Cyclist heads to Japan to discover the Seto Inland Sea, a water wonderland of bridges, islands and incredible views. This was a ride we won’t soon forget.

Words: ALEX MALONE
Photography: MARCUS ENNO

Japan has always been a hot spot for winter travellers. Skiers, snowboarders and powderhounds have long voyaged to the island of Hokkaido in search of some of the best conditions those from Down Under will likely ever experience. More recently, it’s become a hot topic for the pedalling kind too. With stellar mountain ranges, seaside flats, vending machines on every corner and ‘fast food’ that rivals many eat-in restaurants, it’s no wonder. And even more importantly: a motoring culture that puts safety and respect for all road users well ahead of short-lived delays.

We’re on a multi-day exploratory adventure around the Seto Inland Sea of Western Japan – and no, that isn’t a typo. Looking at the pre-departure brief it seemed much of our time would be on or above the water. Kicking off with the well-known Shimanami Kaido on Day 1, through to Tobishima Kaido on Day 2 and finally the Iyonada Sadamisaki Melody Line on Day 3, we’d venture between two seaside prefectures – Hiroshima and Ehime – over three days, across 13 separate bridges, and around, through, up and down 10 different islands.

It’s the ideal location for the intrepid and more conservative cyclo-traveller alike. And while the team at Cyclist so often hunts for Big Rides off-piste, there’s a certain relief to know you’re always on track. With local guide Yasu Nishiyama at the helm for the duration of our trip, all we had to do was ensure we didn’t drop the wheel. That, and follow the thin blue line.

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Bridging the gap

A smattering of cherry blossoms signals the season’s shift from winter to spring, but while the sun brings warmth to our bodies, the nippy breeze tells us it’s not quite done yet. The low-degree 10s ensure we stay rugged up as we clip-in and pedal out of our room, across reception to return the key and out the door of Onomichi U2 cycle hotel. With a dedicated maintenance area, foyer racks, bike shop and in-room hanging hooks this converted warehouse is bike-friendly, to say the least. It’s also situated smack at the start of the Shimanami Kaido cycling route – the focus for today. Tomorrow, we’d be on the ferry again to tackle the Tobishima Kaido – apparently a popular end-of-season location for boar hunters.

Ferry number one comes just a kilometre down the road. Barely a car-width, this is for foot and cycle traffic only. With so many small islands within the Seto Sea, these vessels prove vital for locals and commuters making short trips across the watery divides.

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It’s a perfect way to set off along the Shimanami Kaido; a specifically tailored route spanning from Onimichi to Imabari some 70-odd kilometres later. Or, for the intermediate to advanced (like us), you can stretch it out a islands, today’s ride will be closer to 120km. Consider it the scenic route, but here, even the direct 70km course feels like you’re experiencing something a little bit special.

The combination of short punchy climbs and dedicated cycle paths ascending to bridge height – most around 50 metres above sea level – would have us in for a challenging yet picturesque opening day. Falling behind isn’t on the schedule, as we soon discover. Our on-bike guide Yasu, equipped with a cross-ready Giant TCX, proves quite the timekeeper, pushing our three-man paceline along at a rapid rate.

Going big in Japan

Follow in Cyclist’s wheel tracks

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A smattering of cherry blossoms signals the season’s shift from winter to spring, but while the sun brings warmth , the nippy breeze tells us it’s not quite done yet The Shimanami Kaido is traditionally ridden from Onomichi to Imabari, however, the thin blue line marking the route is conveniently run in both directions.

We begun in Onomichi and took a small passenger ferry across to Mukaishima. Jump on the 377 and head west to the water’s edge. From here you’re on the route proper and with signage pointing you across the first bridge and over to Innoshima Island. Taking the “Advanced” route, we again hug the shoreline around the northern and western parts of the island towards the Ikuchi Bridge.

A glance across your right shoulder will show the path below and the direction you’ll want to take as we begin a semi-circumnavigation around Ikuchujima. Follow the 21 and 51 through the heart of Omishima and track the toe section of this boot-shaped island. Spiral up and down through the twists and turns onto both the Omishima and Oshima bridges before making a final route choice through Oshima. We took a more direct route along the 317 before a slight scenic tour along the sea-swept 49.

The Kurushima Kaiko Bridge is the final crossing for the day. Push through the prevailing head wind and drop down into Imabari for a well-earned meal. Well on track We hop off the ferry and ‘squeeze’ through the commuter carpark. This undercover area, however, is car-free, reserved for bikes and the odd scooter only. One less car, as the ‘bumper’ stickers say back home.

The north-east side of Mukaishima Island is our first point of reference. We’re blown away by just how much this ride means to the local prefectures. The primary Shimanami Kaido route is easily identifiable, marked with a blue line, and makes navigation a synch. It’s something you wouldn’t see back home except along the Sydney Olympics marathon course.

