One of my biggest accomplishments on this Career Break trip to Japan was conquering the Shimanami Kaido しまなみ海道, 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 can tell you 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 my must-tries.
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.
Here’s a shortcut menu to navigate quickly:
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, and is also known as the Nishiseto Expressway. The recommended route totals 76km and it can be covered in a day, but if you do that, you don’t get much time to stop and look at stuff along the way. Many people take a detour along the way, or what I did was to break my trip up with an overnight stay so I could take it slow.
The two main towns on either end of the Shimanani Kaido are Onomichi (Chugoku) and Imabari (Shikoku). It seems from my research that most people cycle North to South – i.e. from Onomichi to Imabari – which is what I did as well and that’s what you will read about in this article, but you can cycle in 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.
Don’t worry about getting lost as the recommended basic route is quite clearly marked out in blue and white signs on the roads, so you’ll be okay as long as you follow the blue line. The map has also some recommended 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 cycling for much longer distances or more slope encounters.
My Shimanami Kaido route
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, and it only poured in the evening when I would already have made it to the guesthouse. On the plus side, I had 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
Here are some tips and recommendations for the various islands that I cycled through based on my own experience. You can also read a very abbreviated version on another article I did for JapanTravel about the bridges along the Shimanami Kaido.
- Onomichi 尾道市
- Mukaishima 向島
- Innoshima 因島
- Ikuchijima 生口島
- Omishima 大三島
- Hakatajima 伯方島
- Oshima 大島
- Imabari 今治市
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 here is Senkoji Temple and Senkoji Park, both of which you can walk to but if you’re feeling a bit lazy, take the ropeway up. You can also check out Onomichi Hondori, a very long stretch of covered shopping street lined with shops and eateries.
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 where the actual cycling starts. The bridge that connects Onomichi to Mukaishima is for cars only, so pedestrians and cyclists have to take the ferry.
I personally think 1-2 days spent in Onomichi is sufficient for most travellers. I stayed 3 nights and in afterthought, felt 2 nights would have been just nice. Other areas nearby that I would recommend include taking a day trip out to quaint Tomonoura, or perhaps heading to nearby Fukuyama.
Starting point of the Shimanami Kaido! I wheeled my bike off the ferry and started cycling proper at around 9am. The Shimanami Kaido route starts off through a small town area and if you follow the blue line (aka recommended route), it goes westward and flanks the shore for coastal views. Slowly the houses and town disappear and you get some nice scenic views.
There is an Orchid Centre and an observatory deck if you are looking to do some sightseeing, but those are found on the intermediate/expert routes so I skipped those.
As you head towards the next island, you will see a red bridge that will excite you at first, but note that’s not the one you will actually 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 at a level below the road that the cars use – most of the other bridge crossings have bikes and cars cross on the same level.
At this point, I’m experiencing euphoria as I rolled along my first down-slope while exiting Innoshima bridge. In Innoshima, there is a small amenity park called Innoshima Memorial Park in the area just past the bridge where you can stopover for a quick break if you need one.
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!)
There is also an expert uphill route eastwards with Innoshima Suigun Castle and a flower park Innoshima Flower Centre, but it looked like quite a long detour of the recommended route, so I skipped those and continued on westwards. The route turned inland past a busy port area before skirting the coastline again as it neared the next bridge.
Ikuchijima, aka the halfway point! The recommended route goes westward along the coastline, and on this island I made my first attraction stops to stretch my legs a little after all that cycling:
First I checked out the Hirayama Ikuo Museum (entrance: 800 JPY/S$10). The artist Hirayama Ikuo is famous for his works which are inspired by the Seto Inland Sea area. Personally I found his art ok but not something I fell in love with, though I liked some of his earlier sketches more than his finished work. The aircon interior was a nice bonus and good way to cool down quickly.
Next I headed to the Kosanji Temple (entrance: 1,400 JPY/S$17), and while this temple is a bit expensive to enter, man it’s quite the experience. This crazy temple complex was built by a dutiful son as an act of filial piety to his mother, and I was simultaneously awed and bewildered by the mishmash of styles and architecture.
Not to be missed at Kosanji: the cool, dank underground gates of hell tunnels where there are scenes depicted of how sinners are tortured in hell. You are right if you think it sounds like Singapore’s Haw Par Villa complex, but somehow the Japanese version seemed a little more tasteful and slightly less garish. One particularly creepy spot is the end stairway as you exit, where there are what feels like 10,000 Buddha statues staring at you, and you finally emerge at the feet of the giant Guanyin. See the video clip below to judge for yourself:
Shiomachi Street is an old shopping street that connects Kosanji to the Setoda Port area, but by the time I cycled down it in the evening, many of the stalls were closing up.
