Cycling in Japan: Awaji Island

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Earlier this year, InsideJapan directors Alastair Donnelly and Simon King donned their Lycra to spend a few days exploring the little-discovered cycling hotspot of Awaji.

What’s so special about Awaji?

Awaji is an island nestled in the eastern part of the Seto Inland Sea, between the main island of Honshu and Shikoku, accessed either by bridge or by high-speed ferry from Akashi Port. Much like neighbouring Shikoku, it offers a glimpse of rural Japan, blessed with temples, traditional fishing villages and national parks.

Whilst the name may not be familiar, Awaji has a fair few claims to fame. Did you know, for example, that Awaji was the epicentre of the 1995 Kobe earthquake? (You can still see part of the 10km fault line on the island). And that the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, which connects the island to Honshu, is the world’s longest suspension bridge? And that, contrary to the name, Kobe beef doesn’t come from Kobe! Yep, you’ve guessed it. It comes from Awaji. Awaji is also famed for vegetables and is the onion-growing capital of Japan.

But these days, one of the main things Awaji is renowned for is road cycling. It was this that brought us here.

Cycling in Awaji

Awaji offers a good range of routes for cyclists of all ages and abilities. In general, the roads around the coast are relatively flat, so for families and anyone content with a gentle pootle, Awaji is perfect for one-day touring, or covering the entire island at a leisurely pace over the course of two days.

If you fancy yourself the next Lance Armstrong, you may like to tackle the Awaji ‘ichi-go-nana’ – a 157km full-island circuit – as a one-day time trial. The circuit is essentially flat with just a few mild undulations, so cyclists can really pick up the pace*

Alternatively, for those who enjoy tackling a climb, there are steeper sections on the west to east central route, with a rapid descent to the east coast. If you’re a real glutton for punishment, you can try this in reverse.

Bicycle hire

As relative newbies to the world of road cycling, Simon and I eased ourselves in gently with a one-day touring option.

First things first, we stopped off at Masahi Yamada’s cycle store and café Circolo just outside Iwaya to hire our bikes and down the prerequisite, pre-ride espresso, made by Masahi himself. Masahi is an Awaji local and semi-professional triathlete; definitely the man in the know when it comes to road cycling in Awaji.

The store has plenty of lockers to leave day bags, plus a shower and toilet for when you return. There is no charge to use the facilities and Masahi gives out maps of the island (Japanese only, but roads are roads, right?!) Two makes of aluminium frame bikes are available (Orbea Avan and Chinelli Experience), as well as two carbon fibre models (Giant TCR and Specialised Venge) all tuned and adjusted to your fit.

The 60km Temple Route

Armed with Masahi’s handy map, you can strike off in any direction you like, but we opted for the 60km ‘temple route’ around the northern tip of Awaji – straightforward and almost entirely flat with plenty of points of interest to stop off at.

This route took us past the Yume Butai hotel complex, designed by renowned Japanese architect, Tadao Ando. It literally translates as ‘dream stage’, and there is a certain sci-fi feel to the multi-layered network of paths, enclosed courtyards, square pools of shallow water and imposing multi-storey concrete. Stretching high up the hillside behind the hotel is hyaku dan en (One Hundred Step Garden). Designed by Ando as a tribute to victims of the 1995 earthquake, this garden features one hundred concrete squares arranged in a geometric tapestry filled with different flowers and vegetables.

The temple route also takes in the fabulous flower gardens of Awaji Hanasajiki and the Awajishima Prefectural Park, a well-tended park with a variety of beautiful flowers and play areas for kids. A great pitstop for an ice cream! We were lucky enough to be travelling in March, so reaped all the rewards of those early sakura blooms.

Along the route there were plenty of opportunities to stop and chat to locals, check out little-known temples and shrines, and see locals go about their daily routine.

This nice circular route finishes back at Masahi’s hire shop to drop off the bikes. Treat yourself to Circolo’s signature stacked burger and a nice refreshing beer, before relieving aching muscles with a dip in an onsen (hot spring bath). There are a few on the island, but we recommend Matsuho no Sato overlooking the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge.

Alternative cycle routes

If you’re looking for a challenging one-day journey near Masahi’s hire shop in Awaji, the rice terrace route combines coastal cycling with a trip through the hills of Awaji’s interior. The beautiful villages of inland Awaji are the highlight with rice terraces and hilltop temples. It is marginally shorter than the Temple Route, but a few more ups and downs make it significantly more strenuous.

For a longer one-day ride, the ‘Three Cities’ route combines lovely coastal scenery with more populated areas and some of the island’s most important historic sights.

Getting to Awaji

Awaji would be a good day trip option from Shikoku – just a short hop across the Naruto Bridge. However, you cannot ride bikes across Naruto Bridge, so you either need to hire them once you get to Awaji or arrange to have them transported across the bridge by truck. It is also possible to visit Awaji in one day from the mainland (although an overnight stay is recommended). Owing to the speed and efficiency of the shinkansen (bullet train), you can get from Kyoto to Awaji in just two hours, via Shin-Kobe.

Staying there

We stayed at The Westin Awaji, part of the much larger Yume Butai complex designed by Ando. Whilst not the most luxurious choice, the rooms are spacious and comfortable, and the hotel is very well-equipped for families. There is a good quality buffet breakfast which offers something for all the family, plus a chance to sample those famous Awaji sweet onions! Awaji is a popular holiday choice for Japanese families (which we take as a good sign!) so the entire island has family-friendly parks and attractions to keep younger children entertained.

* Anyone who completes the Awaji 157 route is duly rewarded with a free burger back at Masahi Yamada’s cycle shop!

If you’d like to spend a few days getting off the beaten track in Awaji, we can incorporate this into any tailormade itinerary – just speak to our expert travel consultants.

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