Onomichi – Historical Japanese harbourside town and cycling mecca

Onomichi marks the beginning or end of the Shimanami Kaido, a slick cycling route which crosses several islands across an inland sea in Japan. Onomichi is a seaside city in Hiroshima Prefecture, with splendid views from escarpments surrounding a harbour. These hills are lined with temples that have an amazing view over the harbour and city, which is semi-industrial. You get a feeling that you are experiencing the real Japan, with a mix if heavy industry and ancient temples.

Seaside townships along the Seto Inland Sea –
the cycleway goes through these areas along coastal routes.

The Cycle Trail: Shimanami Kaido

The epic Shimanami Kaido cycle trail initially drew us to this small city in Western Japan 257 kilometres west of Osaka. The cycleway basically follows a 60 kilometres expressway across the Seto Inland Sea from Honshu to Shikoku (Japan’s largest and fourth largest islands respectively) – but this summary does not due justice to the route that draws people from all over Japan and the world. It’s a scenic journey across several islands that are connected by modern bridges across deep blue seas. Each of the islands contain sleepy villages, a variety of farms and expansive views along the sea. The entire cycleway is separate to the expressway which was completed in 1999. You’ll follow local roads in addition to dedicated tracks through forests and farmland, but it also shares the huge modern bridges of the expressway from one island to another across the sea. On some bridges, the cycleway is suspended under the freeway with the blue water crashing into the shores way below the pathway – other times it times well protected as a separate laneway on the bridges. The bridge crossings are truly memorable. It’s really relaxing, while also being a good workout.

Another great aspect of the cycleway is the easy access to rental bikes across it’s length. You have the option of doing the whole route one-way, or breaking it into smaller segments to suit your timetable. The bicycle hire shop in Onomichi is adjacent to a ferry wharf, that has regular services to towns throughout the Seto Inland Sea. We hired a bike with ease in Onomichi, and then took a ferry to the Port of Setoda, which is about 30 kilometres along the cycleway on Ikuchi Island, on the middle of the Seto Inland Sea.

Ferry service from Onomichi to the Port of Setoda – bicycles are allowed on these ferry services.

The town of Setoda is very quiet and quaint – the main activity on this island appears to be lemon growing, so we stopped by at a local shop that did excellent lemon cream puffs, before heading out on the cycle back to Onomichi. There are also plenty of Japanese convenience stores like Family Mart and Lawsons’s, so there’s no need to carry provisions – we ate sushi and rice snacks in a small garden adjacent to one of these shops. I’m always amazed at excellent quality of food in convenience shops in Japan – of only the rest of the world could pick up on this amazing Japanese trait!

The 30 kilometre cycle track was sealed along its entire length, with many sealed off-road sections through orchards and farmland – curving along the hillsides above the clear blue seas. Truly amazing cycling. The final stretch back to Onomich is more industrial as the city still has a shipbuilding industry. You need to take a car ferry across the harbour in Onomichi to bring you back to the centre of the city and the main cycle hire shop. Easily the best cycle I have done in terms of scenery and convenience in an overseas location.

Cycleway suspended under the expressway bridge, going from one island to another
on the Seto Inland Sea, Japan

Temples and harbourside views

Onomichi itself was also quite fascinating. It would be a lie to say this town is a scenic wonderland, as it is also quite industrial. The harbour is deep and narrow with steep hills on every side. Rusty shipyards sit on one side of the harbour, with old temples and wooden houses scattered along the other side. An old railway line snakes its way through the city along a narrow strip next to the harbour – this is also the main link to the main Shinkansen line in Fukuyama or Mihara, less than 25 minutes away. Settlement within the city follows the shoreline with houses and temples sitting along the steep hillsides.

An older style train trundles through the city on the JR Sanyo Line. Narrow laneways come very close to the railway line, as the city is densely populated on a narrow strip of flat land along the harbour.

We spent a whole morning exploring the narrow laneways along the hillside in Onomichi. Old temples and shrines have amazing views with plenty of parkland and views across the harbour. At the lower levels of the city, the railway line cuts through old neighbourhoods, which now host an array of coffee shops, arty shops and restaurants. However, the city still has a bit of a gritty real feel that is sometimes missing from the more famous places like Kyoto or Takayama.

Homes with panoramic views can be seen along the steep hillsides in Onomichi. Pedestrians can explore the laneways easily, as road traffic is restricted due to the steep topography.

