Hiking the Japan NE Coast
Updated: Aug 2, 2020
What was supposed to be 9 days away on the bike a few weeks ago was completely scuttled by two factors. Firstly the late rainy season we are having. Our plan a and b routes were complete washouts with closed roads due to slips and flooding. The second big issue here is Tokyo of late has had a little surge of Corona cases. There have been examples of vehicles with Tokyo plates being vandalized and Tokyo residents unwelcome in many of the outlying regions we wished to see. So we decided to switch our planned July break with a tramping/hiking trip we had been looking at later in the year.
I was a little concerned as to how I would go. I am not really into the whole hiking thing but my lovely wife indulges my life long Motorcycle and Surfing obsessions so this was only fair. My fitness isn't great although these last few months we had been working on both our fitness levels and waistlines. We have also slowly been accumulating equipment since we got here 10 months ago. Hiking poles, clothes, packs, footwear etc, and we have managed to do a few single day mountain hikes, but this trip was certainly a new level. Funds I would normally have spent on Motorcycle or Surfing gear were diverted to the likes of Montbell. Strange days indeed.
As usual Pania put most of the effort into the planning process. She likes schedules, charts and having a plan and contingencies. I tend to just wing it, turn up, and hope that it works out ok. Her way is better.
To save costs and make efficient use of travel time, we took the overnight bus up to Kamaishi. We caught the 11pm bus and the 9 hour trip was actually quite pleasant. Each seat is a separate curtained off compartment that reclines with ample leg room. We had food, drink, ipads with saved netflix programs, and the bus had a flushable toilet. I'd guess I managed maybe 4 hours sleep which is pretty good for me when travelling. Pania, myself, and one other traveler who disembarked about half way up were the only passengers. Once off the bus we decided to stow our gear in a train station coin locker for the day since we couldn't check into our accommodation until later in the afternoon. We then decided to explore the area on foot, and walked out to the Dai-kannon Temple. It was a good leg stretcher after the bus ride and really got us in holiday mode. Plenty to see with the town being rebuilt after the 2011 Tsunami. The temple itself was nice with semi tame deer grazing the surrounding grounds. We grabbed lunch at Sofo cafe close to the temple. Great food and some nice jazz playing on the old sound system. We also tried following some tracks that looked like they might take us down to a secluded waterfront area in front of the local high school, unfortunately the tracks were not very well maintained and access to the water was impossible. Poorly maintained tracks actually became a bit of a theme over the next week, partly due to the heavy rain, but also local tourism for the region has been heavily hit due to corona.
After our wander we picked up our gear and made our way to the hotel. Western style, rock hard beds, but quiet and it had a hot shower. Dinner was at a local restaurant where great food was fast becoming another theme of our trip. Fact is, some of the food was a bit hit and miss in our accommodations along the way. More so the western style Hotels we stayed where they seem to have trouble with buffet food, both in selection and presentation. The more traditional family run establishments, with traditionally prepared and served food was far superior quality, although by the time I got home I was fully prepared to hurt someone in the name of proper bacon and eggs.
Our trail food generally came down to a multitude of Jerky types, Mixed nuts, processed cheeses, and we carried powdered electrolytes. We probably carried each day 50/50 water and chilled green tea. Pania eats gluten free and we had both been eating carb free for several months before the trip. We decided that we would not get too wound up with diet, but decided instead to keep carbs to a minimum if we could manage it. We probably indulged in too much alcohol each evening though.
Day 2, The Yamada Loop. Up early, we legged it back to the train station for coffee and some conbini snacks. (Japanese convenience stores are called conbini and are far superior to their NZ counterparts). We caught the train up to Yamada and made our way to the Hotel where we would be staying the night, and dumped the excess gear not needed for the days hike. This turned out to be our biggest hiking day. The walk from the station to the Hotel was several kilometres, and then we had to double back to the turnoff where the trail began. That said it was a fantastic experience.
It was very humbling to get our first real look at the devastation caused by the 2011, 9.1 magnitude undersea earthquake and subsequent Tsunami. One of the worse hit areas, the coastline dropped 70cm with the resulting ocean surge causing incredible destruction and loss of life. Massive 30m concrete barriers are still being built as a safeguard against future events. The shot below shows a traditional Japanese storage building. It’s well up the valley from the coast and was completely submerged from the tsunami wave. It’s one of the few original buildings in the area that survived unscathed.
You can see the trail we walked is in poor condition with much of the track washed away due to heavy rain and flooding. Then along comes Corona to kill off what’s left of the tourism industry. They also lost a RWC match to last years typhoon. I think these poor people need a break.
