Shimanami Kaido: Japan’s Best Cycling Road
While the Shimanami Kaido was primarily created as a motor highway to connect the islands of Honshu and Shikoku, it now includes a safe and beautiful cycling route that runs near it along the islands of the Setouchi Inland Sea. This area southwest of Osaka is known for its citrus fruits, and has mild weather for most of the year.
Most of the islands are connected by bridges. The most common cycling route runs from Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture to Mukaishima, then over Innoshima, Ikuchi, Omishima, Hakatajima, and Oshima islands before ending in Imabari in Ehime Prefecture. There are also smaller islands that are only accessible by ferry, and you can theoretically skip over some islands on the main route by using ferry routes. Naturally, the best route for you will depend on your stamina and how many days you have to spend.
Tackling the Route
The full Shimanami Kaido cycling route is about 74 kilometers (45.9 miles) from the ferry terminal just south of Onomichi to Imabari Station. (You can’t take the bridge between Onomichi and the first island, Mukaishima, as it doesn’t have a safe cycling route.) This distance is doable in a single day, but you’ll be able to enjoy it much more if you do it in two.
You can also tackle the section of the route up until Ikuchijima (from either direction), turn around, and go back to get about 70 kilometers in a single day. However, this is strenuous and requires setting off early to avoid missing the deadline for returning a rental bicycle.
The route is relatively flat, with the exception of the large hills that take you up to the bridges between the islands. Since the Setouchi Inland Sea is a major shipping area, all of the bridges must be high enough to let large cargo ships underneath. This results in climbs of up to 80m (around 240 feet).
You can adjust your route based on difficulty, and there are a few official sub-routes that take you across longer or more difficult segments. However, first-time cyclists or riders with no Japanese skills should stick to the main route, which is indicated by a bright blue ribbon running along the road. This route has plenty of scenery, including citrus farms in the spring and beautiful views of each harbor.
A Note About Island Names
The Japanese word for island is "shima," which is sometimes changed to "jima" after certain syllables. In English-language guides, you may see island names written with either “shima” or Island afterward (for example, “Ikuchijima” or “Ikuchi Island”), or sometimes both. Most seem to use the -shima suffix and omit the word Island, but be aware that you may see both spellings.
Rest Areas and Amenities
There is an excellent rest stop right next to the bike route near the halfway point on Omishima. It has multiple options for food, including a sit-down restaurant inside with excellent local fish. There are a decent number of businesses, including souvenir shops and mikan orange stalls, around the island as well. You can reach this point after about 3 hours of cycling if you hurry.
The other islands have a smattering of small businesses and cafes, and over 150 locations participate in the “oasis” program that allows riders to stop for water or restrooms with no obligation. However, some of these have limited hours during the off-season, and some sadly may have gone out of business as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
Your most reliable bet for restrooms and critical supplies are the convenience stores, like Family Mart and 7/11, that dot the islands on or near the route. Of course, you should still make sure to check out and support the small businesses nearby, especially since they have unique local desserts and snacks.
For hotels, there are a number of options in Imabari and Onomichi, and a handful of small guesthouses along the route itself. My preferred mid-route stopping point is Shimanami Ryokan on Hakatajima because it’s quiet and very close to the main route, but it has very limited English support. I also enjoyed Komecho Ryokan in Imabari and Onomichi Kokusai Hotel in Onomichi, but each of those are at least a 20 minute walk from their respective train stations.
Renting a Bicycle
Multi-day bicycle rentals are available from the Giant Store locations in Onomichi and Imabari. They’re expensive, but they allow one-way rides so you don’t have to bike both ways across the route if you don’t want to. When I did my journey, I ended up paying over 10000 yen for my two-day, one-way road cycle rental, including taxes and additional fees.
If you don’t plan on biking long distances, you can rent bicycles on individual islands for around 1000 yen per day. Omishima is a great stop, as it has a bicycle rental shop right near the bus stop. From there, you can take a leisurely route around the island or cut through the middle for a challenging climb.
Technically, cyclists are supposed to use the road instead of the sidewalk, and to bike on the left side with traffic. However, there are clear exceptions in Japanese law for situations where traffic is heavy or it is otherwise unsafe to ride in the road. Though traffic is very light most of the time, there are a few industrial areas where cyclists might want to stay on the sidewalk to avoid trucks in the road. Use your best judgement.
