Stepping off the train into the port town of Onomichi feels like stepping into an earlier, more distinctive Japan. Instead of the unrelentingly utilitarian urbanisations of much of modern-day Honshu, here battered old tugboats line the quay, and a retro shopping arcade offers artisan bakeries, green tea studios and family-run ramen outlets.
A pathway lined with stone lanterns and temples rises up the hill directly behind. Sea-going folk have always been drawn to religion, and no fewer than 25 shrines, some a thousand years old, are linked by this serene, contemplative temple walk. After the crowds of Kyoto, it seems very quiet here: cats and cafés outnumber people in the lacework of steps and alleys.
The high point, literally and metaphorically, is Senko-ji, a vermilion-walled temple that dates back to 806AD. But I’ve not come up here to do my devotions, I’ve come to see the view. I want to look out over my playground of the next few days, the place they call Japan’s Mediterranean.
What I get, though, is little more than a tantalising glimpse. Onomichi’s adjacent island of Mukaishima fills much of the foreground, and the channel that separates it from the mainland looks more like a river than a sea, with an excitable tide charging through, forcing the foot ferries to crab sideways. Beyond, I can see my first bridge, and the shoulders of other islands that are to be my stepping stones.
Back down on the boardwalk, temples done, I find myself among a new breed of believer. These ones are dressed in black, and the object of their devotion is more Shimano than Shinto, a manifestation of how the world’s growing enthusiasm for everything bicycle has reached these shores.
Their temple is Onomichi’s U2 warehouse, where Shoreditch meets Tokyo meets Fisherman’s Wharf, and it is a fresh focus for Japan’s wealthier, healthier generation. At one end of the converted warehouse is a Giant store, filled with top-end bikes at alarming prices. Adjacent is a designer clothing outlet for cycle groupies.
In the middle is a smoothie café, restaurant, bakery and “Cycle Through” bar with saddle-topped seats. And the far end is occupied by the Cycle Hotel, complete with hooks on the bedroom walls so you don’t have to be separated from your beloved wheels. The bicycle, says the hotel’s blurb, “represents the nature of time and the circle of life”. Of course it does.
And the bicycle is why I am here too. Like many others in the U2, I am planning to use a special cycleway to cross the Seto Inland Sea, a 9,000 sq mile ocean-connected sheltered sea (thus the Mediterranean comparison) at the southern end of Honshu. Onomichi is the start of the Shimanami Kaido, a road and bridge network which strings together eight islands to create a stepping-stone route across the sea, an idea I find irresistible.
The Inland Sea is not nearly as big as the Med and the 46-mile Kaido is do-able in one day, but I have decided to savour it in two parts, with an overnight stop in a ryokan (traditional hotel) on Ikuchijima island, half way. So I plan to dawdle, and steer my rental bike down every byway and back road I can find.
My first island is Mukaishima, with orange groves and geranium greenhouses on one side of the cyclepath, and on the other side occasional beaches with limpid water so indolent that it can barely summon up the energy for a wave. In the distance are dawdling freight ships and more islands, stretching away into the midday haze; there are some 3,000 of them in the Inland Sea. From Mukaishima, I cross over the bridges to Innoshima then Ikuchijima, each island with its skirt of low-slung houses, more orange groves, and a core frothing over with feathery bamboo, wild figs and other semi-tropical vegetation. Cyclists apart, there don’t seem to be many other tourists around, which I find surprising. In any other part of the world with such a wealth of islands, there’d be fish restaurants, waterside cafés and beach bars, but these islanders with their shipbuilding and oyster farms are too busy for all that.
Still, it is a pleasure to bowl along through a quickly changing selection of bays and fishing villages — at least it is until the weather breaks, at the end of my first day. I spend the evening in the Suminoe Ryokan (futons in a bedroom carpeted with tatami mats and a mesmerising 10-course dinner that featured conger, sea urchin and stonefish) monitoring the fast approach of typhoon Namtheun. The village’s loudspeakers blare out warnings and the hotel staff look worried — but by mid-morning the following day the storm has taken a northerly turn, and the rain relents, releasing me back on to the cycle path.
