Cycling Shimanami: exploring Japan’s Inland Sea by bike
Last week CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef and Melbourne-based photographer Aaron Upson travelled to Japan’s Hiroshima Prefecture to take part in the Cycling Shimanami recreational challenge ride.
But thanks to a week of famous Japanese hospitality, the trip became about far more than a single, 65km ride.
As we rode through yet another sleepy fishing village en route to our final stop of the day I had to remind myself to look around and take it all in. Pretty soon we’d be packing our bikes up for the final time, and we’d be on a plane back home to Australia. It was important to savour the moment.
We’d spent the past five days riding around and between the many interconnected islands of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, south-east of Hiroshima. The trip had revolved around Cycling Shimanami, a mass participation event held largely on the Shimanami Kaido, an often-breathtaking expressway featuring mighty suspension bridges and frequent ocean views.
But both Aaron and I would take so much more from the trip than that one single ride. After all, how often do you get to go on an all-expenses-paid trip to Japan, to ride your bike for ‘work’?!
It all came about after CyclingTips founder Wade Wallace and a couple of his mates visited the Hiroshima Prefecture earlier this year and published a Roadtripping article about the experience. The local tourism board loved the piece and invited CyclingTips back to take part in and write about the region’s flagship cycling event: Cycling Shimanami.
At this point it’s worth offering full disclosure: our flights, accommodation, transfers and meals were all covered by the local tourism organisations, and CyclingTips was paid to be there. That said, there’s been exactly zero pressure from our hosts or anyone else to tell the story they want us to — we’ve only been asked to write honestly about our experience and that’s what we’ve done here.
From the moment Aaron and I landed in Japan it was clear we were going to be looked after very well. Our hosts were waiting for us at Tokyo’s Haneda airport and would help us check in to and accompany us on our domestic flight through to Hiroshima. We’d heard about the famous Japanese hospitality (or “omotenashi”) and now both Aaron and I were getting to experience it first-hand.
In Hiroshima we met the rest of our international media tour group comprising eight other journalists — two from the USA, two from South Korea and four from Taiwan — a tour coordinator, three translators — one each for English, Mandarin and Korean — a bus driver, a truck driver (to move our bikes around) and a cycling tour guide.
Our days were tightly scripted — our guides stuck to the detailed itinerary with ruthless efficiency, and we were moved around quickly between activities. On the days that we rode (with the exception of the main event itself, Cycling Shimanami) we covered an average of 35km. The rides were leisurely, allowing us to look around, soak it all in and take plenty of photos. So many photos.
On average we spent perhaps six hours a day in lycra despite the short distances covered, and we often felt self-conscious as we wandered through Shinto temples and towel factories, our sweaty lycra clinging to us. But it was almost always worth it — these diversions from the riding gave us a chance to learn about Japanese and culture in a way that we wouldn’t have if we’d been on our bikes all day.
The rides we did saw us hop from island to island in Japan’s Inland Sea, following, more or less, the Shimanami Kaido. This 60km expressway links two of Japan’s four main islands — Honshu and Shikoku — crossing many smaller islands along the way. Alongside the expressway runs a network of bike tracks and local roads which, thanks to a seemingly omnipresent blue strip designating the cycleway, allows cyclists to navigate the islands with ease.
Riding through the towns and villages of the Inland Sea — in consistently immaculate weather I might add — we were struck by the number of cyclists out and about. There was the occasional roadie out on a training ride, but the vast majority of cyclists we saw were elderly men and women on town bikes, simply using their bikes to get around. It seems that when you have people of all ages and genders (not just middle-aged men) on bikes, there’s a noticeable impact on the way cyclists are treated — every driver that passed us gave more than enough room, and no-one seemed to get impatient.
After a few days of island-hopping with our media tour group, it was time on Sunday to line up for the main event. A smaller, pilot version of Cycling Shimanami had been held in driving rain the year before, but this year — 15 years after the full length Shimanami Kaido first opened — some 6,000 cyclists made the most of a rare opportunity to ride on the expressway.
Like any mass participation ride there were a number of ride options — from a simple 15km through to a full 110km up-and-back along the expressway. Our media group — comprising cyclists of all abilities — was signed up for the 65km ride which took us north-east from Imabari on the island of Shikoku through to Onomichi, on Honshu.
The defining feature of Cycling Shimanami (and indeed of the expressway) is the impressive suspension bridges that span the vast stretches of sea between islands. In all we traversed seven of these towering structures in our 65km ride, the longest — the Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge — being some 4km long, comprising three long spans back-to-back.
