Ehime: Cycle tour around Shikoku similar to famous 88-temple pilgrimage grows in popularity

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Matsuyama University students Shinnosuke Inoue, left, and Yuma Aoki ride their bikes across a scenic bridge over the Shimanto River in Kochi Prefecture.

MATSUYAMA — A cycling tour of about 1,000 kilometers around the perimeter of Shikoku has been attracting more and more cyclists.

Shikoku is known as a place of pilgrimage with 88 temples scattered throughout the island and worshipers often collecting red seals at each temple. In the same way, participants in the bicycle tour collect a series of stamps at roadside rest areas along the way, and when all the stamps are collected, they are awarded a commemorative certificate of completion.

The tour is promoted by governments of the four Shikoku prefectures — Tokushima, Kagawa, Ehime and Kochi — as a project titled “Challenge 1,000km Project,” aimed at popularizing Shikoku as a cycling island.

Urban charm, rural charm

One day in September, two bicycles crossed the Shimanto River, known for its clean water, in Kochi Prefecture. A white mist hung over the mountainside after the rain, as the cyclists sped along the 291-meter-long Sada Chinkabashi, a famously scenic submersible idge.

They were both sophomores who are part of the cycling society at Matsuyama University. Yuma Aoki, who was doing the tour with his cycling buddy Shinnosuke Inoue, was astonished by the landscape. “I felt the enormous scale of the river,” he said.

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“I really enjoyed the combination of urban settings in such places as prefectural capitals and good old countryside scenes with rivers and mountains,” Inoue said.

It took nine days for the two to complete their cycle around Shikoku.

Inspired by Taiwan

The project, in which cyclists aim to complete the tour while collecting stamps at 29 locations, started in 2017. The trigger was an exchange between Shikoku and Taiwan, which has almost the same circumference.

Matsuyama started friendly exchanges with Taipei in 2009, as there is a district in Taipei called Songshan that is written with the same kanji characters as Matsuyama. Ehime Prefecture, of which Matsuyama is the capital, concluded a memorandum in 2016 to cooperate with Taiwan in such fields as tourism, culture and sports.

Cycling is popular in Taiwan, and bicycle tours covering circumferences of about 1,000 kilometers are gaining in popularity. The Ehime prefectural government took note of this trend and teamed up with the three other prefectures to promote a similar type of cycling trip around Shikoku.

For a fee of ¥10,000, cyclists receive a blue and white cycling jersey and a stamp card. There is a suggested course for the tour, but you can visit tourist spots not on the course such as the famed Katsurahama beach in Kochi City or the Naruto Strait known for its whirlpools off Tokushima Prefecture.

The organizers have set a standard tour time of 11 days and 10 nights, but participants are allowed to complete the tour in sections. If you complete the entire route within the three-year time limit, you will receive a certificate of completion and a commemorative medal.

More than 4,000 people — including those currently in the middle of the challenge — have joined and nearly 1,600 of them have completed it. About 70% of them are from outside of Shikoku, and economic benefits can be expected in areas such as accommodation, transportation and dining out.

According to the Ehime prefectural government, the number of participants is gradually recovering after a decline due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sharing on social media

In March, a circle measuring about 2 meters across was installed on the ground in front of the Ehime prefectural government building in Matsuyama. This is the zero-kilometer mark and has a “0” design in the center. It is intended to be the starting point of the tour.

The mark also serves as a starting point for youth cycling trips, a separate program by the prefectural government during summer and on other occasions.

“The seared bonito was so tasty.” “I ate udon noodles for eakfast, lunch and dinner because I was in Kagawa Prefecture [which is famous for udon].” The Facebook account of the young people’s program that took place this summer is filled with such posts.

The bike trip program provides university students and other young participants with a maximum of ¥50,000 per group for accommodation, in exchange for posting about the charms of Shikoku, including its food and scenery.

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Ryota Tanaka, left, and a friend celebrate their completion of the cycling tour around Shikoku at the zero-kilometer mark in front of the Ehime prefectural government building in Matsuyama.

This is the fifth year since it began in 2018, and this year there were a total of eight participants from three universities.

“It was a very enjoyable ride since we took mostly coastline routes, which have fewer hills, and the streets were well paved,” said Kansai University senior Ryota Tanaka. He once cycled around Awaji Island, just off the coast of Shikoku, but cycling around Shikoku itself seemed to impress him in a different way.

“Cycling around Awaji, we could see land across the water, but when riding along the coast of Kochi Prefecture, there was nothing in sight beyond the horizon but the Pacific Ocean. It was so beautiful! I’ve enjoyed this last event of my university life.”

“We hope that the Shikoku cycling tour will become a movement like the traditional pilgrimage tour,” said an official at the Ehime prefectural government. “We want cycling to take root as a culture to ing good health, to motivate people to live and to foster good friendships — not just as a means of transport.”

Cycling on bridges

An international bike event called Cycling Shimanami 2022 will be held on Oct. 30 for the first time in four years. About 7,000 cyclists will participate, admiring beautiful islands in the Seto Inland Sea.

The event will take place on the Setouchi Shimanami Kaido road, which connects Honshu and Shikoku through many islands. The course includes an expressway, which will temporarily be closed to traffic for the event.

There are eight courses, such as a 140-kilometer round-trip course between Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, and Imabari, Ehime Prefecture.