The Shimanami Kaido has been built with great attention to detail, typical of the Japanese. On bridges, the cycleway runs alongside the ordinary road but on the islands it usually has its own dedicated tarmac, carefully planned so that gradients are no more than 3 per cent, unless you choose to branch off the (red dots) main route on to the intermediate (orange dots) or advanced (blue dots) alternatives. There are maps at every junction, and more drinks automats and public conveniences than you could shake a handlebar at.
There are lots of opportunities for encounters too: a farmer offers me fresh figs, a granny does a little dance of welcome in the rain, and a ferryman proudly wheels out his most practised sentence — “turn right at the second traffic light” — unaware that his vowels are getting completely lost in his teeth.
With my back roads and byways philosophy, I divert to 800-year-old shrines, to a dolphin sanctuary and to a gelateria that serves delectable sea salt ice-cream. But all good things must come to an end, and eventually I find myself on the four miles of impressive suspension bridge that tiptoes across the final low-slung archipelago to reach dry land. Then, at a hotel in Matsuyama, I am reunited with my suitcase, which I’d entrusted to Japan’s efficient luggage-forwarding system. Cycle part done.
This southern shore of the Inland Sea is actually an island too — where isn’t in Japan? — called Shikoku, but I’m not here for long. My aim in Matsuyama is to relax after my ride with a good bath in Japan’s oldest spa, the 3,000-year-old Dogo Onsen, where emperors and warriors have bathed before me. Dogo featured in the award-winning animated film Spirited Away, so I knew it’d be something special — but even so I wasn’t prepared for quite how much of an economic powerhouse hot water can be. A whole posh suburb has sprung up around the spa, and acolytes in yukata robes and clogs shuffle along its streets, all drawn irresistibly to the one central square.
Inside the wooden bathhouse, slapping, grunting naked gentlemen are vigorously washing themselves. I find myself in the water next to someone who has come all the way from temple-rich Kyoto for the day; that’s a 10-hour round trip, for the sake of hot water. Dogo’s minerals are good for rheumatism, he says, “and for hysteria”.
Now for the return journey. From Matsuyama, I take the marine equivalent of the bullet train — a catamaran — to cross the sea again, this time speeding from south to north. But I haven’t quite finished with islands, changing ferries in Hiroshima for a final fling on neighbouring Miyajima, the so-called Island of the Gods.
Japan is big on designations, and Miyajima is one of the “three most scenic places in Japan”, which explains why I find myself suddenly back in the company of western tourists, in streets lined with shops selling designer chopsticks. Here I eat delicious grilled oysters with miso sauce for the first time, and can’t believe I passed so many oyster farms along the Kaido without trying them.
Miyajima’s signature attraction is the Torii Gate, a giant, vermilion-painted 12th-century gateway that stands out in the shallows, marking the boundary between the human and the spirit world. At the right tide it seems to float ethereally on mirror-calm water, especially when it is lit up in the half-light of dusk.
The gate’s associated Unesco-registered 1,400-year-old Shinto shrine, with its mazy open corridors, also rises on camphor wood pillars from among lazy fish. Here I pay to shake a stick to get a number to open a drawer to read my fortune, and am rewarded by the news that everything in my life is good.
I end my devotional journey by taking the cable car to the top of Miyajima’s Mount Misen, up over a forest of oak, camphor, hemlock and fir, to a clutch of temples, carefully assembled out of jointed beams, their interiors musky with candle smoke and incense.
From here, a final pathway leads up the viewing platform on Misen’s summit, from where at last I get a complete overview of the island-strewn expanse of water that I have spent the past few days exploring.
It is an intricate panorama of sunlit islands and oyster farms, of fishing boats and freighters doing their slow waltz, threaded by catamaran ferries and distant island-hopping cycleways. With this view, I can see why Buddhist monks first settled up here, 1,300 years ago, seeking enlightenment through the medium of prayer.
And for me, this ascent of Misen has a certain symmetry too, because I’ve ended the journey as I began: by going up a holy hill to see the view.
Andrew Eames was a guest of Selective Asia and Finnair. Selective Asia offers a five-night trip to the Seto Inland Sea and the Shimanami Kaido from £1,295 including hotels, rail and ferry transfers and bike hire, but not international flights. Finnair fly from London to Fukuoka via Helsinki from £705. For more visitor information on the area see setouchitourism.or.jp/en
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