
- Omishima > Hakatajima : 10am – 11am (~1 hour)
- Hakatajima > Oshima : 11am – 1145am (~45 mins)
- Oshima > Imabari : 1145am – 345pm (~4 hours – I took a lunch break at the start, and then an ice cream break before the long bridge. Apparently I rested a lot longer than I thought I would!)
- Sunrise Itoyama > Imabari JR Station : 345pm – 445pm (~1 hour – I had to reach before 5pm! I definitely was cycling much more slowly compared to the first leg)
I definitely wouldn’t have had been able to finish the whole route in a day as I am the world’s slowest cyclist and I take a gazillion breaks, but there are people who can, so it really depends on your own ability.
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If you don’t intend to bring your own bicycle, rest assured that bike rental is easy and cheap as well. For most bikes, it costs just 1,000 JPY per day for general bikes. You place an additional 1,000 JPY deposit on top of this, which you will get back if you return the bike to the same place where you rented it from. If you drop your bike off at another station along the way, then the deposit is forfeited.
The route is also frequented by a lot of travellers so forms have English translations and the bike staff are adept with dealing with non-Japanese speaking tourists. The form usually requires you to state your estimated start and end destination, but I don’t think it’s a big deal if you end up abandoning your plan!
There are bike rental stations on almost every island, though you are most likely to rent your bike from Onomichi (7am – 6pm) or Sunrise Itoyama at Imabari (8am – 8pm Apr-Sep, closes at 5pm from Oct-Mar) depending on where you begin your journey. The other stations are smaller and if you get tired along the way and want to give up cycling, you can drop your bike off at these stations from 9am to 5pm. A more comprehensive list can be found here.
I recommend getting a cross bike, or at least one with the ability to change gears to help you tackle the slopes. I honestly don’t know how some of these ladies leisurely pedalling by on the mamachari bikes managed it because I was dying even with a 7-speed gear.
For more serious bikers, check out the Giant bike rental stores instead. Bike rental there is naturally more expensive, but you get more pro selections as compared to the general bikes. For most general bikers I don’t think you need to splurge on this, but it really is up to you.
I stayed at a cute hostel called Guesthouse Yadocurly for 3 nights – 2,800 JPY/night for a 4-bed mixed dorm room. I liked that the hostel arranged dinner every night depending on interest and numbers. You let the staff know by 3-4pm whether you would be doing dinner and contribute a small sum (mine was 500 JPY) and they prepare dinner for you. Great way to get to know new folk – I had quite a big group at mine eating udon, sashimi and temaki handrolls but locals and tourists alike that day were mostly Japanese speaking!
Another popular stay option if you’re travelling in a pair and have a bit more budget is Hotel Cycle, which is a super hip hotel in this old warehouse building by the wharf. Ridiculously hipster but very cool vibe. The cafe, bakery and restaurant are great places to hang out at on a chill afternoon!
My overnight stay was booked at Setoda Private Hostel, a short walk from Setoda Sunset Beach which is convenient if you are cycling the route, but without a bicycle, you need a car ride to get you from Setoda Port to this little hostel. It was a small place but also where I had a private room with ensuite toilet to myself for the first time that trip! It costs 3,000 JPY/night for the room only, but I included dinner and breakfast for an additional 1,800 JPY in total because I didn’t want the hassle of sorting out my meals.
And also a huge bonus – the hostel has its own private onsen that overlooks Sunset Beach! Sadly the weather was really rainy when I was there, but the onsen itself is pretty nice with its own landscaping and built in rocks, and I can imagine the view being quite impressive on a good day.
The good news is that you don’t have to return to your starting point to pick up your luggage if you want to continue on your journey. There is a very easy to use luggage forwarding service Takkyubin located near the Onomichi ferry area (look for a table inside the ferry waiting lounge) that will send your bags to your next destination ahead of you
I sent my large backpack to my Matsuyama hostel Sen Guesthouse (apparently a very popular destination, the lady had all the details on hand without me having to provide them, she also spoke pretty good English) – you just need to let them know the destination and when you expect to arrive there. My 44L CabinZero backpack (estimated 10kg+) cost me 1,412 JPY (around S$17) to forward, though the actual price will depend on the weight, size and distance of your bag.
Based on my original 2D1N itinerary:
- Bike Rental (2,000 JPY for 2 days + 1,000 non-refundable deposit) = 3,000 JPY
- Bag Forwarding = 1,412 JPY
- Ferry to Mukushima = 110 JPY
- 1N stay at Setoda Private Hostel + Dinner + Breakfast = 4,800 JPY
My revised 3D2N itinerary included these additional costs:
- Ferry Transfer (Setoda to Onomichi) = 1,330 JPY
- Ferry Transfer (Onomichi to Setoda) = 1,030 JPY
- 1N stay at Guesthouse Yadocurly (dorm room 4 pax) = 2,800 JPY
There are toll fees at the bridges for motor vehicles, and initially about 300 JPY worth of tolls for cyclists in total, but these have been waived for now.
Cycling tips for the amateur
Or things I learned from this experience:
All the bridges involve slopes
All the bridges are elevated, so any time you encounter a bridge, expect to find yourself cycling at least 1km worth of upward slope to get to the top of the bridges. Granted the slopes are fairly gentle and designed for cyclists – they have different slopes for cars, and sometimes motorbikes too. But if you aren’t a very pro cyclist, you are going to feel every single additional slope degree burning into your muscles. I stopped very, very frequently along the slopes as I cycled upwards. Ostensibly to take pix of the view and the bridges, but mostly to catch my breath and rest my aching muscles.
Your seat height is key to a comfortable ride
Adjust your seat higher so that your leg can straighten fully on the down pedal. This way, your leg doesn’t get cramped up and cycling is less painful. It does however mean that you’re on tiptoe when you come to a stop, so I generally try to find a kerb or handrail to help balance when I stop
What to wear when cycling
The weather was cool in April, so wearing long sleeves and pants was not hardship for me, but it may be harder to do so when it’s sweltering. I suggest doing the Asian thing and covering up rather than rely purely on sunblock because you’re likely to be sweating a fair bit
Sunblock is a must
Exposed areas you need to apply sunblock to frequently: Your face (sigh the sunglasses marks I ended up with), back of your neck (I wore a buff that kept my hair back, soaked up sweat and kept my scalp from getting sunburned), back of your hands (some people wore gloves)
Food and Drink
You don’t have to worry about going hungry or needing the loo because there are lots of convenience stores along the way, and you can usually find a large rest stop close to the bridge areas. I love Japanese kombinis~ stay hydrated!
Anyone else been on the Shimanami Kaido with stories to share?
Note: There are some affiliate links for booking.com for Guesthouse Yadocurly and Sen Guesthouse in this post. Am experimenting to see how links like these might help me earn a little to travel more!
There are a ton of things for you to do in Japan even if you don’t like to cycle – see all my Japan posts for more inspiration. For something a little different, Tomonoura near Fukuyama is worth checking out.