The blue sky melded seamlessly into the Seto Inland Sea as I took in the striking views of the Shimanami Kaido’s (しまなみ海道) iconic Shimanami Crown Bridge. While this bridge serves as the final connection point between Oshima Island (大島) with mainland Shikoku, it’s also how I would conclude my art-fueled expedition within Ehime prefecture’s small islands between Honshu and Shikoku. After completing the first portion of the Shimanami Kaido journey over the islands of Hiroshima, I crossed over to Ehime, where I’d visit modern art museums, samurai shrines and take in breathtaking island and ocean views from an observatory. While you can travel by car, you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not taking advantage of the several bike rentals along the 60 km expressway of Shimanami Kaido. This expressway is a cyclist’s dream when it comes to an island-hopping adventure in Japan, with plenty of cycling options and routes for you to curate your trip to discover all the hidden gems on the island.

So, with a backpack full of snacks and a craving for art, I headed to Omishima Island (大三島) to start my art-infused journey across Ehime’s small islands.

Oyamazumi Shrine: Ehime’s Oldest Shrine and Samurai Pilgrimage Site

While the samurai class has been gone for the past 150 years, it’s not hard to sense their presence at Ehime’s oldest shrine, Oyamazumi Shrine (大山祇神社). Founded in 594, this 1,400-year-old shrine was built in honor of Oyamazumi no Okami, the God of oceans, mountains, and warfare. While nobody knows precisely when the shrine became a center of worship for Japan’s samurai warriors, come they did, to the small island of Omishima, to pray for success in their battles. If victorious, the warriors would make the pilgrimage back to the shrine to offer their swords, armor, and other military equipment as a tribute to the deity. Many of these original items make up the shrine’s Treasure House, with over 80% of the artifacts designated as National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties in Japan.

Japanese camphor tree in front of shrine in Ehima, Japan

This 2,600-year-old camphor tree is one of the oldest on the Oyamazumi Shrine complex.

After I passed under the shrine’s outer wooden gates, I headed onto a spacious, sandy plaza – the same plaza where samurai warriors once tread – up to Oyamazumi Shrine Main Hall (大山祇神社拝殿). One of the most undeniable testaments to the shrine’s ancient history is the 2,600-year-old camphor tree that stands before the hall. In late February, the branches were alive with freshly sprouted green leaves, showing no signs of its age, just as it had for the samurai of long past.

Oyamazumi Shrine Main Hall

Bike rack at Japanese shrine for Shimanami Kaido cycling trip in Japan

Drop your bike off at Oyamazumi Shrine’s bike racks before you enter the complex.

Omishima Museum of Art

Across the street from Oyamazumi Shrine is the first art museum on my itinerary: Omishima Museum (大三島美術館). If you love the traditional Japanese painting-style of Nihonga, then you’ll likely enjoy a visit to this museum. This unique peak-designed structure opened in 1986 and houses a collection of over 1,000 works of Nihonga artworks. One of the rooms is a permanent collection of Showa-era (1926–1989) artists featuring classic Japanese farmland sceneries and delicately rendered drawings of flowers and plants.

Omishima Museum has a permanent collection of Nihonga-style paintings featuring images of classic Japanese farmland sceneries and delicately rendered drawings of flowers and plants.

The rest of the museum has a rotating showcase of more recent Japanese artists. When I visited, the exhibition was devoted to contemporary images of city landscapes, abstract figures, and women’s portraits. While a visit to Omishima Museum doesn’t take long, it’s a good sampling of classic Japanese-style artwork, serving as an “art appetizer” as I headed to the next museum on my list, the Tokoro Museum.

The Modern Art Tokoro Museum

If you have the energy for a winding cycling detour, the Tokoro Museum (ところミュージアム) on the western corner of the island is worth a visit, not only for its selection of sculptural and installation pieces but for the magnificent ocean views that surround the museum. Opened in 2004 as an annex of Omishima Museum, the world-famous architect, Toyo Ito, designed and built this striking cement structure on a downward slope to capitalize on the beautiful views of the Inland Sea.

As I descended, fresh ocean air blew freely through open doors to the museum’s outer passageway as I browsed through 30 collections of work by international and Japanese contemporary artists. At the end was the final work of art – an architecturally framed view of the ocean – and in my opinion, the star piece in Tokoro. There are even chairs visitors can take out to the outdoor terrace, making it a perfect opportunity to catch my breath as I took in the spectacular panoramic vistas before me.

Kirosan Observatory Park: One of the Best Views of the Shimanami Kaido

For the final stretch of my Ehime island-hop, I skipped over to Oshima Island (大島), where I’d enjoy one of the best views of the Shimanami Kaido at the Kirosan Observatory (亀老山展望台). Located on the top of Mt. Kiro, this observatory overlooks the iconic Shimanami Crown Bridge (来島海峡大橋), the last bridge that connects Oshima Island with the Shikoku mainland.

At the top of the observatory, I shared the 360-degree views with a few other cyclists who made the rewarding trip up the mountain. Even the crisp air of February couldn’t faze me as I soaked in the breathtaking sights — the final crowning masterpiece to my art-infused Shimanami Kaido journey. As the late afternoon light crept over the land, I took one last look and understood why this region inspires such a rich artistic heritage. Whether you come for phenomenal views, historical shrines, or art, a cycling trip along Shimanami Kaido will undoubtedly be one of the most memorable experiences you can have in Japan.

Where to Rent a Bike Along the Shimanami Kaido and Map

With various starting points and means of access along the Shimanami Kaido, it’s easy to curate a cycling journey based on your pace, physical ability, or transportation mode. The Shimanami Cycle Website outlines a suggested Shimanami route to follow and lists the bike rental offices if you choose to complete your visit on two wheels.

How to Get to the Shimanami Kaido using the Japan Rail Pass

The Shimanami Kaido expressway starts from Hiroshima’s Onomichi City to Shikoku’s Imabari City which you can access using the JR Pass. If you’re starting your journey at Onomichi port, catch the JR Shinkansen Train at Hiroshima Station (広島駅) headed to Tokyo and get off at Fukuyama Station (福山駅), transfer to the local train bound for Mihara to Onomichi Station (尾道駅) (54 minutes), then walk four-minutes to Onomichi Port Terminal (尾道港).

From Shin-Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo Station, catch the JR Shinkansen headed for Hakata, then transfer onto the local Sanyo line at Fukuyama Station (福山駅) until you reach Onomichi Station. It takes approximately 2 hours to reach Onomichi Station from Shin-Osaka and Kyoto, and 4 hours from Tokyo.

Whether you’re traveling by train, ferry, or bike, the Shimanami Kaido has a wealth of scenic beauty, celebrated cultural and artistic destinations, and impressive temple structures to easily leave you dreaming for more traveling within the Seto Inland Sea region. For more recommended destinations along the Shimanami Kaido, continue to part one for my journey into Hiroshima prefecture.

Photographs and text by Mika Senda