Postcards from Japan: Coastal beauty, local community and ‘kizuna’ in Tohoku with Kumi Aizawa

On March 11th, 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami brought unprecedented damage to the Pacific coast of Tohoku region. It was a major turning point: faced with the fury of nature in a disaster said to happen at this scale once in a thousand years, many people in Japan and throughout the world were forced to consider how we should relate to nature.

After this disaster, the Ministry of the Environment started the "Green Reconstruction Project," a set of initiatives working for sustainable community planning as well as the preservation of abundant nature and local ways of life for the future. 

Kumi Aizawa was involved in one such initiative, the Michinoku Coastal Trail (MCT), a "national trail leading through the national park of the Sanriku Coast, a team effort between government and the people." With this hope, Aizawa-san and her team declared the following six rules as part of a new charter:

1 The trail will be for enjoying beautiful sights and natural features.

2 The trail will bring about connections between people who live in a place and those who visit that place.

3 The trail will leave lifelong memories of nature's kindness and harshness.

4 The trail will forever testify the memories of disaster.

5 The trail will pass on rich nature and cultures to future generations.

6 The trail will welcome all who love to walk, and will develop with everyone's help.

Thank you very much for taking the time out to speak to us Aizawa-san! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

 

Hello! My name is Kumi Aizawa and I work as the Managing Director and Office Manager at the Michinoku Coastal Trail Club, a non-profit organisation that looks after the Michinoku Coastal Trail. I was born in Japan, but did high school and university abroad.

I’m actually an architect by trade, but aside from architecture, I also plan, direct and produce on films, newspapers, magazines, art projects, walking trails, and generally jobs that create objects, concepts or spaces as part of a team.

Even with the MCT, I’m developing this walking trail as part of a team that includes the Ministry for Environment, four prefectural governments and 28 towns and cities, all the people who live in those areas, the hikers who come to walk the trail - actually so many people.

At the moment, I’m cooperating with a great number of people on the management of the trail and also on promoting it to walkers from within Japan. On top of that, I’m also running the Natori Trail Centre, the trailhead for many people, and a kind of base of operations for all sorts of information sharing about the trail itself.

 

What can you tell us about the trail?

 

The MCT is a 1025km long-distance hiking trail that connects Soma city in Fukushima prefecture to Hachinohe city in Aomori prefecture, along the eastern coastal regions of the Tohoku region. It’s the longest of all of the officially managed and sanctioned walking trails in Japan.

It generally runs along the coast but it also pass through so many different natural settings - wild green spaces overlooking the sea, sand dunes and pinetree groves, forests towering on top of 200m high cliff edges, swirling rock pools, as well as villages, farmland and settlements where people go about their daily lives. It’s a trail that connects all these tiny towns and enclaves with all of the cast nature in between.

Is there anything unique that you would say it offers to visitors?

 

From the stunning landscapes to the plants and animals of the region, not to mention the communities living there and the rich histories and cultures, it gives people the opportunity to experience both mountain and sea, and a very real and very authentic Japan, incredibly closely tied to the natural world.

It’s also a trail built to aid the recovery of the coastal areas originally affected by the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami, and by the same token, it’s my job to help pass on and preserve the stories, lessons and memories of that time.

 

How did you become involved with the creations of the Trail Club in the first place? 

 

After 2011, I was back and forth from the area a lot for reporting, and recovery support activities. In 2015, I got involved with an initiative led by local community groups for the sustainable running of a walking trail, and it was through that process that I began to really understand my responsibilities and the preciousness of this route, and realised just how important community groups were to the running of the trail, so I managed to convince some friends to help me set up the Trail Club.

 

Were there any particular trials along the way?

 

I think the biggest trial has been getting some locals and other involved to really grasp the value of the trail and of this initiative ie. the fact that the trail isn’t just simple tourism, but a sustainable regional development plan, or even just getting people to know about the existence of the walking route in the first place.

With that in mind, I also created an MCT Charter. Through the simple act of walking, all the casual visitors and more dedicated hikers, are contributing enormously to the growth and relevance of the trail and the culture around it.

 

Have there been any particular stand-out achievements or happy memories for you since the trail opened?

 

I think it was maybe the opening event that we held for the trail in 2019, where everyone who had been involved in the trail’s creation came together to celebrate our hard work. Also, I guess it would be the fact that so many people came from all over Japan to actually walk the trail.

And even then after that, the fact that there were so many hikers with the same story - they were tired from hiking, caught the eye of a local who took them in and gave them food and a place to stay, took them to the local bar, got to talking about personal stories and experiences of 2011, not the 2011 that was seen on the news and mass media worldwide. 

 

So you hear quite a lot back from locals and hikers, too?

