Experience the "Real Japan" by Hiking the 1,000 km Michinoku Coastal Trail

This scenic trail winds through rugged coastlines, dense forests, and historic towns, helping revitalize a region still reeling from the 2011 tsunami

Experience the "Real Japan" by Hiking the 1,000 km Michinoku Coastal Trail

Author

Graham Hiemstra

Photographer

Graham Hiemstra

Camera

Fujifilm GA645, Olympus Stylus

Film

Kodak Portra 400, Gold 200

Daydreams of Japan are easily filled with Tokyo skyscrapers and bustling streets, cherry blossoms and coffee in Kyoto, street food in Osaka, powder skiing in Hokkaido, picturesque Mt. Fuji, maybe even the bowing deer of Nara. After a recent visit earlier this fall, hiking the Michinoku Coastal Trail needs to be added to the above bucket list Japan trips.

With record number of foreign visitors crowding Japan’s most established destinations, this little-known trail offers far fewer tourists and a uniquely rich combination of authentic local culture and beautiful raw landscapes—a compelling alternative for those looking to experience the “real” Japan. And best of all, it’s entirely accessible via Japan’s robust train system and within easy reach of Tokyo by bullet train.

Located along the northeastern coastline of Japan’s main island, Honshu, in the rugged, rural, and rarely visited region of Tohoku, the Michinoku Coastal Trail spans over 1,000 km (~635 miles) cutting a path through traditional villages and modern cities with stunning views and world-class food around every corner. For day hikers and thru-hikers alike, the trail offers easy access to scenic hiking and both Western and traditional accommodations with campgrounds, hotels, and ryokans throughout. Not to mention plenty of natural hot springs, too.

In September I spent a handful of days hiking 50+ miles along the MCT, using local railway and busses to expand my reach to some of the most scenic sections of the trail. Though I was only able to explore the trail’s northern half, I have every reason to believe the remaining sections offer more of the same inspiring sites and accommodations.

In this guide I’ll break down the key things to know about visiting the MCT region, share my experience on the trail, and offer pro tips for those looking to hike the MCT in the future. If you've ever dreamed of section or thru-hiking a long trail like the PCT, CDT, or AT in North America, but you also want a more unique experience (with better food and accommodations), the MCT may be for you. So let’s get into it.

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What Is the Michinoku Coastal Trail

The Michinoku Coastal Trail is an official hiking path spanning four prefectures of Japan's Tohoku Region along the Sanriku Coast, starting in Hachinohe city in Aomori prefecture (under three hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen bullet trail) with the southern terminus near Soma city in Fukushima prefecture.

Created as a green reconstruction project after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in 2011 to celebrate the region’s resilience and history and draw tourism to the still reeling region, the trail officially opened in 2019, though subsequent typhoons and the Covid pandemic led to lengthy closures immediately after. With trail repairs now completed and national park section detours established, the 1,025 kilometer Michinoku Coastal Trail is now fully open for local and foreign hikers.

By design, the MCT weaves through 29 cities, towns, and villages that were devastated by the tsunami, providing nature lovers with a periodic reminder of its raw power. In a country all about respect, on the MCT one quickly learns this must extend beyond people and to the environment as well.

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While local vegetation has largely grown back since the deadly tsunami ripped through the region, reminders of its impact are everywhere, from modest monuments to the massive 15 meter tall concrete seawalls that separate most coastal villages and towns from the ocean. In the town of Taro near Miyako city in Iwate prefecture, hikers can see the remains of a six story hotel that still stands with its bottom floors forcefully removed (pictured above).

On 11 March 2011, the owner watched from the sixth floor as the 17 meter (55 feet tall) tsunami breached a nearby seawall and destroyed the entire town, including most of his own property. Miraculously he survived and now runs a truly exceptional ryokan atop a nearby hill where we stayed, complete with rooftop cedar hot tubs (also pictured below) and stunning views. The Nagisatei Taro-an is an absolute must for hikers visiting this section of the trail. More on accommodations below.

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How to Hike the MCT: Day Hiking vs Thru-Hiking

The Michinoku Coastal Trail is well suited for hikes of all lengths, and hikers of a range of fitness levels. It’s not an easy trail, with plenty of elevation gain and loss—Japanese trail builders favor stairs over switchbacks, so be warned, certain sections of the MCT can be a real thigh burner—and the trail does navigate quite a few public streets and country roads, connecting sections of otherwise unspoiled nature. But for the most part, the trail itself is very well maintained with natural, cushioning soil and vegetation underfoot.

Navigational constraints aside (more on this below), you don’t need to be in Iron Man shape to log some miles and experience the scenic nature of the trail. For example, on my hike we walked 10-15 miles a day, often starting from the doorstep of our hotel, eating mainly in local restaurants along the way. An abundance of beautiful campsites, hotels, and scenic viewpoints near car parks certainly help accessibility.

That said, people do thru-hike the MCT. But it’s important to note it would be a completely different experience than one would expect to have on a Triple Crown trail in the U.S. or New Zealand’s Te Araroa, for example. To date, just 117 people have completed a thru-hike of the Michinoku Coastal Trail. By comparison, in 2022 alone 7,852 thru-hike permits were issued for the Pacific Crest Trail, the legendary long trail that helped inspire the formation of the MCT.

