I stopped and took a foot off my rusty bike pedal as I slowly and reluctantly looked towards the last climb of the day.
My mental and physical state was quickly declining with a setting sun, sore back, and aching butt.
Despite exhaustion creeping into my body and a craving for sushi growing by the minute, I could not wipe the smile off my face.
I had looked forward to cycling the Shimanami Kaido immediately after learning about it two weeks earlier.
After wandering through a seemingly endless number of temples, shrines, and gardens, I was itching for something new and adventurous.
The Shimanami Kaido cycling route quickly scratched this and earned its spot as one of my favorite activities in Japan.
For physical activity adventure seekers visiting Japan, cycling the Shimanami Kaido should definitely be a part of your itinerary.
What is the Shimanami Kaido?
Shimanami Kaido is a highway connecting the southern Japanese cities of Onomichi and Imabari. Spanning over 60 kilometers (37 miles), it runs across a chain of six different islands.
Shimanami Kaido is unique because it’s the only route between Onomichi and Imabari accessible by biking or walking (if you dare). The recommended bike path measures closer to 70km (43 miles) as it occasionally diverges from the highway.
While this route is clearly labeled along the way, different paths and side trails are available for more adventurous bikers. These are labeled based on difficulty (incline, distance, estimated time, etc.) and offer unique views and landmarks.
All routes merge before the bridges so you always end up back on the recommended route for some time.
With many routes to explore and frequent detours for pictures (if that’s your thing), biking Shimanami Kaido can take anywhere from 6-10 hours. A time commitment well worth the investment.
Note: Starting March 2018, a small toll at each bridge is required for cyclists.
Who Should Cycle the Shimanami Kaido?
Really anyone can complete this but the level of difficulty varies on your fitness level, time available, and chosen route.
We all prefer spending our time and energy in different ways so this might be more appealing for a specific type of person.
You will likely enjoy this if you are someone who is:
- Looking for a unique way to see different, but beautiful, landscapes of Japan.
- Reasonably fit. Like “I can complete a marathon” level fit…
- Kidding…You should be fine if you can run a mile or two without sending yourself to the hospital. It’s more intense than a causal ride in the park, but blood doping is not necessary.
- Up to an athletic challenge and willing to work up a sweat.
- Able to allocate 1-2 days for cycling.
- One day is doable but feels rushed. I only know this because I did one day and wished I set aside two for more exploring time.
Even if none of these describe you but it still sounds fun, just go for it! But, understand what you’re getting into.
Why Should You Cycle the Shimanami Kaido?
Many visitors in Japan stick to large, metropolitan cities and the surrounding areas. Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, etc.
A lot of activities in these areas revolve around sightseeing; primarily gardens, temples, and shrines. This isn’t bad, but after seeing similar sites again and again it’s refreshing to switch things up.
Cycling Shimanami Kaido is the perfect activity to do this.
When looking around on my ride, I felt like I had transported to a completely different country or area of the world.
Islands spanning the horizon, stunning coastal formations, towering bridges, and charming towns are only a few of the sights I saw.
More than once, I was reminded to pick my jaw up off the ground by a bug in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I stopped for pictures so often I had to start passing things up to beat the sunset.
I also found myself appreciating each sight a bit extra after putting in the physical effort to ride up or over them.
Other reasons for cycling the Shimanami Kaido include:
- You gain a unique feel and understanding for a different part of Japan.
- Enjoy nature and jaw-dropping scenery while getting in a great workout.
- It’s relatively easy to bike in one day, although I highly recommend two.
- Easy to navigate the recommended route.
- Blue paint lines the road along with directional arrows and distance markers. Signs and maps are also laid out periodically. I never had to use my phone for maps.
- You can make your route as easy or hard as you like by choosing different paths.
If 70km sounds too daunting, you don’t need to bike the entire route. You could go part of the way, explore an island, and go back to your origin.
I also highly recommend spending a night in the northern, harbor-town of Onomichi.
It was incredibly peaceful with a lot of terrific food and inexpensive onsens. A great break from the high-action metropolitan cities.
How and When to Cycle the Shimanami Kaido?
Whichever you choose, definitely try to reserve a bike in advance by going to their website or calling.
- Less expensive (~$10 a day) with 13 rental/drop off points across the islands.
- Offer city, mountain, and crossover bikes. No road bikes.
- A 1,000 yen (~$10) deposit is required and only returned if you drop the bike off at the same location.
- Can rent without prior reservation, but your options are limited to the leftovers.
They do have electric-assist bikes if you’re feeling lazy but still want to see landscapes from the Shimanami Kaido.
- More expensive (start at ~$40 a day) but higher quality.
- Primarily offer road bikes (aluminum, carbon, and premium carbon).
- Only rental/drop off locations in Onomichi and Imabari.
- Prior reservation required.
If you plan to bring a backpack with you, I highly recommend reserving a bike with a basket. If not, pack light as it will be on your back the whole ride.
My back was killing by the end because I brought way too much in my bag, and since I didn’t reserve in advance I was left with a basket-less bike.
I recommend staying in Onomichi or Imabari the night before, waking up early, and getting a good start (especially if you plan to do one day) for as much daylight possible.
In terms of time of year, you can cycle the Shimanami Kaido during any month. Here are average temperatures by month in Onomichi between July 2016 and July 2017, via WorldWeatherOnline.com:
Really the only time you might want to second-guess this ride is between November – February.
I was fortunate to have a sunny, beautiful day for my journey. If you have flexibility with time, look at weather reports a few days in advance and choose the most appealing day.
Overall, the Shimanami Kaido cycling route is a perfect combination of physical activity and a day of thrilling exploration. Adventure seekers looking to see beautiful landscapes of southern Japan in a unique and physical way will love spending a day or two biking across these islands.
Whether you want to add variety into your Japan trip or give yourself a challenge while exploring coastal views and towns, the Shimanami Kaido does not disappoint.
Bring plenty of cash (most places do not accept card), snacks, and water to keep you nourished and energized along the way.
Enjoy your ride and remember: you can always follow professional cyclists’ lead and blood dope if you’re feeling tired.
Comments, questions, or other tips to add? Leave them in the comment section below!