Cycling the Shimanami Kaido: Imabari to Onomichi

The Shimanami Kaido (しまなみ海渡) is Japan's best cycle route: 70km of well surfaced, mostly segregated cycle lanes that connect Japan's main island of Honshu to the country's fourth largest island, Shikoku. The route crosses the Inland Sea of Japan, taking you over six smaller islands that are connected by colossal suspension bridges.

The route runs between the cities of Onomichi (north) and Imabari (south) and you can start from either city.

Where to Start: Imabari or Onomichi

Unless you want to put in a 140km stint in the saddle, you'll be starting in one city and ending in the other. You'll have a great time with either, but there are a few pros and cons of each.

Starting in Imabari

Pros:
  • If you start in Imabari you'll start on a high. The 40km section from Imabari is considered by most to be the most scenic part of the cycle ride; the islands are less built up and slightly wilder and the bridges are at their longest.
  • Despite both cities being at sea level, the downhills from Imabari are longer (and the uphills consequently steeper). This means you feel like you're going downhill for a greater proportion of the ride.
  • Of the two towns, Onomichi is the nicer, it's a known tourist spot for local Japanese, and it has a bunch of great restaurants which are perfect for an end-of-cycle meal. To me, it seemed the better place to end.
Cons:
  • Imabari takes much longer to get to from Hiroshima, and it's easy to end up starting late in the day, especially if you don't spend the night before in Hiroshima.
Getting there:
From Hiroshima, head down to the port and get the ferry (fast: 1h17;  slow: 2h40; timetables/price) to Matsuyama. Assuming you don't have a bike, take a taxi from Matsuyama Port to Mitsuhama Station (10 min) and then a train to Imabari (40min - 1h) where you can rent a bike and begin. It's also possible to get a train to Onomichi (see below) and then catch a bus to Imabari, but this may spoil the surprises of the route.

Starting in Onomichi

Pros:
  • Starting in Onomichi means you get to save the most scenic part of the route until the end, giving you a much needed kick when you're feeling tired at the end of the day.
  • Onomichi is easier to get to than Imabari, allowing you an earlier start to the day.
Cons:
  • The ride "feels" more uphill.
  • You have to get back from Imabari at the end, which is a journey you might not be grateful for late at night/when tired.
Getting there: 
From Hiroshima take a bullet train to Mihara Station and then change onto the Sanyo Line to Onomichi Station (45 mins.) Alternatively, take the slower/cheaper Sanyo Line train all the way from Hiroshima to Onomichi (1h30).

Bringing your Own Bike

If you have your own bike in Japan, you can take it on public trains using a bike bag (輪行袋, rinkō bukuro). This bag must cover the entire bike, otherwise you'll have long drawn out arguments with many a train conductor.

It's no problem getting your bike to Onomichi from Hiroshima as it is well connected by train. However, getting your bike to Imabari from Hiroshima is a pain in the ass.

From experience, the journey from Hiroshima to Imabari goes something like this:
  1. Cycle from Hiroshima Station to Hiroshima Port (6km).
  2. Get a ferry to Matsuyama. Be warned you cannot take your bike on the fast ferry, so you're stuck on the slow one for an eternity.
  3. Cycle from Matusyama Port to Mitsuhama Station (3km). This takes you through a horrible tunnel. There's a segregated pavement to the right side, get on this if you can, otherwise you'll spend a panicked six minutes inches from being hit by a car.
  4. Arrive at Mitsuhama Station. Put your bike back in its bag. Stick your bike on another train to Imabari (the doors open alternately at stations so there's no easy place to put it).
  5. Get to Imabari, unpack your bike and begin the ride.
We did this journey at the beginning of the ride, full of energy and it was pretty arduous. I definitely wouldn't want to do it in reverse at the end of a day in the saddle.

