Shimanami Kaido/しまなみ海道

When I was studying for my GCSE in Japanese, one of the past papers we used to practise with had a short passage about the Shimanami Kaido. The description of bridges connecting small islands in the Seto Inland Sea between Honshu and Shikoku made me want to visit. In fact, this inter-island network of bridges was a big factor in deciding to visit Shikoku.

When we were still in the planning stages of our trip, I had big ambitions. We were going to rise early, catch a train from Matsuyama to Imabari, hire our bikes and cycle all the way across to Onomichi. Then we were going to have a look around Onomichi City before catching a bus back to Imabari and the train down to Matsuyama again. It was going to be so simple!

Then I thought about how the route is 70km long. One way. That’s around 45 miles. I also thought about how there would be places we wanted to stop and take in the view. And places I would want to stop and pretend to take in the view while I remembered what it was like to be able to feel my coccyx and my legs…

I cycle at around 10 mph. Cycling solidly, with no breaks, it would take me 4.5 hours to reach Onomichi. I have never cycled for 4.5 hours solidly. I cycle sporadically and the longest sustained ride I have done was an hour long. I decided that I had better read up on this planned trip, in order to avoid tears and tantrums.

The first blog I read made me panic. This was written by a guy who regularly cycled long distances. One of his companions sounded as sporadic a cyclist as me, which made me think trying to cycle the entire route in one day was a foolish notion. I also read this blog, which made me think we could do the whole route in around 8 hours and be able to catch the bus back to Imabari, even though the blogger in question had started at the opposite end of the Shimanami Kaido and taken a train back to a completely different city!

So I decided I should look up the bus times. The last bus back was at 8.30 p.m., getting to Imabari Station at 10.14 p.m. Realistically, that would buy us a couple of hours in Onomichi before we had to find the bus stop to get the bus back to Imabari. Tired after a 70km bike ride, would we really be in the mood for exploration in such a rushed time? Plus we wouldn’t get back to Matsuyama until 11.30 p.m.

I decided I needed to be sensible, and proposed to Mr. Hicks that we did half the route at a reasonably leisurely pace, before turning back to Imabari, handing back our bikes to reclaim our deposit, and catching a train back to Matsuyama. So that is what we did, and a good job too!

It was a scorchingly hot day. We are notoriously poor at rising early. It’s less that we’re lazy, and more that we’re both night owls. We eventually left the hotel at around 10 a.m. So much for an early start! The walk to the station in the heat was quite draining, so we didn’t get there on time to catch the train we were aiming for, but at least that left us with time to stock up on snacks and drinks for our cycle ride. We took a few pictures around the station area as well.

We caught the next express train up to Imabari, which took a little less than 40 minutes. The journey along the western coast of Shikoku was beautiful, with clear views out to sea as well as glimpses of country life.

When we reached Imabari, I took the time to add a station stamp to my collection. Imabari is famous across Japan for manufacturing towels, and the station stamp is nicely designed with folded towels in a hexagonal frame.

We headed out of the station and straight into a taxi, having decided that Sunrise Itoyama was the place to hire our bikes from. Although the Giant cycle rental facility was more conveniently located at Imabari Station, it was much more expensive and seemed to offer fewer options to us in terms of returning our bikes.

As we sped along the roads leading away from Imabari towards Itoyama, our driver pointed out the blue lines along the roadside. He explained that they showed the route for cyclists, and assured us that if we followed them, we wouldn’t get lost. The journey didn’t take long, and before we knew it we were in the car park at Sunrise Itoyama, ready for our adventure!

Hiring the bikes was really easy. The man at the desk was very helpful, and went through the paperwork with us, explaining that if we had any kind of accident or if the bikes were in some way unreliable, we could call the number on the form and someone would meet us to replace the bikes. We chose cross bikes, trading away comfortable seats for speed and better gears. This was something I later came to regret!

The man directed us outside to the bike pick up point, where we collected cycle helmets and the staff brought our bikes out of storage. They also gave them a thorough check over, pumping up the tyres and checking for loose cables. They asked us to check that the seats were in the right position for us, let us have a little ride around the car park, and then showed us the route we needed to take from the car park to the first bridge.

We set off, expecting the first section of the ride to be tough, because that first blog I’d read suggested that it would be. Fortunately, it wasn’t that difficult and we were soon up at the top of the hill. The views were stunning.

The first bridge, Kurushima-Kaikyo, is actually three suspension bridges linked together, that cross Umajima and Mushijima before ending on Oshima.

We kept stopping to take photographs of the view, it was so lovely looking across the Seto Inland Sea at some of the smaller islands.

Cycling across Oshima was nice. The recommended route takes you across the centre of the island, but there’s also a longer route to follow along the coast that takes in the Yoshiumi Rose Park. We saw plenty on our trip along the recommended route, including a disused karaoke bar with interesting murals and a reasonably old bike shop, although I’m not convinced that they did ever sell penny farthings.

 

About halfway across Oshima, we had a steep incline to climb. This was when I realised that my gears didn’t work properly. I was stuck in something like 13th gear, unable to move any further down. My husband had a fiddle with the gear cable, which appeared to have come loose, and got them working again.

Fortunately, there was a long slope down on the other side of the hill and I was able to do some coasting. We reached a coastal section of the route that looked out over the Funaori Seto Strait towards Noshima and Ushima Islands.

 

We rounded a bend and spied our next bridge towering above us, and apparently the site of a traffic jam.

Because we were on a limited schedule, we didn’t take the time to detour off to the Murakami Suigun Museum on Oshima, which is apparently all about Japanese pirates. Our onward route took us round to the other side of the Hakata-Oshima bridge, up another hill. At the top of this second hill there was a picnic area, and we took a well deserved break. We’d been cycling for a couple of hours by that point and had covered just over 10km. We watched some ships passing under the bridge, and then set off again for Hakatajima.