Both the roads and sidewalks along the route are very clean and smooth, so you shouldn’t have to worry about punctures. However, if you do run into problems that you can’t fix yourself, you may need a mobile repair service or bike taxi. Wakka is probably the most reputable bike taxi company in the area, and they have English language support.
Helmets are technically not required, but they are highly recommended, especially considering how steep some of the hills are. Although some of the rental companies have road bikes available, do not rent one of these unless you are accustomed to the handlebar and seat shape. City bikes or sport bikes will keep you safer and more comfortable.
Finally, remember that the Shimanami Kaido is safer than cycling routes in many countries. I traveled the route alone, despite being a woman, and I never dealt with any harassment or even stares. You’ll still want to take reasonable precautions and always lock up your bike, but you don’t have to look over your shoulder or avoid talking to strangers.
Oshima, the closest major island to Imabari, also has dozens of Buddhist temples. It has some hotels and other amenities, so it’s a nice place to stop for the night if you’re running low on stamina and don't want to tackle the final bridge to Imabari.
If you don’t like cycling, there are also shrines, hot springs, and beaches in Onomichi, Imabari, and near some bus stops along the route. There is also a nice shopping district in Imabari about a 20-minute walk north of the station.
Unfortunately, the Setouchi Inland Sea that surrounds the islands isn’t as warm as the Pacific Ocean on the other side of Shikoku. However, the shallow areas of it can be nice for swimming during July and August.
How to Get There
There are two main options for starting the Shimanami route from the Honshu side. The first is to take the shinkansen to Mihara Station, rent a bicycle there, and then take the ferry to either Shigei Port on Innoshima or Setoda Port on Ikuchijima. The second is to transfer from the shinkansen to the JR Sanyo Line and head to Onomichi, where you can rent a bicycle and ride it over the bridge or take a ferry to start your journey on Mukaishima.
There are a handful of privately-operated highway buses that operate the full route between various cities on Honshu and Imabari on Shikoku, stopping at various points on the islands in between. However, there are some restrictions on which stops you can board and disembark at. For example, you can’t hop on at Onomichi in Hiroshima and then hop off two stops later before the bus even crosses into Ehime Prefecture.
There are buses between Imabari on Shikoku and Fukuyama Station on Honshu, and this is the best option for tourists transiting via Tokyo. However, buses to and from Hiroshima may be better if you plan on doing any sightseeing in Hiroshima. The best option for you will depend on your itinerary, but whatever you choose, pay close attention to the bus company and route name for your bus.
Keep in mind that cycles cannot be taken on trains or most buses unless they are taken apart, and they usually require a small extra fee to take on ferries. Check the weather carefully before you go out, and have a plan for seeking shelter in case of a sudden storm.
When to Go
Since this area is hot during the summer, it’s best to plan a cycling trip during late April and May before rainy season starts, or in late October and November after typhoon season has ended. If you live in Japan, you may be able to squeeze in a last-minute trip in late September or early October during a long weekend. (However, I had a three-day weekend trip in early October rained out by a typhoon two years in a row.)
If you’re out of shape, you’ll want to make sure to have at least two days to cover the route. It’s better to have a little too much time than not enough, especially since there are a few long and steep hills.
My trip was over March 11th and 12th, 2020, and I was glad I broke it up over two days even though I am reasonably fit. The weather was nearly perfect, but my legs were sore and tired at the end of the first day.
English Tourist and Transit Information
Shimanami Kaido’s businesses and tourist organizations have greatly improved their foreigner-friendly services in recent years. There are now plenty of bike rental and repair shops that offer at least some assistance in English, and many hotels have English brochures or at least one staff member who speaks English.
The hostels and hotels along the route will often help you ship your luggage around your route if you don’t want to cycle with a heavy backpack. Make sure to have your complete hotel address written down and ready to go so they can assist you.
However, bus routes remain difficult to navigate. Since the local buses are operated by the individual prefectures, most southbound buses only go as far as Innoshima Island (the southern border of Hiroshima), and most northbound buses stop at Ikuchijima Island (the northern border of Ehime). Unfortunately, the highway bus route websites are still mostly in Japanese.
You definitely don’t want to embark on this journey without a phrasebook and the address of your hotel printed out in Japanese, at the very least. I highly recommend traveling with pocket Wi-fi or a rental smartphone to help with navigation. Keep Google Translate’s Japanese language pack saved to your phone so you can still access it offline as well.
© 2020 Ria Fritz