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The Shimanami Kaido

Warning: This is a long blog post. Also, because my computer is currently out of service it lacks photos. Hopefully I can correct that soon!

The Shimanami Kaido is a 70km route beginning in Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture and leading you through a series of islands into Ehime Prefecture into the town of Imabari. Ehime Prefecture is located in Shikoku, one of the four main islands of Japan (Honshu, Kyushu, Hokkaido and Shikoku.)

One of the folks who participated in our Oita JET Charity Cycling trip in March, Evan, set up this ride and invited a bunch of us along. We ended up being a group of six from Oita. There was Patrick, whom I’d never properly met but known about since the first day I arrived in Oita, (he gave a flute performance at our orientation) Nichole, who arrived last year, Kimberley, who participated in the bike trip as well and a couple, Daniel and Katie from Australia whom I had not met before. Evan’s plan was to bike from Onomichi to Imabari on Saturday, then bike back the same way on Sunday. Most of the participants were from Okayama, quite close to Hiroshima, which is why it made sense for them to bike back the same way. We Oita folk planned to bike down the first day and then make our way further south to the southern part of Ehime where we could catch a two hour ferry back to Beppu!

I met up with the rest of the Oita folk on the train in Nakatsu on Friday after work. We had three mostly assembled bikes wrapped up in bike bags (you must wrap up your bike to be able to ride the train with it here in Japan) and it was quite a sight. We took up most of the space in between the cars. Since I came in later (the rest had started off from Oita city which is farther up the line) I had to rest my bike against the wall blocking the door and baby-sit it. Of course I wouldn’t be let off easy for this transgression (God is swift here in Japan…) so as it came time for all of us to detrain, the first person to come through the compartment door ready to get off was a blind man, who then headed straight for the door (he thought) but in reality my bike. Some quick damage control and hasty Japanese explanation later I salvaged the situation and all was saved, but it was a tense moment.

We arrived at our evening destination (a ryokan, Japanese inn, close to Onomichi station) without much more incident, although since I did not buy my tickets before hand I ended up missing my train and having to take another one seven minutes later. Oddly enough I actually beat the other guys to Onomichi, though only by two minutes or so. We spent the evening getting better acquainted, then headed to bed early to get some decent rest before beginning our first day’s journey.

Waking up at 8 and out of the ryokan by 9am we had some time to get breakfast before the rest of the riders came at 9:40. As we wandered around figuring out a good place to get some food an old Japanese man wandered up to us and, without pausing, as if he had been planning this for many days, pointed at us and said: “Present. Come! Present. 3rd floor. Present.” In any other country this might trigger a few varied responses. 1) Call the police. 2) Swift fist to the face. 3) Run away. But, this being Japan and (let’s face it) we were six large foreigners and he was one old Japanese man, we followed him up to the 3rd floor to receive our present. Which turned out to be breakfast at a café for all of us! He sat us down at two tables, pointed at the menus and said “Present!” We politely thanked him numerous times, glancing at each other on occasion to make sure everyone recognized how odd this really was. Our aged beneficiary then promptly opened up a newspaper and ignored us. Even attempts to begin a conversation were met with one or two word answers and a return to blistering silence. So we ate our present in peace. Halfway through the meal our new friend got up, his coffee barely touched, shook our hands, took away the bill, paid and left. It was indeed a mysterious morning.

Towards the end of our present we received word that Evan and his fellow riders from Okayama had arrived, so we went to meet them at the bike rental place. From there we hopped a ten minute ferry to the start of the ride and we were off! The morning was a bit dreary and it was still drizzling a bit, but the ride was beautiful! It was extremely reminiscent of the Oita bike ride from last year when we rode along the Eastern coast of Miyazaki and Oita prefectures. We had turquoise water and small little islands on one side, mountains on the other, one of those views so special to Japan.

The draw of this ride, besides riding right along the sea-side, was that it crossed over five islands into Shikoku. These islands are all connected by long suspension bridges. They did not disappoint. I’m not sure why bridges are always so nice to see and photograph, but they are always so striking! The first bridge had a bicycle specific lower half, much like the George Washington bridge in NYC has a top floor for cars and a bottom floor for pedestrians. At yet another bridge the long supports holding up the bridge were built in such a way (I am unsure whether it was by design or per chance) that it produced an echo while underneath it. The sound bounced off the supports above and came back down quite loudly!

