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Tourism in Japan

Island Ride

The superb scenery of

the Shimanami Sea Route cycling course

Last year CNN labeled the Setouchi Shimanami Sea Route one of “the world’s seven most incredible bike routes.” Connecting the cities of Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture and Imabari in Ehime Prefecture, the seventy-kilometer cycling route—which takes cyclists across six islands along the Seto Inland Sea—is attracting intense interest from overseas tourists.

Dubbed a “holy ground for cyclists,” the Shimanami Sea Route is already hugely popular in Japan. Yoshimasa Kuwata of the Onomichi Tourism Office provided a better sense of this unique byway.

“The Setouchi Shimanami Sea Route opened on May 1, 1999, and offers the only bridge connecting the islands of Honshu and Shikoku that accommodates bicycle and foot traffic,” he explains. “At the Shimanami Sea Route ’99 event held to commemorate the grand opening, we offered a rent-a-cycle service. It proved to be a big hit, so after the event ended we decided to continue the service.”

Cyclists can borrow rental bikes in one city or prefecture and drop them off in another, and choose from a wide variety of routes, with different combinations of distances, travel times and other transportation facilities. The blue line painted along the recommended cycling route clearly marks the distance from either of the two starting points, Imabari or Onomichi, so riders can reach their destination even without a map.

The rent-a-cycle service offers a total of 1700 different bicycles, including city cycles, bikes for children, hybrid bicycles, mountain bicycles, tandem cycles and electric-assist bicycles (only tandem cycles and electric-assist bicycles have to be returned to a specified center). Specialists perform maintenance on the bikes on a regular basis to keep them running properly. Traveling by bicycle allows visitors the flexibility to tour more of the larger hub cities, sampling local cuisine at smaller establishments that use fresh local ingredients and staying at local inns.
“Only the Shimanami Sea Route allows you to use a bicycle to tour the celebrated beauty of the Seto Inland Sea’s many islands,” Kuwata says, emphasizing the route’s charms. “It offers exquisite views of scenery from both its bridges and the coastline, and you can see places from perspectives that no other type of vehicle allows. And since the cycling route runs through local communities on each island, you can experience local hospitality as well.”

The Cycle Oases stationed along the route offer restrooms, drinking water and simple bicycle maintenance tools such as air pumps. Local businesses can register as independent support stations. There are fifty-nine of them in Onomichi alone, evidence of the depth of local support and hospitality.

“In 2014, approximately 3500 foreign tourists gave us rave reviews on their experiences about riding the Shimanami Sea Route starting from Onomichi on a rent-a-cycle bicycle, experiencing the splendor of the scenery, and interacting with the locals,” Kuwata adds. “Three years ago, the president of the world-famous bicycle manufacturer Giant from Taiwan visited and mentioned us on his website and blog. We’ve also presented at tourism exhibitions in Taiwan and South Korea, and we were featured last year on CNN; we’ve had a steady stream of opportunities to attract attention from abroad.

“We have already started offering cycling maps, signposts along the route, and pamphlets explaining how to use the route in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean,” he continues. “We also have English-speaking personnel on staff at our major tourist information centers, so I believe our foreign visitors can enjoy a hassle-free experience. In the future we’ll be offering pamphlets with even more detailed information in multiple languages, and we’re looking into distributing them at smaller inns and restaurants. Our goal is to provide proper maintenance and service along this cycling route the world so loves.”

With the possibilities it presents for rambling through the picturesque Seto Inland Sea and the great hospitality of the locals, the Shimanami Sea Route is steadily becoming a favored tourist destination for travelers from around the world.

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