10 Tips to Unearthing the Magic of the Michinoku Coastal Trail with James Clark


Meet our guide: James Clark

James is a freelance travel journalist who has written for Lonely Planet, bbc.com, Monocle, Culture Trip, The Resident, TGO Magazine and TNT Magazine. With an adventurous spirit, he tends to shy away from nothing and follows his passion for boundary pushing adventure travel and the great outdoors.

Having been all over the world, from Zambia to the Antarctic, James recently tried his hand at Japan’s new long distance hiking route, the Michinoku Coastal Trail (MCT) and you can read up on his experiences on the Lonely Planet website and in Culture Trip magazine.

With the sunshine blazing outside home office windows all over the UK, the call of the wild is arguably stronger than ever, and we asked James to talk us through his 10 tips and tricks, and address any queries or worries, for budding hikers dreaming of either completing the full hike or doing short section(s) of it.

Over to you, James!

The Michinoku Coastal Trail

So, what’s the Michinoku Coastal Trail (MCT)? It’s a brand new 1,000 km hiking trail, a series of coastal paths in Tohoku, north Japan, connecting Hachinohe in Aomori prefecture with Soma in Fukushima prefecture.

A couple of months after the grand opening last year, I jumped at the chance to visit the MCT and conquer parts of the trail myself.

Here's a list of tips to help you to get ready for an adventure of a lifetime.

1) Fitness: 

You may be fit and an obsessed hiker, but if you’re going to take on a massive task like the full trail you need to get in shape. As well as previous hiking experience or at least being a walking lover, cycle to strengthen your ankles and do a combination of rowing and push-ups to increase your upper body strength.

For the longer stretches, this will be imperative as you’ll be hiking all day with your backpack. Also, some cardio wouldn’t go a miss as large parts of the MCT go through rough terrain, and along mountain paths. Stunning views but good to be prepared.

2) Packing: 

I'm not going to write a list of what you’ll need as there’s plenty of information available online, but bear in mind that it will take around 40 days to complete the entire MCT, so pack that back pack appropriately.

3) Getting there:

I caught KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flights to Osaka, Kansai International Airport (KIX) from London Heathrow via Amsterdam. It’s a great airline with staff that go the extra mile to ensure you have a great flight www.klm.com. BA also fly direct into Osaka and Tokyo, and you can even do the route in reverse, top to bottom, by flying into Sapporo, Hokkaido, with Finnair. Once you’ve decided what part(s) of the Michinoku Coastal Trail you’d like to hike you can take bullet trains or long-distance buses to your chosen destination. For once I was prepared and purchased the Japan Rail Pass in advance www.japanrailpass.net. Trains aren’t always cheap in Japan and purchasing the pass saved me quite a lot of cash.

4) Maps: 

It doesn’t matter how good you are at orienteering, you are going to need maps. Not only has The Ministry of Environment set up a website which outlines the route in detail, but it’s all in English.

This includes maps for every section of the hike broken down into daily km, things to see along the route, anything that you need to be aware of and accommodation, including campsites along the route. These really helped me a lot as I’m not the best planner in the world and armed with all the maps I was able to get ready for the next day's hike the evening before.

5) Take care of your feet: 

Your feet are the most important thing on a long- distance hike and if you don’t take care of them you will suffer or even worse end up stopping altogether. The biggest mistake you can make is to ignore the early signs. If you feel the lightest rubbing or discomfort – Stop! Don’t think it will be ok until the end of the day, it won’t. The slightest rubbing will lead to a blister. Take care of it with plasters or leuko-tape and if you’re the proud owner of a new flash pair of hiking boots, break them in before you jump on that flight to Japan.

6) Wildlife along the trail:

The Michinoku Coastal Trail goes through some bear habitat in the Aomori and northern Iwate prefectures. Typically, you’ll see signs warning of bears along parts of the trail. Bears in Japan tend to be shy and scared of humans, but of course, there are rare cases of bear attacks in Japan.

Prior to the trip I spoke to the Michinoku Coastal Trail team and to date there have been no bear attacks along the route. Carrying a bear bell and making noise is highly recommended as bears will hear you approaching and have time to move out of the way before you get to them.

Avoid hiking at dawn and dusk when bears are most active and steer well clear if you see a bear cub. Its protective mother won’t be too far away.

Other wildlife that you may encounter include snakes (let it pass), bees (don’t panic, just move on), ticks and leeches. A leech latched on to me last year in Zambia and it soon let go once I flicked it a couple of times.

Speak with locals about bear sightings and some towns broadcast bear sightings on the PA system (kuma shutsubotsu jyouhou, クマ出没情報). Both government offices in Aomori and Iwate have maps showing latest bear sightings and other useful information.

7) Sign Posting:

A lot of the trail is marked, but there are many parts of the trail that aren’t so be prepared for some guess work. Ensure you have those maps with you.

8) Eating and drinking: 

There are shops and delicious places to eat when you are hiking through villages, towns and cities, but there are also stretches of trail that don’t have any so take snacks as backup. There are also water stops available, but again these are scattered (check out the MyMizu app for information on refill sources in your current area). Carry as much as you can.

9) Natural Disasters:

In this part of Japan these are a possibility, although most earthquakes in Tohoku are just a slight shudder. If you feel a tremor, get to higher ground immediately. Tsunami evacuation zones tend to be well-marked in built up areas and it’s clear to see that the region has learned a lot from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Tohoku is being rebuilt on higher ground.

Warnings are also generally issued to all mobile phones (regardless of network and data connectivity) in the event of an incoming disturbance and the JNTO operates a 24/7 safe travel hotline should you need to contact anyone for advice or assistance.

10) Spend time with locals: 

It was the people that I met along the MCT that made the trip special to me. Everyone I met was keen to speak about their experiences of the 2011 disaster, offer food and a place to stay. Look out for Waichi. His former village Okirai, has been renamed the miracle village because almost all residents made it up the hills to safety. After the tsunami, Waichi built Shiome ‘Tsunami Memorial Museum’ by hand, from wood and furniture he found during the cleanup. It includes an outdoors play area and place to relax and have a barbecue. It really is an explosion on the eyes, full of colours and a place of laughter, for hikers and locals to hangout. Its doors are always open, and you’re welcome to stay for as long as you like, at no cost and the fridge is full of beer.

Although I didn’t get to experience the entirety of the Michinoku Coastal Trail, I left determined to return, with a sense of achievement and a genuine appreciation to the people I met that shared a terrible part of their lives with me. Never have I met such kind and wonderful people. Everyone I met had experienced tragedy, but every single one of them had a smile and wanted to share everything that they had with me. It was impossible not to feel touched and complete admiration for such resilient people.

I'm already planning a return trip to Tohoku when current travel restrictions are lifted to complete the entire Michinoku Coastal Trail. Follow my travels on Instagram.

Happy Hiking!

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