The Michinoku Coastal Trail: Japan’s new 1,000km path

January 15, 2022
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After two days hiking along Japan’s rugged north-eastern coast, my son and I had just enough energy left to run down to Aketo Beach, rip off our shoes and socks and go wading in the chilly Pacific.

Standing in the sea, the light just beginning to fade, we heard nothing except the gentle lapping of shin-high waves. A few seagulls aside, the beach was all ours. But back across the grey stretch of sand was a reminder that nature wasn’t always this calm: a mangled chunk of seawall with a written dedication remained as a memorial to the horrors that unfolded here just 10 years earlier.

On the afternoon of 11 March 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck deep beneath the ocean 130km to the east. The fourth-largest quake in the world since seismic recording began in 1900, the blast was so powerful that it shifted the Earth’s axis and redistributed its mass. It rattled Japan’s north-eastern Tohoku region violently for nearly six minutes and even brought Tokyo, 400km to the south, to a sudden, panicked stop.

Then the seas began to recede. Less than 30 minutes later, a dark, churning mass of water returned to swallow the Tohoku coast, devastating communities.

Even after 10 years, people still have a lot of the tsunami inside

That afternoon, the tsunami claimed roughly 18,000 lives. With more than a million buildings damaged or destroyed, hundreds of thousands of residents became evacuees. And just when the extent of the devastation was beginning to sink into those who, like me, were watching from the safety of Tokyo, things got even worse: the Daichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima went into meltdown, forcing an additional 150,000 residents to evacuate the area.

Tohoku’s subsequent 32tn yen ($295bn) recovery efforts – which include the construction of roads, seawalls and houses – have been hard and multi-faceted. One major initiative has been the construction of a hiking trail that runs more than 1,000km along Tohoku’s eastern coastline. Called the Michinoku Coastal Trail, the project was spearheaded by Japan’s Ministry of the Environment in 2012 in collaboration with local government agencies and NPOs with the aim of revitalising affected coastal communities, bringing hope back to the region and promoting sustainability.

“A long-distance nature trail running from Fukushima up to Aomori can act as a bridge connecting nature, local lifestyles and traces of the disaster with hikers,” the government wrote in its initial proposal.

Officially completed in June 2019, though largely untreaded for the past 18 months due to Covid-19, the trail starts in the city of Soma in Fukushima Prefecture and winds north through the prefectures of Iwate and Miyagi – home to some of the communities worst-hit by the tsunami – before reaching the city of Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture.

“It follows the Pacific Ocean coast over grassy promenades, through forests, along remote beaches and soaring clifftops and to fishing ports, some tiny with a few one-man boats and others with fleets of ocean-going trawlers,” explained Paul Christie of Walk Japan, a tour company that offers guided and self-guided tours of the trail. “Of the quiet coastal villages and towns strung out along its route, some were little touched by the events of 2011, while in others the work of reconstruction still continues.”

According to Christie, the completion of the Michinoku (the ancient name of Tohoku) Coastal Trail has already spurred interest in national and international travellers to the region. But due to the lingering pandemic, he suggested that it will likely start to really take off in 2022 and expects it to soon become as iconic a hiking route as Japan’s famed Kumano Kodo trail.

“The trail welcomes all who love to walk and brings about connections between locals and visitors, and memorialises the kindness and harshness of nature, including the events of 2011,” Christie said.

I’d seen brief glimpses of the trail on previous trips to Tohoku, but I’d long been itching to take a slower look. So, with time to kill during the autumn half term, my 14-year-old son and I decided to head north for our first trip out of Tokyo in almost two years: to hike a section of the coastline in Iwate Prefecture that’s sometimes called the “Alps of the Sea”. Over the course of two days and 30km, we realised that this snippet of the trail lived up to its billing. But we also discovered that hiking here isn’t just about coastal views.

Our two-day hike started at Shiraikaigan, a single-platform railway station with just a portaloo and a bench and not another soul or structure in sight. From there, we passed through a bay of small fishing boats, before a two-hour trek up and over a wooded hill and then down a slippery stream brought us to a school on the outskirts of a village. Here, we saw our first reminder of the earthquake: a sign telling us the nearest tsunami evacuation zone was 200m away.

During our time on the coast, similar reminders were frequent. As the trail took us through sandy beaches, fishing ports and clifftop forests where the trees occasionally parted to give us sweeping views of rugged coastline, there were regular evacuation route signs and markers showing the height of the tsunami when it hit land: 13m at one point; 17m at another. Recently built seawalls and mounds of concrete tetrapods guarded bays. On lower ground, almost every building we passed was new.

Although the trail had been quietened by the pandemic, there were already signs that it had begun to achieve its revitalisation aim. By the pebbly Tsukuehama Beach, a cluster of fisherman’s huts destroyed by the tsunami had been rebuilt as a facility where – in addition to being working fishermen’s stations – locals teach visitors about regional culture through activities like salt-making workshops and cooking classes. Elsewhere, we saw signs advertising fisherman-run tours of the coast on small mackerel boats, and charters for scuba diving trips.

“Local people have been connected to the trail from its beginning, helping to choose the route and now taking part in conservation work and running tours and activities for travellers,” said local guide Naoko Machida, who runs an information centre 85km north in Tanesashi that organises hiking tours, horse riding and other activities along sections of the trail in Aomori and Iwate prefectures. “Many of us have a strong connection to the trail. It’s become a symbol of hope.”

Many of us have a strong connection to the trail. It’s become a symbol of hope

To better understand the role the trail is hoping to play in the area’s ongoing recovery, I also talked to Kumi Aizawa, managing director of the Michinoku Trail Club, the non-profit that oversees the trail’s development and promotion. Aizawa was staying at the same inn as us – called Kurosakisou – to run a training seminar in English to help prepare guides for what’s hoped will be an increase in non-Japanese hikers once travel fully resumes.

“After the tsunami, there were lots of volunteers who came from outside Tohoku to support locals. Now there are locals who want to give something back to visitors – whether that’s a place to put up a tent, or giving food and water,” Aizawa said. “When my 18-year-old daughter through-hiked the trail, there was one old man who was so worried about her camping in the mountains that he gave her a room and fed her.”

Aizawa explained that these local residents who help hikers are affectionately known as “trail angels”, and she stressed that while the trail will have a direct financial benefit for the many businesses and families devastated by the tsunami, the opportunity for locals to interact with hikers as they slowly move through the region also has emotional, and not just economic, potential.

“Hikers also give locals someone to communicate with. Locals can’t talk to each other about the disaster. You could meet someone in a bar, but you don’t know if they’ve lost a wife or a child, so you just don’t bring it up. Even in a family, it’s difficult to talk to each other. Hikers are from the outside and it’s obvious, so it’s easy to talk to them. Even after 10 years, people still have a lot of the tsunami inside.”

On other visits to Tohoku since the earthquake, several tsunami conversations have stayed with me: the innkeeper who showed me a shaky video clip of herself being washed away, while her daughter screamed in despair; the doctor who lost his parents, wife and youngest daughter to the tsunami while he was evacuating patients from his clinic.

Aizawa shared another story that will remain with me: that of a teenage boy who had been pushed up a wall to the safety of high ground by a lady as the water rapidly approached. When he turned around to help her up, the waves had already taken her. 

“It took the boy four years before he could tell anyone what happened… it really takes time,” Aizawa said, pausing to fight back tears. “But it’s so important to talk. For that Tohoku needs listeners – hikers can be that on their journey.” 

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