I first knew of Seto Inland Sea from one of the silliest animes I’ve ever watched.
In Seto no Hanayome, the protagonist who was a teenage boy fell into the Seto Inland Sea and was saved from drowning by a mermaid. According to the mermaid law, if a mermaid’s identity was revealed, either the mermaid or the human who saw the mermaid must be executed. In order to save both the mermaid and the boy, the mermaid’s family decided to marry their daughter to the boy.
And thus, the storyline revolves around the couple’s daily life that was peppered with plenty of silly and innocent, yet ecchi jokes, typically found in animes of harem genre.
In the anime, Seto Inland Sea was described as crystal clear blue waters dotted with small islands and that got my curiosity going.
After some googling, I found that Seto Inland Sea is actually the body of water separating 3 of Japan’s main islands, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu.
As a sea-loving person, I decided then that Seto Inland Sea must be included in my Japan trip itinerary.
Throughout the process of researching for my itinerary, I realized that information about places of interest around Seto Inland Sea was not commonly found, with the exception of Miyajima, which is known as one of the Three Views of Japan.
I then learnt about Shimanami Kaido, the bridge that links the island of Honshu and Shikoku via 6 small islands (Mukaishima, Innoshima, Ikuchijima, Omishima, and Oshima island) in Seto Inland Sea and that people commonly cycle this bridge.
Due to the lack of details available on the internet, I decided to just wing it and booked ourselves 2 days in Hiroshima on the last leg of our Japan trip.
From there, my husband and I side-tripped to Onomichi where the starting point of the bridge is in the Honshu island. My younger brother and 2 of our friends, whom we were traveling with, decided to sleep in and joined in later if they felt like it.
We were very fortunate to find a guide at the Onomichi station’s tourist office who could speak very good English. She gave us a very detailed map containing all the information that I had been trying so hard to find when planning the trip. She also pointed out on our map places of interest in each island, bicycle rental shops in case we wanted to ditch our bikes, and ferry terminals to the other islands.
After collecting our bikes (I had to rack my brain to come up with all sorts of sign language as the lady who managed the bicycle rental shop didn’t speak English at all), we set off by ferry to the first island, Mukaishima island. The portion of the bridge that links Onomichi and Mukaishima island did not have a bicycle path. Therefore, cyclists were advised to take a ferry to Mukaishima island and start their journey there.
We only had one day, so my initial plan was to cycle all the way from Onomichi to Imabari in the Shikoku island and return back by shinkansen. After all, the bridge is 70km long and assuming we cycle 10km per hour with only short breaks, we should be able to reach Imabari by the evening and catch the last shinkansen back to Hiroshima.
I soon realized how short-lived my plan was the moment we reached the first bridge, the Innoshima Ohashi bridge that connects Mukaishima and Innoshima island.
The cycling path on the first island, Mukaishima island, apparently wasn’t that easy to navigate despite being pretty much flat. With bumps here and there, we found that our cycling speed was hardly 10km per hour.
On top of that, we faced the daunting task of having to climb a 45-degree slope that was nearly 400 meters’ long just to reach the Innoshima Ohashi bridge. Mind you, climbing the slopes outside NTU’s hall of residence 6 and 8 is nothing compared to this.
After finally conquering the first bridge and realizing that we would have to climb a similar slope for every bridge, we decided on a less ambitious plan. We would end our journey on the third island, Ikuchijima island, instead and catch a ferry back to Onomichi from one of the ports indicated by the tourist guide.
With that in mind, we cycled leisurely across the second island, Innoshima island, which seemed very rural and deserted. The sea was constantly on our right hand side as we passed by a couple of fishing ports. On our left, we passed by rows of traditional houses with no signs of residents at all. Shops were also closed.
We finally bought lunch from a konbini (Japanese term for convenience store) that we passed by before climbing the slope to reach the second bridge, the Ikuchi bashi bridge.
The third and last island in our journey, Ikuchijima island, was livelier than the previous one.
We passed by open shops, pedestrians, and primary school students on their way home. They wore matching sailor uniforms with cute yellow hats and square backpacks, just like what I usually see in animes.
If it were not for fear of being suspected a paedophile, I would have snapped their pictures 😛
After checking with the bicycle rental shop, we learnt that the last ferry back to Onomichi was at 5pm, just in time for us to return our bikes to the Onomichi rental shop before they closed at 6pm (although you can return your bicycle to any of the rental shops on the islands, you can only collect your rental deposit back if you return it to the shop where you rent it from).
Since we still had some time before the ferry departure time, we decided to cycle to the sunset beach along the northwest coast of the island, just before reaching the third bridge, the Tatara Ohashi bridge.
It was 30 minutes to go when we reached the start of the slope. I wanted to carry on, climb the bridge and cross it till we reached the Tatara Observation Deck on the other end of the bridge. According to the tourist guide, it had one of the best views along the Shimanami Kaido.
I was confident that I could do it and make it back in time for the last ferry, but my husband was already very tired and hardly had any energy left to climb another 45-degree slope.
We had a brief argument and he finally asked me to go on my own. I was very tempted to do that but a part of me was scared of meeting unforseen circumstances alone on the bridge.
Looking back, I regretted not doing it as I still had plenty of energy left then and should be able to cycle fast enough to make it back in time. Sigh 😦
The rest of our journey was uneventful. But our cycling adventure was one of my favorite parts of our Japan trip.
We saw clear blue seas and joked about mermaids, took a peek at rural Japan unlike anything we’ve seen in other parts of Japan that we visited.
Not traveling with my brother, who was the group’s official translator, meant we had to rely on my very limited Japanese and our creativity at coming up with sign languages.
We liked it so much that we decided to keep the precious map we got from the tourist office, in case we planned to come back someday to complete the remaining parts of the Shimanami Kaido we didn’t have the chance to see.
Please pardon my poor stitching skill, but I thought this map was very useful and should be shared.
I wished I had seen something like this somewhere while planning my cycling trip so I could do a better planning (you can click on the image to view a larger version of it).
The start and end points of the bridge are circled in red while the ferry port where we took a ferry back to Onomichi is indicated with a red star.
The map is double-sided and the other side of it gives you information such as contact numbers and opening hours of all the bicycle rental shops along the path, the dos and don’ts of cycling, places of interest in each island, etc.
The side that you’re looking at has information such as distance of each bridge, ferry ports & directions, choices of cycling paths for the beginners and the advanced cyclists, indications of steep hills, toll amount for each bridge, etc
I got this from the tourist office at Onomichi station, but I believe you should be able to get this from the one at Imabari as well.
If I could do this again, I would do the following:
(1) Start off as early as possible so you can spend a full day cycling. Bicycle rental shops opened as early as 7am.
(2) Don’t be over-ambitious and just decide to complete the path in 2 days instead of one. Stay overnight in one of the islands (you can always deposit your luggage at the train station and carry a day pack with you).
Seto Inland Sea and the Shimanami Kaido are some of the off-the-beaten-track places that you can include in your itinerary if you planning a Japan trip. Not many tourists do this.
Until now, I’m still getting questions from colleagues and friends wondering how I came to know about Seto Inland Sea and thought of cycling it in the first place 🙂