Cycling from Honshu to Shikoku

This was our first pre-dawn start. We had read mixed reviews about the difficulty of the Shimanami Kaido and so decided to give ourselves the whole day to complete the 70km cycle path. To be honest, I was a little bit nervous as I hadn’t actually been on my bike all winter and just hoped my ‘young legs’ could keep up with my father. I reckon he would’ve completed it in a morning, but the baggage load has been so unfairly distributed (Dad carrying all four panniers, and myself, just the rucksack with the snacks in it) that we were about even-paced.

Dad's bike, my bike.

As the sun was rising we took a ferry from Onomichi to the first island of Mukaishima. The cheerful ferryman told us it would take us 7 hours to reach Shikoku. This gave us a boost of confidence, and we cycled off the ferry looking for the blue line painted on the side of the road that marks the way of the course. “Just follow the blue line!”, the ferryman shouted at us, and waved us good luck.

Morning fisherman

The chilly morning made my knees blue, but I hardly noticed as we watched the peaceful scenes of morning village life. Children running to school, old men walking their dogs and women checking their cabbages in the fields. After all the preparation, the planning and travelling, we were finally on our bikes with all our stuff, enjoying Japan together.

My dad and I had done a cycling trip once before, when we camped our way around the small idyllic islands off the Normandy coast. There, we ate buckets of moules mariniere accompanied by buckets of frites, and snorkelled in warm, clear sea. Here it would be ramen or rice for breakfast and there’d be no snorkelling! Although a lot had changed in the ten years since our last  together, it seemed like nothing had changed at all. And my dad was still kindly carrying all my stuff!

Lost in these memories and the excitement of crossing the next bridge, we’d forgotten we hadn’t had breakfast. It was only when the increasing pain in my backside, made me want to take a rest from the racing-type saddle, that we started looking for a cafe. But there were none, or none which were open! When we did finally see a sign for one open, we were already on our third island and 30km into the course. That coffee and ramen tasted even better for the wait.

By then, my biggest worry was, my saddle. Getting back on my bike, I wondered how I would endure the needle-like pain coming from my seat bones. It reminded me of my post-Cambridge days, when I used to cycle 7 miles to a horse stables, take an hour’s lesson, then cycle the 7 miles back. It’s times like those, you realise that you have seat bones, and then can hurt!

It’s a good job the scenery was spectacular, as it took my mind off this unexpected pain. So from then on, we took it easy. Stopping to take photos of orange groves, trying delicious orange ice cream and enjoying the views off and from the bridges.

Sunset Boulevard

Cool bike, cool bridges

The ferryman had been right, just follow the blue line and you wouldn’t get lost! There were even signs telling you how far you had come, and how far you had to go. The road was smooth and being Japan, the lack of litter means that there is slim chance of getting a puncture. The best thing about the cycle route was the absolute lack of traffic, and apart from a smiling student who was happily cycling along on a rented one-speed mama chari, we had the cycle route all to ourselves!

We took the afternoon slowly and made it to the final and longest bridge by about 3pm. The Kurushima-Kaikyo bridge is 4km in total and is so high, that you are cycling at the same height as buzzards flying nearby and can look down into the cargo ships passing below. As soon as we descended off the bridge, there was the sign for our hotel ‘Sunrise Itoyama’. We’d made it to Shikoku!

The hotel was especially designed for cyclists, so you can even leave your bikes in the corridor outside your room. They have a public bath, to sooth those aching muscles (not that I wanted to sit down again for a long time) and a restaurant with a fantastic view of the lit-up bridge.

The next morning’s view, wasn’t too bad either.

Morning view.

All in all, I’d thoroughly recommend this as a great day. You can rent bikes either way, and you don’t have to be a superman or woman to cross it. And apart from the 50 or 100 yen tolls to cross the bridges, it’s free! If you get a chance, do it!

 

 

 

Osaka to Onomichi

When some of the 130 women staying in the basement capsule hotel woke me, I vowed never to stay in a capsule hotel again. I met my father in the smoky breakfast room and he described his experience, of his first public bath and wearing the given beige night-clothes, as ‘being stripped of all his identity’. On that note, we escaped the prison-like hotel and stepped into the bright sunlight of a usual  morning in Osaka.

IMG_2538

At Shin-Osaka Station, we found that we’d have to wait a couple of hours because we hadn’t booked our Shinkansen seats. We decided to enjoy the sun and walked to the river bank to watch some baseball, a sport that seems more popular in Japan than America.

Back at the station we left plenty of time to scout out the easiest way to the platform and then carry our heavy bikes to the platform. This is a slow operation and one that takes great team. I’d find the route, with elevators, not stairs or escalators, then one of us would go through the ticket gate, and the other would pass the bikes and the panniers through afterwards. At some points we’d have to leave the luggage unattended. Thankfully in Japan, you don’t need to worry about anyone stealing your stuff, and I doubt any thief in the world would try to steal a dismantled bike in a bag, not when they weigh as much as ours did!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was our first time putting our bikes on a bullet train and we were a little nervous. Yet it turned out it was no problem. The doors of the train open about three minutes before it ‘takes off’ and we were able to wedge the bikes behind the last seats in the carriage. After that, we took our seats and relaxed at 247km/h the Shinkansen whisked us through Kansai to Hiroshima Prefecture.

In less than two hours we were at our destination, Onomichi. A small fishing town that is the start of the Shimanami Kaido, a cycling route that crosses bridges and islands on the Inland Sea all the way to Shikoku.

IMG_2547Once off the train, we didn’t know where we could put together our bikes, so we choose the quiet station platform to assemble them. This took longer than usual, as the derailleur hanger had bent on my bike and Dad’s bike had a twisted chain. After forty minutes, a station guard came over to us and in true Japanese style, he apologised that we shouldn’t be setting up there. Then we apologised, then he apologised again and he walked away content; mission accomplished and no loss of face breached in the process. When we did exit the station we found a ‘Bike Set-Up Area’ just outside where many other cyclists were disassembling their bikes. Well, the station guard could’ve just told us that! 

That afternoon we got our bearings by cycling round the quaint town that feels like you’re in a set for a 1960’s soap opera. The covered walkway looks like it hasn’t changed for decades, and like a story book fishing town, there are cats everywhere! And there is a house that is covered in brightly coloured toys. Eccentric Japan.


IMG_2555

 

IMG_2558

We warmed up our muscles by cycling to the viewpoint of Senkoji Park and watched the sunset over the Setouchi (Seto Inland Sea). The islands we’d be crossing the next day melted into the horizon and we hoped there wouldn’t be any hills like the one we’d just walked up slowly cycled up the whole way.
IMG_2573That night we stayed in Anago no Nedoko (eel’s bed) because the building shares the same long and narrow shape as the bed of an eel. The corridors are only half a meter wide! This unique guest house is a restored townhouse that is decorated in a rustic-retro style down to the door knobs and the cutlery. It also has a cosy common area.

IMG_2572

Adjoined to the front of the guest house is the Akubi Café, renovated as an old elementary school classroom. It has used lockers with the names of students still showing, black boards with the day’s menu on it and traditional Japanese school games to play. One grey-haired woman was obviously enjoying the nostalgic as she sat in a velvet-covered chair with her eyes closed and listened to the scratchy jazz playing. Best of all, the food was delicious; classic curry and rice, washed down with a classic Kirin beer and finished off with a blueberry crumble dessert.

Thankfully the beds of the eel’s house were wider than the corridors, and we both got a good night’s sleep before the cycle ride that awaited us the next day!