Renting a Bike

If the above section has put you off bringing your own bike, then it's infinitely possible to rent one at both Imabari and Onomichi. There are several rental shops, but the distinction basically comes down to this: Giant Store vs. Other Options.
  • Giant Store: Offers a wide selection of bikes from decent to ultra-high-end-carbon-racers. Significantly more expensive (¥3,000/day +), and if you're only doing the route one way there's a fixed ¥3,000 fee to take your bike back to the start. Book more than a week in advance if you plan on doing the route at the weekend as supplies are limited. The staff speak good English. There is one store in Imabari and one in Onomichi, so there's no convenient option to drop off the bike if you get tired of cycling.
  • Numerous shops in Imabari and Onomichi offer cheap rentals (¥1,000 per day). They also offer greater flexibility in that they can be returned at terminals across all the islands, not just at the start/finish. Various types of bicycle are available, including tandems (¥1,200 per day) and electric bikes (¥1,500/six hours), though the tandems and electric bikes must be returned to their original terminal. Advance reservations are not necessary.
Despite the extra expense, my sister rented an aluminium road bike from the Giant Store. We found a small problem with the brakes when we tested the bike out, but they changed the brakes immediately when we pointed this out. The bike was definitely worth it, great on the limited hills and good enough to keep up with my racer.

One Day or Two Days?

For experienced cyclists, 70km is no problem, particularly when the route is so well paved and largely flat. That being said, an extra day should be considered if you want to make the most of the sightseeing opportunities.

If you are renting a bike, your day will be limited by the opening hours of the shop you rent from, so an extra day will reduce the time pressure, especially for less experienced riders.

Where to Stay

If you are planning to do it in two days, then there are numerous accommodation options across the islands, including campsites. We chose the Private Setoda Hostel based on another blog's recommendation and we were not disappointed.

I had assumed we'd be in a dorm but my sister and I were given a private room with twin beds, and they served a huge Japanese-style breakfast that got us raring to go for our second day on the road. They also have an onsen (hot bath) which is GREAT after a day on the bike.

You can see more accommodation options on the map at the top of the page but I can't give any my personal recommendation.

What to Bring

After riding the route in normal shorts, I can definitely recommend getting a pair of padded cycling shorts. Make sure you have some kind of waterproof top layer so that you're prepared if the weather changes for the worst; there aren't many places to shelter en route.

There are cafes and restaurants along the route, but these are mostly limited to the bigger towns. I advise bringing a bottle of water (or two) and a couple of snacks to keep you going if you start losing energy while in the wilderness between towns. Make sure you have enough cash, as you might find it difficult finding an ATM when you need it most and many shops/hotels only accept cash.

What to See

Check the map at the top of the page, there's loads! It was rainy when we did it, so we didn't see as many of the outdoor sites as we would have liked, and couldn't enjoy the beaches. However, we did stop off at the Hirayama Ikuo Museum of Art which had some beautiful pieces on display and great souvenirs/postcards. Nearby is Kosanji Temple, which is recommended highly by all who visit.

Navigation

Navigating the Shimanami Kaido is exceptionally easy. A blue line is painted along (nearly) the entire route. Follow this and you'll never get lost. There are a couple of sections where it disappears, but these tend to be in the lead up to the bridges, where there aren't any options to turn off onto different roads.

Our Experience

We decided to start from Imabari (in truth this was decided for us by the lack of bikes at Onomichi). Not realising you couldn't take bikes on the fast ferry, we were severely delayed and ended up collecting the rental bike from Giant at 18.55 (five minutes before the store closed). The sun had already set.

We debated spending the night in Imabari, but instead chose to ride through the evening to our hostel. This wasn't so much of a problem as I had a head-torch and the rental bike came well equipped with a powerful front LED light. The route isn't that well lit, and it gets really dark at points, so I wouldn't recommend doing it at night if you don't have lights. The lack of light also meant we missed most of the views, but it was such a surreal experience doing it in the dark that, in hindsight, I don't really mind.
Out of focus, but full of spirit

44km later and slightly weary, we arrived at the Setoda Private Hostel. The owners are charming and the onsen bath was wonderful on tired legs. We'd called ahead to cancel our dinner (surviving the night pistachios and chocolate) which was a bit of a shame, but I was impressed with their more than ample Japanese-style breakfast the following morning.

The second day was spent cycling through fog and drizzle. Again, we got unlucky with the views, but all-in-all it's such a pleasant cycle that it really didn't matter. We found a great pizza restaurant in Onomichi to finish. It doesn't appear to be on Google Maps, and I can't remember its name, but it's to the left of the station as you face it. If you get into the shopping arcade, you've gone too far.

Oscar Boyd