A coastline-hugging hiking trail in northeastern Japan has been gaining acclaim with overseas adventurers, raising hopes it will bring a tourism boom to the area that is still recovering from the 2011 earthquake-tsunami disaster.
The 1,025-kilometer Michinoku Coastal Trail, which fully opened in 2019 and spans four prefectures on the Pacific Ocean-facing Sanriku coast, has received rave reviews from overseas visitors who have walked the path -- either in parts or all of it.
They speak of not only the spectacular scenery visible along the trail but also the emotion-provoking reminders of the natural disaster and the resilience of the locals, many of whom are still reeling from the tragedy.
The MCT runs from the city of Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture at the northern end to the city of Soma in Fukushima Prefecture at the southern, taking in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures along the way. Many of the coastal areas in these prefectures were devastated by the disaster triggered by a magnitude-9.0 earthquake that struck on March 11 almost 13 years ago.
A total of 29 cities, towns and villages host the trail. The project was launched on the initiative of the Environment Ministry as part of post-disaster reconstruction efforts and is currently maintained in a collaboration between public- and private-sector entities as well as civic groups.
Areas along the MCT route include a number of scenic spots, cultural sites, traditional ryokan inns with private hot tubs, and hotels with onsen communal hot springs. Those who have hiked the trail also strongly recommend the "world-class" food available at small eateries in the tiny towns along the way.
But there are also stark reminders of the disaster, such as imposing coastal seawalls, small memorials and derelict buildings, the latter proof of the revitalization work that still needs to be done, hopefully aided by the increased tourism.
Some people aim to walk the entire route, which usually takes around 50 days, while others use public transport and walk only a section, or stick to day hikes. A total of 10 maps of the MCT are available for hikers.
People involved in the MCT project acknowledge a need to expand marketing efforts to woo more visitors, especially from overseas.
A recent survey by the Japan National Tourism Organization showed that luring foreign visitors to the Tohoku region is still a difficult proposition.
Among the four prefectures in which the MCT crosses, Miyagi was the most popular in 2019 with foreign visitors with 1 percent traveling there. Aomori, Iwate, and Fukushima came in at just 0.7 percent, 0.4 percent and 0.3 percent, respectively.
As a comparison, the same year around 40 percent of foreign tourists visited each of Japan's largest metropolises, Tokyo and Osaka. The COVID-19 pandemic, which led to lengthy shutdowns everywhere, did not help matters for Tohoku.
In December, Kumi Aizawa, 54, executive director of the Natori, Miyagi Prefecture-based, Michinoku Trail Club -- a nonprofit organization engaged in management and operations of the MCT -- led a delegation to New York and other U.S. cities.
One of the delegation's aims was to visit and strengthen the relationship with popular U.S. outdoor clothing brand Hikerkind, which selected the MCT route as one of its Top 10 nature trails to trek in 2024.
Journalists and writers also gave the MCT rave reviews.
Graham Hiemstra, 36, founding editor of U.S. outdoor magazine Field Mag, said in an article published on his company's website in October that the "little-known trail offers...a compelling alternative for those looking to experience the 'real' Japan."
Hiemstra, himself an avid hiker who lives in New York City, said he was very impressed with the MCT after spending one week in September touring the northern third of the trail.
Although he said the trail is not easy, with its rugged coastline terrain featuring steps in certain locations instead of switchbacks, extreme elevation changes and caution points, he went as far as to add the MCT to his Japan "bucket list."
"The local terrain is stunning and truly unique. The fresh food was inspiring and all the local people I met along the way, from aging fishermen to restaurant and hotel owners, and even local hikers, were all very kind and generous."
He added, "I have hiked many places in North America and I have never seen such an incredible combination of beautiful landscapes, high-quality food, and quality accommodations for hikers."
As for the ongoing impact of the 2011 disaster, Hiemstra said, "Visiting gave me a stronger understanding of the event and how big of a mountain it is to climb for these small villages to recover."
James Clark, 47, a British writer whose articles appear in various travel media publications, has visited the MCT three times.
"The Michinoku Coastal Trail is one of those rare hiking trails where hikers have choices. You can walk for days in outstanding natural beauty without seeing another human, or decide on a more populated part of the trail and spend your time hanging out with welcoming locals," he told Kyodo News.
Clark suggested that the MCT still has not attracted the attention it truly deserves from international hikers, but quickly added, "It's only a matter of time before they start arriving in larger numbers."
German writer Christine Thuermer, 56, who has hiked some 62,000 kilometers in 41 countries around the world, also gave the MCT high marks as one of her Top 10 nature trails -- mainly for its links to quake recovery.
"The MCT is very unique! It is the only long-distance trail I know that is dedicated to a natural disaster. To visit the many memorial sites along the trail is an extremely emotional experience," Thuermer said in an email.
"It is very shocking to learn about the destruction and the victims, but at the same time inspirational to see the resilience of Japanese people. This trail makes you very thoughtful."
As of the end of 2023, there were 135 people registered who had walked the length of the MCT, only 10 of whom were foreigners. But Aizawa suggested that Tohoku will see a spike in the number of foreign hikers making the journey before long.
"I think the number of foreign hikers who traverse the entire trail will grow since more and more maps are being purchased from overseas," she said.