We finished this two-week bike tour with a real highlight: after a three-hour bus ride from the little fishing village of Ainan we arrived at the southern end of the Shimanami Kaido, a series of stunning bridges that connect Shikoku to the main island of Honshu across six islands in the Seto Inland Sea. At just under 45 miles the trip could be done relatively easily in a single day but our route took us around a the islands, rather than just straight across them, so we took two days for the journey.
Good planning, it turns out, as the first day had decidedly imperfect weather; a light rain fell pretty much all day. Not enough to make the riding miserable, but not the sort of thing you’d really choose. The forecast for day two on the bridges, though, was pretty good so we figured we’d at least have one nice day of riding.
As it turned out, riding in the light rain had a beauty of its own. Again, not something you’d choose but all the gray and overcast and gloom was, in its own way, beautiful. And then for day two on the bridges we did pretty well; not exactly bright blue sunshine but certainly dry.
The bridges were just amazing. One of them, the Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge, is nearly two-and-a-half miles long, allegedly the longest suspension bridge in the world. Another, the Tatara Bridge, is one of the world’s longest cable-stayed bridges. Opened in 1999, they were all built with bicycles explicitly in mind so there were dedicated bike lanes, completely isolated from the motorized traffic. The bridges were plenty high – have to let ships through, and all that – but the ramps were graded pretty modestly so getting up there wasn’t too big a chore. Once you made it up though, well, there’s just something about being so far above the sea and the islands below. Every time we’d make the climb up another ramp to the start of a bridge and see the world below us I’d break out into another big smile even when it was raining and I was cold and wet. The views, the sense of being on top of it all, was just too much fun.
And then, ultimately, it was over. Natalia had measured each of our rides on her Runtastic iPhone app and calculated that altogether we’d ridden something over 500 miles, not bad for a little under two weeks of riding. In fact, we’re both really pretty beat; that’s a lot of work we put in to finish the ride.
Along with great rides along rivers and the bridges and sometimes amazing meals, the real highlight was all the fun people we met. From my experience it’s pretty unusual to get this many strangers together and not have at least a couple that you learn you want to avoid at pretty much any cost. I’m remembering the judge we biked with in Italy who was just a Hillary-hater; not someone I enjoyed very much. But this group was a lot of fun, good riders but lots of laughs along the way. Meeting people is a big reason Mark & I do these organized bike tours and this was a solid win for us.
Finally, it’s always fun to observe some of the quirks of a place. One that appears to be idiosyncratic to Shikoku, or at least we’ve never experienced it anywhere else, is the bean bag pillows they use. We can get used to futons on the floor when we’re staying at some traditional Japanese place even if they’re not as comfortable as you’d like. But lots of the places we stayed had small pillows filled with dried beans. Seriously. Not sure why they haven’t discovered feathers or whatever modern pillows are made from, but the Heavenly Beds at the Westin in Kyoto where we’re headed next are sounding awfully good now.One aspect of biking in Japan we’re really going to miss are the onsens – the hot springs and baths – after a long ride. I’ve mentioned them before but they deserve one more shout out. What a great way to relax after a long, tough ride: a thorough cleaning and then a long soak maybe with pools of multiple temperatures, maybe outside in the cool air. Of course, they have their own quirks, too. Japanese have a pretty different attitude about nudity than we Westerners do. In one of the onsens we visited a little girl, maybe four years old, was there with her father, running around between the various pools in the men’s bath just as butt-naked as all the men were; apparently Mark and I were the only ones who thought that was unusual. I just don’t imagine that happening in a locker room in the U.S. That was the same onsen where a woman was cleaning the men’s bath area, again with no one giving it a second thought. Probably a healthy approach but … unusual.
So now it’s goodbye to Grasshopper and all the great people we biked with. It was a great ride, notwithstanding a few little lapses and problems. From here we’re slowing down in Kyoto for five nights before catching a long flight to Paris. All that after we rest up, though, because all that biking is tiring!