Wheel ad­ven­tures

Is­land-hop by bike in Ja­pan

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION ASIA - KA­T­RINA LOB­LEY

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

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