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Guide’s ride

Yasu’s Giant TCX Advanced Pro 2 (approx. $3,499)

The Japanese spec carbon fibre TCX ridden by our guide Yasu is a 2015 model and wasn’t brought into Australia that season. The Shimano 105 mixed ensemble is fitted with an FSA Gossamer crankset (36/46T) and seemed to do little to slow him down, despite being restricted on the faster sections of the Shimanami Kaido. Yasu had a more-or-less factory setup with cable activated TRP disc brakes; however, the off-road racer had converted the 32-hold Giant SX-2 wheelset into a tubeless system. Yasu runs the fast-rolling 32c IRC Serac CX tubeless tyres. An equivalent version, available here in Australia, is the 2017 TCX Advanced Pro 2. Main points of difference include a SRAM 1x Rival groupset, updated wheelset and 12mm bolt-through rear axle. Full details can be found here.

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Not long after, we arrive at our first water crossing, the Innoshima Bridge; but instead of clambering up numerous flights of stairs – like we expect – the course continues to find its own way up with a dedicated cycle path. A gentleman sits at the entrance counting bikes as we turn off the road and onto the canyon-like ascent. He’ll be busy later in the year when up to 3,500 riders take on an official event covering today’s route. Distance and gradient is also marked; a little over a kilometre and averaging just a few per cent. In a few minutes we’ve crested the climb and ride below the main freeway. Down here is a path reserved for pedestrians and cyclists, but with stellar views across the strait – disrupted by a caged fence – we’re keen to get topside next time.

The Ikuchi Bridge is our first opportunity to look out across the Seto Sea and across to the island group of Kamijima. With a little more height we would be able to see across to the eastern side of Shikoku – the smallest of Japan’s four major islands – however, the pimply terrain creates a natural surrounding fence line; so much so that industry is pushed to the shorelines. There’s a hive of activity down there with small boats, ferries and large container ships moving about constantly.

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Blue line fever

Yasu appears to be getting into the groove of the day and balances our leisurely shot stops with a severe contrast in pace. He’s doing his best to keep us on track while Marcus and I continue to look at each other in shock by just how fast he’s riding. Lunch and a brief cultural stop await. Be polite. Don’t be late. It’s a mantra the Japanese have instilled into all facets of life. Tourists like us have to get with the program or risk being left behind. Quite literally.

We pull up and slide into our walking shoes for a short trip to visit the Mirishin no Oka (Hill of Hope). This is undoubtedly one of the most lavish displays of marble use I’ve ever come across. The contemporary piece, created by Japanese sculptor Kazutou Kuetani, commences with base steps before making its way, some 5,000 square metres later, to the Tower of Light. Feeling a little tired after the walk up the hill? Well, there’s a cafe at the top – made from Italian-imported Carrara marble of course. All of a sudden those marble kitchen bench tops don’t seem so fancy. Following the blue line, our three-man crew continues south towards the second-longest water crossing of the day.

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The Tatara Bridge is an impressive feat of construction, taking just six years to complete. While initially intended as a suspension bridge, the eventual cable-strayed design is nearly 400 metres longer than the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Unlike the ‘anti-jumper’ walls of the Bridge, however, the Tatara gives its users a clear view across the waterway. We spiral down off the bridge and cut through the guts of Omishima Island. Yasu’s local knowledge of the route is priceless, and he takes us along a magnificent stretch along the lower eastern fringe. In the backdrop are the islands of Okamurajima and Osakishimojima, along with a few more that make up the Tobishima Kaido – another must-do ride within the Setouchi Sea.

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The water here is crystal clear and if it wasn’t so breezy, we’d most definitely be in there for a mid-ride dip. Summer tends to be a tad too hot for riding, but shortly following, around September through till early November, would be fine.

The next two bridges come in quick succession. We climb up to the crossing onto Omishima and drop into a small industrial area before doing what feels like a loop-the-loop up to the Hakata-Oshima Bridge. What we’re starting to realise, as the day goes on, is just how much of each island there is to explore if you’ve got the time and legs. While on the more ‘experienced’ route, there are still plenty of extras to be taken in. We even spot a nasty little up-and-down climb that would have no doubt provided some amazing views across this vast waterway. Alas, today is about sticking to the schedule – which seems to be constantly jabbing us in the backside.

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Yasu tells us about the final bridge of the day and the spiral ramp used to access it. The Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge is an immense piece of architecture spanning more than 4km across from Oshima to the main island of Shikoku. It also happens to hold the title of longest suspension bridge structure in the world – by more than just a few metres. With our usual routine of shooting taking up far more of the day than we generally like to allocate, Marcus is keen to make a strong push to this apparent ‘sweet spot’.

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Climbing the wall

We soon find ourselves at a crossroads. Yasu explains that we can continue for another kilometre or so in order to get up to the bridge path; alternatively, we can simply take a right-hand turn and go straight up. ‘Can’t be that hard, it’s a cycleway,’ boasts Marcus. Sure thing, let’s do it. In an instant we’re at the top of our cassette and struggling to maintain forward momentum up this cruel goat track of a path. Who even goes this way? I moan. Yasu, is the last one over the top and puts us into position. Finally, showing a little bit of tiredness, he says he’s going back down to grab some drinks.

