The Shimanami Kaido – the expressway that spans Japan’s Seto Inland Sea – stretches from Imabari (in Ehime on Shikoku island) to Onomichi (in Hiroshima on the mainland), crossing 6 islands along the way.
A dedicated cycle lane runs parallel to the highway and bicycle rentals are offered from both ends of the expressway, which is about 70kms long and can be completed in one day; for a more relaxed pace, 2 days is recommended. The highway has been voted as one of the world’s most incredible bike routes by CNN.
Also known as the Nishiseto Expressway, the Shimanami Kaido is one of 3 road connections between Shikoku island and mainland Honshu, but the Shimanami is the only one traversable on a bicycle.
The six islands in the Seto Inland Sea – Hakatajima, Ikuchijima, Innoshima, Mukaishima, Omishima and Oshima – are linked via the bikeway’s series of 7 inter-island bridges, including the Tatara Bridge (the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge) and the Kurushima-kaikyo Bridge (the world’s longest series of suspension bridges).
The well-maintained bicycle route along the Shimanami diverges from the expressway at several points, allowing cyclists to break their journey on any of the 6 islands. The ramps leading to the bridges are built with cyclists in mind, so the inclines are gentle.
Cyclists will need to pay tolls (totalling ¥500) when using the bridges, except for the connection between Mukaishima island and Onomichi (on the mainland) when a short ferry ride is a better option.
To rent bicycles along the route, 2 systems are available from both ends of the expressway: a regular one (rental fee ¥500/day) with 14 terminals throughout the course, and a newer one – operated by bicycle manufacturer Giant (rental fee ¥4,000-¥7,000/day with high-quality bicycles) – with only 2 terminals. Cyclists can rent bicycles at one end and return them at the other with both systems; with the regular rental system, cyclists can pick up and drop off their bikes at any point along the way.
You can start the journey from Imabari – the city lies on the path of the famous Pilgrim’s Journey, a series of 88 Buddhist temples on Shikoku. Here, you’ll find 5 of the temples, including Enmeiji (with its unique temple bell), Taisanji (with an impressive stone wall), and Senyuji, which is famous for its healing water. Apart from temples, the town is also home to the impressive 17th century Imabari Castle which lies on a flat coastal land, featuring 3 moats irrigated by sea water.
The islands along the Shimanami Kaido are individual destinations in their own right and worth a stopover – they are all fairly mountainous, and house various historic attractions.
Omishima offers some great hiking opportunities, including trails to Irihi Falls and the rugged peaks of the island. In the middle of the island is Oyamazumi Shrine, which houses about 80% of Japan’s collection of ancient armour and weapons.
Cyclists can spend the night at the quaint Furusato Ikoi no Ie – once an elementary school, this wooden seaside building boasts unobstructed views of the Kurushima-kaikyo Bridge.
On Ikuchijima, the rather eccentric Kosanji Temple is a varied collection of replicas of Japan’s famous temple buildings, including Nikko’s Yomeimon shrine gate and the Phoenix Hall from Kyoto’s Byodoin; another highlight is a long cave that depicts the tortures of Buddhist hell.
Further north on the island is Kojo-ji temple’s 3-tiered pagoda with magnificent views over the area.
Neighbouring Innoshima is famous for the viewpoint at Mt. Shirataki – the path up to the peak is lined with 700 statues of stone Buddhas (some of them are etched with crucifixes on their backs). Innoshima is also home to some of the temples of the Pilgrim’s Journey, all linked via a hiking course.
If you’re interested in the history of the Muromachi shogun (navy pirates of the 15th century), you can head to Suigun Castle, the location of one of their bases.
The terminus at Onomichi (Hiroshima) is famous for its profusion of old temples, including Senkoji which is sprawled out on the slope of Mt. Senkoji; the park here is one of Japan’s 100 best sites for cherry blossom viewing with its panoramas over the sea.
From the base of the mountain, the 2km Historical Temple Walk links you to 25 of Onomichi’s better-known temples, including Jodoji, which is famous for its pagoda. Thanks to its mild climate, the area is famous for its rolling citrus groves, some of which offer fruit picking.