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Cycling in Japan: the Shimanami Kaido

The Shimanami Kaido is a wonderful bicycle route that extends from Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture all the way to Imabari City in Ehime Prefecture. This 70-kilometer cycle route crosses six majestic bridges that link several small scenic islands that lie between Honshu and Shikoku. Anyone who dreams of cycling in Japan should add this route to their bucket list.

Bridge Views and the Seto Inland Sea from Mount Kiro Observatory Park -- Photo by RJ
The ride is a truly memorable experience. The many small islands that dot the Seto Inland Sea help create stunning vistas that are sure to impress you. 

 Dedicated Bike Ramps, Cycling in Japan -- Photo by RJ
Each bridge you traverse is unique in its own way. The amount of dedicated cycling infrastructure along the route is striking. A couple of examples include bicycle-only ramps to get on and off of bridges, and a double-decker bridge with a separate level just for bicycle traffic. 

 Bike-only Level on Some Bridges -- Photo by RJ 
You will be hard-pressed to find such extravagant bicycle paths anywhere else in the world! And no need to worry about getting lost. The Shimanami Kaido bicycle path is clearly marked by a thick blue line that runs the entire length of the route. Be aware that the course is not completely flat as you need to get up to each bridge before making your crossing. But as long as you shift into a low gear and take your time, the entire ride is manageable by even the most casual rider.

Sightseeing along the way

Several noteworthy stops can be found along the route. One of the highlights is Kosan-ji Temple Museum on Ikuchijima Island.

 Cycling in Japan and Exploring Kosan-ji Temple -- Photo by RJ

 Beautiful Pagoda at Konsan-ji Temple -- Photo by RJ

 Interesting Explorations at Kosan-ji -- Photo by RJ

 Giant Statue at Kosan-ji -- Photo by RJ

Visiting the Kosan-ji Tunnel While Cycling in Japan -- Photo by RJ
Replicas of well-known Buddhist architectural structures from various eras were built here by industrialist Kozo Kosanji in dedication to his late mother. Constructed over a period spanning 30 years, the museum contains a striking range of different styles guaranteed to surprise and excite you.

Sunset Over the Sea While Cycling in Japan -- Photo by RJ
Also on Ikuchijima Island, just a little bit further down the road, you will find Sunset Beach. A broad expanse of clean sand and clear water punctuated by tall palm trees makes for a very pleasant and relaxed beach atmosphere. After having biked 30 kilometers, a dip in the cool sea water would be a welcome respite during the hot summer months. If you’re looking for a more authentically Japanese bathing experience, why not stop by Tatara Hot Spring Onsen on Omishima Island and soothe your tired muscles in the hot radon spa spring? Alternatively, if you want a more local experience you could stop by the sports gym also located on Omishima Island. The onsen here is a bargain at only ¥310. Relax in the hot water while gazing out the large window at the beautiful Tatara Bridge.
Finally, if you’re really confident of your climbing legs, you can challenge yourself to cycle to Mount Kiro Observatory Park. The ascent to the mountain top is 3.7 kilometers. At an 8% grade, this stage is a very challenging climb! You may find yourself walking your bike at parts, but if you keep at it, after about 40-50 minutes of hard work you should reach the top, where you will be rewarded with truly stupendous views!     

Bicycle rentals

Get Your Gear at Onomichi U2 -- Photo by RJ
You can rent bicycles at various locations along the route, but most people tend to start at Onomichi. A broad selection of well-maintained bicycles is available to rent for ¥1,000 per day plus an extra ¥1,000 deposit. If you return the bicycle to the same station that you rented it from, you receive your deposit back. But if you opt to drop it off at another station along the route, you don’t. Electric assist bicycles (¥1,500 for 6 hours) are also available in case you feel you need an extra boost to help you up the steeper inclines. Yet these bikes must be returned to the same station they were rented from which somewhat limits your cycling options.
For those looking to ride a high-end road bike, a licensed Giant dealer is located nearby in the trendy Onomichi U2 complex. Road bike rentals start from ¥4,000 per day, all the way up to ¥13,000, depending on the model. Even if you’re not interested in renting out a high-end bike, Onomichi U2 is still worth checking out for its modern warehouse-chic atmosphere. In addition to having a restaurant, bar, and cafe, the complex is home to Hotel Cycle, where each individual room has facilities for you to hang your bicycle in your room if you so choose. For the cycling enthusiast looking to spend a night in Onomichi in unique accommodations, with its elements of traditional Japanese craftsmanship and use of natural materials, Hotel Cycle is definitely worth checking out.
If you’re in good shape, the complete Shimanami Kaido journey from end-to-end can be completed in one day. This option, however, won't leave you with much time to sightsee. Many people prefer to take a more leisurely pace and split the one-way trip into two days. Doing so allows for more time to take in the various sights along the way. At the end of the route, you can either spend a night and cycle back the next day, or return your bicycle to the station in Imabari and catch a bus or ferry back to Onomichi.
Be aware, though, that some of the bicycle stations along the route close at 5 pm. Unless you’re a speed demon riding a road bike, don’t expect to make it all the way across the route and back in one day. Fortunately, the bicycle station in Imabari is open until 8 pm from April through September, so you have ample time to return your bike provided you plan to bike all the way across. Be forewarned that even the bicycle station in Onomichi closes at 7 pm, so if you plan to only complete half the Shimanami Kaido and head back by bike, make sure you leave yourself enough time to for the journey. If you happen to return after 7 pm, the parking attendant will take your bike, but you will end up forfeiting your deposit. Of course, if you get tired along the way, not to worry. You can just drop your bicycle off at one of the bicycle stations along the way and catch a bus or ferry back to Onomichi.

Cycling in Japan, Bridges and Bikes -- Photo by RJ
Following is a rough guide for how long the trip takes depending on your cycling level without making stops to sightsee along the way:

Beginner: 8-10 hours

Physically fit: 6-7 hours

Fast cyclist: 4-5 hours

Speed demon: 3 hours

Be sure to plan your ride realistically based on your fitness level and enjoy your trip!
Have a bit more time to explore? Why not check out other things to see and do in Ehime on your cycling journey?

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What season did you do the Shimanami Kaido in? I hesitate to try it in the summer.

I rode part of the Shimanami Kaido in May, and the weather was sunny and clear, without much humidity. At that time it was pleasantly warm but not hot. We saw very few convenience stores on either of the first two islands (starting from Onomichi), so it's a good idea to bring water, a hat, and sunscreen with you. Much of the route that we covered was unshaded, so I was glad to have supplies in a backpack.