The first two-thirds of the event saw us stick to the Shimanami Expressway, crossing the monstrous bridges and skirting the thickly forested hills of the Inland Sea islands. Every so often we’d pop out of the wilderness and get an elevated view of a small town or city, the raised freeway affording us an impressive vantage point.
We descended off the expressway after 43km and joined the Shimanami Cycleway on the local roads of Innoshima Island. And with that, the scenery changed. No longer were we looking out over the islands and hills from on high; we were now riding through small fishing villages and other small settlements as we made our way north-east in the final third of the ride.
In the expressway section of the ride I’d been struck by the sheer number of event staff lining the course — an orange-glad volunteer stood by the roadside literally every couple hundred metres, many of them with a bike pump or other means of rider support. At every overpass local residents looked down on us from above, clapping and offering their words of encouragement.
And when we left the expressway the number of supporters only grew. From frail old women peering cautiously from their front doors, to young children jumping and cheering by the roadside with their parents, we never went more than a minute or two without hearing what I assume were words of encouragement, or without having people bow to us with a smile on their face.
In the final section of the ride we ventured briefly away from the local roads to segregated bike paths, some of which we’d visited in the days before. These sections of path link the coastal roads with the bike lanes on the nearby suspension bridges by way of short climbs.
Before too long we were back on the flatter roads and continuing along the coast, ticking off the final kilometres into Onomichi where our day came to an end. A large crowd cheered us as we rolled across the line and a local TV crew bundled us up for an interview.
In all Aaron and I spent six days in Japan and Cycling Shimanami, while being the focus of the trip, was actually only a small part. In four days of cycling we covered roughly 185km on and around the Shimanami Cycleway, but as with any cycling trip, the off-the-bike moments were often as memorable as the riding. There were many highlights …
The first night we got to stay at the impressive Onomichi U2 Hotel Cycle, an old warehouse that was refurbished especially for cyclists, with a hotel, cafe, restaurant, bike shop and more. Best of all it’s located right at the start of the Shimanami Cycleway.
We got the chance to visit a handful of Shinto shrines and learned the proper way to ‘cleanse’ one’s self upon entry. We stumbled our way through what felt like a minefield of Japanese social customs and etiquette, particular when staying at a traditional Japanese hotel on the second night (nude bathing in the onsen, anyone?). We watched as a woman made delicious okonomiyaki (a sort-of pancake with noodles and cabbage, among other things) right in front of us in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, the same way she had done for 50 years.
We learned that there’s an elegant way of using chopsticks (in stark contrast to the way I was doing it), we got to watch some cutesy J-Pop at the Cycling Shimanami pre-event expo, and we learned that you can never have enough business cards when you’re meeting people in Japan (hold the card with two hands when you present the card, and be sure to bow).
We also fumbled our way through countless conversation with people who didn’t speak English, not least at a sake bar where we were the only Westerners to be seen. But we always found a way to make it work — in this case “Sake?” was all it took.
Don’t get me wrong; getting the chance to ride the islands and bridges of the Seto Inland Sea was a real privilege, and an experience I won’t quickly forget. But I’ll also treasure the memories I made away from the bike.
In the final days of the trip Aaron and I had the opportunity to swap the gentle, quiet pace of life of the fishing towns we’d ridden through, for the hustle and bustle of Hiroshima and, very briefly, Tokyo. Hiroshima is a truly beautiful city, thanks in no small part to the rivers that thread through the city and the well-kept parks dotted around the place.
A visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park provided a confronting but valuable reminder of the atrocities the city faced in 1945. The city still bears the scars of the world’s first atomic bomb attack, but it does so with an inspiring optimism for the future.
Our time in Tokyo was little more than a fleeting visit between flights, but we did get to see Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo’s answer to New York City’s Times Square, made famous by films like Lost in Translation. The sheer number of pedestrians crossing the street at one time was a sight to behold, and well worth braving the crowded Tokyo train system for.
In my time at CyclingTips I’ve been blessed with some amazing travel opportunities — Hong Kong, Italy, France and Azerbaijan — and I’m grateful to have a job that allows me the opportunity to see the world while ‘working’. I never want to take these opportunities for granted.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Japan and was blown away by the hospitality of our hosts and by the Japanese people as a whole. I very much hope to return soon, hopefully with another opportunity to explore by bike. Thanks for reading.
A selection of photos