Photo/IllutrationThe Tanesashi Coast in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture (Provided by the Michinoku Trail Club)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

NATORI, Miyagi Prefecture--The full stretch of Japan's equivalent of the Appalachian Trail, a 1,000-kilometer course that offers hikers stunning coastal views and breathtaking natural scenery, is set to open in June.

The single-track Michinoku Coastal Trail (MCT) connects Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture with Soma in Fukushima Prefecture, and cuts through areas of the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan still rebuilding after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.

The initiative spearheaded by the Environment Ministry has drawn intense interest from hikers at home and abroad.

The route connects mountain trails and rice field footpaths in low-lying foothills and roadways, giving hikers a chance to savor their surroundings in a cultural context.

Long-distance trails were pioneered in the United States and Europe. Famous trails include the Appalachian Trail, a 3,500-kilometer route in the Eastern United States that spans Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine.

Britain, likewise, is dotted with footpaths across the countryside.

Japan’s first long-distance trail, the 80-km Shinetsu Trail, opened in 2008.

In late March 2011, soon after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami disaster, Yoshinori Kato visited the Environment Ministry in Tokyo to pitch his idea of a long-distance trail.

Kato, something of an authority on the subject, had completed several trails in the United States and helped make the hobby popular through his writings.

Kato encouraged officials to create a long trail along the scenic Sanriku coast that could be nurtured with local communities.

And voila! his dream came true.

Kato died of an incurable disease in April 2013 at the age of 63. The ministry announced the MCT project the following month as part of reconstruction assistance efforts for the Tohoku region and to honor his last wishes.

The routes were determined during workshops involving residents from each area. Some routes cover old roads revived for use for the MCT, while others traverse uncelebrated areas with stunning views or sometimes draw away from the coast to offer spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean from hills long cherished by local residents.

So far, a 670-km stretch is open to hikers. The remaining routes, including those between Miyako and Yamada in Iwate Prefecture and Ishinomaki and Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, will be announced during a ceremony to be held June 9 in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture.

Running through 28 municipalities in four prefectures, the MCT is the nation’s longest. It is also the first trail developed by the public sector.

Currently, the northernmost entry point to the MCT starts in northern Iwate Prefecture, with views of majestic coastal cliffs. The further south a hiker goes, the higher and harder the climb becomes.

The route starting from Otsuchi in Iwate Prefecture takes hikers through quaint fishing villages as they encounter the Sanriku Hamakaido road, once a flourishing trade route, and a circuit route around a peninsula with a jagged “riasu” coastline.

The sky seems more expansive in areas past Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, with the route running along the ruins of settlements swept away by the 2011 tsunami, seawalls and the Teizanbori canal.

Some locations look vastly different each year as reconstruction work progresses.

The course winds up in the Matsukawaura district of Soma, Fukushima Prefecture.

Hikers need to hire boats to reach islands in Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture, and elsewhere, and local fishermen also offer rides for sections with no regular boat service. But be warned, reservations are required.

Increasingly, local residents in many areas volunteer to serve as “trail angels.” They are also amenable to offering washroom facilities in the homes, act as guides and provide other assistance.

“Our problem lies in the fact that (the MCT) still remains obscure in local areas,” said Hiromitsu Seki, secretary-general of the Michinoku Trail Club, a nonprofit organization commissioned to manage the trail. “If local residents see people lugging a large backpack, they are bound to talk to them and say, ‘Welcome, you must have come a long way.’ I hope we can foster such a culture.”

U.S. and European enthusiasts are also up for the challenge of completing long-distance trails while camping along the way. Those contemplating finishing the route should plan on taking 50 days to do it

Seki said many inquiries had come from outside Japan.

The MCT ranked sixth in a list of the top 10 sightseeing destinations worth visiting in Japan in 2019, according to GaijinPot, a comprehensive information website dedicated to foreign visitors.