Along the irregular and indented coastline of Tohoku on Honshu’s far north eastern coast is Sanriku Fukkō (reconstruction) National Park. This is where the mountain range of Kitakami gives way to sprawling wildflower meadows and cliffs crowned with pines.
The park covers over 100,000 hectares of land and sea, with a windswept coastal path called the Michinoku Coastal Trail running in parallel with the Pacific for more than 1,000 km (600 mi) through three of Japan’s prefectures: Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi.
Born from the devastation left by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, Sanriku Fukkō has become a symbol of triumph. It’s an embodiment of the symbiosis (or precariously balanced existence) between nature and man. While the region’s recovery and the resilience of its inhabitants continue to capture global attention, only a small percentage of people travel here from overseas. This makes the Michinoku Coastal Trail, for the most part, gloriously crowd-free.
Beneath the chiselled cliffs on which the trail is etched, you’ll spot small white fishing boats (or sappa boats) carrying tourists. The boats weave their way between colourful kayaks and through ornate rock formations, leaving trails of sea foam in their wake. Against the cobalt blue water, coastal plants quiver in the ocean breeze, their roots perfectly adapted to the bone-white scree slopes.
Dense forests of Japanese pine and cedar roll into rocky shorelines on wide sand beaches flanked by quiet coastal villages along the mighty Michinoku Coastal Trail. The region has a spectacularly diverse environment and complex coastal topography. Arguably the most defining feature of the park – the Michinoku Coastal Trail meanders the rugged coastline, connecting the city of Hachinohe in the Aomori Prefecture with Soma in Fukushima.
Ironically, the literal translation of Michinoku is ‘the end of the road’ when the trail is anything but absolute. It’s enough to sustain the appetite of even the most adventurous hiker for hours, days, even weeks––with many choosing to camp their way through the curious coastal towns and villages.
The Michinoku Coastal Trail has various routes assigned with varying levels of difficulty. The northernmost part of the path, the Hachinohe section, is one of the shortest at 14 km (7 mi). While the section that includes climbing to the summit of Mount Hashikami and runs alongside the eponymous town takes days to complete. Buses or trains link parts of the trail, transporting weary hikers and those short on time. The Kamaishi section for instance covers 68 km and is a route that many choose to hike only partially.
Japan’s four distinct seasons mean the park and trail are interesting to visit all-year-round. Spring, when temperatures are pleasant and conducive to hiking the more challenging sections of the trail, is marked by blossom and the black-tailed gull breeding season.
Summer falls across June, July and August. This is when the trail is at times a little sultry but awash with vibrant colour, notably the Nakasuka (Floral Beach) section in Hachinohe, where hamahirugao (beach morning glory), sukashiyuri (lilium maculatum) and hardy alpine plants like nohanashobu (Japanese iris) and nikko-kisuge (day lily) come into their own.
The park in autumn (September–November) takes on the warming shades of fall. While, in winter, it becomes a snow globe of frozen mountains foregrounded by vermilion red torii gates and snow flecked pines.
Aomori (or blue forest) is the park’s northernmost prefecture and the location of Hachinohe (comprising a port city of the same name) and is an area that forms part of the trail. It is largely characterised by a weathered coastline and vast beaches watched over by the low-lying Mount Hashikami.
North of the park is the island of Kabushima, home to colonies of black-tailed gulls or ‘sea cats’ (their cry evokes a meowing cat) twisting and turning nimbly on the wing. As legend has it, these birds were sent as messengers by Benzaiten, Goddess of Wisdom (to whom the island’s hilltop shrine is dedicated).
From the fortress-like Ashigezaki Scenic Viewpoint perched precariously on the cape in front of the Samekado Lighthouse in Hachinohe, the trail spirals through the waves and the pines – passing the beach of naki suna (literally ‘singing sand’) on the Osuka Coast.
The wild flower meadows of Nakasuka lead on to Yodo-no-Matsubara (Yodo Pine Grove) and the Tanesashi Natural Lawn. The long but scenic stroll from Kabushima to the Tanesashi Natural Lawn is the final stretch of the northern part of the Michinoku Coast Trail.
The age-old trees of the Yodo Pine Grove, that peer across the rough-hewn Hachinohe Coast and Shira-Iwa rock, extend from Cape Tamura and the secluded fishing port of Fukakubo for over 1 km to the Tanesashi Natural Lawn; all the while, gently swaying and creaking in the sea breeze above giant boulders that temper the waters below.
The undulating lime green lawn of Tanesashi framed by the sea is where hikers dine alfresco and pitch a tent for the night – sleep comes easily with the soporific sounds of the waves. Its otherwise solid block of colour, between June and November, becomes softened by the emergence of bright orange nikko-kisuge (nikko day lilies) and hamagiku (nippon daisies) with bright-white petals surrounding a yellow button-like pistil.