Popular Culture and the movie “Tokyo Story”

Onomichi also played an important role in the cinematic history of Japan, through the movie “Tokyo Story” in 1953, directed by Yasujirō Ozu. I’m no movie aficionado, but I do have an appreciation of foreign movies that give us an insight into the human condition, and “Tokyo Story” is a true classic of international cinema. It’s hauntingly beautiful, as it reveals the difficulties of family life when Japan was rapidly transforming into an economic powerhouse. Its mood and story is still very relevant to anyone today, if you have ever felt that the world is moving very fast, sometimes not for the best.

View from above an old temple, looking back to the harbour, shopping centre and railway station.

An old couple from Onomichi play a central role in this movie, as their children grow up and move to Tokyo – everyone is well meaning, but you see how the pressures of modern life in a big city lead to the abandonment of the elderly parents in Onomichi. Most of the movie is very simple, but it does give an amazing insight into the immense pressures that were placed on the traditional Japanese life during the years after the second world war. It’s very watchable, even for foreigners, as we call all associate with family pressures as life gets more and more busy. When you’ve seen this movie, it gives you a better appreciation for Onomichi, as much of the city retains it’s character from the 1950s – lovely temples and gardens – small wooden houses with views over the quiet harbour.

One of many temples on the hillsides of Onomichi.

The Temple Walk – temples all over the hillside

The final word on Onomichi has to be about the temples that can be found at various levels along the hillside of this dramatic landscape. Photographers will get amazing shots of pagodas, narrow laneways, old cemeteries and ancient wooden temples throughout this old city. This is juxtaposed against a ghastly railway line and concrete apartment blocks that hug the seashore. It’s all quite profound and memorable.

Level crossing for the JR Sanyo line in Onomichi.

These temples were built from around 1168 onwards, as Onomichi was an important port during the Edo period, given it’s location on mainland Honshu, with easy access to the Osaka Region. There were many wealthy merchants who contributed money towards the construction of temples along the hillside – over 30 temples can be visited today.

Narrow walkways near temples that are partly cut into alcoves in the hillside in Onomichi.

Above the city, Mount Senkoji is considered to be sacred so building restrictions have been in place since the end of WWII. This has led to the hills above Onomichi maintaining a timeless quality, where you can explore old temples and laneways that have hardly changed over the past 60 years.

Forecourt of a temple in Onomichi, overlooking the city.

Narrow laneways link the temples with old houses and the occasional little coffee shop of restaurant, as the neighbourhood relies on tourism almost exclusively these days, while also maintaining its traditions and pleasant atmosphere. As I’m a big fan of cats, it was great to see our feline friends sunning themselves all over the city. Apparently, cats are encouraged to live in the city, as it attracts visitors. The local council has even created a Google style cat map that went viral with 1.7 million internet hits.

Sleeping and eating

There are plenty of accommodation and eating options within the city. We found an old wooden pub that served excellent local food (called 廻船酒蔵 ベッチャーの胃ぶくろ in Japanese). It was an adventurous case of ordering by pointing at photos on the menu and trusting the locals. Somehow, we ended up with some huge marinated cold snails, which we totally enjoyed (as they were on the house), but wouldn’t necessarily choose.

Large black marinated snails – a little more adventurous than our usual dinner.
A free snack at the pub where we had dinner.

Shimanami Kaido Cycleway: Japan-Guide’s run down on the Shimanami Kaido cycle route – a great guide to the highlights and options on this cycling route.

Dedicated cycleway through a forest on the Shimanami Kaido cycle route.

Getting to Onomichi: Although there is a bullet train station at Shin-Onomichi, it’s located in the hills above the city. A better option is to alight from the bullet train at Fukuyama and take the JR Sanyo Line four stops to Onomichi (18 minutes). Alternatively, change at Mihara and join the JR Sanyo Line two stops (in the opposite direction – 14 minutes). Trains run at 20 minute intervals at off-peak and more regularly in peak hour on the JR Sanyo Line.

JR Onomichi railway station on the JR Sanyo Line.

Ferry timetables and information: If you only want to cycle one-way along the Shimanami Kadio Cycle way, Onomichi>Setoda Ferries leave every hour or so and its a 40 minute trip – ferries leave from the front of the Greenhill Hotel on the waterfront. You can’t miss it, as it’s the central place of activity in town.

Laneways through residential neighbourhoods in Onomichi.

Temple Walk: Japan-Guide also has a great little map and guide to the temple walk in Onomichi, although it’s just as easy to exit the railway station and go uphill to explore the temples yourself. It’s almost impossible to get lost, as you can see all over the city as you head higher. Just head back down and follow the railway line to the station once you need to head back home.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Green Hill Hotel which was an adequate 3 star hotel in the best location – right opposite the ferry wharf. It’s also within a five minute walk to the beginning of the temples and the main shopping street for restaurants and pubs.

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