Shimanami Kaido: One of the Best Cycling Routes in Japan

Shimanami Kaido is a cycling trail that connects the main island of Japan, Honshu to one of its most secluded islands Shikoku over the Seto Inland Sea where the bikers get to bike over six state-of-the-art bridges of Japan.

“Is Shimanami Kaido trail difficult for no serious bikers?”. A question that I typed on Google dozens of times in different forms before I decided to bike the most famous cycling trail of Japan. I now know the answer based on personal experience – it is definitely not.

Shimanami Kaido is not a short trail, you will have to cover 75km with climbs up to seven different bridges (with a varying degree of interestingness) if you want to cover the whole trail in one day. However, many people prefer to spread the experience into two days with an overnight stop in one of the many islands of Seto Inland sea. That was also my original intention but I had an early start at 7 am and noon felt too early to break. My eagerness to experience the ride on the final and most interesting bridge of the trail – Kurushima-Kaikyo – also kept growing with each kilometer. So I kept riding until the end and covered it with couple of stops (both times for coffee!) somewhere in around 8-9 hours. There was also the weather element – the first day appeared to be the only sunny day with dull and then rainy weather predicted for the next two days.

The climbs up to the bridges were definitely not difficult as the Japanese engineers put in every effort to make these bridges accessible to bikers of all degree. I am very grateful for that. If you want to assess whether the trail is for you, take me as a reference point. I am someone who is above average in terms of walking sturdiness but I am definitely not a serious climber or a biker and the hills can demotivate me quite easily. Yet I had no trouble cycling the Shimanami Kaido in a day because there are no serious hills if you follow the main trail other than the gentle climbs up to bridges. 

Is Shimanami Kaido worth the effort?

Shimanami Kaido is by many sources considered to be among the most beautiful biking trails in the World. I don’t have much experience with dedicated biking trails but I have some with walking and hiking ones and they usually overlap. I did not think that Shimanami Kaido could make the list of “mind-blowingly beautiful” trails of the World. I should add that – in my very subjective opinion – the scenic beauty in Japan usually comes with a cost – the not so nice looking post World War II architecture. You need to have trained eyes  to separate the “not so nice parts” from the “really nice parts” to have a visually satisfying experience if you are after absolute beauty (why not go to Switzerland then?).

Even the most nature dominated destinations in Japan are unfortunately not immune from the post World War II architecture. There are of course exceptions like Kumano Kodo where there are barely any buildings to interfere with the forestry beauty (or there are beautiful ones perfectly blending with the nature) or Yakushima for pretty much the same reasons (yet I could complain about very limited number of not so nice looking buildings in Yakushima until I saw Ishigaki in Okinawa) in addition to relatively remoter parts of Hokkaido. I don’t think this overwhelmingly negative contrast between the nature in Japan and the surrounding architecture is immediately noticed by first time visitors, who are usually understandably too busy admiring the differentness of Japan. Also the words ugly and Japan rarely make into our subconsciousness somehow since the country is always presented in such a glowing light. You do not come here expecting or worrying about seeing any ugly parts – so in most cases your mind remains loyal to the image of “beautiful Japan”. Do not get me wrong, I adore this country. I moved here after all but the reasons for which I adore Japan have very little to do with its external beauty. I should probably reserve this topic for another post and get back to Shimanami Kaido.  

Which direction to bike in Shimanami Kaido: Onomichi to Imabari

The main Shimanami Kaido biking trail covers these two cities: Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture and Imabari in Ehime Prefecture. Onomichi is the more beautiful option and has better transportation links to the main urban centers in Japan. So I started in Onomichi. At the end of the trail (where you can also leave your bike rented inOnomichi), I took the one hour ferry to Kamijima Island for my stay at lovely Shiomi House. It is usually reported that riding from Imabari to Onomichi is a little easier especially in winter when the wind blows hard. I don’t think it would have mattered much when I rode the trail in late May and the second half of the trail is much more beautiful than its initial leg. That worked well for me as I like to save the best for the last. I usually feel naturally high during the initial leg of any trail just out of pure excitement in any case so the goods views work great just around the time I start feeing slightly less enthusiastic.

There are six islands covered by the main trail but you can always take a detour and check out the other tiny islands. I sticked to the main trail as I had extra two days after the ride to cover the other islands. The first island Mukaishima is just to get you started and does not offer much in terms of the views. Oh also, you need to take allegedly the shortest ferry ride in the World (four minutes) to get to the island from Onomichi since the bridge has no path for bikers/pedestrians. If you rent your bike at the general “biking terminal” by the port at Onomichi – the ferry is just within a minute walk. The path then takes you through Innoshima, Ikujichima, Omishima, Hakatajima and Oshima Islands before you get on the legendary 4kms long Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge, which is actually composed of 3 different suspension bridges. It is beautiful. Everything about it is beautiful, the spiral road climbing up to it, the view from the sea level while the small fishing boats look like they are guarding the bridge, the ride on it, which feel endless in a very good way. Oh also the tiny island below and the lighthouse. It is definitely a great way to finish a 75km journey. By the time you get off the bridge, you will be in Shikoku – Japan’s fourth largest island and the border town of Imabari is where the trail ends. 

