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Cycling The Shimanami Kaido

If you're a bicyclist -- and even if you're not -- you owe it to yourself to ride one of Japan's most rewarding cycling routes: a dedicated biking and pedestrian lane that connects Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku with Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture on Honshu (Japan's main island). Part of the Shimanami Kaido route (also called the Setouchi Shimanami Sea Route), which is actually a series of seven bridges that hopscotch across the Seto Inland Sea via six islands, the cycling path runs beside vehicular traffic on the bridges but often diverges from the highway on the islands. Needless to say, views of the sea and surrounding countryside are great, even from the bridges, and the pathway, clearly marked in green, is easy to follow (though steep in some areas). If you want, you can cycle the entire 70km (43-mile) distance between Shikoku and Honshu in less than 7 hours, whereupon you could either return to Shikoku by bus or continue your travels onward (send your luggage beforehand to your next hotel by takkyu-bin). Or, you may wish to simply cycle for a few hours and then head back; or, you can go as far as you wish, leave your rental bike at one of 13 bike drop-off sites along the cycling path, and then catch a bus back (check bus schedules beforehand, as buses do not go to all drop-off sites). In my opinion, of the entire cycling path, the stretch from Shikoku is more scenic and easier to follow than the stretch closer to Hiroshima. Note that the Shikoku Passport gives discounts at Shiyoden Treasure Museum and for bike rentals and accommodations at Sunrise Itoyama.

If you're not going the distance, for a fun day's outing I suggest bicycling to Omishima, an island you'll reach in about 2 hours, where another 30 minutes of cycling will bring you to Oyamazumi Shrine, guarded by a 2,600-year-old tree. Worshiped through the years by samurai, the shrine is home to the Shiyoden Treasure Museum (tel. 0897/82-0032), with an astounding collection of helmets, armor, and swords, all donated to the shrine by warriors who wished to express thanks for victories in battle. The museum contains about 80% of Japan's samurai gear designated National Treasures (eight items; look for the red mark) or National Important Cultural Assets, including items once worn by Minamoto Yoshitsune and Minamoto Yoritomo (who donated his sword and outfit just before establishing his Kamakura shogunate in 1192). The museum is open daily 8:30am to 5pm; admission is ¥1,000 for adults, ¥800 for university and high-school students, and ¥400 for children. By the way, there's a bike drop-off center, called Shimanami-no-eki Mishima, just before the shrine, where you can leave your bike and catch a bus to Imabari (check bus schedules beforehand).

Rental bikes are available at the foot of the first bridge (the Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge) at Sunrise Itoyama (tel. 0898/41-3196; www.sunrise-itoyama.jp), which also offers a restaurant, showers, and rooms without private bathrooms beginning at ¥4,200 for a single and ¥6,300 for a twin (no credit cards accepted). Bikes rent for ¥500 a day, plus a ¥1,000 deposit which you forfeit if you decide to ditch your bike at one of the drop-off sites; be sure to ask the folks at Sunrise Itoyama for a bus schedule back. You'll also have the annoyance of bridge toll fees at varying distances, which you deposit into boxes on the honor system (or, you can purchase a coupon for ¥500 covering all the tolls at Sunrise Itoyama). There are also power-assisted bikes for ¥800; I've rented one (in the interest of research, of course -- twice) and found it helpful on the circular ramp that climbs 65m (213 ft.) just to meet the first bridge. However, power-assisted bikes must be returned to Sunrise Itoyama, and they have only enough juice to run about 4 hours or so. Sunrise Itoyama is open for bike rentals daily 8am to 8pm (to 5pm Oct-Mar).

To reach Sunrise Itoyama, take an express train from Matsuyama Station 30 minutes to Imabari, from where there are only three to five buses a day to Sunrise Itoyama. You'll probably find it easier, therefore, to take a local train 5 minutes onward from Imabari to Hashihama Station, from which the cycling center is a 20-minute walk; or, if you notify Sunrise Itoyama in advance, they offer pickup and drop-off service at Hashihama Station.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.