Cycling the Shimanami Kaido: A quick taster from Imabari
If you ask a Japanese person about cycling routes in Japan, the one that is recommended the most often is the Shimanami Kaido (しまなみ海道 Shimanami Kaidō), a route that spans 70km across six islands and six bridges, connecting the main island of Honshū (本州) to Shikoku (四国). It’s one of the most enjoyable ways to experience the Seto Inland Sea (瀬戸内海 Seto-naikai), which is one of the 50 places listed on Time’s World’s Greatest Places of 2022.
What also sets this apart from other popular cycling routes is its accessibility and ease of use, especially for travellers who simply come empty-handed. There are many cycling stations along the route where you can pick up or return bikes, with the daily rental fee being ¥2,000 for most bikes. Best of all, if you’re worried about being navigationally-challenged, the entire route is clearly marked out on the road with a thick blue painted line. As long as you follow this blue line, you can safely find your way to your destination.
There are various ways to challenge the Shimanami Kaido—from the Onomichi (尾道市 Onomichi-shi) side in Hiroshima Prefecture (広島県 Hiroshima-ken) or the Imabari (今治市 Imabari-shi) side in Ehime Prefecture (愛媛県 Ehime-ken); over a single day, over two days, or even just a portion of it on a round-trip. For first-timers who might be worried about the challenge of such long-distance cycling, allow me to go through a taster course from the Imabari side on electric-assist bikes (電動アシスト dendō ashisuto) that almost anyone can easily try!
Okay, so how do I get the bike?
There are blue lines for both directions, so just stick with it and you can cycle without worrying about navigating via GPS. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)
Renting a bike is as easy as heading over to the Shimanami Kaido website, choosing a date, a bike type, and where along the route that you want to start from. On the day itself, you just have to show up at the station, pay the rental fee plus a deposit, and you’re good to go! For this route, we started at the Sunrise Itoyama (サンライズ糸山 Sanraizu Itoyama) on the Imabari-side of Shimanami Kaido and ended up going for the electric-assist bikes because of the upslopes that you would encounter going up bridges and along the islands. For those unfamiliar, electric-assist bikes are sort of a middle-point between normal bikes and electric bikes—rather than being fully electric, the electric-assist mainly kicks it on upslopes to help reduce the effort needed to cycle uphill. So you can basically cycle up an uphill slope with the same effort you would take on a flat plane. The lady at the counter recommended us their brand-new small-model electric-assist bikes, which were super light, and best of all, very stylish.
Sunrise Itoyama (サンライズ糸山)
Address: 2-8-1 Sunabacho, Imabari-shi, Ehime 794-0001
Nearest station: Hashihama Station (波止浜駅)
Access: 25-minute walk, 15-minute bus ride, or 5-minute taxi ride from Hashihama Station
Opening hours: 8am–8pm
Tel: +81 848-22-3911
And off we go, across the first bridge: Kurushima Kaikyo!
The weather wasn’t the best, but the views were breathtaking nonetheless. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)
Armed with your brand-new electric-assist bike and helmet, the first bridge is right next to the Sunrise Itoyama starting point. Simply head out onto the main road, and follow the blue-line to ascend the bridge. The first bridge on the Imabari side is the Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge (来島海峡大橋 Kurushima Kaikyō Ōhashi), a 4.1km long suspension bridge that actually consists of three bridges connected together. This is the longest bridge across the entire Shimanami Kaido. It also has one of the best views, as you stare out across the islands right beside you, feeling the wind in your hair, and the great outdoors. There’s nothing quite like it.
The next challenge…a seafood BBQ lunch?
When it comes to barbecue, nothing beats a charcoal grill. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)
We had initially planned to finish cycling across the first island, Ōshima (大島), before finding a place for lunch. However, upon our arrival we were greeted by the fragrance of freshly grilled seafood, and we knew this was it. Just after exiting the bridge, you’ll find a roadside station (道の駅 michi-no-eki) with a supermarket, a cafeteria, and most importantly, a seafood barbecue section.
The seafood here is so fresh, it’s literally swimming in the water. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)
For just ¥250 you can rent your own shichirin (七輪 a small Japanese charcoal grill), tongs, and all the other key equipment you need for the barbecue. You’ll then enter the fresh seafood section, where you’ll use tongs to pick seafood so fresh, you literally just grab it out of the tank. While prices vary by season, some of the highlights I got was a massive plump oyster (牡蠣 kaki) for ¥470, scallops (帆立 hotate) for ¥250, and three types of omakase (お任せ) sashimi for ¥1,500. Get everything in your basket, before bringing it to the counter for payment. You’ll be given a table number, where the staff will help you set up your shichirin on the table, and then you’re ready to get grilling! We were lucky to get a terrace seat right by the sea, so we could admire the view as our scallops and oysters slowly sizzled on the grill.