Kamijima Island and Shiomi House: wonderful base for a rest day

I did the Shimanami Kaido ride on a Sunday and Inamari City was in a very sleepy mood when I finally arrived there. I returned the bike to the terminal right by the JR Station and walked to the port to take the ferry to Kamijima Island. The ferries also take the bikes (with the exception of maybe one ride a day as I was told by the lovely Canadian couple I met at my accommodation) and are not too cheap. I paid around 1500 Yen for a 50-mn ride. It was however nice to view the bridges from the sea level on the way back.

Book Cafe Okappa: enjoy a craft beer and pizza

Interior of cafe in Japan

Sashima Island included in the Kamijima Island group is one of the tiniest islands in its area and is home to approximately 500 people. It is such a lovely island with an amazing guesthouse – Shiomi House- and one of the nicest cafes that I came across in anywhere in Japan –  Book Cafe Okappa. They serve pizza during the weekdays in addition to breakfast and curry is added to the menu on the weekends. They also have all sorts of drinks including bottled craft beer. It was also nice to discover that the only other guest at the cafe and I lived within 10 minutes walk of each other in Tokyo.

Shimo House in Sashima Island: relaxing stay in an old Japanese house

As for Shiomi House – where I spent two nights, it is definitely a destination on its own. The hosts Keiko and Mie are very nice and their kindness, enthusiasm about the area and helpful tips definitely add to your experience. Mie is also a great cook and you can get your breakfast and dinners at the guesthouse for a very a little extra cost (1000 Yen/dinner, 400Yen/breakfast).

Interior of guesthouse in Sashima Island
Shimanami Kaido

I shared the guesthouse with a nice Canadian couple and their little baby for two nights and we were joined by a lovely Japanese lady from Tokyo on our second night who came to the area in search of the best ways to cultivate lemon trees in Tokyo! I should have maybe learnt about that as well since lemon is always a big part of my diet (like many Turks) and it is a little expensive in Japan. Speaking of Turkish diet, I was absolutely shocked to see the dinner table filled with Turkish dishes on my second night at Shiomi House. Mie overheard that I missed Turkish food and she cooked a Turkish feast for the dinner. It was one of the nicest surprises that anyone has done for me. I was really moved. 

Side trip to Yuge Island: vegetable tempura

On my no biking day, I walked to the nearby Yuge Island crossing the bridge (30mns walk). Yuge Island is where the people of Kamijima go to for their grocery shopping as there are no other stores on Kamijima, not even a convenience store. I had lunch at the cozy Canteen Maru Farm where the owners serve dishes cooked with their organically grown vegetables. I had a delicious vegetable tempura and a great time chatting with one of the owners. It was very interesting to see her story of moving to Yuge Island. Japanese government supports and incentivizes people to move outside of Tokyo due to the declining population in rural areas in Japan. There are also numerous empty houses deserted by their owners.

I did the trail at the end of May and it was not too hot except for two hours between noon and 2pm. I think the road may be more challenging during the infamously rainy June in Japan and very hot months of July and August. I personally enjoy getting tired at the end of a trail and feeling it at my legs at night. So I was happy that I did the trail in one day and spent the rest of my days exploring the other islands by walking. If you are not like me, you can easily split the trail into three days by also taking many of the detours taking you to shrines, view points, rose gardens and even art museums and spending the night on a different island each evening. 

Practical information

These are some tip to hopefully help you organize your own biking trip to Shimanami Kaido.

How to rent a bike in Shimanami Kaido 

There are various places where you can get your bike. Reservation during busy season is recommended or you can just show up at 6.50am (at the opening time) and ensure that you get a bike. I read stories of people not managing to take bikes for being late.

I rented my not so fancy cross bike from the general rental terminal in Onomichi that has many shops along the road (so you do not have to bike back to your starting location) at an extra cost of 1000 Yen in addition to daily rent fee of the same amount. The bikes were old but did the job for me and had a reasonable range of breaks.  If you are serious about your biking, there are fancier stores with better bikes but for a much higher rental fee of 3000 Yen/day. One is Red Bicycles in Onomichi.

Where to stay along Shimanami Kaido 

I stayed at Onomichi Guest House Fuji Hostel on my first night since I wanted to have an early start in the morning. I got in at 11pm and got out at 6am. It was comfortable hostel and the owner was amazingly helpful. I paid around 2500 Yen for a night, pretty standard for any hostel accommodation in Japan. My main accommodation was on the other hand at Shiomi House in Kamijima Island. It is an old style Japanese house with an old style bath. It was amazing after a long day of hiking and the people taking care of the place and the food was absolutely amazing. The cost was around 4900 Yen at night, little more than I was willing to spend but it was definitely worth it.  The island of 500 people is served by ferry, public bus and also two bridges connecting it two surrounding islands.

How to get to Shimanami Kaido

I flew to Hiroshima from Tokyo since I used my miles (and in any case flying is much cheaper than train if you can no longer use the rail pass as a resident). From Hiroshima Airport, I took one bus and two trains, which took me to Onomichi in a little over one hour and cost around 1000 Yen. If you are on Japan Rail Pass, Onomichi is served by glorious Shinkansen.

Luggage forwarding

I had a small backpack that I biked with carrying very limited number of clothes (!), camera/lenses and unfortunately a laptop/charger as I had some work to do. You will probably inherently have more luggage than me if you don’t live in Japan. In that case, I highly recommend Yamato, which is like elsewhere in Japan highly organized in Shimanami Kaido and will deliver your luggage to your hotel while you are biking.