The hike was exhausting and certainly challenging. Most of the day was spent in light rain with temps around 25degC. Due to the washouts, we also missed out on doing a section of coastal walk we had really been looking forward to. This greatly increased the elevation gains for the day. We had to hike over and through rugged terrain and forest with directions not so clearly marked on the map we bought, and the trail markers were either missing or unclear. Another common theme, I guess due to the massive drop off in local tourism. On our entire trip we didn't see another single hiker.
If you don't mind your hiking being a little agricultural and no frills, I fully recommend this trail. It's a challenge physically, and mentally if you are unfamiliar with the area and are not particularly fit. I wouldn't recommend doing without taking food and drink, or without doing some fitness work beforehand. In fact, I would say that for every section we covered.
Day 3, Kitayamazaki. Perfect conditions for the days hike with no sign of the previous days rain. We left the Hotel on tired and stiff legs, and and walked the 2km to the train station. Then the ride to Fudai where we would be doing the next two sections toting all our gear with us. From the station, we had a few km walk to the coast where we found a really nice cafe and took the opportunity for iced coffee and a bbq seafood brunch.
From there it was coastal track with spectacular views in every direction. Rebuilt, or in some cases brand new fishing ports pay testament to our ability thrive in even the most unforgiving and seemingly impractical locations.
More signs of the 2011 tsunami devastation. To give and indication of scale, I took two photos of the blue bridge. The first looking down towards the coastline, the second from down at sea level. The ocean surged up the valley and completely swamped the bridge in the process. There was only 15 minutes warning from the when the earthquake struck until the wave hit. The wave itself was 10m but the surge behind forced massive volumes of ocean up into the valleys and inlets.
We did have a close encounter with some local wildlife. An indigenous goaty/antilope thingy. Protected here but will admit to feeling I was the one in need of protection when he took a few steps toward us. Before you judge my manlyhood in the video check youtube for people being attacked by goats.
Seeing the beer warning signs brought visions of The Revenant to mind. Apparently they aren’t small and cuddly but grow up to two meters tall when up on hind legs. Happily none were seen.
From here we left the relatively easy coastal paved hike and made our way along the coastal forest trails. These were very challenging and it was pretty slow going. Again, the trails were in quite a state of neglect and sometimes became difficult to follow. We had a few gnarly river crossings and had to make some 'best guess' decisions over where the trail might be.
The last 5km were a grind with washed out bridges and the track in far from ideal condition.
By the time we made our accommodation for the night we were well and truly exhausted. This was a slog but well worth it. A lot of focus required crossing the rivers, and in some cases the trail had become river. We had to clamber our way through and over, and more than a little time was spent making sure we were heading the right way.
We stayed in a traditional Japanese style inn. Family run and very dated but it was fun and the food was good. Our hosts were lovely but I think I was lucky to leave with my wife as they were quite taken with her. Seems they don’t see a lot of foreigners in these parts fluent in Japanese.
Just a side note. You can see above our range of devices plugged in. We brought our own USB charge plugs. Next time I would bring one plug with at least 6 USB outputs. We each had a phone, applewatch, and ipad, not to mention our cameras, and wall sockets were often a premium. Fortunately everywhere we stayed had free WIFI as phone coverage was often sketchy.
Day 4, Tanohata Kitayama. Really angry with myself. Lost half my shots on the GoPro due to not using the voice commands properly. Some spectacular pics I couldn’t wait to see simply didn’t happen. I thought I was being clever and was actually quite the opposite. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to capture a few, and steal some of Pania’s so not all is lost. On a side note, I did manage a semi legible conversation with a Japanese lady in a small fishing village today asking if she knew where I might find a vending machine. She understood me and I her, and nary a word of English was said. Pretty basic stuff but I’d call that progress.
This was our 4th straight day and although tired we were both holding up quite well. We were definitely ready for a rest day though, and today (at least on paper) was shorter hop. It was however, by no means an easy day. Possibly the steepest section of our little Odyssey so far. Some of the climbs were brutal but the location was absolutely stunning and certainly worth the aching muscles. There are also a couple of cave sections requiring lighting. Maybe 50m and 100m respectively. We just used our phone torches. And we did see bats. We disturbed one and it buzzed us for a while before settling hanging upside down from the roof right in front of us.
Above: Pania striking a pose on some derelict stairs from the cave mouth to.... well nowhere really. It was hard to imagine the original purpose of this location. We had a 100m section along the coast to cross that was all boulders as you see here. All pics I lost on the GoPro.
Plenty more signs of destruction and neglect but I think if I had to choose, I would probably rate this as my favorite, and possibly most challenging section of our trip.
Day 5 Miyako Iwate. Rest day for our tired and sore legs. I think I managed to sleep in until all of 6am. We spent the majority of the morning chilling in our room.
Later in the morning we caught a taxi out to the visitor information centre a little along the coast. We went for a bit of a walk and had a bbq grill, seafood lunch. Some interesting vehicles in the car park caught my eye. After lunch we caught a taxi back to the hotel, and at a local convenience store bought a bunch alcoholic beverages and spent the afternoon day drinking in our room.