Given all the above, and its 1,000 km length (modest by long trail standards), the Michinoku Coastal Trail seems an amazing option for first time thru-hikers looking for an experience not found anywhere else.

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Navigating the Michinoku Coastal Trail

With so many intersections with villages, towns, and cities, navigation is likely the biggest challenge of hiking the MCT. Certain trailheads are clearly marked, while others are identified only by a knee-high sign post or a small ribbon tied to a tree branch. With this in mind, and whether you're planning to section hike, thru-hike, or just enjoy a couple days on the trail, planning your route with Trail Gate map books (available in English and produced by the Michinoku Trail Club) can be helpful for accurately gauging distances, elevation changes, and cautionary points.

For on the ground navigating, a combination of navigational tools like topographical maps and GPS devices is suggested. Japan-based apps Super Terrain and Yamap are popular. Gaia GPS also works. Regardless, it’s highly recommended you download GPS data with daily updated diversion and caution information from the Michinoku Trail Club website. This MCT Google Map also documents the trail in entirety, with accommodation options, hot springs, and visitor centers.

Our group worked with local guides and GoNorth Japan, a guiding and interpretation service run by American expat Quinlan Faris who has spent nearly 25 years living in Japan, speaks Japanese fluently, and has more knowledge of Japanese history, culture, and folklore than many locals we spoke with. I can’t recommend him enough. Travel agent Rebecca Mazzaro of ATJ is a great resource for those looking for a personally curated trip experience. Both Walk Japan and OKU Japan also offer a number of fully guided and self-guided tours that include accommodations and detailed trip itineraries.

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When to Hike the MCT

The Michinoku Coastal Trail is open year round. Though the busiest months are April and May in the spring and September, October, and November in the fall when leaves are falling and views open up. In the summer months heat and humidity can be oppressive. And though it rarely snows at sea level in Tohoku, winter temps can dip into the low 20s Fahrenheit.

Even during the busy season you’re unlikely to pass many fellow hikers, with just a few thousand people walking the trail during a given season. This means uninterrupted views and less jockeying for campsite or hotel rooms. Lucky you.

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Michinoku Coastal Trail Accommodations

Forget bivouacking on the side of a trail and sharing lean-tos with too many strangers—the Michinoku Coastal Trail dramatically outshines the world’s most famous long trails when it comes to accommodations. I’m talking luxe ryokans with private cedar soaking tubs and inexpensive hotels with complimentary onsen (hot springs), stunning oceanside campgrounds with sleeping platforms, communal cooking and bathing facilities. And everything in between.

While I can only personally speak to the accommodations in the northern half of the trail throughout the entire length of the MCT is an impressive selection of accommodations for all budgets and all tastes (though this region definitely leans on traditional Japanese style hotel rooms and restaurants). Booking reservations at accommodations will take some extra effort, especially if you don’t speak Japanese. But many businesses seem generally excited about the prospect of increased tourism as a way of bringing new life to their still recovering region, so be patient and kind and you should receive similar treatment in exchange.

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Traditional Cultural

Along the trail hikers will find many Shinto shrines, some manned and others unmanned, where you can ask the gods for safe travel, among other wishes. Working with a guide, and having them interpret certain cultural sites offers another level of culture connectivity. Depending on timing, you may also be able to attend a kagura, a Shinto ritual ceremonial dance that’s name directly translates to “god-entertainment.” We were lucky enough to attend the Unotori Kagura at the Unotori Shrine in Toro, Fudai Village, as well as a Kagaribi dance at the Kozuchi Shrine in Iwate. Both are pictured above, and were truly unique.

Beyond the literal interpretations of traditional culture, hikers will almost certainly encounter fisherman and other locals keen to trade a head nod, smile, or possibly even a story or two (should you speak Japanese—not many in Tohoku speak English). Within an hour of starting our hike near the Northern terminus we came across a 73 year old fisherman diving for uni (pictured atop this article). Later on, we encountered another fisherman harvesting seaweed after a storm. Both were happy to take a break and share insight into their longstanding ways of life. It’s little interactions like these that further differentiate this trail and the experiences it offers.

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5 Miscellaneous Things to Know About the Michinoku Coastal Trail

  • Black bears are common, though attacks are rare. Wearing a bear bell is suggested nonetheless.
  • In many small towns, rest areas, markets, etc you can find regional soft serve ice cream. My favorites were black sesame and kombu (seaweed). I highly recommend sampling all you can find.
  • At many trailheads you can find Japan's ubiquitous vending machines full of cold drinks, hot coffee, and much more. So, make sure you travel with coins.
  • Majority of hotels along the MCT have communal baths and natural hot springs, which are incredible after a long day on the trail. Be sure to observe facility rules and familiarize yourself with the ritualistic experience before you go to avoid accidental cultural faux pas.
  • Tattoos are generally banned in public baths and onsen, BUT it's generally up to the facility to decide when to enforce this rule. I have more tattoos than I can count and encountered no problems in the handful of hotel baths I enjoyed. Respect is always paramount in Japan so do your best to quietly blend in with the locals. If you are asked to leave, be polite about it.

Scroll on for more film photos of the Michinoku Coastal Trail.

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Experience the "Real Japan" by Hiking the 1,000 km Michinoku Coastal Trail

Gallery Mode

Photographer

Graham Hiemstra

Camera

Fujifilm GA645, Olympus Stylus

Film

Kodak Portra 400, Gold 200

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