Another highlight to see if you have the time are the many citrus orchards which are famous products of the Seto Inland Sea area, but those are on the east side of Ikuchijima and I didn’t bother cycling there.
So because of my weird route plan, I stopped at Setoda Port at the end of Day 1 and caught the ferry back to Onomichi. It was pretty cool zooming by all the places that I cycled through just hours before, though it also felt like I negated all the work it took me to get to Setoda..
On Day 2, I took the ferry back to Ikuchijima and stayed over at Setoda Private Hostel, which you can read more about in the accommodation section. When I woke up on Day 3, I walked from my guesthouse to Setoda Sunset Beach the next day to rent my bike and continue on my journey. I started out at around 9am after the bike rental centre opened, and it was a pretty short distance to the next bridge – Tatara Bridge, a cable bridge connecting Ikuchijima to Omishima.
This is perhaps the largest island of the entire Shimanami Kaido stretch, but the recommended route actually only takes you through a very small portion of it on the southeast portion of the island. 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 checked out if I had the time:
- Toyo Ito Museum
- Tokoro Sculpture Museum
- Omishima Museum of Contemporary Art
- Ken Iwata Mother and Child Museum
But I wasn’t that confident in being able to complete the route by the end time of 5pm when I needed to return the bike at the Imabari JR station, so I decided to just stick to the recommended route, which turned out to be a sound decision. I am seriously a super slow cyclist.
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 and didn’t do much else. Hirakiyama is supposed to be a nice park for Sakura viewing and this area is also famous for sea salt making – but you will have to head around to the eastern side to check out the salt factory and salt lagoons.
Remember, Oshima is not to be mixed up with the other island on the route called Omishima, or Izu Oshima way out in the Philippine Sea. This Oshima island is the final island on the Shimanami Kaido before you hit the Shikoku land mass and the recommended route brings you right through the middle of the island. Alternative routes are longer and skirt the coast if you prefer sea views.
I was pretty tired by this time and felt like I spent the longest time just cycling through the island. All I wanted was to get to my end point, so again not much sightseeing here, but some popular stops here include the Yoshiumi Rose Park with over 400 different types of roses, the Murakami Suigun Museum for those interested in maritime history, and Mount Kiro Observatory Park which has a great view of the bridge but ONLY if you are willing to make a super steep climb.
My tip: take a good rest before taking the bridge to Imabari – your last bridge is actually 3 bridges combined together to form a 4+km long stretch called the Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridges.
Finally! Once you make it across the super long bridge and hit Imabari, you are rewarded with a lovely downward sloping loop ramp that brings you to Itoyama Park or Sunrise Itoyama where the bike kiosks are. 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 continue cycling on to JR Imabari station, and let me just say it is not particularly noteworthy cycling through increasingly crowded town traffic and at some point that familiar blue line suddenly disappears (or I might have gotten lost). In my opinion, it’s a bit of a downer to finish your epic ride wheeling your bike into a rather crowded bike lot under the railway tracks instead of at Sunrise Itoyama with its lovely view.
And there you have it folks, that was 76km and 2 days worth of cycling compressed into this one post :) I still can’t believe I actually finished this ride.
Taking the ferry
I mentioned above that in the evening of Day 1, I took the ferry from Setoda back to Onomichi and brought my bike with me. 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.
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, so if you go from Onomichi to Imabari it will cost you 2,000 JPY in total.
The Shimanami Kaido route is frequented by a lot of travellers, so the sign up 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 pedaling by on the mamachari bikes (that’s what they call the heavier landbikes with the wicker baskets) managed it because I was dying even when equipped 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.
Onomichi – Guesthouse Yadocurly
I stayed at a cute hostel called Guesthouse Yadocurly [booking.com affiliate link] for 3 nights at 2,800 JPY/night for a 4-bed mixed dorm room.
A highlight of the hostel what that they 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. It’s a 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 as 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.
Ikuchijima: Setoda Tarumi Onsen / Setoda Private Hostel 瀬戸田垂水温泉
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 cost 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.
Unfortunately while they do have a website, the only way to make a booking is by calling, and they don’t speak English. I had a Japanese-speaking friend call and make the booking for me.
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.
My cycling tips for the amateur
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. To be fair, the slopes are fairly gentle and there are specially designed for cyclists separate from the one the cars use, but if you aren’t a very pro cyclist (aka ME), you are going to feel every single additional slope degree burning into your muscles. I stopped very, very, very frequently along the slopes as I cycled upwards. Ostensibly my excuse was to take pix of the view and the bridges, but it was 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 to protect from the sun 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 which will negate all the sunblock you pile on, and you are very exposed to the elements most of hte time.
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 which you might not realise are facing the sun directly most of the time – some people wore gloves, but I recommend wearing those long sleeved jogging jackets with the thumb hooks.
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.
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.