By Makoto Imaoka / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterRunning through islands in the Seto Inland Sea, the Setouchi Shimanami Kaido Expressway connects Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, with Imabari, Ehime Prefecture.
Among the three routes linking the Shikoku and Honshu regions via bridges, the expressway is the only one offering a bicycle lane, attracting more than 300,000 cyclists from Japan and overseas each year.
The expressway got even more attention this year when the Kojien dictionary, revised for the first time in a decade, listed it with an incorrect explanation about islands on the route. Following the error, some locals were even heard saying the new dictionary should be further revised to tout the area as “a sacred spot for cyclists.”
Cycling season arrives
I visited Sunrise Itoyama, a cycling terminal in Imabari, on a weekend in mid-March.
“At long last, the cycling season has come,” Kenji Kawahara, the facility’s manager, said with a smile as he greeted me. With a helmet on, I started pedaling a bicycle with multigears I had rented at the terminal. Under a clear blue sky, the wind was calm. It was an ideal day for riding a bike.
Soon after departing the terminal, I arrived at the entrance to the cycling course on the 4.1-kilometer Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge, the world’s first bridge consisting of three consecutive suspension bridges linked together.
I pedaled up the spiral ramp to the bridge. Feeling a pleasant breeze on my cheeks, I beheld a vista of deep blue sea and islands spreading ahead of me.
The cables connecting the main towers to their anchorages are up to about 65 centimeters thick. The cables are woven from thin wires — enough of them to circle the Earth about 2½ times.
I was so amazed at the beauty of the construction integrating the best technologies that I stopped pedaling and turned my camera to it.
The bridge also has a steep slope, with the height of its road surface varying by about 30 meters. In the past, I’ve driven across the bridge many times, but I’d never been aware of it.
As I pedaled harder, sweat built up on my forehead.
“I should have borrowed an electric bike,” I said to myself.
From children to athletes
There are a variety of cyclists using the expressway. There were families riding along together, and some serious-looking riders on sports-type bicycles.
Hitomi Nagano, 40, a dental assistant in Imabari, said that she has toured on the route almost every week for three years.
She smiled and said, “I feel refreshed seeing these superb views, and my body has become toned while I have continued to ride on my bike. Now I’m captivated [by cycling here].”
It took about 30 minutes on a bicycle to pass over the entire length of the bridge. Kirosan Observation Park, at an elevation of 307 meters on Oshima island, is the best place along the Shimanami Kaido Expressway to observe panoramic views.
I took a break and enjoyed looking back over the whole bridge.
Continuing north brings cyclists to Hakatajima island and then to Tatara Shimanami Park, a roadside rest area on Omishima island.
In the rest area, there stands a large stone monument with the phrase “sacred spot for cyclists” carved into it. The monument was erected there in 2014 with the aim of advertising attractive points along the expressway by promoting bicycle tourism.
Each of the two towers of the 1.5-kilometer Tatara Bridge is shaped like a pair of giant legs that straddle the roadway. If you clap your hands at the foot of one of these legs, you can hear the sound run up it as an echo. The phenomenon is called “naki ryu [dragon’s cry].”
Tsuyoshi Ito, 13, a junior high school student from Kobe who visited the site with his mother, joyfully said: “The sound echoed throughout into the beautiful sea and sky. It’s mysterious.”
A line painted in the middle of the Tatara Bridge shows the border between Ehime and Hiroshima prefectures. Along the route beyond the bridge, on Ikuchijima island, lemon orchards spread abundantly.
Next comes Innoshima island, which is believed to have been a base for the Murakami Suigun, an independent naval force that had strong power in the Seto Inland Sea long ago.
The route then passes through Mukaishima island, which is famous for the shipbuilding industry. Beyond the island, Onomichi Port, which is the terminal point of the route, comes into sight.
On this trip, I was a bit short on time and stamina, and so I did some sections of the route by car. At the next opportunity, I want to cover the entire route on a bicycle starting from the Onomichi side.
Foreign tourists also lured
The total length of the route recommended for cycling on the Shimanami Kaido Expressway is about 70 kilometers.
The roads were initially used mainly by local residents on the islands. A rising consciousness about health and the beautiful scenic views have attracted tourists, including those from overseas.
In fiscal 2016, a total of about 140,000 rental bicycles were used. The number doubled from that in fiscal 1999.
The Ehime prefectural government and other concerned entities held an international cycling event for the first time in 2014. The third such event will be held in October this year.
In the event, seven courses are set for cyclists of different levels, from beginners to experienced ones. Distances vary from about 30 kilometers to about 140 kilometers.
Seven thousand people can participate, with applications accepted from May 9 to 31. But the participants will not compete for ranks or racing time.
The event is said to be popular because participants can enjoy “omotenashi” hospitality in which local residents serve mikan tangerines and other refreshments.
In the Shikoku region, there is a deep-rooted tradition of “osettai,” in which local residents offer drinks and foods free of charge to pilgrims called “ohenro-san” in Japanese.
It seems that such kindness of local residents is further enhancing the attractiveness of this holy place.
■ Traffic access
It is about a 20-minute bus ride from JR Imabari Station to reach Sunrise Itoyama in Imabari. The starting point on the Onomichi side is Onomichi Port, which is about a five-minute walk from JR Onomichi Station. Rental bicycles are ¥1,000 per day for junior high school students or older, and ¥300 for elementary school students or younger. Renting electric power-assisted bicycles costs ¥1,500 for up to six hours, with deposits ranging from ¥500 to ¥1,000.
There are 13 terminal facilities for rental bicycles along the recommended cycling route, and users can leave bicycles they rent at the facilities.