We were making extremely good progress throughout the day, keeping a decently speedy 20km/h average. We stopped at a local ice cream shop for some delicious Italian ice cream and some citrus, which the region is famous for. (Side-bar: I don’t know this for a fact, but just from personal observation I think Japan has the most varied kinds of citrus in the world. Every single region in Japan has its own special citrus fruit which is similar yet still slightly different. For example, Oita prefecture is well known for a citrus fruit called the “Kabosu,” a fruit with a green outside just like a lime, but more similar in taste to a lemon. The region we were biking in was famous for its “Haruka” citrus fruit, a smallish orange (it was sweet in taste) which looked exactly like a lemon. Did I ever mention that Japan also has citrus fruits the size of your face?!) Indeed, the day was progressing so nicely we were almost beginning to think the whole day would go off without a hitch, and we’d actually win the Shimanami Kaido (we were the lead group and I don’t know about you, but arriving first to things, even if they aren’t races is extremely satisfying.)

Alas, ‘twas not to be. Nichole’s bike, a hot little roady number, sprung a flat about three quarters of the way through the race. Having learned from my experience on the Oita bike trip I had my tools with me but did not bring a pump, especially one for road bikes, which tires are slightly different. Luckily the flat happened right in front of a local gas station we pulled in there. We would soon come to understand that the people living along the Shimanami Kaido are by far the nicest people in Japan. We took off the tire, removed the tube and found our puncture culprit, a half inch bent staple which had somehow managed to actually get inside the tire. I whipped out my tools and the puncture was soon fixed, thanks to the help of the two eager gas attendants. They even managed to pump air into Nichole’s newly fixed tire by brute forcing air in with their compressor, a tool which was clearly made not to put air into bicycle tires. By this time we had lost precious time and our front position, however. On top of that, it began to drizzle again. After departing the gas station with many thanks and bows and then flagging down a group of Japanese riders who had real road bike pumps which we used to further inflate Nichole’s tires we were on our way again!

Arriving at the last bridge (a four kilometer beast stretching three separate islands) the drizzle turned into a rain, which then turned into pellets. I’ve been in quite a lot of rain in my life time, but it’s very rare that rain (remember, it’s a liquid) comes down so hard that it actually hurts. We were being pelted by hail-like rain drops as we climbed the slope up to the bridge and decided to take cover in an overhang with a few other Japanese riders we had caught up with. As we dripped our way under the overhang there was a flash up above followed instantaneously by the loudest crack of thunder I have ever heard (though Nichole, being from Florida counted it her second loudest.) The lightning must have struck one of the lightning rods on the bridge, and it was powerful. After that first strike the rain slowed down (still fairly strong) so we decided to push on over the bridge. Our finish was just across the bridge and we were ready to finish up. Meanwhile my shoes had become buckets of water, my pants were about 20 lbs heavier and my breaks were squeaky due to the rain. Yet we pushed on and finally made it to the finish at about 5:30. We had to wait for about an hour for all the other bikers to show up before we could make our way to the hotel, which was another 7km from where we stopped. Luckily the rain had stopped and there were no further problems. Dinner was had, and after a long and interesting discussion ranging from school to linguistics to neuro-linguistics to Chomsky to Einstein to particle physics and ending ( as all discussions do) with American politics, we went to bed.

We lost most of the group the next morning. Evan and his group were either busing or biking back up the way they came, as were Daniel and Katie. Kimberley was off the meet a friend who lived in Shikoku and would meet us at the ferry port. So it was Patrick, Nichole and I who set off at 8:45am to head down to the ferry. Our original idea had been to take the train to Matsuyama, a large city in Ehime prefecture about 40km down the road and then bike the remaining 70-80km down, but instead we decided to test ourselves and just begin biking from Imabari where we stayed. The road ran parallel to the train tracks, which allowed us to hop a train at any time if we wanted to stop or if we were running low on time (we had to catch the 5pm ferry back to Beppu to make sure we arrived home at a decent hour for school the next day.) It was quite sunny in the morning and we were feeling good about our chances, albeit quite tired from the day before. We soon realized, however, that this day would not be entirely favorable.