 

My gears had started playing up again on the ascent to the picnic area, so we decided to swap bikes. My husband cycles every day and has a lot more cycling stamina than I do, so he was happy to take on a bike with unreliable gears. This gave my legs a break, but I then inherited my husband’s wonky saddle which was tilted in quite an unfortunate direction!

Most of the route on Hakatajima was along the coast and it was truly beautiful, if short. We were soon at the Omishima bridge, an arched bridge and quite short, but subject to some strong cross winds that made it hard going getting across (and taking a straight picture).

The long route around Omishima takes you through mikan orange groves and along to a number of different museums, including an architecture museum and a contemporary sculpture museum, both of which I’d like to visit on another trip. A lot of the route passed orange trees anyway, which have an intoxicating perfume, so we didn’t feel like we’d missed out on the orange grove part of the longer route. The ride along the recommended route on Omishima took us a shorter distance along the eastern coastline of the island. We stopped to take photographs of an abandoned booth at the side of the road, and also some koinobori left over from Children’s Day.

While we were being tourists, a huge group of school children cycled past, shouting Hello to us with great enthusiasm. We set off again and soon caught them up. As we cycled past, I heard one of the boys shout something in Japanese about us going fast, but we were past them by then, so I didn’t have chance to ask if he thought we were going too fast. As we turned from the road to climb the cycle route to the fourth bridge, Tatara bridge, we encountered another group of school children, all wanting to shout hello to us as well. I’ve never been so superficially popular!

Tatara Bridge is a very elegant suspension bridge. I liked its towers.

 

We cycled across and stopped for a break down the hill at a viewing point, looking back to where we had cycled from. I was happily enjoying not using my legs to propel an increasingly uncomfortable bike along, when I felt something tickling my leg. I looked down and saw the largest caterpillar I have ever seen. I’m not great with large spiny caterpillars. This one caused an instant amygdala reaction, and I shrieked, “Getitoffmyleggetitoffmyleg” at my husband. Mr. Hicks bemusedly scooped the caterpillar off and then proceeded to take photographs of it. He should have been an insectologist! This is one of the pictures he took of it, legging it from the screeching woman.

Mr Wiggles

I sat with my feet off the ground while this was going on. Ridiculous, I know, but the caterpillar was fat and hairy and horrible.

As we were roughly half way along the route by this point, and had been cycling for 3.5 hours, we decided to turn back. We needed to return the bikes before 8 p.m. and it was just past 3 p.m.

The journey back was tough, partly because the wind was now against us, and partly because we were starting to grow tired. On the flat and, of course, downhill I was fine, but it felt more and more difficult climbing the hills so I spent a lot of time walking. Being hunched over the handlebars was aggravating my arthritis, and my neck was beginning to hurt quite badly. Plus that tilted saddle was murder!

Back over the Tatara Bridge, we stopped off at Tatara Shimanami Koen Road Station for a comfort break. As we walked to the public toilets from the bike racks, there was a bizarre school photograph being taken. Bizarre because the children were lined up in front of the modern building housing the gift shop, rather than in front of the spectacular view across the bay…

Perhaps the teacher wasn’t convinced that his charges could compete with all that natural beauty as a backdrop!

Continuing on, we stopped less frequently to take photographs. I was almost a broken woman, bellowing into the wind like a lunatic as I rode along the coast between the Tatara and Omishima bridges. It was just after we crossed back onto Oshima island, when we had to cross a main road to get back onto the cycle path, that I broke. I was so tired that I couldn’t get off the bike. The cross bikes were male bikes, with the straight cross bar at the top of the frame. I physically couldn’t lift my leg up to swing it over the cross bar. When I eventually dropped the bike to the floor so that I could step over it and wheel it to where my husband was waiting across the road, I cried. When he asked me if I was okay, I cried some more. I was worried that my slow progress would mean that we wouldn’t make it back to Sunrise Itoyama in time. Bless him, my husband said lots of positive things to gee me up again, and off we set again.

Riding over the Kurushima-Kaikyo bridges at sunset was amazing and made up for the pain and anxiety.

 

The wind was a little cold, and I was regretting not having brought a change of clothes with me to counteract my cooling perspiration. I also had sunburn, despite having applied and replenished factor 30 suncream throughout our journey. Perhaps factor 50 would have been more sensible for the hot Japanese sun. I forget that Japan is further south than the UK.

We made it back to Sunrise Itoyama at 7.10 p.m., having made up some time on the flat and going downhill, counteracting all the walking uphill that I’d made us do! I was so happy to have completed the return journey in almost the same time as going out.

We signed our bikes back in and then I managed to use my Japanese to ask for a taxi number. I also managed to use a payphone to request a taxi, also in Japanese. The woman at the taxi firm asked, “お名前は?” (what name?) When I said Hicks, she said, “えぇ?” so I had to explain, “私はイギリス人です。” She got it then. “あぁ、ヒクスさん” she said.

The taxi arrived really quickly and we were soon back at Imabari station where we caught a local train to Matsuyama that took forever and stopped at every stop. But at least that meant that we had a long sit down!

It was a cracking day. We worked out that we must have cycled roughly 66km. I feel incredibly proud of myself for achieving that. We probably could have cycled the whole way across in a day, but I’m glad that we didn’t. I’m viewing it as a test run. My new plan is to stay in Hiroshima again and catch the train to Onomichi, from where we’ll take a full day to cycle the Shimanami Kaido, exploring more of the islands than we did this time, perhaps staying overnight at Imabari before heading back to Hiroshima, or perhaps taking two days to cycle the route with a break in the middle. Who knows. We will do it again, though, I’m sure.

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