We ventured out again early in the evening and found a small Indian restaurant where we found ourselves centre of attention from the bossman and the other diners. Definitely not a lot of foreigners around here at the moment. The last pic was taken in the foyer of the restaurant. Definitely something I would love to have in my shed.
Day 6, Miyako Anegasaki Campground. Even after a rest day the body was not really feeling the love as we headed out. Tired legs were complaining all the way on this one. Still, it was a fantastic hike, meeting some really interesting locals and the scenery is just breathtaking.
Each climb and descent bringing something new and special, be it a secluded bay, or river crossing, or just another bloody hill to climb. I did get in for a swim today though. Soft Tokyo feet struggled on the stony beach though. And yes, there’s still a bit of spongy pud still to loose around the waist.
The plan had been to glamp tonight, but with most of the facilities closed and the potential for rain we opted for the hotel room option.
Day 7, Miyako Sakiyama. Last full hiking day. Stepped out into light rain and mist making for amazing views of the islands off the coast. They appeared to be floating in the clouds. Lots of washed out tracks along the way due to storms and flooding.
Probably the worst marked track of our trip. The trails had been allowed to become overgrown and were hard to find, and many markers were non existent causing confusion at junctures. Adding to the confusion, we found a sign marking a change to the route. It showed the old trail which matched our map, but also marked what was supposed to be the new route which wasn't shown on our map. We made the decision to follow the new route which, in hindsight was possibly the wrong decision. It was the first time we got completely lost.
On multiple occasions we found ourselves going the wrong way, and ended using our phones and trusty google maps to get us back to civilization. Due to the time lost, we ended up cutting the hike short. We found our way to the main road, hiked to a bus stop and scored a ride back to town, otherwise we would have missed our rental car hire, and not made our accommodation booking for the night. I think over the whole trip, this was the closest we came to having a row. We were both pretty tired and perhaps more than a little frustrated.
I think this was possibly the first time in my life where I was very happy to see a bus and the ride back to town was most enjoyable. Walking across town to collect the rental car was affirmation we had made the right choice to cut the last hiking day short. There was very little left in the tank and my body was definitely complaining.
Day 8, Rikuzentakata Shi Kesench. Our night was spent a lovely traditional hotel. Super friendly, family run with private onsen spa. Just the tonic for our worn out bodies.
We decided to make the most of having the car and set out early on the road to check out some the sights. We had one more night before we were meeting friends in Sendai so today was really about just enjoying the countryside and checking out a few touristy spots.
Typical of me, of all the sights and things we saw, this was my image of the day. Three young dudes touring the country on Honda Cubs. The most iconic motorcycle ever built. Awesome.
Day 9, Sendai. Our last full day before heading home. Having dropped the car off the previous afternoon and catching the train to our Hotel, we had little to do in the morning except relax until we needed to catch the morning train to Shiogama. I managed to squeeze in a massage before meeting our friends from Tokyo. They were just beginning their adventure, making their way up to Hokaido to to a Camper trip, just as we were finishing ours. We all hopped on a boat cruise around Matsushima Bay before catching the train to Sendai where we stayed the night. I have to say, I thought Sendai was a nice city. Vibrant bars and restaurants, and plenty of good shopping if you want to spend some money.
One little disappointment; it was the first time we were turned away from somewhere for service. The young bar manager refused to let us in what was a very quiet bar across the road from where we were staying in Sendai. In the grand scheme it was no big deal as we found an awesome wine bar, however it chaffed a bit at the time.
Day 10, back to Tokyo. Not really much to say about that journey. 9 hours up on the bus, 90 minutes home on the Shinkansen. All in all it was a grand adventure. It was certainly a physical and mental challenge that tested us both. I would 100% recommend but be prepared to rough it a little.
What would I do differently? Very little. Perhaps hiking boots as Pania did instead of hiking shoes as I did. They were good quality but the additional support and protection when doing some of the more rugged sections and river crossings would have been beneficial.
I think we could have both easily got away with halving the amount of clothes we brought.
I wouldn't bother with the pack water bladders. You can purchase very cheaply drinks at most locations, and we were refilling the bottles to increase the number of uses we got out of them.
Must have equipment? Hiking poles, proper hiking boots or shoes, plenty of dry food and drink (sometimes enough food for two days as we had one 36hr period without seeing a conbini). Most breakfast and dinners were supplied at our accommodations. Light weather proof jacket. Note: it was the tail end of the rainy season for our trip so temps were mid 20s. USB charger. Battery pack for additional remote phone charging. INSECT REPELLENT AND SUN SUNSCREEN!!!
Would I do it again? Definitely, however it's a big country and I think we will explore other regions in the not to distant future.