Cycling Shikoku, Japan: Part 2 - Journey to the Shimanto River

In the second part of the series, we explore the southernmost tip of Shikoku at Cape Ashizuri, and continue our journey along the Shimanto River, known as the last clear stream of Japan.

After enjoying a day of rest in Kochi, we mounted our trusty Ritchey Breakaway bikes and continued our journey further south towards Shimanto.

This is the continuation of our cycling journey from Cycling Shikoku, Japan - Part 1, after we spent a brief time exploring Tokushima.

Stage 3: Kochi to Shimanto

  • Start Kochi

  • Finish Shimanto

  • Distance 120km

  • Climbing 1650m

  • Grade Medium

This was definitely the longest ride of our tour, one that I was fairly apprehensive about. Since the perils of our first day highlighted the need to finish before it got too dark, I was quite concerned about making good time while there was still daylight, especially since we knew there would also be quite some climbing on this particular day. However, anyone who goes cycling off the beaten path knows it’s never as easy as you hope it to be. After a buffet breakfast at our hotel, we set about making a move before it got too late.

The day started with a beautiful ride out of Kochi along the Hage river going through Route 56. We cycled through some farmland and stayed parallel to the river, which also involved going through some riverside gravel paths. Thankfully the area was quiet and fairly remote, with barely any vehicles for us to worry about. The wider tyres on Eka’s bike (Challenge Strada Bianca 30) and my own (Panaracer Gravel King 32) bike (both Ritchey Steel Cross Breakaways) were perfect for these stretches, though Maya also navigated through on hers (Vittoria Corsa Graphene 25s) without too much trouble. She had to be a bit more cautious picking her way because of the loose gravel, but got through alright.

This, combined with some wrong turns and having to double back to find the right path (Eka was forced to constantly check the route throughout this agricultural area) slowed us down a fair bit. We even had an unscheduled toilet stop in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by fields of crops. This area is dotted with porta-loos which are sparkling clean and come with quality toilet paper and bidets, making it easy for people with micro bladders like Maya and myself to take a leak (or two). Thank god for the hygiene levels of the Japanese; it actually smelled cleaner inside the loos than outside!

Making our way through the agricultural area, we went past a number of semi-modern villages, and continued cycling along Route 56 past the town of Susaki until we once again met the coastline. From there, we followed Route 320 which started with an extremely beautiful stretch of coastal roads. It was just us and the sea. Please take note that this means no infrastructure of any sort along the road (no toilets or vending machines) for at least 10km.

In all fairness this road was actually completely closed to motorised vehicles. As we approached the access point we saw an ominous NO ENTRY sign, but cyclists being who they are, we decided to ignore it and push through. The alternative would have been an extremely long detour inland, which would have added significant mileage to our already long ride. So in we went.

We found out not too long after, that the closure was due to some rockslides that had happened quite recently. It was a deserted seaside stretch, since some parts of the tarmac had sustained some damage and yet to be repaired, and the rocks hadn’t been cleared up completely either. For bikes, it was obviously no issue at all. Whether it has been re-opened since then, we have absolutely no idea.

It was approaching lunchtime by the time we hit this coastal stretch, and it was hard not to be distracted by the stunning views of the azure water crashing against the jagged cliffside, illuminated by the golden rays of the sun. It as a glorious day after all, and the threat of rain had yet to manifest. Thankfully we could still enjoy the scenery from the saddle, and continued pedalling until we reached the end, exiting onto the main route to continue to our midday checkpoint.

Before too long we arrived at the quaint fishing town of Nakatosa and stopped to have a bite to eat right outside the Kuretaishomachi Market. If you’ve got a bit more time than we had on the day, it’s a good idea to spend some time walking through the market, which first started operating in the Meiji period until a great fire swept through the area in 1915, destroying 230 houses. In appreciation of funding from Emperor Taisho to cover rebuilding costs, the townspeople changed the name of the area from Jizo-dori to Taisho-machi, and since then the market has been called the Taisho-machi Ichiba.

Since it is a seaside town, you can buy fish as well as seasonal vegetables and fruit grown by local farmers, as well as handmade delicatessen food. For us hungry cyclists, the dish of the day was "Kure-don" - rice topped with fresh sashimi, accompanied by miso soup and vegetables. Think poke bowl but with more local Japanese condiments. For myself, I opted for a topping of cooked chopped fish, since I am a bit finicky when it comes to sashimi and prefer squid and prawns over fish. Needless to say, it was a tasty, filling and extremely necessary power up for all three of us. Near the market is also a centre of sorts, which has those clean and modernised toilets that Japan is so famous for.

After enjoying our refreshing lunch, we once again continued our journey along Route 56. At the 50km mark, we faced a steep climb that would continue for 10km but provided some breathtaking views, taking us past Mount Hiuchigamori. Due to the mountainous terrain, we were surrounded mostly by forests and greenery all around, and while the accompanying traffic was constant, we had plenty of space to share the road. In honest truth, there were several spots we stopped where looking back it was hard to believe we’d climbed up so far!

We continued to follow the hilly route for another 20km or so, making brief stops for refreshments at seemingly odd places, where the only things that were functioning were the automatic vending machines amidst the decay of forgotten small towns. At this point, we realised that we still had some distance to cover and it was already getting dark. Eka made a call to our guest house for the evening to inform them that we would be arriving slightly later than expected.

Once we reached the 70km mark, it was one hell of a nerve-wracking steep and fast downhill, with traffic that included large trucks. We stopped at a Lawson’s at the bottom of the descent for refreshments and to reorient ourselves as the sun had dipped past the horizon by then. The roads were well lit but all around us was pure darkness, and we were thankful that we’d invested in strong front lights that would last the whole day.

