Island-hop by bike in Japan
Hard-core cyclists we’re not. We’ve rocked up in Onomichi City at brunch-time, would you believe, to pick up wheels to conquer a good chunk of Japan’s 70km islandhopping Shimanami Kaido cycling trail.
Hiroshima Prefecture’s Onomichi, facing the Seto Inland Sea, is a modest city of 142,000 residents and is a terminus for the scenic cycling trail over a series of islands that, like oversized stepping stones, lead to Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. Onomichi is also famous for a classic ramen dish; the soy sauce-flavoured soup features stock made from chicken and Seto Inland Sea fish, and flat noodles crowned with pork back fat.
Even at the outset, when our breath forms perfect little clouds in the crisp winter air, we have no idea we should have gone about this differently. But we’re learning by the minute, thanks to the fact that one of us has forgotten gloves. After a 90-minute drive from Hiroshima, we pull up outside the harbourfront Onomichi U2 complex, home to a Giant store (the Taiwanese brand is the world’s largest bicycle manufacturer) and so much more. While the gloveless one makes his purchase, I poke around the rest of this seriously hip outpost. The former maritime warehouse has been repurposed into a shrine to all things two-wheeled. Cyclists who end up in Onomichi could easily spend a day or two here in anticipation or recovery.
The open-plan complex, unveiled in 2014, is bookended by the 28-room Hotel Cycle at one end and the gleaming Giant store at the other, with a restaurant, bakery, gift shop and cafe filling the concrete-pillared middle ground. The hotel’s ambience, with a reception desk that looks like minimalist timber filing cabinets, reminds me of Prague’s Franz Kafka Museum. Arrive on your bike and you can rack it at the entrance.
The cafe’s offerings look healthy, portable and delicious and walking past it turns out to be our second mistake. In hindsight, we should have packed baked goods and drinks from here for a bespoke picnic, but we don’t know yet that a lunch challenge lies ahead.
We head to the rental booth within a neighbouring carpark and go through a painstaking process of choosing our bike for the day. E-bikes are available, along with multi-geared varieties, but e-bikes must be returned to the same booth and we’re doing a one-way trip. Bike rental costs 1000 yen ($11.60) a day but serious cyclists will probably bring their own. I select a bike with a basket and the widest available seat.
The first leg of the journey isn’t by bike but a four-minute ferry ride (said to be the world’s shortest) as the two bridges leading on to Mukaishima Island aren’t designed for cyclists. That’s OK — the charming ferry, complete with a wheelhouse featuring a roof with upturned scarlet eaves, is only about 100m away.
Once we’re decanted on to the island, part of the Geiyo archipelago, following the trail couldn’t be easier. A painted blue line, much like the one that marked the Sydney Olympics marathon route, shows the way. And so we start cycling, passing neat houses, a photogenic crimson bridge leading to Iwashijima Island and fishermen who use ladders to elevate themselves and their rods above a concrete road safety barrier.
In the distance is the imposing Innoshima Suspension Bridge. At 1.3km it was the longest of its kind in Asia when built in 1983. Its most remarkable feature, though, is a pedestrian corridor and cycleway that clings to the bridge’s underbelly. If you’re not one of those cyclists who embrace climbing, looking at the bridge — and knowing you have to somehow reach it — feels daunting.
What I don’t know yet is that those who engineered the cycle trail have been kind to so-so cyclists like me, for the bridge-access paths slowly spiral much like the famous Naruto whirlpools at Shikoku’s eastern end.
Katrina Lobley was a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organization.
Waiting for the Onomichi ferry, top; riding towards the Innoshima bridge, top right; U2 Onomichi, above; a local cycling sign, below