Inhabiting the large wooden structure directly opposite the natural lawn is the Tanesashi Information Center, where you can learn about the wildlife endemic to the area and the local people, and book a guided tour. There’s also a café serving light snacks and refreshments. Take a moment to admire the sweeping coastal views from the floor-to-ceiling windows while you’re there.
Before continuing on to Iwate Prefecture, you can boost your energy at Miroku Yokocho in Hachinohe City (food stall village), a place to eat as local as possible. Back-to-back stalls festooned with fairy lights dominate the alleyways of Mikka-machi and Muika-machi most days, each one only big enough to seat eight people.
It goes without saying that the seafood (Pacific flying squid and Hachinohe maeoki mackerel, for instance) is the star of the show, caught daily from the port of Hachinohe. Start with local food speciality Ichigo-ni (sea urchin and abalone in a seafood broth) or oden (Japanese fish cake stew).
Other regional specialities to look out for include senbei-jiru soup (Japanese-style hot pot served with Nanbu senbei crackers), Hachinohe ramen (noodles in a shoyu or soy sauce-based soup) and kushiyaki (chicken or vegetable) skewers. Seasonal fruit and vegetables are just as various, and abundantly available. As much about the atmosphere, locals and tourists come here for vibrant conversation fuelled by local sake.
Peering up at the jaw-dropping Kitayamazaki Cliffs, it’s easy to see why Iwate Prefecture has been nicknamed the ‘Alps of the Ocean’. The chiselled forms of the cliffs said to be over 130 million years old loom large over the Rikuchu Coast, stretching 8 km (5 mi) along the shoreline and rising 200 m (660 ft) from the sea.
Appreciate their magnitude from the water (a tour boat from the Port of Shimanokoshi will get you there). Otherwise, look down from the observation decks (there are three in total) where you can scout local wildlife and take in Kitayamazaki Lighthouse (once the morning mist has cleared) through a telescope. A wheelchair accessible path to one of the observation decks is reachable from the nearby car park.
Going south from Kitayamazaki, you come to Tsukuehama, where you will find a collection of fishermen’s huts called Tsukue-hama Banya. A typical scene here includes freshly caught fish sizzling on an open fire, prayer flags flapping on the breeze and knowledgeable locals teaching tourists how to prepare freshly caught sea urchin, their chatter muffled by the blustery sea.
The huts replace the 22 washed away by the 2011 tsunami, 13 of which are open to the public – including the ‘eating hut’ where the local seafood is cooked; the ‘saltmaking hut’ where you can have a go at separating salt from seawater; and the ‘ocean experience hut’ where you can arrange beginner scuba diving excursions.
Not for the faint of heart, the Kitayamasaki to Tsukuehama section is one of the trail’s most challenging routes, but also one of the most rewarding, where rhododendrons bloom strongest and ospreys dance above the sea. Look forward to scrambling down rocks, clambering over boulders, squeezing through tunnels and climbing up rocky slopes – over and over.
Rest up at fine-dining French restaurant, L'aureole Tanohata, serving local seafood and has an impressive range of sake. One of their signature dishes is an indulgent dessert made from chocolate and yuzu.
Head south west for 7.3 km and you come to Aketo Beach where salt has been harvested for centuries. It is accessed by a path that winds through a thicket of Japanese black pines, the needles of which drop between October and May, cushioning the floor. Afterwards, make your way to Hotel Ragaso in Tanohata, the Shimohei District for sweeping sea views and an opportunity to replenish your reserves.
Approximately 45 km from Hotel Ragaso is the city of Taro, a part of the city of Miyako, where you can pause to learn about the 13-metre (42-foot) tsunami wave that swept away the town’s 10-metre (32-foot) sea wall in 2011. The old wall that stretched for over one mile and had 44 evacuation routes has since been replaced with a much taller Taro sea wall, reaching 12 m (41 ft) with some 30 steps to its upper path in the sky.
En route, look out for the patchwork ria coastline of Miyako, replete with islets, cliffs and sea caves, including Shiobuki-ana – a natural rock formation that, when the sea is suitably choppy, spouts water some 30 m into the air.
Further south is Jodogahama, a series of jagged rock formations resembling a sleeping dragon. The Jodogahama Visitor Center offers a fascinating back-story and fills in the gaps about the trail, nearby sightseeing spots and the local fauna and flora. Next door is a ticket office selling boat trips to the Blue Grotto (a sea cave in Jodogahama Bay).
Afterwards, head to the Jodogahama Rest House for local food specialty, bindon: a bounty of fresh seafood (including roe, salmon or cod, and seaweed). Packed into a milk bottle and then poured over rice along with some hot dashi broth, it’s a delicious, energy-filled lunch tailor-made for hikers.
This article is brought to you in partnership with Sanriku Fukkō National Park