Features

One heck of a bike ride

25 Apr 2007 by business traveller

Nothing prepared me for my first look at the Innoshima Great Bridge. I hadn't surfed the web, or seen any photos, or browsed any brochures. Plus, it was near the end of a two-week trip to Japan, so I was getting used to high-tech roads and bridges. Anyway, I bicycled along the coast of Mukaishima Island that morning, turned a corner, and there it was: the Innoshima bridge, all 1,270 metres of it, a soaring white span that dominated the clear blue sky.

But as dramatic as the Innoshima suspension bridge looked on that sunny morning – and it did look dramatic – it is only an average bridge, by the standards of the Shimanami Expressway. Further ahead are longer, higher, and even more impressive bridges, 10 of them altogether, a superb set of spans that tie together the green islands of the Seto Inland Sea.

Our trip had begun earlier that morning in Onomichi, a tiny town in Hiroshima prefecture, where three of us – Charles Chen, Tetsuhiro Murakami and myself – spent five minutes kicking tyres, changing gears, and otherwise selecting our bicycles. I picked a sturdy one, tossed my day pack into the basket, and declared myself ready to go.

And off we rode, through the quiet streets of Onomichi. Okay, we cheated a little bit: instead of riding across the first bridge, we boarded a ferry to Mukaishima island, and then pedalled along the sunny sea-coast. We rode through a few towns and fields, and past a shipyard or two, on a flat, well-marked trail. And that's when I rounded the bend and saw the Innoshima bridge.

As I stood gazing, Murakami-san provided the details: it was completed in 1983, the towers are 145 metres tall, and the deck is 40 metres above the water. The Shimanami Expressway itself – of which Innoshima and its nine sister bridges are part – took 44 years and US$6.2 billion to build. At last, in May 1999, it was ready, a shimmering ribbon of road stretched between nine emerald islands, and highlighted by these superb, vaulting white bridges.

We pedalled up the bike path, tossed ¥50 (22p) into the bucket, and rode on to the bridge. Boats cruised through the blue water far below, and the horizon was filled with green islands, as far as we could see. It was a fine experience, and one that we would repeat many times, as we cycled the islands and bridges of the Seto Inland Sea.

We crossed Innoshima bridge and rode on to another island, also called Innoshima. The bike trail circled on down to the seashore, and we pedalled along, enjoying the sea views, and cycling towards lunch – we had a one o'clock appointment with a bowl of tako meshi (octopus rice). Before long we crossed another soaring span, the 790-metre Ikuchi bridge, and rode onto Ikuchijima Island. By now it was well past noon, and the sun was getting pretty warm.

Did I mention that the Seto islands are famous for seafood? They are, and the speciality is octopus. Tako meshi is a prized local dish, a bowl of stick-to-your-ribs glutinous rice covered with pieces of fresh chargrilled octopus. We washed it down with hot black tea and, refreshed, hit the road once again.

That afternoon we pedalled around Ikuchijima Island and visited the local sights: the Ikuo Hirayama Museum of Art, Kosanji Temple and Dolce Ice Cream café. The art museum was a highlight: an oasis of cool halls, roomy gardens and cutting-edge architecture. Hirayama was a native of this island, and his art is infused with a soft and misty realism that features Asian motifs: Buddhism, the Silk Road, Japanese villages and the bombing of Hiroshima, which he survived. The artist was obviously taken with the Shimanami Expressway as well: there is a stunning canvas of the three Kurushima Kaikyo bridges.

After the art museum, we visited Kosanji Temple, a cosy retreat of sculpted pine trees, well-tended gardens and, atop a hill, a crazy jumbled landscape made from blocks of snow-white Italian marble. That was followed by a lemon sherbet at Dolce – Mukaishima island is famous for citrus fruit, and this tart treat, made from local lemons, was deeply refreshing. Next we rode to Setoda village and checked into Seaside Hotel Tutui, where we spent the first hour basking like fat walruses in a lemon-water onsen (hot bath). That night, in the cosy embrace of the traditional ryokan, all was well: we had sake, seafood, and good company. What more could a traveller want?

The next morning dawned bright and clear, and we straddled our bikes and hit the road once again. And then, like déjà vu, we rounded a corner, and there it was, another fantastic span: Tatara Great Bridge, all 1,480 metres of it, the longest cable-stayed suspension bridge in the world. I felt lucky as I rode over this fine bridge, with the sparkling sea far below and green islands everywhere, stretching to the horizon in every direction.

Tatara bridge was followed by a couple hours of steady pedalling, as we crossed Omishima Island, then Omishima bridge – a relative dwarf at just 297 metres – and then rode across Hakata Island toward the Hakata-Oshima bridge. The scenery was magnificent: goldenrod flowers in full bloom, scented pine forests, sandy seacoasts, and small villages. As we rode, we munched the local tangerines, sweet and juicy. Hakata-Oshima bridge – you guessed it – was another highlight, another 1,165 metres of soaring suspension bridge.