We continued to cycle in pitch black conditions for the last 30km of rolling coastal hills, listening to the sounds of the sea to our left. When we arrived in Shimanto we had a bit more climbing to do, culminating with a 10km tree-lined stretch that followed the Shimanto river’s twists and turns. This would have been a pleasant ride in the day, but proved to be quite challenging at night, since there were no streetlights to show us the way.

Finally, we arrived at our quaint guest house along the River in time for our dinner, with my legs thoroughly fatigued from the constant pedalling. I was ready to drop by then; I’d never been more relieved to reach our accommodation for the night! Thankfully, the hosts had been patiently waiting for us since Eka gave them a distress “we are going to be late” call about 3 hours prior to our arrival. After a bath and yet another delicious dinner, we were very relieved to finally tuck ourselves into our futons for the night.

Exploring Cape Ashizuri

Rest day! This was initially meant to be a relaxed 80km ride to the coast for lunch (slight miscalculation on Eka’s part, off by about 20km) and some sightseeing, but after realising that we were in dire need of some rest, we opted to take the bus instead. Our lovely host offered to send us to the bus stop and pick us up when we returned, and we all agreed that a day off the bikes walking to stretch our legs would do all of us some good.

And we were glad it did, because it was just hills all the way. I have to admit that if we did have the time and more energy, going by bike would have been wonderful, as the roads were quiet and extremely scenic. The bus ride from Shimanto Station to Cape Ashizuri took about 2 hours as there were many stops, but even so, it would be a very enjoyable journey for any visitors to the region. For stronger cyclists who do not need a rest day, the journey to visit the cape would have been a hilly 100 kilometer loop.

Cape Ashizuri is the southernmost tip of Shikoku, and is part of the Ashizuri-Uwakai National Park. The cliffside location’s highlight is a sparkling lighthouse that makes a wonderful spot to enjoy stunning 180 degree views of the Pacific Ocean. You can also ride a glass-bottomed boat to view underwater scenes off the nearby Tatsukushi and Minokoshi beaches. Hike the two-kilometer seaside trail that snakes through the rugged landscape, or find a nice stargazing spot at night thanks to a lack of light pollution there. There’s also an open-air onsen at the Ashizuri Hot Spring, located on the main road with views of the ocean surf below.

The cape is home to the Kongofukuji Buddhist Temple (金剛福寺), temple number 38 and one of the largest on the 88 Temple Pilgrimage. Although reputedly founded by Kobo Daishi himself back in 822, upon visiting you can’t deny that most of the buildings there are quite obviously rather new, even to the untrained eye.

A statue of Nakahama "John" Manjirō, first Japanese to visit the United States in the 1840s, stands in front of the park, and there is a small museum dedicated to him in the village nearby. A simple fisherman, he was born, shipwrecked, and was rescued in the vicinity of the park by the American whaler ship John Howland. Manjirō opted to stay onboard rather than disembark in Honolulu, and eventually found himself in the US. Upon returning, he made significant contributions to the opening of Japan after years of isolation from the rest of the world, in the final years of the Edo period.

But we were keen to have a bit of time in the hot bath back at our guesthouse, so we boarded a late afternoon bus to head back home, after lunch and the obligatory sightseeing. Once our clean laundry was re-packed and we’d had yet another traditional Japanese meal, the outdoor bath was a godsend for our tired muscles before another night of much needed sleep.

Stage 4: Shimanto to Uwajima

  • Start Shimanto

  • Finish Uwajima

  • Distance 72km

  • Climbing 1130m

  • Grade Medium

This ride was one of the most beautiful and relaxing throughout our tour, and thoroughly enjoyable. We explored some of the forest areas throughout the morning as we weaved in and out of the river banks, going through quiet villages.

Along the way we were treated to beautiful views of the lush green natural landscape along the Shimanto River, the biggest river in Shikoku and the last clear stream of Japan, untouched by industry and extremely pristine for all of its almost 200km length. The river originates from Mt. Irazuyama in Kochi’s Tsuno, flowing out to the Pacific Ocean after running through the towns of Nakatosa and Shimanto.

In total, there are 47 railing-less “chinka-bashi” bridges built throughout the Shimanto which become submerged during high floods. A chinka bridge is built in that unique shape so that there is no significant impact from water resistance, and to avoid poor water flow due to trees and other objects. The best chinka bridge that represents Shimanto River is the Imanari Chinka Bridge, while the Iwama Chinka Bridge is also famous for taking photos.

For those enjoying a leisurely visit to the Shimanto River, or if you didn’t travel with your own bikes, there are many ways to see the sights. You can rent and return the bicycles in any of the seven terminals between Ekawasaki Station and Nakamura Station to also cycle along the river. Canoeing is another perfect way to fully enjoy the river, especially downstream where the water is more tranquil.

The river is also dotted with spots where you can hop on a yakata-bune (pleasure boat with roof). You can also opt for one of the “senbasen” sailboats that were an indispensable part of life for the local people until around 1955. Although we did not ride the entire length of the river, the parts that we did manage to travel through were indeed beautiful.

At the 35km mark, we stopped for a bite to eat at a rest stop along Route 441. We parked our Ritchey Breakaway bikes at the designated bike parking spot and followed our noses. The roasted chestnuts that we ate there were tasty, and of course we also had a full proper meal of pasta – that is standard cyclist fare after all! After our meal, we bid farewell to the Shimanto River and turned into Route 381 along the smaller Hirome River. This route would take us all the way to Uwajima. 

We managed to arrive in Uwajima safely right before sunset, having our regular bath and a wonderful early dinner of okonomiyaki at one of the izakaya restaurants around the block before bedding down for the night.

Onwards to Matsuyama