In a country often associated with big cities and high-tech consumerism, a cycle tour is a reminder that life in Japan is not always in the fast lane.
It is a region few tourists have discovered, but it's aptly dubbed the Mediterranean of Japan for its mild climate and picture-postcard vistas.
Despite being located in one of the world’s largest inland seas, Setouchi is relatively compact, providing the perfect base to visit world-class cultural heritage sites, sample regional food and island-hop on hired bikes.
The main cities of Takamatsu, Okayama and Hiroshima are readily accessible from Tokyo by a combination of air and train, and they boast a more temperate climate, even as it gets towards the end of the year and northern parts of Japan start to feel the chill.
On the island of Shikoku in the Kagawa Prefecture it is hard not to be impressed, and work off a few calories at the same time, during a visit to the Kompirasan, formally known as Kotohira Shrine.
Renowned for its challenging 1368-step climb, it is a solemn and tranquil setting, despite the hordes of cane-carrying pilgrims who visit each day to see the fusion of Buddhist and Shinto architecture and history.
Many visitors choose to stay at the nearby ryokan, or Japanese-style inn. I am among those happy to abide by the no-clothing policy to rest tired muscles in the steaming water of its outdoor onsen, despite younger members of our group horrified by that prospect.
A day spent on the Shikoku pilgrimage route the following day turns out to be far less taxing on the legs though we make only a small dent, visiting a handful of its 88 temples spread over 1400km.
Pilgrims carry scrolls or notebooks to be stamped at each temple and the route is said to take two months to cover on foot, or two weeks using buses.
Some wealthy Japanese are known to pay big money to view the temples by helicopter, a practice scornfully referred to by locals as “praying by the sky”.
A train takes next to no time to get from Kagawa to Okayama, where nature puts on an impressive show at the Korakuen Gardens.
It is easy to while away a few hours exploring the groves, tea houses, rice fields and ponds that display a changing kaleidoscope of colour depending on the season.
Built in 1700, the gardens suffered severe damage during the World War II bombings in 1945 but have been painstakingly restored.
A bullet train away, the city of Hiroshima also shows little of the devastating damage of the events of August 6, 1945, when it was the target of the world’s first atomic bomb attack.
While its Peace Memorial Park and the Atomic Bomb Dome remain a constant reminder of that day, the city itself is now leafy, cosmopolitan and upbeat.
After a few days of enjoying the regional food, including the famed okonomiyaki savoury pancake, it is time to hop on our bikes and hit the Shimanami Kaido, a cycling route with breathtaking ocean views.
Our guide tells us that shimanami means “between islands” and the cycling route is a relatively new tourist attraction, designed to revitalise a picturesque part of West Japan that has a largely ageing population.
Connecting the towns of Onomichi and Imabari, much of the highway and stunning bridge segments are open to cyclists, and rent-a-cycle terminals along the way make it easy for tourists to island hop and take in the scenic panorama.
For most people, Onomichi, a 90-minute drive from Hiroshima, is the logical starting point, boasting a hip, industrial-look hotel beside the cycle hire terminal.
The 70km route takes about 8-10 hours, or can be done more leisurely over several days, and is mostly a flat course other than steep, but thankfully short, inclines to access each bridge.
There are no Tokyo crowds here, only the odd local resident tending to citrus trees or cabbage patches.
We stop for a much-needed lunch break at the very un-Japanese eatery Pizza and Pasta, where we are the only customers and I fuel up on carbs from a surprisingly good meal of pasta with mushrooms.
In a country often associated with its big city high-tech consumerism and crowded trains, the cycle tour is a reminder that life is not always in the fast lane in Japan.
DisclaimerCathy O’Leary was a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organisation
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