Roadside Station Yoshiumi Iki-iki-kan (道の駅 よしうみいきいき館)
Address: 4520-2 Yoshiumichomyo, Imabari-shi, Ehime 794-2114
Nearest bus stop: Kameyama (亀山)
Access: 21-minute walk from Kameyama bus stop or 10-minute cycle from Sunrise Itoyama
Opening hours (Seafood barbecue section): 10am–4pm
Rental fee (BBQ equipment): ¥250
Tel: +81 897-84-3710
Back on the road: The sea, the bike, and you
The rental shop staff described the bike as oshare (おしゃれ fashionable), and I have to agree with her. They also pose great for photos. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)
As you follow along the blue line to cross the island, you really get a feel for the serenity of the Japanese inaka (田舎)—quiet towns, grassy fields, small local shops—it really feels worlds apart from Tokyo (東京都 Tokyo-to). Once you hit the coastline, the view transforms yet again to panoramic views of the sea, dotted with islands and the occasional boat going past. You’ll probably find yourself stopping a whole lot, for the sheer amount of photo spots that you encounter at every turn.
Boats, forests, bridges, and dolphins?
There’s just something relaxing about watching dolphins swim. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)
Crossing over onto the next island of Hakatajima (伯方島), you will find Dolphin Farm Shimanami, where you can get up close and personal with dolphins. While we only paid the ¥500 fee to go in and have a look, there were tons of kids on the ¥5,000 experience course, where they were feeding the dolphins, patting them, and having lots of fun. You could really see the bond between the trainer and the dolphin (イルカ iruka), as well as them having fun with the children. There’s also a ¥10,000 course where you get to swim alongside the dolphins too. Just note that the facility is a pontoon on the open sea, so it can get quite rocky if you are prone to sea-sickness.
Dolphin Farm Shimanami (ドルフィンファームしまなみ)
Address: Kō-1673 Hakatacho Kanoura, Imabari-shi, Ehime 794-2302
Nearest bus stop: Hakatajima (伯方島)
Access: 5-minute walk from Hakatajima bus stop or 1-hour cycle from Sunrise Itoyama
Opening hours: 9am–5pm
Admission fee: ¥500
Tel: +81 897-72-8787
The goal: Stunning cakes at a patisserie by the sea
I recommend getting the outdoor terrace seats at the cafe to enjoy the view. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)
You might be forgiven for thinking, "wait, isn't this just a trip for food?". I make no apologies, but once you’ve tried the cakes at this patisserie, you’ll see why it’s a journey worth making. This is undoubtedly one of the best dessert shops I’ve ever been to in Japan. The cafe has a beautiful terrace where you can sit facing the sea, but the star of the show is definitely the desserts. We tried the fruit kardinalschnitten (フルーツのカルディナール furūtsu no karudināru), marugoto peach (まるごとピーチ marugoto pīchi), strawberry roll cake, croissant fruit sandwich and the basque cheesecake, and each one was amazing. The desserts were extremely light and flavorful, as characteristic of Japanese western-style desserts, the sponge was fluffy yet fragrant, the cream was light and milky, the fruits were really sweet, and everything just worked really well together.
The showstopper might have been the fruit kardinalschnitten, a Viennese dessert with layers of meringue, sponge, cream, strawberries and a crispy layer with icing sugar dusted on top. I did not know what it was when I picked it out of the dessert showcase, but now I’ll never forget it.
Patisserie T’s Cafe Tamaya (Patisserie T’s Cafe 玉屋)
Address: Kō-2328 Hakatacho Arouzu, Imabari-shi, Ehime 794-2301
Nearest bus stop: Hakatajima (伯方島)
Access: 30-minute walk from Hakatajima bus stop or 90-minute cycle from Sunrise Itoyama
Opening hours: 9am–5pm (Closed on Sundays)
Tel: +81 897-72-0343
Back to Imabari
(Image credit: Jeremy Jee)
Turning back at the patisserie would be a good point for most people, as the round-trip distance would already be around 43km. This entire route took us from around 11am up till about 5:30pm when we returned back to Sunrise Itoyama. What we cycled was only a taster, visiting two of the six islands. But it makes for a great first-time experience on the Shimanami Kaido, especially for the less sports-inclined, and allows for a good workout, great views, and interspersed with amazing food.
At first glance it might not be very pleasing to the eye, but I guarantee it will be pleasing to your tastebuds. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)
As a little bonus, I recommend trying out the local specialty of Imabari, the yakibuta tamago meshi (焼豚玉子飯). A chūka (中華 chinese-style) dish, which is essentially chunks of grilled pork with rice, topped with two sunny-side eggs, and then drizzled with a savoury-sweet dark sauce. It’s just one of those feel-good homemade style dishes that really hits the spot.
Shigematsu Hanten (重松飯店)
Address: 5-4-47 Taishocho, Imabari-shi, Ehime 794-0025
Nearest station: Imabari Station (今治駅)
Access: 13-minute walk from Imabari Station
Opening hours: 11:45am–1:45pm, 6pm–9pm (Closed on Mondays)
Tel: +81 898-22-6452
Perhaps I’ll return to cycle the Shimanami Kaido from one end to the other, but until then, I will remember this foodie's cycling trip fondly.
Header image credit: Jeremy Jee