It started off well enough! After we dropped off Kimberley at Imabari Station to go meet her friend we started off and were soon stopped at a red light. An old man (no, he wasn’t the same one from Onomichi) then yelled out at us from a perpendicular street. “Hey!” he said, reaching into his bag. In any other country this would result in a few varied responses. 1) Call the police. 2) Swift fist to the groin. 3) Run away. But this is Japan, so we waited to see what he’d pull out of his bag. “Ganbatte! (Good luck!)” he told us as he handed us two chocolate bars. Thoroughly amused we pocketed the chocolate bars, thanked the man and went on our way. Present number 2, and by now the umpteenth time we were re-assured that people along the Shimanami Kaido are the nicest people in the world.

Unfortunately most of our fortunes ended there. The wind was extremely strong on Sunday, and though we did our best (and still maintained a decent 20km/h average) we knew quite quickly we were not going to be able to ride the whole 120km (which always was a long shot) and in fact were going to have trouble even making it to Matsuyama, 50km away. As we biked along the coast we saw many people walking, all wearing the same large hat and with walking sticks. I soon realized who they were. They were pilgrims walking the “Henro,” a pilgrimage of 1200km around Shikoku passing 88 temples in a big circle. I’ll go further into depth about this in a later post.

20km in it was my turn to get a flat. Having just passed a fire station on the way down a hill we walked back up there and asked if they had a bike pump. I had brought a spare tube so all that was required was to change the tube and pump it up, but I still didn’t have a pump. “We have a compressor…” they said, but it didn’t fit. “Not to worry!” they continued. “Hey” they yelled into the fire station house, beaconing forth another fire fighter. “Go down the road and grab a bike pump for these foreigners!” Yet again we thanked them profusely and began the process of taking off my back wheel, a feat which took one Dash and two firefighters to complete. My tools are cheap and crappy and the bolts holding my back wheel on were tight and being obstructed by my kick-stand. As we were taking the wheel off the 3rd firefighter returned with not one, but two bike pumps! “I’m not sure which one was OK, so I brought them both.” he said. Again, with much help from these incredible firefighters (who, by the way, confessed to us that this was their first time meeting and talking to any sort of foreigners) we changed my tire, reset it and were ready to get on our way. We tried to give them some chocolate for their troubles, but they politely refused. I guess present giving only goes one way in this country…

After some photos (they wanted photos of us, we wanted photos of them) we got back on the road, but at this point time was beginning to go against us, as were our muscles and the continuously strong headwind. We caught a train about 25km in and trained to Matsuyama where we had lunch (Subway!!) Checking the clock after lunch we discussed continuing on, but at 1:30pm and without regular running trains (about one every hour) we didn’t feel comfortable continuing and chancing missing the 5pm ferry. So we headed back to the station to catch a train down to the ferry port where we could walk or bike around a bit. And who did we meet at Matsuyama station but Kimberley! Having been unable to meet her friend she too was making her way to the ferry port. Reunited again! We packed our bikes back up into our bags and went to buy some cookies before the train. Since coming to Matsuyama we had yet to receive a present, something I was quite upset about. We had received presents in Onomichi and Imabari, but what, Matsuyama was just too good to give us presents?! I found this to be unacceptable. But just as I was beginning to sour on all of Japan and its people thanks to the unbelievable rudeness of Matsuyama city we received a free cookie at the cookie shop! (I don’t think it’s important to explain further that it wasn’t just us who got free cookies, but everyone because it was the shop’s birthday.) Matsuyama, and Japan by proxy was spared my ever-lasting scorn.

So back on the train we went for the 45 minute ride to the ferry port! We hung out a bit near the port and then when 5pm came we got on the ferry and headed back to Oita.

Though the trip only really lasted two and a half days, I felt as if I had been biking for weeks and weeks, carrying all of my belongings on my back like some crazy cross country bicyclist. I loved every minute of the experience and after not being able to bike the Oita trip this year it was wonderful to get on the saddle and just go. The Shimanami Kaido is one of the nicest rides in Japan and I’m extremely glad I was able to experience it while in Japan. I had a great time, met some wonderful new people and am thoroughly exhausted the day after, exactly how a good weekend should make you feel.




















Categories: Trips
  1. Stu
    May 11, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    …and the blog lives on. Most excellent.

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