Okay, I couldn’t help using some rather obscure location names to achieve some alliteration and sense of adventure. To clarify a bit: San-yō, meaning “the Sunny Side of the Mountains”, is the east-facing hill and coastal region of western Honshū (the big island). San-yō overlooks Setouchi, more commonly known as the Inland Sea, on the other side of which is Shikoku. On to the voyage.
We had considered spending a third night in Hiroshima but in order to mix it up a bit we decided instead to take advantage of our rail pass and go further into Japan. The combined roulette wheel of distance, availability, and interest stopped spinning on the mountain town of Tsuwano, so it was for there we were bound. This entailed a three-hour combination of bullet train and local rail (slow and hilly – this leg one can take the steam train, if one actually plans far enough ahead unlike us).
Tsuwano is a lovely valley town under the view of the surrounding Chūgoku Mountains with old castle ruins and temples. It sounded like a nice place to get away from city life, and that it was – it takes perhaps fifteen minutes to walk the length of the one main street at a leisurely pace (it takes more than that, of course, to actually relax and enjoy it). Tsuwano is filled with friendly sake breweries, picturesque valley views, and narrow waterways populated by the fattest carp we’ve seen. The town is known for these fish, and they live well because of it – 100 yen gets your kid (or wife) a bag of food for these voracious beasts.
Upon arrival Elaine took a siesta and I headed uphill to see the ruins of the old castle. These were reduced to stone fortifications yet were impressive, especially considering their lofty location. When I reached the top it became apparent that my timing coincided with an imminent steam train departure because several Japanese trainspotters were parked on the outlook with multiple massive cameras each. I joined them and though my puny point-and-shoot couldn’t handle the distance, I got to enjoy seeing the train chugging through the town and hear the whistle echoing through the valley.
For the remainder of the day we visited the local Shinto shrine, wandered through town, and retired to our inn for dinner. We were staying at a small ryokan (traditional Japanese inn – the sort with sliding doors, tatami mats, and futon mattresses on the floor) and our visit included Japanese style dinner and breakfast. Both were delicious and pleasantly served by the welcoming family that runs the place.
The next day we rolled our way back down to and up the coast to the port city of Onomichi. Onomichi is located on the Inland Sea that sits between the main island of Japan (Honshū) and the eastern island of Shikoku. We came here so that we could bike the Shimanami Kaidō, a stretch of roads and bridges crossing over the sea to Shikoku that is nicely set up for cycling. We were to spend a night beforehand in Onomichi so we could get an early start, and we didn’t expect much of the city (it’s not really a tourist destination) but found it to be quite charming. Walking around brought us through authentic local shops and up through narrow hill alleys with corner gardens tended by busy schoolchildren. For dinner we sat down for kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi at a place above a grocery store where we were definitely the only out-of-towners. It was fun to see a calmer, more genuine side of Japanese life away from touristy temples and busy cities.
The Shimanami Kaidō bike route is 75km of road and pathway crossing through six islands via an assortment of grand bridges before arriving at Imabari over on Shikoku. We arranged luggage forwarding the day before (this was very easy and cheap) so we could make a complete one-way trip. Riding this would obviously require bicycles; we got up early to reach the rental station when they opened. The good news was the rentals here are cheap and permit the one-way trip we intended. The downside is the bikes aren’t exactly in top shape, so we ended up on rickety rides that at least had some functional gears. Mine was a Panasonic – they make bikes??
Our trip began with a quick ferry hop over to the first island and then followed the exceptionally well-marked route along quiet coastal roads and bike paths. The weather, overcast and occasionally drizzly, was not the best for panoramic views but actually quite nice for cycling compared to some of the hot and humid days we’d been having. We rode past temples and citrus trees, rocky coasts with the occasional tree starting to turn for the fall, and across modern suspension bridges over swirling currents below. It was a really nice ride and also the easiest ~50 miles I’ve ever done despite being on creaky claptraps. If we had our good road bikes it would have been great to tackle one of the longer and more challenging routes – maybe next time!
We pulled into Imabari early in the afternoon where we dropped our bikes off, grabbed lunch, and congratulated ourselves for dodging the downpour which started soon after. From there we took a brief train ride further south to Matsuyama, the castle town where we had a room waiting for us – and, we hoped, our luggage. Not to fear – the hotel staff graciously presented us with our bags as soon as we got to the counter. Am I more impressed than I should be that we can drop off our big bag anywhere in Japan by 5pm and for ~$15 it will appear the next day at our destination? Japan, you rock.
Matsuyama was really more of a stopover of convenience for us when we were planning our Shimanami Kaidō ride, but we enjoyed our two night visit here quite a bit. It’s a coastal city that’s mostly quite flat except for a couple hills popping up; the 400-year old castle is perched on one of these, flanked by a park and downtown. The evening of our ride, after doing some laundry at a very Japanese laundromat (a bit confusing at first, supremely efficient once you figure it out), we walked into one of the many yakitori establishments in the busy restaurant quarter. These places deal in grilled skewers and the one we found was basically a local dive – no English at all. With some back-and-forth cellphone translating plus some assistance from the robed beer-drinking local next to us we managed to order a tasty assortment of chicken. Best were some flavorful meatballs and crispy bacon-like neck.
The next day we visited the Ninomaru historical gardens and Matsuyama Castle. The former was a bust – all the waterways were drained for cleaning and it wasn’t very attractive – but the castle was great. It’s not as grand as Himeji-jo but does sport some beautiful wooden construction and impressively high gracefully concave walls. Inside we found some displays of samurai weapons and armor, including a replica kit that you could try on. God it must have been difficult to go to war in those days – I was already hot and sweaty before even picking the stuff up, let alone having it on!
Lunch was a supermarket affair, the highlight being delicious local satsuma mandarins, and for dinner we ended up at basically a steak bar that specializes in all cuts of wagyu. We packed away a few delicious plates before retiring, bound the next day for Okayama and a very special ryokan stay there.