We’re in an industrial area with no shops within eyeshot. We can’t figure out how he’s going to achieve this objective but within a couple of minutes he returns with three cans of hot coffee. This is just what we’ve been looking for all day. The sugar-laden and warm caffeine slides down our gullets in an instant. Like a slap to the face we’re ‘on’ – and with just enough time to capture some stellar shots with the falling light.

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There’s a southerly blowing across the bridge as we hurry past tower after tower, stopping briefly to pop off another pic. Marcus is now the master of the ship, dragging us past some local riders and across to the other side before the final bit of golden light disappears. We’re on track for our dinner appointment. That’s the main priority. It couldn’t have come at a better time – the end of the day that is. A wave of fatigue blows over us as we descend into Imabari in what feels like a perpetual spiral. We’re exhausted and wired – from our caffeine hit – at the same time. A common feeling for Big Ride riders.

The final slice or orange light falls over the horizon and just like that ‘it’s a wrap’. With the moon soon taking its place we make our way gingerly down the other side and into the town of Imabari. There’s a bit of traffic around – a contrast to what we’ve experienced for the entirety of today – but we’re city slickers. Ducking and diving through the streams of red tail lights feels just like home. It’s a ride that comes to somewhat of an anticlimax as we roll into the car park of a huge, multi-storey hotel with just minutes to spare. Yasu has done his duty, and we’ve arrived just in time for a quick shower before dinner at a local sushi train awaits. Today’s ride is done and dusted, but our trip has just begun. We have two more days of fun and riding ahead. For now though, we’re content to tuck into some delicious sushi. Welcome to Japan.

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Do it yourself

Setouchi Shimanami Kaido: October 29-30, 2016

The Cycling Shimanami 2016 event gives participants a chance to ride the full Setouchi Shimanami Kaido route, along with up to 3,500 of your closest mates. With course distances varying from 40km to 150km, the day offers a challenge for beginner, enthusiast and ‘advanced’ riders alike. At time of publication, the first round of entries had already been exhausted; however, a second round was likely to be opened in late June. The non-competitive day will likely differ from many of the other gran fondo-style events cyclists from Down Under have participated in before. The unique course, held within a picturesque urban environment, is an experience worth slowing things down for. Sometimes it’s not about being the fastest, nor about setting a PB. Often, it’s just the journey that matters, and the Shimanami Kaido may offer just that. For more information head to cycling-shimanami.jp/english.

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By the numbers

Because everyone loves stats

122
Age in years of the Dogo Onsen – fed by a spring thought to be over 3,000 years old.
30
Plates of sushi eaten by two hungry cyclists.
13
Bridges crossed over three days of riding.
1
Selfie taken with an azalea at Miyajima.
0
Minutes lost during our trip. The Japanese just don’t do late.

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How we got there

TRAVEL

We travelled from Sydney to Tokyo Haneda airport direct with All Nippon Air. An evening departure and approximate nine-hour flight time sees you arrive early the next morning. After tucking into our first ramen, we again boarded All Nippon Air for the domestic flight westward to Hiroshima. The folks from Travel Japan collected our group from Hiroshima and drove us to Onimichi. We made our return journey from Hiroshima on an afternoon flight before taking a slightly shorter overnight flight into Sydney – again arriving in the early morning.

ACCOMMODATION

We stayed at the Onimichi U2 Cycle Hotel on our first night. This cycling-friendly hotel has everything the travelling cyclist could need, including full restaurant, gift shop (with things you might actually want to buy) and a Giant bike store. Two nights were spent in Imabari at the Kokusai Hotel and, in similar fashion to U2, cyclists were more than welcome – albeit in a more traditional four-star hotel style. One night was spent in Matsuyama – worth exploring by bike – at the Dogo Yamanote Hotel. The ye-olde-England-themed hotel is located just around the corner from the Dogo Onsen. The ANA Crowne Plaza in Hiroshima was our final hotel and, while full of regular Western comforts, we missed the Japanese breakfast options available at previous hotels.

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FOOD AND DRINK

Rice and fish – sashimi and cooked – are staples in the Japanese diet. But not all rice is created equal. We enjoyed everything from regular Japanese short-medium grain rice through to combinations mixed with tiny silver fish. Pickled vegetables with varying textures also made a regular appearance on the lunch and dinner table. Drinks consisted of ice cold beer, green tea and warm sake – remember to pour for others first and then allow your friends to pour for you.

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THANKS

To H.I.S. Australia, All Nippon Air, Ehime and Hiroshima Prefecture tourism for pulling this trip together. With on-road support from Yasu and Miwa in the car, the team was able to fully focus on simply riding and trying to absorb as much of the culture and sights as possible. Cheers to Attaquer for keeping us warm and comfortable.

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