7 reasons you should head off the tourist trail to Onomichi

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As an Insider Tour Leader, I’m lucky enough to get to roam around Japan and introduce people to all sorts of incredible destinations – but I always find that the small, intimate places I visit are the ones I end up loving the most. If, like me, you’re looking for a side of Japan with plenty of culture and authenticity (without the crowds), I have a tip for you: Onomichi, a skinny coastal town about 50 minutes east of Hiroshima.

Hemmed in by low mountains to the north, and with a southern edge defined by the shimmering waters of the Seto Inland Sea (the strait that separates the main islands of Honshu and Shikoku), this little fishing town doesn’t find its way on to most travel bucket lists… but perhaps it should!

What’s more, Onomichi is one of the places that Japan’s Agency of Cultural Affairs has designated as Japan Heritage. There are 104 Japan Heritage “stories,” each comprising dozens of places and assets.

Reason 1: The Shimanami Kaido cycling route

Stunning suspension bridge connects two islands in the Seto Inland Sea
The Shimanami Kaido cycling route / Van Milton

For years the town’s biggest draw has been that it anchors one end of the beautiful Shimanami Kaido cycling route – probably Japan’s best-known cycle course. The 77-kilometer (50-mile) route weaves across six Mediterranean-like islands, all connected by beautifully designed suspension bridges, across to the city of Imabari on Shikoku. Think: sleepy island roads, views of neighboring islands, blue waters, citrus-scented air from the many fruit farms in the area… It’s a dreamy ride that can be easily done in a day or two by most cyclists.

Reason 2: Cyclist-friendly hotels

Two bicycles are parked next to restaurant entrance inside a hotel
The U2 Cycle Hotel / Van Milton

With Onomichi’s popularity as a cycling holiday hotspot on the rise, a new crop of accommodations have sprung up to help cater for weary bikers. The uber-slick U2 Cycle Hotel – located inside a repurposed warehouse for maximum hipness – is a prime example. The hotel shares its large, open building with a bicycle store, restaurant, bakery, espresso bar and shop, all with excellent views over the water. Best of all, (at least to my cyclist’s mind) you’re encouraged to bring your bike into the room when you stay.

Reason 3: The exciting foodie scene

Set meal consisting of a small salad bowl, a cup with soup and rice over curry
Hearty meal of salad, broth and Japanese curry

And that’s not all. Onomichi’s expanding restaurant scene is also becoming something to write home about – even in foodie paradise Japan. The area is a veritable hotbed of cool new restaurants, old izakayas, bars and cafes, all of which beg you to slow down, take it easy and explore. I particularly enjoy stopping for a quick coin shower and a double espresso at the Yard Café inside the U2 hotel after finishing a Shimanami Kaido ride… though after trying the coffee and green tea pudding at the Yamaneko Mill last time, my loyalties are now split!

Reason 4: A unique shopping experience

Concrete arcade with some shoppers walking next to stores
Onomichi’s shotengai shopping street / Van Milton

One of Onomichi’s signature features is a super-long ‘shotengai’, or covered shopping street, which stretches nearly the length of the town. After entering its tunnel-like opening, you can meander clear allllll the way to the other side of the town safe from the elements. You’ll a sense of the history and local flavor as you walk past a mix of day-to-day shops for locals interspersed with bakeries, coffee shops, restaurants, art galleries, guest houses… the list goes on.

Reason 5: Cats

Cat is sitting next to a rock inscribed with Japanese characters
A cat on a wall in Onomichi

Yes, cats. Onomichi is famous for them. So much so, in fact, that it has a side street called Cat Alley – which features a small Manekineko Museum. Heard that name somewhere before? They’re those paw-waving cat statues you often see beckoning you into Japanese shops and restaurants. Manekineko Museum aside, there are also loads of other feline-themed shops, restaurants and bars in the area – as well as many actual, real-life cats!

You can virtually explore the town’s shotengai shopping street from a cat’s perspective at this cute page. (The page is only in Japanese, but easy enough to understand with click-and-point navigation and plenty of pictures!)

Temple at the top of a mountain overlooks an oceanside city at sunset
The temple walk overlooking the town

Reason 6: The beautiful temple walk

Got plenty of time to spend in Onomichi? Well, meandering across the hillsides just behind the town is an enchanting temple walk that connects dozens of sites via a winding path. Walkable in a couple of hours, it’s a nice way to slow down and take in the details as you pass tiny old temples, stone Bodhisattva statues, and quiet tea houses. If you don’t fancy the hike, you can also ride the cable car up to Senkoji Temple and simply enjoy the view across the town and neighbouring islands.

Reason 7: The nearby islands

Concrete stairs lead to imposing wooden temple entrance
Kosanji Temple / Van Milton

If you’re a fan of island-hopping, Onomichi is an excellent base for exploring nearby Ikuchijima and Innoshima by ferry, bus, or car. Ikuchijima’s impressive Kosanji Temple is easily on par with what you might expect to find in Kyoto, but with far fewer international visitors to disturb the peace. Other delights like the Suigun (Pirate) Museum/Castle on Innoshima Island highlight the area’s incredible history as the center of the Murakami Pirates’ domain.

Interested in reading more about Onomichi, or other incredible Japan Heritage sites? Speak to our team for more information, or head to the Japan Heritage project webpage.

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