 

I’ve heard people say that they’re so glad they had the chance to properly get to know the locals, who are so warm, and to gain a fresh perspective on what happened from the people who experienced it. One of my friends happens to be one of those locals and explained to me how talking about 2011 within the community was still very sensitive for a lot of people, and the fact that they can talk to visitors who are interested in learning about local history without fear of offending someone is a source of great relief and release. 

It made me feel like we’d come some way in accomplishing our mission of not just bringing economic recovery to the region, but also emotional recovery.

We have a lot of hikers come through the Natori Trail Centre and the staff there have collected an incredible number of inspiring stories and feedback.

 

The MCT is a long distance trail but is it possible to do shorter portions like day trips etc?

 

Yes, definitely, there are several routes you can walk as a part of a day trip. For some of the more difficult to reach areas, you’re probably looking at something a 3 day round trip, though. We’re planning on continuing to publish more model routes but if you’re keen on trying the route out, please do get in touch with our staff at the Natori Trail Centre. We speak English, and will be able to advise.

 

You've spoken a bit about how the trail is also an effort to revitalise the region but what is the region like over 9 years on from the disaster? 

 

Many towns and villages have been in the process of building a new environment and way of life and there are a couple of places where there are still roadworks and flood defences under way. On the surface things have generally found a new normal but there is still a lot of hardship that is sometimes hard to see below the surface, especially when it comes to the recovery of local industry. We really do need to carry with us a hopeful vision and reach out a helping hand to all sorts of people facing differing and distinct issues. Next year will mark ten years since the disaster. There’s still a lot to do but Japan is also a country where things like this can happen (admittedly usually not on this scale) so I think we need to think about how we can continue helping anybody newly affected while not forgetting that some are still suffering at the hands of something that happened a decade ago.

But, while the trail started as a government-funded recovery project, I believe it will continue to support victims and contribute to sustainable recovery long into the future by creating lasting bonds between visitors and locals, and paying into the local economy. 

 

Is there anything we as readers can do to help support the recovery?

 

Honestly, coming and walking even parts of the trail is enough. Getting to know the beauty of this land using your own two legs, and casually crossing paths with locals, is all directly linked to the recovery of the region. That and, of course, spreading the word to friends and family that this trail exists, for this reason, in this part of the world. That is also what supporting the recovery looks like to me.

 

This month we’ve been looking at the concept of ‘kizuna’ or ‘bonds’ and asking what it means to people, but has there been a particular moment you’ve really felt ‘kizuna’ in your time working on the MCT?

 

I think everything we’ve been talking about in terms of visitors and locals connecting with each other is a very big part of ‘kizuna’, and there is no end to the number of stories and memories I have of that.

But I do also know of at least three people who during my time here have moved to the Tohoku region after having walked the whole trail. In the month and a half that it usually takes to walk the trail, you end up finding a new way of life where you’re on the receiving end of great kindness and making a lot of new friends. 

There are even people who like it so much they decide to hang about in one area for 2 weeks or so, and people who make so many amazing connections that they come back again and again for visits after they’ve completed the trail.

Because you’re travelling at the speed that you can walk, I believe you end up having very meaningful heartfelt encounters. 

The kinds of relationships that you continue cherishing despite distance and despite time are exactly the kinds of treasures that are scattered along the length of the trail.

Having visitors come and experience their world really means an incredible amount to the people of Tohoku, I think.

 

What lies ahead for you and the trail?

 

Primarily, I just want to encourage more and more people to come to the trail, and to create the systems and connections that will make it self-sustainable.

But more broadly, I want to really cement long distance walking culture into Japanese society, so that everyone can realise the enjoyment of slow travel on your own two feet. There are over 27000km of path across 10 different trails in Japan, but the MCT is the only one that currently has the support from local people to ensure sustainable management and self-promotion. 

My life work is to use my continued work on the MCT to help make all those other long-distance routes safe and sustainable for Japanese and overseas visitors alike.

 

How have you been affected by everything that is going on in the world at the moment with COVID-19?

 

It has made business trip a little more difficult but generally speaking, I haven’t been affected in any major way. Up until now I had always been walking the trail but whilst the travel restrictions were in place, I had the opportunity to get out and explore the area around my house a bit more. It’s been great. For the first time ever, for just over a month I was able to sit down and have dinner every day with my daughter. My job keeps me very busy and on the move so it has actually been quite a welcome change of pace for me.

Do you have any final words on the MCT for people thinking of visiting from the UK or Europe?

 

A region full of rivers, open water, peaks and forests that has continually upheld the way of life of an island that is over 70% mountain.

The culture and country ways of life that shine a light on the real Japan.

A trail that allows you savour the gentle joy of walking, while getting to know both of the above.

A trail that is waiting for you year round, through every season, no matter the season.

We can’t wait to meet you.


 

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