We rode into Oshima Island and down to Miyakubo village, in the tented shadow of the Hakata-Oshima bridge. Offshore, a fierce current surged through the strait. This stretch of swirling seawater was the ancient stronghold of the Murakami clan, a tribe of warriors who controlled the Seto Inland Sea from the 14th to 16th centuries, collecting tolls from passing ships, and robbing anyone who refused to pay. They were pirates, but their loyalty was for sale: local warlords needed the Murakamis on their side. Nobody could rule these islands without their help.

The spanking-new Murakami Suigun Museum has lots of information about the Murakamis: model boats, crude jars and bowls and urns, plus bows, arrows, swords, spears, muskets, and small cannons aplenty, along with helpful signs in English. "Do they look like me?" asked our guide, Murakami-san. Yes, these warriors were his ancestors.

Then, it was showtime: we boarded a small motorboat and drove into the fierce currents. It was 0100, during a peak tide that ripped the blue sea into boiling rapids and fierce whirlpools. Our captain steered toward a small island in the middle of the strait. This was the launching pad of the Murakami fleet: from here, they boarded their speedy boats, each with 20 rowers and 10 sword and musket-wielding samurais. Our pilot carefully navigated the currents, showing us holes carved in the cliffs, where the Murakamis secured their warships. It was a perfect pit-stop: fun, filled with fascinating history (who doesn't like pirates?) and overflowing with scenic beauty.

After another fine seafood lunch – tempura this time – we straddled our iron horses and cycled toward the Kurushima-Kaikyo bridges. Even by Shimanami Expressway standards, these three bridges are remarkable. The first is 960 metres long, the second is 1,515 metres and the third, 1,570 metres. That's 4,045 metres, making it the world's longest three-span suspension bridge; a long, sinuous sweep of roadway that connects Oshima Island to the large main island of Shikoku.

And so, once again, I stood gazing at an impressive bridge: the late autumn sunshine sparkled on the supports and cables and the tall white towers marched on and on, before finally disappearing into the tinted Japanese horizon. Then I pedalled slowly across, enjoying every last minute. This bridge deck is 80 metres above the ocean, higher than any other bridge on the expressway. Far below was restless blue sea, and every few minutes a tanker churned a long white trail into the blue-green water.

Then, just like that, the trip was over. We had cycled about 80km in two fun-filled days, through some of the finest scenery in Japan. That night, after dinner, Murakami-san began to talk about the expressway. He worries that this magnificent marching line of bridges, completed only seven years ago, will stand as a monument to Japan at its apex – a high-water mark that will never again be equalled. In a few years, he said, many of Japan's baby boomers will retire, all those accomplished engineers and architects and politicians who made the Shimanami Expressway possible.

But whether it marks the end of an era or not, one fact remains: the Shimanami Expressway is a remarkable monument to the people of Japan. Few other countries would have the engineering and design talent to build such a road, to say nothing of the US$6.2 billion price tag.

Yet there it is, with its bridges, its bicycle paths, its history and its natural beauty. It adds up to one heck of a bike ride, and it is the kind of trip that everyone should be lucky enough to do at least once.

FACT FILE

  • The Shimanami Expressway runs from Onomichi city, in Hiroshima prefecture, to the outskirts of Imabari city, in Ehime prefecture. You can start pedalling at either end of the road. Both cities are served by international airports, and each airport is about an hour from the start of the bike trail. The nearest large airport is Kansai International; it's a four-hour train trip from Kansai airport to Imabari by train and a three-hour trip from Kansai to Onomichi by train.
  • Bicycles can be rented at either end of the expressway, and at 11 points along the bicycle trail as well, mostly at the bridge entrances. Some people take short bike rides – the most popular of these is across the Kurushima-Kaikyo bridges. The bike rental fee is a reasonable ¥500 per day (£2.15), if the bike is returned to the place where it was rented. There is a ¥1,000 (£4.30) deposit, and if you return the bike somewhere else along the trail, you lose the deposit. Alternatively, electric battery-powered bicycles can be rented for ¥800 (£3.45) per day, but they must be returned to the place where they were rented.
  • For cyclists, the bridge tolls are equally reasonable: ¥200 (86p) for the Kurushima Kaikyo bridges, ¥100 (43p) for the Tatara bridge, and just ¥50 (22p) for the remaining bridges. Now that's a bargain: toss a few yen in a basket and, in return, you get to ride the trails and bridges of a US$6.2 billion expressway.
  • The bicycle trail is beautifully set up for tourists. It is well marked, with signs in both English and Japanese. Every bridge has a bike lane, and the islands have smooth, bicycle-only trails that mostly hug the coastlines. It would be hard to get lost, and even if you did, finding your way back to the trail would be no real problem. Spring and autumn are the best times for cycling, but the Seto Inland Sea is renowned for its gentle climate and low rainfall levels, and people bike the trail all year around.
  • For more information, visit the Japan National Tourist Organisation's (JNTO) website at jnto.go.jp.
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